Saturday, May 30, 2009

Air Cars and Constituent Anger

May 30, 2009, 5:20 p.m.

Weekend Edition
(brought to you by*)


The Prior Post: "Summertime Blogging"
Another Prior Post: "School Boundaries" and Roosevelt
Leave No Congressman Behind
Transportation Innovation: 65 mpg Fords and Air Cars

You may be looking for . . .

The Prior Post: See "Summertime Blogging," May 23, 2009, for a list by topics of links to numerous entries March-May 2009, and an explanation of the summer schedule.

For a start on the currently hot School Board efforts at elementary school boundaries, the demolition of Roosevelt, and a new high school, see links contained within, and text of, "School Boundaries," March 30, 2009.

And, of course, there's always the internationally ever-popular "Random Thoughts on Law School Rankings," April 29, 2008.

But now . . .

Today's Quick Takes

Leave No Congressman Behind. My mother used to tell my baby sitter, "Go find Nicky, see what he's doing, and tell him to stop it."

Is that how you feel about your congressman? You have no idea what he's up to, but you're sure it's no good. Are you part of that "Half of all voters (50%) [who] say the legislature [Congress] has not passed anything to significantly improve life in America?" The 33% who "say most members of Congress are corrupt"? Or the 87% of voters unaffiliated with either party who refuse to join the 13% of their number who "give the legislature positive ratings"? (And these are "Congress' Highest Ratings in Two Years"!) "Congressional Performance," Rasmussen Reports, May 29, 2009.

Think there is nothing we can do about it? Think again.

Just as we can look to the example set by all the largest, most successful industrialized nations to find the answer to our health care crisis (an answer Congress is bribed (campaign contributions) to reject: universal, single-payer), so we can look to one of the world's leading examples of how to manage elected officials. Can you guess which country I'm talking about?

Uganda. Yes, Uganda. "Uganda MPs issued with scorecards; An independent Ugandan think tank has published performance scorecards for every MP in the country," BBC News, May 28, 2009. They're measured from "AAA" to "F" on various aspects of their job (e.g., participation in committee meetings and debates, constituent services), and it's really making a difference in their performance.

Meanwhile, the Brits are taking things into their own hands over the recent revelations that MPs may have been abusing their expense accounts -- a story broken, and driven, by London's Daily Telegraph. Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University and author of the just-published The New British Constitution, writes in The Guardian's series on "The New Politics" of the widespread "anger against the abuse of expenses" he calls a "scandal." He, and many others -- including some MPs themselves -- believe strong medicine is in order. As he says, "The expenses scandal has shown how remote many MPs have become from the electorate. Even without it, the case for a second era of constitutional reform would be strong. With it, the case is overwhelming." Vernon Bogdanor, "Parliamentary Reform: We Must Go Beyond a New Constitution," The Guardian, May 26, 2009. (The Guardian devotes an entire Web site to the charges, resignations and reforms: "MP's Expenses," The Guardian.)

So what were these awful things the MPs were doing? Were they taking millions in campaign contributions from special interests and then returning the favor with billions -- or even trillions these days -- of taxpayer dollars, the way our elected officials do? No. Were they accepting personal gifts (like Alaska Senator Ted Stevens' home improvements, or Senator Chris Dodd's "special" mortgage rates)? No. Were they putting in for expenses they never incurred? No (with perhaps one exception).

Our elected officials have taxpayer-funded expense accounts that are multiples of those available to the Brits. But one item the MPs do get is help with their second home requirements, which can be very expensive in London. The problem was that they were stretching a bit, including items as to which their constituents are looking askance and would rarely come up for a Congressman. Like what? Like reimbursement for having a moat cleaned out.

It kind of puts "the best Congress money can buy" into perspective, doesn't it? The Brits are near-rioting over a moat cleaning, and we are calmly accepting the money changers in the temple of government, voting to require us to go on paying health insurance premiums, and giving our grandchildren a multi-trillion dollar debt for what Congress and two administrations have passed along to Wall Street.

On balance, I'd rather pay to have a moat cleaned out that to be left with the sensation that I'm being cleaned out.

Transportation Innovation. Managing our errant members of congress is not the only thing we have to learn from our global neighbors abroad. Our gasoline mileage goals are "27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 24 miles per gallon for light trucks" (which constitute over half the vehicles manufactured). Micheline Maynard, "Obama Criticizes Automakers on Fuel Economy," New York Times, May 8, 2009.

Talk about "thinking small" -- by continuing to manufacture big. We need something more than these baby steps.

By contrast, consider Ben Mack, "Ford’s ECOnetic Fiesta Gets 65 MPG. You Can’t Have One," Autotopia, Wired, February 10, 2009 ("The ECOnetic Fiesta that Ford sells in Europe is a sporty little five-passenger hatchback that gets 65 mpg and emits less CO2 than a Toyota Prius. It is the greenest family car sold in Britain and just the thing to boost Ford’s sales - and image - at home. But Ford has no plans to bring it to America for one simple, stupid, reason. It’s a diesel. . . . European customers . . . snapped up more than 42,000 of them since the car’s debut last fall. But we can only look on with envy.").

We could have 65 mpg cars -- Ford cars -- instead of 24 mpg trucks and vans (with no additional invention whatsoever), and they're not going to be available to us because they're diesel?! And this is America's, and the Obama Administration's, way of freeing us from dependence on imported foreign oil? This is the most ingenuity Americans can muster? Whatever happened to "the difficult we'll do right now, the impossible may take a little longer." Come on, America!

Moreover, if we continue to insist on everyone operating their own transportation system -- rather than investing in railroads -- and reject the health effects and savings to the environment and our pocketbooks from bicycling, we also have the option of fueling our cars with air. With air?! That's right.

"The technology behind the car was developed by the French race car engineer Guy Negre, head of Motor Development International." Associated Press, "Entrepreneur pushes idea of air-powered cars," MSNBC, May 25, 2009.

It uses the same kind of air compressor you now use at the filing station to improve your gas mileage by putting more air in your tires; and the same compression principles that enable the pistons in your engine to power your gas-fueled car. Except you carry the compressor on board, and you don't mix the air with gas.

Short-sighted engineers point out that with the electricity it takes to compress the air you could drive further with an electric car. But what that analysis fails to consider are:
o the initial cost of all those batteries in an electric car (embedded in the car's price).

o the total monthly cost of an electric car when the initial cost is amortized over its life (the Chevy Volt sells for $40,000; the Zero Pollution Motors (ZPM) air car is $18,000).

o the inefficiency, the energy consumed, in just moving an electric car's heavy set of batteries everywhere the car goes.

o the energy it takes to build and ship those heavy batteries to auto manufacturers (or retailers, as replacements).

o at some point all those electric car's batteries' must be replaced, at a significant replacement cost.

o the recycling, disposal and landfill problems, costs, and environmental impact that are caused whenever the electric car owner does have to replace batteries (or ultimately the car is junked).

o and of course, if the electric is a hybrid it will continue to require gas, oil and antifreeze.
(Thanks to Gregory Johnson for some of these points.) I'm not an engineer, don't have the numbers I'd need if I was, and haven't run them. It may be these additional costs for an electric car are more than offset by some other additional costs for the air car.

Finally, there's no magic, one-option solution (with the possible exception of the creation of a massive passenger train network, similar to those available in Europe or Japan). Obviously, compressed air cars also have their drawbacks. And even at 65 mpg Ford's answer is still polluting the atmosphere, just less.

All I'm arguing is that there are solutions. Options are available to us -- even if air cars and 65 mpg Fords prove not to be among them.

We have a lot to learn from the countries, cities, institutions and individuals living all around the world before we reject universal, single-payer healthcare, before we start a war with North Korea, continue to kick campaign finance reform down the road, or demand no more than the baby steps the auto and oil special interests are willing to walk with us toward true transportation (and environmental) reform.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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1 comment:

Nick said...

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-- Nick