Friday, January 20, 2012

Republicans Fighting for the Heart of the Republican Party

Santorum won the Iowa caucus after all, despite some alleged last minute shenanigans by the Romney supporters. But Romney clearly won New Hampshire, which is basically in his backyard. And, surprise, Newt Gingrich may pull out a squeaker in South Carolina. It's only January, and already there's been three primaries and possibly three different winners. We'll know the results by Saturday night... hopefully. The good news is that Republicans are trying to redefine their party. The bad news is that a lot of Republicans want a candidate who's as far to the right as possible.

It's clear the Republican party, after years of blunders and incompetence by George W. Bush, needs to go back to the drawing board. More important, the conservative ideas of the last thirty years simply don't work anymore. To put it bluntly, the Republican party needs to reform itself.

Of course, the notion of a Republican reformer is still a bit of an oxymoron. As so often happens in Washington, yesterday's right wing Republican vanguard is today's establishment. As an example, Santorum was a rebel when he was elected Senator from Pennsylvania. After two years, he became an establishment Republican protecting the business as usual interests of wealthy conservative Republicans, bankers and Wall Street high rollers. Hey, it's lucrative being a member of the establishment. And now, Tea Party favorite Eric Cantor is pulling the same stunt: after only one year this time, a Republican rebel has once again discovered the advantages of being part of the Republican establishment. Listen to what he says on TPMLivewire:
At a time when the Republican presidential nomination contest is growing increasingly nebulous, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) urged his party to “coalesce around a single vision with a nominee.”
It's not hard to read the tea leaves in Cantor's words. Instead of supporting an open primary process, he's telling voters to support the establishment candidate—meaning: someone who might be able to get elected. Everybody knows that neither Santorum or Gingrich is electable. Santorum represents a draconian right wing vision and Gingrich's reckless behavior does not make him fit for the oval office.

So the tea party big shots, who stopped mentioning the name of George W. Bush in 2008, want to continue Bush's policies by supporting Mitt Romney. Yep. Just what the country needs, two Republican businessmen in a row making decisions in the Oval Office according to what the hot shots on Wall Street want.

Hang on to your seats, folks. Until the leaders of the GOP reform the party, it's going to be a wild ride.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Contrarian Post on the Keystone XL Pipeline

I'm going to say some things in this post about the Keystone XL Pipeline that are likely to irritate liberals and conservatives. So let me begin with some premises about what's going on in the world.

1) Global warming is a real threat. Exactly what will happen in the next 100 years is not certain at this time. Maybe global warming won't be so bad. Maybe it will be our worst nightmare. The potential downside, however, is enormous if we do not take steps to control global warming. I'm reminded that we were told by industry experts and hotshot conservatives that nuclear energy poses no significant problems. The accident at Fukushima was supposed to be a once in a thousand year incident. It's rather odd how once in a hundred year events or once in a thousand year events keep happening. The worst case scenarios for global warming are too dangerous not to be taken seriously.

2) The fossil fuels we're using today are not only more expensive, but they are much dirtier and more prevalent than they were sixty years. Even if global warming were not an issue, it is pretentious to think that pollution from fossil fuels is not an issue. The growing acidification of the oceans is a major issue. The sulfurous clouds hanging over Asia are also an issue. These issues concern everyone, particularly the U.S.

3) The exploitation of tar sands, despite many measures taken to address environmental concerns, is proof that we're in trouble if we have to turn to such a dirty and expensive fuel. Light sweet crude is in decline and has been for several years.

4) The oil industry has convinced millions of Americans that global warming is not real, that alternative energy is a job killer and that oil can continue indefinitely to solve our energy needs. All three assertions are lies and are propaganda paid for by the oil industry, with considerable help from the people who control the Republican party.

5) The hour is late. We have put off the inevitable since the 1970s. Given the lateness of the hour, it will take an enormous amount of investment and work to create an economy based on alternative energy. And it will take time. I have seen very little that puts a number on how long it will take to cut our use of fossil fuels worldwide by 50%. Here I do not have the facts, but my guess is that it will take 15-30 years.

6. To power the transition, we will need a strong economy. It very likely will take the burning of more fossil fuels to power the transition to that economy. If we abruptly stop burning fossil fuels, the transition probably will not happen. Of course, as the use of alternative energy goes up, the use of fossil fuels can go down, but the consumption of fossil fuels cannot decline too fast.

7. The use of fossil fuels may possibly drop rapidly due to declining reserves of usable fossil fuels. Though the oil industry is beginning (just barely) to admit that fossil fuels other than coal will soon become much more difficult to bring to market, we again have wasted decades by not turning to alternative fuels sooner.

8. If by chance, or through incompetence of the far right, the economy of the U.S. collapses, or even if it simply declines, it is likely more fossil fuel will go to power the economy of Asian countries. Countries like India and China show no signs that they will be cutting the use of fossil fuels any time soon. The leadership role, by default, goes to the United States. It's true that Europe can be helpful but the continuing monetary crisis in Europe shows how difficult it can be for the Europeans to lead. Keep in mind, however, that over the last thirty years, Europeans have done a much better job than the U.S. of turning to alternative energy. But they are vulnerable to swings in the oil and natural gas markets. Europe has twice the population of the U.S., and if one does not count Russia, their oil reserves are considerably less.

Okay, here it goes.

I have very mixed feeling about the Keystone XL pipeline. Despite everything, we may need it. Republicans have handled our energy problems with such extraordinary incompetence that they have threatened our future.

I find it curious that some proponents and critics of the pipeline say the building of the pipeline won't significantly bring down the price of oil. Actually, the pipeline will bring down the price a small amount—not necessarily something to cheer about. It is politically not feasible, but I believe we need to make sure the price doesn't come down too far. Better yet, we need to slowly raise prices to match the real cost of oil, including clean up and CO2 emissions. We need to stop passing on the real cost of fossil fuels to our children and grandchildren. And Republicans need to stop indulging in the fantasy that some scientist will come up with some magic solution—this is ironic given how little Republicans have faith in science and how little they are willing to pay for major buildup in research. Right wingers cannot keep cutting the budget for science while expecting miracles.

Republicans have been bad-mouthing Detroit for almost four years, but Detroit is actually moving more and more toward efficient cars. What Republicans fail to understand is that Americans need both jobs and more efficient cars and transportation (don't anyone pretend that the pipeline will create a huge number of jobs; they will create some, but that's all). That the current Republican leadership would let Detroit go under says a great deal about the incompetence of Tea Party Republicans and other right wingers.

It is ridiculous, as some 'experts' have argued, that the building of the pipeline will make us dependent on Canada. Oil from Canada is a far safer bet than depending on keeping the Straits of Hormuz open. Yes, our navy can keep the straits open and probably will have to continue to do so. But having a secure supply of oil should not be discounted. There are going to be energy disruptions in the next twenty years. I despise the tar sands, but we may need those reserves to fuel the transition.

Now I'm going to really be contradictory. To a large extent, I support the protests against the pipeline. It is disgusting that we are relying on tar sands and talking as if oil is forever and that global warming is of no concern. The protests are a sign that Americans are at last waking up to concerns about our future. The obstructionism and incompetence of Republicans will continue for some time to come until somebody starts rebuilding the party on more pragmatic lines. In the meantime, I would like to see the protests geared more towards actually getting more green energy projects installed. But no one should pretend that we can quickly go without oil.

In some respects, I find it more urgent to start going after coal. Coal is tar sands in its worst form. If Congress had any sense, no more coal plants would be built. Again, it will take time to transition, but coal plants that go offline should not be replaced. This is where green organizations should be focusing. Not just closing coal plants, but replacing them with green energy. The money is potentially there. If progressives can raise money for political causes, they can raise money to build windmills, solar roofs and other forms of alternative energy.

UPDATE:    Jan. 21, 2014

It's two years later and much has change. The only thing useful about the tar sands is that it's proof that the fossil industries are dying. The energy return on the tar sands is criminal. Why? A high energy return on fossil fuels generates wealth for society as a whole. A very low energy return, as is the case with tar sands, only helps the very rich.

The other problem is that fracking is a bubble, nothing more. One can already see major problems in North Dakota. Production will continue to climb, in some months, but the number of months when production actually falls is continuing. North Dakota is simply running into a wall. Every land owner receiving money from the oil companies should look seriously into wind turbines and the necessary power lines to send electricity to out of state markets.

Secretary of State John Kerry should not approve the pipeline. That pipeline is not in the interest of our future.

President Obama should be doing as much as he can to get alternative energy moving along as quickly as possible. Prices in alternative energy are falling. As they continue to fall, alternative energy is America's best hope for an energy future and a healthy economy.

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Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Sociopaths on Wall Street

The ideal corporation through most of the 20th century was one that pursued profits while being reasonably responsible toward workers, the community, and consumers. Since about the 1960s, corporations have also, at least in theory, been more responsible when coming to the environment.

However, since the 1980s—some would argue sooner—there has been a deterioration in corporate ethics in many sectors. Certainly the S & L crisis, the ethical failures of the Exxon Valdez episode and the deaths and lack of financial responsibility associated with the Union Carbide Bhopal disaster—all three occurred in the 1980s—makes it clear that the interpretation of deregulation in that era was far too often synonymous with ethical lapses in the executive suite. From the end of the Reagan era until the end of George W. Bush's time in office, the interpretation has only gotten worse. Actually, in very little time, deregulation went from a need to adjust regulations to make them fairer and more sensible to becoming an outright license to break the law and defraud people in various sectors of society.

There have always been lapses among corporation and there has been debate about how much or how little a corporation should do. There have also been corporations, all along, that cut corners in order to gain an advantage over other corporations. A general rule of thumb in business is that competent people can always make money as long as everybody plays by the same rules. Unfortunately, people who are not very honest or competent or both are generally the first to look for short cuts, including favors from politicians.

The reality is that both parties are susceptible to influence peddling. Unfortunately, Republicans have pretty much made deregulation, as well as other ethically challenged ideas, pillars of their political philosophy. In addition, if an ethically-challenged business executive makes enormous profits, many Republican politicians, are notoriously slow to recognize that there is a problem (e.g., Kenneth Lay and George W. Bush). The most telling sign is that when a rational and honest Republican prosecutor tries to uphold the law, that prosecutor may find himself without a political future in the Republican party.

One of the problems with today's business world is the number of ethically challenged people who are allowed to rise to the executive suite in the first place. In Bloomberg, William D. Cohan has an article that discusses a theory by Clive R. Boddy about Wall Street psychopaths:
Clive R. Boddy, most recently a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, says psychopaths are the 1 percent of [people who] ... "lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”


He says [psychopaths] seem "to be unaffected" by the corporate collapses they cause. These psychopaths "present themselves as glibly unbothered by the chaos around them, unconcerned about those who have lost their jobs, savings and investments, and as lacking any regrets about what they have done. They cheerfully lie about their involvement in events, are very convincing in blaming others for what has happened..."

It worth recalling that John Dean has written a book called "Conservatives without Conscience." Dean was not talking specifically about psychopaths, and certainly not corporate psychopaths, who are basically a class of very smart criminals who are much more sophisticated than ordinary criminals without conscious (who in any case frequently end up in prison). But Dean was very much talking about people who are authoritarian by temperament. I would also add that people like Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush strike me as extraordinarily narcissistic and are clearly among the type of people Dean talks about. For both Bush and Gingrich, life is all about them.

But today's Republican party has other other problems as well. What is it about the Republican political class that they look the other way when a Republican politician obviously lies? And why is it that they refuse to set the record straight when others obviously lie about Barack Obama (birthers) or lie about John Kerry (swift boaters)? And why is it that the Republican political class failed to notice the obvious economic disaster we were heading for as Wall Street and the banks were allowed to engage in reckless behavior?

Here's the scholarly link to Boddy's paper.

And here's a link that provide a more accessible version to Boddy's paper.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Republican Establishment Is Weighing In

It looks like the Republican establishment—the bankers, the Wall Street people, the billionaires, multinaires and the privileged—are going to nail the nomination down for Romney. Or least try. These are the same guys who backed George W. Bush and supported all his policies. The guys who got us into the worst recession since the 1930s want to get back to business as usual: more jobs to China, even lower taxes for the rich, money for defense toys we don't need, and nickel and diming the middle class for those million dollar bonuses.

Already the money is beginning to pour. The establishment finds elections a little more expensive than lobbyists, but from their point of view, buying a few hundred million dollars worth of ads is still a bargain.

It almost doesn't matter which Republican gets nominated: they will all pretend that Barack Obama is the one we need to fight against. Here's a reality check: the more Obama tried to compromise, to stabilize the economy, and stabilize the country, the more Republicans revealed how right wing and out of touch they are becoming. We need pragmatists in Washington, not obstructionists, not extremists, and certainly not the type of people who got us into the mess in the first place.