ImageSome notes on various bits and pieces encountered in recent days.

Going green (the next act). A college I know pretty well says the next act in its campaign to "green" the campus will be elimination of trays from the student cafeteria. In case you're unhip (green-wise), the logic goes like this:

(1)   Students waste a lot of food by taking more than they can eat in the cafeteria line;

(2)   Sharp-eyed cafeteria analysts theorize that wastage could be greatly reduced if students had to carry their plates, utensils, cups, etc., without trays;

(3)   Preliminary estimates project a saving of 4 tons of food over the course of a school year, by doing away with the trays;

(4)   The cost of washing, handling and replacing the trays will also be saved.

Some of us - fellows of a waggish bent, I admit - saw an excellent opportunity to achieve even more savings by the elimination of plates, as well. It also seemed to this environmental warrior that eliminating most utensils - e.g., forks, knives, spoons, etc. - might save even more food and expense. Indeed, it might begin to combat the national "obesity epidemic" by reducing actual consumption of food, not just wastage. We urged expansion of the program in these directions.

To our disappointment, these recommendations were not well received - damned with faint praise, as it were. As I recall, "that's ridiculous" was the kindest response offered. One staff member wondered why we were "mocking" a perfectly sound policy that would enhance the college's "green" stature and reduce its "environmental footprint". Advocates noted that the financial savings would be significant, but declined to say whether those savings would go back to the students in the form of lower board-costs on their bills.

Thus, the Green Express rolls on toward a collision with society's realization of what's happening to a once-orderly lifestyle. One wonders when people will wake up to reality - as they finally did when the boy shouted that the emperor didn't have a stitch on. Perhaps the crisis will come in a few years, when folks discover they can't buy incandescent bulbs any longer.

I'm not the first to point out that any proposed policy should always be subjected to what bean counters call a "cost-benefit analysis", wherein the policy's downside and upside are realistically weighed. As for going "trayless", surely we're all in favor of less waste. But I wonder if anyone is extrapolating the incidence of dropped (and broken) plates, the amount of time potentially wasted by extra trips through the food line, and the inconvenience the new policy might cause to visitors and students less able to balance plates by hand. (I rather suspect cafeteria managers are much more interested in the financial-savings.)

Beyond these pluses and minuses looms the larger question: How much diminishment of our quality of life is tolerable in exchange for so little benefit? These things have a way of advancing one step at a time. Before you know it, you're well beyond common sense to the "that's ridiculous" stage, and no one knows how to get back to sanity. As I see it, the best way to stay sane is to refuse to leave the sanity zone. This goes not just for cafeteria trays, but for things like blocking development of known petroleum reserves (while complaining about high gasoline prices), placing high taxes on commodities that have fallen into public disfavor (your favorite thing might be next), and accepting wild-eyed scare-scenarios without taking note of who will gain from the radical policies linked to them. There's more to say, but I leave it there.

Fishy Gas Prices. Has anyone else noticed the curious phenomenon of falling oil prices and increasing gasoline prices? Gas is much cheaper than it was last summer, so getting a gallon for under $2 seems pretty good. Over the last month, the price at the pump has gone up about 20¢ a gallon, while oil has bounced around a little. The public has a vague impression that oil is up, after a low point of about $35 a barrel. As I write this, oil futures are trading under $35 again.  Yet in Northern Virginia, where I live, premium gas has inched up to nearly $2.00 a gallon, after being down to $1.75 in late December. As teenagers like to say: What's up wi' dat?

In an article last summer [1], I mapped the apparent relationship between transnational oil prices and gasoline prices at the pump - noting that $147-a-barrel oil had boosted premium gasoline to $4.30 a gallon where I live. We pay gas taxes of about 45¢ a gallon in Virginia, leaving about $3.85 a gallon to match the $147 per barrel. This works out to about 2.6¢ per gallon for every $1 per barrel of oil. Thus, after oil had crashed by $110 a barrel, to $37, gas should have fallen by about $2.86. That would have put premium gas close to $1.44 a gallon.

We haven't seen prices nearly that low here, so one is tempted to conclude that there's some cheating on the price-retreat. The current situation, with oil under $35 a barrel and gas going back up to $2, is even fishier. I'm glad for where gas prices are, of course. I don't expect it to last, but a little honesty in pricing would be welcome. I thought we paid the $4+ with pretty good grace. It seems reasonable for gas and oil prices to track correctly. I don't like the smell of this.

"So Help Me God". Michael Newdow - the man who sued (unsuccessfully) to get the words "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance - is now suing to prevent President Obama from saying, "so help me God", when he takes the oath of office. Mr. Newdow is being supported in the suit by more than a dozen individuals and ten groups, including the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Just prior to George W. Bush's 2005 inauguration, Mr. Newdow pressed a similar suit to cut the prayer from the inauguration ceremony. Chief Justice William Rehnquist rejected the suit without comment - effectively barring it from being heard by the full Court. The Chief Justice thus averted a possible Constitutional crisis. Had the Court ruled for the plaintiff, Mr. Bush almost certainly would have defied the ruling and proceeded with the inauguration prayer. I have no doubt that the chief justice saw this clearly.

To be sure, these recurring efforts to purge God (and the name of God) from American public life are entertaining for the legal and chattering classes, who consider them great sport. But they also amount to a high-stakes game of Russian Roulette involving an important foundational aspect of the American Republic. We ought to stop fooling around with this. Voters should insist that the Congress pass legislation putting "God" off-limits from the courts. Some things are just not negotiable. As Ronald Reagan liked to say, "The American Constitution is not a suicide pact..."

Damn Cold. A young miss I know got crosswise with her parents one night when her dad observed how dark it was. "Yes," she sagely agreed, "it's damn dark." In the ensuing uproar over her sailor's language, she tearfully insisted that she just thought it meant "very".

I thought of her adverbial embellishment recently, with the temperature hovering near zero (F) as we drove to another Virginia town just after dawn. Everywhere I go, I hear people repeating our young sailor-girl's pithy observation, applied to the weather. At one social gathering, people discussed suing Al Gore for causing some of the coldest weather we've had in decades. Towns in the northern parts of the country are digging out from record snowfalls.

I note a certain poetic justice in the prospect of Mr. Obama's inauguration occurring on a particularly cold January 20th. This is not because I bear him any personal animosity, but because he has made such a fuss over the "threat" global warming represents to the world. Both he and John McCain sang in harmony from the global warming hymnbook during the campaign, saying the debate was over and it was "time to act". Evidently, though, the issue is less settled than they thought. I'm tempted to say God must have a sense of humor. (There I go again...)


[1] "Gas Math, Gasbags, and El Floppo Books" -