Plunder and Deceit, again

In my last post I mentioned reading, Plunder and Deceit, by Mark R. Levin, and said that I was trying to find common ground with a writer who’s views differ quite a bit from mine. Let me show you what I mean.

Levin writes:

“Consistent with the ideological aims of the degrowth movement, the EPA has dedicated itself to gutting the production of carbon-based resources such as coal, oil, and natural gas as supplies of relatively cheap and abundant electricity and fuel. In recent years, the EPA has tenaciously ramped up its regulatory efforts to cripple the production of energy from these courses.”

 

I have to admit, gutting and crippling America’s vital sources of energy sounds pretty bad.  My first thought was to go and fill up my Mustang while it is still possible. My second thought was, “Hey, wait a minute. Gasoline is cheaper than its been in years.”

I looked up the trend in US oil production and found that it is higher under president Obama than it has been in years:

 

[Source: Forbes]

The federal Energy Information Administration has the data up to 2014 for every state that produces oil. In nearly all of them, production is up, up, up. There is less offshore drilling, less on Alaska’s North Slope, and less in Louisiana. But nationwide, oil production is up from 1.9 billion barrels in 2009 to 3.2 billion barrels last year.

Setting aside for now all questions of how much energy we ought to be using, and what sources we ought to be relying on, I want to just focus on Levin’s comment and the government data. How does one reconcile his assertion that the EPA (under Obama) has been trying to cripple US production of carbon-based energy with the evidence that oil production has risen steadily under Obama?

Here are the explanations that come to mind:

  1. Levin might be a lying scoundrel.
  2. The charts and links I found might be wrong.
  3. The EPA might be determined to destroy domestic oil production but just not very effective.
  4. The EPA’s efforts to destroy domestic oil might just not have taken effect yet.

Other explanations might emerge if we were to parse Levin’s statement or the data sources more carefully. But the mere existence of the four possible explanations sort of puts us under an obligation to inquire further and not immediately conclude that explanation 1 is the right one.

One way to make progress on the truth is to recognize that Levin talks not just about oil (which is definitely going up, up, up, but also about coal, which going down in a big way.

“The war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It’s real and it’s relentless. Over the past five years, it has killed a coal-fired power plant every 10 days.”

 

That’s from a long and very worthwhile report on Politico about the “war on coal.” The writers explain that the main driver of the war on coal is not the Obama administration but Sierra Club lawyers arguing in state utility commission hearings.

[T]he big question now is how rapidly [coal’s] decline will continue. Almost every watt of new generating capacity is coming from natural gas, wind or solar; the coal industry now employs fewer workers than the solar industry, which barely existed in 2010. Utilities no longer even bother to propose new coal plants to replace the old ones they retire. Coal industry stocks are tanking, and analysts are predicting a new wave of coal bankruptcies.

 

The following map give an impression of how big a change has occurred with coal. The green markers indicate coal plants that were “defeated” by the Beyond Coal movement, either by denying permits for a new plant or refusing to reauthorize an existing one. There are a lot of them!

Coal Plants Defeated by Sierra Club
Coal Plants Defeated by Sierra Club

 

Levin’s rhetoric, which seemed so extreme and out of touch with the facts where oil was concerned, turns out to be more reasonable regarding coal. His choice of the words “gutting” and “cripple” are a fair characterization of what is happening to the coal industry.

There are still plenty of important questions concerning energy policy and every other complicated issue. Since Levin claims to be writing in the interest of the rising millennial generation, I’d like to hear his explanation for how gobbling up fossil fuels today would help the future. If you worry about climate change, current efforts to curb use of coal and oil (if any) seem to be urgently needed. But if you don’t worry about the environment, you’d still want to slow the rate of fossil fuel depletion so some of the stuff will be left for the rising generation.

Levin is just a stand-in here for all the people we encounter who seems to be out of bounds with their thinking. I’m not always as patient and methodical in my reaction.

But I know a good banjo tune when I hear one.

 

 

 

Conflicting Goals & Common Fate

In the 1958 movie, The Defiant Ones, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are prisoners on a southern chain gang. They escape, but can’t break the chain that holds them together. Two men who hate each other and have conflicting goals suddenly learn they share a common fate.

 

 

The two men learn to cooperate, and even to respect each other. And even for those of us who never expect to be running from bloodhounds through a Georgia swamp, there may be a lesson here.

I’m reading Plunder and Deceit, by Mark R. Levin. The book argues that the “ruling generation,” meaning the Boomers, is mismanaging America’s resources in a way that diminishes the future to the detriment of the rising generation, meaning the millennials. He says:

The rising generation must question, confront, and civilly resist the real authoritarianism that endangers its future and the quality of life of those not yet born, whether preached in the classroom, popularized through entertainment, or idealized by demagogic politicians.

 

I completely agree with Levin’s premise.

But like the two escaping prisoners in the movie, I find it hard to move in step with Levin. He’s a hardline conservative and he uses the rhetoric that appeals to today’s wingnuts. Every page — almost every paragraph — pokes, pokes, pokes at government as the cause of every problem.

In a few places, he plays fast and loose with his data and his explanations. In the chapter on education, Levin harps on the rising cost of college, noting correctly that tuition has risen faster than inflation for many years. But he fails to acknowledge that the main reason for this is state governments failing for many of those years to support public universities as well as they did in the past.

(Yes, its true that many universities have lavish residence halls. They are there for the students who want that and can afford it. But those universities — at least Purdue University where I work — also offer cheaper  residences with smaller rooms and no air conditioning. Yes it is true that many universities have built climbing wall in their recreation centers. So what? Climbing walls are cheap and durable. Find something else to fuss about, critics! And yes, it is true that university employment has grown, and that faculty account for a smaller share of all campus jobs than they did decades ago. some of those jobs are genuine fluff and ought to be eliminated. But most of the added higher education workers are serious people working hard a meaningful jobs.)

Levin has a lot of footnotes in his book. But the source that he cites the most is Mark R. Levin and his own earlier books and articles. He cites two other kinds of courses. On one hand, he cites government sources such as the Census Bureau and Congressional Budget Office for detailed facts. On the other, he cites the libertarian Cato Institute and conservative Heritage Foundation for interpretation. From the CBO he gets a dollar amount being spent on something. From  Cato and Heritage, he gets the opinion that the amount spent is too much. This creates an illusion that credible, neutral sources are supporting his claims of out of control government spending.

This is a problem because most Americans have no idea how much we should be spending on anything. Quick: what is the population of the US? what is the Gross Domestic Product? What is our current trade balance with Canada? What share of total private wealth is held by the richest 50 people, and by the poorest 50 percent of the population? What is the poverty rate? Do the people in the state where you live pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal benefits, or the reverse?

How can you even begin to form an opinion on spending when you don’t know these answers? (Yes, I know the answer. Numbers in the billion, or tens of billions, or hundreds of billions always sound scary big, regardless of context.) But many of those scary big numbers are just the right size when you think about the number of people affected. To me, “big” is never going to be a persuasive argument against the federal government. I think the government ought to do big things. There are a lot of things the federal government oughtn’t to meddle with at all. But the things it does, it ought to do well.

I’ve got a few bones to pick with Levin. But my point is that I think he’s an ally. He’s right about his major premise and he’s right about many of his details. I like that he begins his book with a quote from Edmund Burke, the original and true conservative thinker, before going on to quote many lesser, latter-day, erzatz, so-called, soi-disant, bogus conservatives.

I want to learn to be better at finding common ground with everyone who thinks even partly what I think. I want to learn to be better about learning from people who know thinks I don’t know — without giving up my ability to recognize stupid when I hear it.

So carry on, Mr. Levin. I’m with you.

 

 

 

 

 

Cows in the Corn

Suppose you’ve got corn and I’ve got cows.

Even if we’re the best and friendliest of neighbors, we need a fence between us. And suppose that, despite the fence, my cows get across and eat your corn. I say, “Just put the cows back. There’s no problem.” The cows get across again, and I say, “Cows used to stay where you put them. I don’t know what’s wrong with cows these days. Anyway, put them back. There’s no problem.”  And then the cows get across again, and I say, “Well they wouldn’t get across so often if you didn’t plant your corn so close to the edge of the field. You can’t really blame the cows when you tempt them so. But just put them back. There’s no problem.”

How many times can this be repeated before we admit we have a problem? We can blame the cows for a while.  We can blame the victim for a while. Heaven forfend, we could even blame me because the cows are mine. Sooner or later, we need to admit to each other that the fence isn’t good enough to do the necessary job it was intended for.

 

Constitution Day (Sept 15th) is set aside each year to remember America’s foundational law. On that day in 1787, delegates from the 14 states (the original 13 plus Vermont) approved the new Constitution after a year-long debate. It has been amended 27 times, but hasn’t changed fundamentally in 228 years.

We were taught in school that the “separation of powers” is a great concept. The Constitution divides power between the legislative, judicial and executive branches, and consequently America has never had a king. But the Constitution doesn’t distribute power much. It keeps it in Washington DC, far from the people. If you read the Constitution you’ll see that the document is almost entirely about federal powers. The states and the people are mentioned once.

The Constitution defines federal powers, but doesn’t do much to limit federal power. The authors weren’t concerned with limiting federal power, but with fixing the very weak central government that existed at the time. They gave the new Constitutional federal government some blank checks, such as the “necessary and proper” clause in Article 1:

The Congress shall have Power – To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

 

James Madison

By 1791 (just four years after the Constitution was adopted) James Madison was convinced that the necessary and proper clause was too vague and gave the federal government too much power. Subsequent history has proven him right. The necessary and proper clause has been used many times to justify expansion of the federal government.

We were taught in school to admire the extraordinary wisdom of the founding fathers. If the founders were wise we ought to heed what they said. And like Madison, many of the other founding fathers doubted the Constitution would endure. Benjamin Franklin was asked as he emerged from the final session of the Constitutional Convention what sort of country the US would become. Franklin answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Thomas Jefferson said the country would need a new constitution every generation or so: “Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”

According to Jefferson’s figuring, America ought to be on its 12th constitution, but we’re muddling along with the same old one long after its expiration date. As president, Jefferson had a “take it or leave it” attitude toward the Constitution. He waged war against Barbary pirates in 1801 without a congressional declaration of war. He exceeded his authority to make the Louisiana Purchase. He never let the Constitution get in the way what he thought was right.

[Source: CBS St. Louis]
The founding fathers despised political parties. John Adams spoke for many when he wrote, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties. . . This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

Who can deny that America today is run by two great parties? Thus, the thing the founders dreaded most has happened!

The Constitution purposes to make “a more perfect union” and to “provide for the general welfare.” But income inequity in American is wider than at any other time in living memory. There has been no improvement in purchasing power for the median American family over the past 30 years, and only slight gain in the past 50 years. (See chart below) One out of seven Americans lives in poverty. Two out of three Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction. Only one American in 10 trusts the Congress. The Constitution didn’t cause these problems, but it hasn’t “provided for the general welfare” either.

 

[Source: US Census Bureau via Huffington Post, 9/16/15]

We like to think of the Constitution as the rock-solid foundation of our culture and society. A more apt metaphor would be a tree. The small seed that was planted in 1787 has been harried by winds from the left and the right, and frazzled by pests of various kinds. It still stands, but it has grown gnarly.

Some branches of the tree are strong. The first amendment freedom of speech keeps pornographers and the Westboro Baptist Church in business. Upholding extreme opinions is really the only thing the first amendment does, since ordinary opinions don’t need such protections. I’ve lived much of my life in parts of the world where no explicit freedom of speech exists, and I found that ordinary people there have their opinions just like we American do.

Another strong branch of the tree is the second amendment, keeping the bullets flying. This is perhaps the most clear-cut case where the Constitution stands in the way of what the American people reasonably would do if they were free to govern themselves.

Much of the Constitutional tree has weakened over the years. The Fourth Amendment guarantees “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” That’s what it says on the document, but the NSA reads your emails. And even if government snooping were stopped, there are private companies that also read your email and monitor your spending in order to target advertising at you. The fourth amendment guarantee is empty.

The 5th amendment situation is even worse. It is supposed to ensure due process in order to defend freedom and property, but it has been stood on its head to justify driving people out of their homes to benefit commercial developers.

The 10th Amendment guarantees that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This sounds like a useful tool to balance local interests against the federal power. And there is a movement of people calling themselves “Tenthers” who say strong enforcement of this clause can fix what’s wrong in Washington. But how can the tenth amendment constrain federal power when every question about the limit of federal power gets decided by an agent of federal power?

Setting the country on the right path must begin with changes to the Constitution. That hasn’t happened yet, but it is becoming a more common notion. State legislators vote their support for a new constitutional convention in most years.

Many people fear tampering with a “good thing.” Writing a new foundational document needn’t jeopardize all that we value. We can keep majority rule. (Or perhaps I should say “reinstate” majority rule, since we don’t really have that now.) We can strengthen individual rights. We can limit the federal government to doing a few important things well instead of muddling everything. We can put most decisions back in the hands of states and communities.

Of course, there’s a huge and fascinating question of how this tremendous change could take place. For starters, I would recommend “Anywhere but Washington; anyone but congress.”

Some people say we just need to get back to the Constitution as it was written. But everything that happens in America happens under that Constitution. Amateur interpretations of what the law “says” don’t have much influence while big money pours into Washington and while the inmates run the asylum.

Georgetown Law Professor Louis Michael Seidman wrote in a New York Times editorial in 2012: “Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse.”

University of Texas Law Professor Sanford Levinson has written, “Our Undemocratic Constitution” showing how the document undermines democracy. Levinson refutes those who say anything wrong with the Constitution can be fixed by amending it, and he shows how small number of people (such as congressional committee chairmen) can thwart the will of the majority, and how certain institutions and processes make amending the constitution ever again unlikely. He points especially to the US Senate, where each state has two members regardless of its population. Since 34 votes are enough to block any legislation, the members from the 17 smallest states (representing only about 20% of the nation) can stop anything the majority wants. That isn’t democracy!

I agree with Seidman and Levinson. I agree with Madison, Franklin, Adams and Jefferson. Who’s side are you on?