Energy and the Environment

If Democrat Barack Obama was Republican Brian O’Malley, his actions and record thus far would place him among the greatest Republican presidents of the modern era; a socially moderate, fiscal conservative with an itchy trigger finger.

The Earth has enjoyed moments as the cause célèbre in America but nothing trumps our good mother like a great recession. To the best of my recollection she even failed to make an appearance during the presidential debates. This lack of information makes deciding which candidate would be better for the environment over the next four years difficult.

We do have the benefit of some information, however. For example, the Republican platform has been virulently anti-environment. Each candidate during primary season took turns trying to out-pollute the other in the name of progress, calling for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, the loosening of drilling restrictions and the construction of a pipeline from Canada to Texas. Green energy was mocked and global warming ridiculed. Republicans eagerly portrayed every Democrat as Jimmy Carter in a cardigan and an eco-zealot.

If only that were true.

The fact of the matter is that the Democrats have little to point to in the way of environmentalism themselves. Sure the pipeline was stalled and fuel efficiency standards were increased, but that’s about it.

Our understanding of the environment and our relationship to it through food, water, air and energy is far more sophisticated than our politics and policies. But no matter how broad the consensus on climate change is in the scientific community or how widespread the anecdotal evidence of our decaying Earth and corrupt food supply is, we are all guilty of willful blindness with respect to the urgency required to face our challenges.

President Obama talks a good game, which indicates he is aware of both the seriousness of our environmental peccadillo and the political reality that prevents meaningful change. And, in fairness, when presented with a clear opportunity to affect change he did so by sending billions of dollars flowing into the clean energy research field when the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009, aka “Obama stimulus,” was passed. Of course, the only thing people now associate with this act is the failure of Solyndra despite the fact that the funding mechanism for this particular company was established during the Bush administration. The stimulus simply added liquidity to an existing plan.

But it was Obama’s calculated risk against overtly touting this investment into clean energy that blew back on him in two ways. The first is that the American public, particularly those who consider themselves champions of the environment, have little idea these investments were made and therefore believe he failed them. Compounding this sentiment is that these investments have little short-term payoff and are therefore less tangible. The second is that the opposition was able to make Solyndra synonymous with the stimulus, thereby presenting it as the rule instead of the exception.

This risky decision of quiet messaging does, however, make political sense. After all, any attempt on the part of the White House to put the environment in the spotlight before the economy would have had terrible repercussions to Obama’s polling figures. He is already derided by paranoid right-wing conspiracy theorists (with national talk shows) as being a closet Muslim and a socialist who sympathizes with terrorists and apologizes for America every chance he gets. Oh, and was born in Africa.

But as I have often contended, if Democrat Barack Obama was Republican Brian O’Malley, his actions and record thus far would place him among the greatest Republican presidents of the modern era; a socially moderate, fiscal conservative with an itchy trigger finger. But, he’s a black Democrat whose re-election is for many in this nation a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

So, politically, I get it. Below-the-radar environmental work is better than installing solar panels on the White House roof again. There’s proof that this is a bad reelection strategy. Morally, however, I was hoping for what everyone else who voted for Obama was hoping for: that he would enthusiastically champion a progressive social and environmental agenda—one that took aggressive action against oil companies and Wall Street speculators and fought evil agra-giants like Monsanto and ConAgra.

Unfortunately, any hope we had of Obama challenging the Koch brothers to a duel on Pennsylvania Avenue or executing a hostile takeover of ExxonMobil were dashed when moderate policy Vulcan Barack Obama took the Oath of Office instead of liberal cigarette smoking Chi-Town radical Barry Obama.

To really confuse matters, no one pressed either guy into stating plans to protect the environment. Moreover, they have both adopted this mantra of “all of the above” with respect to energy policy. Nothing bold, sensible or sustainable. Just “yes” to everything and deal with the consequences later.

So what makes this week’s topic so hard to dissect is that no one seems to care much about it. Perhaps more than any other topic I’ve covered thus far in this election series, the fight over Mother Earth has been reduced to choosing between the lesser of two evils. I know it’s a hackneyed phrase, but it’s appropriate, nonetheless. Essentially it boils down to this: Mitt Romney’s “all of the above” plan includes eliminating the EPA and letting oil companies drill in Central Park if they want to; whereas, Obama’s “all of the above plan” stops just short of that.

Sorry, Mother Earth. When unemployment dips below 5 percent and the Dow reaches 15,000, we’ll be sure to call and check in. Until then it’s the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon.

Slight edge to Obama.

Where Was I?

Over the next several weeks I am dedicating this space exclusively to the big issues of the election. One at a time. The goal is to put each issue into its own proper context, devoid of ideology. Nothing I write will be worthy of a meme or ironic block text quote on Facebook.

My goodness, the presidential election is almost upon us and my notepad has gathered a thin layer of dust over the past few months. Now that my self-induced writing coma is over, it’s high time to get on with the business at hand: participating in the armchair media punditry battle where I make believe the things I say will have an actual impact on who will be elected President of the United States.

As my home state of New York is all but a foregone conclusion—a place where candidates troll for funds but take electoral votes for granted—I can only hope my words fly across the social networking transom and into the eyes and ears of undecided swing state Rumpelstiltskins. Therefore, if you have a cousin in Ohio or an aunt in Florida, by all means, please feel free to share.

Over the next several weeks I am dedicating this space exclusively to the big issues of the election. One at a time. The goal is to put each issue into its own proper context, devoid of ideology. Nothing I write will be worthy of a meme or ironic block text quote on Facebook. (Although if a particular quote inspires you, I insist that the accompanying image be one of a tearful clown.) The ideas herein and heretofore will not fit on a bumper sticker or even a tweet. But hopefully, at the end of the series, I will have provided enough factual information to assist one in making an informed decision. As I have a good idea of where it is all going, I can tell you that I have already made up my mind.

(Spoiler alert) I am voting for Barack Obama. Again. The answer as to why a privileged white guy from the suburbs who once ran for a local office as a Republican would cast not one, but now two votes for this man shall hopefully become obvious by the end of this series. For those impatient souls who are inclined to write these missives off in advance, having already read the last line of the story, I bid you farewell. For those willing to join me in this informational pilgrimage, this first column will serve as base camp—the place from which we begin our summit quest.

Base camp is where climbers find oxygen and sustenance. In our virtual journey the air we breathe will be logic and our nourishment will be the facts we consume. Even Sir Edmund Hillary would find the air quite thin in a place as bizarre as Washington, D.C., where nothing is as it seems and politicians suck the oxygen out of any room. It’s what makes our baseline discussion here so important.

Here are the key facts for us to consider as we begin our ascent:

• The net worth of the 400 wealthiest Americans as measured by Forbes magazine exceeds that of more than 150 million Americans. (That’s half of all of us.) Net worth is measured by assets such as one’s home, retirement investments and cash in the bank compared to related debts such as your mortgage, student loans and car payments. This figure has been vetted numerous times and it is agreed that this statistic is not only accurate but, in all likeliness, slightly conservative.

• When Barack Obama was the president-elect, the economy was shedding jobs at a rate of 100,000 per week. When he was sworn in as POTUS in January of 2009 that number had ballooned to 200,000 per week.

•  Seventy percent of the federal budget is mandated by law. Of the remaining 30 percent, or $1.1 trillion, half is allocated toward military spending. To put things further into perspective, the Environmental Protection Agency is less than 1 percent of the discretionary budget, making it a fraction of 1 percent of the total. So let’s notspend much time talking about how the EPA is strangling our competitiveness.


•  During his tenure as president, George W. Bush gave back more refunds to the top 1 percent of taxpayers than the bottom 80 percent combined. In addition to these tax cuts, he depleted the surplus by waging full-scale traditional war against two nations that had NOTHING to do with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

•  The financial system is in complete and utter disarray due to the irresponsible deregulatory frenzy that occurred over the past three decades. Regulations and capitalism are not mutually exclusive; in fact, a well-regulated economic system with proper regulatory checks and balances ensures financial freedom. This is not a counter-intuitive proposition. Only Wall Street tycoons, lobbyists and conservative think tanks want you to believe this.

There you go. These are the baseline facts by which we shall guide our discussion going forward. And I mean discussion. It’s no fun writing in a vacuum. So let’s talk.

The reason these points are few and focused is that the president has very little to do with things outside of the economy and military strategy. True, the POTUS sets the tone and establishes priorities outside the scope of defense spending and taxes, but these are the areas over which he has the greatest direct influence. The wild card regarding social issues is the potential death or resignation of a Supreme Court Justice as the implications of a presidential nomination have far-reaching and enduring consequences. But choosing a president based upon whom he might select for the highest court in the land is tricky and implies that one’s ideology is so fixed on a particular issue or issues that policy discussions are distracting sideshows to a larger social agenda. 

Oh, I almost forgot my most important disclaimer. It is my firm belief that our nation is sick and our notion of democracy—having to choose from a field of two—is a caricature of its intended self. An illusion. But there are nevertheless important and immediate consequences inherent in the choice before us, no matter how much of a mockery and diversion it represents from whence we came. With that, let our quest for the summit begin.

Next week: John Maynard Keynes. To spend, or not to spend. See you on the mountain.

Iran From 10,000 Feet

Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could.

This column appears in the February 2nd, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.

Trunk to tail the elephants circle the ring while the four remaining clowns in the circus vamp, weep and honk their noses to the delight of the audience. The train travels from Iowa to New Hampshire, and then makes its way down the coast to Florida where the most recent performance went off without a hitch. With dozens more appearances planned for the upcoming weeks, the greatest show on Earth promises to keep the masses entertained for months to come.

Outside the alternate reality that is the American election season, however, a gathering storm is rapidly approaching, threatening to rip the stakes from the ground and bring the tent down upon all of us.

The deadliest game of chicken in history is being played in dark alleys with no headlights. Two cars careen toward each other, Iran in one and Israel in the other, while the world huddles close to see which one of them blinks first. But we are all more than spectators in this deadly contest, we are participants. The ever-expanding concentric circles of conflict that began with the Mossad and Hezbollah, extended to neighboring nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Syria, now encapsulate the United States, Europe, Russia and China.

In short, the stage is set for World War III. Damn, those Mayans were good!

Because the economy is still in the center ring, however, it’s the primary show the audience focuses on. We can see shadowy figures moving about in the periphery. We know they’re there, but our attention is diverted for the moment. Humanity be damned, it’s still the economy, stupid. It’s why every pronouncement of war, every threat to prevent a nuclear Iran, includes references to the disruption of the global oil supply.

But exactly how do you quantify the potential ramifications of a complete breakdown in both production and supply of oil in the Middle East, and more specifically Iran? The second oil shock of the 1970s, beginning with an Iranian oil-workers’ strike in 1978 and continuing through the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, is a useful portent of financial catastrophe. This two-year flare-up resulted in skyrocketing oil prices that reached $38 per barrel in 1980. Adjusted for today’s dollars, that’s around $90 per barrel.

Think about that for a moment. If the equivalent figure of $90 today thrust the global markets into utter chaos and drove the world deeper into recession in 1980, what effect would a new shock today have on the global economy, considering oil is consistently trading around $100 per barrel today? Obama doesn’t need to ask Jimmy Carter how that would work out.

This is why Europe and America have been rallying support to increase economic sanctions on Iran while Israel continues its effective covert assault on the power structure in Tehran. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently visited China to ask for their participation in a global embargo on trading with Iran. The problem there, of course, is that China receives approximately 10 percent of its oil from Iran—a figure projected to grow steadily over the next couple of decades as China attempts to break the coal habit. Geithner’s reception was as chilly as it was when he asked the Chinese to adjust their undervalued currency in an effort to stabilize the balance of trade between our nations. Add to the mix that China has no moral or political allegiance to Israel, and it’s easy to understand why Geithner would have had better luck talking to the Great Wall of China than its ruling class.

The political calculus in Washington is as complicated as ever. Obama has been able to walk the tightrope between America’s hawks and isolationists by surging our forces in Afghanistan while withdrawing them from Iraq, and allegedly killing Osama bin Laden while entertaining the possibility of dialogue with Tehran. Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could. But time is running out as the election draws ever nearer, which is why the war rhetoric is beginning to intensify. This diplomatic squeeze is lost only on mouth-breathing Americans whose eyes are glued to the spectacle in the center ring, as they await the outcome of each GOP primary as if it matters. The rest of the planet has adjusted to the darkness as it watches these war preparations very, very closely.

Here’s the current score. Europe has taken a decidedly aggressive stance by leading the way with harsh economic sanctions on Iran forcing the United States to follow suit perhaps more than it might have otherwise. China and Russia have little to gain by punishing Iran as they trade openly. Israel is not above taking matters into its own hands and striking Iran’s nuclear facilities but it requires more assurance from the United States that we will back its play. The less-than-cozy relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thwarts Israel’s next move, because acting unilaterally without U.S. support is as suicidal as doing nothing may someday prove to be.

 Saudi Arabia, which shares access to the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, also has little patience for Iran’s shenanigans; but it, like Iran’s allies in the area, has its own political and economic issues, and can hardly afford a conflict with any of the region’s stakeholders.

We are witnessing one of the greatest standstills of all time. The deciding vote, however, will likely come from none of the nations mentioned here because a new, more powerful force has emerged in the global landscape with the ability to tip the scales: the people.

From Occupy to the Arab Spring, the past year has shown that the most influential voice in world politics is that of the people. In this new interconnected world, the Iranian government’s clandestine policies and shadowy behavior are anachronistic. That’s not to say Israel and the United States don’t understand this potential, as both admit to stoking tensions within Iran to mobilize its youth in the hopes that they will lead to yet another revolution. If a fruit vendor in Tunisia can set off a series of events that changed the Arab world forever, the same can even happen in a nation as mysterious and closed-off as Iran. Dictators can be ousted and regimes can be toppled without deploying the U.S. military.

It’s why an untimely show of force against Iran would undermine the Iranian people’s naturally occurring dissatisfaction, shown by their willingness to protest the regime’s fraudulent elections and its hard-line stances that have wrought such economic hardship. This phenomenon has been occurring even before the most recent round of rigorous sanctions. In practice, imposing more stringent sanctions or military action may have the opposite of the desired effect by coalescing support for the Iranian government from within. Given the Iranians’ already poor economic circumstances, they may in fact see little distinction between enduring harsh sanctions and a blistering show of force.

Critics of the Obama administration have likened his stance on Iran as akin to that of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler with the Munich Pact in 1938. They claim that the United States is being hoodwinked by Iran’s leadership who will immediately use nuclear weapons against Israel once they possess the capability to do so. Most who have written about the subject, however, believe this is folly, but that it’s better to have an Iran without nukes than one with them. In the meantime, the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction might take a backseat to the mutually assured production of oil. In my mind, the specter of nuclear warfare is a singular endgame issue, not an ongoing strategic battle that dismisses the Chamberlain/Hitler analogy in favor of Kennedy/Kruschev. When both men drew their lines in the sand and realized the lines were in exactly the same spot, everyone knew where they stood during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Because the current leaders of Iran have publicly stated that they are committed to annihilating the state of Israel, they have legitimized the world’s fear of a nuclear Iran. But I would submit that the world doesn’t have an Iran problem, it has an Ahmadinejad problem. Were the U.S. to declare unequivocally that we will use force if Iran’s president denies UN inspectors in Iran or we discover that they have developed the capacity to use nuclear technology beyond domestic energy production, we would hardly be blamed for being the aggressor. But perhaps we should re-examine the role of sanctions and look at things differently because a free and prosperous people have a much greater ability to dictate policy in Iran than we outsiders ever will.

A desperate population with nothing to lose alters the equation of Mutually Assured Destruction and interrupts the natural evolution of the Arab Spring. It’s time to reverse the antiquated notion that a forcibly impoverished nation is ultimately obsequious to those nations that suppress it. President Obama should call upon the Congress and the world to lift all economic sanctions on Iran because sanctions starve the people, not the government. Moreover, the people have proven they know how to seize the opportunity for self determination.

Then we can all go back to watching the circus.

 

Main Photo: Associated Press

Not So Fast, 2012

While the national debate rages on through 2012 here at home there are local issues playing out that will have a significant impact on shaping Long Island. Including the lighthouse project, an island based casino, legacy village in Yaphank and Wolkoff’s mini-city in Brentwood to name a few.

Gearing up for 2012, Long Island let’s not forget about 2011.
Gop Candidate FieldThe heroic mission of the U.S Navy Seals to rid the world of the face of terrorism has created a new paradigm for the 2012 elections. Before this global event consumed the national political headlines the term “birther” was rekindled by Donald Trump’s potential bid for the Country’s CEO job which monopolized weeks of national broadcasts, only to have POTUS Obama hold a live news conference to finally provide his birth certificate after two years of countless debate, articles and even books on the topic. The seriousness of the global threats facing our nation weighed against such previous headlines certainly re-shifts the current debate played out in the news cycle.

Over the last several weeks we’ve had former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty announce their exploratory committees and GOP power broker Haley Barbour surprisingly bow out of running. Shortly we’ll see if former Utah Governor John Huntsman, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Congresswoman Michelle Bachman officially declare their intentions to run for President.

On the Hill there was a fierce budget debate with clocks ticking down on cable news of a looming government shut down. Next up on the docket the debt ceiling vote. Get ready.

Now Democrat operatives are staging protests at Republican House Members town hall meetings across the Country using Congressman Paul Ryan’s forward looking budget as a wedge issue for 2012. A recent Rasmussen Poll shows those aware of the plan 51% of Republicans favor Ryan’s budget plan and 52% of Democrats oppose it. But a plurality of voters not affiliated with either party have no opinion. Again a classic example of party line support with the battleground being the independent voter’s support.

Without a doubt there are substantial issues that must be addressed in order for our Country to prosper. Sustaining isn’t good enough, growth should be our objective. Social Security, Medicare, cutting the deficit, sound job creation and pension reform are of all hallmark concerns.

While the national debate rages on through 2012 here at home there are local issues playing out that will have a significant impact on shaping Long Island. Including the lighthouse project, an island based casino, legacy village in Yaphank and Wolkoff’s mini-city in Brentwood to name a few. Oh, and while it is not significant to the “shaping of Long Island” I do predict very localized, heated debate on the zoning of Sonic fast food joints springing up on the Island. We’ll have to see if resident’s craving for burgers and roller skates will outweigh the traffic jams that may snarl local roads.

When you look at voter participation of national elections to local elections here on the Island the numbers are quite far apart. Let’s turn to Suffolk County as an illustration. The 2008 Presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain had 75.18% of registered voters come to the polls. That’s substantially higher than the 61% national average from that year. The last off year election in Suffolk County was in 2009 where a mere 20.81% turned out county wide. Go back to 2003 with the race for Suffolk County Executive between Ed Romaine and Steve Levy to see a somewhat respectable 32.38% turnout.

Political strategists have spent campaign dollars trying to drive out presidential year voters in off years with limited success.

There are many root causes of voter apathy at the local level. One reason is that there is substantially less television coverage of local races with Long Island’s news market dominated by New York City based and national cable news. Secondly there is not enough public awareness demonstrating the importance of local elected offices. An extreme few can actually describe the job function of a County Comptroller, but yet they’re asked to vote for that office in an election. Don’t dare to ask your average registered voter to name both their Assemblyman AND County Legislator. Yikes. (No offense to all my friends in those offices).

Some thought needs to go into New York’s stiffer voting rules compared to other states. Many states in the Union have more convenient absentee voting rules and gives the electorate the ability before election day to cast their ballots through early voting. Giving people more flexibility to vote with today’s more demanding work and home environments should be studied further outlining its pro’s and con’s for such a reform.

What out of the box ideas can “electrify” the electorate to fill in a circle on their paper ballots for County Executive, Town Supervisor and local Legislator this year?

All the snazzy mail put out by these candidates won’t do the trick. Long Island’s media; Newsday, News12, TV55, the Long Island Press, the Patch and weeklies do an admirable job touting local elections, but we need a wider net to cast in more voter interest.

One idea in the true spirit of bi-partisanship is to have all the Presidential, U.S Senate and House candidates who are running in 2012 join together, along with the main stream media to promote a “vote local” initiative this fall urging everyone to vote in their local elections. At least then we’d have a new, high profile delivery method to bring more voters to the polls this year. Well call that idea very unlikely.

We then need to consider a wide-spread “calling of the guard” for Long Island based stake holders and media to join together to create our own non partisan “vote local in 2011” initiative. We have many groups with substantial monetary and human capital where through the use of PSA type outreach can connect with every Long Islander multiple times with an important, yet simple, education campaign on why it is important to vote in your local elections. If groups like the Long Island Association, HIA, Execuleaders, Melville Chamber, Hispanic Chamber, ABLI, Long Island Angels, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, our higher educational institutions such as Hofstra and Dowling along with our many trade unions pooled resources for a “vote Long Island” campaign, the message would certainly drive voter participation higher in local election years, including 2011.

Unfortunately the Sonic debates, the chants to keep the Islanders here and the potential for winning the slots at a local casino won’t be enough to drive out presidential year voters en masse this November. But hopefully Long Island pulling together can far eclipse recent off year voter turnout by educating the public on why 2011 is just as important as 2012.