Sales pitch

Obama makes an absurd sales pitch to an Iowa newspaper.

Running exhausted on an empty tank can take you to some pretty strange places. Candidate Obama, calling the Des Moines Register to pitch for its endorsement – my italics:

This [clean energy] is going to be the race to the future. The country that controls new sources of energy, not just the traditional sources, is going to have a huge competitive advantage 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now.

How exactly is that ruthless cartel, the Organization of Wind-Exporting Countries (OWEC), supposed to work? I can’t see it, even with a fluffy white cat and a trapdoor into a pool full of piranhas.

I’ve complained about this nonsense before. Wind and solar are commodity manufacturing and construction industries. They obey the classical economics of textiles and steel – constant returns to scale in the short run, increasing returns to scale in the medium run, a low rate of profit – not the winner-take-all, network-effect, IP-gated economics of information technology. It’s quite unimportant if the USA has any solar panel manufacturing, or imports the kit from China: the fact that it could readily start manufacturing is enough to keep Chinese prices keen. Once you’ve bought the kit, it’s yours.

Obama did make the sensible jobs argument, but missed the equally true one of rents and local taxes. And not a peep on climate change:

If you want there to be any farms in Iowa in 30 years and not a dust bowl, we have to quit our lethal addiction to fossil fuels, starting now.

Sigh. Climate breakdown hawks like me are reduced to praying that Obama is lying on this and has an ambitious secret plan in pectore. I don’t apologise for not cheerleading. The risk of an undecided low-information voter in Iowa – aka a gormless hick – changing his or her vote at this point because of a post in the RBC is nil. For the record, Romney would be far, far, worse on energy as on everything else.
BTW, The Register still apparently hasn’t endorsed either candidate, after two years of ridiculously intensive and costly campaigning in this grossly overrepresented state. Did I say anything about gormless hicks? Mind you, the same holds for the snobs at WAPO, who only endorsed Obama on Thursday, far too late to matter.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

23 thoughts on “Sales pitch”

  1. In the great Donald Rumsfeld line: “As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” If I could choose, neither one of these guys would be the next President. So I am sympathetic to the Register! Waiting for one of these guys to have clearly shown that he is less worse than the other is a defensible choice on their part.

    1. “Waiting for one of these guys to have clearly shown that he is less worse than the other….”

      You’ve apparently missed the last four years of fairly decent legislation and sane foreign policy, plus the entirety of Romney’s sordid career of perjury, corrupt self-enrichment, pathologically stupid foreign policy (and insults delivered to our closest ally), gross dishonesty and thinly veiled bigotry towards anyone he thinks he can screw over safely. Truly amazing.

    2. Waiting for one of these guys to have clearly shown that he is less worse than the other is a defensible choice on their part.

      Why yes, a serial liar and callous plutocrat is exactly the same as POTUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1one! How have I missed that?!?!?!?!??!?!?

  2. James, although you do a good job acting as the local grammar police, I think you exercise yourself too much on tiny matters of meaning. It’s pretty clear from the President’s quote that he intended to say whoever “invests in” rather than “controls.”

    It makes further sense that if China heavily subsidizes and invests in these technologies, they could be to sustainable energy products what America was to the car industry in the 1940s and 1950s. They wouldn’t necessarily corner the market, but they’d be far far ahead in terms of R&D and marketability.

    1. My old link has three quotes all buying into the mercantilist trope. If it was a slip, it was a Freudian one. It’s not a tiny point; look at the (election pandering) “anti-dumping” action against Chinese solar panel producers.

  3. The president often does not pick the exact word he means and sometimes elides thoughts and so is subject to misinterpretation and selective quotation — viz. “You didn’t build that.” What he is referring to here is the theory of dynamic competitive advantage — as Matt suggests. The question is whether our firms and workers will participate in the production of clean energy capital goods or be shut out. Of course there are other questions — in a more perfect world we would be pre-adapting our capital stock to inevitable higher energy prices and recognizing the externalities of greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental cost as well as the national and economic insecurity premiums of using world-traded energy, but given the state of public understanding that is not a saleable political message for the last two weeks of the campaign.

    1. “Dynamic competitive advantage”: protectionism in a Sunday suit. I’m sure that as with optimal tariffs, you can construct dynamic scenarios in which protection pays off for a given player (though not for all players). In the real world, protection (examples: American sugar and Swiss butter) is a featherbedding subsidy to domestic lobbies. Germany expanded its solar PV industry without protection, by stimulating demand.

  4. The Register never endorses a candidate until the Sunday before the election is to take place. It’s possible they may make an endorsement tomorrow but probably not. If they endorse Romney, the resulting earthquake will cause significant damage to buildings all over the state.

    Gormless hicks, eh? I know many low-information Iowa voters and while they don’t pay very much attention to politics, they are neither hicks nor ignorant. They simply have other things on their mind, like how to keep the livestock alive after the terrible drought we’ve had this summer. It’s also hard to take politics that seriously when you’re bombarded with increasingly outlandish political ads for almost two years non-stop.

    1. You leave out my crucial adjective “undecided”. It is perfectly rational for an Iowa farmer to decide there’s only so much time she can spend on all this. But it’s not rational to dither. The differences between Romney/Ryan and Obama/Biden were perfectly clear by the time of the conventions.

  5. James…

    Our big dumb country is actually being played far more cynically than you explain here.
    Keep in mind those moments in the debate when the supposed “lefty” scolds “Slinky” for standing in front of a coal-fired plant as governor and saying: “This plant kills”.
    One has got to wonder what was going on in Slinky’s mind (and Rove’s) at that moment.
    After all here was the “socialist” scolding the “severely conservative” for being a dirty hippy.

    Fun times…
    Fun Machiavellian times indeed.

    1. With apologies to Emily:

      I’m Climate breakdown hawk! Who are you?
      Are you Climate breakdown hawk, too?
      Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
      They’d banish us; you know!

      How dreary to be a Denier!
      How public like a frog
      To tell your lies the livelong day
      To an admiring bog!

      1. Glad you picked up on “climate breakdown”: George Monbiot’s useful phrase, not mine, but I propose to use it all the time.

  6. To be fair to the Register and the Post, their late endorsements and non-endorsements may simply be a gracious reflection of the fact that absofuckinglutely nobody cares what newspaper editorial boards think anymore.

  7. This, from Wimberley, needs a reply from Kleiman. What’s Wimberley up to here, Mark? Does he truly believe there’ll be no significant IP gates thrown up in the new energy sector? Does he really believe we don’t need commodity industry jobs over here? (Iowa has lots of good commodity industry jobs, does it not?) Does he truly believe that the RBC doesn’t sway votes, especially the votes of opinion leaders who might, in turn, sway other votes?

  8. Quincy Adams knows more about the economics than I do, so I’ll let James slug it out with him.

    I will note, for the record, that the last time I looked “hick” Iowa was among the best-educated states in the country.

    On the “cheerleading” point: of course I wouldn’t expect James to censor himself or to say what he believes not to be the case. But I strongly agree with Ferd and disagree with the intellectuals who think that the disparaging things they say about Obama to other intellectuals on fora such as the RBC are politically harmless. Political speech is political action, and each of us is morally responsible for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of his actions. I’m under no illusions about the extent of the RBC’s influence, but that influence isn’t zero; as Ferd says, we’re not read by many voters, but we are read by some substantial opinion leaders, as our in-links demonstrate.

    Obama proposed a fairly ambitious cap-and-trade plan his first year in office. He couldn’t get the votes for it. Do I wish that he had offered as greenhouse-gas tax as part of the fiscal mix? Of course I do. But there’s no need to wish that Obama is “lying” about the energy and climate issues, or that he has a “secret plan.” On this, as on most issues, what he’s said is far in advance of what’s politically possible. And of course, as James notes, the alternative is intolerable.

    So it seems to me that a little bit of cheerleading wouldn’t come amiss right now. As I keep saying, this one matters.

    1. Specifically, his cap-and-trade plan passed the House, but he could never get the 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster on the motion to proceed (if I’m not mistaken). Let us never forget the immense harm that the GOP has done by its decision, after decisively losing the election, to make governing impossible in any way they could.

      Unfortunately, even in a pie-in-the-sky scenario where the newly returned Democratic senate decides to abolish the filibuster completely and the Democrats somehow manage to retake the House, there probably wouldn’t be a functional majority in either house for cap-and-trade II; the Democrats would be dependent on too many votes from coal country (especially WV’s senators).

      1. That is correct, matt. Cap and trade failed not on a Senate vote on merits of the bill, but on the procedural motion-to-proceed.

        If we were a nation of informed voters, the GOP’s behavior of making the Congress non-functional by refusing to allow votes would be punished at the polls. It is sad that we not a nation of informed voters, and as a result the authoritarians are able to engage in exactly that sort of extra-constitutional anti-democratic behavior.

    2. Mark: I did not say Iowans are gormless hicks, I said that undecided low-information Iowan voters are. There’s no excuse for either attribute.

      For the very little it’s worth, my position has always been critical support of Obama and Biden. As a rule, critical friends are more valuable than uncritical ones: who was a better ally of the USA over Iraq 2, Blair or Chirac? In that perspective, it’s counterproductive to keep silent on Obama’s failings. All the more in that the adversarial political system has failed to produce a worthwhile, fact-based, Republican critique of his record; the GOP has preferred to campaign on lies, misrepresentations, and fantasies. The important function of a “loyal opposition” has thus fallen by default to progressives, like Greenwald and Krugman.

      At this point I firmly expect Obama to win; and what Obama decides to do for his second term – having chosen to campaign on steady-as-she-goes, not a real new agenda – is either secret or simply still open. It’s worthwhile to try and influence his plans, or more realistically the environment in which he will formulate them.

      Ferd: “Does he truly believe there’ll be no significant IP gates thrown up in the new energy sector?”
      So far there have not been (though it’s been alleged that China stole some wind technology from Vestas to get their domestic producers going). Is there any reason to think or hope that this will change?

      “Does he really believe we don’t need commodity industry jobs over here?” Of course you do. But commodity jobs don’t add up to control. Many countries produce cement and steel and textiles and nobody controls them. This is a good situation, not a bad one.

      You might consider addressing your comments to me as author of the post.

      1. To be fair, indecision often arises from too much information, rather than the lack of it. It is not wholly unreasonable for a hypothetical someone who dislikes Obama, but is confronted by the truly dizzying array of Romney positions on any given issue, to remain undecided!

      2. I called on Kleiman for help because I didn’t feel capable of slicing and dicing the situ properly, man.

  9. Pres. Obama made a brief mention of climate change in his convention speech, to counter Gov. Romney’s snide remark about rising oceans in his speech. Too bad Team Obama did not make a bigger deal out of this, talking about the need for coping with climate change which has already occurred, perhaps harping on coastal cities made vulnerable to storm surges, forcing Romney to repeat his casual dismissal of same.

    That exchange would have had an impact this weekend similar to the fictional one on the TV series “The West Wing,” wherein the Republican candidate played by Alan Alda had talked about the safety of nuclear power, and an accident takes place at a power plant just as the campaign moves into its final phase. The cable shows play that sound clip repeatedly, shifting a very close election to the Democrat.

    FEMA had better be Johnny on the Spot this week. An electoral consequence of this storm is likely, depending on the perceptions of the government response and perhaps some clips of Romney’s making a joke about sea levels in his speech.

    1. Part of the problem is that even if Obama or the Democrats do talk about climate change, it’s unlikely to make the media change their policy of refusing to talk about it. Minimal coverage of the issue suits the wealthy (who own large chunks of the media) just fine.

  10. Still waiting for their real endorsement; they released a joke endorsement for Romney, saying he’d be more bipartisan than Obama. Onion-worthy, I tell ya.

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