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

31 October 2010

You’ve Got to Know Something

[I hate to upstage my latest more far-sighted post. But this one is more relevant to the election. It will be my last before the votes are tallied. For a brief goodbye to Ted Sorensen, click here.]

I’ve been trying to think of something persuasive to say to people who want to throw their votes away just to shake things up. I’ve been wracking my brain for weeks.

You know the types. On the one hand, we have the Tea Mobbers. They want to vote for people with no experience and no training in politics, just because they’re angry.

But they’re not the only ones. We also have Democrats who won’t vote for their party. They want to vote for fringe parties like the Greens, the Peace Party or any other obscure group that manages to qualify for the ballot in a handful of states. These are the same voters who threw their votes away on Ralph Nader and put Dubya in the White House.

No, I don’t want to re-hash that old argument. Maybe the Supremes really would have stolen the election for Dubya anyway. But I think I’ve got something better.

Think about your everyday life. When you go to the doctor, do you want someone who never went to medical school, has no medical training, and learned about modern medicine from reading the Reader’s Digest? Would you want someone like that to take out your appendix?

When a bad driver injures a member of your family, do you want a “lawyer” who never went to law school, never passed a bar examination, and earned her spurs by watching “Perry Mason” or “L.A. Law”? Or do you want someone who has a good law degree and a real license and knows her way around a courtroom?

When your computer goes on the fritz, you may not even know whether the problem is hardware or software. Do you take it to a basement geek or someone who’s taken a few courses at community college and has run a computer business for a few years?

When you go to the hairdresser or barber, do you want someone who just wandered in off the street and picked up a pair of scissors? Or do you go to someone who went to beauty or barber school and has a proper license?

I could go on and on. But you get the idea. We live in a complex society, with lots of division of labor. Every thing we do―even the “simple” things―requires some knowledge, training and experience, including your own job.

So what makes you think Congress and government are any different?

What makes you think that someone who has never done it and never even studied it can help govern our country just because he or she is angry like you, or rich like Linda McMahon or Meg Whitman? Does being rich mean you know everything? anything besides what made you rich?

Linda McMahon may know how to kick a man in the balls. But does she know how to get a bill onto the Senate floor against opposition from her own party’s leadership?

You may be mad as hell, but do you want someone just like you going up against all those sharks?

Have you ever seen a trained boxer take on an angry, unruly drunk? All it takes is a couple of dodges and weaves, and a few well-placed jabs to put the bum off balance. Then a single, quick roundhouse punch sends him out cold and bleeding to the ground. What makes you think any of the Tea Mob’s bums will do any better if they make it into the House? (It’s unlikely any will get to the Senate.)

Whether Christine O’Donnell is or is not a witch is beside the point. Even if she knows witchcraft well, that’s not what they do in the Senate.

She doesn’t even know our Constitution, let alone the Senate rules, which are much, much longer and more complex. If she ever got there, they would eat her alive. The first real dispute would put her down for the count, just like the drunken bum against the trained boxer. She would either be utterly useless and irrelevant, or a tool of the rich and powerful that you are angry with. Would that slake your anger?

The President may not look like much of a fighter. But he knows a lot, and he’s clever and skillful. He got us a working (albeit struggling) economy after the 2008 catastrophe, health-insurance reform, financial reform, a start at more efficient cars, a live American auto industry, a combat exit from Iraq, and a plan to exit Afghanistan. And as it turns out, the hated TARP bailout, which Dubya and Paulson began, is going to cost us people only about $26 billion—a mere pittance by today’s standards.

All these things may be less and slower than you’d like. Fair enough. But unlike that stumblebum, the President is still standing. He’s still working. And he knows what he’s doing.

What do the bums offer? The same thing they’ve offered for thirty years: lower taxes for the rich, less regulation, and more freedom for the wealthy and powerful. And don’t think they’ll reduce the deficit one penny. Not a single real GOP leader has proposed a single specific cut that might make a dent in our deficit.

A few Tea Mobbers have proposed cutting Social Security, Medicare and defense. But good luck with that. The GOP leaders are not on board. And do you think the stumblebums, knowing nothing about how the system works, can go up against their own party leadership, AARP and the military-industrial complex?

It’s all smoke and mirrors, folks. The Tea Mob and the Republicans have got nothing but more of the same. The Tea Mob is even worse: its “candidates” don’t know anything and have no useful skills.

To do any job well, you’ve got to know something. That goes for governing, too.

So buck up and vote for the best of the ones who know. You may not love them. They may not thrill you. But your doctor, lawyer, computer geek and beautician/barber probably don’t thrill you either. Yet you rely on them anyway.

If your representatives are going to solve any of our many real problems―from jobs to energy and immigration―they’re going to have to have some relevant knowledge, training and experience. If you vote for a stumblebum just ‘cause you’re angry, you’ll soon have hurt and despair to add to your wrath, when you see your bum knocked out by the bums who know and can do. Is that what you want?

So when you get in that voting booth, just think of that knocked-out bum lying on the ground. Then vote smart. The lesser of two evils is never as bad as a sure loser.

Death of a Shy Hero

Ted Sorensen died today. He was JFK's speechwriter, advisor, confidant and companion. A retiring, superbly educated, erudite man, a master crafter of phrases, he was responsible for JFK’s most memorable lines. He penned such historic quotations as “Ask not . . .” and this, from the 1962 speech in which JFK pointed to the Moon and made it our national objective:
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard . . .”
Sorensen was not just a writer. He was a first-class thinker and advisor with reliable and penetrating judgment. As the New York Times revealed today, he wrote the crucial letter to General Secretary Khruschev that saved the world from nuclear Armageddon in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Most people alive today—and many who’ve already passed on—owe or owed their lives in part to Sorensen.

In his old age, Sorensen recognized the extraordinary promise of Barack Obama, throwing what remained of JFK’s “Camelot” energy behind Obama’s candidacy for president. Sorensen was a man of exceptional intelligence, modesty, skill, grace, and elegance. He will be missed, the more so in a time when few in public life can hope to match him. He was a man who knew something.

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30 October 2010

Our New Long, Twilight Struggle

Our midterm election is still three days away. Many of us voted early, including my family. Now we await the verdict of the great “undecided” and mostly unthinking masses.

Among those who are well-informed and still care enough to vote, there is great despair, an instinctual turning away from politics. We are like spectators at a boxing match, in the old days when the number of rounds was unlimited. We watch exhausted, bloody, sweaty, punch-drunk fighters batter each other senseless, hoping the referee calls the fight. Even the most rabid among us are already turning for home.

What we have been watching is neither edifying nor pleasant. It tests the limits of human patience and endurance. It exposes us as soft, weak, and ungainly creatures, driven by instinct and unable to think. It makes us despair for our species. Already our national Court Jester, Gail Collins, has written two columns on how eager we are to move on: a semi-serious reprise and a quiz on this year’s campaign absurdities.

Once Wednesday comes and we know the results, we can assess the damage. In the best of all possible worlds, a good and indefatigable president’s already failing legislative majority will be weaker still. In the worst, demagogues will have taken over the House. They will have a solitary, overriding goal, as already declared: to make the President look bad and remove him from office in 2012.

So if the GOP gains control, the next presidential campaign will begin immediately. The House will provoke government shutdowns. It will start needless and pointless “investigations” and perhaps even groundless impeachment proceedings. No real legislation will move for two years, except perhaps when self-evidently needed to avoid imminent national collapse. We can look forward to two more years of what we are now suffering.

One result of this deepening legislative paralysis will be further entrenchment of executive power. A bickering, do-nothing legislature invites the Executive to step in and usurp its unused prerogatives. Does anyone even remember that Congress alone has the power to declare war? That’s the one (perhaps the only) clear thing that Dubya’s last two years and Obama’s first two have in common: a slow but steady creep toward Empire.

And why not? While our paralyzed legislature dithers, the people expect to be protected from terrorism and the ravages of economic ruin. The President and all the many thousands who work for him are sworn to do so. They will strive to the limits of their ability, and they will stretch the boundaries of their legal authority, just as did Dubya and his minions. No one will look back to see the Constitution and the foundations of our Republic steadily eroding. No one will think too long about how the other party, once back in power, will continue the same process, as Congress subsides into complete irrelevance.

That was what happened to the Senate in ancient Rome, and that is how it may be with us. China and Russia will continue to converge with us as authoritarian states leavened with limited democracy, as China and Russia loosen their reins while we tighten ours to compete and survive. India—for all its caste intolerance, poverty and chaos—likely will remain the world’s biggest democracy. Godspeed.

JFK once called the Cold War a “long, twilight struggle.” That struggle worked out pretty well, at least for most of the world. There was no nuclear Armageddon, with its threat of species extinction. There wasn’t even a large conventional war. There were only petty conflicts, ruinous weapon building, and lots of not-so-diplomatic trash talk, followed by the Soviet Union’s collapse and the War’s end.

Because the Soviet Union dissolved, we thought we “won.” But no one won. Both sides lost.

Both sides were punch-drunk with ideological simplicity, jingoism and massive overinvestment in strategic weapons. For decades, both sides stopped thinking seriously about economic and social advancement in favor of cartoon ideologies and Metternichian power politics. Both sides held much of the rest of the world in thrall and economic paralysis as vassal states, by military, diplomatic or economic force.

The real winners at the Cold War’s end were the rest of the world. Freed from economic or military bondage to one side or the other, former vassal states could go their own ways. The impressive rise of Brazil, China, India, Southeast Asia, much of Latin America, and even parts of Africa is a direct result of the Cold War’s end. No longer are nations with little stake in the Manichean ideological conflict required to sign loyalty oaths to one cartoon belief or the other. They can seek their own solution to life’s problems, as foreign investment in real growth replaces foreign subsidies for weapons sold by the subsidizer and foreign insistence on toeing an ideological line.

As between the two principal contenders, the one that “lost” may emerge the short-term winner. The Soviet Union’s former vassals states are enjoying various degrees of economic independence from Russia. Slowly, painfully, they are reverting to their own unique cultures and stumbling on their own ways. Meanwhile, freed from the need to contain, control and administer its vassal states, Russia itself is healing from its ideological insanity, with the help of two of the smartest and best-educated leaders in its history (Putin and Medvedev).

The most important things to know about Putin is that, early in his presidency, he repudiated Communism decisively, as he framed his primary goal: alleviating poverty in Russia. He thus acknowledged that the foremost duties of every twenty-first-century leader are improving the lives of ordinary people and advancing our species step by step.

We, too, have a smart, dedicated, well-educated leader. But we have decided disadvantages that Russia lacks. We have a governmental structure, only part of which our Constitution requires, that leaves us all in thrall to our smallest, most backward and least educated states. Russia would have to contend with the same nonsense only if the Soviet Union had never dissolved and places like Kyrgyzstan, Tadzhikistan, and Uzbekistan controlled its legislature.

Can you imagine a Tadzhik leader, in his native headdress, standing up in the Duma and telling Russia—all eleven times zones of it—how to run its economy? Then compare Senator Shelby or Sessions from Alabama, or DeMint from South Carolina, standing up in our Senate, watering down our banking reforms and stopping any forward motion on climate change. These three men represent states whose relative economic clout is about the same as the “Stans” in the old Soviet Union. But their legislative power―due to the Senate’s structure, rules and filibusters― is infinitely greater. Maybe we should let our dictatorial little states go as Russia did its “Stans.”

For us, the long, twilight struggle is no longer with the Soviet Union. That rival is gone. Our struggle is among ourselves.

We must free the productive, innovative and well-educated parts of our nation from control by our least productive and most backward parts. We must abandon the cartoon ideology that has brought us, in less than two generations, from undisputed world leader to global worry and laughing-stock. We must restore our hollowed-out industrial base and failing educational system before the rest of the world passes us by.

To do all this, we must fight the awesome power of right-wing propaganda more clever and insidious than anything ever devised by Goebbels, Hitler, Stalin or Mao in their days. And we must cull and replace the most selfish, short-sighted and least enlightened ruling class that our continent has ever seen, including Native Americans.

To do this will take a twilight struggle of epic proportions as long, intense and wearying as the Cold War. It will be a struggle here at home, which the rest of the world will watch with alternating amusement, smugness and horror.

That struggle is just beginning in earnest. This twisted election is just one of the opening battles, with more than a bit of comic relief. But make no mistake: the struggle is a deadly serious one. The alternatives to a successful but peaceful civil struggle are violent revolution, a national break-up like the Soviet Union’s, or gradual, simmering decline into the third world.

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22 October 2010

Coussoule and Boehner, A Comparison

Voters say they want moderate candidates who will work for them, and not for the money bags who pay for campaigns. They say they don’t like pols who nix others’ constructive ideas just to score political points.

Voters in Ohio’s Eighth Congressional District have the chance to vote that way this November. They can elect a young, positive, well educated, forward-looking candidate, who represents the best of America. And they can send the whole House of Representatives a message by retiring one of its worst members ever.

You probably haven’t heard much about Justin Coussoule (pronounced “kuh-SOO-lee”). He doesn’t make the kind of news that rates headlines today. He’s never said he’s a witch. He’s never kicked anyone in the groin (except maybe in Army training) or vowed to “take out” a reporter he didn’t like. He’s never embarrassed himself by exposing appalling ignorance of how our country and our Constitution work.

Maybe that’s because he graduated from West Point, served over five years in the Army, got a law degree, and earned experience as a laborer, a manager in both small and big business, a lawyer fighting for ordinary people, and a worker in local, state and federal government. He’s done pretty much everything a man can do―and for years at a stretch―to know what makes our country tick.

Oh, and did I mention that he’s running against John Boehner, the Apostle of “No”?

But let the facts speak for themselves. All the facts below come straight from the candidates’ own official biographies, from a nonpartisan scoreboard of voting records, or from other links shown:

Military Service:

Boehner: Discharged [search for “Boehner”] from Navy training after eight weeks due to bad back
Coussoule: Five and a half years as Army officer, achieving rank of captain


Boehner: Bachelor’s degree in business (Xavier University, Cincinnati)
Coussoule: West Point bachelor’s degree, J.D. in law (University of Maryland)

Experience of ordinary workers:

Boehner: None listed
Coussoule: Painter and roofer in father’s business, construction worker in own small business, helping workers get compensation for on-the-job injuries

Small business experience:

Boehner: packaging and plastics
Coussoule: property rehabilitation (reclaiming blighted property for small businesses)

Big business experience:

Boehner: None
Coussoule: Corporate purchasing manager at Procter & Gamble (a multinational consumer-products company)

Government experience:

Boehner: Township trustee, Ohio State Representative, Member of Congress (total: 26 years)
Coussoule: work in city, state and local government as student; Capitol Hill internship

Position on health care:

Boehner: Out of 44 bills, concurrences, House-Senate Conference reports or veto overrides on health issues passed by the whole House since 2006, voted for only two: a defense authorization bill and a bill for infant mortality pilot programs
Coussoule: supports “insuring the health and well-being of our citizenry through affordable and accessible healthcare for all”

Position on energy:

Boehner: Out of 26 bills, concurrences or House-Senate Conference reports passed by the whole House since 2006, voted for only three: a nuclear agreement with India, a bill for energy futures trading, and a bill to suspend filling our Strategic Petroleum Reserve
Coussoule: “I am committed to eliminating the national security threat posed by our country’s reliance on foreign oil [by] . . . aggressively investing in and promoting American manufacture of alternative energy products”

Position on protecting consumers and regulating business:

Boehner: Out of 80 bills, concurrences, joint resolutions, House-Senate Conference reports, or veto overrides passed by the whole House since 2006, voted for only ten: (1) an extension of emergency unemployment benefits, (2) the release of economic stabilization funds authorized in the Bush administration, (3) toxic asset purchases, (4) energy futures trading, (4) foreign intelligence surveillance, (5) an omnibus bill that passed 416 to 12, (6) and (7) two Bush Administration economic stimulus plans, (8) an expansion of jurisdiction over suspected terrorists, (9) an Iran counter-proliferation bill, and (10) a bill outlawing prescription-drug imports
Coussoule: supports a comprehensive package of reforms to curtail abuses by Wall Street, protect consumers against swindling by banks and insurance companies, and keep financial corporations from getting “too big to fail”

Position on women’s issues (employment discrimination, equal pay, hate crimes, and school programs):

Boehner: Out of 8 bills or concurrences passed by the whole House since 1996, voted for only one, a bill on agriculture, rural development and the FDA
Coussoule: supports “fair, equitable, living wages for American workers”

Position on education:

Boehner: Out of 26 bills, concurrences, House-Senate Conference reports and motions passed by the whole House since 2006, voted for only 4: a motion to prohibit federal assistance to ACORN, an omnibus bill that passed 416 to 12, and bills for student loan changes and Head Start
Coussoule: supports “making a high-quality public education available to all our children [a]s the foundation for America’s future” in several specific ways

Position on tobacco:

Boehner: Admits [set time to 1:16] handing out tobacco-company lobbying checks on the House floor; financed campaigns with tobacco money
Coussoule: worked to enforce tobacco regulation and restrict its sale

Vanity in small things:

Boehner: picture on Website, in fancy tailored suit, looks at least ten years out of date
Coussoule: informal pictures of self in ill-fitting Army uniform, plus informal shots of wife (also a veteran) and kids

Coussoule is not in Congress yet, so he has no voting record. But Boehner is truly the Apostle of “No.” He talks a good line about cooperation and bipartisanship, but actions speak louder than words.

Boehner’s voting record in the House shows no trace of moderation or bipartisanship. Ever since voters put the Democrats in charge of Congress, Boehner supported only a handful of the measures that the House as a whole adopted, when he—as a key House leader—could have worked cooperatively to shape measures all Republicans could support. The negativity I found in my research of his voting record (summarized above) surprised even me.

Boehner’s voting record speaks for itself. It’s not a record of problem-solving or cooperation. It’s a record of obstruction.

Ohio’s Eighth District voters have a clear choice of new blood—a small-town family man with a sterling military record, a great education, and experience in everything of importance today: working, running a small business, helping manage a big one, and helping ordinary people get compensation for injuries and fight city blight. He promises to be a problem-solver, not a nay-sayer.

Let’s hope that Ohio’s Eighth District voters respect the promise of youth over the corruption of age and make the right choice. This is truly a case in which “throwing the bums out” would make a vast improvement.

Footnote: Votes on successful amendments were not included in the statistics in this post because: (1) their effect is included in votes on the measures that they amended, and (2) it was difficult to determine the nature or intent of individual amendments, which were so few in number as to make research into them pointless. (The nonpartisan scorecard reported only major amendments with recorded votes of the whole House.)

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12 October 2010

The First Big Mistake

Since March 2007, I have been a strong and loyal supporter of Barack Obama and his unfairly beleaguered Administration. But I am also, I hope, an honest man. Honesty now compels me to acknowledge his administration’s first serious, consequential mistake.

The mistake has nothing to do with the constant stream of vicious propaganda, lies, and innuendoes against the President. It was an error of policy that is easy to describe. Unfortunately, it is both fundamental and important. And of course the Party of No―except for one senator―contributed immensely to the blunder.

The Obama Administration ended up putting health-care reform ahead of energy reform. The result was a missed chance to actually achieve limited energy reform. That may have been the last chance for a decade.

This essay outlines how the error occurred. Then it explains why energy reform is ultimately far more important to our national future than health-care reform, let alone the half measure that the President was able to push through over the figurative dead bodies of the Party of No.

A recent superb piece of investigative journalism explains the hows. In essence, the Obama Administration failed adequately to support a year-long bipartisan effort by Senators Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), John Kerry (D. Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.) to get an energy-reform and climate-repair bill based on cap and trade through the Senate. The effort was serious, concerted, prolonged and apparently genuine on all sides. But in the end it came to nothing.

Given the state and aims of the GOP and the nation’s general lack of seriousness, it might have come to nothing anyway. But the Obama Administration contributed to the failure in two ways.

First, the President remained aloof and detached from the horse-trading going on in Congress, and perhaps unaware of it. He and his senior advisors did little even to help the three senators corral various private interests and their factions in Congress into supporting a serious bill. The White House did virtually nothing to guide or shape the effort.

Second, the White House effectively killed Lindsey Graham’s ardent efforts to achieve bipartisanship. It let him flounder and ultimately fail, at great cost to his political position in his home state.

It did so by undermining a key compromise, under which the fossil-fuel industries had agreed not to demagogue cap-and-trade as a “gas tax.” At a crucial moment, the White House stabbed Graham in the back by issuing its own press release calling the compromise a gas tax. Furious and hounded by crazies from his home state, Graham abandoned the effort, and it died.

The White House may have acted in response to a recent meeting of environmentalists who appeared not to understand what was going on. The whole debacle was a massive failure to communicate. Perhaps it was also a massive failure of trust engendered by our poisonous partisanship.

There was plenty of blame to go around. In a spectacularly selfish blunder, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid helped torpedo the effort by publicly promising to put immigration reform (which had no chance in hell of occurring) ahead of energy reform, just to appease Hispanics in his home state for his own re-election effort. The Administration’s hand that held the knife may well have been Rahm Emmanuel’s, or some else’s close to the President. Zealots on both left and right no doubt were happy to see any compromise die, and the Administration had and has some of them.

I can’t believe the President knowingly let this happen. The failure is out of character for him, who believes deeply in bipartisanship and compromise, both of which were evident in his successful health-care reform. But even if inadvertent, the failure happened on his watch and among his staff. So he must take responsibility. Maybe that’s why we’re now seeing some real changes inside the White House.

The more interesting point is not how the bipartisan effort failed, but why. Of course the primary reason is the takeover of our government by wealthy private interests.

The details of the Graham-Kerry-Lieberman effort reveal something that should be astounding, but which now is business as usual. Each of the three senators took for granted the need to appease the extractive and refining industries, the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Rather than bargain with their colleagues in the Senate, as our Founders intended, the three stalwarts had to bargain directly with these and other monied interests that pull the strings. The distortion of representative government was and is so entrenched as to seem routine.

Vested interests in our nation now control fundamental policy. Maybe they always did. But they nearly always favor the status quo. That’s why they’re “vested.”

The nation cannot move ahead without their consent. But they won’t consent to anything new―let alone anything as fundamental and far-reaching as energy reform―without substantial dilution and payback. The result is a huge inertial flywheel slowing our nation’s forward motion and hobbling us in the race against future-oriented cultures like China’s and Europe’s. Our outmoded social and political structure is every bit as much a hindrance as our outmoded infrastructure.

But we all know that. What was less apparent, I think, is another fundamental flaw of our society. Most of our leaders are lawyers by training, not engineers or economists. To them, a win is a win. They just don’t bother to calculate or reason how important it is quantitatively, in part because they don’t know how.

Even a brillaint law professor like the President has no basis for doing the math, let alone quantitative intuition sufficient to trace the magnitude of probable consequences. So it was natural for the President to conclude that health-care reform was more important than energy reform, especially as his predecessors had tried and failed to accomplish it for over a century.

But it isn’t. Health-care reform was and is important, and it’s still not finished. But energy reform is far more vital to our future and the planet’s.

Let’s start with the numbers. We import a little less than ten million barrels of crude oil a day. At $75 per barrel, that’s an expense of three-quarters of a billion dollars a day, $ 274 billion per year, and $2.7 trillion dollars over a ten-year period.

That’s assuming the price of oil won’t go up, which it will, sharply, as soon as the global economy starts to recover, whether or not ours does too. Oil reached $140 per barrel in recent history (just before the crash), so we know that at least a $5.11 trillion ten-year dead loss is probable.

Unlike the so-called “gas tax,” which would encourage investment in conservation, efficiency and alternative energy, that money is just gone. It literally goes out our exhaust pipes. It contributes nothing to infrastructure, R & D, or national development. It constitutes a direct “tax” on consumers and business, large and small. It increases our balance-of-payments deficit. And a significant fraction of it goes to nations like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Russia and Venezuela, which are hardly the paragons of modernity that we would like to support.

In contrast, we don’t know how much of our health-care dollar is wasted. We do know that all of health care accounts for about 14% of our $ 14 trillion economy, or about $ 1.96 trillion per year. If as much as ten percent is entirely wasted, that’s only $196 billion, or about 70% of what we pay for foreign oil. If as much as 20% is entirely wasted, that’s $392 billion per year, or 43% more than what we now pay for foreign oil. But it’s still less than what we will pay per year if oil goes back up to $140 per barrel.

More important, every penny of our health-care “waste” stays in our own country. It supports our own people, recirculates in our economy, and adds to our wealth. The money that flows out to foreign oil producers enriches them, not us.

Then there are the virtuous and vicious cycles. Some of the money we spend on health care goes for innovation in drugs and medical equipment. As a nation, we are highly competitive in those spheres. We still have the best pharmaceutical companies in the world, and our own GE is neck-and-neck with Germany’s Siemens for global leadership in high-tech medical equipment. We also have a large number of smaller, innovative medical technology companies. Some of the money we spend―or overspend―on health care goes for R & D and innovation at home, in these vital fields.

In contrast, the money we spend for foreign oil gets burned up. We have no leadership in automobiles; our car companies are just barely hanging on. Every dollar we waste on foreign oil entrenches our lagging car companies, their parts manufacturers, and our infrastructure in a technology that is rapidly becoming obsolete: the internal combustion engine. The expense not only gets burned up in our exhaust pipes; to the extent it encourages anything, it leads away from electric cars and mass transportation and back to obsolete machines. Thus does it undermine, not advance, what remains of our national technological and industrial enterprise and much of our heavy industry.

All this, or course, is oblivious of climate change. Every one of these numerical and consequential disadvantages would be equally obvious and equally important even if we were not cooking our planet in our own exhaust gases.

But we are. There is nothing comparable in health care. We may still have too many uninsured. But we probably have the best epidemiology and first response to health-care emergencies in the world. Nothing in health care threatens our society, our industrial advancement, our health, our national security and our species the way climate change and our dependence on oil produced by others do.

So a rational, quantitative assessment of risks and threats puts energy reform an order of magnitude ahead of health-care reform, now and for the foreseeable future. Yet the President got partial health-care reform and dropped the ball on energy.

With elections coming and the risk of a reduced Democratic majority ahead, the road to energy reform will only get steeper. The missed chance may constitute a key misstep in the decline of our nation and perhaps our species.

This is what we get in a society run by lawyers, where people who can do math and use mathematical intuition to predict consequences are, at best, hired hands. And this is what we get when the few “quants” in positions of power are as arrogant, narrowly focused, unseasoned, and lacking in vision as Tim Geithner and Larry Summers.

While I fault the President for these failures, I continue to support him. He’s still by far the best we’ve got. The realistic alternatives are so much worse as to make them unspeakable.

The Party of No will never surpass the party of “Let’s do something,” either in substantive success or my own estimation. And the President continues to do many good little things under the media radar, including getting the military involved in clean energy. So I’ll continue to support, vote for, and contribute to the Democrats and the President.

But the basic problem remains. The President promised to be a transformational figure. Maybe he still might. But the biggest problem of our nation and our species remains not only unsolved, but largely unaddressed. It is growing in magnitude and threat every day.

Our most needed transformation, from fossil-fuel dependence to a “green” and independent energy economy, still lies ahead. The President could do worse than devote his entire remaining energies while in office to it. Doing so might also create new, clean, good-paying non-outsourceable jobs.

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09 October 2010

Two Sentences that Could Save Our Republic

“In all matters for which this Constitution does not require a two-thirds vote, each House shall act by the recorded vote of a majority of its members present and voting, provided that a Quorum is present. Failure of either House for ninety days to approve or reject by such vote any bill approved by the other House, or of the Senate for ninety days to reject by such vote any appointment or treaty referred by the President, shall constitute approval.”

Is our Senate the root of all evil? Quite possibly.

Not only does its filibuster rule allow our ten smallest states to govern us all, although they represent about one-tenth of our population and less than eleven percent of our GDP. The Senate’s “collegial” custom for “holds” allows a single senator from a single state―no matter how small or economically insignificant―to block legislation and presidential appointments permanently. Through so-called “earmarks” a single senator can spend the people’s money at his or her whim, by holding otherwise good legislation hostage.

None of these practices appears in our Constitution―not the filibuster, the “hold” custom or earmarks. Each is an extra-constitutional practice that the Senate itself created, by its own formal or informal rules, arrogating power to its individual members to thwart the general welfare.

Each of these practices by itself is undemocratic. Together, they have been catastrophic. They are not checks and balances; they are unconstitutional arrogations of power to individual legislators that have made our nation ungovernable.

To fix this sorry state of affairs, we don’t need to take away our Senate’s legislative power, as the British did with their House of Lords. All we need to do is fix the Senate rules and make sure the House does nothing equally idiotic.

The two sentences set out in italics could do the job. The first would allow a majority of senators to rule on “regular” matters, just as a majority does in every state legislature and every board of directors across the nation, and indeed across the globe. Things that now require a two-thirds vote—overriding presidential vetoes, impeachments, and expulsions of members—would still do so.

The Constitution already states what a quorum is: a majority of the members of each House. The first sentence therefore would encourage in-person attendance for important votes. In members’ absence, as few as a quarter plus one of members (a majority of a majority quorum) could approve or reject bills, appointments and treaties. Absences from voting would have real bite, which would encourage senators to do their jobs.

The second sentence would require an “up or down” majority vote on any bill or other “regular” matter referred by the president or the House. If no such vote occurred within ninety days, the matter would be approved. This rule would, in effect, abolish the filibuster, holds and other obstructive procedural maneuvers by limiting their maximum duration to ninety days.

The second sentence would have another salubrious effect: accountability. Any senator who wished to oppose a measure or appointment effectively would have to go on record by voting against it. No longer could senators kill good legislation or good appointments by complex procedural measures in the dead of night. They would have to take public responsibility for their votes.

These requirements would apply equally to the Senate and the House, but the Senate today is the chief culprit. Our Constitution gives each House the power to make its own internal rules, but so far only the Senate has chosen to use that power to subvert democracy. It must be reined in.

When our Founders ratified the Constitution in 1791, they could take weeks to travel the length of our then-small nation, from Maine to Georgia, especially in inclement weather. They had no means of transmitting the text of bills or other proposals except in-person travel. Today, we can travel from Hawaii to Maine or Alaska to Florida in a single day. We can publish the text of a bill or a treaty over the Internet in seconds. So we have no excuse for taking more than ninety days to consider any matter of interest to the nation.

The filibuster rule was never intended to require a super-majority vote for every piece of legislation. In fact, it was not even intended to block enactment. Its sole purpose was to cool the heat of popular passion and give time for reasoned deliberation.

Because our electorate is badly split on ideological lines, no party or faction has had an effective filibuster-proof majority for at least a decade. (Despite the Democrats' nominal majority now, the Blue Dogs have kept an actual majority from coalescing around important legislation.) The result has been prolonged paralysis. Our government can act decisively only in extreme cases, like the 2008 economic collapse. A minority can bring our government to its knees by blocking funding for routine activities. This is not reasoned democratic government. It is madness.

The “hold” custom and earmarks make things even worse. They have no rational justification even in theory. By allowing a single senator to hold the country hostage, they give a single man or woman, never elected nationally, a veto comparable to the president’s. When senators approve each other’s holds and earmarks, they give each other the power―and the incentive―to spend the people’s money on things that no rational deliberative body would approve in daylight, like the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.

Our Founders wanted checks and balances to contain excesses of power, not create them. They wanted the two Houses of Congress to check the president’s power, but they wanted each House to act as a deliberative body collectively. By giving each senator some of the power of an executive, the Senate’s present rules and customs destroy the carefully balanced governmental structure that our Founders devised. If they could return from their graves, they would reject these anti-democratic practices in a heartbeat.

The two sentences in italics could accomplish that mission, save our government from paralysis, and restore the representative democracy that our Founders intended. We could enact them as an amendment to our Constitution. Or the Senate could enact their substance in its rules.

However our representatives enact them, they had better do so soon. For what the Senate’s rules have given us today is neither representative democracy nor a Republic. It is an oligarchy of individual senators, tending toward anarchy. It not only invites, but begs for, corruption by allowing a single senator to bend the entire legislative process on a whim. The result is a race to the bottom, in which the senator who is up for sale the cheapest seals our national fate.

The people will not wait forever for their Republic to be restored. Any collective action that they might take in desperation is likely to be severe. So shouldn't our elected representatives do the right thing now?

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06 October 2010

An Open Letter to Print Journalists

Update (10/7/10): The Future of Print Journalism

Voodoo Economics
Energy Costs
China’s Leaders
New Industries
Electric Cars
Foreign Competition
Whither the Senate?
Whither John Boehner?
Whither South Carolina?

This post is not for Fox “News” or other “infotainment” media. They are beyond redemption. It’s for our remaining responsible “journalists,” those who still claim that title with pride.

Yes, I mean you, at the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as anyone from the Wall Street Journal who still rejects vassalage to Rupert Murdoch.

As reporters, you write often of our national decline. As pundits, you deplore it and bewail our sorry national fate. But what are you doing about it?

Most of you have spent your careers learning how to dig up hidden facts and find, prime and cajole sources. You can do all the things you say we bloggers can’t or don’t do.

Fair enough. Most of us―myself included―have little or no training in journalism, and no experience in the “shoe-leather sleuthing” that is your stock in trade.

But where is that trade when we need it most? Why aren’t you giving us the facts we need to know?

As examples, I pose the following ten specific questions. All have obvious political, economic or social importance. Where are your answers?

1. Voodoo Economics. The argument that tax cuts (especially for the rich) increase tax revenue is a perennial. It’s been with us since Reagan. It should be named for Dracula, not voodoo, because it keeps coming back from the grave. I see echoes of it in almost every exchange of comments on economic politics.

Can’t we settle it once and for all? It would be a simple matter for a good economics reporter to sit down and make a table (or a graph) of tax revenue after every tax cut and tax increase since 1986. Give us the data, with links to authoritative sources, and let us readers judge for ourselves. And put it on line so we bloggers can link to it.

I’ve never seen such a table or graph in any mainstream publication. Why not?

2. Energy Costs. For all but the rabid right and left, the most important fact about energy is cost. What are the relative costs of coal, nuclear, wind and solar power, per kilowatt-hour delivered, and how are they figured?

For years I’ve been looking for answers to these questions on the Web. I’ve found no credible comparison from any source. The reason, I suspect, is that everyone manipulates the figures.

That’s easy to do. The biggest component of cost—especially for wind and solar power, which have near-zero marginal cost—is the cost of plant. Coal has a long history from which we can estimate plant costs fairly accurately. But wind, solar and nuclear are different. The wind and solar industries are too new (and undergoing too rapid development) to have stable track records. And we haven’t built a new nuclear plant, let alone one with new designs, in thirty years.

So the amortized-plant costs of wind, solar and nuclear power have no track record. They must be “constructed” i.e., estimated from speculative or projected figures for plant construction, useful lifespan of equipment, and maintenance. Letting the public know what the real cost comparisons are, or even that existing claims are bogus, would be a great public service. It’s a job worthy of some aspiring economics reporters, of whom we have far too few today.

3. China’s Leaders. Slowly our elite are coming to grips with the facts that China: (1) is Communist in name only, (2) enjoys a highly educated Mandarin bureaucracy, and (3) is likely to overtake our democracy on many industrial and economic benchmarks by mid-century, if not before. Yet apart from so-called “China experts,” Americans’ ignorance of China is boundless.

We now know, for example, that most members of its Politburo’s Plenum (its highest ruling body) were trained as engineers and scientists, not business people or lawyers. Yet when I looked for this sort of information a few months ago, the latest data I could find was for 2007. At that time, the nine members included five engineers, one scientist (a geologist), and one lawyer who doubled as an economist. I could not determine the backgrounds of the other two.

China will be our most important trading partner, and in a decade or two probably the world’s leading economic power. Shouldn’t our public know who its leaders are, their biographies, and their prospects for future leadership? Shouldn’t this information be updated after every significant Party Congress and personnel change? We know more about Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife than we know about the leaders of nearly one-quarter of the human race and the twenty-first century’s probable number-one economy.

4. New industries. Whatever happens to Wall Street, we are finished as a global leader if we can’t develop new industries. And I don’t mean Facebook and Twitter. As polished and glossy as it is, even Apple Computer can’t sustain us by itself. We need new industries like clean energy, electric cars, stem-cell cures for previously incurable diseases, biofuels, nanotechnology, space travel, and computer-genetic interfaces.

Somewhere in the world, advances occur monthly, if not weekly, in most of these fields. Our future depends on our participation and competition in them. Yet we hear virtually nothing about them, except when Tom Friedman goes to China and suddenly reveals that it’s bought 128 DNA sequencers and is investing $ 15 billion in electric cars. Shouldn’t each of your papers have a skilled reporter assigned to this “beat,” preferably one with some engineering, scientific or industrial background?

5. Electric Cars. Electric cars and their batteries (which also can store wind and solar energy in individual homes) will be the next big global industry. We may be behind the Nissan Leaf, and China is investing massively. Yet our own Chevy Volt is coming to showrooms this year. What’s it like to drive? Who’s signing up to buy it? Where can you get it? What benchmarks is GM using to decide whether to produce it at full scale?

This is not just another car. Our nation’s industrial future, as well as GM’s future and upcoming IPO, may depend in part on the answers to these questions.

6. LFTRs. A new form of nuclear power plant, called a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, could be the solution to our energy problems. In theory, its fuel, its operation and its waste products are orders of magnitude less dangerous than those in conventional nuclear reactors. It can be made small enough for large buildings and can be air cooled. We have enough thorium in our own country to power us for a millennium. A nuclear engineer named Kirk Sorensen is championing the design, but he appears to be getting nowhere. Why? What is Energy Secretary Steven Chu doing about this technology? What are countries like China, England, France, and Japan, which are rumored to be working on it, doing about it?

7. Foreign Competition. Most of the previous points (all but the first) implicate foreign competition. We Americans love a race, and we love to be “Number One.” But those of us who can, for a few brief moments, ignore the twittering and gossip that passes for news these days know we’ve either lost the lead or are seriously behind in many of these areas.

What is our foreign competition doing with energy costs, the technical competence of its leaders, new industries, electric cars, and LFTRs? in clean energy generally? You wouldn’t know it from reading your newspapers, but these are primarily matters of science, technology and industry, not politics. Why don't these subjects have several stories per week on your front pages?

8. Whither the Senate? With O’Donnell’s primary win in Delaware, it looks as if the Democrats have Joe Biden’s old Senate seat locked up. Rove conceded as much. So do the Democrats now have a shot at a filibuster-proof majority? What about Alaska? Can McAdams prevail over Miller, or will Murkowski’s write-in campaign split the Democratic vote?

Inquiring minds, including Democratic contributors like me, would like to know. A small contribution has a much bigger impact in Alaska than, say, California or New York.

9. Whither John Boehner? The President has made him a target. His Democratic opponent, Justin Coussoule, is young and energetic, with an attractive family. He’s a West Point graduate with military, small-business, big-business and small-town experience. He seems like just the ticket to knock Boehner off.

Does he have a chance? Why does there appear to be a news blackout on him when he’s running against the Minority Leader and possible future Majority Leader, one of the stupidest, most corrupt and most mendacious scoundrels in American political history?

10. Whither South Carolina? It’s conventional wisdom that Al Greene has no chance to knock off Jim DeMint in South Carolina. That’s probably right. You did report that Greene owed his win to Republican cross-voting in the open primary.

But who organized the cross-voting and who financed it? Were there enough registered Democrats in the state to have made a difference? What really happened there, and why? Are powerful interests in control? If so, who? If not, is the state irremediably backward, or are there demographic trends and other green shoots of hope? Why is this state, alone among us, still vigorously fighting the Civil War in the twenty-first century? (This would be a nice topic for an in-depth Sunday magazine piece.)

That’s the list. Could you get us some answers?

I hate to be harsh. But your print media are the best we got. At the moment, they are doing a piss-poor job of informing the public. They don’t even come close to covering what really matters for our future and (in politics) even our present. They’ve become gushers of gossip and twitters, yet without the relentless focus of Fox Propaganda. In fact, they often allow Fox to dictate their content.

To see what I mean, go back and review a few months’ news from your own papers in the 1950s. You will see stories galore about atomic energy, new weapons, new appliances, and future industries. You will see speculation about what the world would look like now. In short, you will see a strong, confident innovative society looking forward to its future, not contemplating its navel or gossiping around the water cooler.

Most of what’s on the front page today was then confined to the gossip and society pages. How far has the mighty tradition of journalism fallen!

You probably became reporters because you like language more than math and people better than things. Fair enough. But our future depends on science and engineering and the industries they create, especially in a dangerous world.

Hadn’t you all better do some boning up and―far more important―hire and nurture some younger colleagues with interests, experience and expertise in these fields? When you ridicule Tea Baggers who deny evolution and global warming and think human brains can fit in mouse skulls, can you deny any responsibility for the public’s ignorance?

Why do you constantly pick the low-hanging fruit of hypocrisy and verbal inconsistencies that anyone with a browser can find? Do you think you’re Jon Stewart? As he has discovered (and has made his career), blatant hypocrisy comes across better live than in print.

What we out here need from our print media is facts that come across best in print, especially those that are important and hard to find, even on the Internet. Please help deliver them.

If you can, your jobs will be secure even in the Internet Age. If not, your jobs and your profession will vanish in the general noise of a declining society.

Yours truly,


Update (10/7/10): The Future of Print Journalism

(The post above originally appeared under an erroneous date, September 26. The real posting date, now accurately shown, was October 6, i.e., yesterday.)

Two days ago the New York Times published an exposé of the ruin of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun, among others, resulting from real-estate mogul Sam Zell’s purchase and catastrophic mismanagement of the parent company. The story paints a picture of utter corruption and degradation, akin to a years-long fraternity party or ancient Roman orgies. It demonstrates, among other things, that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

The in-depth feature (five long Web pages) is a nice bit of investigative reporting. It gives us the kind of information that readers of print journalism expect and need to know.

The bad news is discouraging and depressing. It shows what good print journalists are up against in a no-limits culture of greed rotting from within. Its 315 on-line comments, many by newspaper insiders, tell the story as well as the feature itself. They laud a few die-hard holdouts for quality in the dying papers, but they show how corrupt and clueless business raiders can overwhelm them and annihilate a real news organization in a matter of months.

The good news appears to be unknown to most print journalists. I pay something around $100 per year for a subscription to the on-line Wall Street Journal. (I don't know exactly how much because the fee, which appears automatically on my credit card, increases every year.)

Think about that. I abhor Rubert Murdoch, everything he has done to news in this country, and everything he stands for. I think he’s an Aussie barbarian at our gate. I would sooner engage in self-flagellation than watch his Fox Propaganda. Yet I pay good money to read his on-line business journal.

Why? The Wall Street Journal has an extreme right-wing editorial board whose repetitive drivel I rarely read. After every remotely political story on line, an avalanche of mindless, bullying adolescent comments appears like sewage overflow after a storm. But despite all this, the Wall Street Journal provides valuable information. Of late, for example, it has provided the best mainstream coverage of electric cars (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5).

Rupert Murdoch is a clever man. His Fox Propaganda machine continually churns out distractions for the ignorant masses. With that feint, he inveigles generally honest and competent newspeople, like Gail Collins, to waste inordinate amounts of ink on trivia. Meanwhile, with his flagship paper, the Journal, he gets people like me to pay good money (and support his evil empire) by providing real, valuable news. It’s a one-two punch that has reputable print journalists down for the count.

I keep wondering why no one wises up. If I pay around $100 per year for a subscription to the Journal, wouldn't I pay at least $150, maybe $200, for the New York Times, which I now get on line for free? And if I would, what about its national on-line readership, which must number at least several million by now? The resulting several hundred million dollars might support a decent news organization, without the expense of printing and delivering dead trees.

Why aren't the people who run the Times at least as smart as Rupert Murdoch? Beats hell out of me. Maybe they’re the kind of people who still believe, despite all that’s happened, that a newspaper is something you can crush between your fingers until the ink rubs off. If so, I hope there are some good journalists with business training who have some inkling how many of us out here would pay for their product on line and so keep their profession alive.

The audience is there. The medium is there. Netbooks, iPads, Kindles and the like are proliferating like flies in a Michigan summer. The revenue is there. When will honest print journalists take it and get back to work in a stable, supportive environment?

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