Friday, June 11, 2010

The Problems we've failed to face

Earlier I was talking about our ability (or, perhaps, lack thereof) with the big problems in the world, a situation that I compared to the Underpants Gnomes in South Park. And while it’s too early to say with any certainty, it appears that Lindsey Graham’s withdrawal from a serious carbon bill dooms the effort to do anything serious as regards the environment.

If you want the proof, just look at Lamar Alexander’s WSJ op-ed on what to do post-spill. Let’s contrast point seven on his list:
Stop pretending wind power has anything to do with reducing America's dependence on oil.Windmills generate electricity—not transportation fuel. Wind has become the energy pet rock of the 21st century and a taxpayer rip-off. According to the Energy Information Administration, wind produces only 1.3% of U.S. electricity but receives federal taxpayer subsidies 25 times as much per megawatt hour as subsidies for all other forms of electricity production combined. Wind can be an energy supplement, but it has nothing to do with ending our dependence on oil.

With point five on his list:
Electrify half our cars and trucks. This is ambitious, but it is the best way to reduce U.S. oil consumption, cutting it by one-third to about 13 million barrels a day. A Brookings Institution study says we could electrify half our cars and trucks without building one new power plant if we plug in our cars at night.

Which means that Sen. Alexander has contradicted himself and willfully ignores it: wind power electrifying our cars means less oil and less pollution. This is about as “duh” a combination as you can get.

The rest features the typical G.O.P combination of enthusiasm for nuclear power and inoffensive, non-controversial proposals (Research and Development! Awesome!). I’m lukewarm on nuclear power: for one, I think its proponents significantly underestimate the tail risk associated with nuclear power. If a nuclear power plant fails, well then you might well have a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island; if a wind power farm fails, then you go without electricity for a while. Which sounds worse? The very reasonable point in response here is that there haven’t been any significant failures in the U.S. since Three Mile Island, which is, of course, true. But the Black Swan event is so much worse for nuclear power than wind power: what about terrorism, I wonder; what about a failure of equipment or simple incompetence? These things happen, and the risks we know about are much worse for nuclear power. These problems are surmountable if nuclear power were particularly affordable or particularly effective, but nuclear power doesn’t get built in this country without massive government subsidies; it’s the only way banks will take on the financing risk. Why not subsidize a technology that doesn’t imply the risk of massive environmental catastrophe in the event of failure? Or, moreover: nuclear power is a relatively mature technology; solar and wind power, by contrast, are relatively immature, implying greater marginal returns to governmental money.

At any rate, the point here isn’t to get into the weeds of energy policy (there are a lot of weeds: like health care, it’s a screwy system). The point is that when Obama came into office, there were three long-term problems that needed to be solved in order to create an economy that efficiently and sustainably used all its resources: namely, health care, energy/environment, and financial reform (the deficit and the debt are half a problem: the deficit/debt problem is a health care problem). And there was one short-term problem that needed to be solved as a prerequisite to avoiding massive, unnecessary human suffering: namely, the recession and the attendant unemployment and state-level deficits.

How would you assess the government’s performance on these four crucial issues today? I’d say this: as well as it could, but no where near good enough to do what needed to be done. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’re probably well-acquainted with the problems and foibles of the Obama administration’s policies, and its relation to the broader government. They’re an improvement, but not enough improvement. Who do you blame? There’s a certain crowd out there—this is the same crowd that just wants Obama to do something with the spill—that thinks that somehow Obama should be “tougher” or “not give away so much” etc. etc. without citing specific examples of how they would do it; in fact, being more inchoate resentment than any specific critique. And when they do cite an example—e.g. LBJ, Master Senate Operator—it’s an inappropriate one, historically speaking. (To refute that specific example, the party system of that day was a four-party one, roughly being Midwestern Republican conservatives, Southern Democratic conservatives, Northeastern Democratic liberals, and Northeastern Rockefeller Republicans; therefore there was a high degree of bipartisanship; furthermore, the Senate barely filibustered at all in those days.) Let’s say Obama gets tougher with individual Senators: how tough is tough enough? Because if any Senator is sufficiently intransigent, nothing—literally nothing—happens. Do you realize that universal consent is required for virtually every Senate procedure? Do you realize that committees can’t meet for more than a few hours a week without Senatorial consent? The standard suggestion in this case is such things as “Make them sleep in cots like they used to when they did filibuster!” but this only exacerbates the fundamental problem: the reason Senators don’t do all-night filibusters anymore was because it was impeding the Senate’s business. If you filibuster under the old system, the Senate can’t consider any other motion. The other suggestion is that somehow Senators would be too humiliated to proceed if they obstructed government in this way, but do you really believe the media will consistently portray it this way? Of course not—take for example Richard Shelby’s hold on 70 nominees. What happened? Shelby was ridiculed for a while, but eventually got what he wanted. If embarrassment means nothing to you, then this is an ineffective strategy. Getting tough and getting into standoffs only limits the government’s ability to do real business; it makes government appear incompetent and unable to do anything done; this erodes public trust in government which emboldens those who were picking the fight in the first place; which continues our cycle; which means that the standoff strategy only helps the nihilists. No, the rot is in the government itself.

This makes the problem more difficult and scarier: to solve the country, you must first solve the government. And to solve the government, you must change its institutions, formal and informal. Instead of picking a fight over each and every outrage, change the rules so you don’t have to have those fights anymore: no more filibusters, no more holds, none of that. This is the only thing that can be done: if the Democrats still control the Senate after the midterms, they should take it upon themselves to use their majority and completely rewrite the rules. They would be ridiculed for a time by the media; but the public wouldn’t care—the public doesn’t care about things like this. And take it from the nihilists: temporary embarrassment is nothing in comparison to achieving your aims. So achieve them.

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