Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Perils and Problems of Close Elections


All indicators show an extremely close race as we enter the final week-and-a-half of the 2012 election.  It seems that Romney has gained a slight lead in the popular vote, although different polls show leads for different candidates.  The gambling markets, which have a solid track record and backed Obama with ten-to-one odds in 2008, are only giving him three-to-two this timeThe president does have an easier path in the electoral college, giving him a better chance to win: Obama has more electoral votes locked up in states like California that solidly support him, so Romney has to win more of the uncertain swing states like Virginia and Florida to win the election. It appears that Ohio has an even chance of being the key state this year, and it is leaning to Obama -- but only by a 2.9 percent margin, and other tossup states have similar thin margins. If I were the president I would want a much more commanding lead going into election day, both in the electoral college and the popular vote, and I’m sure that his followers would want that, too. 

This didn't have to be a close election.  The conservative governance of the Bush years gave us multiple disasters, beginning with September 11, 2001 and closing with the 2008 financial crisis, and adding Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and other fiascos in between.  When Bush left the White House the country was ready for significant change, so much that Americans were willing to elect, for the first time, a black man to the presidency.  I have contended since 2009 that if the Democratic Party had actually governed well and responded to these crises as they did during the Great Depression, with a massive Keynesian stimulus and a restoration of a healthy public sphere, then that party would be cruising to an easy victory this year, and would predominate in politics for the next generation or two, as they did after the New Deal.

But the current Democratic party doesn't play to win.  They don’t govern to win while in office, nor do they usually promote a strategic vision or do tactical politics to win.  Instead, they always play to not lose, or at best to win by small margins.  Democrats rarely go for the jugular, while Republicans almost always do.  This is why our political culture has become increasingly conservative for the last two generations.  (I have actually heard Democratic pundits say, after a good election year, that they don’t want to win too many seats because they want to maintain the two-party system with a loyal opposition.  But isn’t it that job of those actually in the opposition?  Elections should reflect the will of the people.  The system also fails when the winners fail to carry out the will of the voters, out of excess concern that the losers -- whom the voters just kicked out! -- are now in the minority.)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Making it Real: Public Funding of Elections III


Over the past few weeks I’ve been discussing how our campaign financing system, of private donations distorts and corrupts elections and governance in the interest of the plutocrats who posses the most money, and what an alternative system of mainly public financing that would disable that system would look like.  Public financing of elections would be a basic reform to our constitutional system.  How could it be achieved?  

Public campaign funding goes against the immediate interests of both the politicians who benefit from the current system and the oligarchs who fund them, and so probably would never be implemented through statutory law.  While it is theoretically and legally possible for Congress to make such a reform by passing a statute, Congressional incumbents are main beneficiaries of the current system and thus have no incentive to change it.  It is not, as our pundits like to say, “politically possible.”  

Therefore probably the only way to create such a reform would be through an amendment to the Constitution: the public funding of elections would have to be imposed upon Congress directly by the people through the amendment process.  But not only is it probable that public financing is possible only through an amendment, I would argue that even if circumstances made it politically possible for Congress to pass, it would actually be best enacted as an Constitutional amendment.  Such a basic alteration to the political system should be made through a change in our basic law.  That would be fitting, and once in place such an amendment would be difficult to dislodge.

The problem here is that Constitutional amendments are very difficult to implement.  In terms of the mechanics, the Constitution allows two methods for proposing and passing amendments.  Amendments may be proposed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress or by a national convention assembled by two-thirds of the states.  Proposed amendments must then be passed by either legislatures or ratifying conventions in three-fourths of the states (Congress may choose which of those methods is used but otherwise has no role in ratifying amendments).  The last amendment -- preventing Congress from raising its own salary during its term -- was passed twenty years ago in 1992, and the previous one came twenty years before that, when the voting age was set at eighteen in 1971.  Neither of these amendments, however, was a major change to the basic structure of the political system.  During that time one such major change, however, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment which would have guaranteed equal rights for women, did fail to pass.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

If Obama Doesn’t Show Political Fortitude in Tonight’s Debate, It’s Game Over


One of the primary purposes of this blog since its inception has been to promote what I have called political fortitude, the civic virtue of standing up courageously for just, democratic political principles and relentlessly defending them against those who ambitiously seek power.  As I’ve said before, in any democracy or republic citizens and their representatives in government must “courageously, vigilantly, relentlessly, and audaciously standing up for proven political principles of justice, equality, freedom, and democracy, even when apparent short-term interest or political calculations deem otherwise.”  Politics is a sport for those with principled determination, not for those given over to vacillation.

President Obama was widely criticized for his weak, listless performance in his first presidential debate against Mitt Romney two weeks ago.  In this he was simply following the same pattern of his entire presidency, which has been marked by an absence of progressive vision and a willingness to compromise with intransigent conservative ideologues -- Mr. Obama sometimes, as in the health care debate, negotiated away his bargaining position before talks even began.  He has genuinely seemed to believe that if he is nice to conservatives, they will be nice to him too.  In the debate on October 4, Mr. Obama failed to strongly and passionately argue for even the mildest of left-wing political principles, and instead allowed Mr. Romney to own the debate.  The president has said that he was just trying to be polite.  He has paid for it in the polls: Nate Silver, the excellent and widely respected polling analyst, gave Mr. Obama an 87.1% chance of winning on October 4 at his FiveThirtyEight blog; that plummeted to 61.1% in the nine days after the first debate, a drop of a full 26 out of 100 chances.  There has since been a slight uptick, and if Mr. Obama fails again tonight he probably won’t lose quite that much support.  But he will lose a significant amount, enough to put Mr. Romney in the lead and quite possibly lock it in through election day. 

Silver also observed that Vice President Biden’s much more spirited debate performance last week helped to stop the slide in the polls, with most polling indicating it was a tie or a slight win for Biden.  Democracy often needs strong defense; if President Obama wants to win the election the he has to leave the politeness at home and bring some spit and spirit with him tonight. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Getting the Money Out of Politics: Public Funding of Elections II


Public financing of elections is necessary in every modern democracy in order to stop representatives from being dependent on the wealthy class of society and therefore from making policy for the good of a few rather than for the good of all.  Democracy has a standard for how decisions should be made.  Money is not the standard.  The standard is the will of the people.    Public funding, with strict limits on private donations, would help restore balance to a system that currently gives a privileged place to candidates who represent the views of commercial and individual wealth and that marginalizes other ideas, principles, programs, and ways of living.  The idea is to have elections that are competitive based on the quality of the ideas and policies of the candidates, not on access to money.  Money and those who have it are indifferent to the quality of ideas themselves, and promote ideas that serve the interests of those who are paying to have them promoted, regardless of how good or bad those ideas are.  A public financing system that gives diverse voices the means to be heard equally would therefore help create elections that are decided by broader, more rational deliberation, instead of the size of campaign chests. 

The Basic Proposal

What I’m proposing is something like the "Clean Election" legislation that has been experimented with in some states.  Clean Election laws give candidates public funding for their election campaigns as long as they also accept limits on the total spending.  My preferred proposal would be somewhat different, in that it would be mandatory for all candidates, and the public treasury would be the predominant means of political funding.  The basic mechanism would be the same for all elections, national, state, and federal, for legislative bodies or executive offices, including governorships and the presidency.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Costs of Counteracting Climate Change


Environmentalists have long argued that the costs of doing nothing about climate change would far outweigh the costs of averting it -- as one would expect from the degradation of the basic environmental context in which all human activity occurs.  Once the biosphere is ruined, so will we be.  Doing nothing about climate change is like failing to install ventilation in a factory where corrosive vapors accumulate and then wondering why it costs so much in worker sick days, extra healthcare, and replacement equipment.  Climate denialists have always been penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Reuters reported on a recent study showing that “the effects of climate change was [sic] already costing the global economy a potential 1.6 percent of annual output or about $1.2 trillion a year, and this could double to 3.2 percent by 2030 if global temperatures are allowed to rise.”  One commentator, economist Nicholas Stern, observed that if unchecked climate change could eventually result in a 20 percent cut in per-capita consumption.  The report also said that more than 100 million people will die, mostly in the developing world.

The loss of 100 million lives because of conservative ideological intransigence is morally indefensible, and those who continue to deny the reality of global warming are collectively responsible for those deaths, as are governments and businesses who have the power to make effective change but fail to do so.  But for the sake of argument, let’s set that human consideration aside for the moment and do a quick financial cost-benefit analysis.  What follows is a thumbnail estimate of the costs and benefits.  I want to be clear that I’m doing rough estimates only, and I recognize that there are data and analytical problems with measuring global GDP, with twenty year cost projections, and other things.  Nonetheless, we can get a rough idea of how what the costs of rational action are, vs. the costs of irrational inaction. 

A major study published in 2012 by Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson and UC-Davis research scientist Mark A. Delucchi showed that the world could shift to a sustainable energy system within 20 years.  (Here’s a link to a summary article on it in Scientific American; the actual study can be found in two parts here and here.)  They estimated that it would cost about $100 trillion over 20 years to shift the world to a power system based on wind, solar, and water.  Current Gross World Product is about $79 trillion (measured in terms of purchasing power parity).  According to estimates provided by the CIA Factbook, average global growth for the last ten years (2001-2011) was 3.76 percent, with inflation during the same period of 1.3 percent. If we make the simplifying assumption that these figures will also be the averages for the next 20 years, the gross world product over that period will be about $2,370 trillion.  That’s a huge amount of productivity -- more than two quadrillion dollars.  Yes, quadrillion, not trillion, but that’s over 20 years.  From this two quadrillion dollars of economic production we would devote $100 trillion to sustainable energy conversion, which, although it seems like a lot, is only 4.2 percent of the total.  Now, since the cost of doing nothing about climate change is as much as 3.2 percent of economic growth over that period, and introducing clean energy systems will help mitigate that cost over time, we should subtract at least part of that from the cost of clean energy.  Let’s take away half, or 1.6 percent.  That gives us a rough cost estimate for establishing a sustainable energy system: 2.6 percent of Gross World Product over 20 years.  That doesn’t count the fact that engaging in such a massive infrastructure project would have a powerful stimulus effect on the world’s economy; if we figure that in, the net effect on global economic growth would probably be positive, not negative,  and it would be all green: we would save the biosphere and create lots of jobs all at once!  And remember: we would save as many as 100 million human lives to boot!

It would cost us only 2.6 percent of GDP over 20 years to implement clean energy around the entire globe, stopping climate change from eventually destroying civilization.  You wouldn’t even really notice it; even if the cost was double that it wouldn’t be burdensome, compared to doing nothing.  That’s a cost any rational person should be willing to bear.