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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.

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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?

Democratic Energy Agenda Outmaneuvered by Hypocritical Republicans August 8, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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In these difficult times for the mainstream media, many traditional outlets are shying away from calling out politicians for obvious contradictions.  Overzealous attempts to avoid accusations of media bias have muzzled the watchdogs that a healthy democracy requires.  In this political free-for-all, the Republican minority is dishonestly yet deftly outmaneuvering the reform agenda.  This is readily apparent in an examination of the oil spill response bill.

I actually pity Sen. Reid right now.  He has an impossible task.  Look at how this mess played out:

The oil spill presented a rare political opportunity to advance the long obstructed climate agenda.  Despite a successful bill in the House, it was clear the Senate was not ready for a similar plan.  So Reid dropped the climate initiatives and pushed an energy bill.

In order to attract even a single Republican vote, the more ambitious and indeed necessary energy solutions were stripped.  As time went on, it became difficult to even call it an “energy” bill.

Still, Republicans and their industry allies demanded that the oil spill response bill contain only provisions pertaining directly to oil spills (a short-sighted strategy that treats symptoms instead of the disease).  Without a supermajority, Reid was forced to remove all but the most uncontroversial energy provisions.

The only remaining contentious item in the bill is the oil spill liability cap.  Democrats want to make oil companies actually pay for the damage they cause.  Republicans are protecting the liability cap on behalf of smaller members of the oil industry.  This should have been a slam dunk.   So what happened?

It is no secret that the larger Democratic tent includes some oil state senators who protect Big Oil, not unlike their Republican colleagues.  One would like to believe, however, that these senators, such as Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Mark Begich (D-AK), want to help their party advance the minor energy reforms in this bill and prevent future spills.  Indeed, these two senators are now crafting a liability compromise to remove that roadblock.

In order to strike while the iron was still at least warm, Sen. Reid tried to push the bill through before the August recess.  So Senate Republicans shrewdly prevented Democrats from negotiating, even among themselves.

Republican staffers made it clear that if the bill were opened to amendments, they would hijack the debate and use the opportunity to file divisive, partisan amendments, purely to score political points and drag out the process.  They said their amendments would attack the broader Democratic energy agenda, including cap-and-trade and the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

This is blatant hypocrisy.  After insisting that Sen. Reid’s bill focus narrowly on oil spills, Republicans threatened to derail the oil spill response bill by injecting broader energy issues.  But did the mainstream media call them out for this political duplicity?  No.

Knowing that Republicans would surely back up their amendment threats, Reid was forced to advance the bill without accepting amendments, a process known as “filling the tree.”

Because Reid wasn’t accepting amendments, Republicans attacked Democrats for shoving through another “partisan” bill without accepting any minority input – a lie, because many of the bill’s provisions were actually coauthored by Republicans!  Additionally, the necessary parliamentary maneuver angered centrist Democrats*.

Democrats lost this round decisively.  Republicans hit the bill from all sides.  To me, it called to mind an image of Sen. Reid as a little boy, trapped in a circle of Republican bullies shoving him back and forth between them.

With the compromise in the works, this bill may pass after the recess.  But without media referees, the reform agenda will continue to struggle.

*To be fair, there was concern that more conservative Democrats, led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), might also take advantage of the amendment opportunity to limit EPA authority on greenhouse gases.

A Eulogy for Cap-and-Trade July 1, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
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Although it appears that immigration is cutting in front of energy on the legislative agenda, earlier this week, President Obama told Congress that he wants an energy bill that puts a price on carbon and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this year.

Cap-and-trade is the best way to accomplish this goal.  That is why the House passed the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act over a year ago.  Yet pundits have long ruled this elegant policy tool dead.

At this point, it seems that only a sea change within the Senate could ever bring cap-and-trade back again.  Before it receives its final judgment, it’s worth taking a look back at how this all started, how we got here, why it seemed like a good idea at the time, and why it still is.

Tom Crocker conceived of the cap-and-trade system as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s.  In the 1990s, it was applied with great success to control sulfur dioxide emissions from American coal plants that were producing acid rain.  Our sulfur dioxide cap-and-trade system achieved greater reductions than expected at less than half the projected cost. The Economist dubbed it “probably the greatest green success story of the past decade” in July 2002.

Here in the US, cap-and-trade efficiently reduced sulfur dioxide emissions for a fraction of the projected cost.

The EU implemented a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system in 2005 with mixed results.  But it is a rare step in the right direction and a valuable first try from which we can learn many important lessons.  To co-opt a Republican oil spill talking point, one plane’s turbulence shouldn’t preclude air travel.  We can rebuild it.  We have the technology.

A number of key Republican senators have stated that they will never vote on any energy policy that includes cap-and-trade.  This is an unabashed flip-flop for which they have not been held accountable. Many of these senators supported cap-and-trade before they started calling it a “job-killing energy tax.”

Point of clarification for Republicans: carbon dioxide is not energy.  It is a waste product and pollutant being dumped into a vital resource.  Cap-and-trade is no more an “energy tax” than charging people who pumped cow manure into our drinking water would be a “beef tax.”  Also, it creates jobs. Other than that though, “job-killing energy tax” is a perfect characterization.

Recent cap-and-trade “debates” have lacked relevant historical context; in 2003 John McCain cosponsored the first climate cap-and-trade bill, for crying out loud.  The theory remains unchanged, the only new development is these senators’ adherence to Republican lies talking points.  Blatant, partisan flip-flops are well-documented by McCain, Richard Lugar, Lindsay Graham, Scott Brown, and even Lisa Murkowski!

For decades, conservatives railed against “heavy-handed” traditional environmental regulations.  Known as “command and control” regulations, these laws mandate one solution for a given problem, regardless of the circumstances.  For example, if a factory emits too much of a given pollutant, by law it must install a specific type of scrubber to reduce that pollution, even if cheaper alternatives could produce that same emissions reduction.

While appropriate in many situations, economists and conservatives have argued against such regulations because they can be inefficient and impose higher costs than necessary upon businesses.  This is a valid criticism.  It is the reason why economists prefer and advocate for “market-based instruments” (MBIs) – such as cap-and-trade.

Market-based instruments, as their name implies, utilize markets for environmental regulation.  They are preferable to command and control regulations because markets enable us to achieve emission reductions as efficiently (i.e. cheaply) as possible.

Command and control regulations stifle innovation.  They mandate the use of a specific technology, and that is that.  In contrast, MBIs foster and catalyze innovation.  Cap-and-trade presents a great example.

Once we put a price on carbon pollution, it is suddenly within industries’ interest to invest in ways to cheaply reduce their emissions.  Instead of dictatorially deciding what technology to use, we unleash our nation’s intellectual resources upon this challenge.

Under cap-and-trade, cheaper emission-reducing solutions are developed and utilized.  And the benefits don’t just accrue for industry.  Third parties stand to gain from developing these technologies for them, so MBIs incentivize the creation of startups and the expansion of small businesses attempting to reduce carbon output and increase efficiency – and obviously spur renewable energy technologies for our future.

But just how does cap-and-trade put a price on carbon?

If you know how a cap-and-trade system functions, you will want to skip to the last paragraph.  If you’ve heard the phrase everywhere but aren’t really sure exactly what is entailed, I have provided a description here.

The Cap:

Regulators determine how much pollution the country is allowed to emit in a year.  Then they distribute permits for emissions up to that amount (the distribution method is a complicating factor that I will discuss below).  Because a fixed number of permits are issued, this system has the benefit of ensuring emission reductions (as opposed to a carbon tax).  Polluters want to emit a given amount of pollution but there are only so many permits available.  This creates a market for carbon pollution.  That market puts a price on emitting carbon and also provides a long-overdue economic disincentive to pollute.

A carbon tax also puts a price on carbon, providing some but not all of these same benefits.  A carbon tax is an inferior carbon control mechanism.  If you are interested in why this is or dispute this point, I could easily throw together a cap-and-trade vs. carbon tax post.

The Trade:

Suppose, for example, that there are two factories (see the graphic below to visualize this example).  One is ancient and spews pollution (Plant A) – making emission reductions at this factory is very expensive.   The other is brand new and could easily be upgraded to drastically cut its carbon emissions (Plant B).

Under traditional, command and control regulation (left example), it would be very expensive to bring the older factory into regulatory compliance.  Yet under a cap-and-trade system (right example), we could let the newer plant reduce its emissions for both itself and reduce its emissions further on behalf of the older plant.

In this cap-and-trade example, our polluters have permits entitling them to emit a certain amount of pollution.  In this scenario, the newer plant emits even less pollution than it has permits for; it has cleaned up so much that it has permits to spare.   So the older plant could pay the newer plant for offsetting its continued emissions (the newer plant sells its unused emission permits to the older plant).

Because paying the newer plant is cheaper than making further upgrades to the older plant would be, the same emissions reduction under command and control regulation is achieved for a fraction of the price using cap-and-trade.  And the system operates efficiently because we allow the market to determine the price of the permits.

Permit Distribution:

How these pollution permits would be distributed is the biggest source of contention within cap-and-trade proposals.  There are three ways to distribute credits:

1) Auction – companies bid for every one of the permits they think they need.

2) Allocation – the government gives away permits to polluters for free.

3) Grandfathering – permits are allocated based on historical emissions.  This accomplishes nothing because there is no incentive to reduce emissions, but it has been lobbied for heavily by major polluters.

Serious cap-and-trade proposals have included a mix of these distribution options.  From a climate change perspective, a pure auction is the best solution.  It raises the most money to help offset costs to consumers and spur research and development of renewable energy technologies while providing the most incentive to reduce emissions.  But direct allocations are attractive to legislators because it lets them in a sense “buy” the support of different groups that otherwise would not support the bill because they would be more greatly affected.

Some of this allocation falls into the realm of necessary political compromise, but it is also this aspect of previous climate bills that has doomed them in the contorted, propagandized public perception.  That being said, instituting a cap-and-trade system without any initial allocation would impose heavy costs on industry all at once.  I’m not saying they don’t deserve to pay for the free ride they have enjoyed for centuries, but helping them make the transition is not an outlandish idea.

Conclusion:

In any case, this all may be a moot point because cap-and-trade’s prospects in the Senate are beyond dim as long as Republicans stick to those guns they love so much and Democrats do not control a supermajority (and probably still even then).

I wrote this post because as this policy dies at the hand of partisan politics, it needs to be said that this was our best vehicle to address climate change.  Study after study have shown that cap-and-trade bills would tackle our climate pollution while reducing the deficit, creating jobs, and increasing our energy security.

But who wants that?  Not Republicans, apparently.

Ocean Acidification (Climate Bill Skirmishes Pt. 2) June 21, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Politics.
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Fossil fuels threaten our oceans with dangers beyond just catastrophic oil spills.   Many people understand that carbon dioxide warms our atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.  It is much less publicized that carbon dioxide is also a critical pollutant in our oceans.

We are entering a period in which the very ocean services upon which humanity depends are undergoing massive change and in some cases beginning to fail.”  -Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Some people may be more familiar with ocean acidification than others, so I will start with the basics.

Because carbon dioxide is a gas, one might think that it resides predominantly in the atmosphere.  In actuality, about 93% of the world’s carbon dioxide is found in the ocean – 50x more than in the atmosphere.  In fact, the oceans are estimated to contain approximately 10x as much carbon as our remaining fossil fuel deposits. We don’t release it into the water, but it gets there nonetheless; like other gases, carbon dioxide can move easily from the air into the water.

When the atmospheric pressure of carbon dioxide is greater than the local pressure of carbon dioxide in surface water, molecular diffusion will transport the gas from the atmosphere into the water.  Therefore, as more carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere (and the atmospheric pressure increases), more carbon dioxide ends up in our oceans.

Upon entering the water, CO2 undergoes some significant chemical reactions.

When carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean, much of the gas reacts with water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3).  Carbonic acid is a weak acid that is not dangerous in and of itself – after all, we drink carbonated water and carbonic acid is actually formed in an intermediate step of human respiration.  However, if enough of it accumulates in the oceans, it can have severe indirect effects.

Carbon dioxide forms carbonic acid when dissolved in water.

On the 0-14 pH scale (in which lower numbers = higher acidity), ocean water has historically had a pH of about 8.16.  As a benchmark, “neutral” solutions like pure water and blood have a pH of 7, so our oceans are less acidic than pure water.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the oceans have absorbed almost half of the CO2 we have released into the atmosphere from fossil fuels and cement-manufacturing, and the pH has dropped by almost 0.1.  The pH scale is logarithmic, so each 1 point on the scale indicates an order of magnitude change; 0.1 may not sound like much, but it indicates about a 25% increase in ocean acidity so far.  It is estimated that the pH will drop another 0.4 by 2100.

That acidity would decrease the availability of the vital shell-building compound by 60% (explained below).  While the current pH levels are not record-breaking, the damage has already begun and the rapid rate of change is unprecedented and foreboding.  Ocean systems are remarkably sensitive to water acidity (which had remained relatively constant for millions of years), and marine biologists are very concerned that many species will not be able to evolve quickly enough to cope with this sudden, drastic change.

Ocean systems are remarkably sensitive to water acidity (which has remained relatively constant for the last , and marine biologists are very concerned that many species will not be able to evolve quickly enough to cope with this change.

Ocean acidification is occurring at an unprecedented rate. The scale of this graph is millions of years, that's why the last 2 data points and projections for the next century appear like a vertical line. Anywhere else in this record, 300 years would look like one overlapping, unchanged dot.

Sediment cores reveal that our oceans are acidifying at a rate not seen in 65 million years (since the dinosaurs roamed the Earth).  55 million years ago, virtually all shelled creatures in the ocean disappeared so quickly that geologists would consider it “overnight”.  Scientists attribute this die off to ocean acidification.  It took hundreds of thousands of years for shellfish to return to the oceans, and scientists estimate that we are now acidifying our oceans at a rate 10x faster than that which caused the last mass extinctions of shellfish.

How does ocean acidification affect marine life? Increasing acidity most directly affects aquatic organisms that form shells, such as corals, some algae, and the whole range of shellfish – as well as all the organisms and habitats that rely on those creatures.

Warning: chemistry content!
Shells are created out of calcium carbonate (CaCO
3).  Calcium carbonate structures can actually dissolve in water unless the surrounding water is saturated with carbonate ions (CO3).  If the carbonate concentration of ocean water is too low, shells will be deformed.  It’s like osteoporosis for shellfish.  If the carbonate concentration drops enough, their shells will literally dissolve, and the animals will not be able to survive.

Shellfish require carbonate to build and maintain their shells. In acidic water, they can't get the materials they need.

If you’ve ever taken chemistry, you may recall that acidic solutions undergo “partial ionization” – acidic reactions are reversible and form an equilibrium between the intact acid and its separated ions.  That’s why acid formulae use that double arrow (as in the formula above).  When carbonic acid dissociates, it breaks down from (H2CO3) into:

1)    hydrogen ions (H), which cause acidity, and;

2)    carbonate ions (CO3), upon which shellfish rely.

Carbonate ions can also bind with single hydrogen ions to form the bicarbonate ion (HCO3), which cannot be used for shell construction.

The amount of carbonate available in water is determined by the pH of the water. In more acidic solutions (lower pHs), there are more free hydrogen ions to bind with carbonate to form bicarbonate – and therefore there is less carbonate available in the water.

This is what is happening to our ocean water.  As you now know, that is very bad news for shellfish.

As water becomes more acidic, there is less available carbonate (CO3) for shellfish to use. This is happening today. The black line compared to pH is the one we care about.

A 2005 study examined the impacts of ocean acidification:

“Sea creatures such as corals, shell fish, sea urchins and star fish are likely to suffer the most because higher levels of acidity makes it difficult for them to form and maintain their hard calcium carbonate skeletons and shells. For example, even under the ‘low’ predictions for future carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, the combined effects of climate change and ocean acidification mean that corals could be rare on tropical and subtropical reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef, by 2050. This will have major ramifications for hundreds of thousands of other species that dwell in the reefs as well as for the people that depend upon them, both for food and to help to protect coastal areas from, for example, tsunamis.”

The “tipping point” for reefs, ensuring reef erosion and even eventual extinction, could come as soon as 2050.

Mind you, this will be a separate, additional stressor on vital coral reefs (albeit with the same cause) as coral bleaching in warming waters.

Ocean acidification presents a clear threat and a compelling economic argument, even independent from climate change.  U.S. commercial fishing brought in $4 billion in 2006.  Coastal tourism just in the Florida Keys, which is driven by coral reefs, contributes $1 billion to the economy every year.  These are all jeopardized by ocean acidification.

So, in December of last year, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced House Resolution 989:

“Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the United States should adopt national policies to prevent ocean acidification, to study the impacts of ocean acidification, and to address the effects of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems and coastal economies.”

Simple enough, right?  It finally came up for a vote this month.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who clearly has a lot at stake in regard to our nation’s oceans, voiced his objections: Why, he asked, do we need this resolution if Congress allocated $76 million to researching and monitoring ocean acidification as part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009?

Because, as Rep. Inslee explained, merely monitoring is not enough.  A threat we see coming will materialize whether we watch it arrive or not. We need to act.

Now, H. Res. 989 was never going to be that action we need.  Such nonbinding resolutions are largely inconsequential.  If passed, H. Res. 989 would have done nothing but publically acknowledge that this is a problem we need to address and possibly raise some needed public awareness.  But it’s difficult to rationally oppose such a motion because it has literally no drawbacks.

Mr. Chaffetz finally arrived at the crux of the conservatives’ concern:

“It talks in the very first sentence, ‘Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the United States should adopt national policies.’ By ‘national policies’ does the gentleman mean the cap-and-trade?”

I could relay to you the rest of the congressional debate about this resolution, but I don’t think I have to.  Earlier this month, 241 representatives voted for the resolution, including 19 Republicans and those from the vast majority our nation’s oceanic coastline.  However, such resolutions require the support of 2/3 of the House to pass.

A minority of conservative representatives (including 20 Democrats) defeated H. Res. 989 – about ocean acidification – because they didn’t want to be bound to a non-binding resolution that could potentially be interpreted to offer written encouragement for a cap-and-trade solution to our global warming emissions.  Partisan politics at its finest.

I wrote last week about one of the first skirmishes in this year’s congressional climate battle: the Murkowski Dirty Air Amendment.  This debacle was another.

Like climate change, ocean acidification poses a threat that we must essentially address now or never.  In blocking urgent energy reform, irresponsible congressional conservatives are imposing unprecedented costs and burdens upon younger generations.  As a member of one of those younger generations, I would very much like to take this opportunity to tell those conservatives what they can go do to themselves.  …But I’ll restrain myself for now.

Just for the record, ocean acidification and climate change have more in common than just the same cause: ocean acidification is actually one of the amplifying positive feedback loop that will accelerate climate change if we do not stop it now.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ocean Acidification, check out this great video by the Natural Resources Defense Council:

An Appropriately Politicized Oil Spill June 16, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Republicans are accusing President Obama of politicizing this oil spill.  They say that he is unfairly pushing his energy agenda instead of solving this Gulf Coast tragedy.  They are wrong.

Obama recently addressed the nation about the oil spill in a speech from the Oval Office.  Even before he gave that speech, Republicans offered a preemptive rebuttal. House minority leader John Boehner (R-OH) released a statement entitled:

“President Obama Should Not Use Oil Spill Crisis To Push for Job-Killing Nat’l Energy Tax”

Mike Pence (R-IN) explained it from another angle:

“The American People Don’t Want This Administration to Exploit the Crisis in the Gulf to Advance Their Disastrous Energy Policies”

First of all, both of those titles and the press releases themselves are loaded with politicized spin and focus group-tested buzzwords.  Way to depoliticize the oil spill, Republicans!  Leading by example, as usual.

Secondly, I would ask Mr. Pence to look at the Gulf and tell me whose energy policies are really disastrous – Republicans’ or Democrats’?

Republican criticisms miss their mark because the ongoing oil spill is intimately tied to energy reform. It makes both political and logical sense to connect the two.  Even factors you might think are separate are closely related.

For example, retrofitting 75,000 houses would save as much energy – each year – as has spilled into the Gulf since the spill began (maybe a bit less, I don’t know what estimate this calculation used).  And the home efficiency legislation (“Home Star”) that recently passed in the House is expected to retrofit 3.3 million homes.  If our cars were electric instead of gas-powered, those energy savings could replace our gas usage and we wouldn’t even have needed the oil that is now gushing into the Gulf.

Republicans are complaining because right now because the American public is actually demanding change, and that conflicts with the Republican status quo agenda (see stats in final paragraph).

Those who charge Obama with exploiting this disaster for pure political gain are misrepresenting the situation.  Political exploitation would involve only a tangential, non-casual relationship between the initiating disaster and the proposed response – in other words, if the proposed policy did not actually address the event or prevent it from happening again.

For example, political exploitation would be an appropriate accusation if a president attempted to ban wind power after a hurricane or tornado.  The connection is tenuous and the solution doesn’t prevent the problem.  That is not what’s happening here.

People keep drawing parallels between Hurricane Katrina and this oil spill, but there is a fundamental difference between the two: Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster; the BP oil spill is a manmade disaster in nature.  People caused it.  And people can keep it from happening again.  (The same is obviously not true of hurricanes.)

Hurricanes do not deserve a legislative response.  A preventable, manmade disaster of this magnitude most definitely does.

Cheap oil fuels the American life as we know it today.  It is our ravenous consumption of petroleum products that drives oil companies to drill ultra-deepwater wells.   As we continue to deplete the world’s cheaper, more accessible oil reserves, more dangerous, expensive drilling is the only option.

Yes, BP’s careless corner-cutting and deplorable disregard for safety caused this spill, but they would not be drilling there if we didn’t demand oil so greatly.

So when the President advances a plan to wean America off of its oil addiction, it is not opportunism or political exploitation, it is literally the appropriate response to this catastrophe.  The only way to completely eliminate the threat of another blowout is to stop the drilling altogether.  And the best way to do that is to end our addiction to oil.

Climate/energy bills, such as that passed by the House last year and the one expected in the Senate soon, essentially seek to accomplish 3 goals:

  1. Put a price on carbon dioxide emissions.
  2. Spur aggressive investment in renewable energy technologies.
  3. Increase our energy security/independence.

Oil is related to all three goals – negatively.

Greenhouse gas  (GHG) emissions, such as carbon dioxide, are what is known in public policy as a “negative externality.”  They are an additional cost that is not reflected in the actual price of a good.  Oil today is bought and sold at prices that do not reflect the damage that GHG emissions cause.  (A “positive externality” would be something like the pleasant smell wafting out of a chocolate factory, for which the company is not compensated for providing.)

Putting a price on carbon will enable the oil market to function more properly because the price of oil will be more accurate (this process is known as “internalizing” the externality).  For all their chest-beating about the “free market,” conservatives have done much to stifle the freedom of energy markets.

The only reason oil is so cheap today is because it is massively subsidized.  Fossil fuel industries benefit from $550 BILLON EACH YEAR in tax breaks and government subsidies.  These subsidies keep prices artificially low.

Our country grows incensed at $4 gas.  Did you know that gasoline costs well over $6/gal in many European countries?  That’s not because it’s harder to get gas there.  America would be in shambles at those prices today.  This is a serious vulnerability.  And as long as those prices remain so low, they stifle investment in newer, cleaner, renewable sources of energy, and ensure that continue to remain vulnerable to, and dependent upon, oil.

To become energy secure, we must free ourselves from our reliance upon oil.  The U.S. passed its oil production peak in 1970, and as we continue to literally run out of American oil, the distinction between “foreign oil” and “oil” will necessarily blur.  It is impossible for us to drill our way to energy independence, because we account for 20% of the world’s oil consumption but have just 2% of its remaining supply.

New drilling won't make us more secure. Only using less oil can do that.

Coal is not an option because of the horrendously large amount of pollution it produces and its outsized contributions to climate change.  Nuclear energy will be the topic of a different post, but will not be our silver bullet.  The only energy sources that can power our country for generations to come are renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal.  We must invest in their research, development, and deployment as quickly as humanly possible.

This is what the President proposes, and it is indeed what we must do.  It was the right decision before this oil spill, and it remains the right decision during/after it.

Crises are political opportunities.  That is a fact.  In such moments, the public demands action, and leaders enjoy leniency not afforded to them under normal circumstances.  It is true that leaders have abused these powers in the past: Julius Caesar and Hitler come to mind, and George W. Bush used an attack by a nation-less terrorist group to invade an arbitrary country.

But this is not one of those situations.  It is undeniably an opportunity to advance the long-stalled energy agenda, but doing so is a proper and responsible course of action in response to this oil spill.

To exploit this crisis to resurrect his climate change legislation is just wrong.” –Mike Pence (R-IN).

Fighting climate change and reducing our oil dependence are two sides of the same coin.  Doing one accomplishes the other.  To reform our energy policy right now without addressing climate would be criminally negligent.

There has been a flurry of energy polling in the wake of the oil spill:

  • 87% of Americans favor comprehensive energy legislation that encourages renewable energy sources.
  • 76% of Americans support regulating carbons dioxide as a pollutant.
  • 69% of Americans think that the US should make a large- or medium-scale effort to reduce global warming even if it incurs large or moderate economic costs.

Tell me, Republicans, who is defying the will of the people?

Climate Bill Skirmishes Pt. 1: The Murkowski Amendment June 15, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Politics.
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4 comments

Energy reform is long overdue for this country and it was on the legislative agenda even before BP sponsored 2010 as “Oil Drilling Risk Awareness Year.”  The House of Representatives passed its climate/energy bill almost a year ago, and the Senate is finally preparing to attempt to follow suit.

The first skirmishes of the climate battle have already been fought in the Murkowski “Dirty Air” Amendment and a much less publicized incident regarding ocean acidification in the House of Representatives (which will be presented in a second post due to the unexpected length of this one).

Let’s start from the beginning.  As you may know, in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gases (GHGs) pose enough of a public health risk (via climate change) to be considered “pollutants” under the Clean Air Act.

That ruling imposed a legal obligation upon the EPA to do one of two things:

1)    Either issue an “endangerment finding” that carbon dioxide poses a public health risk – and then regulate GHG emissions, or;

2)    Provide proof that carbon dioxide is harmless.  Such proof does not exist, so the Obama EPA issued its endangerment finding in November 2009.

There were two years between the Supreme Court ruling and the endangerment finding.  Why?  The Bush administration.

Jason Burnett was a former associate deputy administrator of the Bush EPA.  The Supreme Court ruling came in April 2007.  The following December, Burnett emailed the EPA’s conclusion that GHGs are pollutants to a White House office.  When White House officials heard he was sending that email, they called him and ordered him not to send it.  When he told them he already had, they actually demanded he recall the email (this can be done in some email programs).  Burnett refused and resigned.

In June 2008, the New York Times discovered that because White House officials did not want to act on the information in that EPA email, they had simply never opened it.  They just left it in their inbox, unread, with the justification that they didn’t have to act on the email if they hadn’t read it. That actually happened.  And it was enough to delay climate action in the executive branch for years – until Obama’s election.

When Obama’s EPA finally released its endangerment finding last year, the ring wing threw a fit.  Republicans had been enjoying decades of legislative success in blocking climate and energy reform, and here was Obama’s tyrannical executive branch finally putting the nation’s interests first and actually acting against a grave threat.  How dare they?

Congressional Republicans were particularly angry about the endangerment finding because it could supplant congressional authority [not] to legislate on the issue.  So last January, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced an amendment to reverse the EPA’s endangerment finding.

For a senator with such a proven history of representing the oil industry, it seems like a basic piece of legislation: the endangerment finding gives the EPA the authority and obligation to act, so her amendment seeks simply to overturn the ruling to remove that impetus.  But consider what she was actually attempting to do.

The endangerment finding is a nonpartisan summary of science.  All it says is that a warming climate caused in part by human emissions of GHGs will present a public health and welfare risk.  That’s it.  No policy prescriptions, just scientists warning about a scientific danger.

Obama and Bush have very, very different stances on climate change.  Yet the Obama administration’s endangerment finding is very similar to the one that was produced and then buried by the Bush administration (it was released last October by a Freedom of Information Act request).  The science is settled.  Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) correctly described the Murkowski amendment as, “a choice between real science and political science.

The Murkowski “Dirty Air” Amendment sought to grant Congress the authority to determine what is scientifically true in our world.  It is the most inappropriate piece of legislation I have ever seen.  Moreover, it was a reprehensibly transparent demonstration of the level of industry involvement in our legislature – the Murkowski amendment was literally written by lobbyists for the oil industry!

Another post with no good visuals, so here's Murkowski in a different fishy situation.

“Who elected the Environmental Protection Agency?” asked a furious Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY).  Answer me this, John: who elected the oil lobbyists who wrote this amendment?  Scientists are qualified to address scientific concerns.  If scientists tell us carbon dioxide is irrefutably a pollutant, that point should be legislatively unimpeachable.  I should never have had to make that point.  The only people overstepping their bounds here are the senators who voted for this amendment.  And they’re doing it to preserve their right to continue shirk their duty to that electorate Barrasso pretends to care so much about.

The measure came up for a vote last week.  It failed, but barely: 53-47.  Every Republican and six Democrats* voted for the amendment.  And more Democrats than that expressed support for this resolution before cowing to party pressure.  Sen. Rockefeller (D-WV) even has his own pending version of the proposal that would undermine EPA authority for (at least) two years.

*Landrieu (D-LA), Lincoln (D-AR), Pryor (D-AR), Nelson (D-NE), Bayh (D-IN), Rockefeller (D-WV).

In reality, the Murkowski amendment was never going to become law.  It had very little chance of getting through the House, and even if it miraculously did, it would have met an Obama veto.  Everybody knew that, including Murkowski.  This was grandstanding.

Most people, even within the administration, don’t want the EPA to have to regulate carbon dioxide.  There is general agreement that Congress should be the body to address an issue as big as climate/energy.  Politically, this EPA action just puts a deadline on Congress…a much-needed deadline, as they have postponed this issue for decades.  It also manufactures a talking point for Glenn Beck et al. about Obama’s plan to take over the country.

Conservatives who oppose progress have concluded that delay and doubt are more successful strategies than full denial.  That’s why Republicans always call for “more research” and tell Democrats they need to “go back to the drawing board” whenever we actually try to tackle an issue.  You saw it for healthcare reform and you will see it again for climate.  It lets them pretend to care about the issue in general and claim to just have problems with the specific way that Democrats are doing it.

But, like healthcare and a host of other issues, climate change is a threat that has already been put off for too long.  We must act now if we are to have any chance of preventing this crisis.  Congress has had ample time to act on this issue.  At some point, enough is enough.  If legislators refuse to take action yet again, it is fully appropriate for the EPA to do so. In fact, they are obligated by law.

The Murkowski amendment was the first round of this year’s climate battle.  And it demonstrates what a tough fight we have ahead.

This was not a bill to regulate GHGs.  The implications were clear, but no specific proposals were included here.  There were no numbers to argue about, no regional winners and losers yet.  This was an argument about whether or not to pass a law at all.  And the actual amendment didn’t even go that far – it was basically just a congressional rejection of climate science.  And it nearly passed.

Kill, baby, kill April 2, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
8 comments

***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.

I’m Back! | Are Campaigns Just Games? January 20, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election, Media, Politics.
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I’m back.  I haven’t posted for a few months because I was working in a political internship where I was not allowed to blog.  That has ended, so I will be writing again.  Please read on:

Campaigning and governing are two very different things.  The obviousness of that statement is a serious problem.  Yesterday’s “surprising” special election in Massachusetts is a case study in why the separation between these two processes is detrimental to our country.

State Attorney General Martha Coakley was a terrible campaigner.  Gaffes drive election coverage, and her short campaign had media outlets drooling.  But is she any less fit to govern now than she was when she clinched the Democratic nomination?  No.

Massachusetts is fairly considered a Democratic state.  Currently, voters have elected Democrats into every state executive office, 89.5% of its state legislature and, until Senator-elect Scott Brown is sworn in, 100% of its congressional representatives.  It is safe to say that a majority of Bay Staters embraces the Democratic policy agenda.

Voters favor the Democratic Party in Massachusetts (click for larger)

The first poll after the primaries showed Coakley 15 points ahead of Brown.  Eleven days later, the final poll showed Coakley 9 points behind Brown.  Yesterday, she lost by 5 points. Polls are inaccurate, but during those two weeks a significant portion of voters changed their minds, either about the candidates or about their decision to vote.

In a democratic republic, citizens elect representatives to legislate on their behalf.  It is clearly within a person’s interest to vote for someone who shares his or her policy perspective.  So congressional elections should be about policy, the laws each candidate will support.  Unfortunately, campaigns have lost sight of this because we, the voters, have let them.  The media enable and cultivate this electoral perversion.

The Coakley-Brown campaign was largely devoid of policy.  Yes, Brown was going to (and now will) vote to block healthcare reform.  What will he do after that?  He ran a campaign ad featuring his truck.  Not one of Coakley’s “gaffes” was policy-related.  Some might point to her Afghanistan comment, but that was a defensible opinion.  All we heard about in the news was an admittedly egregious typo of her state’s name.  Not a word about what she would do as a senator.

We as a country neglect policy in campaigns.  Since 2004, it is political suicide to reverse a policy position, even in the face of new, better information; “flip-flopper” is a politician’s death knell.  Brown actually did successfully flip his stance on climate to pander to Tea Partiers, but that was before the primaries, and this election was not about climate change.  None of the drastic poll movement over the last two weeks can be attributed to policy positions because they didn’t change.  So what did?  And can it possibly be more important than policy?

“Reducing carbon dioxide emission in Massachusetts has long been a priority of mine” -Scott Brown in 2008, after voting for RGGI, the regional cap and trade system among Northeastern power plants.

“It’s interesting. I think the globe is always heating and cooling.  It’s a natural way of ebb and flow.”  – Scott Brown in 2010, pandering to the ignorance of the extreme right.

Campaigns have become a sport of their own.  Candidates are being evaluated on a scale separate from how well they would govern.  It’s like drafting a basketball player based not on his skill but rather on how many people would want to come to see him.  Sarah Palin comes to mind.  President Obama does too, but he can dribble and shoot.  Still, campaign prowess and governing ability are not inherently correlated, and we cannot continue conflating the two.

Scott Brown definitively won his campaign.  Or rather, Martha Coakley definitively lost hers.  But I challenge the notion that Senator Brown will represent the majority opinion of the state of Massachusetts.  And if that’s true, the system is flawed.

So what to do?  If most of the state’s registered voters had turned out last night, the state would be more accurately represented.  Perhaps voting should be mandatory, an official civic duty instead of a “freedom” to be celebrated and then apathetically shirked on election day.  A Massachusetts election official projected last night’s “explosive” turnout to be in the 40% range.

It is hypocritical for us to hold up our democracy as the model government while recording unremarkable if not weak voter turnout on an international scale (check out this website for some interesting international election statistics).  Yet unless people take much more time to educate themselves about the issues, mandatory voting would be no solution.   At least today’s voters care, even if some opinions are based on the distortions of demagogues.

If elections are truly about selecting the best people to govern, I propose we completely remove the pageantry from the campaign process.  Congressional representatives, unlike presidents, have essentially one task: creating legislation.  So we should vote for person who will enact the policies we support most.

Therefore, let every candidate write down his or her ideal prescriptions for each major policy area.  Compare and contrast the answers.  Publish and widely circulate that document.  Then let us choose the best person for the job.  Who cares what kind of car they drive?  What does it matter which sports teams they support?  These are unnecessary distractions.  Let the media provide the electorate with enough information to pick an effective legislator and then go report real current events.  Surely there’s a little boy in a balloon somewhere.

We should vote for the right reasons.  And we should all vote.

Dear Abby: Comment Response March 17, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Politics.
Tags: , , ,
1 comment so far

*UPDATE*

Thrust, parry.  Instead of reposting, I will just redirect you once again to my good friends at NextGenGOP.

 

A bored google image search just led my to this gem.  Thought I'd share.

A bored google image search just led me to this gem. Just thought I'd share.

 

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Original Post:

A fellow Duke student posted a comment on my column today.  While I cannot engage her criticisms about my column (and was happy to see that other people basically said what I would have anyways), I did decide to check out her blog, NextGenGOP.  She also posted today, on the topic of youth liberalism.  

After reading her piece, I decided that I ought to return the favor and leave her a similarly helpful albeit longer comment.  Below, I have reposted her piece “Kids These Days,” followed by my response.  Alternatively, you may read her post (and my response) on her blog (here), which I actually recommend – it is very nicely designed.   Enjoy:

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Kids These Days – Abby Alger

The question I am asked most often is why I am a Republican. It’s a query accompanied with a smirk by liberals, particularly Baby Boomers. (They hope my answer will contain overtly racist, sexist, classist, ageist, heterosupremacist, insertcategoryhereist opinions or—better yet!—upbringing of the same type so that I can be made to recognize my sins, repent, and achieve salvation/redemption/eternal life on the government dole.) And it’s a query increasingly accompanied with a bit of anxiety, edge, even desperation when it comes from Republicans mainly—conservatives, less so.

I’m in the generation that’s the least Republican since Pew started tracking such things. Depressing, not dire as a statistic, but indicative of a broad force at work. It’s something in the cultural water that turns the kids these days into knee-jerk Democrats of the leftist stripe. And it’s got to be in the water—and not just in being liberal at 20 because you have a heart etc.—because it’s a sort of blind, stupid activism that delights in conformity to the (now-confirmed) left-wing echo chamber, rather than overthrowing The Man to bring in a new era of enlightenment, happiness, peace, and drug legalization.

So what is it about Generation Me/Generation Next/Millennials that makes us so blindly leftist? Below are my initial thoughts. I invite fellow writers here to join in the chorus.

I think the answer, at that abstract, 30,000-foot view, is simple and explainable by characteristics of the era. The story goes something like this: being a limited-government, fiscally conservative Republican is, well, kind of boring. You let people do what they want to do. You provide for the common defense, the national infrastructure, some social goods (e.g. education), and enforce laws that keep people from stealing, killing, and the like. It is remote, even impersonal. The government does not care who you are or what you do. It just gets out of your damn way.

But I’m in the generation that believes it is amazingly interesting. The internet, which brought to us delights like LOLcats, rickrolling, and Rathergate, also brought us navel-gazing on a scale unseen before now. As Matt Labash put it in this week’s Weekly Standard, “The very fact that they are on Facebook has convinced people that every facet of their life is inherently interesting enough to alert everyone to its importance.” In other words, me me me now now now pay attention pay attention pay attention to me me me.

Unsurprisingly, this also affects political discourse. What I feel is infinitely more important than what I know or what you can prove with logic or numbers. “That offends me [or aggrieved groups X, Y, and Z]” is a sufficient answer to settle any intellectual debate. Take away your cold facts; my intuition and desires are enough to settle complex debates. Sound familiar yet?

And I’m in the generation that believes it depends on what the meaning of is…is. However young we were during Bill and Monica, we got the lesson. There are no moral absolutes, no unimpeachable standards of right and wrong. There is only legal and illegal. What the law prescribes is allowed; what it does not discuss is a black hole. (Here there be anarchy, so we never go there.) But then, even that is flexible. A tax cheat collects our taxes, a corrupt crook stayed governor of Illinois for weeks, and a perjurer held the highest office in the land.

This whole process makes us curiously dependent on the government and our legislators to decide what is good, what is bad, and what the penalties are for transgressing those boundaries. We dwell, quite literally, in the nanny state. Even worse, we enjoy it. We press for its growth and slow encroachment on each part of our lives.

As Republicans and conservatives, how do we communicate to this generation? We tell them to grow up or we wait until they do (i.e. when they get their first paychecks). The only upshot of Obama’s budget is that he may hasten that process nicely…

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Dear Abby – My Response

As much as I hate to add a discordant voice to your one-woman “chorus,” I accept your invitation. 

Do you honestly believe that young people lean left just because we seek conformity?  Or because fiscally responsible governance is “boring?”  Wake up.

Liberalism is not in the water (that apparently only young people drink).  It is a product of an open mind that cares about the world it lives in.  The free market and <6 year election cycle are ill-suited to addressing long-term challenges.  Yet somehow I still care about my long-term future.  I’d like the world to be a clean, safe place both for myself now and my kids later.   And sadly, that makes me a Democrat.

We’re liberals because we think everyone deserves a chance.  And we’re liberals because we think everyone deserves a choice.  For a party that prides itself on government “getting out of your damn way,” you certainly enjoy legislating your values.  But if you really want to know why our generation is so “blindly” Democratic, I’ll tell you the answer, but you’re not going to like it:

We are Democrats because of Republicans.  Our generation awoke politically to the travesties of the Bush administration and its Congressional accomplices.  I don’t have to list the deeds of that gang, you know them well.  And we’re still paying for them today in money and blood. 

Growing up in that climate, how could we become anything but Democrats?  Even if we DIDN’T support the liberal policy agenda or happen to care about the environment, in a 2-party system we really had little choice BUT lean left.  Our generation wasn’t born Democratic, we were pushed there, away from the Republicans abusing our government and hijacking our country. 

And do you really want to talk about criminal politicians?  People in glass houses, for god’s sake.  Our guy got a blow job.  Your guy deceived us into an unending war et plenty of al..  You do NOT want to go here.  If our country were as interested in transparency as you claim to be (in your profile) and our current president wasn’t trying to turn a new leaf and leave the past where it is, we WOULD have to legalize drugs – to make room for Republicans in our prisons (perhaps not for quantity, just quality). 

Also, it’s cute that you scoff at Democrats for wanting peace.  You’re right, it IS confusing why more young people aren’t Republicans.

Unrelated point but worth mentioning: it’s a little hypocritical to disparage our generation because it “believes it is amazingly interesting” and draws undue attention to itself…on a blog that you started so the whole world can access your personal insights.   Yes, I know I have a blog too.  But my life and opinions are amazingly interesting.

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I lamented during the election about my inability to find active young Republicans.  It is nice to have finally found them.