The greenwashed mayor

Two weeks ago The Reader published another great article on the state of Chicago's recycling program, noting the (very slow) progress and emphasizing the many remaining problems, particularly the city's failure to enforce the legal requirement that apartment buildings offer recycling. Now we find out that even funding for the expansion of curbside recycling for single-family houses is being cut. Meanwhile, the CTA stumbles along after getting another last-minute, temporary reprieve from its doomsday service cuts and fare increases. And even if the farce in Springfield eventually comes up with the funding, CTA's growing infrastructure crisis will remain unaddressed.

So what does Daley decide to propose at this moment? A plan to reduce Chicago's carbon dioxide emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. That's certainly a welcome goal, but who does Daley think he's fooling? For years Daley has been talking about making Chicago the greenest city in the country, but what has he actually done? There are some real achievements (see this article, which not only praises Daley's environmental initiatives but his authoritarianism as well). But some green roofs, median flowers, and bike lanes, as welcome as they are, do not get us very far toward a sustainable city.

Daley should take a look at Mayor Bloomberg's plan for New York. Instead of ambitious rhetoric and timid follow-thru, Bloomberg is taking steps toward sustainability that are unprecedented in the United States. In a multifaceted proposal to make New York's transit, electricity, water, air, and built environment greener, particularly noteworthy are Bloomberg's plans for transportation. He is:
  • promoting congestion pricing, under which drivers entering the city would pay a fee for the privilege of causing gridlock,
  • strengthening existing public transit system, already by far the best in the country,
  • replacing New York's entire cab fleet with hybrid vehicles,
  • building the 2nd Ave subway to take pressure off the Lexington Ave line (4, 5, 6 trains), a single line which every day provides twice as many rides as the entire El system does.
The plan is not perfect - notably absent is any initiative to reduce meat-eating - but in its ambition and in the amount of resources it commits to sustainability it is unmatched in this country. If Daley wants to reduce greenhouse gases even 1 percent, he's going to need the kind of plans New York is already carrying out. Compared to this, Daley's green initiatives are just embarrassing.


It's not news if it makes smug environmentalists uncomfortable

The New York Times finally reported on the UN study that found the global livestock industry contributes more to global warming than even cars. (An editorial responding to the study was published last December, weakly concluding that there is no way to reduce the amount of meat we eat, but the paper's news section was silent until last week.) Except this wasn't an article about the UN report at all, but rather about the rift between animal rights groups and mainstream environmental organizations over whether to inform people that meat and dairy are a principle cause of global warming. Even better, it was stuck in the business section under the heading "advertising" (PETA, the Humane Society, and others are starting to run ads on the connection). Now this certainly is a legitimate news story, but it seems a bit strange that The New York Times, which has covered global warming from every other angle, will run this kind of story while otherwise ignoring the issue of meat.


Daley throws a fit

This is vintage Daley. The Tribune runs a good article on the city government's failure to reduce carbon emissions, finding that instead of meeting the pledge to reduce emissions one percent/year they've actually increased by 22 percent over the last four years, and that Daley still has not followed thru on this promise to increase renewable sources of electricity to 1/5 of the total. Daley responds like a petulant child, attacking the Tribune instead of explaining how he's going to fix the problems they found. Here's a sample: "Well, they're cutting all the trees down," Daley said, referring to wood pulp used to produce newsprint. "Go talk to the Tribune. Chop another tree down. Great." . . . "We should never have built the Tribune building because it was a high-rise when it was built on Michigan Avenue," the mayor said. "They should have never [built] your printing plant in Chicago for all your [delivery] trucks in Chicago. Why are you doing that? . . . "Nothing else to write," he said.


Green Taste of Chicago

The Tribune ran a letter I wrote in its online-only letters section here.


Would Obama make race inequality worse?

Barack Obama is the first presidential candidate since Ralph Nader in 2000 to generate real popular excitement. Like Nader, Obama is drawing huge crowds on the order of 15,000-20,000 people to his campaign events. Obama has received campaign donations from far more people than his rivals - 104,000 in the last reporting period compared with Clinton's 60,000 and Edwards's 40,000. How can we explain this excitement? It's definitely not that Obama is offering a concrete alternative - in policy terms, he is almost indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton. (His recently released health care plan may be an exception - Clinton has yet to produce her own.) What does distinguish Obama is his image and his race.

Obama has successfully cultivated the image of an outsider, an anti-establishment candidate and a fresh face. How he has managed this I'm not entirely sure, since everything about the campaign is very much of the establishment. Half of Obama's campaign money comes from extremely rich people who can afford to send more than $2300 to a political candidate. Only 21 percent comes from those donating $200 or less (see Opensecrets.org for these numbers). He relies on the same sectors for donations as Clinton does - finance capital, lawyers, Hollywood (a good article on Obama's fundraising operation and his corporate patrons is here). Many of his top fundraisers, in fact, worked in the Clinton administration or were Clinton donors close enough to the president to be invited to the White House. Obama has deep connections to the Daley machine in Chicago. His campaign is staffed by veteran Democratic operatives. To the extent there is a difference between Clinton and Obama's political connections, it's one of region: Obama draws from Chicago capitalists, Clinton from New York capitalists.

Almost no one is talking about it, but I think Obama's race is at least as important in generating this popular excitement as his image is. There's something truly gratifying to many liberals about throwing support behind the first black man with a good chance at winning the White House - especially when his main opponent is such a staunchly establishment figure as Hillary Clinton.

However, we need to be very careful about this kind of approach. Would an Obama presidency help reduce America's stunning racial inequality? There are no clear answers, but it seems at least as likely that race inequality could be made worse under Obama.

To be fair, Obama has given some attention to the structural causes of the problem. He has spoken about how unequal school funding leads to a wide gap in education opportunities between whites and blacks. He has drawn attention to underinvestment in public goods like hospitals and infrastructure. However, in a now-familiar theme, Obama has not followed this recognition with ideas on how to address it. As The Los Angeles Times noted, "Obama did not offer specific proposals to solve the problems he described. His approach has more often relied on lofty rhetoric than real-world prescriptions."

If Obama were to someday champion policies to address the structural problems he points out, then some progress might be made. But there is another side to Obama's approach to race. In addition to speaking vaguely about the ways our society is designed to reproduce racial inequality, Obama also frequently reproaches black people for causing their own problems. Drawing on the rich language that white conservatives and black professionals have developed to fix blame for racial inequality on poor blacks themselves, Obama regularly chastises blacks to put greater value on education and stop listening to rap. According to The Washington Post,
"In Chicago, sometimes when I talk to the black chambers of commerce, I say, 'You know what would be a good economic development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks weren't throwing their garbage out of their cars,' " Obama told a group of black state legislators in a speech in South Carolina last month.
This kind of rhetoric is employed with two goals in mind. First, it is directed at whites in an effort to reassure them that Obama will not pursue radical policies to address racial inequality. Second, it is directed at the black bourgeoisie - a major source of campaign funds for Obama - to affirm members' condescending attitudes and draw them into the Obama camp for the key Democratic primaries in which they exercise great influence. Whatever the motives, the outcome is to reinforce an already strong urge within our culture to blame the victims of racism and capitalism for their own plight.

Aside from this kind of pandering, an Obama election victory might also aggravate racial inequality for reasons totally outside Obama's control. For years many whites have pointed to successful black public figures like Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, or Colin Powell to back their claim that racism is no longer an important part of society. Electing a black man to the presidency would immeasurably strengthen the rhetorical power of this claim, while doing nothing to undo the very real structural inequalities and popular prejudices that still make race one of the most important factors in the distribution of wealth and power.

Despite these dangers, I would still rather see Obama in the presidency than Clinton (Edwards, of course, is far preferable to both). We have to evaluate candidates on their policies, not on their image and not on their race. And we have to be prepared, no matter who wins, to mobilize against the many reactionary policies he or she will pursue. Falling in love with a candidate is worst possible thing to do.


Bad day for transit

The CTA today announced its "doomsday scenario" of fare increases and service cuts that will go into effect in September if the state legislature refuses to cover the $110 million budget deficit. Service on the Yellow Line and Purple Line Express would be eliminated. A new fare structure with higher rates during rush hour would be implemented. Rush hour prices would be $3.25/ride on the El and $2.75 on buses, at other times it would be $2.50 and $2.25 respectively. All bus routes that currently do not run on Sundays would be eliminated.

Underfunded transit is a nationwide problem. Today Los Angeles's MTA also announced major fare increases, in some cases doubling the cost of multiday passes. Philadelphia's SEPTA yesterday postponed a final decision on its own doomsday proposal, which would raise fares 31 percent while cutting service by 20 percent. Boston's MBTA is projected to fall between $4 and $8 billion short in funding over the next 20 years. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget proposal would cut $1.3 billion from public transit.

Public transportation is not a far left-wing cause. In all these cases, business groups support adequate transit funding because they know that a working transport system is essential to a functioning economy. Yet legislators not only ignore the oncoming devastation of global warming, they even ignore their corporate patrons. The impregnable position of cars in our culture seems to be the best explanation. How do you address an injustice that the vast majority of the population embraces?


letter to the editor, re: gas prices

UPDATE: My letter was published in the Trib, May 25.

The Chicago Tribune editorialized the other day about the positive side of higher gas prices, somehow ignoring all the real reasons expensive gas is good and only mentioning that buying less gas allows us "to stop being held economic hostage to the writhing Middle East". I've been writing to reporters lately and asking why they never include a discussion of how bad car culture is for our society when they write their endless articles about the crisis in gas prices (which are now nearly 1/2 as much as in some European countries. The horror!). I've had a range of replies, from quite hostile to sympathetic, but none of them have explained why they can never mention the terrible social costs of driving.

To the editors:
You are absolutely right that higher gas prices are a blessing in disguise ("The good thing about gas prices", editorial, 2007 May 20). Every day we see the terrible social damage done by cars: deaths and injuries from accidents, dirty air causing asthma attacks in children, global warming slowly building toward catastrophe.

Not to mention the fact that building our lives around cars makes for less livable cities and simply does not make sense financially. Building roads, paying for gas, wasting valuable space on parking lots and gas stations, paying higher health insurance rates to cover the public health damage of driving — all these costs would be eliminated if we relied instead on walking, biking, and public transit. The cost
of building and maintaining a comprehensive public transit system pales in comparison to all the hidden costs of car culture.

The price of gas should reflect the damage caused by driving, which is far greater than $3.50/gallon. We should substantially increase the tax on gasoline and devote the revenues to public transit.


Keep foie gras illegal

Daley is stepping up his campaign to have the ban on foie gras overturned. Defending this ban is important not only to reduce demand for a product that involves horrific cruelty. It is also a hugely significant symbolic struggle.

Chicago was the first city in the country to outlaw foie gras, and the fact that those fighting foie gras elsewhere can say that even Chicago has a ban is a big advantage. It normalizes this kind of anti-cruelty law, especially since Chicagoans cannot be dismissed as "hippies" or "crazy liberals" as people in a place like San Francisco are. Just as important, the ban on foie gras establishes the principle that how we treat animals is a legitimate subject for legislation. Once relatively easy victories like the foie gras ban are securely established, we can go on to raise questions about the cruelties of factory farming and, ultimately, whether even "humane" killing is acceptable.

Of course, ending the meat industry cannot be accomplished primarily thru legislation, but the legislative battleground is also extremely important in building the social movement against meat. The loss of the foie gras ban would be a big setback. Call or email your alderman now. (Find contact info at Civic Footprint.)


Save public transit in Illinois

Copy and forward to anyone who might be interested - now is the best time to call elected officials on this.

Public transit in Illinois has been chronically underfunded for decades. The cost of providing transit has risen sharply in the last 20 years, but the governor and General Assembly have consistently refused to provide the needed funds. As a result, the RTA (composed of Illinois's transit agencies, the CTA (El and buses), Metra, and Pace) has been forced to mortgage its future by dipping into maintenance funds to pay operating costs.

The predictable result has been decaying infrastructure and aging equipment, leading to declining levels of service and a looming crisis for the transit system. Without emergency funding, the RTA will implement fare increases and service cuts this year. Without a major increase in longterm financing, funding crises will continue to erupt every year.

Public transit *should* be the future of urban transportation. Cars foul the air and kill or injure thousands of people every year. They waste huge amounts of public space with parking lots, gas stations, and highways. Worst of all, they are one of the main causes of global warming, which will have devastating consequences if we don't address it soon.

The best way to solve the transit crisis is to raise the tax on gasoline. The low price of gas does not reflect the immense social and environmental damage caused by driving. Raising the gas tax and spending the money on transit would fund the creation of a world-class public transit system, and it would give people the incentive to use it. This solution has already drawn support from groups like Chicago Metropolis 2020, a coalition of businesses.

However, transit funding faces the continuing indifference of Governor Blagojevich and the General Assembly. A wide range of groups has recently begun a pressure campaign to save transit in Illinois. Now is the time to add your voice:

call Blagojevich at 217-782-0244 or 312-814-2121, and leave a comment at http://www.illinois.gov/gov/contactthegovernor.cfm

call your state legislators - find them at http://www.civicfootprint.org

and remember to voice your support for an increase in the gas tax.

More information:

Opponents of transit have often claimed that the RTA does not need more money, it just needs to be more efficient. An independent audit by the Illinois auditor general ought to put these claims to rest. The report not only emphasizes the severe and longstanding underfunding of public transit, it finds that in comparison with other American transit agencies the RTA scores average or better in measures of efficiency. It scores lower than average in service effectiveness - mainly because its equipment is much older than that of its peer agencies. (http://www.auditor.illinois.gov/Audit-Reports/Performance-Special-Multi/Performance-Audits/07-Mass-Transit-NE-IL-Perf-Exec-Summary.pdf pp. 14-21)

Other critics have questioned the priorities of the CTA and the Daley administration, which have fast-tracked expansion projects like the Circle Line and airport express that are useful to already well-served professionals, while ignoring expansion proposals for underserved communities, like the Mid-City Transitway and extensions of the Red, Orange, and Yellow lines. These complaints are well-founded - see http://razetheladder.blogspot.com/2007/02/paving-over-mid-city-transitway.html for details. However, adequate funds for existing services must be maintained even as we pressure the Daley administration to expand the system in the fairest and most effective way.

More information on the transit crisis and ways to get involved:


Gentrification makes everyone (who matters) happy!

Here's the latest article in the genre of "bad neighborhood is now safe for you [white professional] to live in!", only it's for an entire city: Not Hot Just Yet, but Newark Is Starting to Percolate.

Surely newspapers don't need reporters to write these articles from scratch every time. They should just have a template with blanks for the names of hot new restaurants, gallery owners, and loft residents. No need, of course, to leave blanks for the names of the working class and poor people who actually live in these places. Live there, that is, until the laws of economic efficiency cleanse them to make way for assholes who say things like this: "Sometimes I feel like I’m in a foreign country. Let’s just say we’re pioneers on our block."

The unconscious racism and classism of the country's comfortable classes is never better on display than in articles like this, which write the entire pre-gentrification population out of existence (except metonymically in sentences like this: "I think people finally realize Newark is more than just about crime and drugs.") "Power concedes nothing without a demand" - not even recognition of the lives it shoves aside.


Be careful what you hope for

Here is my comprehensive critique of the Obama campaign, along with an argument for strategically supporting Edwards. Thanks to the fine people at The Protest for publishing it and keeping the magazine going strong.

Be careful what you hope for
Obama, progressives and the ‘08 elections

Here's an important question progressives need to ask themselves: Why are so many of us so excited about Barack Obama? Is Obama progressive? Is he offering progressive policies? Is there a better candidate for us? And most importantly — how should progressives use elections to advance our agenda?

The outpouring of support for Obama among liberals is not surprising. Unlike the other leading presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, Obama opposed the war in Iraq from the start. He has a commendable background in community organizing on Chicago's South Side. Should he win the presidency, he would break the racial barrier of the highest office in the country.

I must admit that during Obama's run for the Senate, I was optimistic about him, too. But everything I've learned about him since then has made me deeply skeptical. His record in the Senate, his book The Audacity of Hope, his political connections and the kind of campaign he has chosen to run have all called Obama's progressive credentials into question.

Many people are drawn to Obama's message of hope, his promise of a “new politics.” But what does that mean? Is the problem with this country, as Obama says, really a “failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics”? Or is it the radically unequal distribution of wealth and power? And the powerful networks of privilege that defy any attempts to change the status quo?

Obama should know the answer. He is deeply entrenched in these networks himself, as a glance at Chicago politics makes clear. From the start, Obama has relied heavily on patrons in the high-powered world of Chicago finance and industry. According to a New York Times investigation, some of the richest men in the country, like James S. Crown and John W. Rogers Jr., have found nothing about Obama's politics that would threaten their wealth and profits.(1) Just as damning, Obama has tied himself closely to Mayor Daley's Chicago machine: the corrupt, pro-business administration that has devoted its nearly 20 years in office to improving the lives of the city's yuppies while ignoring the thousands of destitute (or forcing them out of their homes), tolerating police brutality and torture, and allowing public transit to crumble. Most recently, Obama endorsed Dorothy Tillman, the corrupt third ward alderman who had voted against a living wage for workers at big box retailers. Voters in the ward disagreed with Obama and booted her out of office.

But let's say that Obama, once in office, finds a way to transcend the sordid political world that has brought him this far. Let's say an Obama presidency ushers in his vaguely defined “new politics.” Would it produce policies we actually want? After all, Ronald Reagan came to power based on a sunny optimism, and he inaugurated a “new politics.” Yet this new politics was used to restore U.S. militarism, aid regressive forces around the world, and rapidly accelerate the dismantling of the U.S. social safety net. Bill Clinton campaigned on a message of hope, but he failed to pass universal health care through a Democratic Congress, he maintained the sanctions against Iraq, which killed around one million people, and he did away with the last remaining welfare guarantees. Before we know whether to support Obama's “new politics,” we need to know which policies this new politics would serve.

Who is the most progressive candidate?
If we decide to participate in the Democratic primaries, the first choice we have to make is whether to back one of the three viable candidates (Obama, Edwards, Clinton) or one of the candidates who has already been eliminated from the competition by lack of money and media disinterest. While Dennis Kucinich, in particular, supports far better policies than any of the top three, investing our time and resources in a lost cause may not be the best choice, especially if one of the three viable candidates has many solidly progressive policies. Hillary Clinton can be dismissed immediately. Not only is she too conservative to consider seriously, she also has so little respect for the voters that her website has no issues section. The choice, then, is between Obama and Edwards. Edwards has already issued a series of detailed and quite progressive policies. He is by no means a perfect candidate, but nominating him would represent a dramatic change from the last several decades of relentlessly centrist Democratic nominees. What about Obama?

Obama has been notoriously vague about how he would fix all the urgent problems he points out in his speeches. However, based on the discussion in his book and the policies he has supported in the Senate, we can now draw some tentative conclusions. Progressives should pay close attention here, because if Obama ever inhabits the White House, we will have to fight hard against his very centrist agenda.

Foreign policy
Many Obama supporters think that his opposition to the Iraq war from the start sets him apart. But on what grounds did Obama oppose the war? That it's immoral to invade another country? That it's wrong for the United States to dominate other parts of the world? Not at all. In his book, Obama speaks admiringly of those men who started the Cold War and unleashed all its horrors, saying that they understood the need “to maintain American military dominance and be prepared to use force in defense of its interests across the globe.”(2) Obama fully believes the United States has the right to control other countries, and he has made clear that violence is an option when countries like Iran or North Korea defy U.S. commands. So we should hardly be surprised that although Obama calls for the withdrawal of U.S. “combat” soldiers from Iraq, he says he would keep U.S. troops in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.(3)

The next president will not only have to clean up Bush's Iraq mess, he or she will also have to decide how to manage the rise of China and the possible revival of Russian power. Again, Obama would act to protect U.S. supremacy: “So long as Russia and China retain their own large military forces and haven't fully rid themselves of the instinct to throw their weight around — and so long as a handful of rogue states are willing to attack other sovereign nations ... there will be times when we must again play the role of the world's reluctant sheriff. This will not change — nor should it.”(4)

In a brazen display of hypocrisy, Obama condemns Russia and China for behavior that — in obvious contrast to the United States — neither one has displayed for 20 years.(5) And he is completely oblivious to the fact that the country most guilty of attacking other sovereign nations in the last 15 years has been the United States — while none of the so-called “rogue states” have done so. Obama is calling for a United States that acts less like a reluctant sheriff and more like the Chicago cop who was recently videotaped beating up a bartender because she refused to continue serving him alcohol.

Obama has not proposed cuts in our enormous military budget, which is as big as the military spending of the rest of world combined. In fact, in his most recent speech he actually proposed adding another 92,000 soldiers.(6) He has not called for closing U.S. bases in Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, the Middle East and elsewhere. He has not promised an end to the United States’ continuing attacks on progressive forces in Latin America. He has not called for global nuclear disarmament.

Obama certainly opposes the neoconservative approach to maintaining U.S. power, but his disagreement is one of strategy rather than principle. He thinks that making shows of consultation with other countries and bribing them are more effective tools for keeping the United States on top than unilateral bullying. But, like Bill Clinton, he has no scruples against sending arms to brutal militaries or even going to war should gentler approaches fail.

Unfortunately, all the viable presidential candidates have almost indistinguishable foreign policies. If we want to pick one over the others — and given the brutality promised by their foreign policies, that's an open question — we'll have to look at the key domestic policy issues: health care, energy and the economy.

Health care
Obama is sensitive to the health care crisis in this country, and he promises universal coverage by the end of his first term. However, he has steadfastly refused to reveal any details. Plenty of time remains for him to come up with a good plan, but if and when he does make a proposal we must hold it to the standard already established by John Edwards.

The Edwards plan would extend universal coverage by requiring all businesses to either provide health insurance or pay into a fund to cover the uninsured. Other costs would be paid by eliminating Bush's tax cuts on those making more than $200,000 a year. (Obama also supports ending some of the deeply regressive Bush tax cuts, but only for those making more than $250,000 a year.) Edwards would impose powerful regulations on private insurers so they can no longer cherry-pick healthy individuals or deny coverage to the ill. Most importantly, it would set up a government insurance plan similar to Medicare that would compete with private insurers.

Government-run plans are more efficient because they eliminate the wasteful overhead of private insurers, which spend huge sums on advertising, executives' pay packages and reduplication of complex bureaucracies. (The evidence isn't really up for debate — every other rich country has universal public health care while spending less per person, covering everyone and maintaining better health statistics than the United States.) So if private insurers are forced to compete against a public insurance plan, they will gradually be forced out of business and we'll finally have an efficient, universal public health system — what's known as single-payer health insurance.

Any health plan that does not chart a course to such a system is a dead end. The efficiencies of a public system and the bargaining power of a single huge insurance provider are the only way to bring health care costs under control. Other plans, like Bill Clinton's failed 1994 proposal, funnel public funds to private insurers in exchange for covering those who are currently excluded from the health system. But throwing money at a broken system won't fix it. If such a plan were implemented, it would allow costs to continue rising and opposition to universal coverage would quickly grow. Soon the system would be dismantled. Moving to single-payer is the only way to get a just and politically sustainable health system. Will Obama support a plan that could get us to single-payer? We don't know yet — but it would be hard to improve on the Edwards plan.

Global warming
I was surprised and deeply disappointed that Obama said almost nothing about global warming in his book. He acknowledged that energy policy is hugely important, but framed his arguments in terms of national security rather than the future of life on this planet. He supports a few unambitious policies to attain “energy independence,” like increased fuel efficiency standards. But, he also embraces domestic energy sources like corn-based ethanol and “clean” coal technology, which actually harm the environment. Incidentally, they also channel government funds to Obama campaign contributors Archer Daniels Midland and downstate Illinois coal interests.

In the Senate, Obama is supporting the most conservative proposal for a cap-and-trade system to restrict carbon emissions. The McCain-Lieberman bill has drawn considerable support from business, which is looking for the predictability of a national greenhouse gas policy but seeking to avoid major cuts in their emissions. Beyond this, Obama has said little on how he would fight global warming.

Again, Edwards makes a strong contrast. He has announced a detailed plan to fight warming, and his energy proposals are considerably more progressive than Obama's positions. Like Obama, Edwards backs an end to oil company subsidies and increased funding for the development of green technology. But in contrast to Obama, he supports the best Senate proposal for a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions, the Sanders-Boxer bill. And unlike Obama, he has publicly committed to the ambitious — but absolutely necessary — goal of reducing our carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

The third major part of Edwards's plan is a new international emissions-reduction treaty to include developing nations. Edwards understands that the rapidly increasing emissions of countries like China and India are a grave concern, and his proposal to share clean technology with poor countries in exchange for emissions cuts is a good one. The only question is whether Edwards is willing to devote the resources in environmental aid that would be needed to make his new treaty a success.

Edwards's proposals do not go far enough. In particular, he has not faced the need to dramatically restrict the nation's car culture through increased taxes on gasoline and investment in public transit. Yet Edwards is, at least, on the right track. Obama's failure to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis is a major strike against him.

A similar comparison emerges when we turn to the economy. As Hurricane Katrina showed, the most urgent economic issues revolve around poverty. In an unusual move for a mainstream candidate, Edwards has invested considerable energy in calling for an end to poverty in a generation. His plan to accomplish this — which includes a variety of policies from strengthening labor laws to increasing housing vouchers to creating a million temporary jobs for those out of work — strike me as a collection of worthwhile initiatives that are nevertheless utterly inadequate to the task. Moreover, Edwards stays far away from the central causes of poverty — institutional racism and capitalism. Even so, nominating Edwards would thrust the poverty agenda into the national debate. Where is Obama on this? He has not made poverty a central part of his campaign and betrays no intention of doing so. Yet again, Obama's rhetoric fails to translate into anything of substance.

On some other issues, like immigration, drug prohibition, and gay marriage, both Edwards and Obama disappoint. But I have not found a single issue where Obama’s position is better than that of Edwards. The question for progressives should not be whether to support Edwards or Obama — Edwards is the clear choice. The question is whether we should be involved in electoral politics at all.

In many ways the U.S. electoral system is rigged against the left. No candidate can become viable without attracting huge sums of money from the rich people and corporations that maintain the status quo. The media relentlessly focus on candidates' public images, their campaign strategies, and who leads the polls. They ignore candidates with unorthodox policies, making a serious discussion of the issues nearly impossible. The first-past-the-post voting system marginalizes those third parties that could force progressive issues onto the agenda by turning them into "spoilers." And the left remains too unorganized to marshal the popular support that evangelical churches, for example, can leverage.

The priority for progressives, then, should not be seeking the illusory salvation of electing a heroic political leader. We must concentrate instead on developing the economic and organizational power that would give us a real chance in elections. This should be our goal not just to win elections, but to form the foundation of a truly participatory and egalitarian society. The only way to do this is by creating democratic businesses and organizing communities rather than throwing all our energies into politicians who will just disappoint us in office.

Even so, sometimes electoral work can serve these goals instead of distracting us from them. That may be particularly true today, when John Edwards is running the most progressive, viable presidential campaign in most of our lifetimes. We have the chance to swing the Democratic Party to the left, put hugely important issues back on the national agenda for the first time in 35 years, and strengthen the left organizationally in the process. But we'll miss that chance if we continue to blindly follow Barack Obama.


1. Christopher Drew and Mike McIntire, “Obama Built Donor Network from Roots Up,” The New York Times, April 3, 2007.

2. The Audacity of Hope, p. 284.

3. Obama has given two speeches on foreign policy. In both he called for retaining troops in Iraq and throughout the region: Speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Chicago, March 2, 2007; Remarks to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, April 23, 2007.

4. The Audacity of Hope, p. 306.

5. Internally, of course, both the Russian and Chinese governments have been actively repressive, but they are not unique in this regard, and Obama fails to mention U.S. clients like Turkey or Colombia that have been similarly repressive. Outside the military realm, Russia has to a certain extent “thrown its weight around,” especially in the former Soviet republics. Yet the United States routinely does the same thing across the globe — including in the former Soviet republics — and the nature of the regimes it backs makes clear that freedom and democracy are only incidental (or rhetorical) concerns. As for China, with the sole exception of Taiwan (which both China and the United States consider a part of China), it has thus far been a model of restraint in the international competition for power.

6. Remarks to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


The political urgency of farm subsidies

Michael Pollan has a good article explaining all the damage done by America's system of agricultural subsidies. Free markets on their own lead to bad outcomes in food production, but the federal subsidies, rather than seeking to correct the biases of markets, make them far worse. These are extremely important issues, and Pollan seems to be the only one really writing about them.


Edwards on global warming

John Edwards has come out with an energy plan, once again getting the jump on Clinton and Obama in the policy arena. (Clinton and Obama have kept their lead in media coverage, mainly because they're ahead in the media coverage, altho Edwards got a boost because his wife has cancer. As the Los Angeles Times put it, Edwards's appearance in San Francisco to call for a moratorium on coal-fired power plants that are not equipped with carbon capture technology saw "a press turnout that would have been unthinkable if all he had to talk about were carbon dioxide emissions." Because we're only talking about the future of all life on the planet here. What could that amount to in comparison with a real human interest story?)

As a senator, Edwards was pretty good on the environment. He started off not so good, but proved himself fairly responsive to the environmental lobby. The rhetoric I've heard from him this year has also been a lot better than Obama and Clinton, who offer magical solutions to global warming thru research spending and ethanol. Edwards, too, supports the ethanol boondoggle, but he's also talking about real sacrifices that have to be made.

Let's take his energy plan piece by piece (the full proposal has far more details than I will cover here):

Capping greenhouse gas pollution starting in 2010 with a cap-and-trade system, and reducing it by 15 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, as the latest science says is needed to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

This is consistent with the best plan under consideration in the Senate, the Sanders-Boxer bill. In contrast, Obama has lent his name to the McCain-Lieberman alternative, which would institute a less stringent cap-and-trade system, thus meeting the demands of business for the predictability of a national emissions policy but with the smallest possible emissions reductions. (This article does a good job explaining the competing bills.) I don't know Clinton's position on global warming - she doesn't even bother with an issues section on her website.

Leading the world to a new climate treaty that commits other countries—including developing nations—to reduce their pollution. Edwards will insist that developing countries join us in this effort, offering to share new clean energy technology and, if necessary, using trade agreements to require binding greenhouse reductions.

Whether this is a good idea would depend entirely on how it was implemented. Edwards acknowledges that America's outsize emissions must be addressed before calling on poorer countries to reduce their own. And he's right that poor countries, especially China and India, must be included in global emissions reductions. Edwards also proposes the right way to do it: use American aid to make cleaner industrialization possible. The question is whether Edwards is willing to offer enough aid to get the poor countries on board.

This is not just important for global warming, it's also a central development issue. The rich countries, whose wealth has in large part been won thru the exploitation and repression of the poor countries, have a responsibility to help those countries industrialize and decrease global inequality. To make that process environmentally sustainable, the rich countries will not only have to give large amounts of clean technology aid to the poor countries, they will also have to substantially reduce their own consumption. Is Edwards willing to do this? His American supremacist foreign policy makes me skeptical. But in comparison to Clinton and Obama, at least he's more willing to reign in American consumption.

Creating a New Energy Economy Fund by auctioning off $10 billion in greenhouse pollution permits and repealing subsidies for big oil companies. The fund will support U.S. research and development in energy technology, help entrepreneurs start new businesses, invest in new carbon-capture and efficient automobile technology and help Americans conserve energy.

Proposals to fund research are universal among the Democratic candidates. The difference in Edwards's proposal is his plan to auction off pollution permits. If and when Clinton and Obama come out with concrete plans, carefully check to see how they will distribute the permits. If the permits are handed out rather than sold, it amounts to a huge giveaway for the corporations who receive them. The Edwards plan would sell some of the permits but give away others. It's rather vague who would have to pay and who wouldn't. We'll have to wait for other candidates' plans to compare, but I don't expect them to be better.

If a Democrat is elected, it will also be important to watch how these research funds are distributed, lest they become corporate welfare slush funds. Both Edwards and Obama have already proposed giving the car companies huge handouts in exchange for making their vehicles less polluting. That is ridiculous. We already give the car companies huge subsidies by building roads, preserving cheap oil supplies, and cleaning up the pollution they create. The government should be doing nothing more to make cars cheap.

Meeting the demand for more electricity through efficiency for the next decade, instead of producing more electricity.

This section contains a number of unspectacular but solid policy reforms to make electricity generation more efficient, including decoupling electricity utilities' profits from the amount of electricity they sell and expanding programs to upgrade the efficiency of buildings and appliances.

Overall, the Edwards plan is ambitious and rests on largely good policy. There are some bad ideas tho: encouraging corn-based ethanol, subsidies to the car companies; and there are many proposals that look promising but could go bad if they're not implemented right.

The biggest hole in the plan has to do with cars. Edwards denies the need to substantially reduce our dependence on cars: "everyone should be able to drive the car, truck or SUV of their choice". In the short term, perhaps big increases in vehicle efficiency and a widespread switch to hybrids would reduce car emissions enough (altho even these changes seem unlikely as long as gas remains so cheap). But this solution only works as long as a large majority of the world's population is mired in poverty and consumes a small fraction of what most Americans do. Giving everyone in the world an equal opportunity to consume means those of us consuming the most (especially Americans but also Europeans, Japanese, South Koreans, and an increasing number of Chinese) will have to significantly cut back. We should start moving now toward cities based on public transit, biking, and walking. The federal government would have to play a big role in this transformation, since it funds most expansions in public transit and because it doles out billions and billions of dollars in highway funds that should be shifted to transit. So it's pretty disappointing to find that the Edwards plan doesn't mention pubic transit once.

Disappointing as it is, I expect far less from the Clinton and Obama plans, if they ever come out with any. Global warming is a hugely important issue, and Edwards is the only viable candidate who is facing it head-on.


Obama's imagemaker

I meant to have a moratorium on anti-Obama posts, but this article was too good to pass up. It's about David Axelrod, Obama's imagemaker and one of his closest political advisers. Axelrod is the kind of guy who
loves man-on-the-street interviews, and while digging through the tape the week before, he found one he did with a young Hispanic guy. "He gives you a — a sense of hope," the young man says, squinting past the camera, swaying slightly. "Uh, at a time when, you know, things in this country are not going so well." It’s a good message for Obama, and a good messenger, but what Axelrod likes are the stutters, the verbal hiccups: "That kind of authenticity is how you cut through."
In other words, Axelrod is in the business of manufacturing authenticity. He is also a longtime Daley aide: as a former alderman puts it, "David Axelrod’s mostly been visible in Chicago in the last decade as Daley’s public relations strategist and the guy who goes on television to defend Daley from charges of corruption". There's nothing "new" or transcendant about the company that Obama keeps.

Axelrod has also been closely involved in many other high-profile Democratic campaigns, including John Edwards's heavy-on-rhetoric, light-on-policy 2004 presidential campaign and world-class asshole Rahm Emanuel's successful 2006 campaign to retake the House for Democrats. He has a "postideological approach, and his campaigns are rooted less in issues than in the particulars of his candidate’s life. For him, running campaigns hitched to personality rather than ideology is a way of reclaiming fleeting authenticity."

Progressives should cringe at this sort of thing. It's anti-democratic, because it elevates the image of the politician over what government actually does and what should be the focus of elections, which is making policy. And it cements the Democratic Party's longtime tendency to offer nothing but symbols, and ideologically empty symbols at that.

If we care about health care, foreign policy, global warming, or any other issue, we should only support those leaders who are willing to argue for progressive policies in public. Otherwise, when it comes time to pass the law (should Obama ever propose a progressive law), the power of entrenched interests will easily overcome the ethereal "new politics" offered by the image/politician. As Obama's campaign continues to move forward almost exclusively on his "optimism", it's increasingly clear that Obama and Axelrod are hoping to avoid such a divisive thing as concrete policies.

Last week the Tribune ran a piece on Obama's experience as a community organizer on the South Side. This is the only thing in Obama's all-important biography that would give me any hope in him as president. But it's hard to know if Obama decided to become an organizer because he really believed in it, or because he was positioning himself for a career in politics (in his days as an organizer, he was already telling people that he wanted to be mayor of Chicago). In a revealing story, we hear that during his 2004 Senate campaign,
Obama, microphone in hand, introduc[ed] himself to a small group of voters at a coffeehouse on Chicago’s North Side; when the candidate told them about his work in the early 1990s as a community organizer, there was a spontaneous, sustained applause. [Axelrod says,] "You know, we hadn’t thought that was an important part of his bio, but people really responded to the fact that Barack gave up corporate job offers to work in the community."
The fact that Obama sees so little significance in his only real grassroots work tells you something. So does the fact that he respects people so little that he runs his campaign as a naked attempt to manipulate voters with his biography. The sad thing is that this manipulation is working so well.


Obama and the Chicago machine

For some time now Barack Obama has been getting close to Daley's political machine. His latest favor to the machine was to endorse Dorothy Tillman in the runoff election for the 3rd ward. The ward includes much of Bronzeville, the historic black district of Chicago, parts of which are gentrifying while other parts languish in economic depression.

Tillman started out as a civil rights organizer in the '60s and was elected alderman in 1985. Since then she has spoken out strongly for slavery reparations while integrating herself ever more tightly with the Daley machine and indulging in corruption. Most recently, hers was one of the key votes that sank the big box ordinance, a bill that would have forced large chain stores in Chicago to pay their workers a living wage. As a result, labor unions have worked hard to defeat her, and may do so - no thanks to Obama, who issued his endorsement as he left a labor rally.

This comes on the heels of Obama's endorsement of Daley in the mayoral election. Before that he backed Todd Stroger for president of the Cook County Board. Stroger succeeded his father in the position, and won the primary as the machine candidate against a reformer. He has thus far distinguished himself by cutting county health services for poor people.

Why has Obama tied himself so closely to the corrupt and conservative Daley establishment? The machine's election workers will help avoid the possibility of an embarassment in the Illinois primary. Keeping in Daley's good graces also provides access to all the big political donors in Chicago - mainly large corporations, developers, and financial interests. And since the city's progressive opposition is pathetically disorganized, Obama will not pay a political price for throwing his weight behind the machine.

The real question is why would Obama not support the machine? Unless, of course, he were serious about transcending the game of power, access, and privilege that is politics.


The presidential candidates' antiwar smokescreen

For some reason, the Iraq war is emerging as a key issue in the Democratic presidential primaries. American policy in Iraq, the Middle East more generally, and the entire world should be one of the main issues up for debate. But it's weird when "debate" emerges around an issue that all three top candidates agree on. (The only candidate that I'm aware of who has a different position, Dennis Kucinich, has been excluded from contention by the media and lack of campaign funds.)

Obama apparently has the edge on Iraq, since unlike Edwards and Clinton he opposed the war from the start. Yet as this article shows, Obama's actual voting record in the Senate has been timid at best when it comes to ending American involvement.

More to the point, on what grounds is Obama's opposition to the war based? That it's immoral to invade another country? That it's wrong for the United States to dominate other parts of the world? Certainly not. As his speech to AIPAC demonstrated, he fully believes that the US has the right to control other countries, and he has made clear that violence is an option when countries like Iran defy US commands. Obama has not called for cuts in our enormous military budget, which is as big as the military spending of the rest of world combined. He has not called for closing US bases in Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, the Middle East, and elsewhere. He has not promised an end to America's continuing interference against the revival of progressive forces in Latin America. He has not called for global nuclear disarmament.

Instead, Obama's statements indicate that his foreign policy would be similar to that of Bill Clinton. Clinton would not have invaded Iraq, it's true, but he had no problem maintaining sanctions against Iraq that killed a million people. He readily sent hundreds of millions of dollars in weaponry to countries like Turkey and Colombia engaged in vicious state terrorism. He had no trouble backing Suharto in Indonesia even as the government massacred people in East Timor. Obama stands squarely in this long tradition of liberal imperialism: an aggressive and militarist foreign policy with the same basic goals as that of the neoconservatives (perpetuating American military and economic supremacy), but in which multilateral approaches to maintain American power are tried before switching to unilateral ones should our shows of consultation and bribery fail.

Clinton and Edwards have the same foreign policy orientation, and have yet to give any indication that their presidential administrations would be any different from Obama's. As I've followed campaign news and read blogs, I've seen a disturbing idealization of the Clinton years on the part of progressives. It's time for us to reaquaint ourselves with the crimes of the Clinton administration and understand that all of the viable Democratic candidates would be just as criminal. Should a Democrat win the election, the left will have to sharpen its critical eye and move beyond slogans like "anyone but a Republican", or risk falling into the collective torpor of the Clinton years that allowed terrible atrocities to be committed in our name.


On alienating homophobic voters

After the 2004 election, which Republicans won based on appeals to American nationalism , xenophobia, and anti-gay bigotry, I called on the left to launch a culture war against these hatreds. I predicted that Democrats would move to the right in a pathetic attempt to "neutralize the issue", giving them no electoral advantage but deepening America's culture of intolerance.

Fortunately for the Democrats, the deterioration of the Iraq war and the Hurricane Katrina debacle turned voters against the Republicans and there was no need to swing to the right on cultural issues. But Democrats have certainly not stood up against nationalism and homophobia either.

The latest evidence is the response to comments from General Peter Pace - operational commander of the mass murdering organization called the US military - who said that homosexuality, of all things, is immoral. When asked if they agreed that being gay is immoral, both Clinton and Obama refused to answer.

Clinton said:
"We are being deprived of thousands of patriotic men and women who want to serve their country who are bringing skills into the armed services that we desparately need, like translation skills. [That's a weird thing to say. Because they're gay they can't fight, but they have a facility for language? -Jake] And one can argue whether it was a good idea when it was first implemented, but we know [sic] have evidence as to the fact that we are in a time of war -- when we really need as many people as we can to recruit and retain in an all-volunteer army -- we are turning people away or discharging them not because of what they've done but because of who they are."

But is it immoral?

"Well I'm going to leave that to others to conclude," she said. "I'm very proud of the gays and lesbians I know who perform work that is essential to our country, who want to serve their country and I want make sure they can."
And Obama:
Newsday caught Obama as he was leaving the firefighters convention and asked him three times if he thought homosexuality is immoral.

Answer 1: "I think traditionally the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman has restricted his public comments to military matters. That's probably a good tradition to follow."

Answer 2: "I think the question here is whether somebody is willing to sacrifice for their country, should they be able to if they're doing all the things that should be done."

Answer 3: Signed autograph, posed for snapshot, jumped athletically into town car.
So not only did they refuse to simply say "no", they also promoted service to American imperialism in the process.

I wasn't really expecting any better from Edwards, who like Clinton and Obama opposes gay marriage, but here's what he had to say:
Asked by Wolf Blitzer on The Situation Room whether he agrees with Pace's comments, Edwards replied, "I don't share that view."
That's not as strong as I'd like. You would think a Democrat could by now come out and say, "Homosexuality is not immoral. And our country has no place for this kind of hatred." But, as with other issues, in the face of Clinton and Obama's political cowardice, Edwards looks pretty good.


Public transit not part of the lifestyle of public transit board

I don't ride the CTA much, since my commute to school is only about a mile and I normally bike or walk. Even so, I'm on a pace to take around 150 trips on the CTA this year. A regular commuter, of course, would take around 500 trips a year plus any weekend trips.

Compare that with this:
[CTA] board member Henry Chandler Jr., who gets around in a wheelchair, rode on CTA buses and trains 129 times in 2006--more than all the other board members combined, according to the ridership summary, which was provided to the Tribune.

"I think it is helpful if board members have an experience with the system. But every individual is different, and sometimes lifestyle doesn't fit into it," said CTA chairwoman Carole Brown, who rode the CTA 53 times in 2006 using her agency photo ID badge.
Okay, if they want to live in the suburbs and foul our air by driving 3-4 hours in traffic every day, fine. But in that case, providing oversight on a key urban service that they don't bother to use should not be part of their lifestyle.

Hardly surprising tho. It's always corporate executives and lawyers and other rich people who staff "public interest" boards like this or any other "civic" organization - the Olympics bid, for example. In many ways urban elites are basically the same as they were 150 years ago - a small group of "community figures" who not only control all the businesses but generously contribute their free time to running the bodies that make the decisions about urban planning and development, disbursement of grants, running of universities, museums, &c. In other words, the operational leaders of pretty much all the public and private organizations that control our lives are the same people that sit on all the boards overseeing those organizations. Since these are the people running our cities, and since the people in Congress are all bought and paid for by these same people, it starts to look like a mass delusion that Americans talk about democracy in this country.


Obama: Make US domination of the Middle East more effective

Obama made his pitch to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee yesterday with a speech here in Chicago. I encourage anyone who still has illusions about Obama's great progressive candidacy to read the full text. Taken as a whole, the speech is sickening. It's not so much that Obama states his strong support for American imperialism in the Middle East and Israel's continuing repression - we're probably desensitized to that sort of thing by now. It's that he lavishes long passages on humanizing Israelis in service to the dehumanization of Arabs. There is no evidence from the text that Israel has ever committed a single questionable act, while Arabs are seen to be constantly terrorizing poor Israel.

In the speech Obama also spells out clear policies on Iran, Iraq, and Israel. He calls Iran "one of the greatest threats to the United States, Israel and world peace" and criticizes Bush administration policy for making Iran stronger. Obama's approach would include
direct engagement with Iran similar to the meetings we conducted with the Soviets at the height of the Cold War, laying out in clear terms our principles and interests. Tough-minded diplomacy would include real leverage through stronger sanctions. It would mean more determined U.S diplomacy at the United Nations. It would mean harnessing the collective power of our friends in Europe who are Iran’s major trading partners. It would mean a cooperative strategy with Gulf States who supply Iran with much of the energy resources it needs. It would mean unifying those states to recognize the threat of Iran and increase pressure on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment. It would mean full implementation of U.S. sanctions laws. And over the long term, it would mean a focused approach from us to finally end the tyranny of oil, and develop our own alternative sources of energy to drive the price of oil down.
In other words, Obama would expend considerable effort to isolate Iran and destroy its economy while conducting discussions with its government. Obama's policy would only strengthen the Irani desire for nuclear weapons to protect itself. And it's probably untenable anyway. US sanctions are already extremely strong, so the only change is that Obama would strong-arm European and Middle Eastern countries to further isolate Iran - something the Bush administration has already tried unsuccessfully. But that aside, what's revealing is that Obama supports collective punishment of the Irani people as a means of reducing their leadership - including their elected president - to subservience.

On Iraq, Obama calls for troop withdrawal to be completed by 2008 May. But, he also has this to say:
My plan also allows for a limited number of U.S. troops to remain and prevent Iraq from becoming a haven for international terrorism and reduce the risk of all-out chaos. In addition, we will redeploy our troops to other locations in the region, reassuring our allies that we will stay engaged in the Middle East.
This is a nice way of saying that altho the project of establishing Iraq as a military base from which the US could project military power throughout the region has failed, Obama has no intention of giving up the larger objective. American domination of the Middle East is the reason terrorists target the US, but just like every Republican and Democratic president since FDR, for Obama controlling the region's oil is the most important thing.

As for Israel, Obama argues that America must never apply any sort of pressure on that country - certainly not by withdrawing the massive subsidies the US provides, but not even thru toothless diplomatic pressure. "No Israeli Prime Minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States", he says, and "we must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance". He also blames Lebanon for Israel's attack against it, and refuses to work with the "extremists" who Palestinians elected to represent them.

Now, Clinton and Edwards (and McCain and Giuliani) are just as bad as Obama on all these issues. But people whose critical faculties have for unknown reasons been overwhelmed by Obama's empty rhetoric about hope should pay more attention to speeches like these, in which he reveals his concrete policies. We have to wait and see if Obama comes up with anything good on domestic policy, but until that time I see no reason to support him over Edwards.

A small victory for the "human nature is good" camp

A new poll shows strong support for universal health care. 65 percent of respondents rate extending insurance to those who don't have it a bigger priority than keeping health costs down for those who are already insured. 48 percent support universal health care even if their own costs increased as much as $500/year.

Republicans in the survey acquit themselves better than expected, as 30 percent support a government guarantee of health care even if it raises their own costs. On the other hand the 52 percent of Republicans along with 13 percent of Democrats and 22 percent of independents who oppose universal health care reveal themselves as the true assholes of the country. You can make a superficially plausible case that poor people are to blame for being poor - it's a lot harder to make that argument about sickness and disease. Here the pretense of personal responsibility is dropped, and we see that most Republicans are just selfish bastards.

For many years polls have consistently shown strong popular support for universal health care. Every time one of these polls comes out the media seem surprised - an indication of the deep contempt the media hold for democratic priorities when popular desires don't mesh with those of the business and political elites. In every article except those on polls like this, universal health care is assumed to be utopian. It's truly remarkable that despite being told at every opportunity that universal health care is impossible, large majorities of Americans continue to support it.

What will the Democrats do with these popular demands? Mike Davis, discussing the state of the party following the midterm elections, is probably right that as long as popular forces remain unorganized and apathetic, the Democrats will continue to pursue corporate money at the expense of any real reforms. But as I've written, John Edwards's health care plan is actually quite good. If Clinton and Obama match him (unlikely) or if they're denied the nomination because they can't find the political courage to support universal health care, we might make real progress.


letter to the editor, re: expanding public transit

Hey look at that, the Tribune printed a letter I wrote. It's inferior to the op-ed, but hits the same points. Unfortunately they changed my correct spelling of the word El to the Tribune's style "L". Three of the seven letters today criticize what's going on with the CTA.

Moving the public

You argue that the CTA should take care of its basic maintenance needs before building new services ("Crosstown back from the dead," Editorial, Feb. 26). But often federal funds are available that can only be used on new construction. Adequately funding existing public transit should be the first priority, but it shouldn't distract us from the ambitious expansion plans that might someday allow the metro region to escape its destructive addiction to cars. In fact, long-term planning is going on right now—but for the wrong things. Mayor Richard M. Daley and the CTA have fast-tracked the Circle Line and Block 37 airport express. These two projects might please Daley's well-heeled campaign contributors, but they do little for the huge sections of the city underserved by public transit.

Let's spend that money instead building the Mid-City Transitway "L" line on the old Crosstown Expressway route and extensions of the Dan Ryan Red Line, the Orange Line and the Yellow Line that have been discussed for years.



Paving over the Mid-City Transitway

As I started writing this post I was suddenly taken by the idea of submitting it to the Tribune as an op-ed, which explains the writing style. Since I have no hope of them publishing it, here it is for your enjoyment.

As the reelection of Mayor Daley approaches and the Illinois legislature gears up for a big budget battle in Springfield, an important but largely unknown issue has hit the media in the last week. In an alarming display of poor judgment, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan announced his support for a new highway running through the Northwest, West, and Southwest Sides.

Madigan seems not to have consulted anyone on plans for the unused railroad corridor just east of Cicero Avenue that the first Mayor Daley had planned to turn into a highway called the Crosstown Expressway. He did not speak with Governor Blagojevich, the City of Chicago, the Illinois Department of Transportation, or the toll authority before proposing the new highway. Area transportation experts expressed surprise at Madigan's plan, and skepticism that it would ever be politically viable. In 1979 the original plan was killed by the strong opposition of residents who would have been forced out by the highway construction's swath of destruction. Perhaps Madigan failed to consult a recent map of Chicago's population as well, but a lot of people are still living there.

Good thing, too. The last thing Chicago needs is another highway. As study after study have shown, new road construction does not alleviate congestion. Rather, traffic expands to fill the new space, leaving road conditions unchanged but adding a lot more pollution, greenhouse gases, and road accidents.

What the city desperately needs is not more roads, but more transit options. If Chicago is going to meet Daley's goal of becoming the "greenest city in America", it has to come up with an adequate infrastructure for people who want to get out of the traffic jams and away from the road rage. It will have to revive and expand public transit.

A plan to do just that in the Cicero railroad corridor has been under discussion since 2002. Known as the Mid-City Transitway (MCT), the plan would develop the corridor as a new El line instead of a highway. Running from the Blue Line Jefferson Park stop south to Midway Airport then heading east along 74th, the MCT would end at the Red Line 87th Street station.

If built, the MCT would provide a direct connection between O'Hare and Midway. It would finally establish a north-south El line in the western part of the city, linking the Blue, Green, Orange, and Red Lines. And it would bring the El to huge swaths of the city that have been excluded. According to a 2005 study commissioned by the city, an MTC El would attract about 90,000 riders a day - numbers similar to the heavily used North Side Red Line and twice that of the Brown Line. (See information on neighborhood population densities here and here.)

In response to Madigan's proposal, Daley has voiced his support for building some sort of mass transit and a trucks-only road in the Cicero corridor. The idea is certainly better than Madigan's, but why has Daley made the MTC such a low priority?

The MTC has languished as a "long-term proposal" with no political urgency behind it. Instead, Daley and the CTA have pushed forward projects like the Circle Line and Block 37. The Circle Line would form an outer Loop linking El and Metra lines just outside of downtown. Because part of it would be underground and because it runs through valuable land, it would cost about as much to build the Circle Line's 5 miles as it would to build the MTC's 22 miles. The Circle Line would draw far fewer riders and run through parts of the city already well-served by transit. Yet it moves quickly forward while the MTC remains endangered by hare-brained proposals like Madigan's. Could the percentage of condos in the Circle Line's vicinity provide some clue to this otherwise baffling development?

Until our city's leaders get serious about public transit, and about serving all parts of the city rather than just the professional set, our atrocious traffic situation will only get worse. An MTC El should be an integral part of a serious plan to dramatically improve Chicago mass transit.


More on the Democrats

Here's a short and unsatisfying list of John Edwards's policy positions. He sounds a lot better than Obama on energy, sounds about the same on Iran. Here's a much more satisfying interview with Edwards, mainly about Iran and Israel. Clinton, Edwards, and Obama all seem to have the same dishonest policy on Iran - they harshly criticize Bush for not negotiating with Iran, but insist on "keeping all options on the table". It's dishonest because the goal of the negotiations - that Iran renounce nuclear weapons even as it is surrounded on literally all sides by hostile nuclear powers - is simply not realistic. And that only leaves military action or a continuation of the "containment" policy pursued by all administrations since the American client regime was overthrown.

So Edwards seems pretty bad on foreign policy, just another liberal imperialist. When asked "What does Iraq say about the feasibility and the bar for invading countries in the Middle East?", Edwards responds, "It means that we have to be much more careful." In other words, for Edwards the problem with the Iraq war is that it was done recklessly, under false pretenses. He refuses to condemn the crime of aggressive war, and he refuses to condemn American supremacy.

Here is an article on Obama's Israel policy. Surprise! He blames the Palestinians for being oppressed. So on Israel, too, Clinton, Edwards, and Obama are tied - all lousy.

I suppose it's a bit much to ask for an anti-imperialist to emerge as a viable Democratic candidate. The American elite has been united behind American supremacy since 1945, and Democratic presidents have been some of the most violent in their defense of it. To the extent this election is worth spending time on, Edwards still seems to be the best candidate at this point. Sad that in the first race in which a woman and a black man are viable, they are also the least progressive. Sad, but revealing.


Took 'em long enough

Chicago has finally enforced its ban on foie gras for the first time. The target was the owner of Hot Doug's, the hot dog place by Lane Tech. This guy has been a real asshole about breaking the law, so it's good to see him fined.

If you want to send an email to Hot Doug's, the address is info@hotdougs.com.


letter to the editor, re: subsidies for drivers

I've always thought it a little strange that I've managed to get a half dozen letters published in The New York Times and even one in The Washington Post, but still not a single one in the Chicago Tribune. This one, which I sent last week, continues the streak.

To the editors:
If car-dependent suburbanites think they're subsidizing public transit in Chicago, they're dead wrong ("Transit agencies go after billions", 2007 February 8). It's those of us who don't own cars that are subsidizing them: paying to build roads for them, paying the clean-up costs and hospital bills incurred by their pollution and car accidents, sacrificing valuable urban space to eyesores like parking lots and gas stations.

But even more than nondrivers, it's future generations who are subsidizing drivers. As the IPCC report on global warming makes clear, our children and grandchildren will spend huge amounts of money to deal with the mess we're giving them. What is this but an enormous transfer of their wealth to us, so that we can enjoy the convenience of traffic jams and road rage?

We should dramatically increase taxes on cars and gasoline and use the money to build an outstanding public transit system for the whole metro area. The faster we do it, the less money we'll be stealing from those who come after us.


At last, the big Obama post

Well now that he's finally running and has become the great black hope of white liberals, I suppose I should pass judgment.

I read thru the interesting (nonbiographical) parts of his book some months ago and took extensive tho sometimes illegible notes. Based on that, I have no great enthusiasm for the man.

It seems to me that the key issues in the presidential election should be (in no particular order):
1) health care,
2) Iraq and other foreign policy,
3) global warming,
4) immigration,
5) poverty, economic decay, and its connection to race.

(You'll notice I did not mention the goddamn middle class, because there are some people who have real problems.)

So how does Obama rate?

1) Health care.
The only acceptable solution here is a single-payer health care system, or the extension of Medicare to everyone in the country, preferably with the nationalization of the pharmaceutical companies. The patchwork solutions that Democrats have been pushing are expensive and inefficient and will be rolled back next time the budget has some problems. Obama seems to recognize this when he writes, "there may be other more cost-effective and elegant ways to improve the health-care system" (186), but he goes ahead and signs on to the same old incremental, fatally flawed approach anyway. I don't remember the specifics, but my notes refer to his proposal as "half-assed health care".

2) Iraq and other foreign policy.
Unlike many Democrats, Obama opposed the invasion before it began. In the book he calls for a phased troop withdrawal by the end of 1996, and it seems likely that as president he'd get most of the combat troops out. Whether he'd establish permanent bases and continue to interfere in Iraq is less clear.

His general foreign policy discussion in the book makes clear that he's a liberal imperialist, willing to defend America's world hegemony but preferring to do so with bribery and shows of consultation rather than thru unilateral violence. He speaks admiringly of Truman, Acheson, Marshall, and Kennan - the architects of the cold war - as "marr[ying] [Woodrow] Wilson's idealism to hardheaded realism, an acceptance of America's power with a humility regarding America's ability to control events around the world. . . . America needed to maintain its military dominance and be prepared to use force in defense of its interests across the globe" (284).

As for the present day, he writes, "So long as Russia and China retain their own large military forces and haven't fully rid themselves of the instinct to throw their weight around - and so long as a handful of rogue states are willing to attack other sovereign nations . . . - there will be times when we must again play the role of the world's reluctant sheriff. This will not change - nor should it" (306).

When he speaks of "rogue states willing to attack other sovereign nations", he's not referring to the USA, but it's unclear who he is talking about since in the last 15 years the only country to attack other sovereign nations has been America (you might want to include the Eritrea-Ethiopia war, or possibly Israel, but I don't think this is who he has in mind). Regardless, it should be clear that Obama is just another great power hypocrite, willing to use violence to protect American supremacy if he needs to. In light of this, his reference to China as a "potential rival" (307) and his warlike statements about Iran appear rather ominous.

3) Global warming.
Political space to address global warming has been opening with suprising speed over the last couple years, so Obama's failure to say much of anything about it in his book is doubly disappointing. He does call for an end to oil company subsidies, taxing those companies one percent of their revenues to fund alternative fuel research, and for increased fuel efficiency standards. But he mostly justifies these in terms of national security and economic stability, with nary a word on global warming. The centerpiece of what there is of an environmental program is expanding ethanol production. That will serve Obama campaign contributor and corporate agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland well, but will not do much to fight global warming. Obama is also supportive of (energy intensive) technologies that turn coal into oil, a nice sop for downstate coal interests but terribly regressive on global warming.

4) Immigration.
Obama writes that "American citizenship is a privilege and not a right, that without meaningful borders and respect for the law, the very things that brought [immigrants] to America, the opportunities and protections afforded those who live in this country, would surely erode" (267). This is simply not good enough. It does not address the root cause of massive immigration - global inequality - and it does not condemn the racism that has been animating anti-Mexican legislation and invective. What we need is an amnesty, not cliched rhetoric.

5) Poverty, economic decay, and its connection to race.
Obama calls for many useful economic measures, including a raise in the minimum wage, increased earned income tax credit, stronger unemployment insurance, better legal protections for unions, and government subsidized jobs programs in the inner city. But these are crumbs - they're not imaginative, they certainly don't go far enough, and Obama stays away from the real problems here, institutional racism and capitalism. He also doesn't have much to say on reviving economic activity in the ghetto or reforming our system of so-called criminal justice.

On other issues, Obama doesn't look much better. He opposes gay marriage. He admits using marijuana and cocaine so he should know that drug prohibition is asinine, but if he does he's not doing anything about it. His biggest funders are corporate law firms and finance capital. His close advisers and friends are a collection of campaign mercenaries, corporate bigwigs, and Daley proteges. Perhaps the most damning thing about Obama is that he hasn't used his huge media presence to push any truly ambitious progressive policy.

All that said, Obama may be the best choice among the viable candidates - the only one that may be better, at least in rhetoric if not policy, is Edwards. Certainly, some useful organizing could take place under cover of campaigning for Obama. But we on the left should be clear: there is almost no evidence that this man is our ally, and investing great hope in him seems deeply misguided.


Global warming miscellany

So last weekend I spent far too much time going to blogs that mentioned the IPCC report on global warming and leaving comments like this:
probably the single biggest thing thing we can do as individuals to fight global warming is to go vegetarian. a recent UN report found that the livestock industry accounts for 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gases (more than cars!), and a university of chicago study concluded that switching from a typical american diet to a vegetarian diet reduces your contribution to global warming more than if you switched from a regular car to a hybrid. not to mention all the other environmental damage done by the meat industry, or the horrific suffering of the animals.
The media literally haven't reported on either of these studies (the only thing a Lexis-Nexis search turns up is a half-assed New York Times editorial), so I thought it was a good chance to try and educate people about meat's role in global warming.

I was really surprised by the strong presence of global warming deniers. On any thread that discussion got going, they seemed to be as numerous as those who believe in science. And I only visited blogs that seemed concerned about global warming, so there was a significant number of denier bloggers that I didn't even bother with. The deniers seem particularly strong in the USA, Australia, and Canada. Those three also happen to be numbers 1, 2, and 3 in per capita carbon emissions among large industrial countries (there are a handful of island nations and oil-producing kingdoms with higher levels, plus Luxembourg).

But I don't think the deniers are our biggest problem. I suspect popular complacency and resistance to reducing our consumption will prove much bigger obstacles.

Some interesting numbers I've come across:
Carbon emissions per capita, 1990-2003. The USA, Australia, and Canada are the worst by far. Deutschland/Germany, 日本/Japan, 한국/South Korea, and the UK all emitted only 1/2 the carbon of the those three, slightly less than Россия/Russia. I was a little surprised that Japan, with its amazing public transit system, was almost as bad as Germany and worse than Britain. Among the rich countries, the two standouts are France and Sverige/Sweden, both emitting less than 1/3 of the carbon of the USA and 2/3 that of Germany. 中国/China's output in 2003 was 1/6 that of the USA. Tho that figure is increasing rapidly, it will not even rival France's any time soon. Brasil emitted less than half as much as China, and India and Indonesia slightly less than Brasil.

Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2004. There's a lot of good information on US greenhouse gases in here. Carbon is responsible for 85 percent of the total share (all numbers are weighted according to how powerful each greenhouse gas is), with methane and nitrous oxide accounting for most of the rest. An overwhelming majority of the carbon is, of course, produced by burning fossil fuels. The biggest sector consuming fossil fuels is transportation (33 percent), with private vehicles accounting for over 60 percent of the total. The other fossil fuel culprits: industrial (28 percent), residential (21 percent), and commercial (17 percent). Burning oil for mainly transportation uses and burning coal to produce electricity are the main carbon producers, each accounting for around 40 percent of the total.

From these numbers and the UN and U Chicago studies above, it should be clear that the two main things Americans can do as individuals to fight global warming are to stop eating meat and other animal products, and to stop driving. But it remains the case that these two have small shares in the total production of greenhouse gases, together accounting for perhaps 25 percent of greenhouse gases. The solution to global warming must involve an organized political movement to force much stricter emissions standards and much higher prices for greenhouse gas-producing consumption, as well as more efficient and less individual consumption.

Freedom to invest is really just like free speech

I went to a U Chicago protest today demanding that the university divest from companies involved in supporting the Sudanese government because of its involvement in the ethnic violence in Darfur. This issue doesn't really do much for me - I generally think Americans should concentrate on preventing their own government from killing hundreds of thousands of people before they go crusading against other governments. And the actual investments at stake are fairly minor; divesting would be mostly symbolic. But the divestment activism seems to be the biggest campaign on campus, and I think the principle is important. First, the university should not be free to invest in companies that are complicit in gross human rights violations. And second, the university should be accountable to the people that make up the community.

Instead, the administration and board of trustees have argued that if they give in to this political pressure, then they will have abandoned their duty to maintain an atmosphere of open discussion. Needless to say, this is a bizarre argument meant to provide only minimal pretense for retaining the administration/board of trustees' autonomy from the university community and to avoid the slippery slope of permitting open debate on what the university should do with its money. Divest from Sudan today, what's next? Turn down money from the War Department? Spend money to ameliorate the vast expanse of poverty that surrounds the university?


The Nation smears vegetarianism

Here's a choice piece of anti-vegetarian dreck. This sort of thing can be found on blogs all over the internet, but this one was published in The Nation. Now I don't expect The Nation to publish anything explaining the strong case for progressives being vegetarian - it has never done so (with the partial exception of Peter Singer's short and rather tepid contribution to the food issue last year). But I do expect them to not publish muddled and ad hominem pieces like this one.

The first part of the article is a review of Tristram Stuart's The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism From 1600 to Modern Times. It's a fine review, tho Lazare spends a suspicious amount of time talking about Nazi vegetarianism (only a minor part of the book, which focuses primarily on Enlightenment-era England according to other reviews). Then we get this:
The idea is that instead of reigning supreme over nature, humanity should take its place within nature alongside its fellow animals. Instead of domination, this implies sharing, harmony and other New Age virtues. But the trouble with sovereignty is that it cannot be fragmented or reduced; either it's supreme and indivisible or it's not, in which case it's no longer sovereignty. Although vegetarians may think that surrendering human supremacy will reduce the harm that people do to the environment, any such effort is invariably counterproductive. Denying humans their supreme power means denying them their supreme responsibility to improve society, to safeguard the environment on which it depends and even--dare we say it--to improve nature as well.
First of all, since when have "sharing" and "harmony" been exclusively New Age values? Second of all, this is a ridiculous argument. Does anyone who lacks supreme power thereby lack all responsibility? How exactly could humans improve nature? If Lazare stopped playing word games and offered some sort of example, at least his point might make sense.

Instead we move on to this:
Regardless of whether they are consuming more meat and poultry than is good for them, it is yet another reminder, as if any more were needed, of how thoroughly Malthusian myths about limits to human productivity have been shattered. Scarcity no longer serves as an argument for vegetarianism, and neither, for that matter, does health, since we know from studies of Okinawan centenarians and others that small amounts of meat and dark-fleshed fish are good for you; that moderate amounts of alcohol (which vegetarians for some reason appear to avoid) is good for you as well
I think he's right that the health argument for vegetarianism is a bad one (altho it's pretty clear that most Americans would dramatically improve their health if they went vegetarian). The scarcity argument, on the other hand, is probably less discredited than Lazare believes since current plenty is being bought at the cost of environmental destruction that might severely limit future plenty. And where is he getting this idea about vegetarians avoiding alcohol? I've never even heard that stereotype before.

I'll end with Lazare's conclusion, which could have come from the pen of George Will but for the Castroite slogan:
So the next time you tuck into a plate of tagliatelle Bolognese, a leg of lamb or a proper coq au vin made from some rangy old rooster that's had more lovers than most of us can dream of, you should see it not just as a chance to fill your stomach but, rather, as an occasion to celebrate humanity's ongoing struggle to create abundance out of scarcity. Venceremos! It's a lot better than wallowing in the silly defeatism of a diet of tofu and sprouts.