“The Grid” is the Problem, Not the Solution

On October 9, Pacific Gas & Electric began shutting down power to about 750,000 customers (affecting as many as 2 million people) in California. The company claims the shutdowns are necessary to reduce the risk that its power lines and other infrastructure will cause wildfires like last year’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and and caused $16.5 billion in damage.

The Camp Fire was an extreme , and the blackouts are an extreme response,  but they’re far from the only indicators that Americans should no longer trust aging “grid” distribution systems to reliably  and safely supply electricity to their homes and businesses.

Fortunately, just as the problems seem to be getting really bad, the solutions are coming online fast.

Unfortunately, states’ response to the problem are a strange mix of unneeded mandates and subsidies and unjustifiable barriers, driven by cronyism and hostility to free markets.

Solar panels, wind turbines, large batteries for power storage, and gasoline generators for short-term backup are getting cheaper and cheaper.  Unfettered, markets would proliferate these solutions to most Americans in a fairly short time.

But government can’t resist putting its finger on the scales.

The California Energy Commission has ordered the inclusion of solar panels on all new homes beginning in 2020, citing climate change rather than independence from the grid as justification. A nice subsidy to the solar industry, at the expense of homeowners for whom wind or other solutions might work better.

Nationwide, many localities require homeowners to attach their houses to the grid whether they want to or not — then require those homeowners’ solar systems to shut down during grid outages for utility worker safety, leaving them powerless too.

Extreme weather often results in power loss to large numbers of people. I’ve experienced multi-day outages from thunderstorms,  blizzards, and ice storms in the midwest and hurricanes in the southeast. Most Americans probably recall similar outages. That’s what happens when you string wires and transformers all over the place then pray nothing knocks them down or stresses them out.

The increasing sprawl and automation of grids, initially touted as a feature, turned out to be a bug. In 2003, a software failure in Ohio turned what should have been a local blackout into a two-day  outage in two Canadian provinces and eight US  states, shutting down more than 100 power plants and leaving 55 million without electricity. Lately the fear (thus far apparently unrealized) is that grids are vulnerable to hackers of both state and freelance varieties.

“The grid” needs to go. We’ve got the means to replace it. If politicians and bureaucrats just got out of the way, the market would do the rest. Instead, they’ll probably drag it out for decades, at a cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.

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Letter from a Pakistani Homeschooler

I recently received this email from Pakistani homeschooler Fasih Zulfiqar.  I advised him to seek out econ professors at the nearest universities, but he’d likely appreciate further advice.  Reprinted with his permission.

Hello Prof Bryan, Fasih here. Perhaps Prof Cowen informed you about me, but in case he did not, let me introduce myself.

I’m a student from Pakistan who has self-studied through secondary education. I decided to quit schooling when I was in grade 6, much to the consternation of my relatives. They dinned into me that schooling is the only avenue for success, and that I would certainly fail if I go solo.

There were days when I would come back to home from school – completely exhausted – and ask myself if I truly learned anything. Sure I had friends and all, but school was not serving the purpose it was meant to. Moreover, it wasn’t cheap. My father could hardly afford sending me and my sister to school, let alone pay the prohibitive rent. More and more often, I found myself considering whether it was all even worth it. So in the summer of 2012, I decided it was enough and quit school.

My argument for taking this radical decision was the fact that our schooling system does not teach children anything of actual import. Education, here, is a misnomer. What the schools teach here is rote memorization. Basically, the students are encouraged to memorize the notes of former students (or those written by the teachers themselves), and paste those memorized points verbatim on tests. For instance, a student may know that a rise in interest rate leads to an appreciation of the currency, but (s)he would be absolutely clueless as to how this happens.

What could possibly be the value of such education, if it can even be called that. The schools here are merely concerned with grades and credentials. This perspective is so pervasive that it has also infected our youth and even their parents. And why wouldn’t it, considering that employees are evaluated here solely on their credentials.

It turns out, rote memorization does ensure that you end up acing your exams; thus, this practice has become so entrenched that people don’t even question it anymore. They do not believe there is anything wrong with it. I remember my teacher was once making us memorize the date Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan, and I asked here if she could explain what gave rise to Bangladesh’s independence. The “why” behind it. Initially, she ignored me. I asked again; she replied it is relevant. I persisted. She blew her gasket and expelled me.

We Pakistanis, along with much of South Asia, hold an extremely myopic view of education. It is all about attaining this or that degree. This is not what education is meant to be. We are wasting our youth, which, I firmly believe, has great potential. This needs to change – urgently. I aspire to make that change, but I do not know how. Someday, perhaps, I will, but, as of now, I’m lost myself.

Homeschooling has been an extremely successful endeavor for me. I have achieved an A* in Economics and an A* in Mathematics as well; I recently got an A in Further Mathematics. These are A-level exams (UK system), more or less equivalent to AP in the US. I also ended up being awarded the highest marks in Economics in Pakistan by the British Council, much to the astonishment of my family.

Having achieved all this, I intend to enroll in a decent University in the US. I had love to major in Economics or a combination of Mathematics and Econ. I absolutely do not wish to pursue my undergraduate studies in Pakistan for the very same reasons I quit schooling. The issue is, I will need a substantial amount of aid. My father makes an income of about only $15k; this certainly qualifies me for aid, but I know that funds are scarce, making my chances of getting aid slim to none.

I recently learned that universities may look down on homeschooled applicants. This makes no sense to me. Considering how much discipline and persistence is required to teach your own self, universities should instead value homeschooling more – much more. Perhaps I’m biased, or perhaps this is not even the case, which is why I’m writing to you.

The crux of the problem is the requirement of letters of recommendation. All the need-blind universities in the US require at least 2. Since I have self-taught myself, I have none. Only my parents know the persistence with which I have worked throughout the last 6 years. Obviously they can not write a letter of recommendation for me: that would be rather biased. What do you think I should do?

I met Prof Cowen yesterday while he was in Karachi. Upon listening to my questions, he mentioned that I should talk to you. He told me you have homeschooled your own children, which came as a shock to me because we Pakistanis consider US schools the epitome of education. Having listened to many podcasts you have been on, and having read many of your posts on Econlib, I do realize that education in the US is not perfect either. Nonetheless, it is far better than in Pakistan. And if I intend to improve my own nation someday, I believe I will ultimately need a decent education.

To recap, I have two questions. First, is there a bias against homeschooled students, and if so, then how much? Second, what should I do about the letters of recommendation?

Thank you for taking the time to read through all this Sir. I look forward to hearing from you.

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Lead a Life That Confuses the Archaeologists

If you want to lead a good life, a good rule of thumb is to live a life that is not merely the product of your age. Your life shouldn’t be reducible to the dominant forces and trends of your surrounding culture.

In other words, your life’s footprint shouldn’t be easy for the archaeologists and anthropologists of the future to understand.

Nonconformity is a lifelong task. But there are simple ways to bootstrap uniqueness, break out of your culture’s “zeitgeist”, and make some future historian’s job exceptionally hard.

Listen to music, watch movies, and read books from different ages and people and perspectives. If you have a cultural palate (say for music) that ranges from swing and bossa nova to bluegrass from several different decades, you’re going to be harder to stereotype (when you’re dead) and harder to manipulate (when you’re alive).

Integrate into your life the best customs and manners of the centuries and the cultures of the world. If you’re hosting dinner parties and corresponding via letter in 2019, it’s going to be much harder to place you. You’re also going to have much more interesting interactions and relationships with people.

Live with the best values of the many ages and places of humankind. Embody the heroism of the Norsemen, the hospitality of the Arabs, and the independence of the Americans. Live with the social liberalism of the 21st century and the devoutness of the 11th.

In short, use your mind to follow the best that all of time and human culture has to give you. Find the things that give life.

By absorbing and remixing all of these different influences, you’re going to find yourself making original connections and having more original thoughts. And while this may confuse the historians of the future, it certainly will interest them.

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War in All But Name as US State Department Offers Bribes to Pirates

If at first you don’t succeed, spread some money around. The Financial Times reports that the US State Department is offering cash bribes to captains of Iranian ships if they sail those ships into ports where the US government can seize them.

The offers are funded from a “Rewards for Justice” program authorizing payouts of up to $15 million for “counter-terrorism” purposes. It’s  not about counter-terrorism, though. It’s about doubling down on US President Donald Trump’s decision to violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, usually called the “Iran Nuclear Deal.”

The other parties to the deal —  especially France, the UK, and Germany — don’t want to let the deal go, but also don’t want to enrage Trump by violating the unilateral sanctions he’s imposed on Iran. The Iranians, on the other hand, have made it clear that unless those other countries find ways to deliver meaningful sanctions relief, they’re abandoning the deal too. They’ve started taking concrete steps in that direction.

On July 4 — Independence Day in the United States — members of the United Kingdom’s Royal Marines boarded an Iranian oil tanker, the Grace 1, off the coast of Gibraltar. They seized ship, crew, and cargo in an act of open piracy.

The pretext for the seizure was that selling oil to Syria violates European Union sanctions. But neither Iran nor Syria are EU member states, and the tanker was taken in international “transit passage” waters. That’s like giving a speeding ticket to a driver in Hungary for violating  Kazakhstan’s speed limits.

Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, plausibly asserted that the seizure was requested by the US government. The ship was released after Iran agreed that the oil would not go to Syria (its whereabouts and destination remain unknown as of this writing).

In the meantime, a US court had issued a seizure warrant — for an Iranian vessel, carrying Iranian oil, to a non-US destination, clearly outside any reasonable definition of US jurisdiction. And the Iranians had hijacked a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in reprisal for the taking of Grace 1.

So now the US State Department is reduced to simple bribery in its attempts to clean up after Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to get the US out of the “nuclear deal.”

Under the deal, the Iranians went beyond their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to “end” a nuclear weapons program which the US intelligence community didn’t even believe existed. All they got out of it was some relief from sanctions that should never have been imposed, and the return of some money stolen by the US government decades ago. All the US got out of it was an empty propaganda victory.

But electoral politics required Trump to throw even that tiny trophy away. He had to either promise foreign policy belligerence SOMEWHERE or risk establishment mockery as a peacenik. Enter the Israeli lobby and Sheldon Adelson’s millions. Iran drew the short straw.

So did we. This is war in all but name and only likely to escalate as Election 2020 draws nigh.

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Afghanistan: In Search of Monsters to Not Destroy

America, John Quincy Adams said in 1821, “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” That’s as good a summary ever spoken of the non-interventionist position.

US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) disagrees. He opposes President Trump’s quest for a peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan as “reckless and dangerous,” entailing “severe risk to the homeland.”

Nearly 18 years  into the US occupation of Afghanistan, at a cost of  trillions of dollars, more than 4,000 Americans dead and more than 20,000 wounded, Graham and his fellow hawks clearly aren’t really looking for monsters to destroy.  They want those monsters alive and at large, to justify both their own general misrule and the perpetual flow of American blood and treasure into foreign soil (read: into the bank accounts of US “defense” contractors).

The US invasion of Afghanistan was never militarily necessary. The Taliban offered to hand over Osama bin Laden upon presentation of evidence that he was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, an offer President George W. Bush arrogantly declined in favor of war.

The extended US occupation of, and “nation-building” project in, Afghanistan, was even less justifiable. Instead of relentlessly pursuing the supposed mission of apprehending bin Laden and liquidating al Qaeda, US forces focused on toppling the Taliban, installing a puppet regime, and setting themselves to the impossible task of turning Kabul into Kokomo.

It hasn’t worked. It’s not working now. It’s not going to start working.  Ever. It should never have been attempted. Afghans don’t want Lindsey Graham running their affairs any more than you want him running yours. Can you blame them after as many as 360,000 Afghan civilian deaths?

Afghanistan is not and never has been a military threat to the United States, let alone the kind of existential threat that would justify 18 years of war. Yesterday isn’t soon enough to bring this fiasco to an end. But Graham and company would, given their way, drag it out forever.

They’re  the kind of grifters H.L. Mencken had in mind when he noted that “[t]he whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” But they’d rather keep old hobgoblins alive than have to manufacture new ones.

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Andrew Napolitano: How the Courts Killed Natural Law (37m)

This episode features a rousing talk by former Federal judge and libertarian Andrew Napolitano from 2018. He looks at the Declaration of Independence’s natural law tradition–and how federal courts relentlessly and successfully attacked the principles it represented. Purchase books by Andrew Napolitano on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (37m, mp3, 64kbps)

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