Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The budget and the environment

Writing in 1894 of the glaciers that carved out the valleys, river-beds and lakes of California, John Muir declared that, when “Contemplating the works of these flowers of the sky, one may easily fancy them endowed with life: messengers sent down to work in the mountain mines on errands of divine love”.  In 1910, Gifford Pinchot identified the growing prosperity of the United States as tied to its natural resources: “We are prosperous because our forefathers bequeathed to us a land of marvelous resources still unexhausted.  Shall we conserve those resources, and in turn transmit them, still unexhausted, to our descendants?  [...] The conservation of natural resources is the basis, and the only permanent basis, of national success”.

Pinchot and Muir would have found themselves on opposite sides of many debates about the ‘natural world’ in the first half of the twentieth century.  Muir was a preservationist who viewed forests, mountains, meadows and streams as mystical spaces, curatives for souls troubled by the modern world, and he inveighed ferociously against the damming of Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite.  He fell out with Pinchot over Hetch Hetchy, for the latter was a proponent of conservation, and argued for the sustainable use of land in the service of the nation.

Around the middle of the twentieth century, in the person of Aldo Leopold, something of a synthesis of their views emerged.  In writings published after his untimely death, Leopold identified one of the central problems of the age as understanding “how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of whom have forgotten there is any such thing as land”.  Leopold kept, as did Pinchot, man at the centre of what was increasingly known as the environment.  But the centrepiece of man’s relationship to the environment had to be an ecological ethic. 

“An ethic”, Leopold wrote, “ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence.  An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social behaviour [...] Politics and economics are advanced symbioses in which the original free-for-all competition has been replaced, in part, by co-operative mechanisms with an ethical content” (A Sand County Almanac 238). 

If in their own lifetimes, Pinchot and Muir went their separate ways, and did not see their ideas fused into the environmentalism that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century in the United States, they did agree, in their own lifetime, on the value of public land and on the role of government in keeping that land protected and public. 


It is a departure from any recognition of the value of public, protected land (categorised as ‘wilderness’) which characterises what is probably one of the biggest assaults on our environment since Taft fired Pinchot as Chief Forester and allowed his Secretary of the Interior, Richard Ballinger, to turn huge swathes of Alaska over to mineral, timber and development industries that, needless to say, engaged in practises that were something less than sustainable. 

The assault in our town times is spearheaded by a Republican Congress which is as dutifully devoted to private interest as were the “robber barons” of late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century America, or as Dick Cheney and other officials of the Bush administration who sought to turn the White House into the personal fiefdom of an irresponsible energy industry.

One example of this assault is H.R. 1581, the stated purpose of which is “to release wilderness study areas administered by the Bureau of Land Management that are not suitable for wilderness designation from continued management as de facto wilderness areas and to release inventoried roadless areas within the National Forest System that are not recommended for wilderness designation from the land use restrictions of the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Final Rule and the 2005 State Petitions for Inventoried Roadless Area Management Final Rule”. 

H.R. 1581 writes enormous areas of the map out of public control.  And while Republicans are using calls for “proactively managing forests” and requesting that “local stakeholders [participate] in the planning process”, the bill is little more than a bid by the private sector for control of public lands.  It is, as where labour, energy and financial legislation is concerned, an only-thinly disguised bid.  Disguised because it is ostensibly made by the Congressional lackeys of forest and mining industries.  Thinly because the federal government provides for local (and national) input at the point of designation, and because the US Forest Service is perfectly capable of proactive management (and is, moreover, backed up by actual researched-based rather than corporate science of the sort that Dick Cheney practised on the backs of envelopes before re-writing energy legislation).

Now the House is bringing forward the Department of the Interior, Environment, and related Agencies Appropriation Bill, 2012.  The Bill begins with a nearly $4 billion cut to the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and related agencies, and goes downhill from there.  Congressional hubris is readily apparent in the attempts of the Republican caucus to micro-manage the EPA and rein in its regulatory authority. 

It is the conditions, environmental, health and workplace-related, created by a powerful agricultural industry in California’s valleys, for example, which are responsible for that region having by a long ways the poorest quality-of-life indicators in the state.  The EPA is responsible for the kind of regulation that would create a more just set of priorities in the context of agriculture, and it is for this regulatory authority that Republicans are gunning. 

They propose to “prevent the implementation of the Wild Lands initiative” (6).  They condemn the EPA for its “unrestrained effort to regulate greenhouse gases, and [its] pursuit of an overly aggressive regulatory agenda” for “the tremendous burdens it places on small businesses and large industries” citing “the impacts felt in small towns and rural communities across America, to lost jobs and lost economic production” (6).  It is as though history is being re-written.  The economic downturn which has curiously only affected the middle- and working-classes, is suddenly the fault of environmentalists and regulatory agencies instead of real-estate speculators, financial moguls and the corrupt henchmen in Congress (Republicans, as well as those Democrats who co-habit with the corporate welfarist ilk on the far-right of our political spectrum). 

Also coming in for cuts are the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (7).  “The Committee”, so deeply concerned about the excessive care for the health and welfare of citizens as well as of their lands, is practising Dick Cheney science, in which sums done on the back of American Loggers Council, California Cattlemen’s Association and Independent Oil Producers’ Agency (which lobbied for Proposition 23—the soundly-rejected attempt to re-write California’s environmental policies) letterhead substitutes for serious study.  The Endangered Species Act is also coming under attack.  Because (the logic, you are forewarned, is less than impeccable) the Act has saved an insufficient number of species, it is suggested that it be stripped of its teeth, thereby (somehow) improving the prospects of the endangered species of our nation.   

The same people who advocate for welfare handouts to financial and energy interests turn states-rights on us when it comes to the protection of species and natural spaces.  The same people who carp about excessive spending by the EPA in the service of the health and welfare of their constituents turn mute when it comes to the military industrial complex or the national security state or the tax code which is bankrupting our nation for the benefit of the corporate pinheads who plunged our economy into recession.

Ecological services are being slashed by a quarter, land acquisition services by 75% (and set at 90% below what was requested), EPA funding is being cut at a moment when we should be focussing intently on a sustainable energy policy (for which a strong regulatory environment is transparently the only likely solution), and the USFS is losing money.

Then comes the “Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2011” which mind-bogglingly, works “to prohibit the Administrator of the EPA or a state from requiring a permit under the CWA for a discharge from a point source into navigable waters of a pesticide authorised for sale, distribution or use under FIFRA [the charmingly titled Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act], or the residue of such a pesticide, resulting from the application of such pesticide”. 

And in the small print, legislation “prohibiting funding for certain Endangered Species Act programs” (118), permitting expenditure on behalf of “mining and materials processing industries” as a blatant prelude to their incursion onto public land, “permitting funds for mineral leasing and environmental study” on federal lands (121), actively questioning expenditure on the study of climate change, “providing a one year stay for actions related to greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources”, “prohibiting the use of funds to develop, carry out, implement, or enforce proposed regulations published on June 18, 2010” (133), “prohibiting the use of funds to develop, propose, finalise, implement, administer or enforce any regulation that identifies fossil fuel combustion waste as hazardous waste”, “prohibiting the use of funds to develop, adopt, implement, administer, or enforce a change or supplement to a rule or guidance documents pertaining to the definition of waters under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act”, “prohibiting the use of funds to further develop, finalise, implement or enforce the proposed regulatory requirements published on April 20, 2011, or to develop or enforce any other new regulations or requirements designed to implement section 316(b) of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act”, “clarifying current permitting activities for the outer continental shelf and setting parameters for the approval of exploration permits by the EPA”, and on and on. 
This amounts to an incredible assault on the agencies that manage public lands, the opening of those public lands to the very interests and industries that have time and again proven their irresponsibility and lack of long-term thinking, a rollback of the regulatory agencies which have as their remit the protection of our air, water, fields, workplaces and parks, and an attempt to re-write the study of climate change and conservation efforts.


“The oldest task in human history”, Aldo Leopold wrote, is “to live on a piece of land without spoiling it”.  In the twentieth century there arose a movement—diverse it its composition, occasionally fractured in its aims, but far forward in its thinking and righteous in its promotion of justice—which sought to take that task seriously.  It made a commendable start in the promotion of ideas, the creation of institutions and the implementation of solutions that would lessen our harmful impacts on the land with which we live.  It recognised both the intrinsic cultural value that forests, fields, peaks and rivers have for many of us, as well as the importance of only using these resources inasmuch as we can do so sustainably, given that our survival depends on theirs. 

Environmentalism has not been perfect in its agenda, in its choice of tone or in its campaigns.  But as a broad movement which has the welfare of people and the health of the land at its heart, it is our best hope and one that should not, with the good that it has done and must continue to do, be shunted lightly aside.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Abdicating responsibility, devolving taxes

On the day that President Obama declared his willingness to cut spending “by historic amounts” to placate a Republican congressional caucus that is laying into social services, public goods and our already terribly-incomplete national safety net with a bloodthirstiness seldom seen outside of a Shakespearian tragedy, California’s state Democratic leadership is putting off a plan to “grant cities, counties and more than 1,000 school districts broad new taxing authority”.

Obama suggested that the “best way to take on our deficit is with a balanced approach” in which all parties “pay their fair share”.  This last is clearly aimed at the affluent and at large-scale corporations.  But Obama should not even consider cutting from those services, institutions and programs which benefit society at large and those in the most economically-fraught situations before asking the wealthy to pay their fair share.  Everyone should make a fair contribution, and those who have done especially well based on the structure of our society, and who are more secure, should obviously pay first and pay more.

While Obama ought to be pilloried for his historic lack of responsibility and leadership, as well as his callous abdication of the moral high ground, the question of taxation in California (beset by budget difficulties, an un-democratic legislative system paired with a democratic referendum system) is much more complicated. 

The LA Times reported that Steinberg “said he was tabling his measure as Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown work to stitch together a political alliance—that would hopefully include some of the business groups angered by his bill—to push for a statewide tax initiative next year”.  It’s easy to see why businesses might oppose Steinberg’s bill.  After all, it might not only require them to pay responsible levels of taxes; it would also increase their costs, forcing them to buy off politicians and political parties at an entirely different level of local government.  I would not favour Steinberg’s solution, and so I’m happy to see it tabled, even if for the wrong reasons (one hopes that this failure to be up front about asking wealthy interests to do their bit doesn’t become a habit of state Democrats).

Although the localisation of taxing authority makes a certain amount of short-term sense, is directed squarely at the revenue problem the state faces, and looks more democratic than the existing tax framework, it has serious drawbacks that deserve the sustained and thoughtful criticism it is unlikely to get in any debate that will involve lobbying by the state’s Chamber of Commerce and associated taxpayer groups (code for tax evasion groups).  And Democrats and labour allies should resist the temptation to uncritically push forward a proposal that takes this satisfying easily but ultimately dangerous approach to revenue.

Most self-evidently, not every community has the same tax base, the same business interests, industries, and other potential sources of revenue.  What this means is that the principles of universality and equality (such as they exist in our current tax structure) would be thrown out the window and lead to a mad scramble where school districts, business locations and industry bases are concerned.  This would likely lead to a widening of the gap between (to take the education example) high-performing and struggling schools, which in turn exacerbates already serious and un-addressed socioeconomic inequality.   

The inequalities that would grow in education and in other spheres could lead to an unpredictable redistribution of population, businesses and industries in the longer term.  It is hard to say whether local government would be as susceptible to the monied interests that plague our state politics, but it seems improbable that the wealthy (who are, for example, able to send their children to well-funded private schools, thereby shielding them from the consequences of the de-funded education system their social irresponsibility and political intransigence are promoting) would not continue to be able to exercise an inappropriate influence over the distribution of political, social and economic resources.

Voters look amenable to a devolution of tax responsibilities where consumables like cigarettes and alcohol are concerned, though less sure about income, oil and vehicles.  In other words, people remain in many cases opposed to those taxes which are fairest, most evenly-distributed, and ask for contributions according to people’s means to make those contributions. 

While the leaning of some business interests towards a more rationale budget solution in California than that promoted by the increasingly deranged state Republican Party is a positive development, Democratic lawmakers should not then go out of their way to grant undeserved concessions to said interests.  But neither should those lawmakers embrace a policy that might, in the longer term, aggravate the very ills the policy in question is attempting to address.

There is a strong argument to be made for universality.  There is little point, after all, in thinking of ourselves as a community at the state or national level if we don’t accept that all people deserve access to the same quality of services in spheres as critical as education, healthcare and social welfare.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


Like most people who have friends in Oslo, I was stupefied Friday morning to read that a bomb had gone off in the centre of the city. And my shock grew upon hearing that a gunman had massacred AUF members on Utøya. The shock was all the more acute knowing that several friends are members. Not the world’s most inveterate facebook user, on Friday I logged in and stayed logged in as the “I’m okay, but this is crazy” messages rolled in. The relief that those messages brought was tempered by news of the rising death toll (over 80 by Friday evening, now set at over 90).

I must now have read nearly a dozen news stories and editorials that discuss the “loss of innocence” that must surely accompany this shocking brutality. But innocence isn’t quite what these commentators mean—Norwegians, after all, created their justifiably-admired social democracy having taken a long, hard look at the “world as it is” and deciding that they wanted something else, something better. The making of that better place should never be considered an act of naiveté. What I think people are trying to suggest though, is that the violence that blindsided Norwegians will inevitably alter their ability to live out the values that today characterise their society; that the social and cultural terrain on which Norwegians relate to each other, their government and the world has irrevocably shifted.

I think that those commentators will be wrong. Because what they forget is that the decision to live one’s values lies with the will of the individuals and communities who comprise a people or a nation—not in what anyone else does to those people. People can choose how to respond to acts of violence directed their way. Reactions are not pre-ordained—there is real agency in the hands of Norwegians today.

Jens Stoltenberg’s anguished yet measured response looked to me like a good start. The resolution behind the pain was directed not with anger towards a perpetrator, but with purpose towards defining those things that must, at all costs, not change. The trust, the openness, the faith in the national community, the commitment to an idealistic internationalism—none of them perfect but all of them good enough to be a lesson to the rest of us.

There has been, so far as I can see, no chest-beating. No calls for violence or revenge. No “we’re the greatest country on earth”. Not even “we’re special”. What one senses more of is a kind of “We’re Norwegians” (in that nice accent) “and we like to look at the world in a particular way and live our lives accordingly. No one—not this lunatic or any other—is going to change that”.

The immediate comparison was made to 9/11—that this will be the defining moment for Norway that the attacks on the U.S. were for our country, our political culture, and our democracy. I hope that this will not be so, and I suspect that it will not be the case. For although twice the number of people were killed in Norway relative to the country’s small population on 22 July as compared to 9/11—meaning, one assumes, that twice as many people will have been personally touched by the tragedy—Norwegians look well-positioned to follow their better angels. The United States, after 9/11, learnt no lessons, grew more hubristic and less understanding, substituted a shallow patriotic unity for a genuine enunciation of collectively-held values.

I hope that if I were to again find myself in Norway a year from today, the passport control officers would still greet me with a friendly “Welcome to Norway!” (in that nice accent), and wave me on my way. I hope that the airports would still look like they were bought from IKEA instead of out of a Blackwater catalogue. I hope that I could wander freely as a California Yankee into the chambers of King Harald’s Supreme Court. I hope that I would still notice and wonder at the sunniness of civil society which, if people can keep the faith, should last as long as the light on a mid-summer’s day in the far north. It could, in fact, be a beacon and a lesson and a symbol of what is possible to others.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A primary challenge to Obama would be good for democracy and the country

We got a taste of President Obama’s re-election strategy when last quarter’s fundraising numbers came out: Money, Money, Money.  It’s sad that the candidate who promised to be different and who promised change is set to run not on the strength of his ideas or convictions, but on his ability to raise masses of cash, not all of it from “ordinary, hardworking Americans”.  The huge influx of cash into our politics, some of it sparked by the Supreme Court’s absurd Citizens United decision, others by our political structure, is a detriment to our democracy and only the latest failing of an administration of which we had great hopes.

Many of us who voted for the man who ran as a progressive against Hillary Clinton’s more statist campaign expected Obama to reign in corporate excess and regulate on behalf of working- and middle-class consumers who were struggling in a system rigged by the Republican Party and its allies to favour the insurance, energy and financial industries.  We expected the man who rose to political prominence on the back of his condemnation of one ruinous war to oppose our continued and escalated involvement in another. 

Obama’s abandonment of progressivism is set to go unchallenged as the Democratic Party seeks to rally ‘round its candidate and his funds.  In so doing, they are wildly deviating from the set of values that ought to characterise any progressive party: a commitment to standing up for the rights of workers; a dedication to some kind of basic equality in rights and opportunities; a defence of an ethically-grounded foreign policy; a recognition that a well-funded and –conceived education system is the basis for economic prosperity, social innovation and a vigorous democracy; an argument in favour of the idea of a socially, economically, politically and environmentally-defined public good ; and an acknowledgement of the fact that the well-off amongst us should not rake in record profits while other members of our community are struggling to survive. 

Too few of these values are being articulated, let alone defended, and Obama bears much of the responsibility for this glaring omission.  He placed his faith in a consensus-oriented mode of politics which, while commendable, badly underestimated the entrenchment of corporate greed, the almost violent individualism which that greed promoted, and the vigour with which interests, vested or otherwise, were prepared to resist incursions on their profits and spheres of influence.

We are paying the price today in California for an undemocratic primary in which progressive gubernatorial candidates were deterred by the fundraising prowess of an otherwise lacklustre candidate, the party hierarchy, and the cost of mounting a challenge based on principle and policy rather than cash.  Jerry Brown never had to defend his record, explain his policies or take positions on the critical issues of the day.  He drifted into office on a wave of confidence, fuzzy language and good feelings, and promptly shafted the progressive supporters whose energy and enthusiasm brought him to that office.  Having staked out neither principles nor policies, he has been easily outmanoeuvred by the Republican Party (and this in a state that is more conventionally progressive than the nation as a whole).

Now there’s no guarantee that a serious primary would have a positive outcome.  California’s dynamic is altered by the referendum system (though it shares, with the antediluvian U.S. Senate the predilection for minority rule).  And Obama, after all, faced a formidable primary opponent in Hillary Clinton in 2008.  But she positioned herself to his political right and the debate became more about personality and experience than philosophy and policy. 

Pragmatics aside, a primary would empower voters—generally a good thing.  And a progressive alternative to Obama is desperately needed, given his poor track record of defending the economically-marginal in our society and his embrace of reprehensible wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  What we increasingly have is a president who doesn’t stand for anything in particular besides his own electoral interests.  His brand, and progressive politics in general, are severely compromised, and working class voters, those on the economic brink, our soldiers and the civilians of the nations in which they wage war are all paying a high price.

·         When he had a chance to close Guantanamo Bay, Obama backed down in the face of domestic opposition to civilian trials for prisoners, demonstrating a painful lack of moral fibre (‘we need to pick our battles’) and faith in our justice system.  The message: “I’m only committed some of the time and my momentum is easily-stalled”.

·         When he had the chance to overhaul our financial and economic system which had proven to be so susceptible to avarice and greed in the wake of the housing crisis and great recession, Obama instead appointed the very people whose leadership and penchant for deregulation caused the crisis to positions of prominence in his administration.  The message: “Change you can believe in...until you can’t”.

·         When he had the chance to advocate for a truly comprehensive, once-in-several-generations overhaul of our healthcare system, Obama made concession after concession to the insurance industry and its hired hands in Congress, resulting in a mangled system which ameliorated some inequities whilst leaving others untouched, and which doesn’t address the basic problem posed by private insurance.  The message: “Push me and I fold”.

·         At a moment ripe for serious education reform, Obama endorsed a series of plans that rely on the charter school concept, dedicated to reinventing the wheel, creating multiple tiers of schools and exacerbating the already yawning achievement and opportunity gaps while scapegoating teachers and ignoring the funding gap.  The message: “Inequality is okay and public servants are expendable”.

·         When given the opportunity to repeal the Bush Tax Cuts for the wealthy, Obama backed down from the Republican Party’s challenge and let the tax breaks stand, contributing to growing inequity, a lack of revenue for important programs, and a deepening deficit.  The message: “All taxpayers are equal, but some taxpayers are more equal than others”.

·         When voters of all political stripes expected Obama to break from neoliberal sycophancy towards the oil industry, his Department of the Interior refused to release details of Ken Salazar’s meetings with executives, pressured scientists to realign their findings around electoral arithmetic, abandoned even the most limited energy reform, and has opened the way to drilling in the Arctic.  The message: “Open season for Big Oil”.

·         When protestors in Egypt rallied to force their dictator Mubarak to step down, Obama vacillated, called on protestors rather than the Egyptian secret police to exercise caution, and allowed his Vice-President to defend Mubarak.  The message: “Democracy in the hands of the people is a dangerous thing”.

·         As he discussed re-branding our foreign policy, Obama allowed a $60 billion arms deal with the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia, propping up an amoral arms industry instead of re-orienting our manufacturing and foreign policy goals towards sustainable moral markets that will do good at home and abroad.  The message: “Bush Mark II”.

·         When Gulf States governments used American- and British-armed Saudi forces to brutalise protestors who challenged these U.S.-backed monarchies, Obama didn’t emit so much as a whimper of protest.  The message: “Democracy talks, but Arms Sales are louder”.

·         When Obama had the chance to appoint a champion for working- and middle-class consumers, in the person of Elizabeth Warren, to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he balked at the challenge from big business and the Republican Party.  The message: “Work hard, fight for what you believe in, practise progressive politics, don’t just talk the talk...and you’re out of a job.

·         As gay and lesbian couples fight for their rights around the country against seething bigots like Michele Bachmann, the first black president has declared his position to be “evolving”, and asserted that he is comfortable sitting on the fence and “believes that this is an issue best addressed by the states”.  The message: “I don’t know a thing about American history”.

·         When he became president and assessed the on-going war in Afghanistan, Obama made a political-electoral calculation rather than a moral, human one, and ramped up fighting in Afghanistan while expanding our war into Pakistan.  The message: “I was against dumb wars before I was for them”.

·         As the Republican Party and its corporate paymasters launch an all-out assault on organised labour in Wisconsin and elsewhere, determined to strip public sector workers of the benefits and protections already denied their private-sector counterparts, Obama continues to waffle, to leave workers under the bus, and to allow the Republican Party to set the agenda.  The message: “Corporate profits are more important than the well-being of the workforce, and citizenship is defined by wealth rather than by membership in a shared community”.

Obama clearly needs to be reminded of why people voted for him three years ago.  Such a reminder would drive home the fact that he shouldn’t take progressive votes for granted.