May 07, 2006

Stop hurting the patient!

The gas-price posturing in Washington (see below) is a good illustration of why my politics have drifted to the point where I'd vote for any candidate who promised to do absolutely nothing for the duration of his or her term. Don't make any new laws, don't repeal any existing laws, don't raise taxes, don't lower taxes, don't start any wars, but don't dismantle the Pentagon, either. Essentially, do nothing. That's because Congress, the White House, and their counterparts in state governments (Arizona is certainly a good example) have sunk to such a low level of competence that it seems as though anything they do makes things worse, not better.

The biggest local issue this year, here in Flagstaff, is "affordable housing" and the disparity between what you make and what you have to pay for a house. I'd be the first to agree that there's a problem here -- it's very difficult for the average working stiff to afford a house. Almost all the candidates for mayor and city council agree that "something needs to be done" about this. But the problem is that all of the suggested solutions would end up making the problem worse, not better, increasing the cost of housing instead of decreasing it -- just as all the suggested "solutions" to the problem of high gas prices, at least those suggested by politicians in Washington, would cause prices to go higher, not lower.

I'm studying for finals, so there isn't time to elaborate at great length here -- but for those of you who, for some reason, have followed the drift of my political views over the years and are wondering if I'm just getting old and cranky, well, no; I am not getting old and cranky. But it's starting to seem more and more as though well-meaning legislation is not the solution to our problems. Neither is the answer to undo all the laws we have. If politicians would just throw up their hands and agree to do nothing, we'd muddle through better than we will if they continue mucking things up.

Posted by Urbie at 10:12 AM

April 29, 2006

Pain at the pump? Don't blame Exxon-Mobil

These days, with gas costing upwards of three bucks a gallon, all the politicians in Washington -- Democrats and Republicans, executive branch and legislative branch -- are falling all over themselves to blast the oil companies and "do something" about the price of gas. Big oil is criticized for posting "obscene profits" and for "price gouging." Every Congressman is on TV, touting some idiotic scheme or other for addressing the "problem."

There is a problem that needs to be addressed -- but it has nothing to do with obscene profits. Let's start by taking a look at those profits. If you take a look at Exxon-Mobil's income statement for 2005, the company's net income worked out to about 9.7 cents for every dollar in sales. This was up a healthy 15% from 2004. But how does Exxon-Mobil compare with other companies? How "obscene" are the company's profits, by this yardstick?

Not too great, it turns out. Motorola earned 12.4 cents for every revenue dollar on its most recent income statement. 3M earned 15 cents. Harley-Davidson took in 16.9 cents for every dollar of sales. And Google made 23.8 cents. These profits are much greater than Big Oil's -- does that mean they're also "obscene?"

OK, I admit that filling my pickup truck with gas is a painful proposition, at this point, costing upwards of $50.00. But how does this constitute "price gouging?" Am I being physically forced to drive into a gas station and fill up? Am I entirely incapable of selling the truck and buying a beater econobox for the same money? How, exactly, am I being "gouged" here?

What's even more ludicrous is that every measure being suggested by Congress to "alleviate" the problem will make the situation worse, not better. A tax on "windfall" profits (whatever those might be -- anything over 8 cents, perhaps)? All that does is give the companies less incentive to go out and explore for more oil -- or to build refineries, or to do anything else they normally do during the course of a business day. This would further reduce the supply of oil -- causing pump prices to go up, not down.

Restrictions on what gas stations can charge for a gallon of gas? Get serious -- price controls were what caused the "gas crisis" of 1973. (The Arab oil embargo caused prices to go up -- but it was the price controls that caused stations to run out of gas.)

Huge government subsidies to encourage companies to produce ethanol? That would be the biggest boondoggle yet -- the total cost of such a program would make $3.00 gas look like the bargain of a lifetime. And it would also force you to make modifications to your car and to stop to refuel more often (ethanol contains a lot less energy per gallon than gas).

Gasoline is a commodity. The price fluctuates. When the price is high, as it is right now, it's tough to take. But there are no "obscene" profits being made, and there is no "price gouging" going on. If we don't like the price of gas, the only solution is to buy less of it.

Posted by Urbie at 08:40 AM

April 25, 2006

"The debate is over" -- or is it?

One of my favorite blogs, Prof. Dennis Foster's Kaibab Journal, has a short piece on the hysteria surrounding global climate and the efforts of Flagstaff activists to spend a lot of money doing a lot of things that won't have any effect whatsoever on the climate. This month's edition of Vanity Fair has a green cover (made out of glossy, non-recycled paper, as far as I can tell) and is all about the efforts of such renowned climate scientists as Julia Roberts, George Clooney, and Al Gore to persuade us to start "a New American Revolution" to change our carbon-burning ways and reverse what they -- and, it seems, every publication on the newsstand these days -- claim is a cataclysmic warming trend.

It has become popular to claim that at this point, "the debate is over" regarding global climate and that "no serious scientist" disputes the alarmists' predictions that disasters of Biblical proportions await us because of our fossil-fuel burning habits. Well, as I've explained before, there is a tremendous unanimity in the popular press on this issue. However, opinion in the scientific community is nowhere near as unanimous as we're led to believe. For instance, here's a serious scientist who teaches at MIT and has published quite a few articles that throw cold water on global warming. Here's a respected meteorologist and hurricane expert who -- although he specializes in the area of hurricane prediction -- does not agree that recent hurricane activity over the last year or two is evidence of horrific global warming. (Hint: it has more to do with a phenomenon called Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which is a recently-discovered long-term series of sea surface temperature changes.)

Having studied climatology as part of my first college degree, I am not comfortable dismissing global warming out of hand. One thing that "no serious scientist" would disagree with is that carbon dioxide does affect the atmosphere's behavior in terms of how it absorbs infrared radiation. But it's just plain wrong to assume that CO2 is the only factor affecting climate. There are many other forces at work. It's also a gross error to assume that the Earth is, in fact, undergoing a drastic warming. Climate researchers Steven McIntyre and Ross McKitrick have called into question the conventional statistical analysis of global temperature over the past century or so; see their blog for details (and I mean details -- these guys are major math geeks).

The Vanity Fair scare issue shows some pictures that are, admittedly, pretty scary -- they depict what cities like Washington and New York would look like if the sea level rose 20 feet, which they say is going to happen in the next century. But this is balderdash -- the forecasts I've seen, even from the politically tainted United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, only estimate a sea-level rise of one foot over the next century or so. Meanwhile, such widely publicized phenomena as arctic ice melting can be deceiving, to the untrained observer. Every climate model in existence will confirm that the polar regions are highly sensitive to climate changes -- a tiny change in global average temperature will cause ice either to grow or to melt. That it's been melting (in some areas) merely indicates that the temperature has gone up slightly. And this in no way proves that it's on account of CO2 -- even the Chicken Littles concede that most of the slight warming we've seen, over the past 150 years, is closely correlated with increases in solar output during that time. They argue that the past 20-30 years aren't easily explained by "solar forcing" -- but in astronomical and climatological terms, a couple of decades is the blink of an eye; too short a period to use as the basis for much of anything.

When I decided to go back to school, I thought about getting an advanced degree in geography -- as an undergrad the first time, I found it a fascinating field of study, and I'd still entertained some hopes of making a career out of it. But the problem is that in most areas of geography -- climatology being one of the most glaring examples -- you end up working in the public sector, for government agencies subject to the political winds of the time. That -- along with the fact that I'd like to make a good salary again -- was why I decided to go to business school instead. As I've argued in other contexts, legislatures are not so much interested in enacting good legislation as in seeming to enact good legislation. And public policymakers are not able to make good policy -- political pressure forces them to merely seem to make good policy.

None of this is to say that human activity doesn't affect climate. It most likely does -- but not as much as Julia Roberts and Al Gore think it does. The idea that we can control the Earth's climate is largely an illusion. It would, for several reasons, be a good thing to burn less gas, pollute the air less, and generally reduce our consumption of natural resources. The longer we stretch out our fossil fuel supplies, the more time researchers have to come up with what we'll use next. (Some argue, however, that by using up oil, we hasten the day when economic forces will make alternative energy sources cost-competitive with oil -- I'd be the first to agree with that.) But simply saying "The debate is over" does not make it so. What's "obvious" is not always true.

Posted by Urbie at 07:13 AM | Comments (0)

April 19, 2006

Is that a finish line up there?

Last week's ACC 455 exam came back yesterday, and I'm happy to report that I came in just above the median, at 66/80 (82.5%). Given the difficulty of the material, that's a better result than I was expecting -- and one that makes it more likely that this semester will conclude successfully, leaving only the BA490C "capstone" class (required of all business majors) and an internship this summer, after which it'll be time to tune up the orchestra for "Pomp & Circumstance March No. 2," No. 1 having been played back in May '85. For awhile, it was starting to look as though I'd never finish this degree -- but barring major disasters, we're looking good now.

Posted by Urbie at 10:34 AM | Comments (0)

April 10, 2006

Really important golf news

This morning, most of the golf highlights shows have focused on Phil Mickelson's win at the Masters tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. As a result, golf fans may have been starved for news of other important action over the weekend. So as a public service, I offer some coverage of another significant golf accomplishment yesterday: yours truly recorded his fourth straight 7-free round, at Elden Hills golf course here in Flagstaff.

This was my first outing of the year at Elden, and because the course just opened this past week, the greens were, uncharacteristically, quite slow. The grass hasn't really started to grow this spring, so I'm not sure if they've been cut at all, although they've been fertilized. So lag putting was a challenge -- not so much in executing putts, but in mustering up the necessary resolve to hit the ball hard enough, from 30 or 40 feet, to get it to the hole. In-season, Elden's greens are normally quite a bit faster than the other courses in the publinks rotation around here -- so playing them slow is a challenge. However, the slow speed also presented an opportunity to make some aggressive chips and putts -- this resulted in a one-putt bogey at the first and an up-and-down par at the 2nd, both short par-4s. I was also able to take advantage of #14 for a one-putt par -- actually, a two-putt from just over the back of the green. Normally, a downhill lag putt on #14 is a treacherous affair, but yesterday, it was a matter of pounding the ball hard enough to get it to the hole.

My recently acquired hybrid 3-5 irons are going to prove very useful at Elden, as evidenced in yesterday's round. It's a tight course (with lots of real-estate OB, which I hate), so hitting the ball straight is mandatory -- on most of the holes, taking a driver or fairway wood out of the bag involves taking a deep breath as well, as the OB is always in the back of one's mind. So the hybrids will come in handy -- they work just like long irons, except that they're more consistent and a little longer.

Back to the subject at hand, though. Preserving the 7-free card was an issue on a few holes. On the par-5 9th (a 501-yard hole playing directly into a strong wind), my tee shot, although solidly struck, was so far short of the fairway pond that a layup second shot was required. A 7-wood third over the pond left me about 100 yards short of the green, from which point I punched an 8-iron onto the green, about 21 feet directly above the hole. As on the 14th, the 9th green is normally extremely treacherous if you're above the hole -- but today, it was a matter of gauging how much slower than normal a putt would roll. I didn't do a bad job in this regard, but still rolled the ball some four feet by the hole. This required some steely resolve on the bogey putt -- but using my technique of keeping my gaze focused down, while listening for the sound of the ball hitting the bottom of the cup, I drained the putt for a 6.

On the 11th, I reaped the benefits of having gone to church in the morning -- on my second shot, from the left rough, I double-crossed it and yanked the ball way out-of-bounds into the trees on the left. However, divine intervention gave me a lucky bounce (possibly off a new, as yet unoccupied house) back out into the fairway. From there, I chunked my third shot short of the green, chipped on, and left my lag putt about 3-1/2 feet short of the cup. However, once again, I was able to make the short putt for 6.

That was about it for drama. A string of pars on holes 14-17, and a decently-played 18th for a bogey-6 got me in the house at 88, but more important, notched my 4th straight 7-free card. It has now been 87 straight holes since I recorded anything worse than 6 -- shattering all previous records (which I haven't even kept, but I'm fairly certain I've never come close to that long a string before).

So Phil Mickelson wasn't the only one who had a good day yesterday!

Posted by Urbie at 06:09 AM | Comments (0)