Monday, January 25, 2010

Supreme Court Decision Invites More Corruption

I believe the government of the United States, as well as its courts, have allowed corporations to become more important than the people of the United States. The evidence? The number of American jobs that have been outsourced overseas. For years, some corporations have been violating their original charter according to American law: to act in the public interest.

So I'm not happy with the Supreme Court decision. In fact, I'm disturbed by the Republicans wildly cheering the decision and I'm disturbed by some of the justifications for the decision. Kevin Drum writes:
There's also the nature of corporations vs. individuals. Corporations do have First Amendment rights, but to call corporations mere "organized groups of people," as Glenn [Greenwald] does, seriously obscures some genuine distinctions. Modern corporations are far more than that, and long precedent recognizes this by allowing them fewer speech rights than individuals.'s perfectly defensible to suggest that corporations might also have more restricted rights when it comes to campaign speech.

On the other hand, there's no question that political speech is at the core of the First Amendment. Restricting commercial speech is one thing, but restricting political speech, no matter who's doing it, ought to raise much louder alarm bells.

I respect Kevin for trying to give a nuanced perspective but there are too many major problems. Corporations, far more than our government, dominate our society and there is very little the average citizen can do about it. Even without the Supreme Court decision, corporations have little trouble funding lobbyists, think tanks, friendly university research, sizable honorariums to sympathetic journalists for a one hour speech, and various other gimmicks that reflect the power not of an ''association of individuals," but very powerful people, usually small in number, who control corporations. That is a fact.

I have always despised the argument that the power of corporations is offset by the power of unions. The reality is that the people who control a corporation rarely number more than a hundred to two hundred people. Generally speaking, there might be a hundred thousand shareholders who own 30%, a thousand who own 15% and the rest is owned and controlled by a small number of wealthy people. In no meaningful sense is there democracy in most corporations. In contrast, a union might have 200,000 members, all of whom get one vote.

I don't mind people who have more money than I do. But I do resent when a wealthy person can grab a megaphone and drown out not only my voice but the voice of thousands. I don't really have a problem limiting wealthy people to $23,000 a year for political contributions and $2300 per candidate. Despite the fact that I have to think twice about a $50 contribution or two, I know ways to get my voice heard with the help of others who think along similar lines. If corporate contributions are unlimited, however, we could very easily lose our democracy.

Right wing leaders of the Republican Party love having more power than the rest of us. That's why they cheered the Supreme Court decision so loud. They have a cozy and corrupt relationship with the dark side of American business.

One of the possible outcomes of the Supreme Court decision is that it may open the door to foreign influence by investment in American corporations. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo points out that:
...the recent Supreme Court decision gives foreigners basically an unfettered right to spend money on US elections -- China, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia, take your pick. The majority tried to paper over this. But now foreign corporations, foreign individuals and even foreign governments can use corporations as pass-throughs to spend millions or tens of millions of dollars supporting their candidate of choice in a US election.

In fact, why bother with normal corporations? Whether it's foreigners or a bunch of corrupt politicians, corporations law can be used for anything. Even if foreign corporations and foreign investors are forbidden from being involved in American campaigns, there would be nothing to stop them from buying a few American board members glad to take a few bucks and create a corporation whose only purpose is to influence politics. Of course there are wealthy right wingers like Rupert Murdoch who love power and money games far too much. Murdoch already has too much power even without the Supreme Court decision.

For a long time, too many Americans have been more worried about big government than big business. But it's big business that is dismantling the American way of life. The majority on the Supreme Court has just aggravated the problem.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Chevron and Its Claim of Energy Efficiency

First, two caveats.

1. Just about every oil company in the world, including Chevron, is under attack for one reason or another. Sometimes the attacks have legitimate reasons behind them and sometimes the attacks are rhetorical overkill. My post is more in the category of simple reality check.

2. Chevron doesn't have the aggressive anti-environmental record of Exxon and it doesn't have the aggressively hypocritical reputation of British Petroleum (BP) which for some years touted its environmental record while not being so green behind the scenes. Chevron isn't as bad as some oil companies but it's still an oil company. And oil companies need good public relations these days no matter who they are.

I noticed an ad the other day in Technology Review, February 2010. The ad is on page 2 and part of it reads:
At Chevron, we've focused on energy efficiency for decades. Since 1992, we've improved the energy efficiency of our own global operations by 28%. And with Chevron Energy Solutions we help other businesses and governments do the same—from Colorado where we're upgrading municipal buildings to reduce energy costs by 24% to 30%—to Pennsylvania where we're helping schools reduce their energy bills by more than a million dollars a year.

I don't argue the basic honesty of what's being said except to say that it's incomplete and therefore misleading. Energy efficiency is real as well as important if you're installing LEDs or weather-proofing buildings. But such things are not the only energy efficiency games in town.

The truth is that it's getting harder and harder to drill for oil. It takes more money, people, equipment and, yes, energy to create energy. That's efficiency going in the wrong direction.

Also, as oil companies find less and less light sweet crude, they have to turn to heavy oil which is clearly less efficient to refine. To turn heavy oil into gasoline requires high heat and high pressure, both of which take more energy.

Finally, most of what an oil company produces is used to provide fossil fuels for transportation. But cars based on diesel and gasoline are not as efficient as cars that use—or mostly use—electricity from power companies. Fueling a battery by plugging into the power grid is far more efficient than fueling a car with gasoline.

Even when power grids get their energy from plants that burn fossil fuels, electric cars are still more efficient. In the long run, however, power plants are going to have to switch to sustainable forms of energy such as solar and wind.

The Chevron ad begin with the sentence: "Every dollar invested in energy efficiency today could return two dollars in energy savings." Again, energy efficiency of the kind Chevron is promoting happens to be important. But eighty years ago a dollar's worth of energy invested in an oil field produced a hundred dollars worth of energy.

Today, in Texas, some oil wells now use more energy than they produce. Why? Because arcane laws, subsidies and tax rules make it profitable. On the other hand, there are wind turbines that return 30-60 dollars of energy for every dollar of energy invested. Something needs to change.

Although there are plenty of oil wells in the world that return excellent net energy, the reality is that worldwide the net energy per barrel of oil drops yearly as more energy is required to produce that barrel. Oil is refined into many different products and we as consumers can't easily see how energy is used to make energy but let me offer a rough metaphor of sorts: for every 100 gallons of gasoline we put in our cars, we used to give the oil companies a gallon back to go out and find more oil, pump it, refine it and transport it to our gas tank. Now for every 100 gallons we put in our cars, we have to give back anywhere from 3 to 10 gallons depending on who's providing our oil (if you get your gas exclusively from those handful of inefficient Texas wells, you might as well get a horse!).

Oil companies are going to be in business for many years to come simply because it's going to take at least twenty years to build a truly efficient energy infrastructure that is sustainable and sensible, but the oil companies, Chevron included, are going to have to change.

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