Saturday, August 28, 2010

Party First

I try very hard to be open minded when listening to interviews and speeches. It doesn't mean I expect them to change my mind, but I don't want to be the type of person who ignores anything that doesn't match my preconceived ideas and occasionally I do learn something. But any respect I may have had for Conservative ideas, politicians or pundits has been stripped to the bone over the last few years. Particularly since the last Presidential election, intelligent discourse from Conservatives has gone out the window. I can't speak for their private correspondence, but in public they are all about extremism, absolutism and misinformation. Ironically, these are some of the same charges they make about their opponents. This isn't the normal political theater, this is more like political farce.

I believe it primarily emerged from pure fear. Fear that a moderate, young, articulate black man was swept into office on a wave of popular support. To Conservatives, with the loss of control in both House and Senate, this must have looked like the apocalypse. It was complicated further when this new President actually was willing to incorporate old Republican ideas for health reform and other pressing issues. While this would mean that Conservatives could actually expect to be able to get some of their policies incorporated in Administration legislation it also meant that they would get little to no credit from the passage of these compromise bills. And that would put them in a lousy position going into the next election cycle. They needed to stand out from the Democrats, not be in a coalition with them. So they fell back on the only weapons they had left: obstructionism, fear and misinformation. They immediately dug in their heels, circled the wagons and stood in absolute opposition to absolutely everything.

Some will take exception to my characterization of the President as a 'Moderate', but that's merely a result of 18 months of ludicrous hyperbole spewed by Conservatives into any microphone they could find. Over and over the President has incorporated ideas formerly championed by Republicans in years past. In fact one of the most controversial provisions in the Health Reform bill, the Individual Mandate, was an idea originally proposed by Republicans during the Clinton era health reform fight. And that was not the only one. The President and Democrats in Congress also compromised over and over with their Republican colleagues on virtually every piece of legislation in the vain hope that they could get even token support for their proposals. The result? Republicans began fighting against their own ideas and calling them radical and extremist! I've seen parades of split screen speeches where prominent Republicans made diametrically opposed arguments separated by, in some cases, less than a year! On one side is Republican X calling for adoption of this great idea and on the other the same person calling the very same idea Socialist, extremist and the end of civilization as we know it. The only thing that surprised me more than watching such outrageous displays of hypocrisy was seeing crowds of protesters who actually took these idiots seriously. These people either didn't realize how false the speakers were being or didn't care as long as it fell into their preconceived narrative. Final proof of the absurdity of Conservative's charges of extremism is the fact that every one of these supposed 'Left wing extremist' bills was met with frustration and disappointment from Liberals who watched compromise after compromise gut the ideas they most cared about, such as the 'Public Option/Single Payer' plan. So if the President and Democrats are so extreme in their policies, then please explain to me why middle of the road Liberals were so underwhelmed with the results? Calling these policies 'extremist' makes for catchy sound bites, but bears little resemblance to reality.

For over a year and a half Conservatives have used every trick in the rule book to block not just final votes on legislation but even motions to bring bills to the floor for discussion. I can't see how their actions could be judged as anything but pure obstructionism for its own sake. This session of Congress has seen the Senate Filibuster, whereby the minority party can block majority action if they can control a mere 41% of the voting members, invoked more than twice as often as any other year in US history. Republicans in the Senate have blocked or attempted to block almost every piece of legislation proposed by the Democrats. And in many of the other cases they still threatened to Filibuster. Senate Democrats have reached the point of just assuming that ANY legislation will require 60 votes to pass. These Filibusters had little to do with policy disagreements and were all about doing everything possible to stop a popular President from accomplishing anything. Even at the expense of the nation they are supposed to be serving. How do I know this? Because of the unprecedented frequency that Filibusters have been used and the vanishingly rare occurrences of Republicans breaking ranks to vote 'Yes'. In a normal Congressional session it is commonplace for individual Senators and small blocks to vote contrary to the bulk of the Republican or Democratic party. It's normal for moderate Conservatives to occasionally agree with moderate Liberals. But since the inauguration the Republicans have somehow managed to vote 'no' as an unbroken block on the vast majority of issues. A few might talk of considering a vote in favor, but when it came down to it they almost always voted 'no'. So either every single piece of legislation proposed by Obama or Congressional Democrats was unconscionable or Republicans were following a well crafted and rehearsed plan. There is no other explanation.

The other indicator of how moderate the current Administration is overall comes from how far and fast Conservatives have bolted farther to the Right in an effort to differentiate themselves from the Administration. This has been turbo charged by the rise of the 'Tea Party' candidates who accuse the current majority of being synonymous with Hitler, Stalin, Marx and any other historically 'evil' person they can remember from High School civics class. They speak as if there is some form of tyranny being practiced, completely forgetting that the majority party was VOTED into office! They speak in reverent tones of the Constitution, yet conveniently ignore sections they don't like whenever it suits them. They ignore the annoying fact that these individuals were all elected and instead mutter about "second amendment remedies" if they don't get what they want. There has been no tyranny unless it's the tyranny of Democracy.

That's the bottom line for me. I see Conservatives, particularly as the mid-term elections approach, give every sign of actually hoping the economy remains stagnant and jobs non-existent. The worse the economy, the more they can frame it as the fault of the majority party. Never mind that Conservatives have proposed almost nothing of substance themselves. Despite the fact that they have done everything they could to prevent any significant legislation from being passed. Despite gutting every attempt at stimulating the economy to the point of even voting against tax breaks. Keeping in mind that for Conservatives, tax cuts are the holy grail of economic policy. According to them cutting taxes, which they don't mention will increase the deficit, will jump start the economy, magically create millions of jobs, protect us from terrorists and cure most forms of cancer. Despite the fact that there is little data to suggest that tax cuts are particularly effective as stimulus. And despite the fact that George W. Bush's two rounds of tax cuts added well over a Trillion dollars to the national debt. Facts are such annoying things, aren't they?

Do I think Democrats are our saviors? No, of course not. I don't necessarily agree with everything that they have proposed or passed and there are many things I wish they had taken action on that they have not. But I'll tell you one thing, at least they are trying to do something. They are still trying to act as a functioning government. Are they pure and righteous? No, but they haven't looked out on the sea of citizens laid off and unemployed through no fault of their own and accused them of sloth and drug abuse as a number of prominent Republicans have done. Democrats have tried to implement plans to stimulate the economy using all sorts of ideas including tax cuts for small business only to watch them delayed and picked apart by the opposition. I will vote Democrat because at least they are making some attempt at doing the job they were elected to do. They aren't saints and I have no illusions about their own self interest, but at least they are on the job. They are making an effort to put out the fires rather than using them to light torches.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Real Inconvenient Truth

I'm sure a lot of people have heard of Nissan's new electric car called the Leaf. It's nice to see electric vehicles being actively developed after all these years of tinkering. With an electric range of around 40 miles and the inclusion of a gasoline generator to provide electric power if you stretch your travels beyond that initial range, it seems like an excellent compromise. An electric car emits no carbon monoxide or other pollutants into the atmosphere and can be charged overnight during non-peak power usage. Of course there is a problem. Seems there always is, but that just reminds us that there are no perfect solutions. The sticking point is the power itself. The Leaf is a great step towards reducing pollution, but it's only a step. Focusing on the end product, electric cars, blinds us to the root issue of where the electricity comes from. Technically the Leaf is a "zero emission" vehicle. But only if you ignore the emissions of the power plants that produced the electricity itself.

So now we face the crux of the issue. Yes we can dust off the old idea of an electric vehicle, but we're left with . . . well, an ELECTRIC vehicle. Electricity is not a magic substance distilled from dreams, it's a limited commodity. We don't have it anywhere near as bad as some of the less industrialized nations who have to live with regular daily periods without power or unexpected brownouts. However even in the US, stretches of very hot weather in urban centers can still cause brownouts and public calls for limiting use during peak times. Now a small number of electric cars, charging overnight may not be a significant issue but assuming, not unreasonably, that the technology becomes cheaper and more prevalent we are going to see demand for electricity rise even as the demand for gas begins to fall. Remember, there are no free rides when it comes to powering our civilization and all that additional electrical demand has to come from somewhere. I would suggest that it might be wise to work on the supply problem before we dive too deeply into creating additional demand.

So that brings us to how we generate the power we have now. Since we've yet to discover any of the near mythic power technologies such as cold fusion, we are left with our current, no pun intended, power generation technology. That situation is not pretty and certainly not clean. Our electricity comes from power plants and the majority of those generate power by burning coal.  Coal, of course, is the worst type of fuel for pollution. But there are the new 'clean coal' plants, right? Sure it's clean, as long as you compare it to other coal plants. Compared to anything else they're still horrible. So while I'm all for electric vehicles, at some point we're going to have to address the actual problem...the fact that most of our energy is still based on ancient technology. Coal, natural gas and oil are, at their most basic, little removed from the idea of burning logs to heat the cave. All we've done since is to refine the process over the centuries. We continue to be shackled to finite, dirty and dangerous sources of power and creating an electric car only pushes the pollution off to another location. It doesn't actually reduce it.

This brings us to pollution that is caused almost exclusively by burning fossil fuels. Now I don't know if it causes Global Warming, and to be honest I don't really care. What I do care about is stopping the pollution! We are way too worked up about this debate on 'Climate Change' and its cause. Seems that most scientists agree that there has been a warming trend in the Earth's climate with correspondingly more extreme weather. Where the fist fights erupt is over the, in my opinion meaningless, assignation of blame for it. Is it a natural cycle or is it human induced or at least human enhanced? I tell you, it does not matter! This is a pointless argument. Why? Because there is no doubt whatsoever that we are polluting the planet. We dump things into our waterways, oceans and the air that we would never touch, drink or breath because it would kill us. Nobody with a functioning brain can possibly think this stuff is doing anything good for the environment or our collective health. The 'environment' isn't just a whimsical term used by GreenPeace. The Environment is what we breathe, what we drink and what we eat. Every belch of soot from a coal plant ends up in someone's lungs. Every bucket of fertilizer ends up somewhere in the marine food chain and eventually some trace will find its way into that tasty plate of Fish and Chips you picked up at Applebees. Every misguided attempt to coax out another wisp of natural gas from the bedrock leaches a little bit of chemical residue into the water supply. Every year, just south of the mouth of the Mississippi river, a huge 'dead zone' appears in the Gulf of Mexico. It's an area of very low oxygen where little if any marine animals can live. This isn't a natural thing. It's there because of heavy fertilizer runoff from the midwest farm belt. Color me reactionary, but this is a problem!

I know it sounds all touchy-feely, but Earth's ecosystem is one huge terrarium. What happens in one corner WILL affect everything else.  Ocean currents circle the globe just as the jet stream rushes like a river at 30,000 feet across the continents. Oil spills and chemical releases don't respect national borders and are immune to military force and border fencing. We see this every time a volcano erupts and ash is tracked thousands and thousands of miles around the globe. But we pretend that it's just an inconvenient freak of nature rather than a real world example of how our planet works. Why? Because it's easier to just ignore it since it doesn't have a visible impact on our daily lives. Because it's fiscally and therefore politically convenient to do so. Am I the only one who wonders how many health issues, from cancer to autism may be linked to the toxins we breathe, eat and drink every day? Disagree? Then I invite you to take a nice deep drink of Mississippi river water. Go camp out for a week next to your nearest coal plant,  and don't forget to take the kids!  Emphysema is best when shared.

Look, the baseline issue here is our energy policy. Or more specifically our intense fear of actually coming up with one. The reason is because we are so heavily invested, financial and otherwise, in fossil fuels and the logistics of collecting and transporting them that any threat to move away from the tried and true sends up screams of outrage. Screams from those who benefit most from the status quo. Let me repeat that, those most opposed to moving away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy are those companies who profit from the status quo. You won't find any coal barons or oil moguls pushing for clean, renewable energy and you never will. Unless, of course, they figure out how to make lots of money from it. That's an important point to keep in mind. It's in the best interests of oil, gas and coal companies to discourage anything that threatens their monopoly on energy production. Or anything that threatens to increase their costs and subsequently lowers their profits. Energy companies are already the wealthiest in the history of humanity, but greed is insatiable. These same companies are so deeply embedded in State and Federal Government that it's painfully difficult to get any motion on moving our energy supply out of the 19th century. But we need to make the change and soon. Every day we add more pollution to the air and water. Every day the global reserves of fossil fuels are further depleted. So as we slowly poison ourselves we are also ignoring the absolute fact that these fuel sources WILL run out. Why was the Deepwater Horizon rig drilling in over 5,000 feet of water? It sure wasn't because of convenience or cost.  It's because we are running out of oil reserves in more accessible locations! Just like we are having to mine deeper and deeper for significant reserves of coal. And why we are dropping natural gas wells in people's back yards and contaminating their drinking water. No, the world won't be running out of any of these fuels tomorrow, but it's coming. Just think about the term 'fossil' fuels. This stuff was laid down and cooked underground for millions of years to become the energy sources of today. When it's gone, it's gone forever, at least in a time period that has any meaning to humans. Politicians of all stripes drone on and on about the need to obtain energy independence yet nobody has the guts to actually do anything. Humans are apparently too stupid and short sighted to prepare for even obvious disasters lurking in the future because it will inconvenience us today. We'd rather react once the bottom falls out rather than prepare ahead of time. That's the real Inconvenient Truth.