Sunday, February 26, 2006

Gay Rights Are Human Rights

My favorite newspaper is The Onion because their satire typically nails truth’s core in a manner the “respectable” media simply can’t. My favorite article from them was a couple years ago about a husband and wife in Montana that divorced because they felt “threatened” by gay marriage. In their inimitable manner, The Onion illustrated just how asinine the debate over gay marriage truly is. The notion that one can feel “threatened” by gay marriage or equal protection under the law for an entire community is utterly moronic.

Whenever I read or hear about some Christian reactionary protesting the gay community’s quest for a basic right such as visitation access to their partner in a hospital, I immediately recall Shakespeare’s classic line, me thinks you doth protest too much.” As David Brock exposed in his tell all book several years ago, “Blinded by the Right: The Conscious of An Ex-Conservative,” the Republican Party is compromised of many closet homosexuals, who profit from a cottage industry of hate spewing homophobic rhetoric. Much of the Republican Party is financed by efforts to deny homosexuals health benefits, equal protection under the law as workers, and promote a culture of violence against them in the name of God. In the Republican mindset, God only loves members of their constituency and gays are on the outside. Unless of course they conceal their orientation and actively work to promote the conservative cause, as David Brock used to.

While interning at the corporate library of American Express in 2001, I came across one of their internal marketing intelligence reports that illustrate America’s hypocrisy regarding gays. American Express noted that contrary to public perception, homosexuals are mainstream contributors of society. Typically well-credentialed and earning incomes commiserate of high skilled professionals. American Express therefore wanted to develop a marketing campaign that appealed to homosexuals to earn their business without offending “middle America.” In other words, “we want your money but we don’t want to be associated with you.” Amex feared the sort of reaction that bedeviled Ford Motor Co. years later when Christian groups organized a boycott of the company for daring to promote themselves in a gay pride magazine.

A contributing factor for American Express’s ambivalence is that Democrats have not aggressively and unapologetically advocated for human rights. The time has long past for the Democrats to stop hiding underneath their covers and tell it the way it is. This entire debate needs to be reframed as defending human rights instead of promoting “the gay agenda.” Well, once and for all what the hell is the gay agenda? Too many Americans perceive it as an unruly mob riding down their suburban streets on floats, dressed in drag and chanting “we’re queer, we’re here, get used to it!” In reality the so- called “gay agenda” is about human rights and those who oppose human rights in the United States need to be put on the defensive forthwith.

That means the Democrats have to cease their hypocrisy about coveting the gay vote while simultaneously supporting “state’s rights.” Human rights are universal and too important to be left to the machinations of state and local governments. An example of this was recently reported by a Green activist Alaskan blog called, The Ester Republic. Alaska’s state legislature is currently proposing an amendment to their constitution, that would not only ban gay marriage but also not recognize any benefits for heterosexual couples not legally married. So when Democrats declare they’re personally for civil unions but willing to defer the issue to states, they’re giving carte blanche to state legislatures such as Alaska's to tread upon human rights. How is that any better than states rights advocacy that supported segregationist policies decades ago?

Even worse, deferring the matter to state governments implies there is something inherently wrong with supporting equal protection under the law for millions of gays. The Democrats are conveying a mealy mouthed rationale that isn’t fooling anyone: “if you the good people of Kansas or Wisconsin prefer to trample on your fellow citizens feel free. Understand we’re going to throw some rhetorical crumbs to the gay community because we’re pandering for their votes but you don’t need to worry that we support their agenda.” Has it worked? On a national level the Democrats continue to be pummeled on values even as there is no practical difference between them and the Republicans on the issue because both parties are deferring to the states.

Yes, the Republicans supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the Federal level but that never had a chance to pass anyway. The real action is taking place on the local level and the trend is disturbing. Once upon a time this country had “slave” states and “free” states and it appears we’re headed towards “tolerant” states and “homophobic” states under the law. That is not acceptable. It’s wonderful some mayors are presiding over gay marriages while different states have codified civil unions. But suppose your roots are in a community that doesn’t provide equal protection under the law? We're supposed to be one country.

My own attitude about this issue evolved over time. I grew up in a suburb that is best described as cookie cutter white bread land. I later attended a small liberal arts college containing a high percentage of homosexuals. Somehow, even at college I remained apathetic about homosexual politics. On an abstract level, I suppose I supported equal protection under the law for gays but on a personal level it had little impact on my life. Indeed, the only extent it mattered to me personally was that lesbians were not eligible for my pursuit! However, after college I became friends with someone I worked with at an employment agency. He described to me his traumatic journey to fit in with mainstream society when he simply wasn’t wired that way. Whenever he dated a girl in high school he found the female body unappealing. He grew up in South Carolina and was afraid to reveal his true self. The one impression from him that always remained with me was how he and his partner resembled every other couple I had ever met. When I last saw them they were considering their future plans and very much hoped to adopt children. After meeting them the issue was no longer an abstraction for me.

On a political level, Democratic politicians treat gay issues as part of a grand political conundrum to be finessed. Some Democrats are hoping to replicate the success of politicians on a local level such as Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and focus solely on meat and potato issues while adopting the cultural mores of a particular region. That only works for so long however. The Republicans will always engage the values debate on a national level and the Democrats will never outflank them on the right. Nor should they try. Straddling the center is transparent on a moral issue such as human rights and can’t be finessed. It certainly didn’t work for John Kerry in 2004 who boasted that his position on gay marriage matched that of Vice President Cheney’s.

I’m pragmatic. I accept that Democrats have to move to the cultural center on issues such as guns and religion in public life. On human rights however the Democrats need to learn that strength stems from authenticity. The party will win more respect if it doesn’t back down and unequivocally states that human rights are universal and not to be trampled upon in state capitals. Equal protection under the law on the Federal level for gays should be the unequivocal position of Democrats seeking higher office. Such a posture will demonstrate toughness and show that Democrats are a party one can count on in a foxhole. When attacked for supporting the “gay agenda,” the response is easy: “I support human rights. Why don’t you?” Anything less is immoral.

SIDEBAR: Today's posting just became a recommended diary on Daily Kos in case anyone is interested in reviewing the growing number of comments posted there. I'm gratified because I consider this issue to be vitally important and in need of maximum exposure.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Can Yahoo Be Indicted At the Hague?

The heart of international law is a concept known as “legal personality.” Malcom Shaw, an esteemed legal scholar wrote in 1986 that,

“In any legal system, certain entities, whether they be individuals or companies, will be regarded as possessing rights and duties enforceable by law. Thus an individual may prosecute or be prosecuted for assault and a company can sue for breach of contract. They are able to do this because the law recognizes them as ‘legal persons’ possessing the capacity to have and to maintain certain rights, and being subject to perform specific duties. Just which persons will be entitled to what rights in what circumstances will depend upon the scope and character of the law.”

Hence, there can be no doubt that under international law, Yahoo has a legal personality. Typically, any company’s engagement with international law pertains to either contractual obligations or following the municipal legal codes of United Nations member states in which they’re conducting business. However, the information age and globalization forces us to consider whether a company may be held legally accountable for violating human rights under international law. Morally, it is easy to agree with what Amnesty International wrote in 1998:

“Multinational companies have a responsibility to contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights. In an increasingly globalized world economy, their decisions and actions impact directly on governmental policies and on the enjoyment of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls on 'every individual and every organ of society' to play its part in securing universal observance of human rights. Companies and financial institutions are organs of society, and as their operations come under scrutiny around the world, this is increasingly demanded by consumers, shareholders and the communities with whom they interact.”
Amnesty International was specifically referring to how multinational corporations treat their employees as well as unions. What legal recourse however exists when a corporation utilizes their products to assist a member state in the violation of an individual’s human rights? Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist, is serving a ten-year prison sentence in China for sending an email to the Unites States. Mr. Tao was accused of “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities” by using his Yahoo email account. Court transcripts indicate that Yahoo provided account-holder information on him.

China’s government accused Mr. Tao of sending an email summarizing an internal Communist Party directive to a foreign source. The Communist Party directive had warned Chinese journalists of possible social unrest during the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June, and directed them not to facilitate protests through the media. By the standards of international conventions and customs, Tao was imprisoned for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. This is a right long established in international law as well as the Chinese Constitution.

Clearly, as a legal personality Mr. Tao is entitled to the right of free expression. Furthermore, as a legal personality the Chinese government is obligated to follow it’s own laws as well as international convention regarding individual rights. Finally, as an accomplice in the violation of international law and a legal personality in their own right, legal doctrine would seem to indicate that Yahoo can be held accountable. Unfortunately, only member states can submit cases to the International Court of Justice. The court receives its mandate from Article 92 of the United Nations Charter. Consequently, member states have to concede to any proceedings pertaining to entities under their legal jurisdiction for any prosecution to take place. It is unlikely in the extreme that the United States would concede to the prosecution of Yahoo at the Hague.

It therefore seems reasonable to consider amending the U.N. Charter to allow the prosecution of corporations such as Yahoo. As most member states will be opposed, this will require a grassroots international mobilization of citizens across the globe. We live in a world where corporations hold as much power over our lives as governments if not more. The power and influence of a company such as Yahoo transcends national boundaries. While the worldwide boycotting of Yahoo’s services is certainly powerful, it is insufficient by itself. The world we now live in demands an institutionalized enforcement of standards for corporations when it comes to human rights. Mr. Tao is currently serving time behind bars and denying Yahoo's executives profits through the boycotting of their service is not a punishment fitting the crime. Yahoo’s entire management team, including CEO Terry Semel as well as co-founders Jerry Yang and David Filo deserve to sit in the docks at the Hague alongside Slobodan Milosevic. That’s the sort of message that needs to be delivered to the international community of corporations.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

America's Green Prophet: Rachel Louise Carson

Rachel Louise Carson was a charter member of the “reality based community.” Upon reading the latest revelations about Greenland’s glaciers in Friday’s Washington Post, I found myself reviewing the experience and words of Rachel Carson. Her publication of Silent Spring in 1962 gave birth to the modern environmentalism movement. Ostensibly, the purpose of Carson’s book was to educate the public about the dangers of DDT and the harm inflicted upon nature by the pesticide industry. Carson was a university-trained biologist who served in the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service and published numerous books about the world’s oceans in the forties and fifties. With precision, hard data, and powerful prose, Silent Spring illustrated the dangers to our food supply, nature, and way of life. The Tom DeLays of Carson’s time responded with a vengeance and warned that her book would cause starvation and famine. Dollar signs were more important to the pesticide industry than sparing generations from daily exposure to toxic chemicals.

Thankfully, President John F. Kennedy and his wife read a condensed version published by The New Yorker and he commissioned the President’s Science Advisory Committee to study the problem of pesticide use. In those days we had a President interested in hard facts and data. Less than a year later the commission issued a report confirming the damaging effects of toxic pesticides. A month before the report was made public, CBS television broadcast a documentary entitled, The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson despite pressure from sponsors not to show the documentary. This was another time and while broadcasting networks were certainly influenced by corporate sponsors, they also had a social conscious that transcended profits.

The exposure resulted in numerous requests for Carson to speak to the dangers of pesticides in the environment. In 1963 she testified before a Senate committee on environmental hazards, insisting that the public had an inalienable right to be free from poisons introduced by others into the environment. Carson also advocated in her testimony for the creation of a Federal agency, free from influence by the private sector to regulate the use and creation of pesticides. Her recommendation later became the Environmental Protection Agency that banned the pesticide DDT in 1972.

Although Carson’s research addressed issues far removed from today’s challenges, her words echo across time and further illustrate just how shortsighted we’ve been in the care of our planet. This passage in the final third of Silent Spring is especially striking:

“Through all these new, imaginative, and creative approaches to the problem of sharing our earth with creatures there runs a constant theme, the awareness that we are dealing with life – with living populations and all their pressures and counter-pressures, the surges and recessions. Only by taking account of such life forces and by cautiously seeking to guide them into channels favorable to ourselves can we hope to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves.”

Carson was really speaking to implications far broader than pesticides. Two years before the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, she was attempting to warn humanity that nature was far more powerful than the modern world. Carson’s wisdom is especially poignant today. Indeed, it is apparent that our planet should not only be respected but also feared. Global warming may well be God’s blowback for dissing mother Earth. Yet our so called religious President and his culture of life Republican Party see fit to punish anyone who dares speak truth about this unseen ticking time bomb. Bush’s propagandists have taken to boasting that the President is reading biographies about his predecessors because he’s determined to be a “transformational” figure in history. Sadly, our President and his followers don’t seem to grasp that in 2006, preservation of our planet is far more important than bestriding the globe as a 21st century Caesar. Hence, I’d prefer that his librarian wife retrieve a copy of Silent Spring for him to read instead.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Pro-Business Liberalism

Too many liberals are reluctant to embrace the pro-business label. Meanwhile, the DLC Joe Lieberman types are really corporatists who claim to be pro-business. This contradiction places the Democratic Party in a hole because our political dialogue doesn’t distinguish between those who are pro-business and corporatist. The distinction is important because the corporatist Republican Party has benefited from the perception that they are the pro-business party and the modest risk-taking entrepreneur has supported them against their own interests. Meanwhile, the Democrats are enduring the worst perceptions among voters from both wings of their party: liberals reluctance to identify with pro-business policies makes the party appear in favor of handouts while the DLC reinforces the suspicion among voters that the Democrats are just as corporatist as the Republicans. It’s an odd contradiction and a rare feat of political ineptitude: the two wings of the party have managed to make Democrats appear socialist and corporatist at the same time.

The genesis of this affliction occurred in the late eighties when Tony Cohelo, a ranking member in the Democrats House leadership aggressively courted major corporations. Cohelo had good intentions. He wanted the Democratic Party to be more competitive after having its clock cleaned by Ronald Reagan twice. Consequently, the Democrats lost touch with their populist roots as they wined and dined corporate CEOs for campaign cash. Those Democrats who opposed this trend were labeled “protectionist,” outside the mainstream, and opposed to entrepreneurial capitalism. Sadly, as the Democrats became less identified with economic populism, the Republicans were able to exploit cultural populism while small business owners were persuaded that Democrats were going to raise their taxes and impose stifling government regulation. As the party’s base soured on Democrats for supporting pro-corporatist NAFTA legislation, small business owners responded to Newt Gingrich’s rhetoric about reducing taxes and government regulation. In 1994 the Democrats base stayed home, small business owners rallied to Gingrich’s banner and the vital center imploded on the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton proceeded to fight a rearguard action from the White House and enjoyed remarkable success but the center of political gravity shifted to the Right anyway.

Bush’s failed policies however offer the Democrats an opportunity to be the party of small business and become the majority party again. For one thing, there is an emerging consensus among small and medium sized businesses about the cost of health care. Businesses of all sizes are hemorrhaging money because the increasing number of uninsured Americans is hiking premiums. In that environment a single payer system is an appealing alternative because it will lift a heavy financial burden from employers. Personally, I don't believe single payer health care in America is politically viable but government assuming more of the financial burden certainly is. Real health care reform can be sold to the business community as an economic stimulus package designed to liberate entrepreneurs to invest their profits into growth and development instead of keeping up with the rising cost of premiums.

Another way the Democrats can appeal to the business community is by revisiting the bankruptcy reform law that passed last year. The new law is actually damaging to the modest risk-taking entrepreneur because it takes away a potential safety net in case their business fails. Typically, small businesses are largely financed out of the entrepreneur’s pocket and if his business fails, declaring bankruptcy allows him to have a fresh start and take care of his family. Hence, DLC Democrats like Joe Biden, Harry Reid and Evan Bayh actually stifled job creation by supporting this legislation because it will make prospective entrepreneurs more risk adverse. Yet the new law allows large corporations such as Delta Airlines to declare bankruptcy and default on their pension obligations. That’s wrong morally as well as economically. Democrats should vigorously campaign on a platform to revisit the legislation. This can be sold to the business community as a safety net for the small entrepreneurs who create jobs.

One interesting perspective about running a small business is from a loyal Democrat named Damon Leavell. Mr. Leavell runs a public relations and marketing firm in New Jersey called Forrest Communications. Specifically, Mr. Leavell’s business services firms in the finance and technology industry. Recently, he vented to me about how the political culture doesn’t distinguish between pro corporatist policies and helping entrepreneurs like him:

“I agree with you that there is a huge difference. Pro-business shouldn't be an excuse to give huge pennies to huge businesses so they can get campaign donations. I run a small business. I'm always amazed by what the Republicans say they're doing to help small businesses. In fact, each year, I only see the things they are doing to hurt small businesses. I'll give you an example. For the early years of running a business, guys like me are hit with a double tax that you the employee avoids. When you pay social security, 6% is taken from your salary each year. When I pay social security, 12% is taken from my salary. And I can't write a penny of that off. That's a huge number when you're taking a hit in your salary and taking financial risks to run a business. I would like a pro-business politician to do something like this: Eliminate the double taxation up until the first $80k, but extend the maximum social security payment for upper income business owners, who are more able to pay an additional 6% when their business is a couple years old. But that'll never happen. I think that times have changed and our government will be bought and sold in the future. It's always happened, but never to the degree it's done now. But I don't know how it can be stopped. The very people who we elect to stop it benefit from it, and nobody seems willing to provide real public funding for candidates. I don't know what the solution is, other than to try to make as much money as we can so we can be the buyers of politicians instead of the other way around.”
Mr. Leavell’s desire for elimination of double taxation is quite sensible and one all liberals should embrace enthusiastically. If employers such as Mr. Leavell were relieved of this burden he would have greater incentive and flexibility to hire more employees. Unlike Republican supply side nonsense that give tax breaks to corporate CEOs earning seven figures, it makes more sense to help those entrepreneurs who are on the frontlines of job creation. I find it especially interesting that an entrepreneur such as Mr. Leavell actually supports public financing for candidates as well. Perhaps leveling the political playing field with a new campaign finance structure can be sold to the business community as a way of replacing crony capitalism with legitimate competition.

I am a liberal Democrat opposed to corporatism but strongly pro-business. Liberalism and pro-business sensibilities are not in conflict. They go hand and hand.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Sun Tzu Scorecard

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War was written over 2000 years ago in China and represents arguably the first known attempt to develop a coherent basis for the planning and execution of military operations. His essays are more than mere curiosity for students of ancient Chinese literature. Sun Tzu’s work stands the test of time with penchant insights that any wise leader should consider when contemplating the wisdom of war as well as evaluating the success of conflicts in progress. Twenty centuries later the Sun Tzu standard is instructive as we rate the Bush Administration’s national security policies and contemplate the future. Below are some of his more pertinent observations for the Bush Era regarding Afghanistan, Iraq, and perhaps wars to come.

“War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.”
In fairness to the Bush Administration, the United States had little choice but to respond immediately in Afghanistan following 9/11. There was little time for a thorough study. Iraq however was a war of choice. It was ill conceived from the beginning and poorly executed. Among the consequences of making this choice is that the effort in Afghanistan has been undermined. Future wars of choice can’t be undertaken so casually in hotspots such as Iran, Syria, or North Korea.

Sun Tzu wrote that among the “fundamental factors” to assess when contemplating war was “moral influence.” “By moral influence I mean that which causes the people to be in harmony with their leaders, so that they will accompany them in life and unto death without fear of mortal peril.”
In this regard, the Bush Administration is an abysmal failure. After 9/11 the nation was in total harmony behind the effort in Afghanistan. Indeed, much of the world rallied to America’s side and President Bush enjoyed more moral authority than any commander and chief since FDR during World War Two. That was squandered in Iraq, as the majority of Americans currently believe President Bush lied about the pretext regarding weapons of mass destruction. When combined with the disproportionate burden of sacrifice endured by a minority of citizens, the country is far from harmonious or whole about a conflict that can’t be linked to the “war on terror.” This further complicates rallying the nation for future conflicts that may become necessary in a volatile and dangerous world.

“For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.”
That certainly proved true for the United States in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Bush Administration has plunged the nation into a war with no honorable exit but also can’t sustain a long term presence without paying a horrible price in blood and treasure. Our forces are also committed to Afghanistan indefinitely. There was little choice in Afghanistan but the effort in Iraq has stretched reserves to the breaking point.

“Where the army is, prices are high; when prices rise the wealth of the people is exhausted. When wealth is exhausted the peasantry will be afflicted with urgent exactions.”
The rising cost of sustaining operations in Iraq as well as prosecuting the overall war on terror has forced the Bush Administration to cut back on domestic programs for the young, old, and poor. Meanwhile, tax cuts for the super rich are not reduced and health care costs continue to rise exponentially. At the same time we learn about families of soldiers in the field who are forced to purchase body armor for their sons and daughters because Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon hasn’t delivered.

“With strength thus depleted and wealth consumed the households in the central plains will be utterly impoverished and seven-tenths of their wealth dissipated.”
One of the great historical myths is that war is a net plus for a national economy in the long term. In the short run that may be true because of mandatory increases in production. World War Two for example was a shared sacrifice with soldiers in the field and a mobilized work force at home. Production increased exponentially while supplies and consumer goods were rationed to citizens willing to sacrifice for the national good. Nevertheless, the expanding middle class that followed World War Two took place when that conflict actually ended. The Cold War resulted in a demand for mass production and jobs. Yet the Korean conflict hurt the economy and Vietnam resulted in an eroding middle class unable to keep up with the cost of living. President Bush is pursuing a policy of guns abroad and butter for the richest Americans at home. When leaders prosecute wars with targeted sacrifice only for specific constituencies the economy will perform like an armless swimmer. Currently, purchasing power for most of the country under Bush is rapidly declining as the country’s resources are consumed by a global war on terrorism. The “war on terror” may last decades. Hence, we can’t afford long term commitments resulting from wars of choice unless it is well planned and the nation as a whole is supportive and willing to make sacrifices for the cause.

"Know thy enemy and know thy self and you will win a hundred battles."
President Bush clearly overestimated support for an enduring conflict and did not evaluate America’s capabilities adequately for such a committment. He falsely believed his moral authority stemmed from superior leadership qualities rather than a sympathetic international community and traumatized nation willing to be lead. As for knowing the enemy, Vice President Cheney told Tim Russert of Meet the Press on March 14th 2003, “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” On June 20, 2005, Vice President Cheney told CNN's Larry King, “The level of activity that we see today from a military standpoint, I think, will clearly decline. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency." Those two quotes speak for themselves.

There is no greater test of national will than war. To be prosecuted successfully requires wise, competent, and credible leadership. As Sun Tzu’s sagacious writings illustrate, the Bush Administration falls short in those qualities. Thousands of innocent Iraqi’s and American soldiers have died as a result with many more irreparably injured or psychologically traumatized. Even worse, the benefits of eliminating a base for worldwide terrorism in Afghanistan was neutralized with the growing insurgency in Iraq. Sadly, when it comes to enhancing America’s and Western civilization’s security, Bush’s policies are as useful as tits on a bull. His immature and sophomoric leadership have placed America on a collision course with calamity. Only leadership of the highest caliber can mitigate the damages and move us forward. Is there anyone who fits the bill?

Friday, February 10, 2006

It's About Competence Stupid

In July 1988, Mike Dukakis stood before the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta and declared:

“I don't think I have to tell any of you how much we Americans expect of ourselves.

Or how much we have a right to expect from those we elect to public office.

Because this election isn't about ideology. It's about competence.

It's not about overthrowing governments in Central America; it's about creating good jobs in middle America. That's what this election is all about.

It's not about insider trading on Wall Street; it's about creating opportunity on Main Street.

And it's not about meaningless labels. It's about American values. Old-fashioned values like accountability and responsibility and respect for the truth.

And just as we Democrats believe that there are no limits to what each citizen can do; so we believe there are no limits to what America can do.

And yes, I know, this fall, we're going to be hearing a lot of Republican talk about how well some neighborhoods and some regions of this country are doing; about how easy it is for some families to buy a home or to find childcare or to pay their doctor's bills or to send their children to college.”
Substitute the “Mid-East” for “Central America” and very little has changed in eighteen years. Governor Dukakis was ridiculed at the time for walking away from ideology. The recent revelations about Hurricane Katrina in today’s New York Times and elsewhere powerfully illustrate that competence is an indispensable baseline for ideology. Incompetent governments staff agencies with cronies instead of skilled professionals. They’re regulated by lies to preserve power instead of empowering the citizens they’re supposed to serve with education, health care, a strong economy, and a sensible national security policy. Leaders of incompetent governments are more concerned with “loyalty” from their minions and ferreting out dissent that threatens to expose their lies instead of delivering for the people.

So the message for ’06 and ’08 can be summed up this way: it’s about competence stupid. If you want education, healthcare, jobs, genuine national security, fiscal responsibility, shared sacrifice, an environmental policy based on science, truth and accountability than elect the party that respects government. Public service is for serious people not chuckleheads that regard it as a patronage mill and their own personal candy store. President Clinton wasn’t nearly as progressive as I would have liked but at least his bureaucracy was staffed with high skilled professionals that he listened to. This President can’t even be roused from his vacation to save lives in an emergency. The legacy of this incompetence is an unprecedented reign of indecency. It’s time to hold those guilty of empowering the reign of indecency accountable.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Lessons From Brazil: How To Develop An Energy Policy

When President Bush declared that Americans were “addicted to oil” it felt like a crack cocaine dealer lecturing a community to say no to drugs. I must acknowledge that in moments like this I have a grudging respect for President Bush’s brazen braggadocio. This is a man whose family profited enormously from a generational alliance with Saudi royalty. It awed me that he could deliver such a line with a straight face and no embarrassment. Putting Bush’s hypocrisy aside, there may be value in his uttering those words. Even a discredited President such as Bush commands an enormous megaphone from the bully pulpit and Americans may finally be receptive to a candid discourse about adopting a genuine energy policy. Yes, Vice President Cheney and Bush’s Energy Commissar Samuel Bodman wasted no time in reassuring the oil industry that the speech was simply rhetoric.

Nonetheless, even disingenuous words from a President are a catalytic agent to the body politic and the public appears to be more engaged about developing alternative fuels and conservation. The national discourse requires a sense of urgency about energy policy. Although not yet at a crisis point, global warming combined with Mid-East politics is putting America on a collision course with calamity.

Brazil’s recent history is instructive when contemplating our current situation and evaluating what works. In the fall of 2001, a metastasizing corruption scandal (sound familiar?) and an energy crisis severely eroded President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s authority and ability to govern. As high profile politicians resigned from scandalous revelations, blackouts and energy rationing plagued the nation. The situation resembled the crisis confronted by Californians several years ago. President Cardoso desperately tried to deflect blame from his administration onto his predecessors for not investing in the energy sector. The public blamed Cardoso instead.

Cardoso had implemented a policy of deregulation and liberalization in the energy sector. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva pursued a very different course upon assuming the Presidency in October 2002. He immediately put a moratorium on the privatization of state owned companies. da Silva also established a different electricity blueprint to facilitate the development of additional power plants. Neil Ford, an energy specialist writer wrote in the April 7, 2005 edition of Power Economics (apologies but no available link) that:

“Most governments attempt to encourage private companies to develop new power plants by allowing them to compete with state owned operators. Brazil is something of a case apart, however, as the country’s new model actually aims to minimize competition between generators, on the grounds that established state owned hydroelectric plants will always offer cheaper electricity than the new gas fired facilities that have been developed.”

Ford noted that hydroelectric power accounts for 80% of Brazil’s energy generating capacity but “as in much of the rest of the world gas fired plants are making an increasingly important contribution." One reason for the government’s incentive to reduce Brazil’s dependence on hydroelectric production is because of drought. This contributed to the energy crisis for Brazil in 2001, because low rainfall reduced their national generating capacity resulting in energy rationing. Brazilians were forced to import electricity from Argentina. Droughts may also be attributed to global warming that is already causing water shortages in America’s southwest region and complicates any hydroelectric based planning.

Those challenges notwithstanding, da Silva’s energy policies appear to have provided Brazil’s state owned enterprises increased autonomy in the development of the power sector while simultaneously promoting competition. As Ford reported about da Silva’s scheme, “It effectively created two parallel trading pools that are operating in tandem: a free market power pool and a more heavily regulated system.”

The free market sphere is comprised of generating companies competing to sell electricity to distributors. The regulated sphere is comprised of a state regulator fixing prices and acting as the consumer’s advocate. Trading is monitored by the Camara de Commercializacao de Energia Electrica (CCEE). Hence, da Silva has implemented an innovative model that combines the best of free market competition with government oversight to maintain price stability. This is a model worth studying. Is it also worth adopting for the United States? I wonder.

Where Brazil is really leaving their mark is their pursuit of energy independence. Brazil is the largest country in South America and at one time imported 80% of its crude oil. Yet as Hembree Brandon writes in the November 16, 2005 edition of the Southeast Farm Press, Brazil “expects to be self-sufficient in a few years.” Think about that. Over thirty years ago OPEC jerked America’s chain and scared Presidents Nixon and Carter to make high profile speeches about energy independence. Brazil was confronted with their energy crisis five years ago and they’re light years ahead of the United States. 40% percent of all the fuel Brazilians pump into their vehicles is ethanol mostly derived from sugarcane bagasse. It is important to note that the Brazilian government requires that all fuel sold within their country contain at least 25% ethanol. Can you imagine Bush and Cheney implementing such a policy?

Among the benefits of these policies for Brazil are profit windfalls for their agricultural industry. With billions of dollars priming into Brazil’s ethanol sector, their nation’s rural economy is booming. More than 300 ethanol plants are operational with another 50 in development. Consequently, Brazil is profiting from ethanol exports to eager consumers worldwide, including the United States. The United States in comparison produces 3 billion gallons of ethanol annually from 70 plus plants with perhaps a dozen more in construction. That is a sobering comparison. As the New York Times said in their February 1st editorial after Bush’s speech, “It should be a humbling shock to American leaders that Brazil has managed to become energy self-sufficient during a period when the United States was focused on building bigger S.U.V.'s.”

I don’t write this simply to shame my fellow citizens. Quite frankly, in researching this topic I am humbled at my own ignorance about the complexities involved. In this instance, I think it best that our national posture be one of humility. In 2000, President Bush campaigned on the notion of America as a humble nation. Well, one aspect of humility is to acknowledge when we have something to learn from others. It seems to me that we have much to learn from Brazil about energy. I have no idea whether their approach can be replicated in the United States. I am also aware that there are legitimate criticisms of ethanol and I am not trying to curry favor with Iowans. Nevertheless, as we confront challenges posed by global warming and Mid-East politics such as growing tensions with Iran, the Brazilian experience appears to merit our interest. In my humble opinion.