Tuesday
Oct172017

The 10% Solution 

So, recapping from my last post:

Russia interfered with our 2016 election in a big way and deserves some kind of spanking for that.

Russia’s economy and government are vulnerable to variations in the price of oil.

Given that we use so much of the world’s oil, small variations in our demand can make a big difference in the world oil market, and therefore oil prices. If our demand drops significantly the price of oil drops even more significantly, and Russia essentially goes bankrupt.

My first impractical suggestion was that we all slow down on the highway and cut our oil consumption that way. I have an equally improbable, yet technically feasible suggestion about how we could achieve the same goal. I should note up front that I don’t expect this idea to go anywhere while the present administration is in the White House and former Governor Goodhair of Texas runs the Department of Energy. For that matter, until we get the oil companies backed off from Congress a few paces. Here goes.

This proposal has two inextricably interlocked parts: An efficiency and conservation effort and a strike price tax on imported oil.

First, the strike price tax. It’s an odd tax, in that it isn’t a fixed percentage or a fixed fee per unit of taxed stuff. It is a fixed target price. The price of oil in the U.S. (the WTI or West Texas Intermediate) as I write is around $52 per barrel. The international price (Brent) is around $57 per barrel. A strike price tax would establish a target price of, let’s say, $60 per barrel. Right now that would mean a $3 per barrel tax on imported oil. If Brent goes to $56, a $4 tax, and so on. We presently import about 5 million barrels a day (mbpd), so every dollar in tax raises $1.8 billion per year. Such a tax would fix the U.S. domestic price of oil at $60 per barrel as long as we import any significant amount. The jump from $52 to $60 would add about 13 cents to a gallon of gasoline. Not wonderful, not catastrophic. The beauty of this tax is that we could set it at the price of oil at the time of introduction and American consumers would see no price difference at the pump.

Second, start a publicly announced effort to reduce our national oil consumption by 10%. Just 10% to start, but with intimations that if this worked out well we would keep going to 15% or even 20%. This would be financed by the strike price tax on imports. That initial $3 per barrel would get us $5.4 billion annually to start with.

The money would go to all the things you might imagine: sealing and insulating houses, office buildings, and factories (oil heated ones), upgrading heating systems, giving incentives for more efficient building methods, public transportation improvements, incentives for gas mileage improvements in vehicles, infrastructure assistance for states and cities, and so on. Whatever works. 10% wouldn’t really be a stretch, especially when one considers that an average European uses 40% less energy than an average American.

Even before we hit the 10% mark, world oil markets would react. We would be proposing the removal of about 2.5% of world oil demand when a less than 1% glut dropped the price of oil into the $25 - $30 range just over a year ago. I’m sure the Brent price would drop $5 just on the announcement. That’s another $9 billion a year for us to work with.

So what is the fallout from a program like this? Going back to the primary motivation, Russia would be in trouble.

In direct terms, oil and gas production is 16% of Russian GDP. According to a study by the Carnegie Moscow Center, when we calculate the indirect money flows generated by Russian oil and gas, it’s really more like 60-70% of GDP. It accounts for 50-60% of Russian government revenue and over 50% of exports. If the Brent price dropped by half, Russia would suffer an across the board revenue loss of 25%. It would be just punishment with essentially nothing that the Russians could do about it. Vladimir Putin would be busy struggling for political survival and Russian focus would have to turn inward.

The Persian Gulf monarchies would also suffer. Their cost of production is generally below $10 per barrel, so they would still make money. Their princes would have to buy gold *plated* objet d’art instead of solid gold and distribute more to the general population. They also might find it harder to come up with under-the-table protection money for all those jihadists.

Our European allies with diversified economies would enjoy some price relief, as would any non-oil based economies.

Here in the U.S., the price of oil would be high enough to maintain domestic production. Perversely, oil exporting countries would be tempted to increase production to make up for per-barrel losses, exacerbating their problem. The domestic price of oil would also be stable so that individuals, institutions, and businesses could invest in efficiency improvements with the expectation of a return on investment. Maintaining the price of oil would also prevent people from rushing out to buy giant urban assault vehicles.

It would be a massive job creation program. Energy efficiency is labor intensive. It requires individualized site analysis and design, and real people in person doing renovations. The insulation, sealants, large appliances, and construction materials tend to be domestically produced. Investing $10 billion a year into energy efficiency will create far more jobs than dumping the same money into refining and distributing foreign oil.

It would reduce U.S. health care costs. 10% less oil burned means 10% less emissions from oil products. We could see near instantaneous reductions is rates of asthma and long term reductions in lung and heart disease.

So much winning. So much Russian dismay. So much resistance from Exxon-Mobil. Any policy like this is on the other side of a political turnaround. Still, we need to do more than oppose the present stupidity; we need to propose new ideas.

Tuesday
Sep052017

Driving with Putin

Right now a lot of us are in reactive mode. Trump, Kim Jong Un, Harvey, and Assad keep throwing sand in our faces and we spend all our time trying to wipe it off and move forward. Even with all this political chaos we should pause, stop reacting for a minute, and make proposals. The persuasive power of “not that” diminishes with repetition.

U.S. intelligence services have established within a reasonable doubt that the Russians interfered in our last election. The details of the extent and Russia’s success are yet to be completely uncovered, but we know our political parties were hacked, our voting records were hacked, and our social media were clogged by a deliberate propaganda campaign. It is probable that the Trump family/campaign and the Republican Party were both involved in Russian money laundering.

This raises an important and tricky question: How do we retaliate against a nuclear armed nation that is also the world’s largest oil exporter? The answer is in the question. They are the world’s largest oil exporter. We are the world’s largest oil importer. The imbalance in this relationship seems to give them an advantage, but it is exactly the opposite. They can’t afford to export less oil. If we do it right, it is no problem for us to import less. The price of oil and the state of the Russian economy hang in the balance. A fine balance it is.

Right now the international oil cartel OPEC is trying to restrict the output of its member states in order to bring the price per barrel above $50. Last November, OPEC and its allies agreed to cut output by 1.2 million barrels per day (mbpd) as of January 2017. That compares to world production of 98 mbpd and OPEC production of 33 mbpd.

The U.S. consumes about 19.6 mbpd, and 43% of that, 8.5 mbpd, gets refined into gasoline for cars, SUVs, and light trucks.

An average car in the U.S. gets around 25 mpg. However, that mileage goes down as driving speed goes up. The U.S. Department of Energy, on its fuel efficiency page, notes, “Aggressive driving (speeding, rapid acceleration and braking) wastes gas. It can lower your gas mileage by roughly 15% to 30% at highway speeds and 10% to 40% in stop-and-go traffic.” Slowing down from 75 mph to 65 mph would raise mpg by about 10%.

And we do go 75 mph. A study by the Insurance Institute for highway safety showed that on rural interstates anywhere from 7% to 49% of drivers were going at least 75 mph.  In some places over 10% of drivers were going over 80 mph.

I’m going to make a wild ass estimate and say that if, as a nation, we just chilled out and slowed down, we could raise our overall gas mileage by 15%. Our fleet gas mileage would go from 25 mpg to 28.75 mpg. We’d use 13% less oil for gasoline production. That’s 1.1 mbpd. (See the hard won 1.2 mbpd reduction, above) That’s a nightmare for OPEC and a nightmare for Russia.

In February 2016, before the OPEC reduction agreement, the price per barrel touched $30. It could go there again without much more of a glut. That would cut Russian government revenues by 25%, their exports by 25%, and knock about 10% off their GDP. Ouchski.

Now, I’m not expecting Americans to suddenly become Prozac nation behind the wheel. I did this thought experiment to point out what a close run thing the world oil market is. Slight wobbles in supply or demand cause dramatic price swings. Even the prospect of such changes makes the commodity markets jump. It wouldn’t take a lot for us to use the power of our demand to rock the world. I mean, I’m not asking people to donate a kidney. Actually, I’ll bet some people would donate a kidney in exchange for the right to speed.

I have another idea, more pragmatic, although politically a stretch, that would do this and more. I’ll get to that one next time.

Tuesday
Jul042017

A Revolutionary Idea 

It being Fourth of July, my thoughts turn to the Declaration of Independence. I reread it every year around this time. It is good to renew my acquaintance with it, and sometimes I extract something new. The following is not new to any scholar of the document, nor will it be a surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of it. Still, I think it deserves to be pointed out.

Here is the passage that has my attention:

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

This was hot stuff in its time. The 18th century was the tail end of an era that accepted the divine right of kings. Monarchy wasn’t right because of any utilitarian considerations, although there were apologists who argued for it. Monarchy was the opinion of God, manifest in the person of the king or queen. A monarch who fell was out of favor with the corner office, and the usurper who donned the crown had better connections in high places, as well as some pedigree. Thus it had been for all of human history. The “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” bit was wishful thinking in 1776.

In this section of the Declaration these students of the enlightenment were proposing that no particular form of government was inevitable. No particular set of laws or set of rulers was inevitable or inherently correct. It was a utilitarian, empirical, results-oriented view of government. This statement proposed that traditions and institutions, even long standing national governments, were not sacred.

It makes me think of Israel, actually. One of those demands that Israel and its allies make of political opponents is to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. It is a ridiculous demand. People have a right to exist, as individuals and as groups. Israelis have a right to exist. Israel as a form of government has no more right to exist than France, Liberia, Uzbekistan, Japan, or the United States.

Governments earn the privilege of existence. Or they fail to earn it. It depends upon how well they serve the interests of people they govern. That is the remarkable, world changing proposition of our founding document. It is our responsibility to hold our government to account and make it earn that privilege.

I wish you a happy 4th of July. 

Thursday
May252017

Heads Up – A Correction

 

"Making predictions is difficult – especially about the future." Danish Proverb

"Past performance does not guarantee future returns." Wall Street Boilerplate

"Enough drops make a bucket." Minor Heretic

Sometimes I get things wrong, and it is my duty to correct them. In my last post I referred to the work of a few citizen journalists and their predictions of imminent law enforcement actions against members and associates of the Trump administration. I got caught up in some social media hype and allowed myself to be conned. The sources in question had a few scoops that beat the mainstream news outlets by a few weeks, but then they went off the rails. Sorry about that.

It looks like it is going to be a long slog towards impeachment. Given that the majority of Republicans in Congress have unequivocally chosen party over country, nothing is likely to happen with a GOP majority. I believe that Trump could stab a little girl in a pink dress on Pennsylvania Avenue and the GOP would complain that the media sensationalized the incident.

The only shortcut to Trump’s departure that I can see at this point is the prosecution of people around him to the point that he feels isolated enough to resign. What with all the money laundering and perjury in his vicinity this is a possibility. I do think that having Robert Mueller as Special Counsel almost guarantees that the dirt will be dug up and a number of present and former key players in the Trump Administration eventually will be prosecuted. Flynn, Manafort, Page, and Sessions are at the top of my list. Probably Mueller’s as well. No guarantee as to the schedule, though.

In the meantime, we should focus on flipping the House and Senate to Democratic control. There are a number of organizations nationwide dedicated to this. In particular, there are several organizations focusing on so-called purple districts, where either a Republican or a Democrat won the last election by a narrow margin. You should look at the following organizations and join one.

Indivisible Guide at https://www.indivisibleguide.com/ This was started by a group of Democratic congressional staffers who were, post election, discussing the methods of influencing members of congress that actually worked. They wrote the Indivisible Guide as a brief instruction manual for progressive activists. It became a national movement with local chapters. Whether or not you join the organization I strongly recommend that you read the guide on their website.

Sister District at https://www.sisterdistrict.com/ This is a group for people who live in states and/or congressional districts that are already Democratic, but still want to work on flipping congress. A blue district adopts a purple district and assists groups and candidates.

Swing Left at https://swingleft.org/ is another organization, much like Sister District, that matches people with nearby swing districts. They define a swing district as one that was won by less than 15% in the last election.

Flippable at https://www.flippable.org/ focuses more on state legislative races. The Republican Party has spent a lot of effort in the past decade on state races. As a result there are 25 “trifecta” states, where both houses and the governor are Republican. This allows them to lock their states with gerrymandering and voter suppression. Flippable is working on bringing these states back and reversing the electoral crimes of the GOP.

Many of my readers may not be completely pleased with the Democratic Party, and neither am I. A party that claims to be for the common people and also has $10,000 a plate fundraising dinners is lying. It is lying to itself and it is lying to voters. The Republicans are worse in this regard, but the Democrats need reform. However, these grassroots movements are part of that reform. They rely on small donations and a lot of volunteer labor. The more that the Democratic Party finds this useful, the less it has to rely on large donors.

Pick a group, any group, and try something. I’m signed up with Sister District and a local Vermont group associated with Indivisible called Lean Left.

Again, sorry for passing on the hyped fantasy. We all would like to believe in a quick duex ex machina ending to all this, but life is not a superhero movie. No one person will save the world; we all have to save our tiny piece of it.

Tuesday
May162017

Heads Up

The Trump Administration has been flailing its way through its first hundred days like a chimp driving a liquid manure spreader. It has been alternately amusing, enraging, and frightening to sane people all over the world. The man-child at the center of it all is a not-very-bright narcissist with the attention span and self-mastery of the aforementioned primate. Citizens of this country greet each morning with the question, “What next?”

(I blew it on the prediction of arrests. I'm leaving the text in as a warning to myself, but please read this: http://www.minorheresies.com/posts/2017/5/25/heads-up-a-correction.html)

As far as I can tell from the sources I have been following, what’s next is the end of the Trump administration. Indictments, warrants, and arrests.

First, a bit of background. This is a summary of a summary – the whole thing is incredibly convoluted, with more rabbit holes than Watership Down. There are three main areas of criminal behavior in play, all intertwined: Money laundering, collusion with Russia, and computer hacking.

The money laundering has been going on for decades. After his string of bankruptcies, Trump became toxic to American banks. As his son acknowledged back in 2008, a lot of money flowed into the Trump organization from Russia. Why would the Russians risk their money on a man who couldn’t make money with a casino? To understand this you need to understand that the lines of demarcation between Russian president Vladimir Putin and his cronies, Russian billionaire oligarchs, and Russian organized crime aren’t really lines. One group melds into another. What does a Putin ally/oligarch/mobster do when he has a few hundred million dollars gained in a quasi-criminal to criminal business deal? He finds a willing bank such as the seriously corrupted Bank of Cyprus, deposits the money, and then shifts it around the world through a series of shell companies. These are generally holding companies that do no real business themselves, but own shares of other companies. Some of those other companies are also empty shells. Some are companies that purport to do business, like the battery development company Alevo, but they are basically an office and a website and not much else.

But the money has to end up somewhere, and that somewhere tends to be high end real estate – office buildings, hotels, condos, casinos. Someone like Trump becomes useful to the oligarchs; a not so successful businessman with high end properties who regularly needs a bailout and isn’t too picky about where it comes from.

One relatively benign example is the Palm Beach mansion that Trump bought in 2006 for $40 million and sold two years later to the Russian “Fertilizer King” Dmitry Rybolovlev for $95 million. Rybolovlev was in the process of divorcing his wife and reportedly needed a place to stash some funds away from the legal process. Perhaps coincidentally, at that time Trump needed about $45 million to make a loan payment to Deutsche Bank. The CEO of Deutsche Bank at that time was Josef Ackermann. Deutsche Bank was later fined $630 million for laundering $10 billion in Russian money. Ackermann left Deutsche Bank under a cloud and was later approved as CEO of the Russian-controlled Bank of Cyprus by major shareholder Wilbur Ross. Trump appointed Wilbur Ross as Secretary of Commerce. If you are feeling slightly dizzy after reading this, find a comfy chair. Just about everything in this world of criminal finance goes around in a circle.

One big reason for the focus on Trump’s unreleased tax returns is that they would reveal the web of debt and investment he has with companies that eventually trace back to Russia.

The collusion was a quid pro quo between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin; election assistance for an end to sanctions over Crimea and acceptance of the division of Ukraine. The list of Trump associates who met with Russian Ambassador Kislyak includes Trump’s son-in law Jared Kushner, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, foreign policy advisor Carter Page, advisor J. D. Gordon, and Trump himself, briefly, in April of 2016. Campaign manager Paul Manafort and (temporary) National Security Advisor and longtime ally Michael Flynn also had extensive contacts with the Russians. Manafort and Flynn both were on the Russian payroll at one time or another, with Manafort allegedly receiving $12 million for his work for pro-Russian President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich. Sessions perjured himself in front of a Senate committee, telling them he had never met with Kislyak. Flynn lied on his SF-86 security clearance application about his contacts with and payments from Russia, also a felony.

The tell was the Trump campaign’s absolute indifference to the Republican Party platform at the GOP convention, except for the issue of Russia. Trump associates intervened forcefully to excise a section advocating military support for Ukraine in its fight against Russian backed rebels. Sessions met Kislyak on July 18th, Page and Gordon two days later, and then came the Wikileaks dump of hacked Democratic Party emails on July 22nd. Just before the data dump Wikileaks started using two servers based in Russia, those servers owned by Pyotr Chayanov, a Kremlin associated hacker and general nogoodnick. (Who, by the way, corresponded with GOP hatchet man and Trump advisor Roger Stone, who in turn worked in a consulting firm with Paul Manafort.

Which brings me to hacking, in two flavors. One flavor was the straightforward phishing attack that collected the Democratic National Committee emails. The sausage making behind the scenes at the DNC was exposed, at cost to Hillary Clinton. The other flavor was more complex.

There is a company in the UK called Cambridge Analytica. It specializes in analyzing potential voters according to their psychological profile. Here’s an explainer on the methodology, but the short version is that individual voters can be targeted with tailored messages, either in person by canvassers or through Facebook. The point is to discourage unenthusiastic opposition voters and swing wavering voters. The ownership of the company is a bit murky, but a libertarian billionaire named Mercer was a shareholder, as well as Alfa Bank. Remember that name.

The hacking involved was state level voter rolls Here are a couple of background articles, here, and here. This was to augment the data that Cambridge Analytica had mined from Facebook.

People with far more computer savvy than I can dream of have noted and analyzed computer traffic between a server run by the Trump organization, a server at Spectrum Health (a company run by Dick Devos, husband of Betsy DeVos Trump’s Secretary of Education), and a server at Russia-based Alfa Bank. The analyses that I have read point to database transfer and updating between the three servers. The Trump server only communicated with Spectrum and Alfa, and in a way designed to exclude communication with any other entity. It turns out that Alfa Bank owns a big stake in Cambridge Analytica. Russian oligarchs own Alfa Bank.

It certainly looks like hacking by the Russians in order to disrupt and influence the 2016 election. The US intelligence community is sure of it and has said so publicly.

So what is going to happen now? Hold on to your jockstraps, dear readers, for your Minor Heretic is going to throw some lightning. I have been following a handful of citizen/journalists for the past few months, namely Claude Taylor (former Clinton era White House aide), Louise Mensch (former UK Member of Parliament), John Schindler (former NSA, now national security correspondent at the Observer), and a few other pseudonymous types on Twitter. They, as a group, have been a few weeks ahead of the mainstream media, breaking stories on the whole Trump/Russia deal. I share my appreciation of them with a trusted friend who is former NSA and still works under a Top Secret clearance. This person is my reality check on security/intelligence matters.

The summary of recent postings is this: Law enforcement (Department of Justice, FBI, U.S. Attorney) sources say that there are grand juries convened in the Southern District of New York and the Eastern District of Virginia (Hereafter EDVA). It’s general knowledge that NY State Attorney Eric Schneiderman has an investigation going into financial misdeeds by Trump and his associates, with a possible RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act) angle. He has hired Preet Bhahara, the U.S. Attorney who was fired by Trump while investigating Russian issues. The EDVA is significant in that it includes Washington DC, it has a secure facility for handling top secret evidence, and that it is nicknamed the “rocket docket” for the relative speed with which it processes cases.

There are sealed indictments, perhaps against as many as 70 individuals. According to DOJ sources the FBI and Federal Marshals have arrest plans drawn up and approved. A big move is imminent. It will probably be lower level people first. That’s how it works – bring in the bit players and get them talking. The problem for the FBI is that a lot of the evidence that got them going on this is highly classified and can’t be used in court. They need cooperating witnesses.

Here’s the most telling bit of public evidence. The EDVA is one of the busiest federal courts in the U.S., averaging 11 cases a day. As of right now the docket is suddenly empty. There are judges with nothing on their schedules for the next week. This is weird. This is unprecedented. It is unsustainable. The EDVA can’t go from 44 cases a week to zero and sit empty for long. Something is up.

Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is going to brief the entire Senate in a closed session on Thursday, ostensibly about the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. This is also weird and unprecedented. Usually the AG would brief just a relevant committee.

One of the Twitter cadre of Taylor/Mensch, et al, who goes by Broadsword Six just posted that “A mouse told me tomorrow has potential to be an interesting day. Stay tuned....” Others are quoting sources as saying that arrests are imminent.

I’m thinking that the guys in the Kevlar vests are going to hop in the black SUVs and roll sometime in the next couple of days. I could easily be wrong, but the empty docket in the EDVA says this is happening.

By the time you read this it may be yesterday’s news. Here’s hoping.