Political Animal

Climate Change, Not the Price of Oil, Is the Real Threat To Prosperity

Just a few short hours ago, Donald Trump had one of his usual bizarre twitter meltdowns–this time over oil prices in the wake of the drone attacks on Saudi installations. He seems to be showing a renewed eagerness to go to war over the issue–presumably with Iran, which has (despite its denials) been widely suspected of the attack.

It’s easy to see why. Trump is terrified of the prospect of an economic downturn, not for the empathic or financial reasons that concern most of us, but because economic trouble would almost certainly doom  his already shaky re-election prospects. No president with Trump’s current approval rating has ever been re-elected, and while Trump likely has a fairly high floor of support for cultural reasons there is little likely a lot of room for him to fall with soft supporters. His own trade war is threatening to tip the economy into recession already, and the president can ill afford any further external shocks. Like, say, an increase in oil prices as a result of international sabotage. Hence, a presidential twitter tirade in which Trump claims to be “locked and loaded” and screams, oddly and to no one in particular, “PLENTY OF OIL!”

In the meantime, however, higher oil prices aren’t a threat to the American economy so much as they are to the President’s re-election. The much more urgent threat is playing out in the deaths, injuries and displacement of thousand of people in the Bahamas this month, and in the increasingly severe natural disasters, droughts, and biosphere collapses happening all around the world.

It is often said that climate change will hurt the poor and the developing world worst. This is true for what it’s worth, but this statement allows many Americans to suspect that they will be just fine and that climate change is someone else’s problem. It is not. American coastlines are threatened with inundation, its prairies with scorching drought, its forests with wildfire, its northern regions with ever more severe snowstorms, and its various ecosystems with cascading collapse.

These issues, of course, carry broad economic consequences. In just one example, large parts of the United States will become virtually uninsurable:

“I see no end to the challenges for insurance when it comes to climate change,” Jason Thistlethwaite, a professor of environment and economics at the University of Waterloo, added. “Flooding is another area where you’re going to see a lack of availability and affordability.”

Thistlethwaite said we’ll soon be seeing what he calls “climate redlining.” Redlining was a practice insurance companies engaged in for decades, starting in the 1930s, when companies would outline black neighborhoods on a city map and declare them uninsurable. He believes climate change will cause many neighborhoods to be excluded from insurance policies.

Dr. Carolyn Kousky, executive director at the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Daily Beast that federal disaster aid can often be “limited or delayed,” which is one reason having home insurance is so crucial.

“Many families do not have savings to repair a severely damaged home and for some, taking on debt can be burdensome or not feasible,” Kousky said. “There is really no substitute for insurance for having the needed funds quickly post-disaster to begin recovery. Unfortunately, often those who need the coverage the most are the least likely to be able to afford it.”

Multiplied across city after city and rural community after rural community, and this spells utter economic disaster on a scale larger than the previous housing crisis. With climate change, the cost of inaction today far exceeds the cost of inaction. Inaction is especially perverse considering that mitigation policies would create enormous positive economic activity across multiple sectors, including the sort of low-skill labor under threat from recent economic paradigms.

And, of course, the climate crisis is principally caused and exacerbated by continuing to burn fossil fuels. In that sense, rising oil prices–provided the economic shock is not too sudden and severe–are part of the necessary framework for solving the problem. The more economically advantageous renewable energy is compared to fossil fuels, the faster the market will help shift in that direction without government intervention.

America’s economy is also held hostage by fossil fuels in our military and foreign policy. Even the most jingoistic American would admit that oil interests play a very heavy role in determining when and where America goes to war, and by extension how our tax dollars are spent. In a very real sense, like a junkie in a downward spiral we are harming our ability to pay for needed climate mitigation treatment because we spend so much on military activity to maintain our oil addiction. The sooner we break the cycle, the better for everyone.

Unfortunately, this president refuses to even acknowledge the reality of climate change. Never having served in the military, he seems only too happy to throw volunteer bodies and lives into harm’s way to reduce oil prices in the service of a foreign dictatorship. And it’s not in the interest of the country but rather in his own self-interest.

Interpreting Joe Biden Is More Complicated Than You Think

Former Vice President Joe Biden must have had millions of Democrats wincing during last Thursday’s debate as he fumbled his way through a pointed question on racial inequality in schools. His sentences were incomplete, his thoughts jumped around erratically. He revealed, once again, his tin ear on race.

But if you distill his incoherent response—which did not directly answer the question of Americans’ obligations in the long wake of slavery—you can see that he actually identified the essence of key problems facing impoverished families and their schools. He displayed deeper understanding and proposed more solutions in a disjointed sound bite than all of the other candidates combined.

Here is what he said, annotated in italics:

“Well, they have to deal with the … Look, there is institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining, banks, making sure that we are in a position where—” He doesn’t finish his thought, but he is pointing to banks’ long practice of denying mortgages to blacks and “redlining” poorer neighborhoods out of consideration for loans. That has contributed to entrenched poverty and de facto segregation by community, which has meant that schools have been segregated, as well, by race and income.

“Look, we talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year.” Pumping more funds into poor schools is essential to improve children’s life opportunities. That’s because education funding relies mostly on local property taxes, which create vast disparities in per-pupil expenditures between wealthy and poor school districts.What Biden does not say, and should, is that these difficulties, and others he mentions subsequently, afflict poor whites as well as blacks. There are public schools that don’t have enough textbooks for all students, and teachers pay out of their own pockets to photocopy chapters.

“Give every single teacher a raise to the equal of … a raise of getting out of the $60,000 level.” He identifies a chronic defect of American education: low salaries for teachers, which can be remedied if taxpayers who declare how much they value children put their wallets where their mouths are.

“No. 2, make sure that we bring in to the help with the stud—the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need … We have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy. The teachers are required—I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife was a teacher. They have every problem coming to them.” He is absolutely right about this. Teachers confront problems from home and neighborhood that they have no ability to address. One teacher in Washington, D.C. once told me that he took Granola Bars to class for kids who come hungry. He had no resources to address food scarcity at home. Schools need not just more psychologists, but an array of counselors who can help families get services that are available from nonprofits and government agencies. Biden puts his finger on something crucial here.

Make sure that every single child does, in fact, have three, four, and five-year-olds go to school. School! Not day care, school.” He is recognizing the enormous leg up that pre-school education provides for children in improving their readiness to read and other prompts for entry into first grade. 

“We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t know what—they don’t knowquite what to do.” Parenting is definitely an issue. Biden is on target. Most families below the poverty line are headed by single parents. They might have been badly parented themselves, and they are stressed with shift work, multiple jobs, shoddy housing, unpaid bills, and dangerous neighborhoods. Programs that send caseworkers into homes to assist find that some parents don’t even play with their kids, either because they don’t know how or because they’re frantically busy and exhausted. Again, however, this is not a function of race. In researching my book, The Working Poor, I witnessed poor parenting in certain low-income white families. It’s a point Biden should make.

“Play the radio. Make sure the television—excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night. The phone—make sure the kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school—er, a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.” The record player got him laughed at, but he’s right that the degree of conversation at home helps determine children’s vocabulary and fluency. The benefits and disabilities transcend race, and if Biden meant to imply that black families were less verbal, he couldn’t be more mistaken. 

In fact, while his rambling answer illuminated vexing problems of poverty, it evaded the racial component. Indeed, since being called out by Senator Kamala Harris and others for opposing federally-mandated busing decades ago, Biden has failed to discuss how, or whether, his views have evolved.

Linsey Davis, the ABC moderator who posed the question Thursday, gave him the perfect chance. “I want to talk to you about inequality in schools and race,” she said, and then read his words from 1975:

“You told a reporter, ‘I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.’ You said that some 40 years ago, but as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?”

It is a poignant question that still burdens our society 400 years after the first African slave was brought to these shores. Biden answered it in his way 40 years ago by differentiating between his impunity for the nation’s past and his responsibility for its present. But his own past is, one feels, not exactly his own present on this matter. On that subject, the country needs to hear from him.

Holder Is Wrong: Trump Must Be Prosecuted After Leaving Office

After Donald Trump leaves office, the next Democratic president will have to decide whether to prosecute him for his myriad alleged crimes. Long before then, there will be long parade of Democrats pooh-poohing this idea, arguing that it would be better for the health of the nation for us to look forward, not backward, and to let bygones be bygones lest we risk tearing the country apart.

These voices will all be wrong, just as they were wrong after Bush and Cheney. Failure to hold the Bush regime accountable for its actions did not prevent Republicans from stonewalling every Democratic initiative. It did not prevent the next Republican president from attempting to prosecute his enemies and use the Justice Department as his personal law firm. What it did do was allow an entire administration that had blatantly lied the country into a hideously costly and morally disastrous forever war to simply get away with it. It in many ways set the stage for Donald Trump, because it proved that if the people in charge were willing to lie in a big and brazen enough way, they could get away with it because, much as the banks were too big to fail in the economy, Democrats would always let them skate rather than risk polarizing the country further by holding them accountable.

Going on CNN today, former Attorney General Eric Holder made the first major rhetorical push toward telling Democrats to let the Trump family to get away with it all.

In an interview, David Axelrod asked Holder whether prosecuting Trump post-presidency in the absence of impeachment proceedings would cost Democrats, citing former President Gerald Ford pardoning his predecessor Richard Nixon. “Yes, I think there is a potential cost to the nation by putting on trial a former president, and that ought to at least be a part of the calculus that goes into the determination that has to be made by the next attorney general,” Holder said. “I think we all should understand what a trial of a former president would do to the nation,” he went on, saying that Ford’s decision vis-a-vis Nixon might have cost him the 1976 election.

Holder added, “But you know, I think looking back, I tend to think that that was probably the right thing to do.”

This is incredibly dangerous. The country is already deeply polarized, and becoming ever more so. That’s not going to change for at least the next 20 years pending generational turnover.

By far the greatest danger to the American system of government is the increasing awareness among presidents that they can functionally get away with any level of lawlessness as long as their party has enough Senators to avoid an impeachment conviction.

If our divided politics means we cannot hold an openly criminal president accountable while they are in office, and we fail to prosecute an openly criminal president once they leave, then the president is functionally free of all accountability. That is a guaranteed path to a criminal dictatorship.

In order to save the country, Democrats must be willing to look “backward” and uphold the rule of law.

The Most Important Issue Missing From the Democratic Debates

After three rounds of 2020 Democratic primary debates, a predictable pattern has emerged. First, moderators press candidates to highlight their differences on major issues like health care, immigration reform, or gun control—ostensibly so we, the viewers, can gain a better sense of the distinctions. For example, in Thursday night’s debate, Beto O’Rourke came out in favor of a mandatory gun buyback program; Amy Klobuchar said she preferred starting with a voluntary buyback; Cory Booker supported gun licensing; and all the candidates appeared to agree on universal background checks.

Next, a candidate uses an issue as a springboard to mention political dysfunction or the corrosive influence of money in politics. This time, it was Elizabeth Warren, who gave a reason for why Congress hasn’t enacted widely supported proposals like universal background checks: “The answer is corruption, pure and simple.” Then the candidate proposes a solution to the dysfunction. Warren called for eliminating the filibuster. Andrew Yang proposed giving every American one hundred “democracy dollars” to donate to the candidate or cause of their choice. In the first debate, Pete Buttigieg said we may need a constitutional amendment to “clear up” Citizens United.

The audience applauds, but then the conversation stops. Moderators move onto the next issue as if political reform is either unimportant or as if a candidate’s ideas for reform were implausible. The problem is that political reform is never treated as an issue itself, which is a shame. Not only is it a winning issue for Democrats. It’s necessary for Democrats to implement most of the plans they spend the rest of their debates discussing.

Politically speaking, Democrats should be talking about political reform whenever they can. There are few other issues where Democrats diverge so widely from their Republican counterparts while staying in step with the vast majority of Americans. Polling released in 2018 revealed that 66 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of Independents, and 85 percent of Democrats support a constitutional amendment to let Congress set limits on campaign related spending. Yet only one current Republican member of Congress—John Katko, of New York—has signed on to support such an amendment while more than 140 Democratic House members and 46 Senators have expressed support for such a proposal. Similarly, 236 House Democrats support H.R.1, a bill that includes provisions to protect voting rights and enact publicly financed elections; no Republicans have signed on. It’s as if Republicans are giving Democrats a fastball down the middle but Democrats are afraid to swing.

Political reform also highlights one of Donald Trump’s most prominent broken promises—draining the swamp. Trump ran as an outsider who vowed to clean up Washington, but even many of his supporters acknowledge that he hasn’t. He filled his cabinet with individuals from the top one percent. He criticized former Attorney General Jeff Sessions when congressmen Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter were indicted for financial malfeasance. His Tax Cuts and Jobs Act disproportionately benefits the richest Americans. Trump hasn’t drained the swamp so much as wallowed in it.

The eventual Democratic nominee is not going to defeat Trump solely by distinguishing herself on policy differences. It will depend on big, favorable contrasts. Advocating to get rid of big money in politics is one of the most favorable distinctions Democrats have against Trump. They should use it.

More importantly, structural reform is essential to actually put into effect many of the proposals Democrats are discussing. Last week, the party dedicated an entire town hall to climate change and outlined a number of bold plans—which, to be sure, represents a strong contrast with Republicans. It was especially admirable after the Democratic National Committee nixed a debate devoted to the issue. But as long as the fossil fuel industry spends more than $100 million a year on lobbying, the chances of any of these plans coming to fruition are slim.

The same can be said on health care. Truthfully, Medicare For All may not pass even with a Democratic President and control of both houses of Congress. Only fourteen Democrats have signed on to Bernie Sanders’ Senate bill. And yet, even more incremental health care reforms are unlikely to succeed unless the filibuster is eliminated and the power of pharmaceutical companies is drastically diminished through limits on lobbying and campaign spending. For years, pharmaceutical companies have successfully lobbied against measures that could keep prescription drugs costs down, like allowing the government to negotiate with drug companies or making it easier for generic drugs to come to market. There is no structural reason to believe the next Congress will be any different. Even if Democrats reclaim the Senate, Mitch McConnell could still employ the filibuster.

So while the first three debates have resulted in detailed discussions of health care, trade, and immigration, political reform has been given short shrift. Part of the fault lies with the debates’ moderators. (How many times must Amy Klobuchar be asked whose plans she considers “extreme?”) But the bulk of the problem is that there are no easy answers, so candidates are reluctant to do more than recite applause lines, which ultimately undermines the very purpose of debates—to set priorities, flesh out plans, and establish differences between candidates.

Warren and Buttigieg support ending the filibuster, but Harris, Sanders, and Booker are reluctant, considering how it has served those Democrats in the Senate minority. Voters, however, deserve to hear that discussion. Passing campaign finance reform has historically been a bipartisan issue in Congress, but the Supreme Court, through Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United, and other decisions has struck down campaign spending limits on individuals, corporations, and unions. Bipartisan support could empower the return of these reforms, but besides Klobuchar, other candidates seem unwilling to mention the prospect of working with Republicans. The next time a candidate mentions overturning Citizens United, they should be pressed on how exactly how they plan to do it .

None of this is to say that the Democratic debates have been bereft of substance; they haven’t. At times, they have been positively mired in details, as when Julian Castro pressed O’Rourke about the federal statute criminalizing illegal immigration. But after a half an hour of candidates arguing over Medicare For All versus a public option, it sounds more like Democrats are debating what they would do as president of a theoretical country where sweeping legislation is easily enacted. It doesn’t seem rooted in reality. If Democrats want to make their plans possible and put Trump on the defensive, offering credible ideas for political reform is the only real place to start.