Monday, July 14, 2008

Don't Just Do Something

In the Freakonomics comments, someone mentioned that some common advice from his Med School dean was "Don't just do something; stand there!" Basically it means don't waste resources just so it looks like you're doing something if the something you're doing will not be of benefit. I wish someone would tell this to politicians. As I understand it, GWB (Great White Bonehead?) is overturning Daddy's offshore drilling prohibition. CA still has its own laws and should continue to disallow it, but still. One can only hope the congress doesn't roll over and play dead on this one too. Contrary to what the president thinks, "failure to act" is perfectly acceptable to this American when acting is is just that. Acting.

If this article and many others can be believed, removing this protection will not help our oil supply much if at all. And not for about 15-30 years. I'm no anti-oil gal. I love to drive and I seriously considered oil drilling as a career. But the numbers on this don't add up. At the cost of losing years of tourism dollars and fishing at otherwise pretty nice coastlines we get 6 extra months of oil at todays usage rates. The Sau.di's probably spill that much every week.

Maybe it won't be a total trainwreck, or shipwreck, but the effects won't be invisible. Every oil well has some seepage. The industry employs some really good engineers to minimize waste, but it's expensive and there are diminishing returns at a certain point. It can be kept to a minimum with careful enforcement of careful regulations (making the crossover point of diminishing returns more environmentally favorable), but after this administration, I'm not counting on those regulations still existing, or getting enforced if they do. There is value beyond oil in the land and neighboring waters. If we're really that hard up for oil, I have a friend with a tappable farm in Texas that wouldn't mind some extra income. I just think that if we have areas already available, we should use those before we offer up paradise.

I remember watching a nature show that was profiling some equatorial waters which had been overfished. They managed to set aside 10% of the the local shallow waters as a no fishing zone and were really good at getting after poachers. After just a couple years with this really quite minor concession, most of the species that they were concerned about dying off completely had come back in fishable numbers, even while fishing continued in the other 90%. Just by having a little space for R&R where they wouldn't get hassled.

Some serious irony is that GWB has or is considering setting aside 640,000 acres of ocean near Guam (no where Americans would be hassled by it) as a nature preserve so he can go down in history as a great saver of wildlife. Um. Yeah. In the meantime, the great destroyer is stomping all over things that were settled long ago.

It didn't help my mood that NPR, who I should be able to trust to give me real information, is falling down on the job, again. I woke up to a story where they interviewed someone in Florida who makes a living from the beaches basically agreed with me and science, then someone in another Gulf State who has natural gas wells offshore. The "opposing" attitude was "we're doing our part so Florida should do theirs". The reporter basically left the piece with the totally incorrect impression that
  1. drilling in protected waters off Florida would substantially affect our oil supply,
  2. gas prices would come down now if we drill in Florida
  3. anyone who is against drilling isn't doing their part for America.
It's one thing to offer up alternative viewpoints in an article. It's another thing entirely to give equal weight to the opinions of the insane. Yet it keeps happening. I don't mind so much that the opinion gets airtime. Sometimes todays crackpots are tomorrows geniuses. What I mind is that the crackpot's ravings don't get the smackdown and rational analysis the audience deserves. I was wondering if it would help if I told NPR directly just how much they pissed me off rather than just blogging about it. But when I saw the headline about the destroyer in chief doing something just to be seen doing something (since he's completely incapable of wielding our diminished influence to improve our economy in the global market and thus really make a difference) it just reinforced the idea that the media has become the president's echo chamber and they probably don't even care anymore if what they report has any rational basis since their lies and lazy reporting get validated right from the top..

What the hell is so hard about saying "yeah, we're going to give up this minor thing, to get a major return in the future" and just sticking with it until the future happens? We're not ruling out every oil well in the country - we already have lots of untapped land and water available, we don't really need this bit. And if we do develop it, you heard it here: It's going to go wrong and I told you so. I'll see you at the beach museum. I bet Disney will make a great one.

EDITED to add:
I just heard the president's press conference on the radio. I'm really impressed that the reporters didn't spend their whole time coughing *bullshit* into their hands. And for once, they asked some good questions. They got back "rah rah go team, my way or the highway, cartoon overview" answers and the president showed yet again how condescending and intolerant he can be. It's like we elected Cartman for president.

But my point was more to make an analogy. Say we have a cabin in the woods and this winter is colder than usual and we need to burn more wood to keep warm. In the past, when our family owned the big employer in town, we could get aged, pre-cut wood from the neighbors for a decent price because they wanted to stay on our good side. But we've mismanaged that company into the ground and laid off a lot of people and the stock tanked, so the wood supplying neighbor is in need of extra funds and is charging us more than we'd budgeted for the wood. So instead of trying to fix things at the company and just sucking up the extra wood cost until it turns around, we're going to and cut down the tree great grandma planted in the front yard that provides shade for the porch, support for swings, and the best curb appeal in the county. Despite the fact that one needs to let the wood sit for months before it's ok for burning. But that's ok, it "shows the neighborhood" that we're "willing to sacrifice" so they have confidence that the cost of wood will settle down soon. Nope. All it does is make us look short sighted and desperate.

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