Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Who was saying what Obama said they were saying?

By Donald Sensing

In last night's address, President Obama set a course to "transition away from fossil fuels." Then, invoking (between the lines) William James' "moral equivalent of war" (Obama used a lot of martial language tonight), he said,

The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet. You see, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon.
Okay, just who was saying those things about American industrial capacity during World War II? Who said that about President Kennedy's 1962 speech in which he committed the country to send manned missions to the moon?

Answer: nobody in either case. No industrialist or military logistician after the Pearl Harbor attack thought that America could not produce the war materiel necessary for victory. If anything, they underestimated the country's production capacity. Just compare US production with that of it's enemies then. The US produced 162,000 more aircraft during the war than Germany and Japan combined.

America's enemies also knew what America's industrial capacity bade for them. Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese combined fleet, argued strongly against going to war with the United States (although when the decision was taken to do so, he fought to his full ability). Yamamoto had lived in the United States for several years, including matriculating at Harvard for three years. Having served as Japan's naval attache in Washington, D.C., Yamamoto was deeply aware of American industrial might and potential. Because of his knowledge, he told his superiors that after the Pearl Harbor attack,  "I shall run wild considerably for the first six months or a year but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years." He was optimistic. In fact, the Japanese navy did not win another battle after only four months.

After war's end, former Reichsfuerhrer Herman Göring had this exchange with American interviewer Maj. Kenneth W. Hechler of the U.S. Army Europe's Historical Division.
Hechler: What was the German estimate of American war potential? Did Germany hope to complete its European campaigns before the United States would be strong enough to intervene?

Göring: As a break neared and it seemed that the matter had to be decided by war, I told Hitler, I consider it a duty to prevent America going to war with us. I believed the economic and technical potential of the United States to be unusually great, particularly the air force. Although at the time not too many new inventions had been developed to the extent we might have anticipated, and airplane production was significant but not outstandingly large. I always answered Hitler that it would be comparatively easy to convert factories to war production. In particular, the mighty automobile industry could be resorted to. Hitler was of the opinion that America would not intervene because of its unpleasant experiences in World War I. ...

While I, personally, was of the opinion that the United States could build an air force quicker than an army, I constantly warned of the possibilities of the U.S. with its great technical advances and economic resources. ...

It was our opinion that it [American shipbuilding capacity] was on a very large scale. Roosevelt spoke of bridges of ships across the Atlantic and a constant stream of planes. We fully believed him and were convinced that it was true. We also had this opinion from reports by observers in the United States. We understood your potential. On the other hand, the tempo of your shipbuilding, for example, Henry Kaiser's program, surprised and upset us. ...

At first, however, we could not believe the speed with which your Merchant Marine was growing. Claims of eight to 10 days to launch a ship seemed fantastic. Even when we realized it referred to the assembly of prefabricated parts, a mere 10 days to put it together was still unthinkable. Our shipbuilding industry was very thorough and painstaking, but very slow, disturbingly slow, in comparison. It took nine months to build a Danube vessel.
American-made Liberty cargo ships initially were built pretty slowly, about eight months each to start. But then industrial genius Henry Kaiser started having the ships built inland in sections. The shipyard simply connected the sections, launched them and finished fitting them out. At peak, America was launching three Liberty ships per day, faster than Germany's submarines could sink them. Individual ships were routinely built in just under a week from the time the sections arrived at shipyard.

Word War II was a problem of production, of building factories and churning war materiel out. As an industrial problem it was large but not difficult. It is a poor comparison to the problems of shutting down the Gulf Spill or of inventing new, alternative-energy industries from whole cloth. (For example, every combat plane that saw action in the US Army Air Corps or US Navy was already in design, preproduction or production before Pearl Harbor.)

As for the moon program, it also is a bad comparison. NASA decided early to use the "big rocket" solution to getting to the moon. Conceptually, the shape of the space program of the 1960s was laid out very early and did not change. There was a single focus of design and development. The major factors affecting the pace of the program were not hardware but skinware - the effects of space flight on human physiology simply was not known and had to be documented. There was also the need to develop real-world data on effects of space temps and vacuum on materials. The major hardware issue was the tragedy of Apollo 1, an on-ground fire that cost the lives of three astronauts and set the program back by about two years. And yet the fix to that tragedy was actually pretty simple.

Space specialist Rand Simberg explains,
Putting a man on the moon was a remarkable achievement, but it was a straightforward well-defined engineering challenge, and a problem susceptible to having huge bales of money thrown at it, which is exactly how it was done.
The early decision to move toward Saturn V rockets to get to the moon is the major way the space program differed from today's alternative-energy programs. Once NASA took that decision, no one went around muttering, "Can't be done." In fact, most of the engineering challenges were forecast very well and, significantly, were usually interrelated.

There is no such single focus in energy. There are instead multiple technologies that often bear little relationship to one another. Solar power conversion has not much in common with windmilling and neither have much to do with small-plant nuclear power.

It must also be noted that in both the industrial miracle of World War 2 and the moon race, the sole contractor and customer for the companies concerned was the US government. Business built the new factories and hired the new workers and invested the capital for R&D because they knew big, fat government contracts awaited. No one else was buying Liberty ships or space ships.

But who is the customer for new energy technologies? Not the US government in the main or minority part. It's you and me and tens of millions of other individual people who will make our own choices. We have an enormous installed base of energy infrastructure with very high reliability. Unless there is economic incentive for me to switch, I won't.

So I am very skeptical of this call to an industrial equivalent of war or the space program. Look what happened to the space program once the moon was reached. It lost its focus and dribbled along through the Shuttle years and now we have no spacecraft at all to fly. Yet what does the administration plan for a transition away from fossil fuels?" Subsidies and tax breaks for  a handful or fewer of "promising" (i.e, politically connected) technologies. All that will do is make everything more expensive, rarer and less efficient. But that is where we are headed.

Update: Not even Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews were impressed, quite the opposite. It's safe to say that for Matthews, the tingle is gone.

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