Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 June 2009

John Boehner


[OCTOBER 3, 2010: I AM DELIGHTED TO REPORT THAT JOHN BOEHNER HAS A SERIOUS OPPONENT, AND I HAVE FULFILLED MY PLEDGE IN THE PENULTIMATE PARAGRAPH (BEFORE THE UPDATE) BELOW. His name is JUSTIN COUSSOULE (pronounced "kuh-SOO-lay"), and he has a perfect bio: distinguished military service, experience in small towns, small business and big business, and a focus on clean energy jobs. If you despise John Boehner and his lies and stupidity as much as I do, help Justin, too!]



[For more recent examples of John Boehner’s stupidity, click here.]

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) is my nominee for the worst high-profile politician in the United States today.

During the presidential campaign last year, he insisted that speculators control global oil prices, but that oil prices would drop immediately in response to mere permission to “drill here, drill now!” in environmentally sensitive areas. That assertion should have earned him a Pulitzer Prize for economic stupidity.

Now Boehner is leading the charge against the first serious effort ever to curtail climate change and our energy dependence. What are his reasons? Does he have a better plan? Hardly. He bases his entire opposition—and his party’s political future—on immediate, short-term cost. He believes that American voters are so short-sighted and selfish as to oppose a measure vital for the nation’s economic and humanity’s environmental survival just because it would cost some money up front.

Apparently Boehner wants voters to react to an unprecedented crisis by assuming the fetal position, clutching their wallets, and doing nothing. If that’s leadership, I’m Peter the Great.

For a politician who has spent his entire career railing against taxes, this stance may not be surprising. What is surprising is how Boehner manages to believe that a one-dimensional, short-term obsession with immediate cost has any relevance to proper public policy.

Let’s take a simple example. Coal is the dirtiest fuel known to mankind, and Ohio (Boehner’s home state) is coal country. Suppose the cap-and-trade bill increases the cost of electricity there by 25%. No one believes that will happen; but let’s just suppose it does, as an extreme worst-case scenario.

Now suppose consumers worry about the cost of electricity in their home. They can replace their incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lighting (CFL), which uses about one-fourth the electricity for the same amount of light. Then the cap-and-trade bill would force their cost of electricity up to 125%, but their usage would decrease by a factor of four. The result: consumers would pay less than 32% of their original cost for lighting, after a one-time “capital investment” in new bulbs.

I know, I know. Consumers use electricity for a lot more than lighting, and many other uses don’t have as dramatic efficiency “fixes” as CFL bulbs. But other efficiency measures for other uses have been and will be found. The whole purpose of cap and trade is to provide economic incentives for finding them, as well as better, cheaper ways to make electricity.

That’s the fundamental fallacy of Boehner’s reasoning. It’s also the reason why all the hoopla about the difference between the Congressional Budget Office’s cost numbers and the coal industry’s much higher figures is beside the point. No one can calculate whether the cost of using electricity for particular purposes will go up because no one can predict how cap-and-trade’s powerful incentives will change electric utilities, devices that store and use energy, and the way consumers run their households.

Economists call this fallacy the “equilibrium fallacy.” It assumes that everything else will stay the same, i.e., “in equilibrium,” except the cost of burning coal. But that’s nonsense. The legislation is designed to move everything off equilibrium, with powerful incentives for changing the ways we generate, use and conserve electricity.

As it serves these goals, cap-and-trade will create new jobs, new industry sectors and whole new industries. Among other things, it will move us from coal to wind and solar energy, which have near-zero marginal cost.

Boehner has always seemed to me as dumb as a board. Maybe he simply can’t understand the plan of legislation that scientists, policymakers and his political colleagues have been explaining for years. Or he might be just dumb enough to think that a self-defeating short-term strategy is all his failing party has left.

But there is another possibility. Boehner may understand full well and be counting on the stupidity of voters, whom he can dupe into voting against their long-term interests by clever pocketbook demagoguery.

Who would benefit from that demagoguery? Certainly not the nation, and most probably not Boehner’s constituents. (I’m unaware of any coal mines in his district.)

So what’s the point? Does Boehner really want to continue destroying the Earth’s biosphere to save consumers an unknowable number of bucks? After promoting Gingrich-Rove-Dubya economic nonsense that has enriched the rich, thinned the middle class, and devastated the poor, does he really think the struggling consumer will see him as a friend?

Who elected this guy, anyway?

Boehner represents Ohio’s Eighth Congressional District. Ohio is an industrial state with the nation’s seventh-largest population, estimated at about 11.5 million people as of July 1, 2008. But unlike California, Illinois, New York, and Texas, it has a widely dispersed population.

In fact Ohio may have the most uniformly distributed population of any major state. Its largest city, Columbus, has only about 6% of the state’s population, and its top five cities together have less than 18%. The rest of the population lives on farms and in far suburbs, small cities, towns and villages.

Boehner’s district takes these statewide trends to an extreme. In fact, it seems gerrymandered to avoid major population centers. Its largest conurbation is the city of Hamilton, a far northern suburb of Cincinnati, which at less than 61,000 population is Ohio’s twelfth largest. The district has an amoeba-like pseudopod that dips down into Montgomery County but avoids the City of Dayton (Ohio’s sixth largest) and most of its suburbs. The apparent purpose of this gerrymander is to put Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and its conservative military folk in Boehner’s district.

So while Ohio as a whole is an industrial state and makes many fine industrial products, Boehner’s congressional district (except for Wright-Patterson) might as well be in rural Kentucky or Tennessee. Maybe that’s why he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) are the Bobsie Twins of Economic Ignorance.

If we are to move this country forward, politicians like Boehner have to be held to account for their obstructionism. It would be one thing if he had better ideas—or any ideas!—for solving national and global problems like energy dependence and fossil-fuel-induced climate change. But for him to pander to his constituents’ worst instincts, and to insist on doing nothing but save an indeterminate and speculative amount of short-term cash, is the political equivalent of criminal negligence.

In Boehner’s case, an accounting may not be far away. Democrats now control Ohio’s state government, and redistricting will follow the 2010 census. You wouldn’t have to change district boundaries much to put some city people from Cincinnati and/or Dayton into Boehner’s district. Then it might reflect some of the state’s industrial power and history and some productive common sense.

There are also other means. I would love to see a political action committee specifically dedicated to dis-electing Boehner at the next primary or general election. I hereby pledge to donate at least $500 to any serious effort of that kind.

With his low-key “aw-shucks” manner, Boehner might seem a harmless fool. But he is the House Minority Leader and one of the few Republican notables left standing after near-universal economic and personal scandals. If he succeeds in retarding or defeating legislation in vital areas like energy and health care, he will have dealt our country a grievous blow. So he’s got to go.

Update (late Friday June 26): Despite Boehner’s determined opposition, the House passed the climate-change bill by a frighteningly close vote, 219-212, with only eight Republicans voting for it. You might say that all’s well that ends well, but it’s not over yet. The contest continues in the Senate, where our Great Compromise gives folks from sparsely populated states, many in coal country, disproportionate power. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will now take up the cudgel of Boehner’s obstructionism and pocketbook demagoguery, with unpredictable results. Now is the time for the President to spend some serious political capital and take his good case to the people. If anyone can get through the noise, he can.

UPDATES: John Boehner’s pleasingly mellifluous voice continues to utter stupidity by the bushel. I’m not really keeping score, but I’ll add the worst new examples to this post from time to time.

9/18/09: One of Boehner’s whoppers concerned the President’s postponement of Dubya’s so-called “missile shield” based in Poland and the Czech Republic. Apparently without thinking or consulting experts of any kind, Boehner criticized that decision as “taking one of the most important defenses against Iran off the table.”

Far from being “one of the most important defenses against Iran,” Dubya’s plan would have been a complete waste of money. Secretary of Defense Gates—an expert holdover from Boehner’s own party—said that “those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe [i.e., Boehner] are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing.” In other words, Gates thought the President’s plan better.

But the facts are even worse than that. What Gates didn’t say, no doubt to avoid national embarrassment, is that Dubya’s plan was a really dumb idea. It would have been easy to circumvent and would have given us a false sense of security and Europe little or no protection at all. As I’ve analyzed in detail in another post, it was like the French Maginot Line, which Nazi troops drove around to conquer France in days. True to his moronic self, Boehner wanted us Americans to have a Maginot Line of our own.

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