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The Spam We Need February 10, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election.
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For at least the next two years, the impotent Republican minority in the House of Representatives will produce nothing but drama and headlines.  And the theme of this show will be partisanship.  President Obama promised us a new era of bipartisanship, so whenever he supports a Democratic policy, Republicans are crying foul.  Disregarding the fact that liberals got “partisan-ed” pretty hard during Bush II years, let’s examine what bipartisanship really means today.

First, “partisan” does not deserve such a negative connotation; it describes how our legislature functions.  Two parties with widely differing ideologies will obviously support the solutions they believe will work, as they have for centuries.

When Obama won, the phrase ‘mandate for change’ surfaced – the sense that a clear majority of Americans trusted that this Democratic president had a better platform to fix our country.  For Obama to now embrace Republican plans for a stimulus package (mainly tax breaks) would violate the trust of every person who voted for him.  Americans elected Democrats into the White House and clear majorities in the House and the Senate.  This is not a product of random chance.

2008 election results with states scaled by population.  See all the blue?

2008 election results with states scaled by population. See all the blue?

Worthy or not, Republicans successfully cast themselves as the party of “tax breaks.”  And if that is your single, shortsighted priority for our government, it seems clear you should vote Republican.  But in November, America did not.  So last month, when Obama was asked why there weren’t more Republican ideas in his stimulus plan and he replied “I won,” his response was not only delightfully honest but informative.

Bipartisanship means understanding, respecting, and listening to the opposition.  Obama is doing that.  Sometimes it means making compromises too, but not on everything.  I’m no economist, so let’s try this from a civics perspective: in a democratic republic, citizens vote for the people they think will choose what is best for their country.  Because Republican policies and leadership failed us so spectacularly during the last eight years, we voted them out of power.  We already tried pure tax breaks – they didn’t work. And there’s a reason Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  So maybe this time our government should actually govern?

But no, Republicans want to give tax breaks another whirl.  All 188 of them in the House voted against the stimulus bill (which still passed easily).  But they are quite proud of their completely ineffective yet unanimous opposition.  They even view it as a victory because Obama spent time meeting with them.  Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) explained, “if he comes and meets with us like that and it doesn’t have an impact, it begins to hurt his credibility.”  …Or alternatively, one could interpret that to mean that Republicans are equally unwilling to compromise on their core beliefs and voted with their party.  What’s that called again?  Oh yeah, “partisan.”  Bipartisanship is a two-way street, not the unilateral acquiescence of a ruling majority.

While Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) proposes a $3.1 trillion tax break “stimulus” alternative, his fellow Republicans oppose the current $838 billion plan as wastefully large.  Highlighting minor expenditures (like the efficiency measures I last wrote about), they’ve framed the bill as a giant helping of congressional pork.  But this label doesn’t quite fit.

Legislative “pork” is normally funding for projects that benefit only a small constituency, frequently within a single congressperson’s district.  Most of the “controversial” stimulus expenditures fund broader objectives, such as anti-smoking campaigns.  These seem more like “riders,” unrelated and often contentious provisions attached to a larger, important bill that is likely to pass.  But this comparison doesn’t work either, because these expenditures themselves are the bill.  That would make the stimulus package some kind of conglomeration of self-propelling riders, or maybe “meta-pork,” but that’s a little confusing.

Given the difficulty of classifying this project and our penchant for labeling legislation as meat, I propose that this bill is most like spam: nobody really knows quite what it is, it’s probably a lot of different things mashed together, and whatever it is, it’s going to be around for a while.  It’s not your first choice, but you’d certainly eat it if you were starving.

Looks...yummy, doesn't it?

...yum.

This stimulus spam is not perfect, but our economy is famished.  Barring a government-wide “kumbaya” moment, continued debate will accomplish little.  I concede that some of the proposed expenditures would not provide short-term economic stimulus and perhaps should be removed, but the Democratic agenda has long been stifled and a crisis is indeed a terrible thing to waste.  And it’s worth mentioning that many of the “jobless” investments, like the anti-smoking campaign or computerizing medical records, would surely save money in the long run.

Regardless, the performance of our economy during this administration will be attributed to, or blamed on, Democrats; if we’re shouldering all the risk, we might as well do this our way (if we can get the votes in the Senate).  Claims of partisanship are the crutch of an intellectually bankrupt Republican party that has nothing new to offer.

Last week, Sen. John McCain sent an email to his supporters with an anti-stimulus petition.  He wrote, “With so much at stake, the last thing we need is partisanship driving our attempts to turn the economy around.”  But is partisanship really worse than a prolonged, deeper recession?  I don’t think so.

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

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.