Going To Hell Via Texas
How Texas’s Deregulated Electricity Hurts Its Customers
By Gwydion M. Williams
- Miracles of the Market
- Live Free, Freeze and Die
- Hurt Individuals
- Who Pays?
- Cherishing Rattlesnakes
- Weather Extremes
- Reasonable Doubts?
- The Rat-Race That Surpasses Human Understanding
- Hell or Texas
- Live Free Or Die
The world briefly fixed its attention on Texas in February 2020. Record-breaking cold weather was made much worse by a drastic failure of the electricity supply.
How could this happen in a state famous for its fossil fuels? A privatised supply system, maybe. Or maybe not. And then the world’s attention moved on.
It is not clear that the world as a whole has learned anything from it.
The world definitely learned much less than it should from previous disasters.
A wider understanding is needed, to learn the right lessons.
To realise that it was just one of the bad consequences of deregulation and pro-business policies. The policies that the USA and the wider world have been following from the 1980s.
You are running a coach trip and there might be nowhere to buy food the other end. You lay in sandwiches etc. to sell, or else warn everyone to bring their own.
You’d do this even if you had a literal belief in the biblical Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.
Proper believers in any religion do not use the possibility of exceptional events to wriggle out of their normal social duties.
The New Right is short of proper believers. The serious thinkers mostly ignore religion, though some like Richard Dawkins have a pathological hatred of it.
Ronald Reagan spoke of the ‘miracle of the market’. But he also ran up huge debts by boosting the USA’s already-huge military machine. He said it was needed because a powerful Soviet Union threatened to swallow the entire world. There was enough reality for this to be believed: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Vietnamese attempt to make Cambodia into a puppet regime (and not just replace the Khmer Rouge with moderates). Even the Cuban intervention in the Angolan civil war could fit, though I’d rather see it as part of the process that forced South Africa to abandon Apartheid.
Gigantic military spending is not something that left-wingers like to celebrate as state spending and a boost to a sluggish economy. Perhaps a worse option than Keynes’s rhetorical suggestion of paying the unemployed to dig holes and fill them in again. But it is state spending, and not to say so was foolish. It had worked for Hitler, after all. Hitler gained power because he was a great success from the centre-right viewpoint as it existed in the 1930s. And could win over some centrists by restarting the German economy. Boosted the economy with both a stronger military and a new system of superior roads and welfare, whereas Reagan was almost all about weaponry.
Hitler also had no problem paying for it. He began by repudiating the vast sums the Weimar Republic had been forced to pay as reparations for Germany’s supposed war guilt. A total debt of 132 billion gold marks, or about $269 billion in modern money. This had helped ruin and discredit Weimar, and by 1932 Western governments wanted to write off most of it, but the US Congress refused to agree. But Hitler’s arbitrary action didn’t stop Western businesses doing as much trade with Nazi Germany as they could, right up till the start of the World War.
The claim was re-imposed after 1945, but then postponed till Reunification. In the end not much was paid.
Debts only matter when someone has the will and the power to make the creditor pay. They are not the ‘law of nature’ that some economists think they are.
The USA from Reagan onwards has happily run up immense debts to foreigners. Most people see US bonds as just as valuable as money in the bank.
It was also foolish for 1960s radicals to denounce the Western system as ‘capitalism’ and demand its immediate replacement. The standard centre-right line had been that it was a Mixed Economy that had taken the best things from both socialism and capitalism. This was partly true, though socialist ideas of human equality still had a long way to go. But the economy was state-dominated and worked much better than Classical Capitalism. This gets written out of history, so I’ve documented it in detail as Feed-the-Rich Economics. I explain how the Mixed Economy won the Cold War, and then was denounced when the rich felt safe. And that those not scared of borrowing from socialism have done better all along.
The stagnation of the Soviet Union under Brezhnev was a disaster for socialism, but other things might have happened. In the 1960s and 1970s, many Western countries had serious plans for Incomes Policy and Workers Control. Workers Control in Britain nearly happened after a 1977 government report with a very practical scheme. And back in 1969, left-wing Labour minister Barbara Castle had a very sensible compromise over Trade Union power in In Place of Strife. This is grossly misrepresented by most sources that mention it. Later attempts by Edward Heath to compromise with Trade Union power after losing his fight with the Coal Miners are very seldom mentioned. We in the Ernest Bevin Society were among the minority on the left who saw the possibilities. There were never enough of us to win over a wider movement that at that time was full of false hopes for the future.
Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife would have regularised Trade Union power and left it gigantic. Instead it seemed to be going nowhere in the 1970s. Thatcher’s simple dogmatism and hostility to trade unions won over much of the working class.
The bulk of the left preferred Strife to a more socialist version of the Mixed Economy. And they were very surprised when endless strife with few visible gains lost them working class support.
All along, I had complete contempt for the Trotskyist claim to be functional revolutionaries. And doubted that the pro-Moscow Communists could succeed either. Time, I think, has justified this view.
Those left-wingers who blundered in the 1970s now prefer to re-tell the tale as an heroic but inevitable defeat. Ensuring continuing defeat. This was famously summed up by Eric Hobsbawm in 1978 as The Forward March of Labour Halted. Brendan Clifford’s detailed refutation can be found at our website.
Neither the excuses of failed leftists nor the New Right narrative are true.
If human history had begun in the 1970s, it probably would have ended in the 1990s, just as Francis Fukuyama promised. But it was actually 1970s blunders by most of the left that gave an opening to Libertarian ideas that had once been marginal.
In Texas, unusual suffering was caused by a naïve belief that the ‘miracle of the market’ would work for electricity. They trusted companies driven by a fierce competition for low prices. Did not expect them to neglect dangers that were far from certain.
It’s part of a wider failure. We in the West currently suffer from a pandemic that was perfectly predictable. For decades, experts had warned that people and goods moving fast around the world made it likely that some obscure virus would spread. And opening up jungles for crops or logging raised the danger of creating viruses deadly to humans. As did rich gourmets eating exotic species.
Most animal viruses cannot infect humans. Or at least cannot be passed on to other humans from the first person infected. But with enough contact, a few will get through.
East Asia is a mix of leftist, centrist, and right-wing governments. All of them coped with a pandemic that had begun there. A short hard lockdown in China stopped the virus spreading far beyond its first major outbreak in Wuhan. Elsewhere, traditional conservative ideas had never died, even in Australia. Those countries have had nothing like the totals of sickness, misery, and death run up in the West.
Broad attitudes to authority can cut across left-right divisions:
“Psychologists have shown that some cultures abide by social norms quite strictly; they’re tight. Others are loose – with a more relaxed attitude toward rule-breakers…
“Relative to the US, the UK, Israel, Spain and Italy, countries like Singapore, Japan, China and Austria [sic] have been shown to be much tighter. These differences aren’t random. Research in both nation-states and small-scale societies has shown that communities with histories of chronic threat – whether natural disasters, infectious diseases, famines or invasions – develop stricter rules that ensure order and cohesion. It makes good evolutionary sense: following rules helps us survive chaos and crisis. On the flipside, looser groups that have faced fewer threats can afford to be more permissive.”
A virus that spread first in East Asia has remained much rarer there. Whether you count by deaths or reported cases, the top sufferers are Europe, the USA, parts of the Middle East and parts of Latin America. India and Indonesia feature in gross totals, but look a lot less bad if you adjust for population. 113 deaths per million for India and 132 for Indonesia, as against 1,582 for the USA, 1,803 for the UK and 1,909 for the Czech Republic.
New Zealand has had 5 deaths per million. Australia 35. Japan 63. And China 3 per million, mostly close to the original outbreak.
Question: Why has the enormously rich state of Texas failed to cope with weather that would be normal in Canada, Scandinavia etc?
Answer: They thought ‘true grit’ would save them. Or at least save everyone who deserved to be alive.
“Texas officials knew winter storms could leave the state’s power grid vulnerable, but they left the choice to prepare for harsh weather up to the power companies — many of which opted against the costly upgrades. That, plus a deregulated energy market largely isolated from the rest of the country’s power grid, left the state alone to deal with the crisis, experts said.” (Texas Tribune)
Question: Why can’t the rest of the nation help?
Answer: Texas isn’t properly linked:
“Texas is the only state in the US with an independent power grid, meaning it is largely dependent on its own resources…
“When its infrastructure is under strain, for example during a cold-weather event, most of the state cannot link up with other grids around the US to make up the shortfall.” (BBC Online.)
Question: Why take such a risk?
Answer: They wanted as little Federal control as possible.
“The Texas Interconnected System — which for a long time was actually operated by two discrete entities, one for northern Texas and one for southern Texas — had another priority: staying out of the reach of federal regulators. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with overseeing interstate electricity sales. By not crossing state lines, Texas utilities avoided being subjected to federal rules.” (Texplaner)
This is something they had as Southern Democrats, cherishing the memory of their war to defend Negro Slavery. Something they kept as Republicans who hid racism behind a mask of libertarian ideology. But whereas Southern Democrats were functional conservatives, this lot are not. The older politicians accepted social duties, though with strong racism and a dislike of some types of government action. The current batch seem to believe their own propaganda.
Not that the reality has ever been the small-state small-government utopia imagined by the original dreamers. It was part of a wildly unrealistic world view: for instance Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged supposed that one of her heroes could blockade all of the world’s oceans with just one ship. And the more serious libertarians simply wrap their fantasies in fancy maths that isn’t based on real commerce.
After 40 years of New Right dominance, the state remains large and taxes remain high. But there have been three big shifts:
- Salaries for top managers are now ten or twenty times as high as they once were, relative to other employees.
- The very rich always tried to avoid tax, but it has been made much easier.
- Governments are much more likely to let business leaders tell them what to regulate and what to leave alone.
How did this happen? I’d say that the politicians and the influential rich noticed with the half-forgotten crisis of 1987 that ‘free markets’ weren’t working as promised. But then the Soviet collapse gave them confidence that they could twist libertarian dreams into a Feed-the-Rich reality. And this has so far succeeded in the West – most voters go on agreeing to make sacrifices to give further wealth to the rich, and still treat taxes as wasteful and immoral. But in the wider world, Western cultural influence has regressed even in places where it was secure during the Cold War. I’ve done a detailed study: The West Fails in Five Civilisations.
A deregulated power industry opened up a new feeding-ground for Feed-the-Rich policies. The rich fed well, neglected social duties and will probably get away with it. With the damage done, most mainstream media are still reluctant to point the finger at the greed of the rich:
“The catastrophic breakdown of Texas’ natural gas and electricity system last week lacks a single villain to blame for it all. Instead, the widespread constraints in natural-gas supply and the shutdown of core power plant capacity that left millions without power can be chalked up to cascading failures between these two interdependent systems — and any solutions will need to take these interdependencies into account to avert a similar crisis in the future.
“That’s the emerging consensus from a wide range of energy experts examining the cause and effect of last week’s crisis, which caused dozens of deaths, a breakdown in the state’s water systems, and more than $120 billion in economic damages which have yet to be fully played out.”
Who pays the $120,000,000,000? Probably most of the burden will fall on ordinary people. The tax system from the 1980s has been rigged so that even the official tax rates for the rich can be lower than for ordinary people. Some of it is treated as ‘investment’ and so privileged. And they have all sorts of entirely legal dodges to avoid tax on most of their income.
The facts are sometimes admitted, and described clearly. But then the ‘consensus’ avoids blame for the rich. It’s as if one said ‘this creature has feathers, webbed feet, a beak and makes quacking sounds. Therefore it’s a panda’.
Liberals mostly just want to curb the more extreme forms:
“As electricity infrastructure evolved in the 1930s, the federal government regulated energy across state lines. But Texas had its own grid network, the Texas Interconnected System, and a flourishing oil trade. So the state shrewdly spurned interstate grids…
“In 2002, Texas deregulated its energy market, creating an environment in which electricity retailers compete for business. The lowest bidder would win customers in the marketplace, but that encouraged power generators to delay or neglect weatherizing critical equipment. In 2011, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission warned ERCOT that power plants must winterize their equipment. Electricity providers, beholden only to the market, largely ignored the advice.”
A business will try to avoid expensive safeguards against remote risks when the safeguards would otherwise do them no good.
Risk-taking is also part of modern business culture. Sometimes big corporations ‘bet the company’ when hoping for a useful major advance. IBM did this in the 1960s, with their radically new IBM System/360. And then later suffered near-collapse because the bulk of the management disliked their highly successful IBM Personal Computer. They also failed to guard against machines that were originally known as IBM-Compatible – they would run software written for it. They must have remembered that other companies had made legal copy-cat versions of their 360 and 370 mainframe systems, but hadn’t achieved much.
There was another factor. Anti-trust legislation against IBM had failed to nail them. But it had made them wary, so they made no attempt to buy up a little software company called Microsoft and a relatively small chip-maker called Intel. Which then flourished as two separate businesses lumped by consumers as a hybrid called ‘Wintel’, taking market share from IBM and shattering its jobs-for-life culture.
Real business history is a mix of gambles, some of which succeed brilliantly and others crash. Also of failures to invest in the right things at the right time – but usually someone else grows from small beginnings by noticing.
This risk-taking for useful ends is a reason why a Mixed Economy can be very successful. But not if the rich get to dominate politics and look just to their own short-term benefit.
The 1958 emergence of the Boeing 707 was another successful gamble:
“Although it was not the first commercial jetliner in service, the 707 was the first to be widespread and is often credited with beginning the Jet Age. It dominated passenger air transport in the 1960s and remained common through the 1970s, on domestic, transcontinental, and transatlantic flights, as well as cargo and military applications. It established Boeing as a dominant airliner manufacturer with its 7×7 series.”
But in those days, they were proud of good engineering and saw profits as secondary. Only after their original useful culture was subverted did they drop standards and produce the death and scandal of the Boeing 737 MAX.
Boeing with the 707 also learned lessons from the failure of Britain’s de Havilland Comet in the early 1950s:
“Within a year of entering airline service, problems started to emerge, with three Comets lost within twelve months in highly publicised accidents, after suffering catastrophic in-flight break-ups. Two of these were found to be caused by structural failure resulting from metal fatigue in the airframe, a phenomenon not fully understood at the time; the other was due to overstressing of the airframe during flight through severe weather. The Comet was withdrawn from service and extensively tested. Design and construction flaws, including improper riveting and dangerous concentrations of stress around some of the square windows, were ultimately identified. As a result, the Comet was extensively redesigned, with oval windows, structural reinforcements and other changes. Rival manufacturers meanwhile heeded the lessons learned from the Comet while developing their own aircraft.”
That’s how business works – the pioneers often fail and the successes are those that are bold at just the right time for boldness to be rewarded. And you can’t expect businesses to be moral of their own accord. It is particularly foolish to praise successful gamblers and pretend that the failures are a different species.
What you can do is ensure that only the rich get hurt when they take excessive risks. Hurt no more than by being reduced to the same level as the rest of us. Most of them end up still fairly privileged.
Society should make sure that ordinary people don’t suffer. But this is just what the New Right were bitterly against.
A state is inclined to look to the long term. And may ignore unwanted risks, but states can always be persuaded. Protection against asteroids was once the concern of a few experts, but now is popular with voters. Of course it helps that no commercial interests are hurt by the relatively small sums spent on better telescopes. These also find interesting new objects, and produce stunning images that many people like.
Replacing fossil fuel is a very different issue. There are lots of commercial interests doing well out of solar power and wind power – but also natural gas. They may not want to make these sources expensively weather-proof when the weather is mostly warm, and perhaps someone else will manage if your own company can’t supply for a few days.
Maybe everyone hoped someone else would burden themselves with the extra expense of keeping Texas going if there were another cold snap.
State regulation could have fixed it, but Texas decided not. Saw it as an interference with Freedom. Part of the anti-state rhetoric that can be sold to ordinary people for the benefit of the rich.
Big corporations now make loud noises about how ‘green’ they are. You’d be green in another sense if you believed it comes ahead of profits.
Question: How could Texas be so unprepared?
Answer: Profit-driven companies decided not to worry about the unexpected:
“The storm, among the worst in a generation in Texas, led to the state’s grid becoming overwhelmed as supply withered against a soaring demand. Record-breaking cold weather spurred residents to crank up their electric heaters and pushed the need for electricity beyond the worst-case scenarios planned for by grid operators…
“For years, energy experts argued that the way Texas runs its electricity system invited a systematic failure. In the mid-1990s, the state decided against paying power producers to hold reserves, discarding the common practice across the United States and Canada of requiring a supply buffer of at least 15 percent beyond a typical day’s need.
“Robert McCullough, of McCullough Research in Portland, Ore., said he and others have long warned about the potential for catastrophe because Texas simply lacked backup for extreme weather events increasingly commonplace as a result of climate change.” (New York Times.)
California’s similar deregulated system was massively abused by dealers working for Enron. Enron was also praised as a brilliant business success, when overall they were actually losing money in conventional capitalist terms. Got away with fancy accounting that made their loss-making operations seem brilliant.
Question: Will Texans and others learn from their errors?
Answer: Hard to say. The folly that began with Reagan is still devoutly believed by supporters of Trump. Biden gives mixed signals.
The Economist magazine, as an intelligent defender of the interests of the rich, is expecting nothing much to happen:
“Why Snowmageddon won’t change Texas
“Without political competition, there is little incentive for Texas to tweak its model…
“Those who have called this February storm a once-in-a-century event have forgotten 2011. A decade ago a severe storm caused nearly a third of the state’s power-generating units to fail, causing rolling blackouts and prompting hearings into ERCOT. Yet experts’ suggestions—such as protecting equipment for winter conditions, increasing the grid’s excess capacity and reforming ERCOT—were ignored. ‘We fell short, because we didn’t demand the full implementation of those recommendations,’ says Joe Straus, a former Republican speaker of the Texas House. ‘We knew what to do, we just didn’t do it.’…
“The state’s founders were so wary of government that they wrote into their constitution that the legislature should meet only every other year for up to 140 days. Yet limited government comes with limitations. Texas spends around $4,000 per person, 40% less than the average American state. Because it fought the expansion of Medicaid, a health-care scheme for the poor, it has the highest uninsured rate in the country, which probably contributed to the state’s higher-than-average death rate from covid-19.
“Could this power crisis prompt a broader reckoning about the limits of Texas’s anti-government, low-regulation philosophy? Despite the reasons to think it should, that is unlikely.”
I’d say that even Texas might change. The Republican Governor won 56% to 43% in 2018. Trump has offended masses of moderate Republicans by declaring himself winner of an election he lost by seven million votes. And the Texas House of Representatives is split 55 to 45. It isn’t even hugely gerrymandered for the Republicans, unlike many other states. Texas might choose Democrats who would dare to re-impose rules on the rich.
But more probably not. US citizens have been abused for decades and Trump has successfully won over many who might have supported Bernie Saunders and the left. Centrist Democrats want to keep the basics of Feed-the-Rich, being themselves part of the tiny 1% that still flourishes.
Some people froze to death when they lost electricity. Or poisoned themselves by not knowing the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Others kept power, but suffer because corporations struggling for wealth and fearing extinction decided to transfer many of the risks to their more naïve customers:
“His Lights Stayed on During Texas’ Storm. Now He Owes $16,752.
“As millions of Texans shivered in dark, cold homes over the past week while a winter storm devastated the state’s power grid and froze natural gas production, those who could still summon lights with the flick of a switch felt lucky.
“Now, many of them are paying a severe price for it.
“‘My savings is gone,’ said Scott Willoughby, a 63-year-old Army veteran who lives on Social Security payments in a Dallas suburb. He said he had nearly emptied his savings account so that he would be able to pay the $16,752 electric bill charged to his credit card — 70 times what he usually pays for all of his utilities combined. ‘There’s nothing I can do about it, but it’s broken me.’
“Mr. Willoughby is among scores of Texans who have reported skyrocketing electric bills as the price of keeping lights on and refrigerators humming shot upward. For customers whose electricity prices are not fixed and are instead tied to the fluctuating wholesale price, the spikes have been astronomical…
“The steep electric bills in Texas are in part a result of the state’s uniquely unregulated energy market, which allows customers to pick their electricity providers among about 220 retailers in an entirely market-driven system.
“Under some of the plans, when demand increases, prices rise. The goal, architects of the system say, is to balance the market by encouraging consumers to reduce their usage and power suppliers to create more electricity.” (New York Times.)
It isn’t that most Texans are selfish. When it comes to personal choices, they can be very generous. But they were seduced by foolish anti-state rhetoric. Abandoned the tightly regulated New Deal system that gave them growth that less-regulated capitalism had never managed.
They believe in a system of highly similar individuals managing to live in harmony without a large state machine to express their collective will. Without strong curbs to control the foolish and the selfish. As indeed do many on the left, after the big cultural shifts of the 1960s and 1970s. And culturally, it produced a new order that most US citizens see as an improvement. But applied to economics, it has not worked.
“Texas lawmakers are calling for measures to relieve these excessive costs, which in some rare cases were borne by customers who had signed up for offerings that pegged their costs to wholesale market prices, as retail energy provider Griddy does.
“But ERCOT CEO Magness noted during Thursday’s hearings that any steps that interrupted the flow of money from electricity purchasers to sellers could lead to generators being unable to collect on the money owed to them for last week’s power.”
How many managers of failed providers will be punished by the law? The rich have spent a lot of money getting friendly politicians elected. And unlike Britain, there are no limits on how much can be spent. The Supreme Court defended the right of the rich to bias elections as a Fundamental Freedom. So even for issues where the voters would like more state spending and more curbs on the rich, the complexities of US politics stop it happening.
There is certainly financial chaos:
“Texas power co-op files for bankruptcy as storm fallout mounts…
“Brazos Electric Power Cooperative — a generation and transmission company that serves co-operatives across the state, many of which serve poorer rural areas — said it faced more than $2.1bn in bills for power it bought at surging prices during the storm. The figure was more than three times what it paid in all of 2020.
“The Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing was “necessary to protect its member co-operatives and their more than 1.5m retail members from unaffordable electric bills”, said Clifton Karnei, Brazos general manager.
“The bankruptcy is the latest manifestation of a financial crisis unfolding in the Texas wholesale power market.
“As the storm iced nearly half of Texas’ power generation capacity, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), the grid operator, set power prices at their maximum level of $9,000 a megawatt-hour to lure as much generation as possible on to the grid. A typical average price is just $25 a MWh.”
People outside of Texas are trying to help. Left-wing Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Congresswoman for New York, showed the same enthusiasm for ‘handouts’ to the needy for Texas as for other matters:
“Ocasio-Cortez fundraising for Texas relief reaches $4.7M…
“CNN noted that this is Ocasio-Cortez’s first major fundraising effort and disaster site visit apart from efforts relating to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“‘Our first major relief effort was last year when COVID hit and so we were able to build a disaster relief and fundraising operation and we cut our teeth on that with COVID but that was in our home district, and so before that, we had mobilized for Hurricane Maria relief but that was before I was elected as a member of Congress,’ Ocasio-Cortez told CNN. ‘I think this is just something that we should be able to do whenever there is an area in our country that’s in need.’”
And the BBC reported how a New Jersey plumber rushed to help:
“From halfway across America, one plumber has answered the pleas of Texans still grappling with the aftermath of a devastating winter storm.
“As the coldest temperatures in over 30 years swept through Texas in early February, pipes burst in homes across the south-western state, leaving thousands of families with flooded homes and no water.
“Plumber Andrew Mitchell and his family drove 22 hours from Morristown, New Jersey to the Houston area in a truck loaded up with around $2,000 (£1,418) worth of materials to offer a helping hand…
“‘It’s really a blessing to be a blessing to other people and Andrew truly enjoys the work,’ Mr Mitchell’s wife, Kisha Pinnock, told the BBC. ‘Plumbing is his passion.’”
But for too many others, money is their passion. Without state regulation and state spending, individual generous acts get overwhelmed by selfishness:
“How Texas exposed its grid to extreme weather
“In January 2014, power plants owned by the largest Texas electricity producer buckled under frigid temperatures. Its generators failed more than a dozen times in 12 hours, helping to bring the state’s electric grid to the brink of collapse.
“The incident was the second in three years for North Texas-based Luminant, whose equipment malfunctions during a more severe storm in 2011 resulted in a $750,000 fine from state energy regulators for failing to deliver promised power to the grid…
“Experts hired by the Texas Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electric and water utilities, concluded that power-generating companies like Luminant had failed to understand the ‘critical failure points’ that could cause equipment to stop working in cold weather.
“By the end of the process, the PUC agreed to soften the proposed changes. Instead of identifying all possible failure points in their equipment, power companies would need only to address any that were previously known.”
Fines can be seen as a fee for unimportant misbehaviour. I heard of a case where a school began fining parents for bringing their children to school late, But found that now a greater number would do so.
Texas’s political culture is a big problem:
“’Shivering under a pile of six blankets, I finally lost it’: my week in frozen Texas hell…
“While it might be easy to blame Texans for electing such inept people into office, don’t forget that this is one of the hardest states in which to vote. Voter suppression is as much a part of the state’s identity as barbecue…
“Even sadder was when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a congresswoman with no real connection to the state, raised $5m for Texans and traveled to Houston’s food bank to volunteer, while state leaders evaded responsibility and gave interviews to Fox News saying frozen wind turbines were the reason the entire state shut down, when only 7% of Texas’s power is generated by wind during the winter.”
“Why a predictable cold snap crippled the Texas power grid…
“Monday was one of the state’s coldest days in more than a century – but the unprecedented power crisis was hardly unpredictable after Texas had experienced a similar, though less severe, disruption during a 2011 cold snap. Still, Texas power producers failed to adequately winter-proof their systems. And the state’s grid operator underestimated its need for reserve power capacity before the crisis, then moved too slowly to tell utilities to institute rolling blackouts to protect against a grid meltdown, energy analysts, traders and economists said…
“After more than 3 million ERCOT customers lost power in a February 2011 freeze, federal regulators recommended that ERCOT prepare for winter with the same urgency as it does the peak summer season. They also said that, while ERCOT’s reserve power capacity looked good on paper, it did not take into account that many generation units could get knocked offline by freezing weather.
“There were prior severe cold weather events in the Southwest in 1983, 1989, 2003, 2006, 2008, and 2010,’ Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corp staff summarized after investigating the state’s 2011 rolling blackouts. ‘Extensive generator failures overwhelmed ERCOT’s reserves, which eventually dropped below the level of safe operation.’”
And the storm didn’t just hurt the electric supply:
“Texas Farmers Tally Up the Damage From a Winter Storm ‘Massacre’
“The state’s agriculture sector has lost an estimated $600 million or more. Crop and livestock damage could mean shortages and higher prices beyond Texas.”
Outsider admiration for rugged Texan individualism has also suffered damage:
“Nanny state? After the mess here in Texas, I’d give my right arm to live in one
“When the big freeze hit this laissez-faire part of the US, it was like the pandemic squared…
“The fatalistic Texan approach to the pandemic was summed up by a porter I interviewed outside a Fort Worth hospital in January: it was tough at first, he said, transporting the dead sealed in body bags, but he was well used to it now…
“The extent of the catastrophe only became clear when our friend Diego Cubero texted. Did we have water or electricity? He lives near Corinth, just to the south of Denton, which lost both. To avoid utter meltdown, the electricity-grid operator was blacking out entire towns, even cutting off vital facilities like Corinth’s water-processing plant. Denton was lucky to have rolling outages.”
It was also never that tough in Anglo-dominated Texas after the very early days. Both the USA and the British Empire suffered far less than Continental Europe in both world wars. Life was vastly worse for China and Japan in World War Two. And while the British Empire fell apart, the USA gained a great deal.
Japan was remade by the USA, with great generosity when they saw Communism spreading in Asia. Spreading because the Kuomintang between 1945 and 1949 showed itself utterly unfit to rule. Chinese in the former Japanese possessions of Manchuria and Taiwan found their new rulers worse than the Japanese. But the USA back then was modest enough to learn and frightened enough to be generous to the needy. The USA even paid for a limited Land Reform in much of non-Communist Asia, and gave massive backing to the research that led to the Green Revolution.
I mentioned earlier how Western carelessness and failure has led to a general loss of Western influence. China in particular, where some people wanted to become much more Western back in the 1990s. And now fewer and fewer feel so. I’ve done a blog on it, China Becoming Scornful of the USA.
It’s to be expected that many of those visibly in charge will lose their jobs:
“Following widespread power outages during a series of winter storms that left many Texas residents in the dark for days, the head of the organization overseeing the state’s power grid has been fired.
“Bill Magness, president and CEO of Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), was terminated from his contract by the organization’s board of directors after an emergency meeting Wednesday night.”
But he’ll probably get another good job, and perhaps merits it. Without detailed insider knowledge, you can’t be sure who bent the rules, who made misjudgements, or who was doing their best in the face of other people’s folly.
A science fiction series called The Expanse is quite realistic about the pressures on leaders, as well as having scenes in zero gravity that are surprisingly convincing. Also much that is improbable, including the key plot element of an object from another star and aimed at Earth becoming accidentally a moon of Saturn. But the politics are well above the wicked-persons view of most dramas, including those supposedly set in the real world. Even the worst villains can give plausible reasons why they are doing the right thing.
The deregulators of Texas did give plausible reasons why they were doing the right thing. But ought to see now that the system as a whole was a complete folly.
Huge profits were made from deregulation. And are even being made by some people from the current disaster:
“Bank of America reaps trading windfall during Texas blackouts
“Mayhem that left state without power produces hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue”
They may now have to pay it back, or may choose to do so. But it shows how market forces do nothing to discourage bad behaviour.
Actual payments are going to be argued over:
“Texas grid operator made $16 billion price error during winter storm, watchdog says”
With a mass of complex arguments, will it end with very few rich persons suffering anything much? That was certainly the outcome of the financial crash of 2007-8.
Texans are so fond of liberty that each hogs it all to himself or herself. They are happy to see their neighbours do without, if they rate them as inferior and undeserving. Are hold-outs against equal rights for those different from the WASP majority: the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who are heirs of the people who stole Texas from both Mexico and its original inhabitants.
The snake on a flag was originally a progressive symbol, with white males in Britain’s North American colonies protesting at a corrupt British government whose Parliament was even less democratic than the one-seventh of the male electorate who voted after the 1832 Reform. But Western politics has been moving steadily leftwards for more than two centuries. A shift that my father Raymond Williams called a Long Revolution, though sadly there are also Short Counter-Revolutions. The useful phrase ‘Short Counter-Revolution’ was coined for Thatcherism by Jim Mcguigan, who did an updated version of one of my father’s books. I would see it more broadly: the rise of European Fascism would also fit, and perhaps earlier reversals. But the broad drift of ideas from Hard Left to Moderate Left, Centrist and Centre-Right has held. The economic counter-revolution of Thatcherism has not prevented a vast advance in socialist ideas of social equality. Failure to properly notice and reject a massive growth in economic inequality may be cured in time.
The historic leftward drift can also leave once-progressive ideas stranded on the Hard Right, and this has happened with ‘Don’t Tread on Me’. The Wiki mentions that the slogan and some derivative of the snake-displaying Gadsden flag are often used in the United States as a symbol for gun rights and limited government. Not originally for free-market extremism, but this is now part of the package. So I’d suggest some US leftist do a version of the coiled-snake image with a new logo – ‘I am cold-blooded and poisonous’. And maybe also ‘Trump Is My Sort of Person’.
The snake-loving slogan is frequently linked with nostalgia for the Confederacy and its vision of unequal white people with a lower stratum of non-whites kept strictly below even the most inferior or unequal whites.
US liberalism has far too often been tolerant of the same inequality. Now non-racial and non-sexist, but sometimes even more mean-spirited to those outside of the elite.
The US Civil War was fought because the elite in the North wanted to dominate the new lands that had been conquered from Mexico or taken from Native Americans.
Lincoln was elected after clearly stating that he had no intention of interfering with slavery where it was legal under the particular laws of each of the USA’s constituent states. And that he doubted he had the power to do so, since the original 1787 Constitution had accepted slavery as legal. Had also obliged states without slavery to return fugitive slaves, which is why many of them were moved on to Canada.
Lincoln’s new Republican Party was also all for tariffs and state protection. This had always been part of US practice on some issues. It was justified both for the USA and Germany by a political liberal called Friedrich List: He was suspicious of Adam Smith’s claim that the remarkable growth of industry in Britain had happened despite the growth of state spending and despite the strong protection against foreign competition that existed in Britain as an undeniable historic fact. Said that Britain favoured Free Trade now because its own industry had become superior after a period of strict protection.
Brendan Clifford publicised these lost ideas among left-wingers who had forgotten them: but sadly, most of them preferred to remain ignorant. The original article is unfortunately not available on-line, but I did my own summary in connection with my own research on Adam Smith. You can find it as Real Economic Growth Was Not Based on Adam Smith’s Ideas.
Protectionism was how industry was built in the USA, and also Germany as it unified. Also Japan, and the foundations of China’s success was laid by the extremist state-run and protectionist system of Mao. Despite some errors, Mao managed to triple the economy. Maoist China grew faster than the USA or Britain in the same period. And despite the failure of the Great Leap Forward, he lowered the overall death rate rather faster than other poor countries managed.
In the USA’s 1860 election, Lincoln got a lot of votes by promising more protection in states with growing industry. This put him at odds with the South, which had flourished thanks to slave-worked agriculture and was happy to rely on Britain for anything hard to make. But the big issue was Lincoln’s claim that he as President had the right to ban slavery from the Territories. These were lands with too few US citizens to justify organising them as a state with rights of autonomy. And the concept of land ruled just by the Federal Government arose because several states including Virginia agreed to give up specific claims to land to the west of them. Claims that often overlapped, so it was a way of avoiding the wars that happened in independent Latin America. But the main benefit was that it made the famous 1787 Constitution acceptable to enough voters to get it ratified. And part of the deal was a specific law that forbade slavery in what was then the Northwest Territory, and later became six states without slavery. States that helped produce Abraham Lincoln (Illinois state legislator) and Ulysses S. Grant (born in Ohio).
The six new states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the northeastern part of Minnesota were a boost to free-soil economics. But nothing was said about banning slavery from other Territories, or preventing them from emerging as Slave States. This happened unexpectedly with the newly created state of Missouri.
There’s an old joke about a country-and-western song called Missouri Loves Company. But the grimly miserable reality is that Missouri jutted north of the Mason-Dixon Line. This was originally just the demarcation between several states, but mostly Pennsylvania and Maryland. It became a stock phrase to summarise the differences between North and South.
Northern alarm led to what was called the Missouri Compromise, limiting slavery along a north-south line in the Territories. But then anti-slavery elements managed to dominate California, the best of the spoils of the successful aggression against Mexico that began with the 1845 U.S. annexation of Texas. The US-born majority in Texas very much wanted to join, but the legality of territories seceding has always been uncertain. Annexation based on successful violence or threats of violence has always been part of a harsh reality that ‘International Law’ has always adjusted itself to. The UN now tries to discourage it, but it still happens.
There were demands that California be split, with the South probably becoming a slave state. This was resisted, and the preferred name ‘Colorado’ for the new state was given to a much less valuable piece of loot. More moderate Northerners were however willing to give the South land next to Missouri, with the Kansas–Nebraska Act that suggested the North be content with the chunk called Nebraska. Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s great rival in politics before 1861, intended it so. But he also relied on ‘spontaneous politics’ without specifically saying that Kansas was obliged to go with the South. The result was a miniature Civil War before the main event, known as Bleeding Kansas. A sad series of gun-fights and massacres absurdly misrepresented in the Clint Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales. Anti-slavery irregulars called Jayhawkers did murder some slave-owners, but would hardly have wiped out the entire family of a white man working his own land with no slaves visible, which is how the film begins.
Falsehoods in the USA didn’t begin with Trump, or with Nixon.
The USA still has defenders of deregulation. In another context I mocked them for effectively saying ‘don’t say I’ve failed just because I’ve failed’. And in my view this happening again:
“The Case for the Deregulated Texas Power Grid… Other than extraordinary circumstances, Texas’s deregulated system has in fact lowered prices, increased competition, and improved service for Texans.”
By the same logic: apart from one person in six blowing their brains out, Russian Roulette is entirely safe and can relieve much mental stress.
There is a general failure to work out the likely results of your own actions.
And it’s not even clear that prices are lower than if the old system had been kept:
“Who’s To Blame For The Expensive Energy Bills In Texas?…
“In the 1990s deregulatory fervor first took hold in California where electricity prices were already high compared with the rest of the US. This however was not the case in Texas, which, as an energy producing state rich in natural, fossil resources, enjoyed electricity prices below the national average. Nevertheless the ideological commitment to free markets held sway and Texas decided to deregulate. After all, the professional consensus among neo-liberal economists was that utility deregulation, embracing free market principles, would lead to efficiencies that would reduce prices drastically in an already low cost electric system.
“So, let’s start with a fact: electricity prices in deregulated states—places where we were told to expect lower power prices— did not decline relative to price levels in the nation as a whole, after deregulation. Why? Our two best guesses are that 1) the savings from deregulation were not actually meaningful or the competitive power market simply transferred wealth internally without delivering any cost savings to consumers. This is probably what occurred in Texas.”
Live Cheap, Suffer Often. That’s how I see it.
The endless drive to cost-cutting has damaged civilisation, and not even delivered more material wealth for most people. Nothing beyond the gains that the system of the 1950s and 1960s delivered, and might have gone on delivering from the 1980s if the lurch into free-market ideology had been avoided. Ordinary people in Britain have a smaller share of the new wealth than they had a right to. Ordinary people in the USA have not seen their living standards improve since the 1970s.
All of the promises for ordinary people have proved false. But there are of course other possible excuses for failure:
Question: Isn’t wind power to blame?
Answer: Not at all. Texas is full of wind, so people tap it using the ever-improving technology of the last few decades. But everyone knows that you get windless days. A sensible supply system will have power storage and other sources.
Texas in the storm had wind, but a lot of the wind turbines were frozen. But that was not the main problem. Other sources that would work for windless days failed:
“When critics pointed to a loss of nearly half of Texas’s wind-energy capacity as a result of frozen turbines, they failed to point out double that amount was being lost from gas and other non-renewable supplies such as coal and nuclear…
“The cold weather also affected a water system needed to run the South Texas Nuclear Power Station, causing one reactor to shut down.” (BBC Online)
“It is possible to “winterize” natural gas power plants, natural gas production, wind turbines and other energy infrastructure, experts said, through practices like insulating pipelines. These upgrades help prevent major interruptions in other states with regularly cold weather.” (Texas Tribune)
But blaming Green values is popular. You can find a lot of it on the unregulated forums that the internet pioneers assured us would be a cheap and easy path to Freedom.
There is even one small truth. Had they not replaced coal by natural gas, the disaster would have been smaller. But that was only because they decided not to bother ensuring that gas would flow even in cold weather.
And did not create enough backup storage.
From the 1990s, we’ve suffered a run of increasingly serious crises caused by Climate Change.
Climate disasters are part of human history. But over the last three decades, they have become much more common and very much worse.
For specific events, it is hard to be sure. Scientists whose lives are built around a search for truth do agree that some newsworthy events are probably natural:
“A big iceberg approaching the size of Greater London has broken away from the Antarctic, close to Britain’s Halley research station…
“Is this climate change in action?
“No. The calving of bergs at the forward edge of an ice shelf is a very natural behaviour. A shelf will maintain an equilibrium and the ejection of bergs is one way it balances the accumulation of mass from snowfall and the input of more ice from the feeding glaciers on land. Unlike on the Antarctic Peninsula on the other side of the Weddell Sea, scientists have not detected climate changes in the Brunt region that would significantly alter the natural process described above. What is more – estimates suggest the Brunt was at its biggest extent in at least 100 years before the calving. The event was overdue.”
Natural climate disasters would happen anyway. But they have become more common and worse. Records that had held for decades or even centuries now keep getting broken.
What’s just happened in Texas is part of a run of extreme events:
Question: If the problem is Global Warming, why was there abnormal cold in Texas?
Answer: It is actually Climate Change. The early models showed most of the world warming but a few patches getting cooler. Blue patches in a sea of red, which has been true for later models and later events.
More exactly, weather patterns have shifted, with the Arctic warming far faster than expected and upsetting everything:
“Cold air is normally concentrated around the north pole in the polar vortex, an area of low pressure that circulates in a tight formation in the stratosphere during winter. This rotation is likened by scientists to a spinning top, one that can meander if it is interfered with.
“This interference, researchers say, is occurring through changes to the jet stream, a band of strong winds that wraps around the globe at lower elevations than the polar vortex. The warming of the Arctic, it is thought, is causing the jet stream to shift.”
A mass of cold air from the arctic moved south. Not the first time it has happened, but much the worst for North America since the Anglo settlers began recording the weather:
“So why is this normally boiling state suddenly freezing over?
“According to the US National Weather Service (NWS), this is down to an ‘Arctic outbreak’ that originated just above the US-Canada border, bringing a winter snow storm as well as plummeting temperatures.
“Cold air outbreaks such as these are normally kept in the Arctic by a series of low-pressure systems, the NWS said. However, this one moved through Canada and spilled out into the US last week.
“Temperatures in the city of Dallas for example will reach a high of 14F (-10C) on Monday when it should be more like 59F (15C) at this time of year.
“For the first time in the US state, all 254 counties are under a winter storm warning, US media report. The temperature in Dallas is already colder than in Anchorage, Alaska, CBS News reports.”
A run of bad weather is an observable fact, even for those who deny the causes. But those who ought to pay prefer not to pay.
Fog and darkness may be added to the public’s understanding, based on the confusing fact that climate change mixes some cold outbreaks with the general rise:
“From one extreme to another, the temperatures across Europe have been on a rollercoaster journey this winter.
“Greece or Spain have experienced some of the heaviest snowfall in several decades, temperatures have been exceptionally mild for the season in western Europe and there’s been freezing cold in the east.”
“Unseasonable European Warmth Smashes All-Time February Temperature Records”.
“A record-breaking late winter heatwave sets new all-time February records across China and South Korea this weekend”
And if, like me, you get convinced by graphics, I have done a nice collection on Flickr of various graphic maps and climate events.
Let’s imagine some politician wanted to ‘refute’ the notion that drunks caused a lot of road accidents, meaning that breath tests etc. were justified. They could point to sober people crashing and drunks getting home OK. But it is all about the pattern. The social reality.
Both breath tests and curbs on smoking were resisted for many years, before becoming the accepted norm.
Resistance to sensible measures to stop the early spread of Covid-19 happened in Europe and the USA, with results I mentioned above. There was also a premature easing-up over the summer, causing a tragic ‘second spike’ in the USA and in much of Europe.
There is continued resistance to large and costly measures to slow and stabilise Climate Change. Claims that not everything is certain or proven.
I trust scientists. But those who don’t should look at the Insurance Industry. They would have no reason to ‘talk up’ Climate Change if it were some leftist folly. But they live by the accurate reckoning of risks. They are not skeptics.
The law has a useful concept needful for giving workable justice in an imperfect world: proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
Individual scientists can be foolish. The community as a whole is cautious. It needs strong evidence to become convinced of new ideas. And has insider knowledge of plausible theories that turned out to be wrong.
When radioactivity was first discovered, no one knew what it was. Some people asked if perhaps the Law of Conservation of Energy didn’t always hold. The notion of atoms falling apart would have seemed just as weird, yet was accepted once solidly proved. Conservation of Energy remains valid, but slightly amended to allow for matter sometimes being converted into energy by the shuffling of subatomic particles.
Until the mid-1960s, the Steady-State model of the universe was a respectable alternative to the Big Bang. I myself was a believer at the time in Fred Hoyle’s very elegant version of Steady-State, which could explain why the universe was visibly expanding. But then improved astronomy showed that the very distant universe – thousands of millions of light-years away – was different from nearby parts. It had many more violent events, including quasars. And much later, a grand photographic project called the Hubble Deep Field showed very distant galaxies that were visibly disorderly: merging often and still putting themselves together. Steady-State now has very few supporters.
Just now, the Large Hadron Collider has cast doubt on a collection of very elegant theories of subatomic particles known collectively as Supersymmetry. Most versions predicted particles that should have been found and definitely were not found. Critics say that Supersymmetry is ‘running out of places to hide’. I find this fair, but don’t ignore the small chance that it might be right after all. I note that quarks are always accepted as real, with elaborate but valid arguments to explain why no one has ever seen a free quark.
In the case of Climate Denialism, it has long since run out of places to hide. But it is still useful as an excuse for powerful industrial interests to avoid paying the share of costs that simple justice would suggest they pay.
Incidentally, the Large Hadron Collider did vindicate the idea of a Higgs Field, a previously unproven notion that neatly explained why most particles had an inherent mass. It also confirmed that at least one Higgs Boson existed. Disappointingly, early hints at unexpected features vanished as more data was collected. It turned out to be ‘a boringly normal Higgs Boson’, since currently it gives no hint of the more complex physics which almost all experts are sure lies beyond the accurate but arbitrary Standard Model of particle physics. Other data does hint at something, but there is not so far any agreement as to what.
Science does occasionally turn up something utterly unexpected. But also it is always something new. Not a revival of old ideas that had been discarded.
I can’t think of a single case in which the community as a whole has moved to a new idea and it was worse than the old one. Can any of the Climate Denialists find such a case?
Having done a science degree, even though I got bad exam results and worked as a very ordinary commercial analyst-programmer, I switched my views when I saw the scientific community do so. A conversion in the 1980s, when it became clear that the air contained a lot more carbon dioxide than it had in previous centuries. I had been suspicious of Green Attitudes. I was and still am against the Deep Green approach. But I could assess a lot of the evidence myself, and trusted a consensus of experts on the rest.
The issue has been confused by the older habit of calling it Global Warming. Warming is the broad trend, but climate models always predicted regional cooling. This very much applies to the Texas Freeze. While they suffered, much of the USA was fairly normal. And I detailed earlier how we had an unusually warm February in parts of Continental Europe and much of East Asia
There was always a likelihood of weather patterns shifting. The biggest fear – switching off the Gulf Stream and a drastic cooling – is not as terrible as was once feared. The Gulf Stream is weakening, but only towards the end of the 21st century is it likely to get bad:
“Weakest Gulf Stream in 1,000 years could bring more ‘extreme’ winters to UK and Europe, says study
“The Gulf Stream that helps warm the UK and northwest Europe is at its weakest in over 1,000 years and could lead to more ‘extreme and intense’ winters, according to researchers.
“They say the slowdown observed in the 20th century is ‘unprecedented’ and likely connected to climate change…
“Climate modelling also suggests global warming could weaken the Gulf Stream by another 34-45% by 2100, according to researchers – who warn it could be a ‘tipping point at which the flow becomes unstable’.”
A bigger immediate worry for those with a global outlook is the South Asian Monsoon. Hundreds of millions of poor farmers depend on it. How robust is it?
“Since 1950s, the South Asian summer monsoon has been exhibiting large changes, especially in terms of droughts and floods. The observed monsoon rainfall indicates a gradual decline over central India, with a reduction of up to 10%. This is primarily due to a weakening monsoon circulation as a result of the rapid warming in the Indian Ocean, and changes in land use and land cover, while the role of aerosols remain elusive. Since the strength of the monsoon is partially dependent on the temperature difference between the ocean and the land, higher ocean temperatures in the Indian Ocean have weakened the moisture bearing winds from the ocean to the land. The reduction in the summer monsoon rainfall have grave consequences over central India because at least 60% of the agriculture in this region is still largely rain-fed.
“A recent assessment of the monsoonal changes indicate that the land warming has increased during 2002–2014, possibly reviving the strength of the monsoon circulation and rainfall. Future changes in the monsoon will depend on a competition between land and ocean—on which is warming faster than the other.
“Meanwhile, there has been a three-fold rise in widespread extreme rainfall events during the years 1950 to 2015, over the entire central belt of India, leading to a steady rise in the number of flash floods with significant socioeconomic losses.”
Amidst all this, you do get a few Denialists saying ‘no, you fools, it is all down to the sun having a warm spell’.
It is indeed true that solar output varies. But what we see there does not currently match what we have on Earth. NASA, which has no reason to be partisan, posted a clear summary:
“One of the ‘smoking guns’ that tells us the Sun is not causing global warming comes from looking at the amount of the Sun’s energy that hits the top of the atmosphere. Since 1978, scientists have been tracking this using sensors on satellites and what they tell us is that there has been no upward trend in the amount of the Sun’s energy reaching Earth.
“A second smoking gun is that if the Sun were responsible for global warming, we would expect to see warming throughout all layers of the atmosphere, from the surface all the way up to the upper atmosphere (stratosphere). But what we actually see is warming at the surface and cooling in the stratosphere. This is consistent with the warming being caused by a build-up of heat-trapping gases near the surface of the Earth, and not by the Sun getting ‘hotter.’”
Earth is both warming and changing, while the amount of sunlight we get stays much the same. But the sun might matter in another way:
“Ask Ethan: How Prepared Are We For The Next Giant Solar Flare?
“In 1859, the science of solar physics truly began with the largest eruption in recorded history: the Carrington event…
“Our early electric systems, like the telegraph, experienced their own induced currents, causing shocks, starting fires, and tapping wildly, even when the systems themselves were disconnected entirely…
“If you have a loop or coil of wire where the magnetic field changes inside, it will create an induced electric current. Humanity knew about this law well prior to the Carrington event; Faraday discovered it back in 1831. But the world has changed an awful lot since Carrington’s day, as power grids, power stations and substations, power transport infrastructure, and even residential, commercial, and industrial electronics are all full of loops and coils of wire. The induced currents, if we were to experience a Carrington-like event today, would literally be astronomical.
“The estimates for how much damage — if we do nothing to mitigate it — would occur have risen into 11-digit numbers worldwide. The power grids of most countries would be completely and effectively leveled. The top way to mitigate the effects of such a flare would be through increased grounding, so that the large currents that would otherwise flow through grid wires would instead flow directly into the Earth. Every time power companies attempt to do this, however, what winds up happening instead is that the conducting substance used for grounding (such as copper) is stolen for its material value.
“As a result, we have under-grounded power stations and substations that would experience enormous induced currents, and that will typically lead to fires, followed by significant damage and destruction to our infrastructure. Not only are we talking about a multi-trillion dollar disaster (the damage to the United States alone has been estimated as high as $2.6 trillion), we’re talking about large swaths of the world’s population being left without power for extended periods of time: potentially for years. When you consider what happened in Texas just very recently when they got hit with freezing temperatures and many areas lost power, there’s the risk of an extremely large number of casualties; for many people, electricity is necessary to sustain their lives.
“The Carrington event was not some massive outlier that only occurs once every few million years, either. Many solar flares have struck Earth, some of which have caused localized damage to the power grid. A 1972 set of solar storms caused a widespread disruption of electrical and telecommunications grids, satellite disruptions, and even caused the accidental detonation of naval mines in Vietnam. A 1989 geomagnetic storm caused a complete outage of Quebec’s electricity transmission system. And a 2005 solar storm knocked the GPS network offline. These events may have been damaging, but they were only warning shots compared to what nature inevitably has in store for us.”
If Texans have heard of this, they probably thought ‘true grit’ would see them through. And perhaps still do.
My solution would be more state spending. Also a special law with very high penalties for stealing copper used to make electricity transmitters safe.
The good news is that the human race isn’t going to go extinct. The resources exist to fix everything: they just need to be spent on the community rather than going to conspicuous consumption by the rich.
The bad news is that a lot more suffering is certain to happen. Even perhaps the deaths of tens of millions.
Particularly if the wrong fixes are allowed:
“Dusting the upper atmosphere could help counter climate change
“An experiment to test the idea could soon start in Sweden…
“The idea is that a future flight will release a small amount of calcium carbonate dust into the stratosphere, in order to help researchers learn more about solar geoengineering.
“Geoengineering is the grand (and still mostly hypothetical) idea of deliberately fiddling with the Earth’s systems to try to counter climate change. SCoPEx plans to test an idea called stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), in which fine dust is injected into the upper atmosphere to boost the amount of sunlight reflected back into space. In the coming days, an advisory committee, also based at Harvard, will decide whether the initial flight can go ahead.”
But it is the shifting or breaking of weather-patterns that is the big current issue. Adding a second abnormality to the atmosphere would be very likely to make things even worse. We might get a more even mix of hot and cold disasters, but that’s no cure.
The big problem is business being given too much that it demands, and with too little state regulation. If ideological capitalism has fewer believers than it once had, the influence of the rich remains strong and damaging.
There is a lot more I want to say, particularly about grids and the need for super-grids. But this article has become very long: I will put most of it in a second study. I will just round off the main points I’ve made here, by explaining phrases I used earlier.
The famous Davy Crocket supposedly said ‘you can go to hell: I’m going to Texas’. Someone could have answered ‘and then we’d be neighbours’: but it seems no one did.
In fact it’s not certain he said it: at least not so directly. I looked it up on the Wiki, where libertarians have a strong presence and US views dominate. But off-message facts can still be found:
“He was defeated for re-election in the August 1835 election… During his last term in Congress, he collaborated with Kentucky Congressman Thomas Chilton to write his autobiography, which was published … in 1834 as A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, Written by Himself, and he went east to promote the book. In 1836, newspapers published the now-famous quotation attributed to Crockett upon his return to his home state:
“‘I told the people of my district that I would serve them as faithfully as I had done; but if not, they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas’…
“Crockett arrived in Nacogdoches, Texas in early January 1836. He and 65 other men signed an oath before Judge John Forbes to the Provisional Government of Texas for six months… Each man was promised about 4,600 acres (1,900 ha) of land as payment…
“Crockett arrived at the Alamo Mission in San Antonio on February 8…
“Weeks after the battle, stories began to circulate that Crockett was among those who surrendered and were executed. A former African-American slave named Ben had acted as cook for one of Santa Anna’s officers, and he maintained that Crockett’s body was found in the barracks surrounded by ‘no less than sixteen Mexican corpses’, with Crockett’s knife buried in one of them…
“Yet, in 1955, Jesús Sánchez Garza discovered the memoirs of José Enrique de la Peña, a Mexican officer present at the Battle of the Alamo… it asserted that Crockett did not die in battle.”
If the surrender story is true, you can find excuses. He might have felt he could do more if traded back. Maybe his enemies felt the same, and had him killed to avoid that. But being Mexicans, they may just have been angry and offended.
My first blog on the crisis was calledTexas: Live Free, Freeze and Die. I was of course aware that Live Free or Die is the motto of New Hampshire, not Texas. But it’s much the same attitude you find there. The main difference, apart from weather, is that New Hampshire didn’t fight a war to defend slavery.
The spirit in both places is the spirit of people who stole the land of the Native Americans. People who have been very wasteful with things that were often not of their own making.
They fail to realise how many things that succeeded in the USA had been imagined and largely invented in Europe. Including aircraft, automobiles, space rockets and nuclear weapons.
Someone should work out in detail just which success stories would be missing if the USA had resolved its crisis in the 1850s in a different way. Abolished slavery but also closed the door to new immigrants, which was the demand of the briefly-powerful American Party, commonly called the Know-Nothings. General Ulysses S. Grant was briefly a supporter, and it probably contributed to his bizarre decision to try to expel all Jews from the war zone on suspicion of helping the Confederates.
This last was less bizarre than it would seem today. In the 1860s, Jews in the various states generally had the same mix of views as the rest of the white population. Only later when enormous numbers of East European Jews arrived did Jews come to be seen as mostly left-wing. And the most notable Jew in the 1860s was Judah Philip Benjamin, Senator from Louisiana and Confederate Secretary of State for most of the war.
If we imagine that the USA had stopped immigration in the 1860s, they would be missing many of their high achievers – not all of them Jewish. Charlie Chaplin was not Jewish, though he let it be thought otherwise and had a Jewish half-brother. One of many great talents born in England.
Someone should do a list, saying who would be missing. Include those born in the USA, but at least 50% of their ancestors were not there before 1860. Maybe call it A Jew-Free USA?, though it would include many notable names other than Jews. Or if that’s too provocative, What If the Know-Nothings Had Won in the 1860s?
Right-wing complaints about ‘politically correct’ get a hearing because far too many on the liberal left rely on being fashionable and fail to put the very strong arguments that can be put. I’ve done some on the specific issue of anti-Semitism, but there is vast scope for more.
But the big problem is economic inequality, and its vast expansion in the West since the 1980s. And the reliance on ‘market miracles’ that fail to happen. A rejection of state control, which is mostly the least bad option in a complex world.
 https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2021/feb/01/loose-rule-breaking-culture-covid-deaths-societies-pandemic. The author may have confused Austria with Australia.
 https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries as at 1st March 2020.
 For her other errors, see https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/m-articles-by-topic/50-new-right-ideas/ayn-rands-atlas-shrugged/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/m-articles-by-topic/50-new-right-ideas/new-right-ideas-hayek-and-ayn-rand/
 At one time on Syfy and Netflix, but now on Amazon Prime. And available as disks for four of its five current seasons.
 Raymond Williams: A Short Counter Revolution: Towards 2000, Revisited
 A spoof of ‘misery loves company’, a common English phrase
 I borrow this phrase from a 1960s Macbeth-derived play written against Lydon Johnson. With hindsight, I’d see MacBird! as part of the naïve left-wing errors of the period.
 https://news.sky.com/story/weakest-gulf-stream-in-1-000-years-could-bring-more-extreme-winters-to-uk-and-europe-says-study-1222895. See also https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/feb/25/atlantic-ocean-circulation-at-weakest-in-a-millennium-say-scientists and https://www.ft.com/content/589d034a-ee9d-4c74-b20b-4b750c2d904d (pay site).
 https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/hitler-the-13th-chancellor/. Also “Real Cures for Anti-Semitism” in an article about why Labour lost in 2019: https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/why-labour-lost-in-december-2019/.