Friday, August 27, 2010

Glenn Beck and the White Civil Rights Movement

It is safe to say that Glenn Beck is one sick, confused puppy. As Washington pundits debate the meaning of Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of MLK's historic "I have a dream" speech, the opinion in the reality-based community is pretty well divided on whether he is a garden variety huckster, a delusional demagogue, or an epic whack job. I think there is a case to be made that he is all three.

But this post isn't about Glenn Beck. It is about the cooptation of MLK in the service of a budding white civil rights movement--which may or may not develop into something more than a bunch of fat middle-aged white dudes in three-cornered hats pumping Obama = Hitler signs and shouting about socialism.

White civil rights, I hear you scoff? Isn't it a bit like men complaining of sexism or rich people complaining of classism? Yeah, it is. Which is exactly why it works.

Everyone needs to feel special, to feel a part of something. No one wants to be unnoticed or left behind with no destiny or narrative arc. Women have the feminist movement. Blacks have the civil rights movement, gay people have gay pride...what do ordinary white people have? America, that's what. With the American middle class falling further and further behind in hard economic times, and a sense that they are no longer the commanding demographic majority they once were, a civil rights movement for white people is terribly appealing. It promises not only heroes to champion their cause, but a full restoration of white folks to the core of American history. After all, the most common Tea Party refrain is, "I want my country back." This can be interpreted a lot of different ways, but at its core it is a plaintive childish cry: "I want a place in the sun, I want America to be about me and my family and my white Christian brothers and sisters--we want our American Dream back."

Mind you, I don't think any of this is happening on a conscious level. I definitely don't think that Tea Partiers believe they are racist; they think their movement has nothing to do with race and in fact transcends race, class and gender. They are anxious to show the rest of America that their movement includes people of color, and they therefore go out of their way to recruit and promote minority speakers at their rallies.

In truth, Tea Partiers wish that you would finally shut up about race because it's not about race anyway; besides: talking about race only divides people. They have no problem at all with black people, they just prefer that black people not draw attention to their "otherness," because they don't sees race. They gladly welcome black people into their fold, so long that they accept the traditional (white) Christian history of America conveyed in the schoolbooks of the 1950s and 60s.

The Tea Party/white nationalist movement is identity politics through and through. Denying this basic fact makes for amusing encounters when Tea Partiers attempt to explain to outsiders what their movement is about besides their white Christian identity. Because there is very little else that defines the movement. Policy-wise, Tea Partiers are basically Republicans, only more so--apart from promoting stock Republican positions on government (make it smaller), taxes (lower), health care and pensions (privatized), business (free from regulation), the movement features generalized anger, resentment, and dark predictions that the country will collapse into anarchy and civil war if they don't get that socialist Maoist Marxist Leninist Muslim (black) president out of the White House and "take their country back."

They are, as Howard Beale put in it Network,"Mad as hell and they aren't going to take it anymore." Mad that they have been promised a feast and ended up with crumbs. What happened to the American Dream? Some dark elements must have wrecked it. Like Muslims or Mexicans or liberals or feminists or gays or atheists or any number of subversive groups that hate America and are bent on destroying it.

A white civil rights movement answers each of these needs. It validates the worth of every white person in America, acknowledges that they are falling behind while other groups seem to be getting ahead. It also "restores" white Christian people to the center of American identity and history. To this end, multi-volume revisionist American history books have been published that laud our (white) forefathers and "black patriots" and place the Christian God at the center of each and every key turning point in American history.

To build a white civil rights movement, you need a white civil rights hero (Glenn Beck?), an "I have a dream" moment to inspire them (Beck's speech on the anniversary of MLK's speech?), and guidelines for action that provide direction for the movement (thus Beck's "action steps" in his forthcoming book, The Plan). Beck gave some hints what this was about on his website:

I'm coming to you next year with a plan, and it's multilayered. The first is ‑‑ and I started working on this in August. A 100‑year plan for America. This country was destroyed, and it began 100 years ago with the progressive movement... So how do we get it back?....I'm going to teach you how to be a community organizer next year, oh, because two can play at that game. I'm going to teach you how to be self‑reliant next year. We've divided the country up into seven regions.... Day‑long education seminars... where we're going to teach you everything you need to know. .. And then on August 28th... I ask you to meet me. Take your family. We move ‑‑ we had something planned.... By that time I hope to have enough things out there that you will at least have some teeth to the ‑‑ so the politicians will see you and hear you and fear you!... little by little I'm developing this plan, and I will explain more to you a little later.

A white civil rights movement also calls for historical context, a heroic narrative for conservatives in American history. Conservatives must be cast as civil rights heroes and liberals/progressives to the segrationists/oppressors. Naturally, this entails a wholesale rewriting of America's civil rights history. Beck is, as ever, up to the challenge, and in the week leading up to the MLK memorial rally on Saturday, he aired a four-part "documentary" on the 400-year "history of segregation" in the U.S. How are liberals/progressives implicated in segregation? Simple: “segregation came out of progressivism." Meanwhile, civil rights were something "we did" (conservatives, that is)... Say what?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, slavery does not figure very prominently in Beck's history. He kind of skims over the whole whites-owning-blacks part, focusing in particular on indentured servants and a black man who owned a black slave in colonial America (suggesting that anyone could have slaves-- it was all about economics, religion, etc., so the white-black thing was no big deal). We then literally skip over about 200+ years of slavery in the U.S.--primarily in the south. Also unmentioned is the fact that blacks were immediately re-enslaved after the civil war by southern law-makers who passed legislation permitting them to imprison and/or fine anyone who was unemployed and therefore illegally "loitering.” Since it was difficult for freed slaves to find paid work, and since few white men would vouch for their employment anyway, former slaves were often arrested, levied huge fines, and when they couldn’t pay, law enforcement sold them as forced labor to mines, the U.S. Steel Company, white plantation farmers, etc. In this way, freed slaves became re-enslaved. This system of neo-slavery continued until the mid-1940s.

We also hear nothing about poll taxes, literacy tests and the countless other tricks and intimidation used by the white political establishment to keep black voters disenfranchised. Nor is there anything about Jim Crow laws used to keep the races separate and (very) unequal. Nothing on the rise of the Ku Klus Klan and the systematic lynchings and burning of crosses. Nothing on Nat Turner, Booker T. Washington, Sojournor Truth, W.E.B. Du Bois. Nothing on Malcolm X or the role played by MLK in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Nothing on landmark cases in civil rights history such as the Dred Scott decision or Plessy v. Ferguson, and a very twisted interpretation of Brown v. Board of Education. does segregation come out of progressivism? How does Beck pull the rabbit out of the hat? The trick comes with his gross distortions of twentieth century history. According to Beck, Woodrow ("I hate that SOB") Wilson chose to sell out his black constituents by re-segregating government agencies. Beck points out that government agencies had been integrated, until Wilson segregated them. Wilson was a progressive democrat, ergo, segregation came out of progressivism. (No mention of the fact that Wilson reluctantly signed this order because of intense pressure from powerful Southern Democratic law-makers who wanted the races kept apart in the government.) FDR gets thrown under the bus as well, as he did not go as far in de-segregating society as he had promised. Both (progressive, democratic) presidents had detained German and Japanese Americans during WWI and WWII. Meanwhile, Eisenhower (a Republican president) appointed Earl Warren as chief justice of the Supreme Court, which in turn handed down the Brown v Brown of Education decision desegregating schools; Lincoln (also a Republican) had freed the slaves. Ergo, Democrat=Progressive=Nazi/segregationist; conservatives=civil rights supporters.


The truth, of course, is that conservatives fought against the abolition of slavery and segregationism tool and nail. It is universally known that conservatives have been aligned with segregationism since the late 19th century. Segregation came out of slavery, which morphed into neo-slavery, which became the Jim Crow laws (all courtesy southern democrats—today’s conservatives/Republicans). It took the forceful intervention of federal troops to enforce the Supreme Court decision to integrate schools in Mississippi and in Alabama, where segregationist Governor George Wallace gained hero-like status among conservatives by physically blocking black students from entering the whites-only University of Alabama.

Indeed today's conservatives are still enamored of segregationism or at least are not repulsed by it. In fact, leading conservative intellectuals Rush Limbaugh has spoken in favor of segregationism, and Ann Coulter defended a group of white supremacist segregationists against charges that they are racist. As late as the early 1990s, Christian conservatives strongly supported the white-dominated Apartheid regime in South Africa, which was not all that long ago. The late Jerry Falwell, a leading Christian conservative televangelist, railed against de-segregation. The fundamentalist Christian conservative Bob Jones University only ended its ban on interracial dating in 2000; they did not even admit blacks until 1971. And let's not forget the conservative Mormon Church (of which Glenn Beck is a member), which did not grant priesthood to African-Americans until 1978!

Nor has segregation been "solved"; in the twenty-first century, racial segregation may actually be on the rise. In the spring of this year, a federal judge ordered a county in Mississippi to stop racially segregating students into separate schools. And just last week, a story broke that administrators of a middle school in Mississippi mandated racially segregated elections of student body officers.

In fact, Beck himself has gone so far as to defend slavery, claiming it was not a big problem until it started to be "politicized" in the run-up to the civil war. This is not altogether surprising, for one of Beck's heroes, far-right Christian Reconstructionist R.J. Rushdooney, famously argued for "Biblical" slavery, claiming that "some people were by nature slaves" and that southern slavery was "benevolent."

If these seem like inconvenient facts, they clearly do not trouble Beck. Nor are they a problem for his followers as they mobilize at this historic moment against the injustice perpetrated by the fascistic Marxist Muslim oppressor in the White House.

Let freedom ring!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tea Party Speak Made Easy

If you are not an American, or are an American who hails from Blue America (i.e., not a 'real American'), you may have puzzled over the whole Tea Party thing sprouting up all across this great nation. You may have heard one of Glenn Beck's famous rants or listened to Rand Paul, Sarah Palin or Sharron Angle (look her up, she's a treat!), understood all the words, but failed to comprehend the meaning of the words. You may have then become frustrated and put your fist through the wall, despairing of ever "getting" the Tea Party movement.

While journalists, documentary film-makers, and scholars are presently conducting the kind of careful ethnographic research necessary to make this movement intelligible to outsiders, I have in the meantime compiled a quick and dirty guide to 'tea party speak'--the language that your right-wing colleagues, relatives or acquaintances have adopted and that, in all likelihood, has left you baffled.

Here is a sampling of "tea party speak" that I have culled from the internets using a super scientific research methodology (random google searches), followed by an English translation:*

*Warning: the following translations may be disputed by said Tea Party types >:-)

Tea Party Speak (TPS): "If you know even a little about forms of govt you'll quickly recognize that this [Obama's health care reform] is socialism. And socialism is a slide ever closer to communism - the most oppressive and godless form of govt the earth has ever seen on par with few others.

Translation: Europe sucks. America rules. We have to avoid the hell that is Europe.

TPS: We seem to have forgotten what a precious gift our freedom is and that we need to preserve it even if we have to forego some comfort [affordable health care].

Translation: I would rather be ripped off by a health insurance company or forego a necessary organ transplant than live in a European country with a black president.

TPS: I'll never agree that government ought be in the business of (re)distributing healthcare. And that's why I would like to see the private sector and charities step up and responsibly help the people in need. I say responsibly because many people have chronic and costly diseases [...] of their own choosing... Hardworking, sacrificial [sic] people should not be forced to carry the burden of shiftless, n'er do wells. It is one thing to fork over tax money to fix the roads, it is quite another to fork over tax money to pay for someone's drug addiction recovery or diabetes because they are eating themselves to death.

Translation: I shouldn't have to pay for anyone else's health care but my own. Poor people should ask charities for help. Poor fat people shouldn't get any help at all--they get what they deserve. My taxes should pay for roads, not to help poor, lazy fat/drug-addicted blacks or Mexicans. Screw them.

TPS: Those who suck on the teet [sic] of government cannot complain when the milk goes sour. Now, if the government creates laws and taxes that kill the economy, then hands out help to those it has crippled we have to begin to wonder.

Translation: Liberals are parasites who are wrecking our great nation. They must be eliminated.

TPS: I don't like the fact that federal government is basically going to give subsidies for tax-funded abortions in the HealthCare Bill.

Translation: Obama wants to kill babies.

TPS: Profit is a good thing. In fact, it is a very good thing. When you take profit out of the health care equation, companies will cease to be competitive. Without competition, companies will cease to improve. America has the best health care in the world precisely because of profits.

Translation: Greed is good. Private businesses should have a monopoly over health care and get as much money out of people as legally possible. That is "good health care." Europe sucks.

TPS: As a history and economics teacher, I can tell you that never in the history of the world has there ever been price controls that have been successful.

Translation: Because I am a teaching professional, I can talk freely out of my ass and you have to believe everything I say.

TPS: Doctors DO hate [Obama's health care] bill. Doctors already work 55 hour weeks... they aren't going to volunteer to work more for no money. (With taxes, they already do that four months of a year!) ... Without the income to help pay off medical school expenses, there will be fewer students desiring to become doctors. You will be waiting for months to get your studies done or read by a radiologist. My husband is a radiologist and he doesn't know ONE doctor who is for this bill. Since this IS their business, I would think their comments about this should be valued. It's like the astronomist who sees the asteroid coming, and all the lay people say, "Oh, we'll be fine. This is a GOOD thing." What does the astronomist know, afterall?

Translation: Random made-up statistics make me sound credible. The fact that my husband is a medical professional makes me sound credible. Doctors in America are aggrieved souls working under slave conditions for menial wages. If doctors don't continue to earn more than a quarter of a million a year, they will refuse to work, and we won't have any more doctors.

TPS: I [would] rather be screwed by the insurance company then the gov't take over another sector of business. Has no one been to the post office or DMV or better yet a VA hospital - all very depressing.

Translation: Greedy American businesses rule. Europe sucks ass.

TPS: I simply believe in the principles that I speak about. I believe it to be true because I feel it in my gut.

Translation: I don't need to provide any evidence for my claims.

TPS: I will admit that I am a true believer in America. I think it is an honorable country that has made mistakes. I love my country and just want to restore it to its founding principles. It seems like we are trying to be like Europe. I have nothing against Europe but I just want is to return to our roots.

Translation: Europe is for losers.

TPS: The power needs to stay in the hands of the people to prevent abuse. The more industries the gov't snaps up and controls, the greater our loss of freedom will be. Isn't what that we're dying for every day - freedom? At least when you pay someone in the private sector for goods and services, you know you are paying a person like yourself who has to pay a mortgage and put
food on the table. Not so with gov't who's employees are better insulated from the consequences of economic downturns.

Translation: Having a black president makes me feel deeply insecure.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Explaining the Conservative Mind: Are You Born With It?

What determines our political orientation? The question transcends mere party identification. It speaks to our value system and moral compass. It helps us distinguish right from wrong, good from malevolent public policy; it determines the role we believe government has in society, the relationship between ourselves and the state, and to whom we owe our deepest allegiance.

It has a special resonance for me, as someone who was raised conservative but became progressive. The ideological difference between my family and myself is truly remarkable and the distance I have traveled since childhood more remarkable still. The question I am left with is why I and a few other family members made this transition, whereas the rest of my family did not.

In matters of politics and public policy, many ideologies compete for dominance in a democratic system, but there are two broadly-defined political personalities that orient one's thinking on almost every policy issue: conservative (or traditionalist) and liberal (or progressive).

What distinguishes these orientations? Broadly speaking, conservatives value tradition and authority, ingroup loyalty and respect, sanctity and purity; liberals value collective care, equity and fairness. These orientations are supported by distinct belief systems and even moral universes.

UC Berkeley Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science George Lakoff argues in Don't Think of an Elephant that liberal and conservative mindsets are gendered frames. In this formulation, the conservative frame is that of a tough but fair disciplinarian father--punishing those who fail and rewarding those who succeed. By contrast, the liberal frame is that of a nurturing and caring mother who shields all her children from harm. The frames explain why, for instance, conservatives might give more resources to the stronger than the weaker members of society--acting otherwise would skew the moral incentives in society, encouraging sloth and degenerate living. For liberals, on the other hand, the weakest members of society are those who most need a helping hand, so greater resources are directed to the poor and needy so that they have a chance to improve their lot. In this way, society is also made more equitable. Lakoff is quick to note that most people use both frames in their lives, depending on the circumstances. But conservatives emphasize the strict father frame in matters of politics and public policy, whereas liberals draw on the nurturing mother frame.

But what leads some people to gravitate more to the disciplinarian conservative frame than the nurturing liberal frame?

University of Virginia professor of psychology, Jonathan Haidt summarizes the current state of psychological research on the conservative mind:

conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer "moral clarity"—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.

In this view, the moral system favored by conservatives appeals greatly to people who are fearful of change and prone to authoritarian thinking styles.

So how deep do these personality traits go? A team of scientists from UCLA and NYU published the results of an experiment in Nature Neuroscience showing that self-identified conservative and liberal students displayed different cognitive behavior patterns in computer simulations. Thus, liberal students proved far more sensitive to cues for switching response patterns, whereas conservative students tended to filter out the cues as distracting information. They conclude that the cognitive styles of self-reported conservatives were more "structured and persistent," whereas those of liberals showed "greater tolerance for conflict and ambiguity," suggesting they were "more open to new experiences." Similarly, a 2003 review of psychological research on self-identified conservatives across a number of countries concludes that individuals tend to adopt conservative ideologies "to reduce fear, anxiety, and uncertainty; to avoid change, disruption, and ambiguity; and to explain, order, and justify inequality among groups and individuals." In short, people who gravitate toward conservative ideologies tend to be psychologically motivated by the need to manage uncertainty and fear.

But why does conservatism tend to run in families? Are some families more fearful than others? If so, is this innate or learned? And which came first--conservatism or the social cognitive need for conservatism?

A fascinating study published in the American Political Science Review in 2005 suggests that, to some extent, conservative and liberal orientations are heritable. The study reported the results of twin studies showing that monozygotic twins (those who share 100 percent of their genetic material) were far more likely to have the same attitudes on a range of political issues than dizygotic twins (those who share 50 percent of their genetic material), controlling for having been raised together or separately and a whole host of other factors.

Still, this does not explain my case. The authors of the 2005 study are clear that genetics only account for a piece of the puzzle, but then what explains the rest? Since both sides of my family are heavily right-wing, it would have to have been some seriously recessive liberal gene. Otherwise, the explanation lies elsewhere.

I find the reearch of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) helpful in this respect. Building on the authoritarian personality thesis, Canadian Psychologist Bob Altemeyer innovated RWA and refined an index to measure it in the 1980s (if you haven't done so, I recommend taking his RWA test). His argument was that conservative is strongly correlated with high scores of RWA, which consists of three broad traits: (1) submissiveness to established authority figures, (2) aggressiveness directed against social deviants, and (3) conformism with accepted traditions and social norms. He cautions that not all those with high RWA scores are conservative and not all conservatives have high RWA scores; moreover, many RWA types are not politically active at all. However, there is a strong correlation between the two.

What I find interesting about his argument is its social learning component. In his extensive testing of university students, he finds that entering university students tend to have higher RWA scores than leaving students, suggesting that exposure to people from diverse backgrounds, grappling with foreign ideas, and being encouraged to think critically tends to reduce conformism and increase social, religious and ideological tolerance toward others.

The upshot is that exposure to foreign people, ideas, attitudes, and philosophies tends to increase one's tolerance for ambiguity and conflict as well as openness to new experience...which in turn correlates with liberal ideologies. Which is exactly my story.

On the downside, Pew Research surveys consistently show that conservatives and religious right-wingers tend to be happier than the rest of us.

Son of a bitch.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Idea # 2 for Solving the Economic Crisis: Invest in the New Green Revolution

There is no longer any question that we are at the end of the era of cheap oil. Once dismissed as a doomsday crackpot fantasy, the theory of "peak oil" is now the accepted view of the scientific community and national governments alike. For the uninitiated, global peak oil is the point at which the maximum rate of global oil extraction is reached, after which production begins to decline, possibly precipitously. The theory was first outlined by oil geologist M. King Hubbard in 1956 and became known as "Hubbard's curve." Hubbard based his model on the observed production of oil wells and fields, showing that local production, national production and even global production of oil (or any finite resource) traced a logistical curve of exponential growth, followed by a brief plateau, ushering in irreversible decline.

The is the sketch used by Hubbard to accurately predict peak oil production in the United States at between 1965 and 1970. Up until that point, U.S. was effectively the Saudi Arabia of the world, producing enough oil to meet all of our energy needs while exporting to other nations. People scoffed at Hubbard's prediction at the time, as U.S. production was growing exponentially by the year. But U.S. oil production did indeed peak in 1971 and has declined ever since, despite ever more sophisticated methods of extraction. Indeed, Azerbaijan, U.S., Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia (all at one time top oil-producing countries) have peaked or are peaking now.

This chart from shows oil production projected over time; estimates vary, but most analysts agree that we have either just reached peak oil or, in the most optimistic scenario, will do so in 2020.

To be clear, peak oil is not the point at which the world's oil supply is depleted; there are significant quantities of tar sands, heavy crude and shale oil that can replace the light sweet crude. The problem is that extracting fuel from these alternative sources is difficult and energy-intensive; we come ever closer to expending the same amount of energy on production as we get in return--at which point oil production is no longer worth the trouble.

The reality of peak oil is hitting at the same time that major new economies (India, China) are growing at a remarkable clip, putting ever greater pressure on the oil fields that remain. In the mid-twentieth century, only North America, Western Europe, Japan and a few other wealthy countries had oil-based economies. Today, almost every country in the world relies on a ready supply of cheap oil. If we do not make dramatic policy changes soon, we can look forward to a generation or more of resource wars, as the EU, U.S., China and India engage in a Second Great Scramble over remaining oil and gas resources in the Caspian Sea, Africa, the Middle East, and the Arctic Circle. Not only will this increase the absolute level of war and suffering in the world, but it does little more than postpone the inevitable transition to alternative fuels, while polluting the environment and contributing to greenhouse gases.

So how does this looming crisis constitute a growth opportunity for the U.S. economy? The argument here is that massive investment in alternative sources of energy promises an economic boom that could rival or eclipse the tech boom of the 1990s.

There is every reason to believe that the government can spearhead path-breaking innovation in the field. Many twentieth-century inventions were made possible through publicly-funded research. Some came through direct government funding, such as the internet (based on APRANET, a U.S. military communications project), the computer (funded by the Defense Department), chemotherapy, and nuclear fission/fusion. Others were financed indirectly through universities and research institutes, such as the World Wide Web, antibiotics, antiseptics, the Human Genome Project, and many cancer drugs.

Nor is there any doubt that the government can spur economic development, partly by investing in human capital. In the mid-twentieth century, the government built the U.S. highway system, the university system, free K-12 education, public libraries, national parks, hydroelectric dams, bridges, nuclear energy, and mass irrigation of the American Southwest. U.S. military spending during World War II pulled us definitively out of the Great Depression, and U.S. aid under the Marshall Plan helped West European countries recover from the war. The government-sponsored GI bill helped many returning WWII veterans enter the middle class by financing university education and providing loans for new homes.

Is there any question that America is thirsting for another Keynesian revolution? (Those of you who doubt we have enough money for such an enterprise can find it in the trillion-dollar defense/war budget and tax cuts for the wealthy.) Massive public investment in America's infrastructure and industrial base may be our best shot at resolving the current economic crisis and chronically high unemployment while mitigating the future energy crunch.

Venture capitalist Eric Janszen, who famously forecast the tech bubble and got out at the top of the market, predicted in February 2008 that a new bubble in alternative energy would emerge in response to the collapse of the housing bubble. In The Next Bubble: Priming the Markets for the next Big Crash, he observes that growth in our finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE)-based economy is to a great extent based on speculative bubbles. He predicts that the next great bubble will be in renewable energy because it is "politically expedient" and "scalable," requiring huge investments in communications and transportation infrastructure.

This would not be such a bad thing. An alternative energy bubble would have excellent knock-on effects, such as helping us transition away from our dependence on oil and curbing greenhouse gases, changes that are sorely needed going forward.

But why not have a new green revolution without the downsides of a destabilizing bubble? According to Janszen, this is entirely possible. He proposes levying a floating tarriff on oil, raising the price of oil to 200 to 300 dollars a barrel. If the price is raised very gradually, economic dislocation will be minimized as alternative renewable energies become increasingly cost-effective. As he points out in an interview with Wired magazine, the economy did not suffer unduly when the price of oil shot up from 20 USD to 100 USD a barrel in 2008. To facilitate the transition to renewable energy, he suggests rebuilding the nation's power grid to make it more efficient, installing high-speed rail, and piping fiber-optic cable into every household to reduce the need for commuting. Meanwhile, public-private corporations can be established that could draw on government funding but at the same time be responsive to shareholders.

One way or another, the new green revolution is coming. Renewable energy sources now make up 19 percent of the world's energy use; over half of newly installed energy capacity in the U.S. and Europe in 2009 was in renewables. From wikipedia:

According to a 2010 global status report on renewable energy, the growth in the capacity of alternative energy is between 10 to 60 percent annually, depending on the source. Alternative energy is also the darling of Wall Street. For two years running, private investment in renewables outstripped private investment in fossil fuels, growing from 40 billion in 2004 to 150 in 2009. Asian countries, particularly China, have emerged as leaders in development and manufacturing in this sector, with China producing 30 percent of the world's wind turbines (an increase from 10 percent in 2007) and 30 percent of the world's solar PV energy. The U.S. and even Europe are starting to fall behind the curve on the new green revolution.

There is really no down side to a new green revolution in terms of creating jobs and manufacturing potential, spurring the economy, averting or mitigating an energy crunch, and reducing the effects of anthropogenic climate change. For its own good, the U.S. must establish a leadership position in the new energy future.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Idea # 1 for Solving the Economic Crisis: Kill the Military-Industrial Complex

To politicians and pundits of a conservative bent, the only way to avoid the coming Apocalyptic Fiscal Meltdown is to slash entitlement spending, i.e., those two big piggy banks--Medicare and Social Security. Because no politician in their right mind would touch the most popular federal programs in American history without political cover, the plan is to convince the American public that maintaining these programs "as is" will turn us into a third world country, i.e., Greece. With the public more-or-less acquiescent, they aim to get Obama and the Democrats on board with these "reforms," giving them plausible deniability come election time.

The problem is that these arguments, repeated ad nauseum in the MSM, are entirely fraudulent. It is true that both programs will soon be running annual deficits due to demographic fluctuations in a pay-as-you-go system (and for Medicare, the exploding costs of health care). Over the next two decades, millions of baby-boomers will hit retirement age, which means that the ratio of contributors to beneficiaries will be significantly reduced, at which point we begin to liquidate the trust fund assets to cover the deficits. The trust fund for Medicare is solvent until 2029 and for Social Security until 2040. According to the 2010 trustees report, a few fixes in payroll taxes and benefits will resolve the subsequent funding gaps in both programs. The larger point is that the Social Security and Medicare--funded by dedicated payroll taxes and individual premiums and co-payments--are entitlement programs that we pay into. By contrast, defense--funded out of general tax revenue--is part of the discretionary budget, making it a prime candidate for the chopping block.

A half-century ago, in his farewell address to the nation, General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of an emerging military-industrial complex where business, military and congress worked hand-in-glove to enrich defense contractors, creating a standing army of unprecedented proportions and robbing the country of vital funding for hospitals, schools, and infrastructure. Today, Eisenhower's predictions have been borne out in spades, with defense contractors based in all fifty states where they blackmail politicians into maintaining the bloated and unnecessary military budget. Florida Congressman Alan Grayson (D) recently reenacted the Eisenhower speech, warning that our military spending was impoverishing the nation and robbing future generations.

How big is the U.S. defense budget? Bigger than those of the next fourteen states combined. The following chart from shows the disproportionate size of the U.S. military budget in 2009. U.S. military spending was almost equal to the defense spending of the rest of the world combined; the U.S. and our NATO Allies account for two-thirds of the world's total military spending.

How big is our military spending relative to other outlays? The following chart shows that defense was the largest item in the 2009 federal budget. An estimated 38 to 44 of federal taxes in 2010 will have gone to defense spending, according to the CBO.

It is worth noting that this actually underestimates the size of military spending relative to other budgetary outlays. Since Social Security and Medicare are basically self-funded entitlement programs, they are not included in the annual discretionary budget. Of the 2010 federal discretionary budget, military spending actually makes up over half:

Remarkably, military spending increased at a rate of about 9 percent annually from 2000 to 2009, according to the CBO. The proposed 2011 defense budget is between 1 and 1.2 trillion dollars.

Perhaps surprisingly (or not), most of this spending serves no obvious security purpose and may even make us less secure. We are often fed the line that our military is large because we a large country or that we are the global policeman, and so we must provide security for our Allies around the world and defend against our enemies. However, much of this spending goes to programs that cannot possibly enhance our or our Allies' security. Obama has managed to cancel some wasteful and unnecessary weapons programs, such as the F-22 fighter jet. However, many more remain intact. According to the Arms Control Association, the proposed 2011 defense budget includes a 10 percent increase in funding for our nuclear weapons program (we spend 27 billion USD a year expanding our capacity to build new nukes and maintaining old ones). Another 10 billion is for ballistic missile defense (despite the fact that missile defense does not appear to work); 5.4 billion to build Cold War era Virginia-class submarines (designed to fight Soviet subs); 2.8 billion for V-22 Osprey helicopters (plagued with operational failures); 1.5 for space-based missile defense (really?); and 11.4 billion for F-35 joint strike fighters (produced before designs were complete).

The requested base budget for the Pentagon in 2011 is 549 billion USD, not including the 159 billion to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will continue to be funded through supplemental budget requests. It is estimated that each additional soldier sent to Afghanistan is costing taxpayers one million USD a year. To date, the two wars together have cost a little over one trillion USD and counting. Besides funding wars and weapons systems with questionable purposes, pork and waste is endemic in the Pentagon; a 2003 report by the Defense Department Inspector General indicated that the Pentagon could not account for a gob-smacking one trillion dollars. I rest my case.

It might be argued that, despite the massive pork and waste in defense spending, these programs provide valuable jobs that would be lost in the event of drastic cuts to defense. To which I would say: that is a pretty damn expensive jobs-program. Moreover, if the government wanted to be in the business of job creation, then why not pay people to build hospitals, schools and highways (America's dams, bridges, and highways are in imminent need of repair according to the American Society of Civil Engineers)? What about employing engineers and scientists to develop new (renewable, clean) sources of energy and rebuild the nation's power grid? Wouldn't that be a better use of human capital than developing new and inventive ways of killing people?

So why aren't we trimming fat from the Pentagon pig? Cutting military spending is something that unites members of congress on both sides of the aisle (from progressive Alan Grayson to conservative Tom Coburn), think tanks from the Heritage Foundation and CATO to Brookings and the Center for American Progress; and defense secretaries from Donald Rumsfeld to Bob Gates. One of the reasons there haven't been draconian cuts is that defense contractors have Congress over a barrel. Thus, a contractor will typically farm out parts of its weapons program to states and districts of influential congresspeople. If a representative threatens to cut the program, the contractor threatens to publicize the number of jobs that will be lost in that representative's district should the program be cut. Due to the revolving door, lobbyists for the industry are also well-represented in the ranks of the Pentagon's top brass; at the same time, retired generals are well-represented among defense lobbyists. Taken together, the system keep the funding spigot open.

Despite overwhelming odds against meaningful reform, U.S. citizens need to push their leaders to do the right thing. In fact, we can't afford not to. No less a figure than our first president, George Washington, affirmed that "over grown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty

Monday, August 2, 2010

Unless you are a Wealthy Cyborg, You Shouldn't be Voting Republican

The title of this post is a little tongue-in-cheek, but only a little. As the fall mid-term elections approach, I have been pondering whether there are any good reasons for a person to vote straight-ticket Republican. I confess that I have a personal interest in this question because many of my family members are hardcore Republicans, even though most are of modest means.

Rather than offering reasons as to why so many working and lower middle class people vote Republican (against the predictions of traditional rational choice voting models), I evaluate some of the more common reasons that individuals themselves give for voting Republican:

(1) Republicans favor tax cuts, encouraging personal consumption and business investment; this stimulates the economy, yielding more tax revenue and thereby reducing the deficit.

This is the "rising tide lifts all boats" supply-side theory of economics, which is today widely discredited. In 2006, the Economic Policy Institute released a report concluding that the ginormous Bush tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 failed to generate the promised economic growth. With no big economic gains and lower tax revenue, the result is higher deficits--which is precisely what occurred during the Reagan and George W. Bush presidencies. Here is a graph from Mike Kimel's blog showing that Democratic administrations boasted higher economic growth rates than Republican administrations.

Not only are Republican policies apparently bad for growth, but it is also worth noting that the poor do far better under Democratic administrations than Republican administrations, while the rich do roughly the same. A recent paper by Princeton Professor Larry Bartels uses data analysis to show that the income inequality rises under Republican administrations and falls under Democratic administrations, as shown in the figure below. This result is mainly attributable to differences in economic growth (30 percent higher under Democratic presidents on average) and unemployment (30 percent lower under Democratic presidents on average).

(2) Republicans have more fiscal discipline and we need to get Obama's federal spending under control before it destroys our currency/economy/American way of life.

Can we please stop pretending that the GOP is the party of fiscal probity? After all, it was not so long ago that Cheney asserted that "Reagan taught us that deficits don't matter." And the Bush administration certainly acted as though it didn't matter--spending trillions of dollars in borrowed money for wars in the Middle East, a prescription drug benefit, and massive tax cuts for the wealthy. Despite the cacophony of concern-trolling over out-of-control spending under Obama, the bulk of projected deficit spending from now until 2019 is accounted for by Bush era tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the servicing of that debt.

In fact, a review of deficit spending over the past 40 years explodes the notion that Republicans are the party of fiscal discipline. The periods of greatest growth in deficit spending correspond to the Reagan and Bush Jr. presidencies. The administrations of Carter and Clinton showed relative restraint. The deficit spiked in the first year of Obama's presidency, but it is worth noting that the 2009 budget (including the massive bank bailouts) was already in place before Obama was sworn in.

(3) Republicans understand that you can't show weakness internationally by negotiating with our enemies.

This is not at all true. Although George W. Bush famously took relations with our European allies to a new low, and refused to negotiate over WMDs with Iran and North Korea (leading them to accelerate their respective nuclear programs), the Bush administration did negotiate a deal with terror-sponsoring Libya, leading Gadhafi to give up the country's WMDs in return for lifted sanctions.

In fact, every president in recent history (Republican and Democratic) has negotiated deals with hostile or enemy states. Nixon famously opened up China. Although he presided over a huge nuclear arms build-up, Reagan reached out to the Soviets to help pave the way for the first arms reduction agreements. He also negotiated with our then-mortal enemy, Iran, and was notably reluctant to engage in war under any circumstances. More recently, Republican stalwarts George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, have attempted to broker a deal with the Russians to completely eliminate nuclear weapons on both sides.

(4) Republicans keep our country safe from terrorists.

This is another myth carefully cultivated by the right. Voters have traditionally ranked the Democratic Party better on the economy, health care and education, so the Republican Party has crafted an image as the party that keeps us safe. The evidence usually cited for this claim is that the U.S. was not attacked while Bush was in office (except for that 9/11 thing--but that was Clinton's fault). But even if we exempt the Bush administration from blame for 9/11, there was still an uptick in terrorist attacks against our Allies and U.S. interests abroad under the Bush administration. The National Intelligence Estimate in 2007 concluded that the threat of terror against the Homeland actually increased in recent years, primarily because the war in Iraq had allowed al Qaida to expand its operations there, it now had a safe haven in Pakistan, and U.S. threats to bomb Iran inspired Hezbollah to train its sites on the Homeland. Thus, far from making us safer, the Bush administration actually made us less safe.

(5) I am a religious conservative and the Republican Party reflects my Judeo-Christian values.

Sigh. True, this is what they say. But judging by their actions, the Republicans are not exactly paragons of traditional Christian values. The GOP is known for being a sanctuary for closeted homosexuals (many of whom oppose gay rights), and Republican leaders have reportedly solicited gay sex in airport bathrooms (former Senator Larry Craig), paid to be diapered by prostitutes (Senator David Vitter), forced his wife to engage in group sex (former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton), solicited sex from congressional male interns (former Representative Mark Foley), engaged in sex tourism (Rush Limbaugh), committed statutory rape (Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the late Senator Strom Thurmon), molested children (former Christian Coalition chairman of Oregon Louis Beres), committed adultery (too many to count), and had sex with a mule (far-right Republican activist Neal Horsley). See a short-list of accused Republican sex offenders here. Of course the Democrats are no saints themselves, but (1) they never claimed to be, and (2) they don't seem to have quite as many pervy wankers in their ranks as the Republicans.

So when does it may sense to vote Republican? If you are among the top 1-5 (maybe 10) percent of income-earners, you may benefit from Republican tax cuts to the wealthy. If you are not, you may end up with a tax increase as the federal and state governments struggle to make up for the loss of revenue by raising sales and local taxes. Moreover, if you at all depend on Social Security or Medicare to help make ends meet in your august years, you are not likely to benefit from Republican plans to privatize or severely slash these programs.

But being wealthy is not enough. You should also ideally be a cyborg or some other super-human life-form that will be unaffected by Republican de-regulation of air, food, drug and water safety standards, not to mention consumer protections and product safety.

The Republican Party understands that they have a a very narrow natural constituency--mainly the super wealthy who are impervious to, or do not care about, the level of arsenic in the water supply, the level of carbon emissions in the air, the safety of children's toys, the risk of contracting E. Coli in tainted meat or vegetables, the stability of our banking system, and the safety of coal mining, nuclear power reactors, and offshore drilling operations. Cognizant of this , GOP activists have used fear, race-baiting, and cultural/religious warfare to broaden their constituency.

This is not to let the Democrats off the hook. The Democrats' performance since capturing the House and Senate in the 2006 midterms has been disappointing, to say the least. The weak sauce health care and financial reforms show that the Democrats are at least partly in hock to business interests, too weak or scared to challenge the establishment, or both. However, given the choice between a party that has partly sold out to corporate interests and a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporate America, I choose the former every time.