Friday, November 14, 2014

Inmates Control the Asylum

Now that a week has passed since the November 4 election, it may be time to assess the damage and the prospects for the next two years. And of course it’s easy to attribute the debacle to Republican money made possible by Citizens United. For example, everyone on the left knows that the Koch Brothers contributed untold millions to super-pacs that bought tons of TV ads making the Republican victories possible. But what we may not have known until recently is that these same brothers, some of the biggest and dirtiest oil men in the nation, actually have leases on about 1.1 million acres of Canada’s tar sands land, the biggest non-Canadian leaseholder in Alberta (see Washington Post, 3/20/2104). If they can get the Keystone pipeline built (the issue Republicans say is first on their agenda), they stand todouble their fortune—from about $100 billion they have now to about $200 billion in a few years. That’s why they’re willing to invest millions into political support for tea-partiers and conservatives in general. (Someone without money, like myself, would have thought that $100 billion might be enough; it could support me and everyone I’ve ever known for a lifetime in unimagined luxury; but not for these guys.)
            But of course it wasn’t just money that the Repugnants used to win the election. They also did everything they could to mess with the vote, suppressing it here, making it impossible to unseat their candidates in safe districts there. In general, this means targeting cities and urban areas (where minorities live) in order to enable rural and suburban areas (where whites live) to dominate the vote. Several methods have been used to achieve this. First, by taking over state houses in key states, they’ve managed to gerrymander voting districts to such an extent that even were the Democrats able to get out their vote, it wouldn’t matter. All the Dems power has been limited to urban zones, while suburban and rural zones have been crazy-quilted in such a way as to vote-proof their conservative candidates. Then these clever fellows instituted voter ID laws that made it almost impossible for minorities to comply—either because getting birth certificates and other IDs were too difficult or expensive, or by making common forms of ID ineligible. Though Republicans routinely allege massive voter fraud, studies in recent years have all given the lie to this dodge; there has been almost no voter fraud in recent years (one study found only 31 incidents nationwide between 2000 and 2014), especially compared to the millions of voters who have been disenfranchised. And finally, some clever lawyer type came up with the scheme known as Crosscheck. Used by 27 states, Crosscheck involves going through huge voter rolls in various states and trying to find name matches—which often occurs with common minority names like Jackson or Kim or Garcia or Patel. Then they claim, on no other basis than a name match, that a Jackson or Lee or Garcia has voted in two different states—an obvious violation of law—and succeed in getting the names thrown off the rolls. In Georgia, this worked to throw 40,000 voters off the state rolls, thus disqualifying a huge percentage of voters that had been newly registered as a result of a campaign by Atlanta’s Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church. (For a summary of these methods, see Juan Thompson’s piece for The Intercept, reprinted 9 Nov. in Reader Supported News[], where he notes that overall turnout in this election was 36.6%, a modern low.)
            This brings us to the underlying point of this election. Yes, it is surely to get Republicans elected to control the Congress. And yes, it is surely to allow billionaires like the Koch Brothers to control the government. But it’s more specific than that, and it’s not just a bunch of scared white males trying to maintain their positions of privilege, though it’s that too. This is about the deeper fear among conservatives that demographics as well as scientific truth is turning against them and could upend the huge victory they’ve achieved in recent years—convincing the world that free trade, deregulated free market capitalism and globalization are divine edicts from nature and hence the only game in town. I addressed this in a previous blog called Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes’ brilliant summary of the conservative battle to undermine the science of cigarette smoke, CFCs, acid rain, and global warming. Beginning to read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate has buttressed the case even more. Because what Klein does is not simply to cite all the reasons that the science of global warming has become definitive, compelling and truly urgent; she makes clear that the massive threat to human civilization posed by global warming cannot be stopped short of a massive change in our economic system. This is the sense in which she titles a chapter with the counterintuitive slogan, “The Right is Right.” Oreskes actually made a similar point in her book. That is, the right, the tea partiers, the conservative nut jobs who continually make apparently lunatic statements equating liberals with socialists and communists who intend to impose collectivist social controls on freedom-loving individualists like themselves—they actually have a point. And that point is simple. The world has allowed global warming to get so out of hand that amelioration measures that might have worked two or three decades ago can no longer work now. Globalization and its resultant export of the West’s industrial base to Asian countries like Korea and Bangladesh and China and India have exacerbated the problem to the point where now only large, cooperative planetary measures can work. And by “work” is meant keeping global warming below the 2Celsius target internationally-agreed upon recently. So, if we are to keep overall temperature rise to that 2o C mark or less—and Klein makes clear that the International Energy Agency warns that if we don’t do this by 2017, a mere three years away, our fossil fuel economy will “lock in” truly dangerous, runaway warming—then the measures feared by the right will become mandatory. The CO2-producing methods we’ve been so profligate with until now (indeed, even more profligate since the 1990s when scientists began their dire warnings about the perils involved in continuing to burn fossil fuels) will force governments to impose measures that could well end up ending capitalism and free markets and so-called “free” trade as we know it.
            In truth, Klein makes the case in her book that this result is all but demanded and assured. Here is how she puts it in her Introduction:
…our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature….So we are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate (Klein, 21-22). 
Now we know why the Koch Brothers and Crosscheck and all that Republican energy was put into the recent election. These are the people who know that if the truth about global warming is allowed to reassert itself (Klein points out that as recently as 2007, a Harris poll found 71% of Americans believing that burning fossil fuel alters the climate), they and their whole economic system, their whole wealth system, their whole belief system, their entire worldview, is doomed. As Klein puts it beautifully a bit later, “Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests” (41). And it does; because the threat of global warming demands one thing above all: collective action by the world’s nations, especially the nations that have profited most from burning fossil fuels, Great Britain, Europe in general, and the United States of America. And collective action, regulation, environmentally-based action to preserve the planet from the massive changes to life that excessive warming will unleash, is already unleashing, goes against everything conservatives purport to believe.
            So we understand why Mitch McConnell and John Boehner announced what their preferred agendas would include: putting an end to EPA interference in coal and other energy production (like fracking), passing the laws to enable the Keystone pipeline to bring all that tar sands sludge into the U.S. and through New Orleans, and fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership. All are intended to energize the energy-wasting, globalized capitalist system which fuels their wealth and success. Naomi Klein is particularly revelatory about how trade rules and the WTO (World Trade Organization) fits into this diabolical system. Recently, a case came before the WTO relating to both trade and solar panels produced in Ontario, Canada. The solar company was/is run by Paolo Maccario, an Italian businessman who moved his solar factory to Ontario in 2010 due to its Green Energy and Green Economy Act to promote the production of renewable energy there. Besides providing subsidies to green companies, the Act ensured that a percentage of the workers and the materials (between 40% and 60%) companies used were local to Ontario. This made sense, especially after the economic crisis that had earlier devastated the province. The plan worked quite well, and by 2012, Ontario was the largest solar producer in Canada, with only one coal-fired plant left.  There was a fly in the ointment, though: the WTO rules about discrimination against outside producers. Japan and then the European Union brought claims against Ontario’s requirement for those percentages to be sourced locally, saying that this requirement would “discriminate against equipment for renewable energy generation facilities produced outside Ontario.” That is, by Japan and the Europeans. And the WTO agreed, ruling against Canada that the buy-local rules were illegal. Ontario then had no choice but to void the local-content rules that were the heart of the program, and Maccario’s solar operation—by common consent producing the best solar panels anywhere—had to pull back and suspend all its plans for expansion.
            Thus, the “national treatment” rules in almost all free-trade agreements (and they will operate in the Trans Pacific Partnership that the Congress wants to vote on right away, and which Barack Obama is even now trying to facilitate on his Asia trip) work directly against local laws that are intended to support green manufacturing to help and heal the environment. It is an absurdity. But that is what the free-marketeers—i.e. the multinational corporations who rule the world these days—have worked day and night to achieve. Trade trumps the planet. That would seem to be their motto. And it is happening in every nation, all the time. Klein cites another example from 2012, when an oil company decided to use NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement so beloved of our politicians) to challenge Quebec’s fracking moratorium, “claiming that it robbed the company of its right to drill for gas in the province” (72). As Klein sums it up,
To allow arcane trade law, which has been negotiated with scant public scrutiny, to have this kind of power over an issue so critical to humanity’s future, is a special kind of madness. 
            And it is. Madness. But then, what is one to think of another outcome of the recent Republican victory in the Senate: that, since the majority party selects committee chairmen from its members, the new head of the Senate’s Committee on the Environment and Public Works will be none other than the chief denialist in the U.S. Congress, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Inhofe is the author of the book,The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. He has said things like “God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous;” and that the temperature increases from global warming “may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives.” In any country but the United States, putting such a person at the head of such a critical committee would be considered madness indeed. But here we are, with Inhofe poised to take over from Senator Barbara Boxer as head of the committee most responsible for laws related to our environment and the greatest threat to the planet in history.
            So that’s the ultimate skinny on the last election. The most deranged inmates are now in control of the asylum.

Lawrence DiStasi