For the first time since records have been kept, Washington's heat index today rose above its bullshit index. Which is saying something given the levels of swirling crap that have that have been emitted during the debt-ceiling debate. It's piling up like snow banks on the street corners. And none of it is made any easier to bear by a heat index that is supposed to hit 116 degrees today. In a city full of gas bags and hot heads, that's just plain dangerous.
Both the heat and the headlines have the same effect on average citizens. They make us cranky. Personally, I feel the strong urge to punch someone right in the snout right now. I'd prefer it were one of the goons who has seen fit to criticize President Obama and Speaker Boehner for actually trying to break the irrational debt debate impasse and get something done. But frankly, it could be anyone. I'd pop the slender loris featured on the Washington Post's iPad app yesterday if it crawled over to me right now … and frankly, I have a kind of soft spot in my heart for lorises, slender and otherwise.
So, instead, I will vent my blogger's spleen. I will do this by answering for each of you the following question: Who were the world's biggest assholes this week? Surely this will prove a healthy distraction from the muffled sounds of passersby being swallowed up by the bubbling pavement beneath my window.
Such a big world, so many choices, where to begin? Well, let's start with a definition. Asshole may be an intemperate term but it is not an imprecise one (and if it is one that offends you I strongly suggest that you stop reading three sentences ago … and please don't bother to write that FP should not use such language. I agree. The editors agree. But it's hot. So go jump in a lake. And I'm perfectly happy to spend my whole evening deleting your prissy criticisms from the comments below.) Anyway, the point is that the word refers not to purely evil people but to jerks, irritating people who combine their bad behavior with a certain offensive ridiculousness.
So who are the world's top ten this week? (And please note we are not including lifetime achievers who already have had their jerseys retired such as Hamid Karzai, Eric Cantor, or those wonderful folks at Focus on the Family.)
10. Prince Andrew
Blue bloods always have an edge in competitions like this, pampered, in-bred fossils of obsolescent and offensive social systems that they are. And few royal families have produced so many memorable jerks as the House of Windsor, including first-ballot member of the first class of the Asshole Hall of Fame, Prince Philip. But the upper-class twit never falls far from the royal family tree and Andrew wins mention this week for having to resign his post as ambassador for British trade because of his long string of bad judgments, questionable actions and bone-headed misdeeds including, notably and unsurprisingly, his befriending of convicted sex offender.
9. Chris Brown
Beating up women was not enough for this narcissistic so-called musician. This week, reliable sources like TMZ reported that Brown was that special kind of over-achiever who is able to irritate and infuriate on many levels at once. He did so by revealing himself to his neighbors in LA as That Guy in the apartment building who reportedly has blaringly loud parties at all hours, carves his initials in the elevator, runs his racing dogs up and down the hallways and leaves his ridiculous male-enhancement-mobiles in handicapped parking spaces. And then, after the stories broke, he complained he was being picked on. Poor Chris. Guy may pack a punch (on a date) but can't stand being the punch line he has become. Being bitch-slapped by karma's no fun, is it?
8. Tim Pawlenty
Bland, nice guy Tim would seem like the last fellow to end up on a list like this but when he was the first to take the bait and question whether Michele Bachmann's migraines would make her unfit for the presidency, he jumped way up toward the front of the line. Sexist much? Seriously, whoever leaked the story to the right-wing rag that first ran it deserves the spot even more than Pawlenty, but frankly, the former Minnesota governor needs the break. This is the highest he has placed on any list or poll in months.
7. Employees of the Korean Central News Agency
After threatening that North Korea would launch a "merciless retaliatory sacred war" against the United States, the spin doctors of the hermit kingdom continued their tradition of hyperbolic overstatement that has made depictions of the country like that in Team America: World Police seem like a Frontline documentary. In its priceless article "Reading Between North Korea's Lines," the New York Times details how the robot-trolls of this small apparatus of Kim Jong-Il's state machine regularly pump out the greatest howlers of the world's almost always howling diplomatic communiqués. From attacks on their neighbors to the south as "half-baked, extra-large Philistines" to referring to Hillary Clinton as "the little schoolgirl" these folks at least deserve credit for making propaganda laughable again.
6. Allen West
Speaking of half-baked name-callers, Florida Republican Congressman Allen West rocketed into the news this week the only way he could: By lashing out against fellow Congressperson and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz with a slimy viciousness that set a new low even for the United States Congress. Calling her "the most vile, unprofessional and despicable member" of the House, West not only won a few more seconds of fame than his otherwise completely undistinguished career warranted but no doubt shall also receive sanctions from the Congress for his behavior. Way to go after a colleague, Allen. Who's your campaign manager, Chris Brown?
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Update, 9/12/10: In the following post due to a mistake regarding which draft I submitted to be posted, a couple of key words were dropped that have been noted by several commenters. They refer to the paragraph regarding the mosque project in Lower Manhattan. What I intended to write (and had actually written in the draft that I mistakenly did not submit) was not "It is odious..." but instead "It may seem odious to some, but if our freedoms..." I appreciate those who noted the incongruity of the remark given that I was early and strongly on the record supporting the right of those supporting the Islamic Cultural Center to build it wherever they wanted to. As should be clear to anyone who reads this blog, I find the objections and efforts to block the cultural center to be what is really odious and that is the point that I would have made here were it not for my typo. Apologies.
A week ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece for Newsweek entitled "What America Has Lost." It was subtitled "It's clear we overreacted to 9/11." As is typical for Zakaria, it is exceptionally thoughtful and well-argued. Its timely focus is on the enormous costs associated with building up the massive U.S. security apparatus that targeted a terrorist threat that was and is clearly overstated. Zakaria makes reference to the landmark Washington Post "Top Secret America" series that outlined how, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, the United States has "created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent to $75 billion (and that's the public number, which is a gross underestimate.) That's more than the rest of the world spends put together."
Even today, nine years after 9/11, it took considerable courage for Zakaria to argue that we overreacted to the horrific events of that day. Given their scope and visceral impact on every American, it seemed in the days after the blows were struck that overreaction was impossible. But in the years that followed, the feelings seem hardly to have ebbed at all, and critiques of our national reaction are, with the exception of the near consensus that invading Iraq was wrong, considered almost unpatriotic -- nearly sacrilegious, in fact.
Yet I believe that Zakaria's column understates the problem. I attribute this to its appropriately limited focus rather than any narrowness of his perspective. It was, after all, just a single column in which he focused on making an important point about America's security priorities and the opportunity costs associated with our strategic overreaction. That said, the damage done by letting emotion and adrenaline get the best of us in the months and years after the attacks extends far beyond the distortion of foreign policy priorities or the impact on the U.S. federal budget.
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It's ironic. At precisely the moment that Secretary of State Clinton was rightly striking out at the Chinese for their infringement of the rights of their own citizens to open Internet access, democracy was dying in America.
In fact now, following an era that might well be defined by America's twin credibility crises of the past decade, another looms.
The first two blows -- blows that have left America's standing in the world weaker today than it has been at any time in the past half century, even with the many steps President Obama has taken to reverse the missteps of the Bush era -- undercut two of what might be seen as the three pillars of American standing on the planet.
The initial credibility crisis was triggered by the Bush administration's reckless disregard for the values upon which the republic was founded. From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, from the illegal invasion of Iraq to the rendition and torture of prisoners, America's role as a leader by virtue of our moral standing was called into question. The champions of the rule of law were now seen, rightfully, as one of its enemies, arguing as we were that there were two standards: that to which we held the rest of the world and that we chose for ourselves.
Next, America's role as an economic model for the world, champion of free markets and opportunity for all came under fire. In the run up to the economic crisis of 2008-2009, growing inequality in the United States was leading many critics to question our "leave it to the markets" approach. But then came the crisis and once again, the United States demonstrated that the doctrine we had preached worldwide were not going to be applied at home and moreover, that our system was deeply and fundamentally flawed. Doubt about "American capitalism" were only amplified in the aftermath of the crisis, in which middle class victims of the crisis were hardly helped and many were hurt but in which Wall Street fat cats called the tune, reaped the rewards of government intervention and then flouted their power by shrugging off the government when it was no longer necessary to their business plans.
What was left for Americans to cling to? Our moral standing and our fundamental message to the world had been built on the ideas of respect for the rule of law and free markets. And now the world was left to wonder, if not America, then to whom do we turn? Should we embrace other models?
Admittedly, the Chinese model, which might have had a shot at greater influence given the damage done to the U.S. brand, wasn't doing itself any favors with its attempt to deny its people both basic rights of all international citizens of the 21st Century ... which would also have the effect of making Chinese workers less competitive in the global economy. Hillary Clinton's speech attacking this was forceful and utterly appropriate. The Chinese whining in response to it was a sign of weakness and with some luck, the Obama administration will ignore it, shrug off the Chinese threats of consequences in other areas of the bilateral relationship, and continue to press home this essential point.
But the argument on behalf of the American way was made immeasurably harder yesterday by the Supreme Court's devastating blow to several of the most fundamental precepts of American society -- equal rights, for example, or truly free speech (which is to say the right speak and be heard, without having to pay for it).
By a 5-4 vote the justices of the court, with the Republican right in the majority, struck down limits on corporate campaign spending. Further building on the dangerous fiction in American law that corporations ought to have rights akin to those of individuals, the decision effectively unleashes the floodgates of corporate and union money into the political arena.
This is certainly a more powerful threat to democracy than terrorism. It may well be a more powerful threat to democracy than was the fatally-flawed Soviet Union. Because to the extent to which politicians depend on donations to remain in power, they are inevitably influenced by those who have the most money. Not surprisingly, corporate entities, representing many people and often vast economic enterprises, have vastly more financial resources than individuals. Arguing, as American right wingers do, that campaign donations are form of free speech and thus cannot be constrained, ignores the reality that by equating money with free speech we effectively say that those with more money have more free speech, are entitled to greater influence within our society.
The implications are stark. Should this decision go unreversed by subsequent action of the Congress, a future court or a future constitutional amendment, it tips the balance of power in the United States even farther away from average people and in the direction of elites. Since campaign donations do not flow from companies primarily for ideological reasons but rather to advance narrow self-interests, the business of U.S. political class will necessarily be driven by the politics of the business class.
In a nutshell, yesterday's Supreme Court decision made it very likely that America will not be an effective leader in combating global warming or preserving global resources, it will not be able to effectively resolve the internal threats to its own society like a failing health care system, and it will pursue international policies that are driven less by the broad national interest and more by the agenda of companies that in fact, have increasingly little national identity.
In this respect, this compromise of the third and most important pillar of U.S. international leadership-democracy, may be the most damaging of all. We can repair, as the Obama administration has attempted to do, the abuses of the Bush years. But if the court's action does in effect institutionalize Calvin Coolidge's old idea that "the business of America is business" it will be impossible to either effectively redress the flaws in the American economic model or for us to continue to argue that the nation that was the most important pioneer of representative democracy will continue to be able to play that role.
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America has been suffering an outbreak of especially virulent and acute stupidity recently. It has been particularly manifest at town hall meetings devoted to "discussions" of health care reform in which incensed Republicans scream at the top of their lungs about provisions that are not actually in any of the legislation under consideration -- for example the so-called "death panels" that would have bureaucrats deciding when to pull the plug on "grandma" (as President Obama characterized it yesterday).
Scientists are, of course, fascinated by this phenomenon which, given the behavior in question, has a better claim on the term swine flu than the current influenza flavor of choice does. Does it represent something new in the long history of stupidity? Or is it merely the latest manifestation of a time-honored component of the political process -- the cries for help of one of America's most important minority groups: idiots? (At least I hope it is a minority. There is some debate about that. It calls to mind Gore Vidal's famous line when asked about what he felt about studies that showed that only half of Americans read newspapers and only half vote and he said, something to the effect that at least he hoped it was the same half.)
Now, frankly, I don't know what the idiots have to complain about. This country has done more for them than perhaps any other single segment of our society. The constitution is packed with protections for the stupid. Grade inflation was designed especially to make them feel good about themselves. Self-help sections in bookstores and most daytime television talk shows are focused around the idea that morons are entitled to the same self-esteem that is enjoyed by people who actually think before they speak and act. In fact, catering to the nit-wit market has built the American entertainment industry into the world serving behemoth it is today (there are dummies everywhere, in fact globalization threatens a shift in the global balance of stupidity that may give an edge to more populous nations although China and India do have cultural inhibitions against some root causes of American assininity. They for example, as societies, seem to value education more and respect for those members of society that have somewhat more experience.)
Religious idiots are given the right to insert made up fairy tales for which is there is not nor could there be one single scintilla of evidence into "science" books as if they really happened. They demand and are actually accorded respect for ideas that are so preposterous that they wouldn't make it into the cosmology of Sponge Bob Square Pants. Conspiracy idiots have created an industry out of the idea that weather balloons are alien spacecraft and that those of us who are Jewish, who have been getting our asses kicked for all of human history, are actually in control of global affairs. Special-interest idiots are given the right to plead the case that if their children fail at math, can't spell or speak English badly enough then rather than being taught how to correct it, tests ought to be adjusted to ignore their shortcomings or, alternatively, their linguistic "innovations" ought to simply be treated as creativity or even as new forms of language. (You wonder why the math idiots have not managed to get algebra and calculus revised or just dropped from the curriculum for similar reasons. But then again... they are idiots.)
The financial industry caters to the idiot market and depends on the idiocy of congressional overseers to enable the embrace of techniques that anyone sound of reasoning would instantly reject. Congressional idiots are allowed to stand up and say that when legislation becomes too long it shouldn't even be read. We even several years ago elected and then re-elected an idiot president of the United States.
Last week, I spent a couple days -- after a beautiful trip of whitewater rafting in Colorado and hiking through the amazing Utah desert -- in the idiot capital of America: Las Vegas, Nevada. While many decry Las Vegas as a fleshpot, a blight on civilization or just the tackiest place on the planet Earth, first and foremost it is the Capistrano of idiots, the place to which nature draws them all (or at least the ones who could not get full-time work in Washington or Hollywood). You can tell because even at the airport, they have games of chance that guarantee that whoever plays them will lose their money... and long lines of people waiting to play. And the airport is just the tip of the iceberg of an entire industry built on the notion that people can't count or won't, that they believe in magical outcomes (see earlier offensive religious reference) or are just too damn dumb to breathe.
The city offers shows that cater to idiot tastes (how else can one explain the long and flourishing career of Carrot Top or the fact that every other person in town seems to have a tattoo that they are certain to regret in a matter of months if not minutes?). The city even seems to think that if it doesn't build windows into casinos that the idiots will lose track of the time and stay in them forever (much as horses will reputedly continue to eat until their stomachs explode or as right wing conservatives will continue incessantly to hammer the policies of the '80s regardless of how outdated or discredited they have become).
In fact, it is telling that Las Vegas is so dependent on stupidity that it is one of the few cities in America where alcohol (read: stupid juice) is sold on every street corner and practically handed out free on casino floors. There is really nothing that gives you a clearer picture of what the city and much of America is about than watching a cluster of bloated conventioneers, recent excess testing the very limits of their pants' sans-a-belt technology, weaving down the sidewalk along Las Vegas Boulevard while sucking on the twisting plastic straws in their two foot tall day-glo margherita containers.
This past weekend, despite the recession, Las Vegas was choked with people mouth-breathing their way from all-you-can-eat buffets to one opportunity after another to fritter away their kids college funds. Which just goes to show: There really is one recession proof market in the United States, a market that flourishes in good times and bad, and one that canny politicos everywhere are depending on as the last line of defense against common sense and the big fixes America urgently needs in health care, energy, climate and fiscal policy. Powerful people in America have come to depend on our idiots precisely because they know that when it comes to stupidity, they will never let us down.
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For those of you who have followed this blog from its tortured beginnings in a small reed basket floating down the Nile, you are aware that I have struggled mightily with the idea that an American minority group with strong ties to a foreign state has gained control of the mechanisms of power in Washington. On the one hand I find the idea almost irresistible given that it is supported by leading academics from important American universities. Academics, after all, are seldom wrong (because they are very smart people) and are always scrupulously objective. On the other, how can it be that the few can muscle around the many, particularly when the few have historically been systematically and often cruelly discriminated against throughout our history as a nation and even before that? After all, Madison notwithstanding, isn't this a country based on the idea that the majority can muscle around the minorities?
But as a part-time academic myself, I am also capable of being objective and, on occasion, when my children are not present, even right. The only difference is that for me, it happens for just a couple hours a week during years when I am teaching or at those other times I am visiting my office at the Carnegie Endowment (which is what, after all, a "visiting scholar" is supposed to do.) So it was today that I had a minor epiphany as I walked through the Carnegie Endowment parking lot. There, wending my way among the rows and rows of aging Priuses with their regulation assortment of Obama, ACK, and "Commit Random Acts of Kindness" stickers, I finally found myself forced to accept the hard truth that the vaunted, controversial, hard-to-acknowledge lobby was real...try as my skeptical Semitic brain did to deny the obvious truth.
Recognition finally came because today's newspapers were full of evidence I could no longer ignore. It was absolutely clear that a minority group for whom the words of foreign leaders had the weight of law on some of the most basic of life's issues had achieved stunning power in Washington. The disproportion between their numbers and their influence was mind-boggling. Further, it was also clear that most Americans, blinded by decades of propaganda and smooth talking champions in America's media and political classes, were oblivious to the often inflexible, sometimes confrontational attitudes of their overseas mentors. Those mentors, inhabiting a small state created to meet the needs of just one religious group, had been battling other such groups for thousands of years at a cost of countless lives, and yet these American hyphenates remained committed to their ancient traditions.
No, I had to accept the reality that The Lobby existed exactly as described in best-selling literature and on well-respected blogs. After all, these clearly well-organized, crafty Catholic-Americans were -- despite representing only a quarter of the American people -- on the verge of augmenting their already defining majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. It was striking in fact that every single member of the Court's conservative wing, including the Chief Justice, are Catholics as is the court's noted swing-vote, Anthony Kennedy. And now, this lobby's latest puppet, Barack Obama, has played right into their hands with his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, a woman whose confirmation would give the Catholics two-thirds of the votes on the nation's highest court.
Admittedly, Sotomayor would bring to the court more federal court experience than any justice in three-quarters of a century, a distinguished record as justice, and a story that was movingly and inspiringly American (despite her parents birth in a long-disputed territorial remnant of a fallen empire.) Admittedly, as the first Hispanic nominee and a legal centrist nominated for her first federal job by President George H.W. Bush, she was also a brilliant choice for a political perspective. In fact, even walking through that garage full of low-emissions, high mileage vehicles with "Pray for Whirled Peas" bumper stickers, it was clear to me that she was a truly first class selection. And so it was, ironically, that in the very first moments I had come to accept the existence of The Lobby I found myself no longer concerned about it because it was hard to dispute the qualifications of its latest representative to the court...or, for that matter, despite my ideological differences with some of her Catholic brethren, with any of their qualifications either. (Well, most of them, anyway.) Either it was that or the fact that moments later I had to leap aside to avoid the stealthy approach from behind me of yet another Prius which, when running quietly on electric power in places like parking lots, are the real silent killers of America's vital think tank population. (Now there is a group with hugely disproportionate and frightening influence on Washington...talk about your revenge of the nerds.)
(On a vaguely related note: I thought it was interesting that the same CQ journalist who broke the story of Jane Harman's interventions on behalf of AIPAC, today broke a story indicating the CIA regularly lied to Congress. Hmmmm. And who was served by both these stories? I wonder if anyone in Speaker Pelosi's office has any ideas.)
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David Broder today writes of Barack Obama's coming into his own as commander in chief. Obama has been helped immeasurably in this respect by his simultaneous emergence as the country's lawyer in chief. Never have those skills been so well displayed as during today's speech delivered at the National Archives in defense of his decision to close Guantanamo.
Obama's arguments today were methodical, rigorous, substantiated by facts and guided both by logic and principle. They stand in stark contrast to those of the one man who doesn't seem to realize the Bush administration is over, the modern equivalent of one of those Japanese soldiers wandering an atol in the Pacific long after the end of World War II, continuing to fight for ideas and goals that have long since been discredited and defeated. That would be, of course, Dick Cheney, who at best is merely shrill, bitter, and hysterical and at worst is the unrepentant architect of policies and programs that willfully violated and offended the spirit of the constitution of the United States. (More on this last point shortly.)
Obama may be the best lawyer to occupy the U.S. presidency since William Howard Taft went from the White House to being Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In fact, he is likely better than the affable and ginormous Taft and, who knows, may someday follow in the (deep) footsteps of the man who was also famous for having gotten stuck in the nation's First Bathtub. Standing in front of the documents that serve as the legal and moral foundations of American society, Obama offered a plain-spoken but powerful argument: Rather than "strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear too many of us -- Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens -- fell silent. In other words, we went off course."
He effectively made his case that due process and a respect for our system of law would do more to protect us than would the Bush approach which might be characterized, to paraphrase Clare Boothe Luce, as cutting the constitution to suit the fashions of the times. Laying out category after category of detainee and explaining how they should be treated consistent with both our national interests and the prevailing views of the U.S. judiciary, he described an approach so logical and consistent with American concepts of fairness, that it not only makes the fringe-dwelling Cheney sound out of touch, it makes the entire U.S. Senate (or the 90 who voted yesterday against appropriating funds to shut down Guantanamo) seem to be petty, political panderers. How ludicrous they seem fearing to locate terrorists from Guantanamo alongside the hundreds of terrorists already in America's network of impregnable Supermax and similar facilities. How responsible and constructive comments from Dianne Feinstein and Lindsay Graham have therefore been in noting the absurdity of the self-interested NIMBYism of their colleagues.
Cheney, who offered a set of counter-point remarks, was legally, morally, and intellectually out-gunned by the president. Nowhere was this clearer than in the description of his speech by an aide in which he described it as arguing ""our values are not abrogated by prioritizing security for innocents over rights for terrorists." It is a powerful statement that captures everything that is wrong with their view. It is precisely the idea that we can suspend the rights of suspected wrong-doers in order to "protect" the rest of society that undercuts our entire system of law. That system specifically enshrines rights for the worst of criminals to ensure that it is not fear nor political sentiment nor the view of any individual or even the majority that drives the legal process but that instead all of us are equal under the law.
Or as Cheney said during his speech, "There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance." Exactly. It is precisely at such moments that our convictions and values are tested and we reveal the character of our leadership and our country.
Which gets us to the one thing that Obama asserted today that I questioned while hearing his remarks...in part because the rest of his statement was so compelling. He remarked that he did not want to dwell on rearguing the debates of the Bush years but would rather move forward to focus on the challenges of today. Fair enough. But, I wonder if he does not misread the historical significance of the missteps of the Bush era, particularly those associated with Guantanamo, torture, and Abu Ghraib. More than the bungling in Iraq, more even than the lies associated with getting into that war, it was these moral failures that damaged the United States and the Bush administration, did more damage by far than any the terrorists could inflict. In fact, what we did played directly into the plans of the terrorists themselves, casting us in a light that served their objectives.
Which is why I am starting to think that this is not like Watergate, a domestic political wound Gerald Ford was right to cauterize with his pardon. Domestic and international laws were broken by the last administration beginning with president and vice president's deliberate decision not to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States. I am not for prosecuting lawyers who interpreted the law to meet the requirements of their bosses. But I do think that leaders in any nation need to be held accountable for any crimes they may have committed or ordered. If the United States does not choose to identify and prosecute even those in high positions who violate the law we set a dangerous precedent...regardless of whether or not the incidents in question are so distasteful we want to move past them.
Further, if we don't, I feel it's a pretty fair bet that sometime soon a prosecutor beyond our borders will seek to prosecute Bush or Cheney for what they did. (Compare their actions to others whose prosecutions we have supported...in terms of values, casualties, costs, laws broken.) It may not be an outcome Obama seeks...but it may be the one called for by the values and laws he so eloquently defended today.
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The buzz on Capitol Hill and among administration insiders is that the House may ultimately pass some form of cap and trade legislation. It won't be as effective as most leading climate change advocates had hoped; it's likely to be full of the free allocations and offsets that are the price of gaining political support. The swing votes here are the likes of Virginia's Rick Boucher, a long-term Democratic representative of that state's coal country. The problem is going to be in the Senate, where Republicans are railing on against what they are characterizing as a weak-economy crushing "electricity tax" and some centrist Dems are worried about their own states' dependency on coal.
As a consequence, although the administration has sent a clear message that progress on setting a price on carbon is a central concern for them and that they want a bill this year, there is some concern it might be punted off until next year...or, given that next year is an election year which means that anything that even looks like a tax will be semi-radioactive, until 2011. While opponents of the legislation may breathe a sigh of relief they should be careful what they wish for. Because leaving this issue hanging is very likely to prove to be more of a drag on the economy than actually putting a cap and trade system in place.
The arguments of the anti-cap and trade, anti-carbon tax crowd actually fail on several levels.
First, it is easy to reduce your exposure to such a proposed tax: use less carbon. That's the point of the tax, actually, to change behavior. The average family can save nearly $1000 a year simply by embracing some basic conservation and efficiency measures like improving insulation, weather-stripping windows and doors, using more efficient light bulbs and lowering water temperature a few degrees. Credible estimates (which is to say those from the EPA, MIT, and Peter Orszag and not wildly inflated ones from John Boehner) of the cost of implementing cap and trade range from $50 a family to $1300 a family.
Which leads to the second point, which is that only by creating such a tax can we ensure organic growth in the new green energy industry that will help stimulate job creation and growth at a time when traditional sectors are failing to do so.
Third, of course, the government can send the revenues from the tax right back into the economy, thus setting up a stimulus to directly offset any possible negative impacts of the tax.
But perhaps most importantly, given the fact that one way or another we like the rest of the world will have to find a way to limit carbon emissions, failing to come up with a legislative approach to managing the problem may actually have worse economic consequences than introducing this modest tax. Because the market knows change is coming but until it gets a signal as to what its nature will be, it is going to sit on its hands and not invest in new projects. We've already seen this happen. Would you invest your money in a coal fired plant right now? Would you lend money to one? Not knowing what the costs will be when we charge a price for carbon? Not knowing what the liabilities would be? Well, neither would most people. Which is why between 2008 and 2009 the U.S. Energy Information Administration drastically reduced its forecast for investments in new coal-fired generation capacity through 2030, from 104 GW to 46 GW. That is equivalent to a reduction in the estimate of approximately 100 new coal plants representing investment in perhaps the $600 billion-$1 trillion range.
At the end of its press release, the EIA noted that this change "reflects the behavior of investors and regulators who, in their investment evaluation process, are implicitly (or explicitly) adding a cost to many proposed power plants that employ GHG-intensive technologies. Additions of new coal-fired power plants are significantly reduced from earlier projections."
Much of what might have gone to coal plants may go to other technologies, of course. Estimates, for example, for natural gas powered plants are up. Which is a good thing that indicates that the threat of a tax has some beneficial aspects, as well. But even so, uncertainty is taking its toll on all power plant investment. A Reuters article last month framed the problem by noting:
Lack of clarity on future power prices makes it difficult for lenders to evaluate a new power plant's prospects.
The potential for renewable power mandates, carbon limits and the return of electric demand growth as the economy recovers 'create a huge capital formation need,' said Terence Darby, managing partner of Energy Investors Funds Group, a private equity company.
As regional power surpluses decline, 'it creates a huge need for capital with no clear way to get it,' Darby said."
Not passing a cap and trade provision in the energy bill this year won't solve this problem. It will be expected in the future or regulatory steps will be expected to have a similar impact on fuel and technology choices. So the result will be an uncertainty tax that may be more damaging than any carbon tax currently envisioned. New investment will not flow. New projects won't get built. New jobs will not be created. It is these considerations that have led so many major utility executives to support cap and trade. Their industry literally cannot stand a period of prolonged doubt about the regulatory, investment and market environment they are going to face in the years ahead.
In short, when you add together the benefits coming from restoring investment flows and creating the conditions needed for the real job creation, innovation and growth a green revolution may support, passing cap and trade may very well be much more stimulative than fumbling the issue as the Congress currently looks like it might do.
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With the news of Justice David Souter's decision to step down from the Supreme Court, speculation has naturally turned to who will replace him. And given that it seems likely that Obama will also have the opportunity to replace Ruth Ginsburg on the court, questions of the proper composition of the nation's highest judicial authority have gained even greater urgency.
But before we address this, we need to stop, light a candle, say a prayer, reflect in a manner consistent with your own spiritual beliefs and thank an Even Higher Authority that Barack Obama won the election and that we are not going to have a selection process featuring Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the vaguely unhinged characters on the Republican right. These extremists, whose beliefs are built around a core paradox that they seek to limit the power of government in all areas except where it concerns a woman's reproductive system, the right of same sex couples to marry or the ability to end the lives of criminals, will no doubt attempt to add their voice to the coming selection discussion but fortunately they will do so as outsiders with less political power than they have had at any time in almost three decades. Thus a great moment of opportunity exists to right an age-old wrong.
Insta-analysis of what Obama will do has focused on the likelihood that he will name a woman or a Hispanic to the Souter post. The political arithmetic of this makes sense. It also makes sense in terms of social justice and the need to have a court that reflects the American people over whom they have so much say.
However well intentioned this argument is, it does not go far enough. If Obama is the change agent, constitutional scholar, and activist for social justice he aspires to be, then he should adopt the principle that not only should Souter be replaced by a woman, so too should be Ginsburg whenever she might leave...and so too should be the next two or three others to depart the court. It is just fundamentally wrong that the majority population of the United States should be so under-represented on the court.
In fact, I would argue that Obama and those around him have been far too conventional and willing to accept traditional prescriptions for female representation in high offices, approaches in which women are treated and represented as though they were a minority in American society. Look at the Obama cabinet -- four women in traditional cabinet slots plus two others, Susan Rice at the UN and Lisa Jackson at the EPA who have been elevated to cabinet status. That's six, more than the initial female appointments for past presidents, but it is six out of 20. It is simply not plausible that four other qualified women could be found and the President could not have adopted what should always be the standard, equal representation in the government by gender. (I remember when Chile's trail-blazing President Michelle Bachelet announced her commitment to what should be the norm -- a half-male, half-female candidate, even liberal men I knew in that country grumbled that there could not be found 10 qualified women for the jobs in question. Ten out of 16 million Chileans? Seriously? She accomplished the goal with ease and in so doing, sent an important example for the region.)
Not that women fair well in the global power structure generally. When I completed my book Superclass, having looked at the 6,000 or so most powerful people in the world, the single fact that leapt out most disturbingly to me was that women made up less than six percent of this group of top political, business, military, religious, and academic leaders. What was even more surprising to me was how little outrage about this fact among even the few women on the group. The story is repeated in leadership segment after leadership segment. Try to think of a woman who leads a major international religious group. Fifteen women head Fortune 500 companies. There are fewer than 60 women generals or admirals in the U.S. military, only one with four star rank. There are 92 women in Congress, 17 percent of the total membership. This number is consistent with the level of representation for women in parliaments worldwide. That means that the world's minority population, men, get over four times the votes of the world's majority population, women. We've seen what men can do with that kind of power...which should only add to the urgency with which we seek to immediately and fully redress this grotesque imbalance. One of the few places where there is a hint of equity: women head half of the Ivy League's eight universities. Perhaps the earlier discussion on this site about the fading relevance of academics to influence important policy issues was too narrowly focused on foreign policy issues. Clearly, these universities offer an example to be emulated.
Earlier this week, I attended a banquet for the scholarship fund of Barnard College. I had the pleasure of being hosted by Barnard's president Debora Spar. Debora is a remarkable woman, a wonderful writer of really great books (for example: Ruling the Waves and The Baby Business), a spectacular teacher, and a thoughtful commentator on issues like those being discussed here (see her great Washington Post op-ed, "One Gender's Crash" on whether it might have made a difference during the recent unpleasantness had Wall Street had more institutions led by women). But in this room, she was simply a great example and energized, articulate leader of the rest of the group, accomplished, extraordinary women who had pioneered in leadership roles on Wall Street, in the media, in law, in science and in countless other pursuits. I was overwhelmed by the diversity and scope of their accomplishments but also by the fact that we live in a society in which it is not just desirable but still essential that we have women's colleges in order to help train female leaders to cope with a world that still does not fully embrace the ideas of justice and equity that (often male) writers have touted as our ideals, inscribed on our buildings but very often failed to translate into action. I am very proud one of my two brilliant daughters will be going to Barnard this fall (just as I am surpassingly proud of her Middlebury sister), but I am also hopeful that we are moving toward one of those points of inflection at which a wrong that extends back to the very first moments of history is undone. Not just because I am a father of daughters or husband of a smart accomplished wife or son of one of that first generation of women who really went out into the workplace and tried to forge big changes...but because I am all of these things...and also because I have been paying enough attention to know what alternative approaches have produced.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.