Archive for July, 2010

In praise of oil companies

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

July 26, 2010

An ad appeared in Life Magazine on Feb 2, 1962 with a picture of a large glacier. The headline underneath in bold caps read: “EACH DAY HUMBLE SUPPLIES ENOUGH ENERGY TO MELT 7 MILLION TONS OF GLACIER.” (Humble Oil later became part of Exxon/Mobil.)

I don’t think the ad men would recommend this ad for an oil company today. The Sierra Club magazine put a copy of it, without comment, inside the back cover of a recent issue.

I am going to shock some of my green readers (if there still are any) by claiming that, unlike the Sierra Club and despite the BP debacle, I think it is still a pretty good ad. Before you send me to the recycle bin, let me explain.

Oil is without question the single most useful, versatile and valuable substance in the modern world. For high-energy density it has no peers. It is also the basic raw material for a host of other high-priority products. A common view today among commoners and Presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, is that we are “addicted” to this valuable substance. I respectfully object. We get addicted to stuff that harms us, like cigarettes, alcohol, heroin. Oil is the very lifeblood of modern civilized life. When Mae West quipped “too much of a good thing is wonderful” she could have been thinking of oil. Without it we would go back to the Dark Ages, or at a minimum to the days before the Civil War in America.

The Sierra Club and all the rest of us depend on oil to power our cars, trucks, airplanes, ships, tractors, motorcycles, lawn mowers, cranes and bulldozers; to produce our food; to provide tires for our bicycles and other vehicles; to take us on nice vacations via auto, airplane, bus or train (including all the wonderful Sierra Club Outings to the High Sierras, Montana, Alaska, Peru, the Galapagos Islands, the Greek Islands, the Arctic, etc.); to ski, to play tennis, soccer, basketball and swim; to produce our medicines; to make our eyeglasses, contact lenses and hearing aids; to paint our houses and shellac our floors; to manufacture anesthetics that make our operations possible and painless; to make the refrigerant to preserve our food and provide air conditioning in our homes, schools and automobiles; to provide the ink to print our books, newspapers and magazines; to produce the plastics, motherboards and screens for our cell phones, TVs, computers and iPads; to make the strings on our guitars and the “ivories” for our pianos (we used to kill cats and elephants); to help produce many of the chemicals that make windmills, solar panels and long transmission lines possible; to supply the asphalt for our roads; and the chemical raw materials to help make just about all of our modern clothing, appliances and furniture. You name it and it probably has some oil in its manufacture.

All this considered I think it is high time to give a little credit to the folks that provide this essential substance, our oil companies. Yes, I think that BP, Exxon-Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and other companies, large and small, along with their multitude of supplier companies and millions of employees around the world, deserve our thanks rather than our obloquy. Yes, mistakes are made and tragedies result as in the current oil-platform explosion and leak. Which large industry has not made mistakes or caused tragedies?

40,000 or more people are killed in automobile accidents every year in the United States and no one condemns the workers and companies that provided the cars. Many thousands of patients die in our modern hospitals due to mistakes and negligent care? We don’t condemn all hospitals, doctors and nurses. Nor do we begrudge these doctors, nurses and hospitals their just incomes. Yet the people who provide us with the most essential substance of all are often demonized and condemned out of hand as though they were drug dealers to our “addition.” Are we also “addicted” to motorized transportation and to modern health care?

Yes, we could go back to mid-19th century days before Rockefeller and his fellow innovators made oil such a treasured and valuable substance. There would be some advantages it is true. We wouldn’t have to worry about oil spills or global warming. We wouldn’t have to fret about whether our food supply was organic or not. We wouldn’t have to worry so much about health care, unemployment insurance or the national debt. We wouldn’t have to worry about social security funds running low since the average life span was around 40 or so years.

We would have to worry more about creatures like whales and other mammals of the sea being hunted to extinction to provide oil for our lamps and sewing machines. Also for many wild animals of the forests and plains which also might be hunted to extinction to provide needed protein for our overpopulated continent (as did happen with many of our Native-American predecessors in North America). We wouldn’t have to worry about our children getting poisoned by oil-related pollution but we would have to worry about them dying from malaria, dysentery, cholera, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and many other nasty diseases for the most part controlled in the U.S. thanks to oil-derived insecticides, pesticides and water-purification chemicals. Families would be much larger since most children would die of disease, accident or malnutrition before they reached maturity. The U.S. population then was about a tenth of what it is today. That means, of course, that without modern chemicals like oil and other fossil fuels nine out of ten of us would never have been born.

If we went back a few more centuries—before the Industrial Age began that is–we would discover that almost all of our ancestors were slaves, serfs or peasants who lived a short, nasty, brutish life, quite different from the lives of the aristocrats we are familiar with from our history books and historical novels. (The aristocrats, for the most part, also died young.)

Yes, the oil companies make large profits today. And the CEOs of these oil companies rake in millions in salary, bonuses and stock options. So do sports heroes like Bret Favre, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Lance Armstrong and Lebron James. So do many Hollywood stars and directors. The CEOs of oil companies manage billion-dollar budgets, with hundreds of thousands of workers, operating in some of the most physically, socially and politically difficult and dangerous environments on the globe. The sports stars and entertainers may deserve large incomes because of the entertainment they provide. The CEOs deserve at least as generous an income for their critical contributions to the very existence of our modern world.

And finally, yes, the oil companies profits are sometimes (not always) what some call excessive. These profits also provide a substantial share of the income of most of the pension funds in the western world as well as a substantial share of the funds that research renewable energy possibilities. That’s more than I can say about the large incomes of sports stars and Hollywood celebrities.

Some of you may say, yes, you have a point, but we have to move on, to replace oil with new renewable energy and matter resources. I agree. But. This is going to be a long haul. Renewable energy resources are at present a very very long way from replacing oil and other fossil fuels. What are we going to do for the next thirty or forty years? Kill off 90% of us and then hope to replace the deficit when renewables do arrive in sufficient quantity and quality?

I’m serious. We should be accelerating as fast as humanly possible renewable research and development. And we should be encouraging as much and as fast as possible improvements in efficiency and conservation. But with all the intelligence and all the good will in the world it will not be possible to replace oil and other fossil fuels for at least three or four decades, if not much longer. That is simply the hard truth much as we might like it to not be so.

So in the meantime it would behoove us to muster just a few kind words for oil companies. If oil is an addiction it is an addiction we desperately need to survive. So far as oil goes today “too much of a good thing is wonderful.” Especially when that “too much” comes from the land and waters of the U.S. and Canada. The oil we can get here means that much less we will have to import from countries that are not very friendly to our western values.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more detail on these issues see: Energy and Society, Energy on Earth, Resources, Populations and Climate Change, Capitalism and Democracy and Science and Democracy. (This is also to let you know you can buy many of our programs now on Amazon.com. Key in “Hawkhill” or “Bill Stonebarger.”)

“Too much of a good thing is wonderful” — or is it?

Monday, July 19th, 2010

July 19, 2010

Mae West claimed that “too much of a good thing is wonderful.” And for some good things, it is. Things like health, happiness and yes, even money. For other things though it is problematical.

Environmental progress for instance. Or racial and gender progress for another. Here I think folks on the leading edge of racial, gender and environmental issues today are often their own worst enemies in demanding “too much of a good thing.”

Martin Luther King and all the “freedom-riders” deserve enormous credit for the major advances in civil rights for all in the 1960s and 1970s. Feminist leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries deserve enormous credit for demanding and getting equal opportunity for women in education, in business, in sports, in politics and indeed in all areas of modern life. And certainly early environmental leaders deserve enormous credit for leading the way to clean up our soil, water and air in the 20th century.

Today however some racial, environmental and feminist activists, as well as guilt-ridden politicians and supporters, seem to me to be often harming progress in race, gender and environmental issues. How so?

Take race and gender first. There is no question that there are gaps in achievement between definable groups in pretty much any and all fields of human endeavor. Jews are over represented in Nobel Prizes and in many other scientific, artistic and intellectual achievements. Blacks are over represented in professional sports like basketball, football, boxing and track and field. Women are over represented in literary fiction writing, health-care, teaching, social work and other helping professions.

So what?

We have made significant and steady progress in the western world by bringing a good measure of equal opportunity to all people in all of these fields. When we start demanding not only equal opportunity but equal results we are on shaky grounds. Garrison Keillor in his mythical Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon said that “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” If only it could be so in the real world. Here the truth is that demands for equal results often backfire, reduce opportunities for all and sometimes even harm the very people they are meant to help.

For instance. In our zeal to make amends and assure equality in the Great Society days of the 1960s we passed hundreds of civil rights, environmental, social welfare and affirmative action laws that were designed to help minorities, women, the poor, the elderly, the environment and answer any and all needs of society that it was thought were not being met by private enterprises. Government bureaucracies ballooned to administer expensive new programs in unemployment, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, help for the disabled, public broadcasting, Head Start, urban mass transportation, war on poverty, environmental protection, consumer protection, etc., etc. Many of these programs were championed by a Democratic President and Congress and were later expanded by Republican administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. I was a strong supporter of this Great Society. Today I realize that the results have been a mixed bag. Some of the Great Society programs have proved to have lasting benefits. Others have not. And some have been harmful.

For instance: unwed mothers got generous help in raising their children so long as they did not have a husband. Minimum wage laws sought to make sure that all workers got a living wage. An unintended result was that African-American and other minority and poorly educated and unskilled males were cut out of the mainstream economic world. It was difficult if not impossible for most of these young men to get a job at the entry level in many industries. (Illegal immigrants were often the beneficiaries. That is another story.)

One result of these well-intentioned Great Society programs was the breakdown of the African-American family (as well as many lower-income white families). As the African-American economist Thomas Sowell pointed out, “the black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.”

Another unintended result was a huge increase in African-Americans males (as well as low-income white males) in prison. In 1950 we had a population of around 125 million people and a prison population of around 250,000. By 2000 the U.S population had doubled but the prison population has jumped 8 times to over 2 million! In 1950 65% of the U.S. prison population was white, 35% was black. By 2000 that was reversed and today 65% of prisoners are black, 35% white. Why are so many lower class males, black and white, into drugs and crime today? The most plausible answer is–we have made it nearly impossible for males with below average abilities and education to get a job and support a family. Sadly, it turns out that too much of a good thing was not so good.

Environmental advocates of the 1960s (like their civil rights cousins) can take deserved credit for their leadership in vastly improving the quality of the air, water and soil in my lifetime. As I pointed out in a previous blog, Pittsburgh in the 1940s was pretty dismal. Today Pittsburgh and just about all cities in the U.S. are much much cleaner and healthier for living creatures of all kinds, including Homo sapiens.

Today though, it seems to me that some of the environmental crusaders have gone off the deep end by promoting anti-growth policies that will end up degrading, not improving our environment. For example: demonizing energy companies, tearing down dams, restricting new developments, discouraging mining, opposing genetic engineering, trashing nuclear power, getting moratoriums on oil drilling, demanding ever more stringent regulations in order to weed out the last microgram of pollution, making corporations and profit-making  dirty words, making “green” lifestyles into a new religion and in general opposing growth. These anti-growth policies will cut back on national and international wealth all right, but they will do precious little for the world’s environment.

Wealthy countries are healthier countries, with less pollution, more freedom and far more potential to innovate. The proven way to create wealth is to rely heavily on the magic of the free-market, not on the heavy hand of the government. If you want to see what government funded “innovation” is like, go to Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, many countries in Africa or countries in Eastern Europe before the Berlin wall came down.  I have been to quite a few of these countries and the results I saw were not pretty.

The moral is that while government regulations and government welfare are sometimes necessary and desirable, as with so many things, too much of a good thing is not wonderful. To effectively solve most environmental and fairness problems you also need solid innovative work by free profit-seeking citizens and companies. You need wealth and innovation. You need win-win economics, not zero-sum stagnation. (Incidentally, the 1960s were also noted for large pro-growth tax-cuts by Kennedy and Johnson which did lead to vigorous economic growth as similar policies did in the Reagan pro-growth tax-cutting days. I leave it to readers to assess the situation today.)

Too much of a good thing is wonderful. Sometimes. But sometimes not.

Readers may disagree. Let me hear from you.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. My usual commercial plug. Go to www.hawkhill.com for many new DVD programs that can help make your 2010/2011 school year a positive example of “too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

“You’re a Grand Old Flag”

Saturday, July 10th, 2010

July 12, 2010

Fourth of July has come and gone and left me with a sad feeling. At my age I am not that fascinated by fireworks any more but I love the flag and patriotic songs more than ever. My wife and I watched the old movie about George M. Cohan on the Fourth. I had a few tears when Jimmy Cagney belted out the great Cohan songs, “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There.”

The sadness comes from realizing I seem to be in a minority today, at least among sophisticated people. In many ways the United States is a far better country today than it was when I was young. Richer, fairer, healthier, less polluted and with far more liberty, prosperity and justice for all. On the other hand it seems to me to be less patriotic, less proud of our heritage and our achievements, including the many that happened in my lifetime.

Think of it. Winning terrible wars against Nazi Germany, Fascist Japan and Totalitarian Soviet Union; bringing a long postponed new measure of freedom and dignity to African-Americans; pioneering a new world of electronics—computers, TV, cell phones, iPads, et al; shattering the “glass ceilings” for women in education, commerce, sports, arts and sciences; raising the living standards of almost all citizens to heights never before seen in human history; increasing life spans from 45 to 79 years; making our air, water and soil cleaner and healthier than ever before; and becoming without question the world leader in bringing many of these benefits to people in just about every country in this still troubled world.

And yet when her husband was nominated for President our own First Lady could only manage a weak hurrah, “for the first time in my adult life, I was proud of my country.”  Her husband too has been more prone to apologies than to pride in America’s accomplishments. (See Charles Krauthammer’s recent column in the Washington Post.)  Much worse are many professors, like the one at the University of Massachusetts, who claimed, “the American flag is a symbol of terrorism and death and fear and destruction and oppression.” Or the professor at the University of New Mexico who commented after the 9/11 attack, “anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote.” Or the famous Harvard scholar and pop-star on the college lecture circuit, Noah Chomsky, who says “if the Nuremberg trials were applied then every post-war American Presidents would have been hanged.”  In my younger days Kate Smith made her fame singing “God Bless America.” Today Reverend Wright became famous by shouting, “God damn America!”

Admittedly most of these folks are at the extreme left end of the political spectrum. But sad to say their influence is stronger than you might think even when watered down. It is especially strong in the all-important world of elite secondary and college classrooms as well as the all-important world of communication stars in New York, Washington and Los Angeles. How many of these influential folks put the flag out on this Fourth of July or sang “You’re a Grand Old Flag?”

Finally, I doubt whether many Hollywood directors would consider making a patriotic movie these days. Instead we get movies like Michael Moore’s Sicko (the star is Fidel Castro) and Capitalism: A Love Story (which of course it was anything but), or Oliver Stone’s JFK, Natural Born Killers and his new South of the Border (the star is Hugo Chavez, the villain is U.S.), or for that matter James Cameron’s popular hit Avatar (starring primitive innocence, villain once again is the American military).

These people need to learn a little history. For instance:

As I mentioned in a previous blog, one of the most significant and progressive actions of the United States in my lifetime does not get anything close to the credit it deserves–the Marshall Plan after World War 2.

In all ages before the Industrial Revolution, the Scientific Revolution and the rise of free-market economics, wealth was a zero-sum game. Wealth was land, gold and slaves, peasants or serfs. All of these things were quite limited so if one person, or one group, got a big piece of the wealth pie another person, or group, would have to be satisfied with a small piece. In order to get more wealth there was only one way – war. If you won the war, to the winner went the spoils–more land, more gold, more slaves. If you lost, tough.

Once the Industrial, Scientific and Free-Market Revolutions came on the scene about two hundred years ago, the calculus changed, but sometimes only in theory. Wealth in a scientific-industrial world was no longer based on land, gold and slaves, but on human creativity. On the ever-increasing and ever-renewable capacity of human beings to innovate, to do more with less, to use the heretofore hidden powers of nature to multiply goods and services without limit. And then to share this new wealth in free-market win-win transactions where both sides profit. When it came to wars, however, the old zero-sum ideas still held sway.

After the First World War, for instance, the winning allies France, Britain and the U.S. were still operating on the old idea that to the winners should go the spoils. Following ancient precedent they stole much of Germany’s wealth in land, resources and productive power. They demanded huge financial reparations that helped to cripple Germany for decades to come. The result was what you might have expected. A bitter and proud people fell for the first demagogue who came along, Adolph Hitler. And so we got World War Two and the Holocaust.

Pretty much the same thing happened here in America after our Civil War.  The victorious North led by Radical Republicans made the South suffer. Lincoln would have done it differently, but he was dead. The result was a hundred years of Jim Crow laws and deep poverty throughout the South.

After the Second World War for the first time in human history things changed dramatically. The democratic allies led this time by the United States had finally learned the lesson that wealth was not a limited zero-sum game. Wealth was human creativity and free trade. The best way to assure a peaceful prosperous future for all was not to punish the enemy but to help them recover. That way they could create new wealth that could then be shared with the rest of the world through free trade win-win agreements. (Significantly, one of our war-time allies, the Soviet Union, did not learn the lesson and eventually collapsed itself after punishing East European foes.)

With the Marshall Plan traditional Judeo-Christian ethics (forgive thy enemies, do good to those who hurt you) were able to join hands with free-market economics and scientific creativity to lead the way to a more promising future. Led by former General George Marshall (then the new Secretary of State under President Harry Truman) the United State spent more than a trillion dollars (in inflation-adjusted currency) to help Germany recover from the devastation caused by the war. The result is what you see today. Germany is one of the most prosperous democratic countries in the world and a powerful force for world peace and prosperity.  We see the same good news with Japan and Italy.

We are trying to do the same thing today in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Let’s hope we succeed. It wasn’t easy in the much poorer 1940s and it may be even harder today, even though we have a hundred times the resources now.

But that is the power of an idea. And no, we not only have little to apologize for in the United States, we have every reason to be proud of our spectacular successes in that now departed 20th century. And indeed of our efforts in the first decade of the 21st century.

Does past success mean there are no new challenges today? Of course not. But the many strong challenges today—Radical Islam, ballooning deficits, run-away government bureaucracy, soaring unemployment, soaring health care and pension costs, still too much world-wide poverty and disease, energy problems, immigration issues, broken families and even global climate change—are real, but manageable. They are manageable, that is, so long as we have learned the lesson of the Marshall Plan (and for that matter the old Judeo-Christian lesson) of loving your enemies and respecting the power of free-markets and win-win economics.

And in the meantime why not pause once in a while to sing “you’re a grand old flag, you’re a high flying flag, and forever in peace may you wave. You’re the emblem of the land I love, the home of the free and the brave.”

Bill Stonebarger, Hawkhill Owner/President

P.S. This time I do go back to my sales pitch. I really think our high schools and colleges need a batch of fresh air to provide our young people with a few facts and liberating lessons from history. We can help. See our up-to-date DVD programs: Democracy in World History, Resources, Populations and Climate Change, Democracy: The Basics, Capitalism and Democracy, Religion and Democracy, Science and Democracy, and last but not least our old but still strong classic, Spaceship Earth.

how to tell a windbag from a sage

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

July 5, 2010

One easy way to tell a windbag from a sage is to measure the Fog Index of their writing. Take the average number of words they use per sentence. Calculate the percentage of words that are three syllables or more. Add these two figures and multiply that sum by 0.4. The resulting number is the Fog Index. This is a rough measure of how many years of schooling you would need to understand what the windbag (or the sage) is writing about.

You might be surprised that the Bible, Shakespeare, Mark Twain and other quality literary texts have very low Fog Indexes. About 6. In other words a sixth grader should be able to understand. The NY Times, Newsweek and Wall St. Journal have Indexes of about 11, high school level.

Some bureaucratic, academic and corporate prose gets up into the high 20s, or even 30s. Graduate school level and beyond. Often way beyond.

In my science classes, and later in my filmstrip, video and DVD productions I often used low fog quotes to make a point. Here are a few favorites.

“I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.” Anonymous

“Green’s Law of Debate: Anything is possible if you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process.” Buckminster Fuller.

Everybody lies; but it doesn’t matter since no one listens.” Anonymous.

Cal Coolidge was famous for keeping his mouth shut. When he was introduced to a famous football star of the Chicago Bears, however, he became more loquacious. “Nice to meet you, young man. I’ve always liked animal acts.”

“A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillion of infidels.” Walt Whitman.

“An artist is not a special kind of person. Every person is a special kind of artist” Eric Gill.

“When a man brings his wife flowers for no reason, there’s a reason.” Piers McBride.

“Oh God, if I am to have so much … let me have more.” Walt Whitman.

“The government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul.” George Bernard Shaw.

“Dare to be naïve.” Buckminster Fuller.

“Hell, if I could explain it to the average person it wouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize.” Richard Feynman after winning the Nobel Prize.

“Don’t always follow the crowd because nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Yogi Berra

“No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.” J. Scott Armstrong.

“It has been for me a glorious day, like giving sight to a blind man’s eyes: he is overwhelmed with what he sees and cannot justly comprehend it.” Charles Darwin on first seeing tropical forests.

“A dog is a dog except when he is facing you. Then he is Mr. Dog.” Haitian proverb.

“Ben Wattenberg’s new book is a compelling reminder that we must learn to bear the truth about our society, no matter how pleasant it may be.” Jeanne Kirkpatrick in a review of  “The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong.”

“Any idiot can face a crisis. It’s the day-to-day living that can wear you out.” Anton Chekhov.

Lady Astor once said to Winston Churchill, “if you were my husband I’d give you poison.” Churchill replied, “if you were my wife, I’d take it.”

“I used to eat a lot of natural foods until I learned that most people die of natural causes.” Anonymous.

“I ran into someone I hadn’t seen for 20 years last week and he’d changed so much he didn’t even recognize me.” Piers McBride.

“We all know that no proposition is so foolish or meretricious that at least two Nobel Prize laureates cannot be found to endorse it.” Walter Gratzer.

Richard Feynman on refusing to read his own obituary before his death. “I have decided it is not a very good idea for a man to read it ahead of time. It takes the element of surprise out of it.”

“The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not quite sure it is right.” Judge Learned Hand.

In a Sidney Harris cartoon a beautiful maiden is speaking to a hard-working scientist, who is staring at some arcane equations on his blackboard: “I’m your guardian angel and I think it’s time you knew that for the past 37 years you’ve been barking up the wrong tree.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/Manager Hawkhill

P.S. Relax, no sales pitch this week. Take down the 4th of July flags but save them for Labor Day. Email me for a free copy of our Fog Index poster which gives more detailed directions for calculating the Index. billjane@hawkhill.com