Friday evening, Reuters had a short story entitled “New York mayor goes to Texas, outlines energy plan“. In it, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had yet another chance to claim he’s not running in the 2008 presidential campaign.
And of course he isn’t. However, barring some true oddity, I think he will be, before the end of June.
Why? Well, that’s the easy part – nobody in Texas, at least nobody I know in Texas, was dying to hear the Mayor’s view of the nation’s energy plan. Because he knows nothing about it? Hardly – I’m sure he’s given it a good bit of thought, and he appears to have some interesting ideas, among the less practical ones. Because he has precisely zero control over it, including his lack of a bully pulpit from which to influence policy credibly on the matter, he has no national platform, as NYC Mayor, from which to insist his views be considered.
His Houston visit was politicking, pure and simple. Of course, he’s a politician, and that’s what politicians do. Except for Michael Bloomberg, that is. His Honor spent the entirety of his first term and the bulk, so far, of his second staying singularly focused on the needs of the voters who put him into office. Within the remit of his New York duties, he’s even proposed energy, conservation, and environmental policies that are quite far-reaching. From an April 26 story in The Economist:
…the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has turned deficits into surpluses. He has also managed to make New Yorkers live healthier lives, banning smoking and trans-fats. Now, he has set his sights on the city’s long-term sustainability.
The mayor is proposing 127 new initiatives dealing with land, air, water, energy and transport. His proposals include introducing molluscs into the city’s waterways as natural bio-filters, adding bicycle lanes and hastening the cleaning and rezoning of 7,600 acres (3,100 hectares) of contaminated land.
Some of his provisions are even more ambitious. He plans to cut the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30% in part by improving the efficiency of power plants. To pay for this, a $2.50 monthly surcharge will go on electricity bills. He argues that by spending $30 a year until 2015, every household will save $240 a year after that. This bid for energy conservation would be the broadest attack on climate change ever undertaken by an American city.
Serious stuff, in other words. However, it’s stuff that, New York City being what it is, can be implemented in New York City without needing validation or support from elsewhere in the US. Therefore, his newfound focus on opinionating, in Houston as well as what I presume will be future national venues, would seem to have nothing to do with his ambitious plans for his own city.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, I’d add. Contradictions between what he says and what he appears to be doing aren’t my point here, not least because I see no contradictions. Let’s look at what he’s said on the matter of his supposed candidacy, from the Reuters article:
“I’ve said repeatedly I am not a candidate for president of the United States. I plan to serve out my 965 days left to go” as mayor, he said at a press conference after his speech
“I am not” clearly isn’t the same as “I will not be”, and of course he plans to serve out his remaining 965 days (from May 11, 2007) as mayor, because he hasn’t formally started a run for, and has no guarantee of achieving, the nomination of his party for president in 2008.
So, since this isn’t an epistle about his (imaginary) squishiness regarding his plans for higher political office, what is it? Two things, actually.
First, an armchair critique of his energy plan, which plan is also summarized in the Reuters piece:
His proposals, offered up at the center of the nation’s energy industry, included increased offshore drilling for oil and gas and the construction of more nuclear plants.
He also pushed for development of more wind power and for government to encourage investment in clean energy sources.
Bloomberg said current federal ethanol policies made little sense because they promote production of corn-based ethanol over the more efficient sugar-based fuel.
He also threw out increases in government-mandate fuel efficiency standards, and the alternative of fluorescent bulbs over incandescent, stating that:
“If we do, Americans would save 120 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions and $14 billion every year,” he said.
Which could be true, I guess, even though I don’t know whether he attributes those savings to the bulb change, the CAFE change, or both. No quibble here with the ideas, at least.
Of his other plans, increased offshore drilling for oil and gas and the construction of more nuclear power plants seem to make good sense, to the extent they’re coupled with reasonable attempts to become more energy efficient in addition to becoming more energy self-sufficient.
His thoughts on ethanol are great, as far as they go – focusing on sugar-based ethanol production as opposed to corn-based is an excellent choice, for several reasons. Sugar can be turned into ethanol far more efficiently, and shifting emphasis to sugar would go a long way toward opening up some of the grotesquely protected agricultural markets in the US. As covered in the May 10 Economist story “Insatiable”, the currently planned renewal of the farm bill, a once-every-five-years affirmation of welfare for farmers, the supports envisioned for “corn, wheat, rice and other favored crops” are slated to drop from $7.5 billion all the way down to $7 billion. Big deal. This is in addition to “just under $44 billion a year on other kinds of subsidies to poor farmers, including food stamps, school lunches and so forth”, for which no meaningful changes are planned.
That’s only part of the trouble, though – in addition to price supports, the government, at the behest of US farm conglomerates, maintains punishing tariffs on sugar imports, which limits the impact of one of Brazil’s best exports on the US market. From the April 12 Economist Survey of Brazil:
The showcase is ethanol. Brazil’s variety, based on sugar cane, is cheaper than anyone else’s and has encouraged a lot of innovation beyond the basic commodity. “With biofuels we’re suddenly at the forefront,” says Fernando Reinach of Votorantim Novos Negócios, which runs a venture-capital fund that invests in ethanol technology.
Contrast this with US, primarily corn-based, ethanol products, also via The Economist, on April 4:
Farmers love it because it provides a new source of subsidy. Hawks love it because it offers the possibility that America may wean itself off Middle Eastern oil. The automotive industry loves it, because it reckons that switching to a green fuel will take the global-warming heat off cars. The oil industry loves it because the use of ethanol as a fuel additive means it is business as usual, at least for the time being. Politicians love it because by subsidising it they can please all those constituencies. Taxpayers seem not to have noticed that they are footing the bill.
But corn-based ethanol, the sort produced in America, is neither cheap nor green. It requires almost as much energy to produce (more, say some studies) as it releases when it is burned. And the subsidies on it cost taxpayers, according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, somewhere between $5.5 billion and $7.3 billion a year.
Ethanol made from sugar cane, by contrast, is good. It produces far more energy than is needed to grow it, and Brazil—the main producer of sugar ethanol—has plenty of land available on which to grow sugar without necessarily reducing food production or encroaching on rainforests. Other developing countries with tropical climates, such as India, the Philippines and even Cuba, could prosper by producing sugar ethanol and selling it to rich Americans to fuel their cars.
Long story made only slightly longer, focusing a bit on sugar-based ethanol seems like a half-measure. Focusing a lot on it, by increasing its use in US ethanol production, reducing subsidies for corn-based ethanol, and fully opening the incoming market for sugar-based product would be a full measure that made solid sense. Doing all that, plus focusing on cellulosic ethanol, made from wood, shrubs, and agricultural waste, would be like hitting the trifecta.
His other mildly objectionable idea is that of having the government “encourage investment in clean energy sources”, which has had dubious knock-on effects in both the past and present, using the current corn-based ethanol craze as one of many examples.
Overall, his energy plan probably rates a solid B, if not a B+.
The other purpose for this now-longer-than-planned screed is to wonder whether both Mr. Bloomberg and the voting public wouldn’t be well served by a bit of political Mau Mau.
Picture this: Bloomberg is a Republican in name only, and no, I’m not using that term in a derogatory fashion. Back when he was a Democrat, to the best of my knowledge, he could adequately have been described as a Democrat in name only, too.
He’s a capable politician, and a capable executive in charge of a large and complex polity. (Please ignore, for the purpose of this analysis, his nannyish actions on smoking and trans-fats, well-intentioned as I’m sure they were) These attributes seem far more interesting than some clap-on/clap-off political party affiliation. And as a result, the presumption that he would or should run in the race for the Republican presidential nomination strikes me as anything but a foregone conclusion.
Further picture this: A presidential race between Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. They have some of their views in common with one another, not least, this (also from Reuters piece):
…when told Giuliani said in his Houston appearance that managing New York City was the best preparation for being president, a smiling Bloomberg agreed.
“I think he couldn’t be more right. And I could not have said it better myself,” he said.
I’m not actively rooting for such a match-up, mind you, and if such a race were to happen, I have no idea which candidate I’d prefer. But I do think it would be interesting, and could result, all other things being equal, in one of the cleanest presidential campaigns in memory.