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.