Obama Fails To Lead on the Environment

My computer has been broken for two weeks now, so I’m a little late with this, writing on borrowed equipment. I hope to be back on schedule by next week.


President Obama’s record on environmental issues is mixed. He has done some good things: enforced fishing limits, committed money to building a national high-speed rail network, and moved to get arsenic out of our drinking water, for example.

On the other hand, he has sabotaged the UN climate change negotiations (see Bill McKibben’s article for the details). He promoted a carbon-trading scheme that lets polluters continue to pollute as long as they finance phony development schemes in the less developed countries (see Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Cap and Trade” for more on this). And he pretends that the phrase “clean coal” has something to do with limiting greenhouse gas emissions. (“Clean coal” meant coal with very low sulfur, so that its use would reduce acid rain. But carbon dioxide comes from burning carbon – and that’s what coal is! What Obama really means is carbon sequestration – burning the coal, getting the same carbon dioxide, but then somehow bottling it up and storing it away.)

That was all in his first two years, when he was supposedly exercising visionary leadership! Now, beginning with the lame-duck session of Congress in late 2010, and continuing through the State of the Union address in 2011, we are seeing the new, more moderate Obama. Aside from a dumb joke about how salmon protection is irrational, environmental issues were presented only in the guise of programs to create jobs, and as investments in competitiveness. Steven Cohen of the Earth Institute at Columbia University has argued in Huffington Post that this is a sound climate change policy, just not presented as such – steath environmentalism, you might say.

There are two fatal weaknesses with this approach. First, it is not enough to meet the need. Most climate experts think we need to get greenhouse gas to 350 parts per billion in the atmosphere to avoid catastrophic effects. It is now 392 parts per billion, and climbing. Second, the reason we don’t get more effective policies is that most people do not understand the problem. That’s why the industry can talk about “clean coal,” it’s why Obama can talk about developing oil shale as an environmental policy, it’s why biofuels (simply carbon from another source) are presented as “green,” and why the climate change deniers have not gone the way of the smoking and cancer deniers. Only straight talk and clear explanations by the President and other political leaders will get us where we need to be. Steath environmentalism won’t do it.

New START Is a False Start

     The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is going to be ratified today, unless something very surprising happens at the last minute. This is certainly a victory for President Obama. But is it a victory for those of us who want to eliminate nuclear weapons? I think not.

      The treaty does do one good thing. It requires both Russia and the US to reduce their number of strategic nuclear missiles (“strategic” means that they can go a long way, so that one of the two countries can hit the other one with a missile; “tactical” weapons are those that won’t go as far) and launchers to 1,500 missiles and 700 launchers. That’s fewer than were permitted under the previous, never-ratified START treaty, so it’s a good thing.

      That sounds great. Unfortunately, President Obama got the votes he needed to ratify the treaty by promising to expand the nuclear arms race in other ways. He commited himself to an $85 billion program of “modernization” (i.e., developing new, more powerful and active missiles to replace the ones the US has now), and he promised to proceed with a version of President Reagan’s “Star Wars” (aka “missile defense”) proposal.

     As Alice Slater of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation put it, “. . . if the U.S. persists in developing its nuclear infrastructure with new bomb factories while threatening Russia with proliferating missiles, it’s unlikely that this modest New START will help us down the path to peace.”

     From President Obama’s point of view, the important thing was to win the vote, even if winning required making commitments that actually hurt the cause of nuclear disarmament. What’s missing from this approach is a strategy that can really lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons. Instead, the emphasis of the US has been on nuclear nonproliferation, limiting the possession of nuclear weapons to states that have them already. This approach has failed. The number of nuclear states continues to grow. As I’ve said before, we cannot reasonably expect Iran, North Korea, or any other state to refrain from developing nuclear weapons unless the US is getting rid of its own.

     For further reading on abolishing nuclear weapons, see The Challenge of Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, edited by David Krieger.

The Real Threat Behind Obama’s Tax-cut Giveaway

As you have heard, the tax-cut compromise was enacted last night, and will become law as soon as President Obama signs it. I’d been on the radio all over the country explaining why it’s bad, but I guess Congress didn’t listen to me!

     I just want to make two points today, so I’ll keep this short. First, the House Democrats were really disappointing. Everyone expected them to add an amendment to increase the estate tax on estates over $3.5 million, giving them some chance to negotiate a better deal from the Senate. They were supposed to have the votes for that, but they didn’t do it.

      By the way, I keep hearing conservatives call it the “death tax,” as if that’s supposed to be bad. Why? In the UK, “death duties” were introduced by the Labour government of the 1940s, specifically to break up the hold of the old aristocracy on the countryside. It was wildly popular under that name! Maybe we should be more straightforward here.

     But on to my second point. Today’s Washington Post reports that:

Key lawmakers in both parties have embraced a deficit-reduction plan produced by Obama’s fiscal commission, which includes a tax overhaul that would lower rates across the board but raise additional revenue by closing dozens of long-standing loopholes, such as the mortgage-interest deduction claimed by many homeowners. Meanwhile, the relative ease with which Obama and the GOP were able to strike a deal over the Bush cuts has raised hopes on both sides for productive talks in the future.

     In other words, now that they’ve warmed up by preserving the Bush tax cuts and undermining Social Security with the “payroll tax holiday,” Obama, the Republicans, and the Democratic leaders in Congress are going to go on to pursue the wholesale attack on Social Security called for by the deficit-reduction commission. That may be the worst part of the whole deal.

     What do you think? And what do you think those opposed to the deal should do now?

What’s wrong with Obama’s tax-bill compromise

There are four basic issues with the tax deal President Obama announced Monday: economic stimulus, fairness, the federal deficit, and (surprise! It has nothing to do with the basic issues) social security. Let me take them in order.

1. Economic stimulus. In times of recession, government is supposed to put more money into the economy than it takes out — i.e., run a deficit. It can do this in two ways: spend more, or tax less. Spending more provides a more direct link to jobs, since jobs are created directly by the spending; it also allows government, through democratic processes, to determine what the public priorities are. We could spend a lot on a high-speed train network, renewable energy, education, and other things everyone agrees are desirable. Tax cuts for working people also lead pretty directly to jobs, since people are likely to use the money to increase consumption. Tax cuts for the rich are another matter — the rich can consume as much as they want already (that’s what “rich” means), so they will invest the money. In the 1980s, Reagan argued that there wasn’t enough investment money around to get the economy moving, so he turned to tax cuts as a “supply-side” stimulus. Whether or not that was right then, it is certainly not right now. The problem is just the opposite — because most available investments are risky, investors are sitting on their money. So tax cuts from the rich are not likely to lead to jobs at all.

2. Fairness. Ever since the Reagan administration, the capitalist class has been continuously increasing its proportional share of the national income. There are many parts to this: lower taxes for the rich, higher taxes for the poor; eliminating the estate tax, so that the children of the rich can be rich without having to work; limiting the power of labor unions, the major institutional force for greater equality, by weakening the labor laws (see Michael Goldfield’s book The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States); and now, the Citizens United decision permitting corporations to spend unlimited money to influence elections. This involves more than fairness – it’s also a matter of power. Money buys power, so as the rich get richer it becomes harder and harder for the rest of us to bring fairness back into the system. The progressive alternative was to give everyone a tax cut (that is, extend the existing tax cuts) on income less than $250,000 per year. The compromise accepts the Republican alternative to give those with higher incomes an additional, larger tax cut. This is contrary to fairness, and should be rejected. (The package does contain one progressive component, extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit. This is the only part of the tax package that gives more to the poor than to the rich.)

The Federal Deficit. As I said in the stimulus portion above, a deficit is a good thing right now, but it should be the kind of deficit that goes away with prosperity. Spending more on unemployment compensation is a good example; with prosperity, unemployment goes down and so does spending. But extra tax cuts for the rich are a permanent hole in the government’s ability to do positive things.

Social security. The most outrageous part of the deal is the “temporary” cut in payroll taxes. For years the establishment has been howling that the social security trust fund is going broke. It isn’t, but that’s the topic for another essay. However, it will go broke if we cut the flow of revenue into the fund. All the conservatives complaining about social security should be complaining about this – they are not, only because they understand that this payroll tax cut will achieve their real objective: destroying social security. As Jed Lewison has been pointing out on Daily Kos, there will be just as much pressure to extend the “temporary” payroll tax cuts when they expire as there is to extend the “temporary” Bush tax cuts today. Labor Notes has a good article with further analysis of this point.
Obama’s tax deal gets some temporary good things by making some bigger bad things permanent. I hope it is defeated.