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Please Complain January 27, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress.
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A week ago, I was chatting online with a conservative friend during the inauguration.  Although she was “mourning g dubs,” she told me she was going to be a “good American” and support the president rather than complain as my fellow Democrats and I have for the last eight years.  I told her that it’s her right to object if and when President Obama screws up, but she rejected this idea because apparently silently accepting injustices is “what patriots do.”

President Obama will make mistakes.  Many say he already has.  But the notion that it is un-American or whiney to disagree with a president is disturbing, even when voiced by a classmate rather than Bill O’Reilly.  Theodore Roosevelt put it best: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”  Dissent is a crucial and protected part of the democratic process.  And isn’t being able to complain one of the stated (albeit secondary) reasons to vote?

I am a zealous Obama supporter and worked for the campaign for a full year and a half.  I am also not subtle about my political preference and have my apartment/car/room so shamelessly adorned that my friends across the hall hung a giant Chairman Mao “Change We Can Believe In” poster and named their wireless network “HopeAndChange” (because it too is intangible and frequently lets them down) to mock me.  But even I do not agree with everything President Obama has done.

Very funny, guys.

Very funny, guys.

The House of Representatives is currently mulling over the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the pending “stimulus package.”  While it is wonderful to see money going towards renewable energy and needed infrastructure, the plan revealed last week already saw relevant funding cuts from the earlier proposal outlined by James Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  The money allocated to roads remains untouched, but the overall transportation investment fell 25%, with rail in particular cut 78%.  That money will instead fund a tax cut.  It is unclear who made the revision, but if the Obama administration truly prioritized mass transportation and energy independence, they could have prevented this edit.

California has its own plans for a high-speed rail system, but the rest of us will still just have (underfunded) Amtrak.

California has its own plans for a high-speed rail system, but the rest of us will still just have (underfunded) Amtrak.

Overall, there is a lot of good funding in the initiative, especially after the Bush years.   But not everyone thinks so. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) recently went on PBS’s Newshour and was “shocked” by what he saw in the bill.  He singled out one particularly egregious item as an example of the “same kind of wasteful spending we have seen in the past”: $6.2 billion for communities to weatherize low-income housing.

First of all, a government-funded community weatherization program does not sound like any past I can remember (although apparently there was a similar program in the mid-1990s, which the GOP opposed then as well).  As Climate Progress reports, this opposition is all the more ridiculous because such programs not only create jobs, they decrease the deficit!  Exactly what disgusts Boehner about lowering people’s electricity bills, generating work in low-income areas, and even reducing America’s energy needs is beyond me – or would be if he wasn’t such an overt ally of the energy industry.

It is unfortunate that efficiency measures aren’t as “sexy” as building a new, state-of-the-art power plant, because they can provide the same benefit, pollution-free, for less.  Earlier this month, the coalition Wise Energy for Wise County released a major study demonstrating why a new coal-fired power plant is not the energy solution for Wise County Virginia (or America).  As Theo Spencer at NRDC explains, their study determined that investing in energy efficiency instead of a new plant could meet the same electricity demand, yield hundreds of millions of dollars for the state each year, and create at least 2,600 more jobs than the power plant.  And if the federal government does implement a carbon tax or cap and trade system, the comparative benefits of efficiency become even greater.

What’s true for Wise County is largely true for our entire country.  There are incredible opportunities to improve energy efficiency today using technology we already have: insulating buildings, improving mass transit, driving higher MPG, hybrid, and even zero-emission electric vehicles, buying EnergyStar appliances, utilizing natural lighting and compact fluorescent light bulbs…the list goes on.  Even for power production, cogeneration, also known as combined heat and power (CHP), enables us to tap waste heat at power plants to provide industrial or domestic heating and hot water nearby.  Yet all of these cost money before they save it.

I think it is in our government’s interest to heavily incentivize and provide funding for many of these measures, but it is clear that some policymakers have different priorities.  So I will continue to “complain” by writing congresspersons, raising awareness about these issues, and hopefully, by being hired to work somewhere that I can help effect the changes I’d like to see.  And if you disagree with the government, even if we do have an articulate, intelligent president, it is your right and even civic duty to do the same.

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.

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