Friday, April 22, 2011

Republicans and the Environment: Dangerous Posturing?

Aiding Environment and Economy
By Rep. Fred Upton

U.S. Representative Fred Upton (R-MI), new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, published this opinion piece April 15 in the online magazine Politico. My comments are interspersed in red.

SOME in Washington insist that our nation’s environmental concerns are at odds with our economic ones. They say job protection must be sacrificed for clean air and water, or healthy economic growth cannot exist with healthy families and communities.
                  In fact, if our goal is to do right by the planet, we ought to keep energy production and manufacturing here in America by striking an appropriate regulatory balance. If environmental rules end up chasing jobs overseas to countries that have no clean air and water protections, the planet will suffer right along with our economy. t Jobs have left Rep. Upton’s Sixth District of Southwestern Lower Michigan, and many other areas of the U.S., for one reason: executives determined that labor costs could be reduced by moving their factories to countries with a large, underemployed labor pool, no unions and few worker protections.
              t Strict environmental regulations have rarely been reason enough to shift manufacturing overseas—not that the EPA particularly puissant after 20 of 28 years of administration pressure against regulations and especially enforcement. Moreover, when polluters have sent toxic operations out of country, they’ve often met resistance there, too. And then there's the ethical issue: Is Rep. Upton threatening to pollute other countries? It seems so here but he indicates otherwise below. t
                  Earth Day is an annual recognition that we all benefit from a clean, safe environment. It’s the perfect opportunity to dispel the myth that what’s good for our economy must be bad for our planet [emphasis TP].      t This is a straw man, an invention for rhetorical purposes.  Only the most extreme back-to-nature type believes this, and such near-nihilists are likely to have more in common with zero-government Tea Partiers than environmentalists.  To the contrary, what many left-leaners espouse—truly green manufacturing, transportation and energy production, etc.—is good for both our economy and the environment. Going green will create jobs. tt 
                 The Energy and Commerce Committee is committed to reconciling our nation’s environmental and economic goals. (Who isn’t?) We created a subcommittee for that very purpose. t Oh, good, more  hearings. The new Republican House majority seems to think subcommittees were invented not to discover facts and explore policies but to confound and humiliate their opponents —Rep. Upton pledged to have Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, testify so often she’d need Capitol Hill parking. Or else hearings were for obfuscating an issue, as the Republican majority did by calling only three witnesses before the subcommittee looking into the EPA’s potential roll in reducing global warming— not one of them a climate scientist. tt

                   The Environment and the Economy Subcommittee, with Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) as chairman, is scrutinizing the economic and environmental consequences of regulations in a way that neither Congress nor the administration has ever done.  t  One would like to think so—that an objective, thorough investigation and analysis of this area is in the offing. But given that regulations are generally designed to limit certain profitable activities, that operating a business without damaging the environment requires incurring costs to do so, and that such “extra” costs are anathema to all capitalists (managers and investors alike), well, the chances are slim that the EES will view the environment as inviolable—or that any accommodation to preserve and protect it will be presented to lobbyists as a necessary cost of doing business.  To the contrary, the EES will surely that assume regulations of any kind are onerous and fatal to the purported goal of any politician, job creation.
    t A equally interesting topic for investigation:  Do economic benefits emerge from stringent environmental regulations? When regulations are enforced, are jobs created—different but possibly equal or even better in earning capacity? Does the higher quality of  life a clean, healthy environment provides justify stern regulations despite the economic, bottom-line cost?  Do business and its allies habitually overstate the costs to conform with new environmental regulations? The answer to all these questions is, surely, “Yes.”  Does Rep. Upton’s ECC think so?  “No.”
              t  Rep. Shimkus, by the way, is a full-blown denier of human-caused climate change who thinks that we shouldn’t curtail greenhouse CO2 because it’s “plant food” and thus beneficial. And he bows to higher authority in these matters: In a subcommittee hearing in March 2009 he said, “The planet won’t be destroyed by global warming because God promised Noah.” tt
                  This review is important because it sets the stage for sensible energy and environmental policy. We need to understand the consequences of current rules and regulations to maintain what’s working, eliminate what’s not and strengthen protections where gaps exist.  t  Let’s be clear about the term, “what’s working.” To what purpose? For whom? For how long? At what cost to the public? The planet? tt
                    Earlier this year, House Republicans launched the American Energy Initiative, to pave the way for common-sense energy reform. (Actually, it was to oppose higher prices at the fuel pump.) The truth is, Americans want Washington to get out of the way so we can produce more U.S. energy, lower gas prices and help small business begin hiring again.  t  Oh boy, hello Ideology. Isn’t “Washington” too big, complex and protean to dismiss so offhandedly?  How exactly should it “get out of the way?” And what’s with this faux Andy Griffith/Jed Clampett voice of folk wisdom?  Because it’s so coin-common it makes seriousness and science sound like highfalutin claptrap? Does Rep. Upton think we’re all as gullible as Barney, Gomer, Jethro and Miss Hathaway at the county fair?
    t  Producing more U.S. energy, even if we do so under a massive initiative, will have a negligible effect on gas prices, according to many authoritatives sources including the U.S. Energy Information Agency's Administrator, Richard Neweell. About half of U.S. energy needs come from domestic production, the U.S. holds only two percent of all known world reserves and U.S. output has started to dwindle. At best we’ll only temporarily make up for the output decline. And the U.S. jobs created? What are we talking about, maybe 500?
               t The last gas price spike, when it rose over $4 a gallon in 2008, was caused by outsiders speculating in the commodities market, chiefly because a regulation was lifted allowing commodity index investing—that is, big bets by bank-backed traders—which roiled the once-orderly marketplace.  The current rise is similarly caused.
    t  Any correlation between gas prices and small-business jobs is speculative and, as used here, simplistic.  tt 
                  We can do that with three sensible goals: stopping government policies that are driving up energy prices, expanding U.S. energy production to lower costs and create more jobs, and promoting an “all of the above” strategy to increase all forms of U.S. energy.  t  The only part of this statement that makes even partial sense is “an ‘all of the above’ strategy”—since it includes renewable energy sources. But “all” in Rep. Upton’s mind also includes nuclear—he has two nukes in his district, both generous Upton contributors— and coal, because Republicans (and, to be honest, coal-state Democrats) always love coal. But nuclear is problematic and coal is dangerous—unless you agree with Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), once minority head of the ECC, who just said, responding to EPA projections about health risks from smokestack emissions, “I’m not a medical doctor, but my hypothesis is that’s not going to happen! You’re not going to get enough mercury exposure or SO2 exposure or even particulate matter exposure! I think the EPA numbers are pulled out of the thin air!” (Barton is the congressman who publicly apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward for being compelled to establish a victim's fund for his company’s 185-million-gallon oil spill.)  t
                  In the past, energy and environmental legislation has been passed in omnibus form—massive pieces of legislation that attempt to solve every problem or address every issue in one fell swoop. The strategy was not limited to one party. But it culminated in the complex and controversial cap-and-trade legislation, which squeaked through the House and failed in the Senate.  t  Cap-and-trade is not that complex until you get to the trading part, and then much depends on the extent of market regulation. (Ideally hedging strategies would be severely restricted.)  But some climate experts think this approach does not apply nearly enough pressure on global-warming-gas emitters, and that it only achieves stasis at current levels, not reductions. Since the healthy maximum of greenhouse gases is 350 parts per million, the current level  is now about 390 parts per million and the concentration is inexorably rising with decades of built-in momentum to come, stasis appears to be not  even remotely possible, let alone sufficient.                  
                  t  Basically, our future will find us between very difficult times and a planet surface that’s too violent, meteorologically extreme and unpredictable to be inhabited by human beings. Most would prefer doing what ever is necessary to ensure the former; Rep. Upton and his committee have voted for uninhabitable.  tt
                  The lesson from that legislation — and other similarly massive proposals — is that bigger is not always better. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) let it be known that the days of 2,000-page bills are over. The American people, the legislative process and a lot of trees will benefit because of it.  t  Agreed, but this is just oft-repeated Republican rope-a-dope and a non sequitur in this discussion—the 2,000-page document was the healthcare bill.  tt
                  An incremental approach to energy reform allows Congress to thoughtfully and constructively examine all the nuances of the policy discussion. Comprehensive legislation, in contrast, lends itself to opaque political trade-offs that don’t always make for sound public policy.  t  As long as we “examine all the nuances, “ and with haste. Otherwise, “incremental” is just code for delay.  tt
                  Congress could eliminate the uncertainty and red tape that have delayed oil production off the outer continental shelf in Alaska by five years. This could — with other production in the Alaska OCS — bring online an additional one million barrels per day of U.S. oil.  t  Where, exactly? In the incredibly dangerous Bering Sea? The Gulf of Alaska, at grave risk to the fishing industry?  Off (or in) the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? For compelling ecological reasons, all are off  the table.  *  Since when are environmental regulations and the nation’s laws “red tape?” Most Americans think of them of guarantors of  public health and safety.  tt
                  Separately, we could free up the long-stalled approval process for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring an additional 700,000 barrels of oil per day from Canada.  t  This is such a bad idea. Not only is extraction from the oil-sands fields literally devastating vast swaths of Canadian wilderness, oil pipelines are dangerous. One carrying the same sludge Keystone will ruptured into the Kalamazoo River several months ago, in Rep. Upton’s own district, to terrible effect.  tt
                  Eliminating these bureaucratic barriers does not require thousands of pages of legislative text (see above). It simply requires that Congress acknowledge that these problems can be solved individually.  t  And that the oil gas lobby and its hired Congressional representatives back off and for once do what’s right for the country rather than their paymasters’ bottom lines.  tt
                  Each of these policies is rooted in the understanding that abundant, affordable energy will help our economy grow and thrive.  t  This is nonsense unless it’s explained how “abundant, affordable energy” can be a reality again.
             t Sensible people can differ about the meaning of the terms “affordable” and “abundant” —though “abundance” is perhaps best associated with the past. “Affordable” is surely a matter of  industry pricing and government will power. tt It is also based on our belief that we can achieve economic growth in a way that protects our environment.  t  It should be heartening that the right has finally embraced a long-standing  policy tenet of environmentalism. However, some far-thinking people are starting to question whether the 19th and 20th century notions of economic growth make sense today, given what we now know about our finite and shrinking natural resources. tt
                  One major objection to recent environmental regulations is that they produce economic pain with no environmental gain. For example, we heard testimony earlier this year that stringent reporting regulations for ink recycling end up treating some retail printing facilities as if they were large chemical manufacturers. Because the burden of compliance can outweigh the economic benefit, environmental rules have the perverse effect of discouraging recycling for these facilities.  t  Terms for this rhetorical device: “cherrypicking,” “conflation,” “hyperbole.”  An obverse (hypothetical) example, same tricks: Regulations to curb emissions from cement making, drafted in view of amateur home projects, also apply to industrial plants. When regs specific to industry are proposed, plants say they complied once and doing do again will cost jobs, diminish the tax base, and cause them to seriously consider relocating to, say, Africa. In other words, don’t equate a Kinko’s and a 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant.  tt
                  This Earth Day [April 22], let’s celebrate the fact that a strong economy and responsible environmental standards support each other. If we neglect one, we could risk losing the other.  
t  Bobbleheads nod in front, clapping from the family section. But if what Rep. Upton means by “strong economy” comes straight from the new Tea-partyized Republican playbook of Paul Ryan, Scott Walker,  Rick Scott, Jim DeMint, Paul LePage, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Jan Brewer, Mike Pence, Joe Burton, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann —that is, tax cuts for corporations and the rich; far fewer useful health, safety, and financial regulations; expansion of already monstrous military budgets;  higher taxes and medical expenses for the poor, unemployed, sick and elderly.
              t  We might have to rename April 22 Scorched-earth Day.  ttt

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Health Care Must Be All Heart

What's It to Be: the Commonweal or Me?

APART from comments that the health-care bill is Marxist, which are sheer nutball, can we please tone down the rhetoric? This is a complicated issue, and a complicated bill. Let's try to contain the confusion.

Individual health care taxes, despite charges to the contrary, will be raised only for people earning more than 95 percent of Americans and have "Cadillac" (think "Mercedes") policies, and this does not go into effect until 2013. Then for those making $200,000 and up their medical taxes, deducted or prepaid, will increase from $2,900 to $4,700 (tax rate 1.45% to 2.35%) -- a rise of $1,800 a year or $34.61 per week. (The self-employed are taxed at 2.9% but the rise to 3.8% amounts to the same increase -- $1,800 a year.) That's seven bucks a day -- a cocktail at a motel bar, lunch at a fast-food drive-in. I'm sorry, not outrageous.

Bigger picture
Opponents of this bill, please confront several facts: First, the current system is a mess, giving far too much money and power to middlemen such as HMOs and insurance companies, as well as to certain suppliers such as drug companies and device makers, meanwhile under-serving or outright disenfranchising those with pre-existing or chronic conditions, the unemployed, and the poor.

Second, limiting medical coverage is far more expensive in the long run. Why? The uninsured  don't get checkups or do preventive care, which means small, cheap, fixable problems grow big and expensive before they are addressed; then they use emergency rooms, which is very costly; and pregnant poor women don't get good prenatal care, increasing the risk that their babies will be born with problems society will have to pay for the child's whole life.

Third, since somebody has to pay to cover the uncovered, that  should be those who can best afford it. People making more than $200,000, for example – or $4 billion as in “b,” which the top hedge fund manager copped last year. Corporations. The very profitable drug and device companies. Insurance companies and the HMOs.

Health Care and capitalism
It's become a common refrain that capitalism is efficient, that private enterprise is better at solving problems than public institutions. Why, then, are administrative costs for Medicare and Medicaid much lower than those for privately run health care? Yet some insist that patients be given full choice and become consumers, informed (presumably) buyers in the free market of health-care insurance. The way to such choice, they say, is vouchers, which patients will be free to spend on the health-care provider they select. Beyond the certainty that government vouchers will almost by definition fall short of need, how can a sick person possibly choose intelligently and carefully? The array insurance companies is bewildering. And the medical field is an expert system guided by a powerful code of honor, not an open market ruled by caveat emptor. Such an environment will benefit only owners, bankers, entrepreneurs and possibly shareholders.

That outcome used to be unthinkable in this generous, just country. What happened to fairness? To compassion? Indeed to the medical imperative, Primum non nocere (first do no harm)? Widespread commitment to the common good seems to have succumbed to greed and self-interest. If all we care about is money and stuff and our neighbors be damned, American democracy is over and the American dream is dead.
Update 4-24-11: A proposed insurance "interchange" passed by the Oregon senate seems a step in the right direction. It puts all insurance providers on a largely federally funded exchange for Oregonians to visit and chose among. But it still does not address those without and probably unable to afford health insurance, some 600,000 residents according to Portland's leading daily, the Oregonian.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

NYU Is Purple Village Eater

Gargantuan Expansion Planned Over Objections

It is most encouraging that New York Univeristy has realized the expansion of its Greenwich Village campus so far has been “marked by piecemeal planning and undistinguished design,” as Times reporter Robin Pogrebin put it (3/24/10) -- to which I and many other Village residents would add, “to say the least.”  And it is gratifying to read that NYU’s president, John E. Sexton, understands his institution has had “a history of moving forward without listening,” and that it now senses “there’s a lot of wisdom in the community.”

But NYU’s dawning awareness that it lives within a vibrant, historically rich, unusually well-educated and accomplished community is less than reassuring in view of its voracious appetite for Greenwich Village real estate, property and housing stock, which will apparently continue unabated, part of the school’s plans to grow by “40 percent over the next 20 years.” 

What still seems lost on the University, and on the city’s development officials, is that NYU  is not merely changing the face of Greenwich Village. It is engulfing large parts of it and in the process transforming one of the country’s – indeed the world’s – great urban treasures into a monolithic university campus. The one-eyed, one-horned, flyin' purple people eater (NYU’s ubiquitous color is purple) is almost certain to destroy the very thing that drew good students and top faculty to what was until recently a middling institution. Lost will be not just “the wisdom of the community” but the community itself. 

Examples, you ask? NYU's new student center, a fatuous decorated box looming over Washington Square Park and blocking part of the once-stunning view down Fifth Avenue through White’s elegant arch. The school’s destruction of the historic Provincetown Playhouse to build a research center for its law school. The school’s fraudulent rescue of the Poe House: after demolishing it and absorbing the space into its new law school edifice, it built a remote resemblance of the house’s façade into the bulding’s own façade, but half a block away. That’s how NYU bends to community, cultural and historical concerns. 

And the future? One example: The Forbes building on Fifth Avenue and Twelfth Street, which will become NYU property in five years. Local restaurants, bars and businesses that benefited from the patronage of Forbes people will have to look to students, faculty and administrators for cultural and economic sustenance. They'll lose affluent adults and gain students and modestly paid academics.

Of course, New York must continually reinvent itself or become a museum, a Colonial Williamsburg on the Hudson, As urban planners and scholars from Jane Jacobs to Paul Goldberger have pointed out. Healthy reinvention, however, demands not destruction but a kind of assimilation: The new kid on the block doesn’t evict everybody and replace them with his friends but works to fit in. Greenwich Village, after all, has quite successfully reinvented itself a few times already on its own -- another reason why it is so loved. 

“For New York to be a great city,” President Sexton intoned, “we need NYU to be a great university.” That statement is precisely backward. New York is already is a great city -- by many accounts, the planet’s greatest. It already has Columbia, Fordham, and the world’s richest array of first-rate specialty and secondary schools.

NYU needs New York a lot more than New York needs NYU.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Irony About Irony Is . . . Profligate

SAW the Damien Hirst show "End of an Era" at Gagosian's Madison Avenue gallery (February 2010). Noted irony on thuggish irony piled upon condescension and scorn. What else are 3x5-foot photos of individually cut hero diamonds floating in a black background heavily gilt-framed? (And this after the diamond-encrusted platinum skull.) Plus an obligatory slaughtered animal in a vitrine of formaldehyde, but this time just the head of a cow -- get it? the "end" of something in any case: the full-animal-in-formaldehyde era (and good riddance). What a shame: just when he'd figured out his mass-market appeal.

Downstairs was more Hirst stuff from a couple of years back. He cannot be forgiven for big kaleidoscopic patterns made of dead tropical butterflies -- placed, of course, by his large studio staff. As art the idea is crabbed, stilted, fetishist, stultifying; as graphic design it is ordinary and pointless. So why go to the trouble to slaughter and preserve thousands of butterflies? Only the artist knows. About all that can be stomached is his dot paintings, precious grids of mostly quarter-size painted discs that explore variant color. One thinks of Bauhaus instructors whisked forward in time and space to the Benjamin Moore  paint lab circa 2009.

Can a bankruptcy of ideas be an oeuvre? Has getting rich thanks to gullible, status-hungry banker/collectors become art itself? Stay tuned for Hirst's new new era: The art of nothing at all, with his scrawl dancing faintly upon it. Duchamp had the peerless moxie to sign and date a beautiful and base mass object. A century later Hirst signs invoices.

Unduly harsh? Maybe, but doubt and lack of stimulation overwhelm. The gorge riseth. In many ways Damian Hirst seems to taunt, bring it on: My cleverly rapacious financier clients are making me richer by the minute while all of you labor, sweat and yearn.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Anyone can be creative?

I have many times and in many ways struggled with a tortuous dichotomy. I am a creative director by way of the writing side, but my goal would be the same if I were first an art director: synthesis, a way to meld competing or conflicting impulses into a stronger whole than either way alone. This goes not only for the compounding of words and pictures but the assiduous building and support of a brand -- which ultimately resonates through words and images, and perhaps some day not far off through all five senses.

Design-side creative directors often encounter, to their frustration, audiences who miss the point of their work by limiting their reactions to their personal experience, their own idiosyncratic frame of reference.  I am worried that this proclivity among viewers is only going to get more pronounced. Digital cameras, easy-to-use illustration and layout and photo manipulation programs, web site editors and creators like Dreamweaver, animation programs . . . these all foster the dangerous illusion than anyone can be genuinely creative, that talent no longer matters. This phantasm beguiles on the verbal side, too. People easily forget that the end product is not the result of the tools used to create it but the ideas and intuition and professional experience of the human being using the tools -- and often, human beings: only a few creative processes these days avoid collaboration at some stage or level.

I think we are in an uncomfortable phase that is over-dependent on, and over-awed by, technology. It is so easy to be dazzled. We use it for its own sake. The Icarus myth is at least in part a trope about the naive and almost touchingly intoxicating lift of a new way of doing things that promises much but fatally under-delivers at a critical time the pink soft hands that hold it.

Technology can make a -- to rely on current mythology -- very impressive light saber, but only a Jedi can wield it.