What Obama Should’ve Said

October 4, 2012

OK.  So the commentators seem to be saying that Romney won last night’s debate.  I’m not so sure.  If he did, it’s only because Obama didn’t press him hard enough on things like how he’s going to reduce the deficit while making huge increases in military spending and dropping the tax rates on both corporations and high-income individuals.  I know, he says he’ll reduce loopholes and exemptions, but unless he’s talking about eliminating the mortgage interest deduction, state & local taxes deduction, and medical expense deductions [starts to sound like making the alternative minimum tax apply to everyone] it’s hard to see how he’ll get deficit reduction.

My big beef with Obama, though, was when Romney dinged him on his alternative energy program.  Obama just let it slide past, even after Romney poured fuel on the fire [so to speak] by talking about how he thinks the country should be burning more “clean coal’.  Never mind that the very idea of “clean coal” is almost a contradiction in terms (maybe not entirely, in terms of conventional air pollutants, although the technology is not anywhere close to there yet).  What Obama shudda, cudda come back with, though, was a strong defense of moving America’s energy production into the 21st century, rather than back to the 19th.  Oil and gas technology goes back to the dawn of the 20th century, and coal goes back to the 18th century.

In fact, if you think about it, burning coal is shamelessly wasteful.  Here we’ve got an enormous resource of almost pure carbon — the basic source of all organic chemicals, which includes many of the products we depend upon on a daily basis.  Right now, a lot of those compounds are made from petroleum, which we mostly import.  Wouldn’t it make sense to be putting our coal resources into manufacturing the organic compounds we now make from petroleum, and putting research dollars into how to do that efficiently, effectively, and economically, rather than burning it up into CO2 and atmospheric pollutants?

Wouldn’t it also make sense, given that climate change is real [why didn’t he challenge Romney on that!?] to push for new and better ways to produce energy, and save the carbon in coal for when we figure out how to use it in efficient forms of energy production like fuel cells (where we can perhaps capture and sequester any GHG products produced?)   Seems to me Obama missed a chance to show Romney up and put himself forward as someone who’s thinking about the future rather than the past.

But, what do I know?  I’m just an “average citizen”, not a spin doctor.


So Climate Change Is Real – Whatcha Gonna Do About It?

August 5, 2012

As many commentators have pointed out, this summer’s weather: its far-reaching droughts and heatwaves in the U.S., its devastating floods in Asia, and, of course, the rapid melting of the North Polar icecap, are finally getting some “climate skeptics” to change their tune.  A recent statistical analysis of severe weather events is also making the connection between weather and climate.  Just on a probability basis, without even thinking about climate modeling, the weather events of the past ten to twenty years are so improbable based on the events of the previous forty years that something must have changed, and the only obvious candidate is climate.

This leads inexorably to the next question – what are we going to do about it?  Here, however, something hasn’t changed: human nature.  Sadly, humanity has always had a strong streak of self-interest.  Whether it’s the Roman Empire, European colonial powers, or Wall Street bankers, people, as countries, as interest groups, or as individuals always seem to look at situations focused on what will benefit them.  Climate change has, thus far, been little different.

At the global level, developing countries, particularly China and India, have been unwilling to reduce their CO2 production if it would mean reducing their race to catch up to already-industrialized countries in production of goods.  The developed countries, including Europe and particularly Japan and the U.S., have for their part been unwilling to make changes that might require economic sacrifice, pointing to the already-damaging effects of the global economic slow-down of the past twelve years.

Within the United States, the situation has been little different.  Each region of the country is willing to accept change – so long as it’s aimed at another region.  Coal producing states insist that coal mining must continue.  Oil and gas producers point to their superiority over coal and say coal mining should stop first.  Heavy electricity using states demand that power plants continue to be built to prevent brown-outs and another economic slowdown.

Even when global warming has, on the surface, been taken to heart, a closer examination shows that self-interest still rules.  Here in California, our governor points to high-speed rail as a great benefit in reducing climate change.  Yet even proponents are forced to admit that the real benefits are some twenty to thirty years down the road.  In the shorter term, the project will actually significantly increase CO2 production.  More locally, San Francisco has approved the Parkmerced project, which will tear down 1,500 units of moderate-density, post-World War Two, rent controlled housing and replace them with about six thousand units of higher-density market-rate housing.  Again, the project is touted as reducing CO2 production in the long run – meaning some twenty to thirty years in the future. As with high-speed rail, however, before then the project will actually cause an increase in CO2 production.  Meanwhile, climate scientists have warned that we must reduce CO2 production dramatically within the next ten years or face catastrophic changes that will, by that point, become unavoidable.

Why is there this disconnect?  Among other things, powerful political interests, including labor unions, building contractors, and development interests, have much to gain from new construction projects but would get little benefit from projects like retrofitting existing housing and infrastructure to improve their energy efficiency and reduce CO2 production.  These interests influence our elected political leaders with ever more generous campaign contributions and insistent lobbying.  (Thank you, Supreme Court, for your Citizens United ruling!)  As a result, choices are made based on self interest instead of the broader public interest.

Where does this lead in the long term?  The answer isn’t pretty.  As one joke currently making the rounds put it, we’re left asking two questions:  “Where are we going?” and “Why am I in this handbasket?”

Ballot Measure Brain Teasers

November 3, 2010

Here’s a brain teaser for you — try to find a consistent frame of reference that makes sense of all the California ballot measure results from yesterday’s election.  It’s not easy.

Some parts fit together pretty well.  Propositions 22 and 26 are part of a consistent pattern of California voters asking government to keep its hands out of our wallets unless they ask nicely and we say yes.  Prop. 22 keeps state government (meaning the legislature) from taking money away from local jurisdictions to help balance the state budget.  It was sold as protecting local government resources.  As I noted in a previous post, the unmentioned major beneficiary will be redevelopment agencies.  I wonder why the no on 22 campaign didn’t play that up more.  I find it hard to believe, in between their taking money away from other local agencies and being able to exercise eminent domain to take property away from citizens, that voters have a warm spot in their heart for redevelopment agencies. [That’s not to say that they never do anything worthwhile.  To give them their due, for example, Emeryville’s redevelopment agency has had a big hand in transforming that city from truckyards and factories into a retail powerhouse.]  Prop. 26 also makes it harder for the state (or local agencies, for that matter) to collect money in the form of fees.  The complaint was that there were fees being created that were really taxes, and it was a subterfuge to get around Prop. 13 and Prop. 218’s voter approval requirements.  So now most fees will ALSO require a 2/3 popular vote.  The defeat of Prop. 21 also fits with the “keep your hand out of my friggin’ wallet” attitude of California voters.  Interestingly, for both this and Prop. 26, the Bay Area’s attitudes differed from the rest of the state’s.  Here’s a link to the voting map for prop 21 on the Secretary of State’s website:  http://vote.sos.ca.gov/maps/ballot-measures/21/  .  We in the Bay Area are apparently a bit more willing to pay the fare when it comes to government services.

This might all seem consistent, but at the same time voters also adopted Prop. 25, which eliminates the 2/3 majority requirement to pass the state budget.  Thus it’ll now be easier for the legislature to pass a budget, but harder for them to have it survive the laugh test of, “So where are you going to find the revenue to make this budget balance?”  Look for many more applications of smoke and mirrors to produce a “balanced” budget in the future.  Also look for the state budget deficit to continue to grow, since Californians seem to think they can have all the services they want without having to pay for them.

Props 20 and 27, like props 21,22, and 26, but unlike prop 25, also showed voters’ distrust of the legislature.  In 2008, the voters narrowly passed prop 11, taking legislative redistricting out of the (self-interested) hands  of the legislature and putting it into the hands of an independent “citizens’ commission”.  This year, the legislature tried to convince voters that they should reverse the decision.  No such luck.  In fact, the voters turned around and took congressional redistricting out of the legislature’s hands as well.  Perhaps, with the exception of prop 25, the theme might be that the legislature is not to be trusted with doing much of anything right.  Arguably, even prop 25 could be said to reflect that attitude.  i.e., “OK, you don’t seem to be able to handle passing a budget with a 2/3 majority.  We’ll make it easy for you — just get something out with a simple majority; and if you can’t handle that, we’ll take away your pay because you clearly aren’t earning it!”

Then we’ve got two “lifestyle” initiatives.  Prop 19, that would’ve legalized recreational marijuana use, and prop 23, which would have suspended the state’s global warming law. 

On the former, early polls seemed to show voter approval, but two things appeared to turn the tide.  First were a bunch of articles pointing to flaws in the initiative’s language that would result in litigation and unintended consequences.  Second was the U.S. Attorney General’s public announcement that he didn’t care what California did; he was still going to have MJ users, growers, sellers, etc. arrested and thrown in prison under federal narcotics laws.  This could, perhaps, have stirred up a states’ rights oriented state like Alaska or Mississippi to say, “Oh yeah?  We’ll see about that!  See you in court!”  But …  California is not a big states’ rights bastion, and with law enforcement groups up and down the state saying it was a bad idea, the voters apparently had second thoughts.

Prop 23 was a different story.  For one thing, Californians have long liked to think of themselves as being an environmentally conscious group.  After all, we have Yosemite, the redwoods, the sequoias, Lake Tahoe, etc.  We were also one of the first states to block offshore oil drilling after the big Santa Barbara oil spill, and Californians have bought more hybrid vehicles, not only in toto but on a per capita basis, than any other state.  So it only stands to reason that, having passed landmark legislation to try to curb global warming, Californians would not readily turn around and say, “Oops, we made a mistake.  Let’s put that law in the deep freeze for twenty years or so until it gets REALLY hot.”  It also didn’t help that it came out very early (thanks to California’s campaign finance disclosure laws) that almost all the money financing prop 23 was coming from out-of-state oil companies.  Hey, what the heck, they were in Oklahoma or inland areas of Texas.  It wasn’t their coastline that was going to disappear under water as sea levels rose.  Bottom line, Californians decided they didn’t believe the oil companies (who have, of course, tremendous credibility already — almost as good as Enron’s).

One thing that still leaves me scratching my head is that in spite of what appears to be a set of almost Tea Party-like attitudes  about government spending, Californians still elected an entire set of Democratic state office holders.  Like I said at the start of this post, sometimes it’s hard to come up with a consistent frame of reference for California voters.

Election Day!!!

November 2, 2010

If you’re looking at this on November 2nd, you’re probably looking for advice on how to deal with your ballot.  I’ve put up several posts with my recommendations and comments.  (However, they won’t help you very much unless you vote in California.)  Please go down through my posts until you find those of interest to you.  They start below continue from there.  Here are links (in chronological order) if you want to get there fast.  The titles are mostly self-explanatory:


https://stuflash.wordpress.com/2010/10/01/more-on-the-november-ballot/ — statewide ballot measures

https://stuflash.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/november-election-last-installment/ — candidate recommendations



We interrupt this election horserace …

October 24, 2010

With the pre-election brouhaha fast approaching a frenzy, here are a couple of articles that step back a little to look at the bigger picture.  The first, by Robert Reich (it was reprinted in today’s S.F. Chronicle), talks about something I’ve already addressed in this blog — how the wealthy are hijacking the American political system.


The second, in today’s New York Times, by The Nation contributing editor Ari Berman, talks about what might happen after the election, and how losing some of the Democrats in Congress might not be such a bad thing. 


This is an interesting article because it suggests that the Democrats might profit from something the Republicans did during the Reagan years — doing some ideological “housecleaning”.  It notes that starting in 2005 [IMHO, actually well before then, going back to the Clinton years and the Democratic Leadership Conference] and led by DNC chair Howard Dean and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emmanuel, the Democrats attempted to recruit “competitive” candidates throughout the country, including the “red” states won by GW Bush.  In order to make sure their candidates were competitive, they looked for people who would fit with the red state terrain they’d be campaigning in.  As a result, Congress received an influx of so-called “blue dog” Democrats — Democrats who hewed to a center-right perspective and voted with the Republicans at least as often as with their fellow Democrats.  It was these blue dogs who watered down Obama’s healthcare reform and financial reform packages, who stymied global warming legislation, and who have contributed to having many Obama appointments stuck waiting for Congressional approval.  In short, the blue dogs have become almost as big an obstacle to the Democratic Congressional agenda as the Republicans.  Further, as Democrats, they hold leadership positions, allowing them to be more effective in their opposition than most Republicans.

While the Democrats will undoubtedly lose seats in both the House and Senate this November, a lot of those seats will be blue dog seats.  So, we’ll have Republicans instead of Republicans masquerading as Democrats.  That may not make a lot of difference.  In fact, as Berman points out, it may actually help the Democrats if it allows them to become more unified and pointed in their legislative program.  So, come November 3rd, before you start shouting that the sky has fallen, it may make sense to take a deep breath, wait a few months, and see how the new Congress shakes out.  Who knows, maybe it’ll be the Republicans’ turn to be saddled with some blue dogs?

More on the November ballot

October 1, 2010

My sample ballot came today, which says to me it’s time for me to share my opinions on the ballot measures and candidates.  It is, as it usually is in a statewide November election, a pretty long ballot.  I’m going to start with the ballot measures.  This year, they’re a pretty easy group for me to decide on.  Maybe not so much for you.  For the first time I can remember, I’m 100% in agreement with the positions of the California League of Women Voters, where they’ve taken a position.  You can find their analysis here:  http://ca.lwv.org/action/prop1011/flyer.html  I go beyond the League, however, by sticking my neck out on the other ballot measures as well.

Proposition 19 — Marijuana Legalization —  Prohibition didn’t work in the 1920s and 1930s.  Marijuana prohibition hasn’t worked either.  All it’s done is provide extra income to drug dealers and made it easier for people to transition from MJ to harder drugs.  I think we’d do far better to legalize, regulate, and tax MJ.  That’s not to say that I think MJ is a great thing.  I know some people who went overboard on MJ and got really messed up; butnothing like what happens with hard drugs, and not as badly as some people I’ve known have gotten messed up on alcohol or cigarettes.  YES

Prop. 20 — Congressional Redistricting Commission — I agree with LWV on this one.  While in principle having congressional redistricting done by an impartial redistricting commission would be a big improvement, we haven’t even seen whether it’ll succeed for the state legislature.  Let’s give the new system a chance to work and see how it does before we jump in with both feet.  (I should at this point disclose that I’m one of the sixty finalists for the redistricting commission, of which fourteen will be chosen.  Consequently, I’ve spent a fair amount of time pondering the issue.  It’s not going to be easy, but I am hopeful that the commission will do a good job.)  That having been said, I’m not ready to go “double down” on it yet. — NO

Prop. 21 — State Parks Vehicle License Fee — The League is also neutral on this measure, but I’m giving it a “thumbs up”.   Like the League, I generally don’t like ballot box budgeting.  However, this measure matches new income to an existing need.  that’s very different from, for example Prop 98’s earmarking a set proportion of the state budget for schools or Oakland’s “Kids First II” measure, which locked a percentage of the city’s general fund for child-oriented services.  I think those kind of measures are a big mistake, because they pit one expenditure against another.  However, I have nothing against voting in a special tax to fund a special need.  It seems particularly fitting to use the vehicle license fee, because most people access state parks with their car, and the fee will be tied to allowing free park admission for California registered vehicles. — YES

Prop. 22 — Local Funds Protection — I have mixed feelings about this measure.  Having served on a local agency (the county mosquito abatement district), I’m well aware of the havoc a state “funds transfers” can wreak on local budgets.  However, there’s one budget I wouldn’t mind having havoc wreaked on — redevelopment agencies.  While redevelopment agencies can do some good — Emeryville’s agency being a notable example — they also can do a lot of mischief, and Emeryville has provided just as good examples of that too.  They also take money away from other local agencies, so when they complain about a state takeaway, it’s the pot calling the kettle black.  As I said in an earlier post, I don’t buy it. — NO

Prop. 23 — global warming suspension — If we could actually suspend global warming by a ballot measure, I’d be 100% for it, but this measure is to suspend AB 32, the California legislature’s recently-enacted measure to try to reduce CO2 emissions and limit global warming impacts.  This measure is funded almost entirely by out of state big oil and big coal interests, who want to keep fiddling while the whole world burns (or at least gets way too hot).  If this measure passes, it’ll tell the whole world that Californians can’t see beyond the nose on their face.  I will be extremely embarrassed; almost as badly as when Nixon won 49 out of 50 states in 1972.  At least then I was living in Massachusetts. — NO!NO!NO!

Prop. 24 — Repeal of corporate tax breaks — So, part of the 2008-2009 budget “deal” that the legislature passed was a set of corporate tax breaks that were supposed to stimulate the economy.  Are you feeling particularly stimulated yet?  Neither am I.  If I was going to stimulate California’s economy, I’d do it by keeping teachers, firemen, police, and other public employees from getting laid off.  That means giving government enough money to keep running.  You don’t do that by handing out corporate tax breaks to your friends at the expense of state revenue.  Maybe the Republicans, with a little more than 1/3 of the legislative seats, can extort this kind of crap out of our weak legislative leadership, but we, the voters, don’t need to let it continue. — YES!YES!YES!

Prop. 25 — majority vote on state budget — Speaking of extortion and the state budget, the reason a Republican minority is able to exercise disproportionate control is largely because passing a budget requires a 2/3 vote in both houses.  Aren’t you just a little bit tired of having to wait until October for the state to have a budget, and learning about all the horse trading that happened to get one (often at our expense)?  ENOUGH! — YES!YES!YES!

Prop. 26 — 2/3 vote for all fees — This is another one of those deceptive special interest sponsored ballot measures, like Prop.23 on this ballot and PG&E’s measure on the June ballot.  This one’s sponsored primarily by the tobacco and alcoholic beverage industries, who don’t like having fees placed on their products to help pay for the health damage they cause.  This measure would also protect polluters from fees intended to clean up the damage they cause.  If you don’t mind living in a toilet, go ahead and vote for this measure, because that’s what you’re asking for.  NO!NO!NO!

Prop. 27 – send redistricting back to the legislature — So, How much confidence do you have in California’s legislature?  If you’re like most Californians (including me), the answer is, “Not much!”  This measure would kill the California Citizens’ Redistricting Commission before it even gets fully formed.  All the money spent thus far on getting it set up would be wasted, and instead we’d hand the control back to the legislature so they can re-gerrymander the districts and continue to get themselves re-elected.  How stupid do they think we are?!  [Please don’t answer that question.] NO

My next post will cover the local (Oakland and Alameda County) measures, for those blog readers who live right around here.

Why Global Warming Efforts are Doomed

June 16, 2008

At this point, it’s probably fair to say there are few people in the U.S., indeed in the developed world, who haven’t yet heard about global warming.  It’s probably also fair to say that there are few people, other than a few far-right wingers and oil company executives, who think it’s nothing to worry about.  However, there is scant agreement about what to do about it, and there’s the rub.

The well-accepted scientific analysis of global warming is that the earth’s average temperature is increasing rapidly — far more rapidly than at any time in the earth’s history.  An increase of 3-5 degrees F. in the next hundred years is considered quite probable.  Much of the discussion centers on the likely effects of this rapid increase, including sea level rise, loss of endangered species habitat (e.g., polar ice floes for polar bears), and direct effects on human populations (e.g., in various places, drought, floods, and threats of permanent inundation).  Less attention is being payed to the impacts the Earth’s long-term ecosystems.

Most of us acknowledge that humanity is a major cause of the recent rapid increase.  For one thing, such a rapid increase is unprecedented in geological history, at least so far as geologists can tell.  For another, the recent rapid increase in human greenhouse gas production (especially CO2) correlates far too well, in theoretical modeling, with the increase in global temperatures.  These same models also indicate how much human greenhouse gas production must be reduced, and in what time-frame, to avoid the most drastic effects of climate change.

Using climate models, scientists have also identified a number of elements that are likely to produce a “tipping point” in global warming — a point beyond which the synergy between global warming and its effects will result in an acceleration of the process, even without further greenhouse gas production.  That tipping point is fast approaching, giving an even greater urgency to the need for drastic action.

The Kyoto Accords represent an impressive and near-unanimous accord among world government that something must be done.  However, the agreements in the Kyoto accords are not even close to sufficient to address the predictions from the scientific models.  Even more unfortunate, some of the most important producers of greenhouse gases, most notably the United States, China, and India, either aren’t signers or are unaffected by the Kyoto Accords’ provisions.  As a result, the human contribution to greenhouse gases has continued to grow, with little effect from these agreements.

It is my observation and prediction, that, based on human politics and human nature, humanity will not react in time to avoid catastrophic results, both for humanity and for life as we know it (and not just human life!).  One can see this unfortunate dynamic on a small scale in the recent congressional debate on a global warming bill.  Never mind that most scientists agree that the provisions of the bill were almost laughably inadequate.  Even so, many legislators were unwilling to support the bill because it might hurt some of their constituents or political supporters.  Such is the nature of “zero-sum game” politics, where, for every winner, there is also a loser.  Legislative action works poorly unless it can be converted from a zero-sum game to a “win-win” situation.  Unfortunately, climate change is not easy to convert to a “win-win” type of game.  Addressing climate change is almost certain to hurt some people.  It may be possible to ease some of that hurt, if there’s the political will to do so, but that will only be done by spreading it around — for example, providing assistance to those hurt.  That will, however, in turn result in either increased taxes or cuts in some other programs. 

Our political system doesn’t do well at accepting hurt — at least not unless there’s a crisis.  Global warming isa crisis, but it’s an invisible one.  Even when we reach the tipping point and further warming impacts become inexorable, most people won’t realize it has happened.  This distinguishes global warming from many past crises, such as wars and natural disasters, where rapid political action occurred.  The closest analogue is probably the gas shortage caused by the 1973 oil embargo.  There, some responses did occur, but President Carter’s call to consider the situation the “moral equivalent of war” and embark on a crash program of energy research aimed at oil independence went unheeded.

Likewise, my expectation is that, at both the national and international levels, humanity will not have the united political will to make the changes necessary to avoid drastic consequences until it is far too late.  Unfortunately, the resulting catastrophe will affect not only humanity, but all life on the planet.  Biologists are already aware that the speed of climate change is rapidly outstripping species’ ability to adapt, either physiologically or evolutionarily.  Species habitat would have to shift in a manner that simply cannot be accomplished.  As a result, we are likely looking at a massive species extinction event on a par with what happened with the end of the dinosaurs.  Litlerally tens of thousands of species are likely to go extinct in a matter of a few hundred years.  The remaining ecosystems will almost certainly be far simpler and more primitive.  It’s an open question whether civilization, and indeed humanity itself, will be able to adapt.  However, I think it’s unquestionable that human life in the year 2500, or even 2100, is going to be far less comfortable than it is now.  Those living then will probably look back and curse us for our blindness and ineffectiveness.  The only answer will be to say that it wasn’t our fault; we were doomed by human nature.

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