Sunday, October 28, 2007

On this Rock...

As I write, the Emmaus Church of Heuersdorf, Germany, is resting for the evening in a parking lot as it pauses on its journey of 12.5 kilometers to a new town. The Emmaus Church was evicted from its plot of land of the past 750 years when it was discovered that it had thoughtlessly allowed itself to be built atop a large deposit of "brown coal," or lignite that is now used to power innumerable Ipods, flat screen televisions, labor-saving devices, and computers so people can read valuable blogs like this one. Following the Church are the inhabitants of Heursdorf, who have also been evicted so that strip mining operations can begin. This Spiegel article celebrates the technological ingenuity of the removal of the Church while altogether overlooking the curious fact that neither holy sanctuary nor human community can be allowed to stand in the way of the expeditious removal of hydrocarbons. After all, we live in a mobile society, so who would blink twice when a Church packs its things for a change of lifestyle?

The removal of the Emmaus Church, and the eviction of an entire town, could almost not be imagined if it were not so perfectly symbolic of what our fossil fuel era has done to both the ancient ideals of Religio and Communitas. Our exploitation of hydrocarbons has apparently freed us from the governance of God and our reliance upon a community of fellow humans; the power it has provided - truly godlike power - has made the liberal fantasy of "autonomous individuals" a temporary, if costly, reality. There was a time when the teachings that would take place in such a Church - and which would define the understanding of the community - would have formed the core of a resistance against moving the church and the town. It would be in the Church that one would hear convincing arguments against the reign of utilitarianism, against the embrace of human dominion over nature and God. The fact that it is the Church that is being moved - and not the eschewal of the exploitation of raw materials that fuel modern comforts - is sad proof of the Church's widespread contemporary irrelevance.

The Emmaus Churches and the Heursdorfs of the world will, for a time, continue to be forced to make way, or to be simply destroyed (as is the case of the larger Church in Heuersdorf, and, more broadly, the empty Churches everywhere in Europe and the eviscerated towns throughout America) in the name of progress. Yet, it is those very ancient spaces of gathering - Religio and Communitas - that will be most needed when the lights begin to go out. We will find, however, that they are no longer where we thought we had left them.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


It figures that it takes a trip to Italy to inform me about what's going on in America (at least according to the televised media). I don't subscribe to cable, so I don't have the "benefit" of knowing how news is spun on our 24-hour cable networks. Last night, during the inevitable insomnia that occurs at about 3 a.m. due to jet lag, I turned on the television and was forced - forced, I tell ya! - to watch CNN for a few hours because, alas, I can't understand the Italian on the cheesy Italian networks (how I wish that they didn't dub the cheesy American and German shows that seem to be ubiquitous - at least I could understand those...).

Among the CNN programs I suffered through was Larry King Live. According to this program, the fires of California provide yet another in an endless line of "human interest" stories. Bathetic portrayals of families who have lost their homes are punctuated by uplifting expressions of their faith in the future, the gung ho American spirit that we can rebuild. Nary a word is mentioned about the larger set of circumstances that went into the formation of this "disaster." Indeed, it's exactly the same news sequence that took place after Katrina: horrible disaster; government ineptitude; human spirit will prevail. A morality story between commercial breaks.

Well, for anyone who is interested, here's some background. In the case of both New Orleans and California, it may be news that people are living in places where disasters are waiting to happen. If you've never been to New Orleans, you won't have had the unique opportunity of looking up to see a river. Yes, New Orleans is not only below sea level, it's below river level. And it sinks a few inches more every year. CNN might actually report something worthwhile by inviting John McPhee on Larry King Live!, since McPhee discusses the ways in which government policy and our belief in the unlimited human ability to control nature have combined to create a city that was bound to be submerged by a hurricane at some point. But, in case - like me - you don't have cable, you could consider picking up McPhee's book The Control of Nature, which might even be more edifying than listening to Larry praise the positive spirit of the victims of nature's wrath.

The case of California is far worse: in their desire for a McMansions of their own, approximately 55,000 people knowingly have moved into fire prone areas in the past several years. No one thought to raise the "inconvenient truth" that buying a wood-and-plaster home in a desert environment, one prone to regular and periodic wildfires, was a recipe for disaster that we would all end up paying for (your tax dollars at work, to the tune of an additional 2 billion in increased fire-fighting costs). As a culture we've become accustomed to ignoring any feature of nature that might be seen either as a benefit or a detriment to where we erect these flimsy structures: neither readily available sources of water, temperate climes, or the availability of local building materials, on the one hand, nor hostile environments like the deserts of California, on the other, encourage or dissuade us from building the same pre-fab houses everywhere they can possibly be slapped together and sold for ridiculously inflated prices.

The "news" focuses on the human interest story, and I am truly sorry that these many people lost their houses and possessions. But there is a bigger morale of this particular story, which is that perhaps people shouldn't be living in disaster areas waiting to happen, or if they do, that they shouldn't be surprised when disaster happens. Among the people who lost their houses are undoubtedly some people who on a day to day basis curse the interference of government in their freedoms (of which there is probably too little actual interference, given that there are no laws against building in these areas), and then who curse the government for not doing more to prevent the disaster when it happens. It's a bit like watching NBC news from time to time: one regular segment is entitled "The Fleecing of America," invariably followed by a consumer news story which concludes with the broadcaster moralistically opining that government should be doing more...

And now, CNN tells me (yes, on in the background, just to get the juices flowing), the hunt for the arsonists is on. When we catch the bad guy we can rest content that justice has been done. This part of the morality tale - "the laying of the blame" on an evildoer - reminds me of the James Cameron movie "Titanic," in which we find out that the sinking of the unsinkable ship is due to penny-pinching of the engineer Ismay and the vainglory of the ship's captain, and not to the fact that humans were steering a big metal ship through a part of the ocean known to contain many icebergs.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Brave New World

I cringe everytime I hear Hillary! or some other Democratic candidate declare that they will allow real science to guide their decision making. We know what the code words mean: they won't limit research on stem cells, they won't question Darwinianism, they will let the scientists call the shots. This proud declaration suggests that "ethics" is the province of backward conservatives, those dinosaurs hung up on questions that science has rendered irrelevant.

Michael Gerson's column in today's Washington Post nicely reveals the absurdity, and more, the irresponsibility of this supposition. He chillingly quotes various statements by James Watson, perhaps the most obnoxious, but also the most honest, of today's scientists. The scientific community is embarrassed about Watson not necessarily because of what he is saying, but that he is saying it out loud. In addition to declaring certain continents to be populated by the intellectually inferior, he also calls forthrightly for the elimination of the "disease" of stupidity (among other "diseases). His arguments are revealing, and demonstrate how steep the slippery slope is. Many defenders of unfettered scientific research claim that genetic manipulation is only intended for the most harmful and obvious of diseases like Parkinson's and other hereditary ailments. Watson's words reveal how readily various other "infirmities" could be characterized as a kind of disease: what is more hereditary than IQs? What's to prevent us from curing all sorts of ailments like deficiencies in intelligence, height, looks, sense of humor, the talent for interior design?

Watson's arguments are little different than those of Princeton biologist Lee Silver, who has forthrightly declared that market forces will eventually prevail to the effect that people will either be genetically improving their children or allowing them to fall behind in our meritocratic society. Silver approves of this process, and advises those of us who might oppose it to lay back and enjoy the ride - it's going to happen whether we like it or not. Silver denies that he is arguing for a eugenic program, so much as a spontaneously ordered eugenic outcome - people will do whatever they can to help their children to succeed, and if everyone else is manipulating genetic code to help their kids get into Princeton, you can bet it will have a bandwagon effect. They're already doing it to improve their SAT scores; it's certain they'll do it if everyone else is creating little Aryans.

Silver predicts a future in which there will be two classes of once-human creatures - a recognizably human lower class composed of those who decided against (probably for religious reasons), or those who were unable, to "improve" their children; and a super-class of evolved humans who will be barely recognizable to us. He goes so far to argue that this super-class of humans will finally be able to answer the question of Who created us - us!

A few nights ago at Georgetown, there was a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Alister McGrath. The debate was entertaining but resembled a witty British bar brawl out of which little was gained except the joy of witnessing punches being landed. However, at one point Hitchens asked the audience (I paraphrase), is there any ethical norm that religion has uniquely contributed that could not be achieved by a secular means? I think the answer is, 1. yes, and 2. it is, why we should not evolve ourselves into a two-class species. The Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris wing wants to convince us that we are just blood, flesh, bone and carbon. If so, there is nothing inherently valuable to the human creature, and there can be no objection to permitting science to do what it will. Is this the kind of science that is being recommended by Hillary!? More, is this the future that awaits us through our unstinting efforts to exercise complete mastery over nature and make ourselves into gods?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


My previous post evoked a fascinating response by M_David, who has mentioned in the past that he is an oilman working in Alaska. I always welcome a voice of experience, and some moderation, in response to my apocalyptic-leaning tendencies.

Mr. David offered the following response to my suggestion that a world of declining energy stores would lead to the demise of our basic economic order:

[I] don't see this either. There
should be more middle class, less upper class, and both would be less wealthy. Wealth in the sense of "class" is relative. Middle class just defines how the wealth is distributed. And when everyone starts getting squeezed, look for the voters to redistribute wealth via taxes. The New Deal and all that. Remember, labor should make a comeback under peak oil.

In summary, the only issue I have with this post is the assumption that oil just "peaks" and everyone keels over overnight. No way. The hump of the peak is long, and conservation kicks in as the price elevates. Give me $500/bbl oil and I'll show you a hullva lot of conservation and energy innovation. No, it's most likely a long, slow, non-alarmist road, people migrating back to city-centers, smaller homes, less consumption...IOW, a better life

As I've suggested a number of times in previous posts, I think that the form of life that we are increasingly going to have to lead will be in greater accordance with a life of virtue, a life of moderation and in greater keeping with the governance of nature. Here I wholeheartedly agree with the concluding sentiments of the response - in sum, we will of necessity live "a better life."

I am far less sanguine about the peaceful transition from our current condition to this "better life." I think there is a growing possibility of severe social and personal pain and dislocation, of societal upheaval and even political chaos. These are not conditions that we have ever experienced and seem implausible, even incredible. But, the bleak scenario we may face is not because human beings - and Americans especially - can't live this better way of life, but because we have organized our lives in ways that make any such easy transition implausible if not impossible.

There are obvious ways in which this is so: take, for instance, the example of banking. The modern capitalist system is built on the health of a banking system. The health of a banking system rests most deeply upon a foundation of economic growth: no one would lend out money at modest interest if they believed first, that there was great risk of default, and second, if the money returned in the future (even with interest) was worth less than money in the present. Our banking system hums along in the backdrop of economic growth; in a backdrop of economic contraction, the banking system would become dysfunctional. Some bankers might succeed by making good bets on individuals, but the systemic backstop that the future will be brighter than the present would disappear (this is the same principle by which we do better betting on the market than necessarily on individual stocks; we can afford to have some losers in our portfolios in the backdrop of a rising market. Just as a rising market makes everyone look like financial geniuses, so too a growing economy makes our high-finance Hampton banker boys look brilliant).

Beyond such specific examples, however, there is a deeper cause for concern which is tied most fundamentally to the very plausibility of the modern liberal system. Modern liberal society is premised on growth - constant, unrelenting growth. Liberal democracies have always and everywhere come under severe stress, and very often have disintegrated under conditions of prolonged economic contraction. Much of modern history records not the stability and "normality" or naturalness of liberal democracy, but its profound fragility. America has come to believe that liberal democracy is its birthright, even that it is the natural condition of mankind. There is much evidence to contradict this belief: liberal democracy has in most cases been a difficult political arrangement to maintain, perhaps above all because it requires belief in its fundamental justness from the populace. In the absence of the prospects of limitless growth, the populace of many liberal democracies have rejected the justness of liberal democracy, and their societies have unravelled, at times descending into conflict, civil war and chaos.

Why should this be so? In a nutshell, liberal democracy contains an internal contradiction: liberalism is a political theory of basic economic inequality; democracy is premised upon the belief in political equality. Democracy exerts an egalitarian pressure upon liberalism, to which liberalism must offer some compensation. The earliest theorists of liberalism understood well that they were commending a theory of economic inequality: in the justly famous Chapter 5 of the Second Treatise on Government, John Locke argued that liberal society allowed and even encouraged increasing economic differentiation between the "industrious and rational" and the "quarrelsome and contentious." Advanced liberal societies permitted the exacerbation of the position between these two sorts of humans: the rights of liberal society required defense of the State, above all, to prevent the assault on wealthy "estates" (or property) by the larger "quarrelsome and contentious" classes. Locke foresaw the potential of proto-Marxist temptations among the poor to deprive the wealthy of property. In the end, the promise of State protection of property was not sufficient: liberal society cannot last if there is a persistent desire on the part of the lower classes to encroach on rights of property. A repressive (Western) liberalism has generally not proven successful.

Instead, Locke argued that it was the promise of economic growth that would induce even the poorest in society to accept the terms of liberal inequality, that would assuage the democratic egalitarian pressures. A growth society promises improvement of condition even to the poorest person: hence, Locke wrote (and repeated the claim) that the poorest day laborer in England (a growth economy) was wealthier than the richest Indian chief in America (that is, a subsistence, or non-growth economy). Locke's was the earliest version of Reagan's adage that "a rising tide raises all boats"; in this respect, there is very little fundamental philosophical difference between Ronald Reagan and John Rawls: both share the liberal belief that substantial economic inequality is acceptable even to the poorest of a liberal society so long as the poorest believe that they stand to benefit in some comparative proportion along with the wealthiest classes. The American story of the self-made man, the Horatio Alger story, the pioneer or Western settler or hard working immigrant who makes good, is a deep pre-condition of the success of American liberalism. However, while this myth is often attacked as a form of false consciousness by thinkers on the Left, it is the deeper validity of the story - not true in all particulars, but largely true on a societal level that our economic system has always promised a better life to future generations - that has uniquely contributed to the remarkable stability of the American liberal system.

As we enter the most heated stage of the election season, notice that for all the purported difference between the candidates of the same and opposite parties, that there is uniform agreement that the object of politics in America is growth. Whether conscious or not, every politician in America is aware that a condition of non-growth would be tantamount to political suicide, and worse, might induce political dislocation.

People will not gladly or easily accept sure knowledge of a future of decrease. The idea that we will gradually and easily slip into a "better future" in which the stock market continuously loses value; in which our houses grow less valuable year after year; in which our purchasing power, via our dollar, buys less every passing day; in which our children can expect to make less money, to have a "less successful" future than previous generations; in which we will have to adjust our expectations to accept work of a more manual nature, for less money, and with less leisure - that we will go gladly into that "better life" without a tumultuous political upheaval and a vicious fight over the valuable scraps that remain is implausible if not pure fantasy and dangerous wishful thinking.

Already the "elites" are deserting the nation. Dick Cheney has his retirement money in Old Europe bonds. A story today on reports that a leading investor is converting his entire holdings to the Chinese yuan, and that he predicts a future of economic decline in the U.S. across all asset classes except agriculture (there will be less food). What for the elites is a good investment strategy is a sure sign of social instability. Our elites are so blinkered by money-making that they fail to see that they are breaking the most fundamental terms of the contract, but the economic future that we face leaves very few options for maintaining the contract. The patriotic and communal sense of obligation that helped Americans live through the Depression have been undermined and overthrown by the individualism and mobility induced by hyper-capitalism and advanced liberalism.

I hope I am wrong. But I wouldn't build any grandiose plans around that hope.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Peak Economy

Robert Hirsch was the lead author of a Department of Energy report commonly called "The Hirsch Report," otherwise known as "Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management." Published in 2005, it is a frank public and scientific acknowledgment of imminent worldwide peak of oil production, and is the most significant single piece of evidence that the U.S. government is aware of "Peak Oil." Hirsch's report was one of the first "mainstream" acknowledgments of the phenomenon of peak oil, one that has begun to be more widely publicized by more of the mainstream press, even if the vast majority of Americans still are wholly unaware of a drastically different future.

Recently Robert Hirsch gave an interview at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, which met a short while ago in Houston, Texas. His words should be heard and pondered: while he is not an alarmist, his account is deeply sobering. First, answering a question about the impact of peak oil on the economy, he answers that peak oil will result in "peak economy," with the likelihood of annual economic decline between 2-5%. The impact of an ongoing negative growth economy in a society that is premised upon ongoing and permanent growth will be catastrophic. Everything we assume about the future would change. Few jobs, few bank loans, difficulty providing goods and services (including food), shrinking numbers of college educations, the evaporation of our national wealth, declining levels of research and innovation across the board, no retirement accounts, the decline of the middle class and devastation of the lower classes, etc.

In answer to a question whether "peak oil" will occur as a gradual plateau or a sudden and drastic decline, Hirsch points to the high likelihood of increased resource nationalism (a phenomenon we are already witnessing around the world). He notes that private oil companies no longer control petroleum resources; national companies do. As awareness of peak oil spreads, there will first be a further spike in oil prices and a growing inclination of resource-rich nations to hold their remaining oil in reserve for domestic production and in expectation of further rises in price. This response will, of course, only accelerate and deepen the crisis.

Hirsch foresees the likelihood of gas rationing as a reactive answer to our current inability to begin cutting back our consumption. Nature will exact her price, whether we are willing to pay for it significantly now or drastically in the near future. Our techno-optimists tell us that technology will come to the rescue. The nice thing about holding this position is that no one has to act responsibly or like an adult. It was once the case that adults acted with prudence, awaiting not the best case scenario but preparing for the possibility of a worse. Our liberals and conservatives alike tell us that technology will save us, but mark my words, when TSHTF they will be the first to blame someone else: the Saudis, the Iranians, the Russians, Hugo Chavez, you name it. Our impressive military will be called upon to secure our vital national interest, wherever it might happen to be buried. And at that point no one will be able to suggest that perhaps we have ourselves to blame, because we did nothing when intelligent but obtuse people knew what was coming at the end of our wild ride down Sunset Boulevard.
You can access the podcast here. It could be the most important thing you do today.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Whose Gore is being Oxed?

While the Right fumes over Gore's having been awarded a portion of the 2007 Nobel Peace prize, the Left celebrates and calls for his immediate entry into the Presidential sweepstakes. All this would be really quite amusing if it weren't so depressing: a moment's thought about the issue reveals that celebration over the Goracle's triumph is less an indication of our enthusiasm over remediating the enormous implications of global warming than it is our wish to feel that rush of self-satisfaction knowing that we want to do our part to save the planet, all the while not having to really do a damn thing. Even as the film "An Inconvenient Truth" is celebrated far and wide, I've yet to hear someone observe that it doesn't really say a thing about what the hell we're supposed to do. Indeed, I came away thinking that the main message that it was sufficient to be indignant about the problem, not to change one's behavior. Case in point: it would be interesting to figure out how much fossil fuel Gore burned in only the parts of the movie in which he is being pictured typing on his Mac on airplanes or or looking pensively out the window of his limousine as he's being chauffeured from event to event.

George Monbiot captures this phenomenon of self-seeking self-satisfaction as well as anyone:

"We wish our governments to pretend to act," he writes. "We get the moral satisfaction of saying what we know to be right, without the discomfort of doing it. My fear is that the political parties in most rich nations have already recognized this. They know that we want tough targets, but that we also want those targets to be missed. They know that we will grumble about their failure to curb climate change, but that we will not take to the streets. They know that nobody ever rioted for austerity."

The Right's all worked up about this, but my advice is: don't worry. No one is going to spoil the party yet. Let the kids clean up.


What's the good of having a blawg if you can't tell people what you're up to? (I draw the line at revelations about what I ate for breakfast, or worse...).

I'll be participating in two fantastic and fascinating events over the next two weekends, and invite any readers who might live in the vicinity, or be looking for an excuse to hit the road, to drop by.

The first, this coming weekend on October 19-20, is the annual Weaver/Ingersoll Symposium at which my friend and fellow political theorist and blawger Peter Lawler will receive the wonderful and deserved Weaver award. He joins the company of the likes of Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Joseph Pieper, John Lukacs, Francois Furet, Roger Scruton, Robert George, and Bill McClay in receiving this prestigious and well remunerated award. The symposium consists of a number of public lectures by friends of Peter (I'm lucky to be included among such people as Dan Mahoney, Mark Guerra, Mark Henrie, Mary Keys, Thomas Hibbs and Robert Preston), with a keynote lecture by Peter on Friday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. The symposium will be held at Belmont Abbey College outside Charlotte. More information is here and here.

The following weekend, from October 26-November 1, I will be flying to Asti, Italy for a long weekend conference devoted the question "E' necessario Dio per essere buoni cittadini? Politica e religione nelle democrazie contemporane." (or, "Do We Need God to Have Good Citizens? Politics and Religion in Contemporary Democracies"). The conference is being held under the auspices of the "Ethica Forum," and co-sponsored by the James Madison Program on American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. It is the brainchild of my friend and former Princeton colleague Maurizio Viroli. Among the speakers is Jean Elshtain, currently dividing her time between Georgetown University and some school in the midwest.

Readers may get the idea that the life of the tenured professor is very fine. I would argue, but I won't.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Slender Allurements

I've now been working in D.C. for just over two years since joining the Georgetown faculty. It is an odd place, perhaps most of all because it is a city that seems to be dominated by the ambitious young and the powerful old. Of course, this is a brew for dangerous liasons and the exposes of the predicatable. And, having walked down M. Street late on this past Thursday night, it is obviously a place that knows how to appear to have fun when the old powerful people go home.

What has struck me in particular is the sheer number of ambitious young conservatives who work at various think tanks, for Republican representatives and Senators, and in the Administration (at least for another 15 months or so). They are invariably well-scrubbed and well-kempt, earnest and eager, studious especially to master arguments that prove the inadequacies of liberals and Democrats. Most acknowledge that they are in Washington because it's where the action is. I gave a lecture a year ago to a group of young conservatives (an occasion called "Conservatism on Tap") and suggested that a conservative might be defined as someone who returned home to give back to the community in return for having fostered and raised him or her as a young person. When I asked how many had returned to their home city of Washington with precisely that ambition in mind, there was a hearty and knowing laugh; two people out of about 150 acknowledged having grown up in the DC suburbs (undoubtedly for parents who worked for the Government).

A question comes to mind: how did it get to be this way? How did it come to be unquestionably natural for young people to abandon their home towns in order to move to the centers of power in order to seek advancement? (My teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, was fond of recalling the scene in "American Grafitti" when Richard Dreyfus's character laments "why do we have to leave the people we love to go to college?" It was a recollection that never failed to strike a nerve among his students). In Federalist 46 Publius (Madison) seeks to refute the Antifederalist charge that the national government will become the focus of devotion and the locus of power under the proposed Constitution. He writes that "the first and most natural attachment of the people will be to the governments of their respective States." This seems an uncontroversial claim, since it is natural for people to favor "their own," to prefer the people and places that are closest to them. Historically it was ever a challenge to encourage love of nation over love of locality. So, Madison's argument seems to appeal to the examples of history and human nature to refute the fears of a too-distant governance.

This might be the end of a curiously mistaken story, but for the fact that in an earlier paper Hamilton had already given away the game, making Madison's later paper seem a bit like someone trying to defuse a bomb or at least distract attention from its ticking. In Federalist 17, Publius (Hamilton) seeks to defend the proposed Constitution against charges that the Federal government will seek to absorb the States or at least take possession of all their powers and privileges. Nothing could be further from the truth, he protests. Against this accusation he writes:

I confess I am at a loss to discover what temptation the persons intrusted with the administration of the general government could ever feel to divest the States of the authorities of that description. The regulation of mere domestic police of a state appears to me to hold out slender allurements to ambition. Commerce, finance, negotiation, and war seem to comprehend the objects which have charms for minds governed by that passion: and all the powers necessary to those objects ought in the first instance to be lodged in the national depository.... It is therefore improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the [local] powers.... The possession of them ... would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, and to the splendor of the national government.

On the one hand there is the somewhat quaint idea that we have greater fondness for our localities (according to Madison); on the other, there is the bold claim that States and localities will be of little ultimate importance in the scheme of things, and that the major objects of human ambition - especially commerce and war - will be exclusively the purview of the new federal government. Putting the two papers together, Madison suggests we will love the ineffectual and Hamilton argues that - recognizing the "nugatory" power of local entities - the most ambitious people will leave localities behind in order to pursue bigger dreams and vaster plans.

There can be little doubt who was right concerning where our attention would be focused: Hamilton understood that local devotions could be ultimately overcome by the power of unleashed human ambition. The denizens of young interns who flock to Washington every year attest to Hamilton's perceptiveness: even young "conservatives" who can muster dozens of arguments critical of the Federal government know where the action is, and come not in spite of the power concentrated in Washington, but because of it. If anyone would wish to know why the Republicans have failed to make the federal government smaller and to devolve power back to the States in significant ways (as they have claimed they seek to do at least since Goldwater if not since FDR), we should recognize that such a reversal would go against the logic and the grain of the regime. It was designed so that power would accumulate at the center, and especially designed to attract to the center the most ambitious - those who will endeavor by dint of their constitutional ambitiousness to ensure that power continues to accumulate at the center. Commerce and war are the activities that most define the center, and those which accordingly have increasingly come to define the nation.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Utraque Unum

The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy - the Georgetown campus initiative which I founded and direct - has just published a new student-run journal of ideas, politics and culture. The journal is called "Utraque Unum" - "both one" - an allusion to a passage in Saint Paul's Letter to the Ephesians in which Paul speaks of Jews and Christians sharing a common faith, and which was adopted on Georgetown's seal as a reflection of Georgetown's historic commitment to the combination of faith and reason aimed at better understanding our condition as citizens and humans. I'm very pleased and impressed by the extraordinary effort of our student editors and writers to bring this journal of ideas to fruition. Perhaps most noteworthy in this first issue is an original essay by Justice Antonin Scalia, a graduate of Georgetown College's Class of 1957. Justice Scalia agreed to the publication of the lecture he delivered at the Tocqueville Forum's first event in October, 2006; it is entitled "Constitutional Government and Civic Education."

If any readers are interested in receiving a copy of the journal, feel free to send a note to:

Utraque Unum
Volume 1, Issue 1, Fall 2007

Table of Contents

"The Editor's Desk"
"The Tocqueville Forum: Seeking Self-Understanding" by Patrick J. Deneen
The Forum
"Constitutional Government and Civic Education" by Justice Antonin Scalia
"Liberal Education: Missing Many Allusions," by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Chamber
"The Renewal of Federalism," by Matthew J. Engler
"Freedom: More Social than Political," by Grant Morrow
"Our Common Past: Marbury v. Madison," by Taylor O'Neill
The Altar
"The Christian Populism of G.K. Chesterton," by Anthony Carmen Piccirillo
"Pope Benedict XVI, Father of Unity," by Timothy Lang
"Barbara Mujica's Sister Teresa," by Amanda Marie Murphy
The Parlor
"Amazing Grace: How Sweet the Sight," by Katherine Boyle
"Rocky Balboa's Honor," by Paul D. Miller
The Cellar
"Lincoln and McClellan," by Dallas Woodrum
The Observatory
"Reflections on Georgetown's Campus Buildings," by Jack Carlson
"Promoting a Georgetown Aesthetic," by Eric Wind

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Running to Stand Still

An article in today's New York Times appears to celebrate the discovery of new natural gas fields off Norway in the Arctic Ocean, but some passages toward the center of the article indicate why the search for fossil fuels is now taking place in some of the most inhospitable parts of the world (whether politically or in terms of climate). The article notes that production costs are rising rapidly as a result of these difficult conditions (or rising costs of doing business with assertive nations), and that only under the assumption of permanently higher prices can the energy industry justify the massive investment to extract resources from these challenging areas. According to one industry leader - who echoes almost verbatim a recent phrase by Michael Klare, as I've noted here - "there are no easy barrels left. The only barrels are going to be the tough barrels," said J. Robinson West, chairman of PFC Energy, an industry consulting firm in Washington.

While we Northeasterns can take some comfort in the knowledge that the furnaces will continue to run, the massive investment by Norway in complex and expensive new forms of extraction and transportation must be understood as further definitive proof of impending peak oil (and peak gas). Without the assurance that prices will stay high and continue to rise - that is, that "there are no easy barrels left" - one can be certain that Norway would not have spent upwards of 200 billion dollars on this new form of extraction. The article notes that approximately $15 of the overall increase of the price of a barrel of oil over the past seven years is due solely to rising production costs (itself a function of harder to get oil over that period), and projects like this one are sure to further contribute to increases in the price of oil.

As I've written before, we will experience peak oil in the form of higher prices and not as immediately as a kind of "running out," but in reality this is merely the leading indicator of the deeper truth that there is less overall energy for our use in the world. The article notes that energy executives believe that "there is plenty of oil left underground" - the kind of statement that peak oil deniers love to point out - but rising production costs is simply another way of saying that we are using more overall energy to extract the untapped energy that remains. It takes ever more oil to extract a barrel of oil - including, in this instance, freezing the natural gas at 260 degrees below zero in order to liquify it for transportation. The fact that there are no more easy barrels means that there are no more cheap barrels, and that further means that, for every barrel we continue to extract, we will use more oil in that barrel to get it out, long before it reaches our furnaces. We are going to be running harder to stand still, and yet I continue to hear all our political candidates of both parties telling us that they must restore "optimism" in America. I'd say that what we actually need is a good dose of realism.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Taking Credit Where None is Merited

Recently the Center for the American University sponsored an essay contest on Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of its publication. They invited college students - many of whom had not been born when Bloom's book was published - to write of its continued importance and relevance. A Georgetown student was awarded second place for the contest, and I'm tempted to take some credit, but will demur since he didn't win first place. No, but seriously, Mr. James Crowley is a stand-out student of political philosophy and, compounding that folly, was a student in my seminar last year on the thought of Leo Strauss. He is also a student fellow of the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy, an initiative I founded and direct at Georgetown. The Center for the American University has posted the award winning essays on its website, and I commend Mr. Crowley's very fine essay to your attention here.

Friday, October 5, 2007


Here's an article from "Moneyweek," entitled "Why the End of Oil Could Spell the End of Suburbia." Nothing really new here - rising energy prices will continue to exert downward price pressures on low-density, high-consumption suburban housing tracts. This article - in a mainstream financial publication - continues to ratchet up the steady drumbeat of warnings that the American Dream is about to become the American nightmare.

Meanwhile, today's New York Times carries an article - also in its business section - raising the specter of the return of what was once called "stagflation." The cause: high oil prices. While several economists blithely opine that a U.S. recession would cause oil prices to sink (probably true), others point out that rising world demand (particularly from China and India) would put a fairly high floor under any drop in oil prices, making the prospect of further Fed cuts more unlikely and hence prolonging and deepening any such recession.

Lastly, here's a link that summarizes a recent article about rising costs of oil extraction that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Noteworthy is that Cambridge Energy Research Association - a.k.a., industry shills - note that oil production costs have risen 80% in the past seven years. The finance firm Lehman Brothers estimates that production costs will continue to rise by $5-10 a barrel for the next several years. This is, very simply, a function of peak oil, and can be alternatively stated as EROEI: "energy returned on energy invested." Peak oil not only means that there is less overall oil, but that what remains becomes increasingly difficult and hence more expensive to extract. What we will experience as higher prices is actually a result of declining supplies of ever more inaccessible oil. We'll have less overall energy, and hence less overall wealth and less real economic growth as a result. Hence, "stagflation": economic stagnation combined with rising prices. This is something market-based economic theory doesn't account for very well, in significant part because it treats oil as just another commodity rather than the very lifeblood of the modern capitalist system. It remains to be seen whether capitalism is viable in the absence of growth, a possibility it has never had to confront since it is an economic system that has only existed during the fossil fuel age.

Most people assume we are just going to innovate our way to a new energy source and continue to live in our happy motoring paradise. Mackubin Owen - a conservative professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College (and sometimes contributor to "No Left Turns") - tartly dismisses this belief as "fairy dust" energy policy. Alternative, i.e., renewable energy forms simply do not carry the same energy punch as fossil fuels, and hence easily accounts for why we aren't rushing to adopt them. He writes: "The reason such energy sources need subsidies in the first place is that they have intrinsic shortcomings. Energy available from wind and solar is dispersed rather than concentrated - which means that windmill or solar-panel farms must be huge to generate much power. (Even then, clouds and/or lack of wind can slow or stop production, so utilities would need non-fairy-dust backup generators)." In short, alternative energies are both far more expensive and more unreliable than oil. At the point when these energies begin to "cost less" than oil, we will rush to adopt them. But, this means that we will actually have less overall external energy. To use adopt phrases of my colleague Joshua Mitchell, we will move back from "geologic" energy to "annual" energy. We will return to energy use provided annually by the sun and what is stored by living plants rather than the accumulated but non-renewable energy stockpiled by decaying plants over millions of years. We will return to an energy form that has been used by humans since their appearance on the earth until an exceedingly brief energy blow-out during the Industrial era.

Owen engages in a bit of wishful thinking in his own right, advancing the oil industry's fondest wish of opening up new production in the few remaining pockets of oil in the States. Even were we to pursue this strategy (and I think we will, eventually - humans don't have a good record of not extracting and consuming stuff they desperately want), it would provide only a few years worth of domestic energy at current consumption rates, and lower the price of oil only negligibly. We'd still be facing the headache of depleting resources, except that we would further exacerbate the problem by momentarily pretending that there was still plenty of oil and hence we could still build and behave delusively.

All these articles - published in mainstream outlets - suggest that Americans are going to find President Bush Sr.'s statement that "the American way of life is non-negotiable" may have been a bit premature, and that the "contract" is about to come up for re-negotiation. Mother nature is going to offer us a set of terms that we are going to find hard to refuse...

Mainstream Media Waking Up

This article in the Atlantic Monthly discusses the analysis by Stuart Staniford on "" which I have previously linked. The AM article summarizes Staniford's detailed study that presents extensive evidence that the world's largest oil field - the Ghawar field of Saudi Arabia - has begun to go into decline. Because the Saudis do not release their reserve figures, it can't be known for certain whether the field has begun its inevitable decline. But the article notes that there has been a discernible decline of oil exports since 2006, at which time oil prices rose from $60 a barrel to $74.

In its way, the article ends on something of a note of warning, though in far more subdued a manner than its conclusion may merit: "At a bare minimum, the era when excess Saudi capacity could cushion geopolitical disruptions in oil supplies may well be over, even though the threat of such disruptions is greater than ever. And if Saudi production continues to decline even as world demand keeps growing, in a few years we will look back at the summer of 2007 as the last of the days when gasoline—even at $3.50 a gallon—was still plentiful and cheap."

Today the price of oil stands at about $82 a barrel, at a time when there are no significant geo-political shocks that have caused this substantial price gain. The most elementary economic explanation must be considered: decreasing supply and increasing demand are causing prices to rise. The decline of Ghawar effectively means that supply will be permanently unable to meet demand. In economic theory, the result is ultimately what is called "demand destruction." However, because this is oil we're talking about - the life blood of our modern civilization - this technical economic term is simply a nice way of saying "worldwide Depression." And that phrase may be too mild by half. In several year's time we may look back at the summer of 2017 as the last of the days when we had enough to eat.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Coming Together, Coming Apart

To return to an earlier discussion, Joe Knippenberg has expressed skepticism about my argument that a Giuliani nomination would spur a socially-conservative third party candidate. Well, it turns out that reality is outstripping his skepticism: the New York Times reported several days ago that conservative evangelical leaders met over the previous weekend and concluded that a Giuliani nomination would spur them to explore the possibility of a third party candidate.

In the meantime, Archbishop Raymond Burke, the Catholic bishop who threatened to withhold communion from John Kerry in 2004, has now announced that he would withhold communion from Rudolf Giuliani. Giuliani's response indicates the true heart of the contemporary Republican party: "Archbishops have a right to their opinion, you know. There's freedom of religion in this country. There's no established religion, and archbishops have a right to their opinion. Everybody has a right to their opinion."

Giuliani - who claims to be a Catholic, in spite of several divorces and remarriages and his public support for abortion and gay marriage - reduces what Archbishop Burke calls "serious public sin" to a matter of opinion. His response is awfully similar to that of President of Columbia University when asked to justify why the President of Iran should be given a stage. The crazy Left and the crazy Libertarians continue to come together. May they continue to form their own party and reveal to everyone the true hollowness of their "beliefs."