Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

A Note on Incendiary Political Tactics

On Saturday, Alan Grayson posted a video on DailyKos in a fundraising diary. The video had a fake George Bush, complete with his legendary wordsmithery, claiming he was going to Florida to fight against Grayson. Most commenters loved the skit, but some claimed it to be over the top. Apparently, such use of caricature and name-calling is demeaning and reduces us to the level of right-wingers and their teabagging minions.

As with most matters, I don’t see this as a black-or-white question. In general, it should be advisable to live by the Golden Rule: treat others as you would have them treat you. Which means that absent intervening circumstances, it is best to stick with logical and civilized debate and eschew personal attacks on one’s ideological adversaries.

However, that does not mean it is necessary or even ethically advisable to hold to that premise in the face of such intervening circumstances. I propose three criteria where, if met, incendiary tactics are justified:

1) The debate is continually muddied and progressive priorities are handicapped by a radical force with no interest in deliberative democracy;
2) Talking points exclusively built on logic are not effectively cutting through the clutter;
3) Any direct attacks must be reality-based and appeal to a higher morality.

So does that mean Grayson is justified? I’d say so, although it’s not 100% cut-and-dried. The first criterion is clearly met here – that point is pretty established. The second is also pretty clear, as the media and most establishment Democrats are unable or unwilling to call out the right wing hordes for what the radical, violent, antidemocratic force that they are.

The third, however, it not quite so obvious. Is using George Bush and parodying his speaking style necessary to get this point across? Does that serve any particular purpose, and on the other hand does it escalate the antagonistic dynamic in the state of political discourse?

I don’t really see the value-added beyond effective fundraising for Grayson, but I also don’t see the harm either because the discourse is already in such an overheated state. Given that Grayson has already exhibited inflammatory behavior in the past, and repeatedly so, it would actually be intellectually inconsistent for him to abandon that bare-knuckled strategy now.



Frum Fired

So the thing I don’t get about David Frum getting canned is that there’s an unequivocal sense in which the health care strategy of the GOP failed. And matter what flavor of the hour predictions Chris Matthews was making it always looked they’d pass something through. Even after Scott Brown, they had a bill through the Senate and a huge majority to work with in the House.

The viability of pretty any political strategy depends on an assessment of if you’ll or lose. Since they had 60 votes, or 59 and a passed bill it’s just clear why the GOP thought they would defeat the bill. There were never any unconditional no votes on the Senate side, just conditional yes votes. Maybe they didn’t they could win, but thought their opposition would lead the broader public drop their support for Obama. It hasn’t happened.

You get a similar calculus on financial reform, climate change or immigration. If it’s going to become law then maybe you don’t want to be on the losing side or you’ll take a tough vote to break the tie, but the same politicians being asked to be the 52nd vote for something that’s going down might not be so interested. Just thinking for myself I’d lose my seat for climate legislation, but not to make environmentalists feel better because they lost by a smaller amount.

So you can’t do strategy without having the discussion Frum wants to have, but apparently it’s beyond the pale for the modern GOP to even try to talk openly.


A blank check for Homestar

UPDATE (by Jeremy): On Wednesday 3/24, the Energy and Environment Subcommittee passed HomeStar on through to the full committee with a voice vote, without any significant limits on authorization levels. It’s unclear when Waxman will take up the measure, but it should be relatively soon, probably sometime in early-to-mid April.

Some worries about Homestar getting a blank check were brought up in Thursday’s Energy and Commerce hearing. Both Rep. Upton and Rep. Pitts did not support writing the DOE a blank check to implement Homestar. For all they know, the program would be far too expensive. The Senate version caps it at 6 billion.

Rep. Upton believes the DOE is not equipped to run a program of this scale. Plus, there is still a lot of money in the stimulus that has not been spent so clearly money is not the issue. And where does Obama’s spending freeze come into play?

Another concern was brought up by Rep. Burgess who believes that a federal program would not be necessary. If people are shown how they can save money by retrofitting their homes, they’ll do it, says he. He also did not favor the blank check that would be given to the DOE by the passage of this bill.

What also brings up criticism is the fact that the bill picks winners and losers. Only certain upgrades are included under Homestar which seems to point to back room deal making.

However, even though a few concerns were expressed during this hearing, the general tone was in still favor of Homestar.



I missed this Andrew Sullivan response to the Economist write up on the CLEAR Act:

Lexington worries that “a simple bill that doesn’t bribe every clamouring interest group is going to have a hard time getting through Congress.” That’s becoming a universal theme, isn’t it, made more obvious rather than less by Obama’s first year. Special interests run the Congress which runs the country. The notion of citizens voting for specific goals for the public good and having their representatives debate them in good faith and vote on them … well, it seems positively surreal, doesn’t it?

Everybody that knows politics think otherwise, but the ‘bribe every interest group’ theory isn’t that effective. It might be effective in small doses, but in the aggregate it just weighs down legislation and poisons public support.

On a micro level when you need one Congressperson on board with a bill you usually start thinking about which interest groups you might want to make happy. But if you do that for dozens of interests to get dozens of votes you get a bill that everybody dislikes and only emboldens the next swing vote to ask for more. And sometimes, see the health care bill, the compromises are so unpopular that you need to strip them out before the bill becomes a law and that mucks up the process even more.

The CLEAR Act’s lack of special favors doesn’t make it weaker, it makes it stronger.


Homestar. All in favor?

The Senate committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on the Homestar program received universal support for the most part. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the program, it basically gives incentives to consumers to make their homes more energy efficient which is considered to be low hanging fruit. Here are the main features of the program from the White House website:

  • Rebates delivered directly to consumers: Like the Cash for Clunkers program, consumers would be eligible for direct HOMESTAR rebates at the point of sale for a variety of energy-saving investments in their homes. A broad array of vendors, from small independent building material dealers, large national home improvement chains, energy efficiency installation professionals and utility energy efficiency programs (including rural utilities) would market the rebates, provide them directly to consumers and then be reimbursed by the federal government.
  • $1,000 – $1,500 Silver Star Rebates: Consumers looking to have simple upgrades performed in their homes would be eligible for 50% rebates up to $1,000 – $1,500 for doing any of a straightforward set of upgrades, including: insulation, duct sealing, water heaters, HVAC units, windows, roofing and doors. Under Silver Star, consumers can chose a combination of upgrades for rebates up to a maximum of $3,000 per home. Rebates would be limited to the most energy efficient categories of upgrades—focusing on products made primarily in the United States and installed by certified contractors.
  • $3000 Gold Star Rebates: Consumers interested in more comprehensive energy retrofits would be eligible for a $3,000 rebate for a whole home energy audit and subsequent retrofit tailored to achieve a 20% energy savings in their homes. Consumers could receive additional rebate amounts for energy savings in excess of 20%. Gold Star would build on existing whole home retrofit programs, like EPA’s successful Home Performance with Energy Star program.
  • Oversight to Ensure Quality Installations: The program would require that contractors be certified to perform efficiency installations. Independent quality assurance providers would conduct field audits after work is completed to ensure proper installation so consumers receive energy savings from their upgrades. States would oversee the implementation of quality assurance to ensure that the program was moving the industry toward more robust standards and comprehensive energy retrofit practices.

Sounds pretty good right? One of the main complaints that was mentioned during the hearing was that the proposal did not include rebates for people who wanted to retrofit their homes themselves. The reason for this was explained by Catherine Zoi, Assistant Secretary of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy at the DOE. The proposal was designed to create jobs in the construction industry which has been very hard hit by the recession, therefore, in its current state, it does not allow do it yourself installations. Sen. Burr went as far as saying that he would not support this bill unless it had a DIY provision.

I hope all the details get ironed out because the program just makes so much sense. Waste is stupid. The less we waste, the more we save and who doesn’t want to save money? I recently went to an open house event that was organized by CarbonfreeDC. This random couple invited strangers into their home to show what they did to make it energy efficient. They were part of a green project called Climate Pilots which was a collaboration between the City of Kalmar in Sweden and the Embassy of Sweden in Washington.

One of the main things they added to their house was a ground source heat pump. Initial costs just for this was $30,000. I know what you’re thinking, that’s really expensive. I agree. The guy who owned the house said it would pay for itself in 8 years by his calculations  which doesn’t sound that bad actually, it’s just the upfront cost which is unbelievable. Who has $30,000 to spare? People need assistance to bare the upfront costs if they want to green their home. If we really can get programs like Homestar implemented, I truly think people will take advantage of it.


Zero-sum Fun

I would have thought that if a poll resulted in contradictory results, like the NBC-Wall Street poll on health care which says that voting for or against the health care reform will both make voters less likely to vote for their Congress person you might question the validity of poll results. But not if you’re Chuck Todd to whom such a finding indicates “polarization” of the issue.


Climate Legislation Remix

Dave Roberts asks about comprehensive climate legislation:

Is there a way to avoid this train wreck?

No. No possible way. And it’s been that way for a while.

There’s a lot of variables, but the problems go deeper then even the 60 vote “requirement” in the Senate. With strong leadership and a 50 vote requirement you could maybe, maybe get a policy with a carbon cap, but not one free of pro-dirty energy subsidies and weak renewable support.

We’ll conceivable get sectoral reform bills before 2012, you’ll possibly see dirty energy subsidies defeated or delayed, but nothing comprehensive and I wouldn’t bet on the final version of what does pass to all that great either.


The private sector agrees – we need chemical reform laws

Last week’s hearing was the third and last in the series leading up to reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) which was a bill that was passed into law in 1976 and has not been updated since. Sen. Lautenberg stated firmly that we need to update our regulations to reflect current scientific understanding, ban the use of dangerous chemicals found in newborn babies, and put the burden on industries to demonstrate the safety of their chemicals.

To my surprise, all of the panelists representing the private sector agreed generally that we need to reform TSCA. Both Linda Fisher , Vice President of Safety Health and the Environment of DuPont and Dr. Neil C. Hawkins, Vice President of EH&S and Sustainability at The Dow Chemical Company said that the private sector should be the ones responsible to prove that their chemicals are safe.

Really? They really said that? If we take a deeper look into this, we realize that there are actually two ways to look at this. One way is through the lens of morality which says that this is good that they agree because the burden of proof should be on them. The other way is through the lens of corporations which says that this is good because then they would have more control over their products.

Of course, knowing that there is this benefit to chemical corporations makes me more skeptical on the actual benefit to the public. If we allow these corporations to test the safety of their own products, wouldn’t there be an incentive to twist the findings? I mean, yes they should prove that their chemicals are safe, but they shouldn’t be the ones doing it, if that makes any sense. What sounds like the best solution to me is to have another party, like the EPA, do it.

My theory on why these companies are so willing to prove that their products are safe is because they smell regulation coming. They know society is heading that direction and if they can’t steer the wheel, they’ll end up suffering more. The official reasons for DuPont changing its position on reforming chemical safety laws in the past few years makes perfect sense. Fisher mentioned 3 reasons: one, is that there’s growing awareness of toxic chemicals which can be felt through the market; two, is that chemical regulation is moving across the globe and we should lead it; three, is that in the absence of federal reform, they are seeing evolving state programs which create uncertainty in the market place.

So yes, they are supporting chemical safety law reform because it benefits them financially which makes perfect sense. I was just taken aback for a moment when I heard these companies make statements which sounded like they were based on morality. Silly me.

But in all seriousness, I do hope that this bill passes. We owe it to the future and to the planet.