Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Obama Spending Spree Never Happened

            In the May 22 online edition of the Wall Street Journal,  in their MarketWatch feature, was a post by Rex Nutting entitled, “Obama Spending Binge Never Happened.”
Nutting says, “Of all the falsehoods told about President Obama, the biggest whopper is the one about his reckless spending spree.”  (He quotes Mitt Romney’s claim, “I will lead us out of this debt and spending inferno.”)   Nutting says that almost everyone believes that Obama has presided over a massive spending increase.  Even Democrats seem to believe it’s true.
But it didn’t happen.   Although there was a stimulus bill, federal spending under Obama is rising at a lower rate than any time since the early 1950s, when Eisenhower shut down the Korean War. Using government statistics, Nutting shows that even Herbert Hoover increased spending more than Obama.  Federal deficits have been larger than were originally projected, but this was only due to falling revenues brought about by the market crash and the depression which followed.
            Nutting provides a chart showing the amount that federal spending has increased under each president since Reagan. The annualized percentage increase is as follows:
            Reagan, 82-85…8.4%
            Reagan, 86-89…4.9%
            Bush I,   90-93…5.4%
            Clinton, 94-97…3.2%
            Clinton, 98-01…3.9%
            Bush II,  02-05…7.3%
            Bush II,  06-09…8.1%
            Obama, 10-13…1.4%
Note:  These figures give Obama and not Bush credit for the stimulus bill, because Obama signed it. But most of the terms of this deal had already been cut before Obama took office.
Also, note that these figures show the spending increase in raw dollars.  If the rate of inflation is considered, then spending in real dollars has actually decreased under Obama.  There are some things you can blame Obama for, but a reckless spending spree is certainly not one of them.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Fuel Efficient Driving--a Learning Curve.

            The new Ford Focus I purchased last month has a feature I’ve never owned before; a little screen on the instrument panel which tells you how many miles per gallon your car is delivering at that moment.  The car has an EPA fuel efficiency rating of 37 mpg on the highway, and 31 in the city.  But they issue a caveat that mileage may vary, depending on the driver, and on other factors.  In practice, I’ve been doing a little better than those numbers.
            I am not a novice driver.  Over the years, I have owned two dozen cars and have driven over a million miles. And I had come to believe that I knew something about driving efficiently. While the new “mpg readout” has delivered only a few surprises, it has exposed innumerable subtleties I would never have expected. But first, the surprises.
1.     Gas efficiency is more dependent on engine temperature than you would imagine. We all know that in the old days, when it was 20 below zero Fahrenheit, and your automatic choke remained at least partly  closed for the first five minutes after the engine started, this used a lot of fuel. And during this first five minutes, the engine ran roughly and delivered very little power, if it could manage to stay running at all. But that’s not what I’m talking about.  On a hot summer day, a modern engine starts instantly, and with a modern computer controlled fuel system, it runs smoothly and delivers full power immediately.  And in about a minute and a half, the engine temperature gauge says that the engine has reached normal operating temperature. You would assume that the mileage delivered at this point would be about as good as you’re likely to get.  But you’d assume wrongly.  On the highway, my car gets only 35 mpg at that point. But if I run it hard for two more minutes, it starts to get over 40 mpg.   My explanation:  Just because the temperature gauge reads normal does not mean that all parts of the engine have gotten as hot as they are going to get.  And the fuel computer probably does not begin to lean out the mixture until the exhaust gas temperature is really hot.
2.     You would imagine that on the highway, maximum mileage would be delivered when operating on “cruise control.”   When these cruise control devices were first sold, back in the 1970s, the promise was that this device would deliver more fuel efficiency, since the cruise control would keep the vehicle at a perfectly uniform speed. But my experience so far has not borne this out.  On a perfectly flat stretch of highway, the cruise control delivers about as good a mileage as I’ve ever gotten.  But on a road that’s even slightly hilly, I can do better driving myself.  I do not try to keep a constant speed; instead I keep a constant throttle position—and I let the car slow down a bit going up each hill, and then let it speed up going down the other side.  And this seems to get much better mileage than trying to maintain a constant speed. But now, the subtleties:
3.     While we would all assume that driving into a headwind should consume more fuel that driving with a tailwind, I would never have guessed how little wind it takes to make a noticeable difference.  With a wind of less than ten miles per hour, the difference between driving into the wind and driving with the wind can be over 6 mpg. Once I got 41 mpg going one direction and only 35 mpg going the opposite direction, with a wind of less than 10 mph.  
4.     We would not be surprised that it takes more fuel to drive uphill than downhill. In Iowa, very little of the land is as flat as a billiard table. Mostly, we have gentle, rolling hills. You spend about a mile gaining 25 feet of altitude, and then spend the next mile losing it.   The fuel efficiency on this kind of terrain is no different than that of driving on a perfectly flat area, because what you lose going up these gentle hills, you gain going down.   But what if two cities are at different elevations?   What if two cities, which are twenty miles apart, have a difference in elevation of 100 ft.  (That would be an average grade of only 5 ft per mile.)  Would the effect of such a trivial grade really be measurable? Indeed it is.  Iowa City is 75 miles from where I live, and it is 160 ft lower in elevation. That’s slightly more than 2 ft/mile drop, and yet, even with no wind, I get at least 2mpg better mileage going down to Iowa City than coming back.  Why?  Try to visualize a huge hoist capable of lifting your car 160 ft in the air.  How much energy would it take to operate such a thing?
5.     But now, the real killer of fuel efficiency: the air conditioner!  You can have a drop of 5 or 6  mpg by just turning on the air conditioning.
            In the old days, we never noticed much difference in mileage no matter how we drove our cars.   No matter what we did, the mileage was uniformly horrible.  The reason was that the main waste of energy was the friction loss required to spin those monstrous engines. Compared to that, all other energy loss was trivial.   But the more efficiently we build our engines, the more noticeable the smaller losses become. And this is a high class of problems. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

1493, by Charles C. Mann--a must read!

            I am just finishing Charles C. Mann’s 1493--Uncovering The New World Columbus Created.  It was my original intention to provide a detailed review, including a general outline.  But for reasons I will explain, I will give you only a strong recommendation that you read this work.  1493 is the second of a set.   Mann’s earlier work, 1491, explains what the Americas were like prior to Columbus.   One needs only to read a few pages of 1491 to realize that everything we have been taught in school, from grade school through college, about the Americas before Columbus was utterly wrong—absurdly wrong.   But 1491 is fairly straightforward.  It tells us who lived in America, how many of them lived there, and how they lived.  Such a book can be outlined and summarized.  The Cat’s review of this work is in the archives of this blog, and I will provide you a link to it.
            Mann’s recent work, 1493, explains how every continent was radically changed by what happened in 1492.  As soon as transatlantic voyages, and later transpacific voyages began, a steady transfer of plants, animals and people between continents also began, and along with them the transfer of the diseases that affect these plants, animals and people.  This transfer, which Mann calls the “Columbian Exchange,” was sometimes deliberate—sometimes inadvertent. But it had cataclysmic results.  The ecological, economic, political and demographic effects basically turned the world upside down. How it will all play out is still unknown, since this process, now 500 years running, is still far from over.  Mann argues that almost anything of any importance that has happened in the last 500 years anywhere in the world is in some way the direct consequence of the Columbian exchange.  His list of events includes the rise of Western Europe, the world population explosion, the industrial revolution, and a long series of food production revolutions, plus all the economic and political, and demographic results of these events.  In all human history, no event had ever happened that would produce such sweeping global change, and short of a nuclear holocaust, it’s not likely that anything will again.            Mann’s narrative is a vast tapestry, with all the ecological, economic, and political threads skillfully woven together to form a richly detailed picture of 500 years of global history.
But any attempt to adequately outline this work would be as lengthy as the book itself, so I can only recommend that you read it.
            And if you have not yet Read Charles C. Mann’s 1491, you might wish to read The Cat’s brief review.   It will only take a few minutes, and I think you’ll find it worth your while.