May 26, 2013

Tragic Waste

As President Barack Obama’s second term unfolds,  his administration is mired in controversy over the killings at Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service audits of right-wing political groups and the despicable attempt to stop leaks by spying on reporters.  But for that last, which the president needs to stop and condemn, he is correct to call them sideshows.

The problem, though, is that we might as well focus on sideshows.  The main events are absent from the president’s agenda.

Surely, one would think, with the future of much life on this  planet in some peril, the  president could bring himself to deal with the questions of climate change.

Just as surely, one thinks, with the American political system in endless gridlock, the president should be able to take on the root problem, which is campaign finance.

Often it is said that the American political system responds only to crisis.  This appears to be wrong.  This climate crisis has been upon us for a long time.  By a long time, we mean 60 years.  The mid-1950s was when scientists first began to use the term “greenhouse effect” to describe the warming of the atmosphere because of anthropogenic contaminants. The scariest thing about it all is that our institutions, like republican government and a capitalist economy, seem dangerously ill suited to deal with things like massive population shifts and redistribution of real estate.

The climate phenomenon has advanced to the point that Arkansas temperatures reach something like 120 degrees in summer, and Pennsylvania is about to become southern yellow pine country.  This is not something that might happen, or will happen in the future.  It is happening, and the increase of its intensity is the central, ineluctable fact of our future.

Yet the government does next to nothing, refusing even to sign on to the modest goals of the Kyoto Protocols.

For the longest time, it seemed the discussion was between  Jim Inhofe,  the goofy senator from Oklahoma who claims the whole thing is a hoax, and Al Gore, who seems to say we could prevent it.  While there is every reason to pull our collective foot off the accelerator, we can’t prevent this massive change; we must find  ways to adapt.

Oh, there’s a little going on.  Ken Salazar, the former Secretary of the Interior, authorized the formation of some climate change science centers and some ecosystem-based “landscape conservation cooperatives.”  Much of  their work concerns preservation of species and ecosystems in the face of pressure, principally  from climate change.

But these and many other such efforts are undertaken with shoestring budgets not specifically appropriated for climate-change studies, but robbed from other, already needy programs to face the most pressing issues of modern earth and biological sciences.

Why, for goodness’ sake?  Because Congress is not going to appropriate much money for this sort of thing.  Because congressmen are elected with money, much of which comes from people with a vested interest in systems that are lucrative, but outmoded and increasingly threatening to the human population.  Money from coal, for example, and oil and, yes, natural gas.  These are the same people who have saddled us with an unfair tax code and an increasingly, unsustainably inequitable distribution of income and wealth.

Which brings us to the question of campaign finance.  Difficult though it is to make the case, it is entirely possible that this is a more pressing problem than that of climate change — because without reform, we may never deal with climate change in a reasonable, effective manner.  We may not see the political pendulum, which has become a right-turning ratchet, move back a single notch.  We may never even recover from the intractable partisan polarization that has seized Washington and locked down progress for something more than a decade, now.

The fundamental nature of the campaign-finance problem has not eluded Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, who is gathering petition signatures supporting a constitutional amendment that would, in effect, overturn the calamitous effects of the Citizens United case, in which the Supreme Court held, bizarrely, that corporations, being “persons,” may contribute unlimited amounts to political campaigns.  Unfortunately, Sanders’ amendment has eluded the attention of most Americans.  It needs the life breath of a hefty endorsement — that of the president.

The proposed amendment would take away the legal artifice of corporate personhood and prohibit corporate campaign contributions.  If it were taken seriously, this proposal would have the support of most Americans.  It would not, alone, constitute the wholesale overall of the campaign-finance system that is needed, but it would be a great start.

If Obama took this up, explaining the needs to the American people and leading them toward ratification and further financial reform, he would go down as the president who saved democracy.  Then he could get around to being the president who saved Earth.  Pretty good legacy.

Smart People Doing Dumb Things

Memo to the President:

When, at the beginning of your first term in office, you promised “more transparent government,” we didn’t think you meant the kind everybody could see through.  We thought, by that maladroit expression, you meant a more visible, open government — not a government that persecutes Julian Assange, tortures Bradley Manning, spies on the press and sets the Justice Department on the hunt for whistleblowers instead of Wall Street criminals.

Well, we were wrong.  More to the point, you were wrong.  So take a lesson from somebody who’s spent a lot of time on each side of the political-press equation.  Never mind that it wasn’t at the White House level.  That’s just a matter of scale.  Here’s the message:  You are accountable to the people, and the troublesome, creaky, painful joint between you and the people is called the free press.  The relationship with the press can be, by turns or simultaneously, adversarial, cooperative, tense, easy, productive, destructive, symbiotic and pugilistic.  The press, though, will be here after you are gone, writing what turns out to be history.  You can help them when you like and occasionally you can take them on, a piece at a time.  But if you convey to them that you think they are the enemy, they will be, and they will destroy you.

Certainly the press is not one thing.  Some of them — the guys at Fox News prominently among them — really are your enemies.  Their pretense to fairness is, well, transparent.  You probably also have some genuine friends in the press, but remember that it is in their interest to do their duty when you falter in yours.

Most of the working press, though, really aren’t your friends or your enemies.  They certainly don’t care about your political fortunes.   They do care about the country, but whether they agree with you or not, they don’t give a damp diaper about your political fortunes.  So when they chomp on you, the collateral damage will include all those good things you’d still like to accomplish.

When you set the hounds on the Associated Press, it was the stupidest declaration of war since 1812.  Somehow we won that one, anyway, and there’s a way to win this one.  Stop it.  Call it stupid and call it wrong.  Don’t blame anybody else.

We know, we know: the investigation was to get at the leakers, not the reporters.  Well, that won’t wash.  The real heroes of the news business are not reporters, and certainly not editors.  They are sources.  Leave them alone.  This Nixonian obsession with secrecy will lead nowhere good for you.

Just remember that if you show how much the sunshine hurts, you just look like a vampire.  Man up.  Confess.  Repent.  You don’t have to like the press, but you have to live with them.

The Weather, etc.

The future introduced herself to the Eastern Seaboard yesterday, none too gently.

It’s not that every serious weather event, or any single one, can be attributed to anthropogenic global warming.  But it is high time to take seriously the facts of change, including sea-level rise.  That means understanding the instability of shorelines, the smashing of natural defenses like barrier islands and wetlands, and the acute vulnerability of human “improvements” such as New York City’s underground infrastructure.

It is no longer plausible to argue that human activity has nothing to do with climate change.  Less believable yet is the idea that climate change is not happening.  It is happening, and the evidence is clear, abundant and worldwide.  Now here’s the point: arguing over what’s caused it is a stupid waste of time.  It is time to respond to it — and there are plenty of reasons, quite independent of climate change, why we ought to do the things that might ameliorate it.

The word “ameliorate” is used advisedly, because stopping climate change simply is out of the question.  Huge changes are upon the human population, and certain institutions that we hold dear, like republican government and capitalism, seem singularly poorly equipped to deal with them.   Planning is not what we do real well.  So there’s not likely to be a plan for massive movements of population to the continental interior; great shifts in the distribution of arable land; and redistribution of resources required to deal with those phenomena.

Now, for the political end of it.  The usually contemplative President Obama was uncharacteristically crisp, decisive and concise.  The usually bumbling Gov. Romney was unusually circumspect and correct in his judgment.  Even the usually bombastic and bullying Chris Christie lapsed into a few minutes’ impersonation of a gentleman.

Why does it take a catastrophe none of them can control for such a thing to happen?

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