Archive for June, 2009

Randy’s Wrong-O

Mondays mean many things to me: back to work, plenty of Star Trek: The Next Generation to watch, and a fresh copy of “Randy’s Roundup” in my inbox. “Randy’s Roundup” is our Congressman’s weekly dispatch.

From Monday’s Roundup (I prefer “Wrong-O”), discussing the Cap and Trade energy bill that passed the House:

As I said on the House floor during the debate, this bill is not about science or sound policy, but it is really about driving up the cost of energy, sending millions of jobs overseas to countries like India and China, and placing an especially heavy burden on rural America.

What a load of crap.

I see 5 parts to this crapload:

1) no science
2) no sound policy
3) driving up the cost of energy
4) sending jobs overseas
5) an especially heavy burden on rural America

The whole point of Cap and Trade is to provide a market-based solution for getting our CO2 emissions under control, which any reputable climatologist will tell you is absolutely essential to minimize our damaging impact on our environment. There’s (1) the science and (2) sound policy.

(3) The cost of energy may rise briefly, but it will decrease over time as more renewable energy sources come online. If there is any iota of competition left in the energy industry, then companies that implement effective methods of clean energy production will win out over more polluting companies by offering a cheaper rate. It’s a fine, capitalistic solution that only entrenched big business interests would oppose. This bill is a good step toward tackling a global problem, and it won’t break the bank along the way.

(4) The great thing about green energy jobs is: they cannot be outsourced. I truly don’t understand Randy’s line about Cap and Trade “sending millions of jobs overseas to countries like India and China.” We will be creating new jobs here in the USA, many right here in sun-and-wind-rich West Texas. After all, it’s easier to put wind and solar farms out in the middle of nowhere than it is to put them in urban centers. This is (5) a clear win for rural America, which will have new and long-lasting industries based around wind and solar energy (as opposed to boom-and-bust oil economies). Our oil imports over time will decrease. Overall, our country will be more self-sufficient.

To conclude, I want to share a political cartoon (by a Lubbockite!) that captures the essence of No-gebauer and the rest of the Grand Obstructionist Party:


The cartoon illustrates that there is, in fact, one bad energy policy on the Democratic side: neglecting to harness all the hot air and friction emanating from today’s GOP.

The Jena 6 Are Free

The Jena 6 are finally free after a misdemeanor plea deal on Friday. This result is a testament to the power of internet-era activism.

From an email from organizer James Rucker:

Luckily for the Jena 6, hundreds of thousands of you got involved, and
the power of your participation changed the game. An amazing team of
lawyers worked tirelessly to achieve Friday’s outcome. Our staff
helped recruit them, and your financial contributions–over
$275,000–provided the bulk of the funds for their work. Jim Boren,
the coordinating attorney, said this about ColorOfChange members’
contribution: “None of this would have happened without you.”

But it wasn’t just lawyers and money. Over 300,000 of you wrote to
Governor Blanco and District Attorney Reed Walters. On September 20th,
2007, more than 10,000 of you went to Jena. Members who couldn’t make
it to Jena held more than 150 rallies and vigils across the country,
and made more than 6,000 phone calls to elected officials in
Louisiana. And a few weeks later, ColorOfChange members sent almost
4,000 complaints demanding an inquiry into the DA’s actions.

Your actions offline and online helped put Jena on the map and
resulted in critical coverage in every mainstream news outlet. You
started a movement that made it impossible for Louisiana officials to
support the status quo.

For me, this is a validation that a little bit of activism from a lot of people goes a long way. (Similarly, a lot of people each giving a little bit of money can break fundraising records!) The freedom of the Jena 6 gives me hope that we will win the fight for a public health care option, clean/green energy, quality public education, protection of civil liberties, and so forth.

When you encounter and online petition for a cause you care about and feel the urge to sign it, do it. When you have time to show up at a political or service event, do it. (The recent health care day of service comes to mind as a good example.) When a candidate you care about says that a $5 donation matters to their campaign, it does.

Sometimes even just a little bit of activism can have very real, very easy-to-see consequences.

Finally, James Rucker’s email said something else that I think is important and will be expanding on in future posts:

While this is a great moment, it’s important to remember that if it
were not for the extreme nature of this case, most of us wouldn’t have
known about it or gotten involved. The reality is that there are
countless Jena 6’s: young people–often Black and male–who are
overcharged or unduly criminalized, and whose plight is unknown to
most of the outside world.

It’s the reason our work cannot just be about identifying and fighting
for individuals
railroaded by the system, but about creating systemic
in criminal justice in America.

(my emphasis)

One advantage that progressive activists have is our understanding that real change is systemic. We can celebrate individual victories along the way, but the work isn’t done until the big picture is developed.

Neugebauer is a Birther

Don’t know how I missed this one, but on the Monday edition of “Lubbock’s First News” on KFYO (hosted by Chad Hasty and Rex Andrew), apparently our Congressman Randy Neugebauer stepped into birther territory:

CHAD HASTY: So you believe the President is a US citizen?

NEUGEBAUER: You know I don’t know. I’ve never seen him produce documents that would say one way or another.

This gaffe made it to Keith Olbermann and ThinkProgress, thus incrementing by one the list of unfortunate things for which Lubbock is known.

Let me join the voices already out there in saying that there are many important things for the Congress to work on right now — sponsoring a birther bill is not one of them. This bill and No-gebauer’s unfortunate remark are distractions from a GOP that is out of ideas.

Torturing Democracy

Because post-9/11 American interrogation policy is still a hot issue, and because the full story is hard to come by with clarity, Lubbock DFA presents:

Who: Lubbock Democracy for America
What: Free screening of “Torturing Democracy”
When: 7pm Thursday, June 25
Where: Lubbock County Democratic Party HQ 2809A 74th St
Why: Because torture and democracy are incompatible among civilized people

Torturing Democracy is a powerful, clear, easy-to-follow documentary about how we got to where we are in the debate on torture.

If you can’t make it to the event, the film is available streaming online in its entirety. I hope you will take the time to watch it.

On an unrelated note, George Carlin died a year ago today. RIP.

Juneteenth Parade Canceled

I just got word that today’s Juneteenth Parade and festivities at Joyland have been canceled due to rain and flooding (at Joyland).

It’s too bad about the parade, but this week’s Juneteenth festivities have been top-notch, and the Lubbock Juneteenth Committee deserves kudos for all of their hard work.

The Revolution Will Be Twittered

twitter_iran_arsIf you want to keep up with the disputed Iran Election, online new media is where it’s at.

From Xeni Jardin at BoingBoing, I found a great set of resources for following the events up close: Cyrus’ list. Also, Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic has been providing up-to-the-second coverage. Lastly, Huffington Post has been able to keep up with events in Iran as well.

New media is currently providing serious coverage of a situation that traditional media cannot. This point is one that has already been echoing in the traditional media: new media — mostly Twitter — have been able to cover the unrest in Iran directly in a way that traditional media cannot. This is because Twitter, Facebook, and similar services are being used for the first time in a revolutionary / civic unrest manner on a massive scale while proper journalists have been shut out by the Iranian government. It’s so effective that our own State Department has asked Twitter to delay a planned upgrade (which would have shut down twitter briefly) until things settle down.

In contrast, GOP superstars like Newt Gingrich use Twitter to make snide remarks about the President or to falsely accuse Supreme Court nominees of racism. Sen Chuck Grassley recently twittered to, I guess, show the world that he has the communication skills of an eight-year-old.

Most people just use Twitter to microblog their daily lives and to keep up with friends and events in their area. The potential is there, though, for new media to be as essential in our own politics as it is currently for the Iranians. I think our own next few election cycles are going to be fascinating precisely for this reason.

Finally, have a cartoon:


(the bird + Iranian flag image above is from Ars Technica)

The Case for Regulation

It’s “thinking out loud” time here again at LL.

I want to step back a bit and consider the concept of regulation.

Our world is fast-paced and technologically advanced, and I believe we need regulation that keeps up with our capacity to destroy ourselves. Got nukes? Better restrict access to nuclear materials. Got supermarkets? Better make sure that mass-produced food is safe to eat. Got factories? Better make sure that their products are safe to use and that each factory doesn’t destroy the environment it’s in. Got automobiles? Better make sure that those who drive them are qualified to do so and that there is a system of rules to accommodate all drivers.

To me, this seems like basic stuff. Yet, everywhere I turn I hear pundits on the right calling for less regulation or no regulation at all. They see regulation in action and call it “nanny state government,” as though we the people are not allowed to protect ourselves from ourselves.

We also need sensible regulation due to human nature. I’m not implying that humans are evil by nature, but I am saying there are measurable group behaviors that indicate our willingness to deceive ourselves or harm others under the right circumstances. Take the world of market capitalism. Empirical tests, inasmuch as they are possible with human test subjects, have shown that people are more willing to cheat with money “just a little” the further removed they are from (1) dealing with cash as opposed to credit, or (2) reminders to be honest. (I am referring to fascinating research done by Dan Ariely and others that is covered in his book Predictably Irrational.) This phenomenon is why it’s easier to spend more on credit or debit than it is with cash, and why financial advisers with a stake in the companies they recommend can act like they don’t have a conflict of interest. It also helps to explain how, in eight short years of deregulated markets, we can go from a world of booming, healthy investment to one of shady, over-leveraged debt.

Well-thought-out regulation can help us — again, as a group more than individually — to keep from engaging in the weaknesses of our human nature. Of course it’s possible to go too far in the regulatory direction when we stop regulating to protect ourselves and start regulating to proscribe this or that worldview on others. Too often, those on the right are all too eager to regulate behavior according to some narrow worldview while staunchly, ridiculously opposing regulation that actually benefits society as a whole. Wingnuts will talk about denying gay rights all day long while ignoring a broken health care system, for example.

It’s “thinking out loud” time here again at LL. What are your thoughts about regulation?

No-gebauer: No Cap and No Cattle

Today our Republican Congressman Randy No-gebauer (Neugebauer) took a rare turn at the microphone to oppose the current proposed emissions trading (aka cap and trade) bill. I could have guessed his position without watching him speak, but at least he reminded us that he exists, even though it was to bleat “no” yet one more time.

Reducing mankind’s harmful effect on the environment is not going to be easy, but it must be done. The science is quite clear on this matter, and anyone can observe industry’s many negative consequences, whether it’s mountaintop removal coal mining, man-made earthquakes from overzealous oil drilling, or a sky full of black smoke that’s melting our glaciers and warming our planet.

I believe that cap and trade is a good way to proceed with limiting harmful emissions and nudging industry in the direction of renewable energy. (The smart ones like T. Boone Pickens are already headed that direction anyway.) However, we should proceed carefully.

Since 2005, the EU (particularly the UK) has led the way in emissions trading as a way to reduce carbon emissions. It hasn’t been a perfect start by any means, and US lawmakers should study the successes and failures of the EU approach before passing a carbon cap and trade bill for our nation.

In particular, I think the EU made three crucial mistakes that we would be wise to avoid:

1) Instead of auctioning off all of the credits at the outset, the EU hooked up well-connected companies with free carbon emission credits, which were promptly sold to competitors at a huge profit. We can’t afford to play favorites and jeopardize a new and necessary system like that.

2) There were no penalties/tariffs against energy imported into the EU from other countries with no emissions control laws, or on companies who use carbon-emitting raw materials generated in other countries. We won’t tolerate lead paint on toys made in China; we likewise should not tolerate rampant pollution from Chinese — or any other nation’s — industry.

3) The EU allowed too much of the cost (which will be high initially but decrease over time) of emissions trading to be passed on to the consumer. I believe an equitable solution to this problem can be found. Energy companies clearly should not be allowed to make record profits by gouging consumers in the name of increasing costs from cap and trade (this is what happened in the EU), but neither should we put energy companies out of business. Of course, the former scenario is much more likely than the latter, and we should guard against it.

Ultimately, the whole world will have to take emissions regulation seriously, whether through cap and trade or through some other system. The survival of humanity depends on it. In the meantime, first-world nations have a moral obligation to lead the way by cleaning up their own act. And we should go forward with confidence, remembering our successes with closing the hole in the ozone layer and with reducing the problem of acid rain (through a cap and trade system on sulfur dioxide emissions, in fact).

Once we have removed the carbon splinter from our own eye, we can help our neighbors do the same.

Name That Subsidiary

A friend of mine in DC sent word about a neat new website where you can learn about the subsidiaries of multinational corporations. The site features international search, detailed listing of each corporation and its subsidiaries, and an embedded google map to show where they are incorporated.

From their about page:

CrocTail provides an interface for browsing information about several hundred thousand U.S. publicly traded corporations and their foreign subsidiaries. Information from company filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has been parsed and annotated by CorpWatch to provide a way for users to research and add issues related to corporate subsidiaries. CrocTail also serves as a demonstration of the features and data available through the CorpWatch API.

The website also gives summaries of news stories about subsidiaries behaving badly when the information is available. For example, Coca Cola India Ltd appears to have dangerous levels of pesticides in their products, and they have been cited for dumping hazardous waste into the Ganges River.

This is a people-powered project, so jump on in there if you want to get involved. Work to be done includes uncovering hidden layers of ownership that escape SEC filings as well as associating news of corporations behaving badly with the right subsidiary / parent company.

Market or Society: What’s Really Important?

I’ve been reading Dan Ariely lately. He’s the poster child for Behavioral Economics, and his book Predictably Irrational is fascinating (Amazon link).

In late 2008, when Alan Greenspan made the shocking statement that the free market did not behave as expected, I nearly fainted. Since that time, I’ve been interested in what proponents of behavioral economics have to say. So far, I’m finding their methods and conclusions fascinating, and I’ll have more to blog about behavioral economics now and then over the next few weeks.

For now though, I want to examine one of Dr. Ariely’s ideas through a partisan lens.

Try this thought experiment: Say you’re at thanksgiving dinner at your grandparents’ house. The whole family is there: aunts, uncles, cousins and all. You eat a delicious dinner with turkey, stuffing, casseroles — the works. At the end of the dinner, you stand up, take out your wallet/purse, and say, “Grandma and Grandpa, that dinner was delicious. It must have cost a lot to prepare. How much do I owe you? Three hundred? Four hundred?” What would the family’s reaction be? Almost certainly, jaws would drop and eyes would bulge at the highly inappropriate faux pas you just committed.

What is so embarrassing about trying to pay for a family thanksgiving dinner? Essentially, the embarrassment comes from trying to operate under market norms where it is more appropriate to operate under social norms. The important thing was to come together for a meal as a family and share in that fellowship. Bringing up money at a time like that would be like farting in church.

I am convinced that this market norms / social norms switcheroo happens all too often in the political world, and politicians and pundits (usually Republicans, but sometimes Democrats too) have been getting away with such transgressions unchallenged for too long. Without a winning moral argument, they substitute a market argument, even if it’s inappropriate (not to mention false most of the time even in market terms, but that’s a different post).

Health care is a perfect example. The social norms surrounding health care are pretty self-evident, I think. Public health is a public good. It’s good to live in a nation where, you and your fellow citizens will be healthy and have access to the health care they need. Desiring good health for your neighbor is a moral good. These ideas represent the framework in which our health care discussion should be taking place — the framework of social norms.

However, we see market norms setting the terms of the discussion on both sides of the health care issue. Health care is too expensive. Health care is too inefficient. Health care providers should compete to innovate. Cost, efficiency, and competition are important aspects of health care, to be sure — but they are secondary issues compared to having a working health care system nation-wide.

As I mentioned in the comments of my previous post, I think environment/pollution issues suffer from the same market norms vs social norms problem. The financial details are not as important as the big picture — we have to minimize pollution and maximize environmental protection for the good of everyone living on the planet because it’s the right thing to do.

Education is another arena in which we often get bogged down in a market values discussion when social values are more important. It’s more important for us to value education across the board as a nation than it is to send more or less money to this or that school or district. The social norm of valuing education for all is primary, and the market norms of cost and competition among schools are secondary. Yet, thanks to No Child Left Behind and similar legislation, our national dialogue about education has been stuck in a framework of competing students and schools instead of focusing on the public good of an education for all.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t ever talk about market values; someone needed to buy the ingredients for that thanksgiving dinner, after all. However, having the thanksgiving dinner with the whole family present is the key thing. I’m not saying that money isn’t an issue — it’s just not THE issue.

The thing about market norms vs social norms is that once you get started with a discussion under one framework, it’s very difficult to switch out of it and into the other one. In other words, we will lose sight of our big-picture social goals if we let the discussion bog down in this or that economic aspect. We have national priorities that need to be taken care of, and I believe that looking at them primarily through a market worldview tends to put us in the wrong mindset to get them done.

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