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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?

Kill, baby, kill April 2, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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***This post has become much more relevant since the BP oil spill began.  For a complete list of offshore drilling/oil spill questions and answers, click here.***

On Wednesday, President Obama unveiled a proposal to open vast swathes of American coastlines to new offshore drilling.  I have never opposed one of the President’s decisions more strongly than this, which makes sense because this move was made purely as a concession to congressional Republicans.  Conservatives would have you believe that science is a political debate, but there are some things that just cannot be spun.  Offshore drilling is one of them.

Below, I will demonstrate that there is literally no good reason to increase our offshore drilling.  Not one.  …Unless you’re an oil company.

Domestic drilling CANNOT lower oil or gas prices. Just last year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) analyzed what would happen if we fully opened our coasts to offshore drilling.  Their conclusion: by 2020, gas prices remain unchanged. By 2030, US gas prices would be $0.03/gallon lower. That’s it.  And it’s easy to see why:

We just don’t have enough oil to make a difference. We, the US, represent 25% of world oil demand and <3% of the world’s supply.  The price of oil, as a global commodity, is determined on the global market.  We produce so little of the global supply that we simply can’t affect prices from the supply side. The only exception to this is when regional refining capabilities are temporarily decreased (as in the wake of hurricanes), but this scenario can only raise local prices above the global market price, not lower them.  Additionally, since OPEC is a cartel, even if we were miraculously able to significantly affect prices, OPEC could simply reduce their supply to negate that effect.

We don't have enough oil to drill our way out of this problem.

As of 2009, the US consumed approximately about 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. So even in a recession, we use roughly 8 billion barrels of oil per year.  According to the EIA, the federal drilling moratorium only blocked drilling for 18.17 billion barrels of offshore oil (a little over 2 year’s worth) out of an estimated 59.09 billion barrels offshore in the Lower 48 states, with most of that unavailable oil off of California, which is wisely united in bipartisan support against offshore drilling.

Oil companies already have access to about 34 billion barrels of offshore oil that they have yet to develop. When you take into account realistic production rates, the fact that this oil would have to be extracted over the course of many decades and the scope of the current proposal, we are talking about displacing from imports just 1-1.5% of our annual consumption.  That DOES NOT make us more energy independent or secure.

Offshore drilling is still a dirty, dangerous risk. Just last year, an oil rig off the northwestern coast of Australia sprung a leak that couldn’t be plugged for nearly 3 months.  An estimated 9 million gallons spilled into the ocean, covering more than 9,000 square miles of ocean. The drilling rig and platform in question were all the newest technology, having been built in the last 3 years, and they caused a spill nearly as large as Exxon Valdez.  Offshore drilling poses a grave threat to our nation’s beaches, oceans and wildlife.  Not to mention billions of dollars and millions of jobs in sustainable tourism and fishing industries along the nation’s coasts.  We risk so much to obtain so little.

This is the new, modern oil rig that spilled oil for almost 3 months just last year, causing an oil spill big enough to be seen from space. And this exact thing could happen off of any of our beaches here in the U.S.

Drilling is a long-term proposition. Any politician who touts offshore drilling as an immediate fix for gas prices (or anything, for that matter) is flat out lying to you.  Even if we opened the continental shelf and/or ANWR tomorrow, oil wouldn’t begin to flow for at least 10 years, and maximum production wouldn’t be achieved before 2027. Only THEN could we get our prices lowered by mere cents per gallon.

“American” oil doesn’t help America. We don’t have nationalized oil companies. In many other countries, oil companies are government-run.  A country taps its own resources and distributes them as the government sees fit.  That, for better or for worse, does not happen here.  “Our” oil companies are huge, privately owned companies that span the globe and act solely in the interest of their stockholders.  It is true that freeing ourselves from our dependence upon unstable, unfriendly countries for their oil would be better for America.  But offshore drilling does almost nothing to accomplish this.

Industry front groups try to set up cost-benefit analyses to show us how much money we save/earn by drilling domestically, but the American people (who do not own stock in Exxon) don’t benefit from US oil company profits.  We still pay the same money for the same gas.  I’m not endorsing foreign oil, I’m just saying that US oil companies are not our saviors or even our friends.  They are just companies trying to make as much money as they can.

And just for the record, oil companies already have access to about 34 billion barrels of offshore oil that they have yet to seriously develop.

“All of the Above” is not a solution. Whether we’re talking about federal dollars or private investment, money is limited.  Every dollar spent on a needlessly dangerous and unsustainable fuel source like oil could be more efficiently and effectively spent on renewable energy for our future.

So why did Obama do it? On the surface, the political calculus is there: combined with his recent concession on nuclear power, offering conservatives another of their major energy objectives could pave the way for a comprehensive climate/energy bill.  But this really doesn’t do it for me.  Only a handful of Republicans were “in play” for climate change anyways, and this doesn’t appear to have convinced anyone else.  Indeed, most congressional Republicans angrily panned the plan as “job killing” because it doesn’t jeopardize every last beach in America.  The most moderate Republicans offered only tepid praise for the plan as “a good first step.”  It has been suggested that this centrist tack removes this issue from the upcoming midterm elections amidst the inevitable higher gas prices of summer, but as long as any coast remains protected, I think that talking point remains (and John Boehner clearly agrees).  I really don’t have a good explanation for this.

Sen. Lautenberg put a more accurate spin on the omnipresent conservative mantra proposed by the President today: “kill, baby, kill,” because offshore drilling threatens not only marine wildlife but also coastal economies and jobs that rely on clean beaches and healthy oceans.   The day after this unfortunate announcement, the President released his long anticipated tougher gas mileage standards for cars.  This move will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of the program.  That’s 1.8 billion barrels of oil we don’t have to drill for or buy, and we can achieve these savings without sacrificing the Chesapeake Bay, North Carolina’s gorgeous Outer Banks, or that beach you go to that you love so much.  These are the solutions we need.  Drilling just isn’t the answer.

This graphic shows the new areas that would be open to drilling in President Obama's new proposal.

One final point worth mentioning:

Big Oil profits from our suffering. With soaring gas prices in recent years, the oil companies have been posting record profits while the American public has struggled.  The fanatical support oil companies enjoy from the rank and file Republican is sadly ironic as these companies profit at the expense of regular people.  While they do contribute handsomely to campaigns, these companies do nothing for the everyday conservatives who champion their cause.  It really is a testament to the expertise with which the GOP and industry advertising/lobbyists manipulate the public.  And to add insult to injury, the Big 5 are spending most of their profits on buying back their own stock.  They are spending under 4% of their profits on exploration for new oil and even less on research and development.

This makes me pretty angry, but I’ve had people tell me “well, they’re private companies making a profit.  Good for them.”  Just because I am a Democrat does not mean I automatically begrudge businesses for their success.  This is different for one fundamental reason: the oil industry is very heavily subsidized.  Oil companies receive millions and millions of taxpayer dollars and tax breaks each year.  If they are going to continue to be supported by the American people, they must act on our behalf.  Their expenditures clearly indicate that they do not.

Sunlight: The 2nd Best Disinfectant February 26, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Politics.
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“Transparency” is tossed around Washington like the solution to all our problems.  But what good is a window if nobody is looking through it?  Citizens today are inundated by so much information that we must rely on others to sort and interpret the news that is actually relevant to us.  And in our politicized country, most of us receive governmental news from outlets at least slightly skewed towards our preexisting views.

I’m a liberal.  When a Republican says something outrageous, I know about it immediately thanks to Media Matters and the rest of the liberal blogosphere.  But when a Democrat makes an equivalent mistake, I may not even find out.  The big slips make national news, covered by the “balanced” mainstream media, but the more mundane mistruths fly under the radar.  The little lies about a particular bill.  The deliberately distorted talking points that obstruct well-intentioned legislation.  The average person does not hear about the everyday dishonesty that has crippled our democracy today.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously opined, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  So we have multiple C-SPAN channels, the Freedom Of Information Act and more political reporting than would seem possible.  There is so much information available in the name of transparency that no single person could ever hope to monitor politics casually; that’s a full-time job.

How many ordinary people actually watch C-SPAN?  Virtually none*.  The cameras are almost always on, but nobody watches directly.  We all rely on dedicated observers to tell us if something of note happened in Congress.  So because we get our political news pre-spun and, more importantly, pre-filtered, few people get the full picture.

As a result, I would argue that sunlight is not the best disinfectant.  The blinding brightness of all this transparency has actually forced us to shield our eyes and turn away.  Too much of a good thing has had the exact opposite effect as intended.  It is true that sunlight stops the big schemes, like Watergate.  Yet more often, sunlight just provides fodder for the politically-hyped fake scandals, like “Climate-gate.”

There isn't really any useful imagery for this post, so here's a pretty picture of sunlight.

I’m not advocating for increased secrecy, I would merely like to point out that we have just witnessed the demonstration of a much more powerful force in the name of good governance: public viewership.

Despite its shortcomings, yesterday’s Healthcare Summit hosted by President Obama was something different.  Yes, it initially appeared to be an interlocking presentation of talking points, but 3-4 hours in, something interesting began to happen.  Unexpected areas of agreement appeared.  Sensible minority proposals met with majority support.  Progress was taking place.

In our toxic political climate, it is worth asking, “what was different?”  Why can’t such dialogue and rational policy debate take place in Congress, the body created for that express purpose?  Having the President there to babysit likely helped, but much more important was the fact that the country was watching.

Events that people watch in person are much less susceptible to spin because we form our own opinions on the spot. That is supposed to be the driving force of a free country: the will of the people, not the mantra of the shepherd with the largest, mindless flock.

I have no doubt that either side could strategically excerpt yesterday’s proceedings to make their opponents look foolish, and that almost certainly happened.  But when the public tunes in directly, politicians are once again restrained by a sense of accountability – the same accountability that objective media coverage, which is often necessarily “unbalanced,” used to provide.

The Healthcare Summit was not a turning point in our country.  The politics have not changed, even for healthcare, and the public is not about to become involved in everyday politics (nor, frankly, should they have to be).  But this did remind us, for a few hours, that productive political dialogue can occur – if we, the people, demand it of our elected representatives.

*Digging a little deeper, it appears that C-SPAN does actually have significant viewership.  That’s news to me, but I think my main point stands.

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.

Year of the Youth Vote November 6, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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Back in January, Time dubbed 2008 “The Year of the Youth Vote.”  It appears they were correct. Pollsters consider “youth voters” citizens between 18 and 29 years old. CIRCLE (from whom I got all these stats) estimates that youth voter turnout was between 49 and 55 percent (votes are still being counted).  In the three preceding presidential elections, youth voter turnout rose from 37 to 48 percent. In each of those elections, youth votes accounted for just 17 percent of ballots cast (overall turnout also rose).  This year, the National Exit Poll projects our share of votes at 18 percent.  This increase may seem small, but even a minor vote share increase in a year of strong overall turnout is significant.

Students comprise about a quarter of the youth vote. We will have to wait for more detailed statistics, but an examination of votes in counties with major universities suggests that students broke heavily Democratic this year. Youth voters chose Sen. Barack Obama over Sen. John McCain by a whopping 34-point margin (66-32), and many analysts believe that students were pivotal in electing Democrats up and down the ballot.  Obama won the youth vote in 41 states with over 80 percent support in some states.

Obama’s campaign pursued the youth vote much more actively than McCain’s. While I knew this intuitively, I wanted to see if I could quantify this assertion – Yes I Can. There are 23 special “coalition” pages on McCain’s website.  While bikers (leather, not spandex), racing fans, and lawyers were important enough to get their own pages, students were not. Even Lebanese Americans got their own page. Now I have nothing against Lebanese Americans; unlike Senator McCain, I never implied that ‘Arab’ is derogatory word. But the fact that McCain’s website would court a decidedly minor demographic and not students is absurd. If ever there was a demographic to appeal to online…But my quest for quantification continued.

Barack Obama is an Arab.

A domain search on johnmccain.com for the word “students” returns just 317 hits, and some of the first hits aren’t even about us, they clarify Sarah Palin’s position on teaching creationism in schools (she’s for it, but thankfully that doesn’t matter anymore). Conversely, the same search on barackobama.com returns 931,000 hits.

Students for Barack Obama was largely responsible for this disparity. SFBO, the official student wing of the campaign, was almost entirely student-run. It had hundreds of chapters at schools in every state and tapped students to volunteer, canvass, phone-bank, and register voters throughout the nation. Full disclosure: I started working for SFBO nearly a year and a half ago, but my own considerable bias aside, it is quite telling that our group had no counterpart in the McCain campaign.   I was unable to find even a state-level organization. The campaign supported efforts on individual campuses and external groups like College Republicans, but did not create any organization of or for new supporters.  At least none that was ever meant to be found online.

Why? The obvious explanation is that McCain was expending his resources elsewhere because students heavily favored Obama, but that has major implications. Sure, demographics have their trends, but do campaigns regularly leave such a large, important group unchallenged? Young voters are not just a subset of America, we’re a cross-section of it. We come from every part of the nation, every socio-economic situation, and as diverse a racial background as our country has to offer. And you know those future generations that will have to pay for today’s mistakes? That’s us. And our kids. Considering the number of recent mistakes, shouldn’t our perspective matter?

Vote by Age

Young voters won the election for Obama. Graphic from CNN.com, data from the National Exit Poll.

In this election, it did. And what of the future? Regardless of how they vote, many young voters consider themselves independents. That sentiment typically dwindles in higher age brackets. It is conventional electoral wisdom that lifelong party identification forms some time in a voter’s first few elections. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won 55.4 percent of the youth vote, the highest percentage since the voting age dropped to 18. That election had formative, lasting effects on the youth voters who participated; their age cohort still trends more Republican than those immediately younger and older. Although we are not all predestined to become Democrats and could maintain our relative political independence, this certainly doesn’t bode well for the Republican Party.

At least 22 million young people voted in this election. While youth turnout increased, what is extraordinary is how lopsided our support was. Obama tied McCain among voters aged 45-64 and lost among voters 65+. According to CIRCLE Director Peter Levine, who studies the youth vote, we are Obama’s core constituency and he couldn’t have won without us. We won’t be youth voters forever, but our generation has definitively asserted itself on the political stage. Let’s keep it up.

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