Thoughts on Independence Day

 Posted on July 04, 2008 in Uncategorized

In his Independence Day post, Scott Greenfield writes:

Americans will not be deeply concerned about freedom in our 233rd year. They will be concerned about eating, jobs, gas and keeping a roof over their children's heads. Abraham Maslow explains why higher order concerns take a back seat to basic needs. For most of its history, America did a superb job of feeding and housing its citizens. But in this flat world, where our dreams are counted by the price of a barrel of oil, we may have run out of American miracles.

I've hesitated to write about this, because its connection to the art and science of criminal defense trial lawyering is tenuous: hungry people aren't going to be as concerned about putting people in jail as well-fed people will be (retribution is nowhere in Maslow's hierarchy). Hungry people also aren't going to be as concerned about staying out of jail as the well-fed, so my criminal-defense lawyer brethren and sistren had better have a Plan B.

We need power to keep our economy ticking; there are four sources of power: the sun (fossil fuels, solar, wind, hydro), the earth's core (geothermal), the nucleus of the atom (nuclear), and the motion of the planets (tidal).

We've been depending on million-year-old sunlight (stored in the form of fossil fuels) for about 80 years; now we've burned all the cheap fossil fuels we're going to be burning. Production is decreasing at the same time demand is increasing (world oil production peaked in June 2005). Prices are going up. Sure, there's more oil to be squeezed out of the earth, but it's getting harder and harder to squeeze. The energy return on energy investment of oil is diminishing (it's about 15 now - from a 1-barrel investment, we get 15 barrels out of the ground now; it was 50 in the 1970s); when it hits 1 there'll still be oil in the ground, but there'll be no point in trying to get at it.

The last time we had a depression we were in the opening years of the oil age. We burned lots of fossil fuels recovering from it. We won't have that luxury next time.

All of that is by way of preface to this: we are in a precarious position. We may be able to muddle through an energy crisis by itself, with supplies and prices of gas, food, and everything else going through the roof. But troubles never come singly. Can we withstand a natural disaster of Hurricane-Katrina magnitude during this energy crisis? Where will the refugees go? What will they eat if the truckers stop hauling our food because the price of diesel is so high? How about if the hurricane season is followed by the harshest winter in years, at a time when heating oil is short? What if an epidemic strikes then?

I figure we are set to withstand one, maybe two cataclysms. But when three or more of these disasters strike at the same time (and at some point it's sure to happen, especially since some of them - natural disaster and disease, for example - are linked), we're going to get knocked to our knees; it's going to be bad, especially with about 175,000 of our troops otherwise occupied in the Middle East and unable to assist at home.

Which brings me to the other thing that's on my mind today.

Yesterday I posted the text of the Declaration of Independence. Read it. It is a hugely aspirational document: It is self-evident that all men are endowed with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The idea was not that America should be a little island of freedom in a sea of tyranny, but that the obvious Idea of America, equally applicable to all men, should take root there and spread to the rest of the world. The notion that constitutional limits on the U.S. Government's power apply only to American citizens, or to people on U.S. soil, is inimical to the notions contained in the Declaration of Independence. Our politicians talk big about spreading American values to the rest of the world, but if we can't manage to provide due process and habeas corpus to people in U.S. custody a few hundred miles offshore, how are we to export these fundamentals of freedom to other parts of the world?

The Declaration of Independence is, from the third to the twenty-ninth paragraph, an indictment of King George. In part:

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

Somebody really should tell the Iraqi people about the ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence; maybe they could declare their own independence and ask that we bring our troops home.

Now that would make for a happy Independence Day.

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