30 January 2006

What could you do with Two Hundred and Fifty Billion Dollars?

Over on the right hand side of my blog, you can see a handy little counter that I found which estimates the cost of the war in Iraq, based on Congressional Appropriations. It is set to hit $250 billion in March 2006. It is really quite staggering to think about why that money was spent, and what else it could have been used for.

First, let's address why the money is being spent. The honest answer, of course, is that the war is about oil. Not only does Iraq produce tons of the stuff (or at least it did before the US bombed it flat), Saddam Hussein was in a position to threaten oil shipments throughout the Persian Gulf. The calculation went something like this: a significant disruption of oil supplies would mortally wound the US economy. As a result, removing Saddam from power was deemed to be worth the political and economic cost of removing him from power. Other explanations (weapons of mass destruction, building democracy, etc.) are convenient, but frankly, they are a load of horse manure.

Let us assume for a moment that Saddam's threat was real. The unsophisticated response is what we have seen: utilize the power of the military to secure the Persian Gulf. The more nuanced response would have been to seize the moment and launch a massive project to develop alternative energy sources. Imagine what $250B would buy in terms of research and development. Not only would the money have provided the only realistic opportunity to identify alternative energy sources that might come on line as cheap oil became a distant memory, but it also would have provided a much needed boost to the US economy.

Yes, that's right, the same US economy that the Bush gang invaded Iraq to defend. Two hundred and fifty billion dollars later, and what do we have to show for it?

26 January 2006

The vulnerability of energy supplies

After the recent attacks in Nigeria and Russia on oil and gas pipelines, the possibility of social disruption leading to a new energy crisis moves from dystopic fantasy to looming reality. The Global Guerrillas website adds an interesting twist: the possibility that such attacks might come not just because groups with political objectives may wish cripple governments or supranational corporations, but rather that individuals may stage such attacks to profit from the change in world oil prices. It has always been the case that individuals have seen windfall profits following disasters. But now it seems that small scale adventurers, operating independently or in collusion with others, can cause both anarchy in energy producing countries (with secondary effects upon liberal democracies) and make substantial profits. Given how obvious this opportunity is, it would be surprising if it didn't happen in the very near future. Get ready for $100/barrel oil.

19 January 2006

On Happiness

I have been reading Happiness - Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard, Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and a member of the House of Lords. He is among the rising tide of voices advocating that governments should include measures of happiness in devising policy, essentially adopting some form of the Bhutan's pursuit of Gross National Happiness. This is, of course, a wonderful idea, and it seems like a fantastic platform for politicians to pursue as they try to convince voters that they deserve their support. Indeed, some governments are giving consideration to the issue, but the truth is that this is going to be a hard sell.

Layard recounts the evidence that despite the fantastic increase on our material wealth over the last 50 years, we are no happier than we used to be. He offers many reasons for our collective malaise, and it is worth reading to book to get the full picture - his writing
is engaging and I found the book an enjoyable read. One of the insights that Layard emphasizes is the importance that we all place on our relative status with respect to those around us. Essentially, we measure ourselves against others, and we do so with alarming regularity. This exercise had little impact when our brains evolved as members of communities of 150 or so individuals on the African Savannah. Even as industrialization rose to prominence, it was rare for individuals to encounter compatriots who lived lives that were radically different than theirs. But our brains are poorly equipped to deal with today's reality, where the availability of cheap oil allows for us to travel widely, and in so doing observe and inevitably crave the lifestyles of others. Even more pernicious is television which brings the rich and famous directly into our living rooms. Is it any wonder that the real lives of real people pale by comparison?

Anticipating the new science of happiness, Ferenc Mate devoted a chapter in his book A Reasonable Life to the ills of television, concluding that the best thing that you can do with your TV is to pick it up and chuck it out the window. It seems that his advice is sound indeed.

18 January 2006

Law of Unintended Consequences

A letter in today's issue of Nature draws attention to the law of unintended consequences. Scientists are not often thought of as frivolous types, but they can be: many of the genes that have been discovered have been given rather silly names (Homer; dunce; Sonic Hedgehog, to name but a few). This trend was begun innocently by some 'cool' scientists who were involved in sequencing the fruitfly genome, but grew rapidly to include human sequences as well. Unfortunately, patients seem less than amused to find that they have a mutation in a gene with a whimsical name (Are you telling me that my son the genius has a dunce mutation?).

Who knew?


We seem to be hurtling down the tracks towards an uncertain future. Despite our best intentions, the impact of humans on the world around us seems to be less benign with each passing day. Whether it be hubris, the law of unintended consequences, or just plain stupidity, we are clearly in a bit of a bind.

It really is a pity that we are in such trouble, for the human experiment has much to recommend it. In the days and weeks to come, we'll take a look at some of the fine things that humans have achieved, as well as irreverently poking fun at a few items that have been less well-thought out. As with evolution, I don't know where it will lead, but the journey is always interesting.