March 26, 2010

Republican Demonology: Return of the Paranoid Style in American Politics

After the American Century

The Republicans are a party possessed, a party that has rediscovered the paranoid style that periodically rears its illogical head in American politics. Such paranoia is not new but tends to emerge at moments of historical transition such as the 1830s/1840s, when the US confronted the sectional crisis and industrialization.

A paranoid fear of change also was a strong undercurrent in the politics of the 1920s, when millions joined the KKK, not just in the South but all sections of the US. Nor was the Klan the only expression of paranoia during those years, which also saw immigration restriction, Prohibition, and the anti-evolutionary "Monkey Trial" in Tennessee.

The paranoid style reappeared again in anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and 1950s. Sometimes labeled McCarthyism, this movement briefly was dominant in the halls of Congress. McCarthy was convinced that communists had infiltrated everywhere and were about to destroy the nation. He warned of "a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man."

Today, the paranoid style is alive and well, personified in the often incoherent rhetoric of Sarah Palin and the "Tea Party" groups who are convinced that the US is about to succumb to totalitarianism (the Democrats) and/or socialism. The danger is emerging that the Republican Party as a whole may fall into the pit of paranoid delusions. This did not happen in the 1950s, in good part because President Eisenhower did not make common cause with Senator McCarthy. Ike was fundamentally a sane person and a centrist in politics.

But there are signs that the Republicans of today lack Eisenhower's sensibilities. Leaders of the Republican Party have made statements in recent days suggesting that they have achieved a hallucinatory consensus among themselves.

Consider the image used by the Repubican Natinonal Committee to raise money for the November 2010 elections. It shows Nancy Pelosi against a background of red flames with the caption "Fire Pelosi." It looks very much like they want to burn her at the stake as a witch. (This image was removed sometime after I wrote this words, to be replaced by an image of Pelosi looking rather manic with a raised fist.)  Sadly, Arthur Miller is not around to comment on the original image, but perhaps we will see a revival of his still very pertinent play about the Salem Witchcraft trials, The Crucible.

In the image Pelosi looks threatening, both arms raised, fists clenched. Republicans are encouraged to see her as a demon from hell. But it seems to me that the Republicans are projecting their own fears, that they themselves are possessed, and that they face the danger of political damnation.

It seems that the United States cannot entirely escape its origins in the seventeenth century.

March 22, 2010

After Health Care, Where To Next?

After the American Century

The Obama Administration has used far more time on the health care legislation than one might have thought possible. The victory seems to have come, at last, but many other problems await. It seems the Republicans do not want to accept that they have lost and want to keep on fighting the health care battle, which is not exactly a constructive approach.

While the battle of health care legislation has raged, legislation regulating Wall Street has been side-tracked, along with vital bills to promote green energy and move the economy toward the next energy transition. It has been sad to watch China charge ahead in this area for the last year, while Congress proved unable to multitask. 

Indeed, the Republicans seem unable to perform even a single task, having become enamored of just saying no. Being against all policy initiatives at a time when the US world position is slipping will be harshly criticized by future historians, I submit.

The US badly needs immigration reform, too, and lawmakers may have to take a look at the tax code which seems to reward companies that export jobs to offshore factories. In short, it is time for American lawmakers to find common ground on important issues and move forward. If near stalemate continues, the nation will suffer. 

March 19, 2010

CEPOS-Gate: Who in the Danish Government Knew? And When?

After the American Century

When did the Danish Prime Minister know that CEPOS was working to undermine the energy policies of the Obama Administration? When did the current government know about the CEPOS campaign against wind power, with its false accusations and mis-information? When did the Danish government first know that the "think-tank" it is closely associated with was being funded by American energy companies opposed to the adoption of green energy?  Should the current Danish government resign or be forced to hold an election because of this scandal?

On Feb 25 this Blog presented the case that CEPOS was either lying or incompetent in its smear campaign against the Danish windmill industry, launched in the United States. CEPOS intentionally spread false information, of that there is no doubt. But I suspected there was more to the story, and in that column, I asked:
"Why did Cepos take such an interest in attacking wind energy? What is their purpose? Why did they think they should spread misinformation about Denmark in the United States? Who are they really working for? This campaign of falsehoods would please Saudi Arabia, and it would be music in the ears of Fox News. Who is donating money to support Cepos? Any oil companies on the list?"

We now have disturbing answers to these questions, thanks to some good work by Ingenioren. CEPOS was paid to write and distribute the report by American oil and coal companies. Martin Ågerup, the Director of CEPOS has admitted that the money was given to them through the "Institute for Energy Research" a lobby organization funded by the American coal and oil industries.  Strangely, Martin Ågerup claimed that he did not know the Institute for Energy Research was a lobby organization, and thought it was, like CEPOS, a think tank. This confusion suggests that Martin Ågerup is not being entirely honest or that he is incompetent. CEPOS was not merely writing a report. It allowed itself to be used to undermine clean energy proposals before the US Congress, by distributing mis-information.

In short, CEPOS should be recognized as a lobby organization that works against alternative energies and seeks to sabatoge the Obama Administration. CEPOS is not a think tank, it is a gun for hire, perhaps one that is quite willing to work with groups that deny the existence of global warming. No one can any longer believe what they say about policy matters, because they are essentially a public relations arm of American coal and oil companies. 

CEPOS has a serious credibility problem. They are hopelessly compromised. The Danish media should stop calling them a "think tank" and certainly should not use them as responsible, disinterested spokespeople on the news. Rather, the Danish media should demand much more transparency, so that we know precisely who is funding CEPOS.

CEPOS also may have legal problems. A "think tank" presumably does not have the same tax status as a lobby organization. The payments from the Institute for Energy Research clearly are taxable as income for work.performed, indeed, for dirty work. They cannot be regarded as tax-free contributions to a non-profit organization.

The mystery is why this story is not front-page news in Denmark. Politiken gives it only a tiny corner of page 4 of the March 19 issue. Who in the Danish government knew about CEPOS's attacks on the Obama energy program? These attacks began in September 2009, well before the climate summit. Is it really credible that no one in the Danish Ministry of Energy knew anything about this? No one in the Foreign Office?

Well before the climate summit the Danish government almost had to know that CEPOS was working against the success of that very summit. It was doing its best to weaken Obama's position inside the United States, so he would have less to bring to the negotiating table in Copenhagen. With this new information, one must wonder: 

When did the Danish Prime Minister know what CEPOS was doing in the fall of 2009? Did he try in any way to stop the disinformation campaign? Was he really in a position to act as an honest broker at the Climate Summit?

March 18, 2010

When the Lights Went Out

After the American Century

I am delighted to inform readers that my new book,
When the Lights Went Out: 
A History of American Blackouts 
(MIT Press, 2010)
has received some attention from the Blog of The New Yorker.

The official publication date is March 31, but in fact it is already available.

March 17, 2010

Greek Bail-Out Not a Good Idea

After the American Century

Greece cannot pay its bills, even in the short run. With a national debt that is more than 110% of its gross national product, and a deficit of more than 10% for this year, Greece's debt will only get worse unless and until it enacts real reforms. So far it has failed to do enough, and the deficit will only get worse.

Had the Greeks been hit with a natural disaster like Haiti, they would deserve sympathy and charity. But the Greeks  insist on spending more than they can afford. They have given massive pay increases and early retirement to state employees that are not funded by taxation. They reportedly have a massively inefficient bureaucracy. There is no  reason for the other European states to give or to loan them money unless they show that they can live within their means. Giving them a handout will solve nothing, and will only delay for a short time the day of reckoning.

Indeed, the EU has made a major blunder by even letting this become an issue. Its own laws clearly state that nations who overspend will not be bailed out.

Consider, by comparison, the plight of California. It is also a part of a federation of states that have a common currency. But no one in the US is suggesting that Ohio, Nebraska and Maine should help fund California. Instead, since California voters refuse to raise taxes, they are closing libraries, firing workers, and forcing those who remain to stay at home several days a month because there is not enough money to pay them. Admittendly, this is ridiculous, since California is a rich state and could afford to fund its education system and its services, but this is the choice the state's citizens have made. The rest of the United States will not bail out California, and as a result the state is a less desirable place to live than it was a few years ago. Eventually, the voters will realize that they have made a mistake, and in the meantime loaning them money will actually prevent them from confronting that mistake.

So why are Europeans wringing their hands over Greece? You don't get an alcoholic to reform by buying another round of drinks.

March 01, 2010

The American South and Health Care

After the American Century

I recently looked at where the Republican Party is strongest. The former slave states stood out, particularly those that grow cotton. I then looked to see where opposition to national health insurance is strongest. The former slave states again were prominent, particularly those where support for George Wallace once was strong.

The inescapable conclusion seems to be that the Republicans, who began their existence as a party based up North, insisted on keeping the South in the union so that one day the scourge of health insurance might be fought off with the help of the South. The Republicans of 1860 clearly took the long view, and wanted to be sure that when the ultimate danger to American society appeared - in the form of universal health care - the solid South would obstinately demand stasis. You could drive down Main Street in any southern town, throw a Bible out the window, and have a 65% chance of hitting someone opposed to health care.

Southerners have faith that they can get along without insurance. About 25% of all Texans have no health insurance at all, and apparently these uninsured people are against it.  One test of health, admittedly general but quite noticable, is how long people live. It turns out that people live longer in the states that want federal health coverage. According to statistics compiled at Harvard, those living longest are in Hawaii (80 years) and Minnesota (78.8), followed by Utah, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Guess where people have the shortest life expectancy? The worst four places if you want to live a long time are Mississippi (73.6), Louisiana (74.2),  Alabama (74.4), and South Carolina (74.8). They apparently like the idea of an early death, as they are against mandatory health care.

In Massachusetts a national health bill has far more support, yet that state already has basic health care for all its citizens and its hospitals are among the best in the world. People in Massachusetts live to be 78.4, on average. So the real question is, why do so many people in Northern states like Massachustts want to subsidize health care for Southern states like Texas, Alabama and Mississippi? They apparently want to live 4 or 5 years less than people in the North anyway.