Friday, September 16, 2005

US Polls

Bush's overall approval rating slipped to around 40% in most polls, and now even his favorability rating slipped for the first time to an equal or lower level than his disapproval rating. But it seems mismanaging (yeah, severe understatement) the relief effort after Hurricane Katrina is only part of the expanation - Bush's Katrina ratings, while negative, are still depressingly close to even. His support is still not down to the rock-solid 35-40% fundie base.

But more interesting is a poll on Iraq, the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted September 8-11. While on Bush's handling of the Iraq war (40% approve 58% disapprove) and on whether invasion was a bad idea (53% yes 46% no) numbers didn't change, on the question of pullout, now we have:

Date Stay as long
as 'needed'
Withdraw if
too many killed
9/8-11/05 35% 19% 41% 5%
7/25-27/03 37% 33% 26% 4%

Maybe this is the Cindy Sheehan effect.

(This is an update to my expression of polls scepticism three months ago and my premature optimism two weeks later.)

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Electricity Market Liberalisation Doesn't Work

Claim: electricity market deregulation will drive down electricity prices, it'll be good for us all.

Theory: free competition between producers with grid access means the cheapest offer wins, which means unfair overpricing by monopolists will be eliminated.

Counter-theory: Prices will go down first, but that at a cost: producers will spare by drawing down investments, which will lead to long-term problems and a price rise. But even before, large producers will use their financial reserves to drive prices down so much that upstarts go bankrupt, and then cooperate in raising the prices again, while blaming everything and everyone else. On an even shorter term, the general instability of markets will mean large oscillations. Meanwhile, all this focus on lowering prices forgets about sustainability and global warming.

Practice: My counter-theory exactly describes what happened in Germany after price liberalisation and market opening. The up-starts, except those defended by the feed-in law for regenerative energies, went bust in a few years, and indeed prices began to climb.

I created the above graph (the 2005 data is for the first quartal, it rose since another 5-10%) using the numbers calculated every year by the German Association of the Electricity Industry (VDEW), which represents the traditional producers and grid-owners - and pushes their agenda. Their reports since 2001 claim that prices rise due to the state, which added environmental tax and the feed-in law as price pushers. But, the netto price also increased significantly (even more since Q1) - and was calculated dishonestly.

The trick is with the feed-in law. The extra price for the consumer would be their share of the money paid out to regenerative energy producers at fixed prices minus the average production cost of the traditional industry for the same amount of electricity. But the VDEW tricksters simply calculate with the money paid out, without substracting the cost of the replaced traditionally produced electricity. (Correcting this would move up the right side of the Netto lines by about € 0.50.)

To get a bit closer to the truth, let's look at how the pre-tax price of electricity sold to medium-size industrial customers (who can connect directly to the intermediate-voltage network) developed since deregulation:

I created the above graph combining the VIK electricity price index (pdf!) and its predecessor, the Dow Jones/VIK price tracker (Excel!), using January 2002 as junction.

Finally, I note another 'effect', which can be seen to some extent on the first graph: the large locally monopolistic private companies that ruled the regulated market before the March 1998 deregulation significantly raised the prices leading up to that date. That is, the initial decrease in prices was to a significant part the elimination of windfall profit margins...

UPDATE: some more on the above, with a longer version of the first graph.

First a note on the VIK price index for electricity to the industry. It is based on wholesale prices at an electricity stock market (a combination of baseload and peakload averaged over a month), but the pricing for many customers is determined by long-term contracts - hence lower; it's new customers who are fucked with most. But, the March 1998 starting point is still pushed up by a previous windfall profit price hike, let me expose that below.

I created another graph for the typical private home (the metric used is 3500 kWh/year with the usage patterns of a three-person home throughout), this time extending back to 1980 (yearly to 1990). But I will note some other strong effects that shroud what I want to show.

You will first note the giant jump in 1991, which is the effect of German reunification: in the former East, production was less efficient, and upgrading them to Western standards or replacing them costed time and money. However, that process was essentially over by 1998. Second you'll note that in 1996, brutto prices moved down while netto prices moved up: then the regional monopolists used the elimination of a tax as cover, hence the bumpy rather than straight three-year rise for extra profits before deregulation.

Finally, note that that 1998 peak is actually the average of a late 1997-early 1998 spike and subsequent steep fall - so when you look again at the graph of VIK monthly data, the starting point is even more skewed than you'd guess from the above. (I also emphasize again that since the first quartal, prices rose another 5-10%.)

The last issue is gas prices. While most of the German production is not gas, it is significant in the short-term peakload production - and as Jérôme explained us, producers use marginals to determine the prices. So much so that at the above mentioned electricity stock market, baseload prices moved in lockstep with peakload ones (being lower by a constant ratio).

However, unlike in Britain or the USA, in Germany there is no apparent supply-side justification for the gas price hikes in the last year. Indeed a consumer group sued one of the main suppliers, E.ON, for the release of its price calculations - and yesterday a court gave them right. But E.ON still refuses to comply. I think that is proof enough that the big private suppliers are hitching a ride on top of the global oil and other regions' gas price rises.

Barroso's Trojan Horses

In line with the general neoliberal trend sweeping Europe (which will only get worse after the German elections), which also meant a wide majority in the most powerful institution of the EU, the European Council (the national governments' club), we now have a Commission president (it's British PM Bliar's fault) who is a self-styled neoliberal revolutionary. (Never mind that his economic policies ended in total failure at home - he even cooked the books -, and to a leftist election victory I discussed.)

Undeterred by the reasons behind the French and Dutch NO on the EU Constitution, after all he only does what most national governments want, he goes on - only clandestinely.

First, the EU Commission can now go after companies breaking environmental law. Or, that's how it is sold: for, the Commission's new powers also include "criminal sanctions for breaches of EU internal market, data protection laws and intellectual property rights". Without doubt music companies and Micro$oft will be happy about the last two - while the first can also be applied against environmental legislation, neutralising the positive in the headline part (there have already been such attempts against German laws like the regenerative energies feed-in law, the drink bottles recycling law and the lorry road tax law).

Second, Barroso suggested the scrapping of unnecessary EU legislation, bringing up the law on workers' protection from excessive exposure to sunlight as example, which made stirrings in the German yellow press as something absurd (i.e., 'barmaids at the Oktoberfest won't be allowed to hand out beer in traditional clothes [which expose some flesh]'). Now, even that ruling may look much less absurd if we look at the details in the final version and don't rely on the yellow press, but consider what else Barroso proposes to scrap: "EU-wide rules in areas such as food labelling, presentation and advertising, the regulation of sales promotions and weekend lorry-bans". I.e., he'd like to convert the EU just into what British anti-EU leftists erroneously believe it to be already...

Political Courage: Italian Example

There is eternal debate on the left between centrists and 'radicals' about whether compromising and appeasing the centre or standing firm and offering a coherent vision wins more votes.

In my opinion it's sometimes this sometimes that, while I think it's more often the latter (and even when it isn't I think it makes more sense to stay in opposition with ideas intact than be in power executing someone else's ideas). In the previous post, I indicated how centrism was a losing strategy for the German centre-left, and that it could boost poll numbers both times it was forced by events to campaign in a leftist way.

Now, recently, Romano Prodi stirred up some waters in Italy. The present leader of the opposition leftist L'Unione coalition was Italian PM from 1995 to 1998, during which time he was a centrist who didn't dare to push through laws that would have prevented the return of Berlusconi with his media monopoly and criminal past, nor to defy the business lobby - which led to 'reforms', which led to the rebellion of the communists and the fall of his government. He was also criticised for being a weak EU Commission President, tough he can hardly be blamed for much given that it is the EU Council - i.e. the national governments' club - that calls the shots.

Now back in Italy, Prodi pursues a more leftist line: he advocated and promised withdrawal from Iraq, bucked the European trend by boldly promising to change immigration policy from the extremely unfair and restrictive laws of the current centre-to-far-right government to an immigration-firendly one, and he advocated the introducion of French-style civil unions. For the last, he was attacked by politicians on the right and centre, and the Vatican-allied media, who compared him to the current Antichrist of the Catholic Curch (for introducing gay marriage in Spain), Spanish PM Zapatero. Centrists (Christian and non-Christian alike) are already crying that he is blowing the chances of victory.

Now, I don't think most Catholic really care that much about the Church's sword-waving, nor that polls indicate any danger: the Christian Democrat centrists in L'Unione, UDEUR, poll only at 1.3% (even their counterparts on the right, UDC, poll just at 5.7%), while L'Unione leads Berlusconi's bunch by 5.5%. But Prodi should be fearing the pro-Vatican mafia in politics and media even less if he considers the success of Nichi Vendola.

Regional elections were held in 14 provinces in April this year. People voted for party lists for the regional assemblies, and separately voted for a regional president. In Puglia province, (the 'heel' of the Italian 'boot'), a certain Nichi Vendola won the presidency, against these odds:

  1. Vendola was selected in a US-style primaries vote by the base rather than chosen by party leaders as the one seen most electable,
  2. he is a communist (and attacked for it),
  3. he is openly gay (and rather strongly atacked for it),
  4. he won in a Southern province (where people are more conservative),
  5. he won with 6% more than the last centre-left candidate,
  6. he won by more than the supporting L'Unione coalition on list votes (0.1% more - that must have come from the right!),
  7. he won while the L'Unione vote included 3.28% vote for the Christian Democrat UDEUR and its centrist allies!

This should be the example to put up against any defeatist talk on the left.

Thoughts On The German Elections

After the victory of party macho extraordinaire Gerhard Schröder over party enfant terrible Oskar Lafontaine (nicknamed "Red Oskar") shortly after the 1998 Social Democrat/Greens election victory, all mainstream parties in Germany fell in line behind the neoliberal economic mindset.

For the Left, this proved disastrous: the repeated appeasing of the business lobby and anti-welfare-state 'reforms' only alienated own voters, while the private economy didn't "thank" with either creating more jobs or at least electoral support: these moves not only didn't solve economic problems, but worsened the situation, which led to demands for even more 'reforms' from the business community. All the while, only the Green junior coalition party pursued progressive policies, only to be undercut by SPD politicians serving some lobby (most notably current economy minister Wolfgang Clement, a persistent and extremely dishonest propagandist against wind power for the coal industry).

Disproving the centrist mantra that campaigning for a progressive policy too clearly loses votes, Schröder narrowly won re-election in 2002 with his stand against the Iraq war. But he didn't learn anything, blew it again over the next three years with more of the same. Then he called early elections. Then the unthinkable happened: the rise of a serious contender to the left. The SPD was forced to campaign again as a leftist party - and its numbers rose from the low twenties to 35% again. (Not that I'd expect its leaders from learning this time either, should they enter some government.)

That contender to the left came by due to extraordinary circumstances. Some West German SPD members fed up with Schröder left the party and formed the WASG political group (not a party). Meanwhile, in the East, there was the PDS, the heir of the onetime ruling party of the communist dictature, but one that unlike fellow post-communists in the region developed towards something progressive in the Western sense, due to its marginalisation: they had to fight for votes with the SPD, they are dominated by the onetime reform wing, they are cleared of anti-democratic tendencies or criminal networks given that they were monitored for a decade by the local equivalent of the FBI, and they assimilated a lot of progressive youth groups not affiliated with the ancien regime.

Now, separated, WASG and PDS wouldn't have stood a chance - and there were various animosities between the two. But then "Red Oskar" Lafontaine declared that he leaves the SPD, and will run for election only if WASG and PDS ally themselves on a single list. Even more than British counterpart Galloway, Lafontaine suffers from an oversized ego - but that alliance proved a powerful idea all in itself. What followed was an unprecedented pressure from the leftist public opinion on the foot-dragging parties, who in the end managed to agree, and now run under the name "Die Linke" (Left Party). (See a very illuminating interview with a WASG activist in English at Lenin's Tomb.) In the first enthusiasm they even polled at 15%, now back to 7-8%, the campaign of all parties and the potentials for after the election were completely changed.

From the last polls before election (this Sunday), and the last mandates projection (see "Sitzverteilung" table to the right), it looks like a conservative-(market)-liberal coalition (i.e. CDU/CSU+FDP) will just fall short of majority. A centre-left-hard-left coalition is presently considered a practical impossibility, so it will likely be a grand coalition - on the positive side, both Greens and Left Party can argue against its policies in Parliament and could benefit in opposition.

I hope the Left Party can develop into something serious, as the only strong voice against neoliberalism, and not end up relying on the contentious stardom of Lafontaine. While most attacks against Lafontaine from the mainstream press are unfair (his much thematised speech about "Fremdarbeiter" was taken entirely out of context, but read on this the above linked interview at Lenin's Tomb), his last book includes some rather questionable culturalist passages - a departure from his demand years ago for a changed sense of "German-ness". Meanwhile, I also hope the Greens can reinvigorate themselves, as the only strong voice for seriously tackling the problems of global warming, Peak Oil and industrial farming, and not end up relying on the contentious stardom of current foreign minister Joschka Fischer.

Speaking of Regenerative Energies

Three stories, a bit dated:

First: Solar power in Germany:

In June this year, Germany became the second country with total photovoltaic power generating capacity in excess of 1 gigawatt (1000 MW) - the average power of a modern nuclear power plant block.

For some comparison: at the end of 2004, Japan had solar cells with 1137 MW installed, Germany had 794 MW, third-placed USA 358 MW - with respective 2004 additions of 277 MW, 363 MW and 83 MW.

Even tough the capacity factor (average power per maximum power over a full year) of solar cells in Germany is about 11%, that is this 1 GW of solar cells produces a ninth to eighth of the electricity a nuclear power plant block would, this is now really something. Also note: while less than half (165 MW) of US solar cells are connected to the grid (and still just 60% of the newly installed), almost all of the German and Japanese photovoltaic power is grid-connected.

(File under "European success stories ignored even by local economic elites".)

Second - Geothermal power in Germany:

In the first half of August in Landau/Rhineland-Pfalz state, drilling started for (if I counted them all) the seventh commercial-scale deep geothermal power plant in Germany. When the 3 km bore and the machinery upon it starts service in 2007, 150°C water will power a turbine at 2-2.5 MW, and (through a secondary circuit) supply heat to local homes at 8 MW.

Geothermal energy is technically available at a lot more places than commonly assumed*.

Among alternative energies, the advantages of geothermal are constant power for electricity production (3500 plants with 10 MW each would suffice to give all of the constant part of the German baseload), and the ability to replace gas & heating oil in building heating (wind or photovoltaic [PV] solar cells can't)#. Its disadvantage is that, disregarding 'external costs' (pollution etc.) as our current economies do, it is still rather expensive, about 3-5 times the market price (but less than PV)+.

I note that at Landau, drilling is done by Oil & Gas Exploration Company Jaslo Ltd., a Polish company.

These two German stories indicate what will be lost after the expected government change in Germany next week - all the successes of the Social Democrat-Greens coalition were connected to the latter, now we'll only see chancellor Schröder's neoliberal line replaced by an even more neoliberal line of an SPD/Christian Democrat 'grand coalition', or a still more neoliberal line by a Christian Democrat/Free Democrat coalition.

Third - China raises targets:

China recently passed its own feed-in law for regenerative energies, complete with a target for raising their share from 7% to 10% by 2010 (while overall use expands rapidly too). Wind power alone was slated to grow to 20 GW.

Significant, but far from enough. Dirty coal, which now gives 75%, would give most of the growth (along with dangerous and lethal waste producing nuclear energy, and dams that won't be a net benefit due to CO2/mehane producing rot in sediment/sewage-rich reservoirs).

Now the government considers raising the target by 50% (still just to 15%...).

*: The potential just along the Upper Rhine fault line in Germany is currently estimated at 28,000 TWh/year electricity - 50 times the entire German demand, transmission losses included. (This older study (pdf!) puts the potential in all of Germany at ten times of that.)
#: Indeed in Germany, there are also about a dozen geothermal plants that produce only heat.
+: The German feed-in tariff for geothermal is (depending on size: less for bigger ones) 7.16-15 c/kWh. My 3500 plants would cost €250 billion to build.

Green Cities

I was a speaker at a Sustainable Communities Conference in Vermont. The organizers took two busloads of participants to admire a ... factory that produces towers for wind electric generators. Hard to get greener that that.

But there was a problem: it took us 20 minutes on the highway to get there. And, when we arrived, there was no other building in sight on the rolling landscape of broad agricultural fields.

“Wouldn’t it be more fun,” I asked the company tour guide, “if instead of driving way out to this splendid isolation and back every day, you could just walk out the factory door and bike over to a class or back to your residence?” Here was a beautifully designed solar building with state-of-the-art natural lighting and insulation, constructed so the residents would consume almost no energy — except for the hundreds of gallons of gasoline they burned in their cars every day to get there!

The quote is from Richard Register's article "Green Cities and the End of the Age of Oil" in the CommonGround US green magazine. It argues forcefully that regenerative energies are just one half of what is needed, another is public transportation and changing settlement structure.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


The destruction of Tel Afar seems to have come to a premature end, with the armed resistance disappearing from sight. the Coalition success claim:

...troops killed 141 insurgents and captured 197 on Friday and Saturday in Tal Afar...

For a long time only we lefty (and anti-war libertarian) bloggers ranted on a lot about what's really behind such propaganda lines. But, apparently, the mess before/after Hurricane Katrina changed something in the mainstream US press, for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote stuff like:

Nearly 75 percent of all detainees arrested are freed because there is not enough evidence that they pose a threat, the Army says.

...thousands ... are sent to prisons, like the notorious Abu Ghraib facility near Baghdad, where they wait an average of six months before their release...

From the launch of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 through early last month, 42,228 Iraqi detainees had been sent into the system, and most had been released. As of Friday, there were 12,184 in detention.

...U.S. troops arrested an Iraqi because he had a poster, with Arabic lettering, showing a beheaded man. The soldiers thought it was the propaganda of terrorists and hauled him away to Abu Ghraib. Months later, the Iraqis reviewing the case quickly recognized that the poster was a benign tribute to Imam Hussein, beheaded in the 7th century and deeply revered by all Shiites... Many more Iraqis are wrongly detained based on the lies of manipulative informants, false positives in explosives tests or because they were simply passers-by swept up for being in the vicinity of an attack on U.S. troops....

Nearly every day, the U.S. military in Iraq announces the capture of "suspected terrorists" snatched during house raids, in markets and after firefights. Yet most of those arrested get released, and the insurgency persists.

"Insurgency after insurgency has shown that if you mismanage detentions you create more insurgents than you get rid of," said Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

My notes:

  1. Don't expect the ratio of non-combattants among the 'killed insurgents' to be much lower.
  2. It's even worse than 75% of detainees, because obviously the current 12,184 also include a lot who will be released without charges, and - more gravely -
  3. people who have been tortured for a 'confession' (recall the three British Gitmo detainees who 'confessed' being the terrorists in the background on a Bin Laden video, only to be cleared by MI5 who proved they were in Manchester at the time...).
  4. I snipped parts where the sources are named: surprisingly, the US Army, and lawyers named by the Iraqi government to look into cases. But this still gives a positive spin to the story - whereas if you're Sunni, your chances of getting free after being arrested with ridiculous charges by the new Shi'a-dominated US-aligned Iraqi police are much smaller (recall what famous Iraqi blogger Raed Jarrar's brother Khaled wrote about his fellow detainees).
  5. Let me put that expert's point more bluntly: considering the treatment, more 'insurgents' will leave the prison than were put in. This war can only be lost, this war can only make civil war worse.