Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Distressing Gap

Calculated Risk likes to talk about the distressing gap between existing and new home sales a lot. It's certainly something to ponder. When will the combination of population growth and consumption of fixed capital reduce the surplus inventory of homes enough so that developers have a reason to build again? Inquiring minds Greedy investors would like to know.

But I'd like to talk about the other distressing gap: the one between the policies being implemented and the policies that the country needs. I think it is the primary fuel for the online-lefty civil war that is going on right now (nope, I'm not linking to any of it).

Take health care reform. (Please!) Congress is about to pass a bill that makes a number of significant improvements to the current system. But the improvements are not anything like the fundamental transformation that is needed to really fix the system. Various legislators added cost controls here and there, but a strong, nationwide public option was defeated. A bill for a single-payer system wasn't put to a vote in either chamber. So, as of now, there is a big gap between what progressives want to see done and what the country is going to get. The same holds true for gay rights (the HIV travel ban has been lifted but DOMA/DADT haven't been repealed), economic stimulus (which wasn't large enough and had far too many tax breaks), foreclosure prevention (programs exist but they have done very little at a high cost), and others. The next big reform package that won't meet progressives' criteria is the climate change bill. The news from scientists keeps getting worse, and yet little is likely to be done. Fossil fuel production is geographically based, so the issue cuts across ideological lines - mostly in favor of the status quo.

So, what to do? Clearly the thing not to do is launch a nuclear attack against your closest allies, which is currently taking place. Instead, progressives should identify the obstacle(s) to better legislation and take them on. Quite clearly, the biggest obstacle for health care reform was the filibuster. It needs to go. So progressives should work together to lobby Senators to get rid of it. And they should also lobby Representatives, because the House has an institutional interest in beating down the filibuster. And they should lobby Democratic Party hacks because a lot of them will be out of a job if the party loses big in 2010. Once the supermajority rule is eliminated, progressives can take the campaign finance system (again) and support more progressives in primaries. Or something else. It will be tough, and there will be a lot of disappointments. The left just doesn't have the institutional muscle the right does, due to less money and extreme fragmentation into single-issue groups. There is also the inherent asymmetry between change and business as usual. But what else can progressives do except to keep on trying?

Update 2009/12/24: As usual, somebody else says it sooner and better.

Update 2010/01/01: Another good post, this time focusing on how the "movement" was squandered in at the beginning of Obama's first year. Again, right or wrong doesn't matter: how the former volunteers feel is simply a fact that has to be (or should be) addressed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Actual Insightful Commentary

A reader letter at TPM makes some good points:

Instead [many progressives] feel like the people they voted for and trusted to lead them failed. And it's hard to imagine making that same emotional commitment again in the future. Self defeating, yes. Temporary, maybe. But we're talking primal stuff here - people don't like wimps, not matter what party.
Two points deserve some elaboration: emotional investment, and wimps.

Leaving aside whether they should or not, it's clear that progressives work off of emotion a lot of the time. That is not surprising, because it takes a certain amount of courage to publicly advocate for a substantial change in society. Doing so means potentially facing disapproval from the rest of society, facing the fear of proposing a something new and untested, and facing the fear of failure. Nobody would choose to go up against those obstacles without a good reason and some passion. So progressives have to work themselves up before heading out to organize and campaign. And because of the nature of the emotion, progressive's energy can be deflated fairly easily. Contrast this with the other side, which has a default position against change, and frequently operates on hate or fear. The latter two emotions are much more enduring than hope.

The epitaph of "wimp" is something that has been lobed at Democratic politicians for a while. Sometimes the accusations stem from the fact that Dems are such a broad coalition it's hard for them consistently agree to anything. It's so broad there is a large group within the nominal coalition that regularly campaigns against the national party. Sometimes the accusations result from the asymmetry of effort between not doing anything and doing something (see above), meaning Democrats can potentially concede far more territory than Republicans. And sometimes liberals really are too open-minded.

This time around the accusation stems from the impression that no Democratic leader appears to have worked hard for a good bill (except Ted Kennedy until he got too sick). AFAICT, the administration didn't put its muscle behind a progressive version of the bill. Reid seemed perfectly happy to let Baucus drag out the "negotiations" in the secretive Terrorist Cell of Six. He also rejected using the budget reconciliation process as an option, meaning every Democrat could exploit the supermajority rule. And finally, the Senate leadership repeatedly and very publicly caved to Lieberman and Nelson every time they came up with a new objection. Nobody has even hinted about disciplining either.

It's always fun to speculate about motivations, but they're beside the point. The clear message from the process, combined with disappointments on other issues, is that Obama is not fighting for progressive values. Nor is the Senate leadership. Whether progressives have reasonable justifications for expecting a good effort is beside the point as well. They have expectations that are not being met, and their hope is deflating. And that will have consequences.

Wherefore Art Thou Progressive?

In answer to a question posted elsewhere:

"Progressive" has been used by 4 different parties in America, one of which is still active. I prefer it because 1) the word is much more clearly an opposite of "conservative" than the word liberal, 2) the Progressive Era made many improvements in government and people's lives which is something to emulate, 3) progressive goals are often about increasing individual liberty, but not always, 4) the current meaning of "liberal" is in many ways different from the original, which occasionally leads to some confusion, and 5) conservatives have poisoned the word "liberal".
But, really, I'd rather be called a DFH.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bailout Ben Blows

In case this gets taken down:

Why is three strikes not an out around here? Bernanke 1) helped create the biggest financial mess since the Great Depression, 2) is advocating a high-unemployment Fed policy for the foreseeable future, and 3) thinks the budget should be balanced by cutting entitlements because "that's where the money is." Not only is Bernanke bad for average Americans, he's going [to] hurt Democratic politicians, which will lead to Republicans being elected, which will be bad for average Americans.
Which means I've changed my backhanded semi-endorsement to outright opposition for reasons described above. Fortunately, one of my Senators agrees.

Update 2009/12/25: Baker utterly destroys Bernanke.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Brilliant, Insightful Commentary

If I do say so myself.

Seriously, though, I think my conditions are pure common sense. It may be that a number of nuclear power plants of some kind(s) will be required in the future because the costs associated with providing enough storage capacity to smooth out the power from intermittently available renewables would be exorbitant. But we don't know. Or at least the people participating in discussion about new nukes on the internet don't know. So the sides keep talking past each other, and nothing significant gets done.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It's Over


Conclusions, based on the Copenhagen promises about 2020:
  • Emissions from China and India will rise substantially, while those from the US will decline slightly.
  • China will be emitting 2.73 times as much CO2/year as the US, or 8,619 million metric tons more/year.
  • India will be emitting 76% of the US’s total, or 1,173 million metric tons less/year.

This doesn't mean I won't stop trying to slow anthropogenic climate change. But from this point forward all major planning exercises should include a worst case scenario for global warming. For instance, with respect to HSR, route selection should consider a ten foot (three meter) sea level rise and a 50% increase in the maximum predicted storm surge. The new design assumptions wouldn't affect just projects on the Gulf Coast and in Florida; there are also extensive low-lying areas in the San Francisco and NYC regions. Something that will have to be considered everywhere is water, as much of the US will become drier. Of course, there is always a chance that new technologies will come along in time to save us. There is also the chance that humans will fully grok the problem in time to change, but it's much smaller. The political and cultural dynamics at play are don't give me much hope.

Update 2009/12/16: Sites expected to be in use or toxic for more than 200 years should take into account a full 33 foot (9 meter) rise.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bordering on Insanity

Following up on this post, I've made two new maps of proposals to redraw the county borders in Arizona and California. (Update 2010-09-21: I've split California into three maps: North, Central, and South.) It's unlikely to happen in either state, but I think it should be given serious consideration.
When drawing the new borders, I tried to consider (as much as possible given the limited resources I have at my disposal) factors such as physical geography (keeping watersheds intact as much as possible), size, population (at both extremes), and economic interconnections. (In Arizona I also made a few counties that coincide with major reservations so as to eliminate jurisdictional issues.) For instance, in the case of Los Angeles County, it is huge (larger than both RI and DE), heavily populated (it would be the 9th most populous state), and geographically divided (the San Gabriel Mountains range up to 10,000 feet high). I trimmed it down to a more manageable 1,000 sq miles (down from 4,700) and 4,000,000 people (guestimate, down from 10,000,000), all of which are south of the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains.
Because of my limited resources, these maps are diagrammatic. But I think they would be a good starting point for the discussion in each state.