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The Political Climate Gets Legal December 17, 2013

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Law.
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This blog has been quiet for a while, but that does not mean the writing has stopped.  Here’s a link to my first print publication with the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, entitled, The “Lone Grid” State: Texas as the Ideal Location for State-Level Climate Regulation (pdf).  In short, I argue that the interaction between the interstate electrical grid and the Constitution’s limitation on state regulation of interstate commerce may actually make Texas better able to enact a strong climate program than even California.  Enjoy!

Obama Negotiates with Himself on Oil. Again. May 16, 2011

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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President Obama’s position on oil has been one of the most disappointing and incoherent facets of his administration to date.   On Saturday, this trend continued as the President announced a series of shifts to increase domestic oil production.

Pundits say he had to respond to high gas prices (which presidents do not control).  This maneuver is political capitulation in the face of a mismanaged narrative in the public discourse.  For years, this “debate” about gas prices has been dominated by flat out lies and misinformation in one of the more disgraceful displays of unaccountability in contemporary American politics. 

I have attempted to clear the air (pun intended) on this topic a number of times.  For a fuller explanation, please see this previous post.

Here’s the short version: conservatives claim that high gasoline prices are caused by liberal overregulation stifling domestic oil production.  That just isn’t the slightest bit true.  Oil is a global commodity, so its price is determined on the global market.  We, the United States, represent 25% of world oil demand and about 3% of world supply.  The point here is that we simply don’t have enough oil to affect global supply and thus prices.  And the kicker is that even if we could, OPEC is a cartel; they could/would effortlessly decrease their production to offset any impact we could have. 

Here’s another inconvenient truth: domestic oil production is already up 11% under Obama and was down 15% under Bush.  That reality doesn’t match this GOP argument.  Increased domestic drilling cannot lower gas prices.  Period.  Don’t take my word for it, read for yourself – even the mainstream media have finally caught on recently. 

Domestic oil production does not drive gas prices.

So back to Obama.  After failing to enact a single piece of oil-spill legislation, the President was finally starting to sound like a progressive on energy again.  In an earlier address he even pointed out the supply/demand reality I described above, although he inexplicably refused to take it to its logical conclusion that drilling cannot be a solution.  To now increase drilling as a response to gas prices validates the baldly fabricated GOP narrative.  Much like the current deficit focus, we’re conceding not only the point but adopting their frame as well.  No good can come of that.  It just doesn’t make any sense.

Recall that last year, right before the Congressional energy debate, the administration unveiled a plan to dramatically increase offshore drilling.  For which it asked nothing in return.  Rational negotiators might reward unilateral compromise.  A GOP party that miraculously resurrected itself by vociferously opposing any- and everything Obama does would of course do no such thing.  So we gave away a bargaining chip for free [that most progressives would have rather kept] and no energy bill was passed.  Also, this episode occurred just one month before the BP oil spill, which prevented the administration from using that catastrophe as a catalyst for needed change.

In both cases, the only rationale I can see is political maneuvering.  We know the Obama campaign prizes the supposedly undecided independents and what moderate Republicans still exist “in the middle.”  They think that carving out GOP territory for Obama will undercut Republican attacks.  But even if they pick up some independents, if they sell out progressives to do it that is not a net gain.  Additionally, the GOP won’t care that oil production is up – more than they want these policy objectives, they want to keep their base angry.  Have Obama’s oil moves blunted their attacks on this president as anti-oil or trickled into the Fox Newsiverse?  No. 

Obama’s tactics seem to operate from a flawed premise on bipartisanship about which I have previously written, and I am concerned about this plan.

Drill, baby, drill is political welfare for Big Oil, plain and simple.  It does not help America, it helps oil executives.  If we’re going to cave on offshore drilling, leverage it for a coherent energy policy.  If we’re going to increase domestic oil production, call it the compromise that it is and justify it as job creation (with a side of pollution and risk); don’t validate their lies.  I can stomach a certain amount of political compromise, but I can’t start defending the Fox News reality as truth.  

Campaign Curiosities May 3, 2011

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Politics.
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For the last few months, I’ve been working for a campaign consultant group.  Others might find collecting and formatting electoral data boring, but I actually enjoy it.  Every so often you come across a real gem or bizarre anecdote, and I finally have the time to share a few of these with you.  Please forgive me for the following schizophrenic list:

The 2012 Republican candidate for Kentucky Attorney General is named Todd P’Pool [sic].  Evidently his family could not find a satisfactory Earth language to pick a name from.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), a dentist, took in about $631,000 of individual contributions to his 2010 campaign.  More than half of those contributions were from other dentists.  He also took the usual committee contributions, but fully 1/5 of his campaign was funded by dentists.

There are two different potential 2012 GOP senate candidates named Salmon – one in Vermont, another in Arizona. 

Of the 100 current U.S. Senators, 9 of them were Eagle Scouts (3 D’s, 6 R’s).  2% of boy scouts become Eagles Scouts.  Tangential side-note: the current president of the Boy Scouts of America is ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson.  Ick. 

While gathering historical election results from Massachusetts, I encountered numerous 3rd party candidates who did not earn a single vote; they didn’t even vote for themselves.  Neither did their mothers, spouses, friends, or children…

Having scanned hundreds of FEC reports, it seems like every company has a political action committee (PAC) these days.  The usual suspects you’d expect are all there, like defense contractors and oil companies and unions.  But you’d be surprised by some.  For example, Cracker Barrel has an active PAC that uses your breakfast money to support conservative politicians.  I don’t find that particularly funny.  I do, however, enjoy the Land O’Lakes Political Action Committee because it is abbreviated on some FEC filings to “LOL PAC”.  There is also an ICE PAC, but it isn’t fun or even interesting in its longer form.  Further, the Frat and Sorority PAC supports the ~160 current US senators and representatives who were Greek, ostensibly in hopes of earning their support for Greek life legislation should it ever arise?  I don’t get it.  But in case you were wondering, so far in this cycle, the brothers of the Kappa Alpha Order are contributing more than the rest of PanHel combined. 

Finally, my favorite new piece of trivia: The state of Hawaii has five counties.  Four of them are normal.  The fifth, Kalawao County, is truly bizarre.  It is located on the tiny Kalaupapa Peninsula on the northern coast of the island of Moloka’i.  It is surrounded by high cliffs and the only land access to the entire county is a mule trail.  But that’s not a big deal because the county is home to 90 residents.  Why?  Because it was a leper colony from the 1860s until 1969, when the disease was deemed treatable.  Yet even once the quarantine was lifted, many of the patients chose to stay and they have been granted permission to live out their lives there (the 2000 census counted 147 residents).  State law prohibits new people from moving there and children under 16 are forbidden to visit.  The county is administered by the Hawaii Department of Health and has no county government except a sheriff who is appointed from among the residents.  Kalawao is understandably the poorest county in the country (by median income).  It is not, however, the least populous – that distinction belongs to Loving County Texas, with 82 residents.  As I understand it they’re not lepers, they just live in the middle of absolutely nowhere. 

So there you have it.  Hopefully you found those mildly interesting.

For the last few months, I have not posted an original post here. When I have posted, it has linked a post at Change.org that I was not allowed to repost in its entirety.  Lately I stopped even doing that.  Today, I am happy to report that I am winding down my various commitments in advance of law school and, at least for the remainder of the summer, will be back to using this blog more frequently.  

Baby Steps: The Senate Eyes a Renewable Electricity Standard September 22, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Politics.
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Just finished my second post at Change.org’s environment page:

At this point, we’ll take what we can get. This is the resigned tune being sung by many environmentalists and clean energy advocates as Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sam Brownback (R-Neb.) unveiled a proposal to implement a national renewable electricity standard on Tuesday. And, amazingly enough, it looks like the votes are actually there.

You can read the full post here, but I want to highlight the last paragraph:

Finally, I’d also like to take a moment to highlight the quality of criticism against a renewable energy standard.  You read above that a 15 percent by 2021 standard will have virtually no impact on the energy market.  Yet the energy experts at the conservative Heritage Foundation are sounding the alarm with their analysis that this basically symbolic law would “kill a million jobs and cut a trillion dollars from the national income by the end of the decade.”  Booga booga!

We have to raise the level of political discourse if we are to have sensible governance in this country.  Former President Clinton said yesterday that he thinks we may be entering a “fact free” period in politics.  Such a world might make for nice sound bites, but real problems need real solutions.  And I’m not saying that a weak RES typifies real solutions, but we need to have honest debate about matters of such importance to our country.  Let’s at least not blatantly lie.  Yes, I’m looking at you, Heritage Foundation.

President Obama Killed Bipartisanship September 20, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Politics.
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President Obama campaigned on bipartisanship.  We wanted a change, so he chose not to investigate the partisan excesses and likely transgressions of the Bush administration; he unhinged the pendulum and just laid it on the ground.  Instead of overcorrecting in the other direction, he tried to start anew as a united nation.  America was ready to move forward.  The Republican Party was not.

Ideally, in our two party system, each governing party has a different plan to move America forward.  When problems arise, Democrats propose to move forward slanting to the left, Republicans propose to move forward slanting to the right, and when they finally come together and compromise on necessary legislation, we as a country end up simply moving forward and addressing the problem (see graphic below).

It’s a little messier in practice.  Because one party controls the White House at a time and Congress is rarely evenly split, final legislation generally skews towards the ruling party rather than perfectly straddling the center.  It must also be mentioned that sometimes there is a right and a wrong answer.  And on a related note, a political compromise that pleases both parties is not ipso facto good policy: for example, the stimulus package contained both Democratic spending projects and tax breaks that Republicans would normally support, but it was not enough to promote a strong recovery.

Bipartisanship is not always the solution, but it is an important concept in a democratic republic like ours.  And President Obama bears some responsibility for its contemporary demise.  Although he acted with good intentions, his transcendent quest to achieve bipartisanship ironically doomed itself with partisan politics.

Had Republicans shared this bipartisan vision, Obama’s plan could well have succeeded.  Alas, insert two-way street aphorism here.

At the most basic level, in a two party political system, one party’s success is the other party’s failure.  The converse is equally true.  Again, ideally, a shared desire to address a crisis creates some middle ground for bipartisan compromise.  Yet a hyperpartisan mindset obliterates that middle ground.  Under current Senate rules that allow what should really be called a 41-member “superminority” to obstruct Congressional action, lawmaking grinds to a halt.  Problems progress, but legislation languishes.

Compromise Graphic

When both parties want to address a problem facing America, there is often (but not always) a middle path. When at least one party chooses to pursue political advantage at the expense of our nation’s well-being, compromise becomes impossible.

With surging unemployment and an anemic recovery, Republicans concluded that the painful status quo benefitted them.  They did not want to move forward.  Indeed, they were rooting against America because both America’s failures would be blamed upon the Democratic majority and administration and pay political dividends.  Sadly, in our toxic political climate, you do not earn points for bipartisan assists; all that matters is the score, Republicans vs. Democrats.

Yet Republicans initiated this confrontational scenario, so that much cannot be blamed on President Obama.  There is another variable that can.

Because Obama campaigned on bipartisanship, that middle compromise space between a Democratic policy and a Republican policy turned blue.  In that binary hyperpartisan world, cooperation became a win for Democrats and a loss for Republicans.  So via obstructionism, the GOP could now play legislative defense and political offense simultaneously.

Compromise Graphic2

Because Obama ran on bipartisanship, it had the effect of making bipartisanship a victory for him, and thus Democrats.  Therefore, it dragged the middle ground of what would be a “win” for both parties further to the right.

Of course this tactic held our country hostage and prolonged American suffering in the process.   Unfortunately, overly balanced media coverage combined with admittedly effective GOP spin (having your own network helps) enabled conservatives to pull off this maneuver without being called out for it.

So Republicans holed up.  Elected lawmakers became fulltime law-stoppers, particularly in the Senate.  They voted against a stimulus package that was watered down on their behalf and full of conservative tax breaks.  They opposed an oil spill/clean energy jobs bill that contained entire sections unanimously approved by bipartisan committees and even cosponsored by Republicans.  The conservative caucus is united in lockstep against anything the Democrats attempt to accomplish, no matter how reasonable or nonpartisan the measure may be.

Even though Obama appears to have been sincere in his hope to work together in moderation (as demonstrated by his history of making compromises that please nobody), his plan for bipartisanship backfired because Republicans continued to operate from a hyperpartisan perspective.  Obama said he would end the mud-slinging; conservatives have defeated him simply by continuing to wallow.

In the meantime, the Democratic Party has wasted two years.

Republicans have triumphed at America’s expense.  Unless current electoral indicators are drastically mistaken, they will benefit handsomely from this strategy in November.  I am concerned about that outcome, but far more displeased with the precedent this could set for our country.

The Political Climate is now on Twitter!  Follow @PoliticalClimat for updates as well as daily tweets linking to important and under-reported environmental news.

Environmental News Aggregator September 10, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Politics.
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Everyday, I monitor literally hundreds of posts from dozens of environmental news outlets and commentators.  Instead of just using this wealth of information as fodder for the occasional blog post (which I will continue to do), I would also like to offer my services as an ersatz environmental news aggregator.  Kind of like a Drudge Report for environmental news/politics…but without the conservative slant.

To that end, I have created a Twitter account through which I plan to send out links to stories that people should know about even if I don’t have time to write a full post – just a few of the very best that day.  I will also link my posts when I do write them.

If you’re interested, you can follow this account here. I don’t yet know what sort of daily volume I will push to this account, but if anyone has preferences, I would love some feedback here.  Especially while this is as small as it is right now, I am trying to satisfy a small group of followers, so your voice will carry a lot of weight.

Thanks,

-Jamie

Clean Energy Lobby Outspends Big Oil! September 8, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Politics.
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No, that didn’t happen.  The mere thought of it is preposterous.  What actually happened is a recent report highlighted increased lobbying expenditures from renewable energy companies, and the conservative reaction has been predictably devoid of perspective.  Pot?  Kettle here.  Let’s get you a mirror.

But if they want to talk about energy subsidies, let’s do it.  The following passage from OpenSecrets.org was quoted in a post on the conservative blog RedState:

“By 2007, the alternative energy industry had begun to drastically increase its lobbying spending, almost doubling its expenditures from the previous year. In 2009, alternative energy organizations shelled out an unprecedented $30 million to protect and promote their interests on Capitol Hill, and this year, it’s on pace to equal that record output.

The alternative energy industry’s lobbying expenditures have grown to 12 times from its 1998 level. In comparison, oil and gas spending and mining spending have grown less than three times their 1998 amount, and electric utility spending has grown to just twice its 1998 amount.” (emphasis added by RedState)

That sounds like a lot of money, and it is.  But of course the concept of context is lost upon RedState.  Let’s try adding some.

Renewable energy companies spent $30 million on lobbying in 2009.  Compare that to 2009 lobbying expenditures for:

  • Misc. Energy: $56,013,293 –  $30 million in renewables = ~$26 million*

Total: more than $373 million in 2009 lobbying.

*The “Misc. Energy” category contains dozens of companies, some from the renewable energy sector but others such as the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, which lobbies for “clean” coal.  OpenSecrets cited $30 million for renewables, so I used that number here.

In 2009 alone, dirty fuel interests outspent clean energy by a factor of 12.4.  The oil and gas industry outspent renewables by a factor of nearly 6.  And Exxon Mobil – alone – spent 90% as much on lobbying as the entire clean energy sector.

Since 1999, oil and gas companies along with electric utilities have spent over $2 billion.  In that period, the renewable energy sector spent $105 million.  So tell me again why we’re whining about the big bad clean energy lobby?

The author of this RedState blog post, writing under the pseudonym Vladimir, identifies himself only as “Operations Manager for a small Gulf of Mexico oil & gas explorer & producer.”  Vlad further explains the crippling burden imposed by tyrannical American energy subsidies upon the tiny, innocent oil industry:

“The wind industry is pocketing subsidies that dwarf those garnered by the oil and gas sector. …Wind subsidies are more than 200 times as great as those given to oil and gas on the basis of per-unit-of-energy produced.”

First of all, The per-unit cost difference is easily explained: oil industry is fully mature whereas renewables are still very much developing.  New industries, especially those with positive instead of negative social benefits, receive subsidies so that they can develop more quickly and their costs can come down.  These fuels are our future, and we’d like to get there as soon as possible.

Side note: That future isn’t just clean and renewable, it’s really cool: check out these self-healing solar cells.

But more importantly, NO wind subsidies absolutely do NOT “dwarf” oil subsidies.  That is patently false.  When one compares size, one generally compares…size.  A > B.  Not A/X > B/Y.

Below is a wonderful graphic produced by the nonpartisan Environmental Law Institute (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I currently work – this was compiled long before my recent arrival).

This chart is slightly dated.  For example, just this Tuesday, the Department of Energy pledged more than $575 million in stimulus funding for 22 different projects related to Carbon Capture and Storage (E&E News, subscription required).  But you get the idea.

You cannot make the serious claim that renewables get unduly preferential government treatment on account of their lobbying.  One look at the benefits these lobbying efforts reap dispels that notion.

The conservative self-delusion is irreconcilably hypocritical when subjected to the facts of real life.  That is why the two worldviews currently exist without much overlap.

Hat tip to Kevin Grandia at DeSmogBlog for his post on this.

Glenn Beck’s Miracle | Three 8/28 Thoughts August 29, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Politics.
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Towards the end of his spectacle this weekend, Glenn Beck offered definitive proof of god’s existence.  He started recounting a personal tale about the most holy type of divine intervention: the fundraising miracle.

Beck said that although having raised $3.1 million for a charity he’d pledged to help, he was still $600,000 short of his target.  But alas, there were no more donors to be found.

On the flight back from his final fundraiser, Beck says he raised his face to the ceiling of the airplane cabin and, for the first time, actually questioned god (he cried as he said this).  But that makes sense, because falling $600,000 short of a fundraising target would test the faith of the most fervent believer.

So Beck called out to god.  Then, he tells us, without saying a word to anyone but god, the final $600,000 were miraculously donated in just two days.  God himself saved Beck’s fundraising effort when all hope was lost.  Ask and you shall receive.

It’s a moving story: god helped Beck meet his fundraising target when there was literally no more money to be found anywhere – except perhaps the $32 million Beck made last year…

“The 2010 Wingnut Superbowl” in the words of John Avlon.  I’ve seen bigger.

Three additional observations:

1) Focus. Wasn’t this event supposed to be about supporting the troops?  It was called “Restoring Honor.”  I came a little late to the theatrics, but what I saw was solely about restoring faith.  Glenn Beck just attempted to evangelize America.  Maybe I missed something, but is that really how this event was advertised?

A friend of mine spoke to some tea partiers as they were leaving the rally, and they seemed to echo this sentiment.  To paraphrase them, “we thought he was going to talk about the troops and the Constitution. We thought he was going to tell us what to do since we came all the way here.  Instead, he just told us to go to church.”  I am curious whether there may actually be some resentment from his base about this.

2) Size. Beck and his conservative gang are using the size of the rally as proof of the strength of their movement.  But how big was it actually?  The U.S. National Park Service no longer makes official tallies since being accused of low-balling the numbers for the Million Man March (and because they get nothing out of making the tallies so that’s a lot of hassle and no benefit to them).  Unfortunately, the absence of an official tally opens up the crowd size to conservative hyperbole.

Instead of just guessing, CBS commissioned an estimate based on aerial photos that came to 87,000 +/- 9k.  NBC Nightly News said tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands.  ABCNews said more than 100,000.  The event had a permit for 300,000.  Beck said between 300,000 and 650,000 were there.  Fox News “reported” at least 500,000.  (Just our of curiosity, anything happen if your event exceeds its permitted size?)

But my favorite crowd estimate was conducted by Rep. Michele Bachmann (TP-MN).  At her own little rally at the Washington Monument, she asked her audience how many people thought that more than one million people were there.  The crowd cheered.  And so it was.  Having compiled that scientific data, she said “We‘re not going to let anyone get away with saying there were less than a million people here today because we were witnesses.”

This is exactly the kind of manufactured conservative reality I have been talking about – it’s a “we believe it, so it’s true” perspective.  Democracy is a good form of government, not a good tool to determine what is objectively factual.

3) Class. Beck told his audience that they needed to accept god “so that we can guide [America/the world] down the stairs and out of the building to safety.”  I was confused for a minute, but then I got the reference.  I don’t find that imagery particularly tasteful.

But then what do you expect from Glenn Beck?  John Avlon has a good critique of the rally at The Daily Beast that highlights the blinding hypocrisy of this event.  Beck’s actions invite media commentators to rightly call him out because external criticism only further endears Beck to his faithful audience, and he doesn’t have to worry about them noticing the hypocrisy because they only trust Fox News.

There is No Common Ground between Different Realities August 27, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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To call Republicans “the Party of No” is not quite fair – they say a lot of things besides ‘no.’ But that is the full extent of their political output: speech. Currently, Republicans are more accurately the Party of Rhetoric.

Now this is partly because they are in the legislative minority, but I can’t think of any other period in our history during which the minority party decided to so fully abstain from policymaking.  You can count on one hand the number of GOP senators willing to substantively work with the Democratic majority.  It makes you wonder what the rest of them are doing with their time.

In the past, when our country faced a problem, our two political parties fought about which policy was better to address it.  That is how our legislature is supposed to function.

You may have noticed that this occurs less today.  Increasingly, the political debate has devolved into an argument not of HOW to act but rather IF any action is even warranted.  Instead of debating solutions, we find ourselves arguing about whether or not a problem exists at all:

  • This is true of climate change: conservatives don’t have their own solution, they simply deny that the problem exists.
  • This is true of healthcare: how many times during the last year were we told that “America has the best healthcare in the world”?
  • This is true of any policy that involves regulation (finance, pollution, offshore drilling etc.), because a push for deregulation instead of better regulation contains the implicit assertion that no problems exist (or that regulations somehow cause what problems there are).

Republicans deny that these problems exist altogether, and that is problematic because they are quite real.

Historically, even policies supporting inaction were not based on denial.  Consider America’s now defunct isolationism.  Advocates of non-intervention did not dispute the existence of foreign wars, they simply determined that staying out of them was a better course of action.  At least everybody was still operating in the same reality – they debated the merits of different solutions.

In 2006, Stephen Colbert told President Bush that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”  So conservatives simply left.  Today, Republicans occupy their own reality.  They get their own news tailored to that reality, and anything that contradicts this fictitious worldview is simply denounced as biased, even empirical science.  No policy debate can occur because the conservative reality has its own facts and they distrust “ours.”  Experts are just elitists anyways.

But this planet and this country face real challenges, even if conservatives refuse to believe them.  Unfortunately, by the time they become full, immediate crises, it will be too late to act.  Think of America as riding in an SUV speeding towards a cliff: everyone in that car is in trouble – even the kid in the backseat with his eyes shut tight, plugging his ears and singing loudly to himself (presumably Mellencamp’s “[This Is] Our Country”).  But once the wheels leave the pavement, and likely well before then, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.  That kid is only forced to finally acknowledge the outside world upon impact.

So how we can bridge this inter-reality chasm?  It may not even be possible.  But there is one way we can try (and the Daily Show has been attempting this valiantly).

The Party of Rhetoric, especially now that it has started drinking Tea, has begun to make some wild claims.  Conservatives won’t listen to our words, so we must hope that they still believe theirs.

As Republican politicians increasingly resort to fear-mongering, they make ridiculous extrapolations and predict devastating futures that result from liberal policies.  So when these disasters do not occur, we must repeat their words back to them.

It will be a while before we can utilize this strategy for most issues, but we can start small with offshore drilling now.  Conservatives and the oil industry railed against the Obama administration for its perfectly justified temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling.  They insisted that this most minimal safeguard against another massive oil spill would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and more economic devastation than the BP spill itself.

As the New York Times reported this week, that simply has not happened.  Even the administration’s estimates were overly pessimistic (to a much lesser extent).  Instead of hundreds of thousands of laid off oil workers, unemployment claims attributable to the moratorium are currently just in the hundreds.

I’m sure that the conservative reality has an explanation for this development or simply rejects it altogether.  But if we can’t even look over our shoulder and agree about what just happened, how can we possibly look ahead and safely navigate the future?

Public Ignorance Polls August 23, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Media, Politics.
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News consumers are subjected to a daily deluge of polling data. Unfortunately, like much of today’s media coverage, this information is not leaving us better informed.

A conventional issue-specific opinion poll offers a choice between two valid responses.  For example, “Do you approve of the death penalty?”  This is an appropriate poll.  There is no right or wrong answer; there are substantive arguments to support both positions, and the poll attempts to gauge public support for a controversial policy that is directly relevant to our nation’s governance.

A regrettable distinction can be made between a prototypical public opinion poll such as that and the frivolous politically-charged polls we see more and more today.  I’m referring to polls such as, “Is Obama a Muslim?”

This question has a wrong answer.  The responses are not equally valid.  Such polls do not measure public opinion, they measure public ignorance.  Worse, they measure the successful pervasion of partisan misinformation.

These polls are everywhere, and the results are always shameful:

What angers me most about these polls is that the phrase “believe in” really means “understand that.”  These aren’t questions of choice.  There is only one right answer.  It’s indisputable.

The respondents in these three polls didn’t express their opinions, they betrayed their ignorance.  And that ignorance is not the innocent absence of education, it’s the sinister product of deliberate misinformation spread by well-funded special interests (for the polls above, evangelicals, big polluters and conservatives respectively…forgive the fuzzy boundaries between them).

Now, I am not saying that ignorance should be prosecuted like some Orwellian thoughtcrime.  To me, all these polls really show is that the media are failing. True, propagandists and politicians breathe life into these stories, but journalists are the ones who perpetuate this nonsense.

In the new era of “fairness and balance,” the media think they have to report every claim a partisan commentator makes without remarking on its truthfulness – because that would be “unbalanced.”  Think of birtherism, Obama’s supposed socialism, death panels…all these manufactured scandals started as baseless comments reported by the media without question merely because a partisan spoke them.  Apparently transcribing a press release or interview is now where a journalist’s obligation ends: We accuse, you decide.

Yet opposition does not confer equivalency.  Just because there are two sides to a story does not mean they’re necessarily equal.  For a journalist to automatically report them as such is misleading.

When a Wisconsin senate candidate says climate science is wrong and gives a scientifically disproven alternative “explanation,” it’s not partisan to say he’s lying – it’s accurate.  In fact, to merely parrot those proven lies isn’t balance, it’s active disinformation.

Real public opinion polls have obvious political value for politicians and advocates etc.  But what do public ignorance polls contribute to society?  Nothing.  They just validate the misconceptions they seek to quantify by presenting them on equal footing with actual facts.  This is another manifestation of the “bias of balance” in modern media coverage.

With one notable exception, today’s major media outlets are not trying to disseminate falsehoods, but they are succeeding nonetheless.  As long as we allow balance to trump accuracy in journalism, this type of ignorance will not only persist but continue to spread.