Sunday, June 29, 2008

An initiative gone bad...again

TCH bloviates.

My thoughts:
It’s time for TRIDEC to get some leadership who has a better strategy than whining about the governor. Carl Adrian’s problem isn’t the governor, it’s all those people who voted for initiative 297. As long as those people are out there and regardless of the fact that it has been struck down, she simply can not afford to be seen as aggressively pursuing more nuclear industry in the state. Rather than criticize the governor, Carl needs to find a way to make the west-side voters more nuclear-friendly. There are any number of potential points of persuasion. Reasonably-priced power is root of economic growth. Reasonably-priced power makes for more jobs for rich and poor alike. Reasonably-priced power provides the taxable income that is needed to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. And so on.

Frankly, Carl tends to smell like a Rossi Republican when he engages in fear tactics by trumping up rumors that Areva may move its existing plant. Here’s how it works. Trump up a threat to move the plant. That forces the governor to either ignore the threat thereby appearing to be unconcerned. Or to counter the threat by taking a position that may be unpopular. Either way she loses. People who make up such unsubstantiated threats are not your friends, governor. Areva denies the threat in words and denies the threat in its actions by continuing its investments in the existing plant. So knock it off, Carl, before you’re exposed as the Republican shill you are.

Update: Adrian's supposed access to internal Areva email is pretty thin. One can only see Areva email from an Areva computer and I doubt Carl Adrian has one. If he does he would be in violation of the non-disclosure agreement that comes with it. Perhaps he has a mole in the organization. I'm sure Areva management would be interested to know who that is. But most likely Carl is simply making it up. Areva was not looking for any concessions from the state. There would be no tactical point in hinting that the Richland plant might be moved. Carl, you're busted.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Primary versus Caucus

I recently served on the resolutions committee and attended the Washington State Democratic Party Convention. As you might imagine there is a strong controversy about whether the state’s national convention delegates should be determined by caucus or primary. It pits state electoral traditions against national party rules. It pits populists against party regulars. And it is going to continue to be a problem until an equitable solution can be worked out. This article is an attempt to arrive at what such a solution might be.

How did we get here? In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 198 that change the state’s traditional closed primary system to a blanket primary system similar to that that used in Washington State in which voters could voter their preferences regardless of party. In the 2000 case of California Democratic Party v. Jones, the US Supreme Court ruled that the recently-enacted California blanket primary violated the political party’s first amendment right of freedom of association. In this case the California Democratic Party, the California Republican Party, the Libertarian Party of California, and the Peace and Freedom Party had all filed suit against the state of California and won. That decision also applied to the Washington state primaries (thank you, California).

Within the parties there is strong sentiment against blanket primaries not only because of the technical first amendment violation but because they inhibit the control parties have over their own “brand”. Fringe candidates (such as the followers of Lyndon LaRouche) can claim a party affiliation even though the party itself finds the candidate abhorrent. On the other hand, there is strong sentiment within the voting community that rejects the idea of any strong party affiliation. A great many voters want to have the capacity to select candidates regardless of party. Furthermore, in localities in which one party predominates, the primary serves as the more significant election. Voters who wish to cast a vote in a race in the minority party have no vote in other races between candidates in the majority party.

At the moment party rules leave it to the jurisdictional party legislative bodies to designate and officially sanction party candidates. While this is traditional and reasonably democratic, it is cumbersome and requires potential candidates to jump through some procedural hoops. In jurisdictions in which a party is barely functioning an appropriate endorsement body might not convene in a timely manner for a campaign. This could be streamlined somewhat if the party decided to allow executive committees to sanction candidates but at the price of democratic process. Furthermore, putting it completely in the hands of the party leaves non-aligned voters with direct input whatsoever. Their only hope is that the party keeps them in mind when selecting candidates.

It should be noted that compared to other countries the party system in the United States is abysmally weak. In parliamentary systems, all significant political action takes place through the party. American parties are just not that strong and I don’t think Americans would want them to be. (While American parties may aspire to that sort of dominance, they should, as a practical matter, just give up that dream. It ain’t gonna happen.)

So what might a reasonable middle ground be?

On the face of it, it seems odd that a state government can spend taxpayer money running an election that is essentially a party function. It bespeaks a certain amount of collusion between the major parties to co-opt public resources for their own particular benefit. Indeed, constitutionally the government is only required to hold a single election, not a bunch of pre-election elections. One could argue that it is in the government’s interest to narrow the field of candidates such that the final office holders are elected by a majority rather than a potentially small plurality. This is a reasonable justification for a top-two primary. And by this reasoning the primary is a party-neutral process by which to have a meaningful general election at the end of an electoral process. Essentially the general election becomes a run-off election between the two highest vote-getters.

One might ask, how is a top-two primary effectively different from a blanket primary? In a blanket primary each party is assured of having at least one candidate in the general election even if the party candidate had fewer votes that two or more candidates of the opposing party. This may be a tad undemocratic but it does throw a bone to the official parties. The parties may have cut their own throats by having blanket primaries thrown out. In a top-two primary system party identification is taken out of the equation entirely and parties have to actually meet a competitive threshold to have their candidates on the general election ballots.

The parties’ only hope of recovery their capability to have a sub-minority candidate on the general election ballot lies in a potential lawsuit that may be brought in which a given party can argue they were damaged by a candidate who self-identified as a member of the party without official party sanctioning. The court will have to decide between the right of a party to protect its brand and the right of the government to meaningful elections in which a sub-minority candidate takes precedence over a minority candidate. It seems to me that the proper decision would be the one that makes for a more democratic election process than one that protects the privilege of a political organization, that is to say, the top-two primary process.

The political parties need to suck it up and prepare to operate in a regime that gives them no special privileges. (To the degree that party ranks are occupied by people grasping for power by undemocratic means, it would certainly frustrate their efforts.) Every general election would be a decision between the candidates who have clearly-demonstrated popular support.

Since I am skeptical that the Republican Party would ever cede any of its political clout for the greater good I make no appeal to them. But I do appeal to the Washington State Democratic Party to embrace the top-two primary system as the more democratic solution to electoral process. And I call on the Washington State Democratic Party to adjust their rules and practices accordingly for life in a new sort of world. I also call on them to stop wasting time and money trying to fight a process that more accurately expresses the will of the people merely to protect the party’s selfish interest.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Justice at last

I just love it when political appointees like the Bush Supreme Court actually get down to doing the job. It's sad that we have people in power in Washington that think it is OK to simply ignore a cornerstone of our constitution such as that pesky article 1, section 9.

Note that presidential hopeful John McCain calls this basic decision "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country."

Humans Exonerated in Mammoth Extinction

Genetic studies show:
"'The population was split into two groups, then one of the groups died out 45,000 years ago, long before the first humans began to appear in the region,' said Stephan C. Schuster, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University and a leader of the research team. 'This discovery is particularly interesting because it rules out human hunting as a contributing factor, leaving climate change and disease as the most probable causes of extinction.'"

Global Limits Of Biomass Energy

From the article, Global Limits Of Biomass Energy:
"Research is booming to improve energy crops and methods of converting crops to fuel. Already, Brazil gets 30% of its automotive fuel from ethanol distilled from sugar cane. But critics warn that “energy farming” will gobble up land needed to grow food or will impinge on natural ecosystems, possibly even worsening the climate crisis."
So added to the rise in food costs as farming moves to energy products, there just isn't enough arable land to farm our ways out of the energy problem.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Fisking Joseph Romm

In an article in Salon Joseph Romm attempts to convince us that he knows something.

So let's have fun taking him apart.
GOP presidential nominee John McCain, who has called for building hundreds of new nuclear plants in this country, recently announced he won't bother showing up to vote on his friend Joe Lieberman's climate bill because of insufficient subsidies (read "pork") for nuclear power.
John McCain and Joe Liebermann. He doesn't even take what they say with a grain of salt. When you consider the source, even without delving into whatever the facts may be, it's a pretty good bet that the truth is diametrically opposite of their positions. In other words, nukes don't need subsidies. Next.
Since new nuclear power now costs more than double what the MIT report assumed -- three times what the Economist called "too costly to matter" -- let me focus solely on the unresolved problem of cost. While safety, proliferation and waste issues get most of the publicity, nuclear plants have become so expensive that cost overwhelms the other problems.
Costs matter to utilities. If they didn't they would be continuing to build gas turbines regardless of the rising fuel cost. This doesn't pass the laugh test.

In the following passage:
Zakaria asks, "A number of analyses say that nuclear power isn't cost competitive, and that without government subsidies, there's no real market for it." Moore replies:

That's simply not true. Where the massive government subsidies are is in wind and solar ... I know that the cost of production of electricity among the 104 nuclear plants operating in the United States is 1.68 cents per kilowatt-hour. That's not including the capital costs, but the cost of production of electricity from nuclear is very low, and competitive with dirty coal. Gas costs three times as much as nuclear, at least. Wind costs five times as much, and solar costs 10 times as much.
Romm conveniently omits the rest of the quote in which Moore makes his point.
I know that France, which produces 80 percent of its electricity with nuclear, does not have high energy costs. Sweden, which produces 50 percent of its energy with nuclear and 50 percent with hydro, has very reasonable energy costs.
Romm displays the depth of his prejudice with this line:
Operation is also cheap, compared with nukes, which run on expensive uranium and must be monitored minute by minute so they don't melt down.
This is countered by the rising natural gas prices that have put nukes back on the table. Uranium may seem expensive until you consider the energy density of uranium. You can put 2 years of fuel on two tractor-trailer rigs. Think of how much coal or natural gas a fossil plant goes through in 2 years. In that 2 years only 1% of the weight and 1/5 of the fissile component of the fuel are actually consumed. The rest is available for recycling.

Romm doesn't know that the tricky part about power plants is keeping the reaction going at an acceptable rate, not keeping it from running away.

Romm complains about the costs of construction being so much higher now than in 2000. What was your house worth in 2000? Cost increases as compared to what? One must also consider that in order to get past the public perceptions inflamed by the likes of Romm the plant designs are going to be more expensive and beyond safe.

The construction of nuclear power plants is expensive but the performance of even the old non-standardized plants have been good enough that major utilities are putting money on the line today for new plants. The plants that are now being built using a standardized, pre-licensed design are running into some problems but these problems are business problems not design problems or technical problems. With each copy the kinks in the process are smoothed out more and more. In time the numbers are going to look better and better. In that same time, the numbers for fossil plants are going to be looking worse and worse, both in cost and actual environmental damage.