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Saturday, December 27, 2008

There's No Such Thing As Clean Coal... Or Clean Solutions

TVA Spill
Image from NYTimes.com
OK, this one hurts:
A coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee that experts were already calling the largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States is more than three times as large as initially estimated, according to an updated survey by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Officials at the authority initially said that about 1.7 million cubic yards of wet coal ash had spilled... [b]ut on Thursday they released the results of an aerial survey that showed the actual amount was 5.4 million cubic yards...

A test of river water near the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders, said John Moulton, a spokesman for the T.V.A., which owns the electrical generating plant, one of the authority’s largest.
While I feel personally stung by this desecration of our common environment, my heart goes out especially to those who are immediately displaced and proximately injured by this outrage.

This aspect of the cataclysm - its utter desolation of arable soil and freshwater - is the worst part... and it is also the most visible to all with a beating heart.

I want to highlight another hurt - a minor note in the crescendo, but a hurt nonetheless. T.V.A. is a government-owned - as in "nationalized" - concern. Federally.

As noted in my last post, of a few weeks ago*, we're about to embark on an audacious common-works orgy that, I've noted, we need to do, and do robustly. With as little pushback from Chicagoan ideologues, and meritocrats in general, as possible.

This story is about an ecological disaster, a desecration of the commons, done by the goddamn Commons, and frankly this is the kind of message one would like to not have to cogitate over at this time. But we must. It is of no small note that this exceeds the inforgivable externality visited upon the northern Pacific coast by the Exxon Valdez.

Negative messaging about gummit-run concerns is not particularly helpful, at this time, in fostering the kind of boldness that is needed to make any stimulus attempt bear fruit. It is bad enough that the situation in and of itself will naturally dampen leftist braggadocio regarding the merits and demerits of profit-driven vs. common-good driven enterprises. It is more chafing to know that ideology-driven free-marketers will do anything they can to megaphone the public nature of the offenders' incorporation.

Get ready for the "But, what about T.V.A."? retorts.

A couple of credible ripostes:

Complex systems have catastrophic failures from time to time. When it is a common-good works, however, one does not have to crowbar the judiciary in order to compensate victims, etc.

Our government has been norquisted for the last 30-odd years. Hello, Katrina? Once we refocus on the virtue of common-works, this intentional strangulation of government efficacy will relax.

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*I'm suffering from a motivational block brought on by post-election syndrome:


Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are

Saturday, December 6, 2008

He's Going For It

Obama FDR

Happy days are here again. Right?

I was pulling for this.* All of the economic gurus I respect made it clear that, regardless of the success of a New Deal-ish initiative, not doing one would be intentional "econocide." Also, I consider the human element of this venture infinitely more significant than any balance-sheet point of view, so the ruminations that follow shouldn't be interpreted as per se cautionary, but rather thoughts to give sense to possible further challenges we may face.


I am concerned that the new hustle and bustle of public works might mitigate, if not obliterate, the demand reduction for oil which has occurred of late. Will the new "WPA" drive the price of oil back to more realistic levels (north of what was seen this past summer)? How will this affect the economic pressure on the middle class - the very constituency for whom President-Elect Obama has pledged relief? How will it affect the costs of the works projects themselves?

I am also curious about whether, this time around, the value of our infrastructure investment will underwrite the debt we are valiantly pledging to incur. (This is less of a concern to me personally - as I've said the human-element trumps.) We are poised at a different point in the arc-of-history than we were the last time we did this. Perhaps some of this is hindsight, but it is pretty clear why the investments of that time produced such thunderous returns. It wasn't the prescient wisdom of the particular investments themselves, it is that they were introduced into such a nutritious culture of yet-to-be-exploited natural resources, in an environment that offered literal geographical room for growth.

I am not so sure we've got such a rich culture now. We can't just explode into space again this time. We have to figure out how we can have a sustainable economy - that is, one that does not depend on growth to remain viable, to me the most intellectually insulting aspect of accepted economic practice (which in fact, come to think of it, might be in itself partially responsible for the instinctive disdain most laypeople have for economics. Anyway...) This is qualitatively and quantitatively very different from that old sugar rush. I think that some (gasp!) real thought might need be applied here.

These are truly, and blushingly, interesting times.


*In my small, influence-those-around-me way (mostly in the pub). I was certainly much too busy absorbing the arcana of this tragic, but beautiful (in a crystalline sense) economic reckoning, to post any opinion on it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008