December 2008

As 2008 winds to a close I must conclude that it is has been a year unlike any I’ve experienced.  From the election of a relative political novice as president to an American economy that went from seemingly OK to being in a very serious recession, perhaps depression, in the blink of an eye, there’s not been a year like this in my memory.  That doesn’t include the fact the novice we elected as president was “Black” and that the “War” in Iraq has diminished beyond our wildest expectations just as a new war in the Middle East has begun.   

As we enter the new year it is with both hope and trepidation.  The hope is that our new leader will bring a new tone and direction to American politics and thus the world.  Although the challenges our incoming President will face will be enormous, I can’t think of anyone better right now to the job.  For all of our sakes we must pray that he succeeds.  I, for one, will do everything in my power to help him achieve that success.  That does not mean I will never be critical as I can’t imagine that some stupendous blunders don’t lie ahead.  It will simply mean that at base I want this president to succeed and that I will help as I can, even if that mean criticizing.

 What is very clear is that world in 2009 remains a most dangerous place.  That we end one year and begin another with an active war blazing in the Middle East, in Gaza, is noteworthy.  I fear that the Israel’s decision to strike at Hamas was not a wise won and will inevitably lead to increasing conflict. 

Today’s editions of the Washington Post and New York Times offer several perspectives on this dangerous world.  First, there is a very good Michael Gerson piece in the Washington Post entitled Support Obama Will Need.  He reminds us of the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran and the challenges that will be faced by a President Obama in this regard.  Two other Op-eds, both focused on the Israeli action in the Gaza strip, are also well worth a read.  Both seem to suggest, although one more than the other, that the present Israeli offensive in a mistake.  I am inclined to agree.  War will only beget more hatred and more war.  It is hard to see, at least in this context, any other result.  The first piece is from today’s Washington Post is by Julia Chaitin and is entitled Darkness in Qassam-Land.  It argues that the war that Israel has chosen to wage against Hamas is completely wrong if what Israel is seeking is eventual peace with its neighbors.  The other, in the New York Times by David Grossman and entitled Fight Fire With a Cease-Fire, similarly seems to argue that war is not going to advance Israel’s longer term goals.  Mr. Grossman is calling for an immediate, even if unilateral, cease fire to give peace yet another chance and reframe the issue in a more defensible way for Israel.

With that I will close for the year.  Thank you to my few but very loyal readers.  I hope 2009 can be a year of growth and health for all of us. 


I was confronted with two stories yesterday, seemingly unrelated.  One was about efforts by natural gas exporting countries to create a formal organization that many fear will morph into a natural gas cartel similar to the OPEC oil cartel.  The other was a story sent to me by a friend about the rescue of a humpback whale off of the California coast where at the conclusion of the rescue the whale went to each rescuer and nudged them as if to say thank you.  It is a moving story that reminds us of our responsibility to preserve other forms of life, some perhaps of very high intelligence.  The latter story was from the San Francisco Chronicle dated December 14, 2005 and entitled Daring rescue of whale off Farallones

Receiving both of these stories comes as I’m finally reading a book that I’ve had on my bookshelf for a year now.  I’d seen it on a list last year at this time of the best books of 2007.  It’s entitled The Unnatural History of the Seaand authored by Callum Roberts.

The book tells the story of man’s centuries old abuse of our oceans and its creatures.  What we’re dealing with today is the result of centuries of overfishing and the complete insensitivity of mankind to the environment.  Reading its chapters on the Chesapeake Bay, including the Potomac River, was particularly interesting to me as I live but few minutes walk from the Potomac River in Washington, DC.  The book describes the Chesapeake Bay estuary when it was discovered as overflowing with fish and and other wildlife.  Observing it today one would suppose that nothing lives within its waters, though a few fishermen can be found angling along the banks despite the warnings not to eat more than certain quantities of fish due to the presence of heavy metals.  One certainly doesn’t see whales (including Killer Whales) or porpoises or fish so thick you could pluck them from the water.

That we must take better care of our waters seems very clear.  Living along the Chesapeake Bay estuary as I do and crossing it on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge dozens of times per year, I can think of few things that should be of a higher priority that cleaning up the bay and reestablishing a healthy fishery.  Yet, knowing what I know about offshore drilling, it wouldn’t faze me in the least to drill oil or gas wells into the bay.  I see the two things as completely unrelated.  My biggest concern with drilling would be with the visual impact and I would think that states would need to insist upon either directional drilling from shore (which can be done perfectly safely) or gas-only production from the waters themselves (as there would be no visual impact other than during the relatively short drilling phase).  This is what the Province of Ontario does in the Great Lakes.

Yet we in America, while we continue to drive our 4-wheel drive Suburbans to and from our homes built in suburbia in a manner that completely ignores the impact of runoff from our fertilized lawns on inland and coastal waters, refuse to consider drilling offshore.  It is completely illogical.  It is the kind of disconnect that we expect in an America that gets its information from soundbites rather than from serious inquiry.

This brings me back to the story that a number of countries that produce and export natural gas have created a formal organization that appears to be aimed at created an OPEC-like cartel for natural gas.  With the increase in the transport of liquified natural gas it is becoming more and more a world commodity.  As we in the United States build more import terminals we are at risk of becoming as economically dependent upon natural gas from abroad as we are on oil.

My very strongly held view is that we must first conserve, and secondly produce as much oil and natural gas at home before we import by sea any more oil or natural gas.  That we may soon have another cartel on our hands that aims to manipulate the supply and therefore the price of natural gas should be highly concerning.  It also means more petroleum products on more boats travelling into a ports, not an unrisky thing itself.

My conclusion in all of this is that President Obama has a unique opportunity to create a new energy policy in this country that is for the first time both rational and balanced.  Certainly a Democrat advocating offshore development will have far more credibility with the public than would any Republican becuase of the Democratic Party’s longstanding advocacy for the environment.  There doesn’t exist the suspicion that would exist with Republican leadership, however unjustified, that the decision is just about paying off campaign contributors.  For reasons including national security, the environment, and the economy, the country needs to expand its production of oil and natural gas at one and the same time that it expands development of alternative fuels and reduces the overall use of fossil-based fuels.  The only energy path forward is one that uses all of our energy resources as we transition to a completely new energy future.  For President Obama and the Democrats to squander this opportunity to at last put the country on the road to that rational energy future would be tragic.  There will never be a better time to get it right and it will not mean forsaking the environment.  It will, however, require saying no to irrationality and yes to progress.

When it comes to our environment, and especially our marine environment, we need to pay attention to the real causes of harm to that environment and the real risks of future harm.  Prudent oil and natural gas production incorporating the lasted technology has shown to be extremely safe and non-damaging to the marine environment.  I have toured production platforms in the North Sea and the California coast and know them to have, if anything, a positive impact on their immediate environment.  There will never be a better time than the present to get straight our goals, a clean environment and a sound energy future, and dispense with myths and untruths that muddy the waters of sound policy making. 

The New York Times today offers a couple of pieces on organized labor.  One is an editorial entitled The Labor Agenda, which is what one would expect of the Time’s editorial board–a gushy, unrestrained pro-union advocacy piece.  The other is a reasonably balanced look at trade unionism in the U.S. today in an article entitled Unions Look for New Life In the World of Obama.

In the last couple of days I had occasion to revisit The Political Compass websitevia an application on Facebook.  Once again, it showed that I was basically a left-right centrist with a strong libertarian streak.  (The test this time yielded a result that had me just left of center rather than right on the line as last time).  It occurred to me as I took the quiz this time that there weren’t any questions on organized labor.  It would no doubt have pushed be farther to the right on the spectrum. 

I must admit to seeing very little function for most trade unions today; they are an anachronism.  However, beyond just being an anachronism in our modern economy, I see them as being economically dangerous in the same way that cartels such as OPEC are dangerous.  This is because they have the ability to skew the market — to inject false economic signals into the marketplace.   This was evident to me even as a child watching the autoworker’s unions drive Detroit automaker’s into wage and other concessions year after year in order to avoid prolonged strikes.  It was very clear to me, then and now, that these concessions only forced the price of domestic automobiles higher than they would and should otherwise have been.

There are a couple of good quotations contained in the above-referenced Times article today.  The first is by John Engler, the former Republican Governor of Michigan and now the president of the National Association of Manufacturers.  Here’s an excerpt from the Times article that includes the Engler quotes:

[John Engler] sees unions continuing to decline in numbers and bargaining power. He said the very success of unions in improving wages and working conditions over the decades has generally made them unnecessary.

“In the early part of the last century, workers had to deal with some horrific working conditions and work in an environment where there wasn’t anything close to the safety net that we have today,” said Mr. Engler, a former governor of Michigan. “In the sophisticated workplaces of the 21st century, you see management and labor often working closely together to beat the competition. When they’re doing that, the need for unions is obviated. And when management and unions are not working together, unions are not likely to succeed and not likely to survive.”

Mr. Engler cited some companies — Harley-Davidson, John Deere and Boeing — where he said unions were likely to survive because, despite occasional battles, they have worked with management to keep companies competitive and profitable. Without naming names, he pointed to other companies — most notably Detroit’s automakers — where the unions might not survive because they had demanded, and won, too much in wages and benefits, helping to make their employers uncompetitive.

That sounds right to me.  There indeed was and is still a role for unions, but it’s a very different one than they’ve played for most of the last century.  A rampant expansion of trade unionism in the United States, as advocated in the Times editorial, would accomplish little except a further skewing of market signals.  In today’s market we need that economic incentive to force people into more highly trained and skilled professions.  If by virtue of a wage agreement secured by collective bargaining (and the coercive threat of a strike) we pay a relatively unskilled worker a salary that equals or exceeds that of a more highly trained or skilled worker, we are sending a very perverse message to students about to enter the marketplace.    

I know that labor is part of the grand liberal alliance in the U.S. and there’s great hesitation within that alliance to turn one’s back on a member.  But labor is a movement that needs to stand or fall on its own accord.  It should not be aided by legislation that gives public sanction to potentially negative economic behavior.  The Employee Free Choice Act is a terrible idea and should not be enacted.  President Obama needs to pick his battles carefully and this is one he should not fight.  America has far bigger issues than this one.  Additionally, we need to watch carefully that labor doesn’t throw the wrench into the mechanism of free trade especially in this time of world recession (depression?).  There is almost never a good reason for protectionism and most certainly not when the world economy sits on a precipice.

Here’s a final excerpt from the Times article.  It suggests the model for the future of labor unionism, one that arises out of an alliance of employer and worker out of mutual need and benefit rather than mandated by government legislation:

“What’s happened with the U.A.W. is their very success brought them to the brink of disaster,” Professor Craver [a labor relations expert at George Washington University] said, referring to union members’ traditionally high wages and benefits. “What I feel like saying to the auto workers is, ‘Would you like no auto jobs and to work at Wal-Mart?’ ”

“It’s Samuel Gompers who said a century ago that the enemy of the worker is an unprofitable employer,” he added. “Unions have to work to make the company successful, and employers have to recognize the contribution of the worker.”

I suspect that this weblog will be quiet for a few days as I leave town for the holidays.  I’m flying to snowy New Hampshire this evening for a few days and I suspect I’m not going to have a wireless internet connection, the time, or the inclination to do much writing.  I hope I’ll be back to posting by Monday December 29.  I wish everyone the most joyous of holidays.

Kevin Bliss  

There are a few things I’m going to touch upon today in my weekly roundup.  The first is the continuing Carolyn Kennedy controversy.  Another is the “moderate” team that Obama has lined up for his administration and the prospect that centrists, like me, are looking to be pretty satisfied with an Obama administration, hopefully far more satisfied than we were with Bush.

Carolyn Kennedy.  Let me begin this new foray into the subject by referencing two Op-eds on the subject, one each in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.  The first, in the Times, was by Judith Warner and is entitled Getting Beyone Camelot.  The second, in the Post (and elsewhere) by Charles Krauthammer is entitled The U.S. House of Lords.  I found both very worthwhile contributions to the subject and I recommend both.

Although very different, both columns reach a similar conclusion.  Carolyn Kennedy needs to run for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat and secure the seat in an election, not by appointment.  I couldn’t agree more, although I would be inclined to think she’ll still be elected, for celebrity means much more than it should in America.

My own evolving views on this are that there are many levels to this issue of celebrity and politics.  The most objectionable is the appointment of a celebrity who doesn’t “earn” the appointment or deserve it.  This is the Carolyn Kennedy situation.  Echoing Charles Krauthammer’s point, it is as if she is “entitled” to it by virtue of her parentage.  Not in my books.  The next level of objection is the seat “saved” for a celebrity or someone deemed by the powers that be to be entitled to the seat.  The appointment of a placeholder such as was recently done by the Governor of Delaware is an example of this.  In that case, Governor Minner appointed a close family friend of the Biden family to hold the seat until the chosen one (Biden’s son, presently the state’s attorney general serving in Iraq) can run for the office in his/her own right.  Again, this is clearly suggests an entitlement to which I would not as a voter accept.  Still, if the voters are stupid enough to let this work, let it be.  The next level down is where it is celebrity that gets you onto the ballot.  Examples of this include the Bush brothers in Texas and Florida, respectively, and their runs for Governor of those states.  I notice, as well, an article in this morning’s Washington Post gossip column that Val Kilmer is contemplating a run for Governor of New Mexico.  So much for qualifications.  Again, I don’t like it but the voters are in control here and I suppose it’s much easier on the voter when celebrity status makes the step of learning about the candidate unnecessary.  Yet another level is the celebrity who parlays one elected office into another, often higher, political office.  This would include our current President moving from Governor of Texas to candidate for President in 2000.  He was anointed by his party and clearly his record as Governor mattered much less than did his celebrity parentage.  Another example of this will be if Jeb Bush decides to run for the Senate in two years to replace retiring Senator Martinez of Florida.  This time, however, if he wins it will be upon the strength of his record as Governor and the quality of campaign he ultimately runs and much less on his celebrity status.

Again, while I like none of it and would be highly disinclined to vote for such a celebrity (at least in a primary), I accept completely that as long as the voter is deciding the issue there is not much to complain about beyond a more general complaint about the competency of the American voter.  Since fewer and fewer Americans are reading newspapers these days I puzzle over how this American voter gets educated about issues other than by soundbite.  It’s a little frightening.

Before I leave this subject entirely today, I might reference another related article in the New York Times today entitled Kennedy Brand Leaves a Rival Feeling Stymied.  The story is about the struggle of Andrew Cuomo, currently Attorney General of New York, to gain traction as a candidate for appointment to the Clinton Senate seat.  It shows that some celebrity is worth more than other celebrity.  It might also show that once in public office celebrity shines a little less brightly and that no celebrity shines as bright in American politics as does the “Kennedy brand”.

Let me close today with reference to a story or two dealing with the ascendancy of moderates or centrists in government.  Distressing particularly to the left, as they were expecting so much of Mr. Obama, it is wonderful news to me.  It has me feeling like this is a President whom I could come to really admire.  One interesting story on this subject is in the Washington Post this morning, above the fold, entitled For Obama, A Team of Moderates.  Of particular note to me in the article was an idea articulated twice that an administration, unless grounded on ideology or “political philosophy”, runs the risk of becoming unfocused or lost.  In other words, centrist pragmatists don’t stand for anything will therefore will not know where to go or how to govern.  The person credited with this viewpoint was Peter Wehner, “former senior adviser to President Bush” and now a “senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center”.  Here is an excerpt from the above referenced article:

Peter Wehner, a former senior adviser to President Bush, warned that placing too much emphasis on pragmatism could leave the Obama team rudderless and without intellectual cohesion. “Pragmatism has its place, but there are limits, as well,” said Wehner, now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “If you aren’t anchored to a political philosophy, you get blown about, and government becomes ad hoc and you make it up as you go — and if you’re not careful, you begin to go in circles.”

Here are the two closing paragraphs of the article, the final paragraph also quoting Mr. Wehner:

Among many advocacy groups, the hope is that Obama’s intentions will become clearer when he appoints the deputy secretaries and other high-level personnel who will implement many policies — a group that will in all likelihood represent a sharp break from those it will be replacing in the Bush administration.

Until then, said Wehner, the former Bush aide, it will be hard to discern all the outlines of the Obama agenda. “They’re smart, they’re well-educated, they’re the upper crust, but the question is, do the parts make a whole, or is the whole less than the sum of the parts?” he said of the incoming team. “As I said somewhere recently, I’d buy somebody a dinner at Le Cirque if someone could define what Obamaism is as a political philosophy. If you don’t have a political North Star, you can lose your way, and I’m not sure if these people have it.”

Hogwash, hogwash, hogwash.  I guess since my political North Star is neither full-tilt right or full-tilt left, I cannot hope but lose my way.  An interesting point, but not one I buy into.  I think ideological grounding only risks taking one down paths for the sake of the ideology alone.  I would argue it is result that should drive the process.  What is the challenge that government is hoping to address?  How can we best solve this challenge?  Let result not ideology drive the solution.

I also think this over-focus on cabinet makeup masks the reality that this President will be very intent on driving major initiatives from the White House.  An article in today’s New York Times explores this more fully.  It’s entitled Reshaping White House With a Domestic Focus: Obama Shifts Power Away From Cabinet.

I fail to see how an otherwise “moderate” and “pragmatic” administration that tackles health care, the economy, and energy policy will be deemed at the end of its time in Washington as having been rudderless and lacking direction.  What such an administration assures us is that the basic task of governing will be done in a responsible way while it tackles its priority issues with focus and purpose.  I believe such an administration will garner the support of the country and will could leave most but the extremes of the spectrum relatively satisified.  That would be success to me.

Finally, Charlie Cook has penned another most worthwhile column, this one taking a look at the power that will likely be exercised by centrists in the U.S. Senate.  The piece, originally printed in the National Journal, is entitled Senate’s Power Rests With Centrists.  According to Mr. Cook, the center will dictate much that happens legislatively in the next 2 years.  I hope he’s right.  Having dispensed with control by the right I’m comforted that the left isn’t likely to have complete control either.  Thank God for centrist pragmatists, however “rudderless” or “intellectually uncohesive” we may be.

“How can we tolerate the fact that people are stone, hanged, decapitated and tortured only because of their sexual orientation?” said Rama Yade, the French state secretary for human rights, noting that homosexuality is banned in nearly 80 countries and subject to the death penalty in at least six.

How can we indeed?  According to the New York Times, in a story entitled In a First, Gay Rights Are Pressed At the U.N., the United Nations General Assembly for the first time in its history yesterday had a declaration on gay rights read in the Assembly.  The above quote is excerpted from the article.

Less forceful than a “resolution” a “declaration” is non-binding on its members.  While 66 countries, including much of Europe and Latin America supported the declaration, 60 countries did not notably including, the United States, Russia, China, the Catholic Church, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.  Concerning the formal statement of opposition to the declaration, here’s what the Times article said:

The opposing statement read in the General Assembly … rejected the idea that sexual orientation was a matter of genetic coding. The statement, led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, said the effort threatened to undermine the international framework of human rights by trying to normalize pedophilia, among other acts.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference also failed in a last-minute attempt to alter a formal resolution that Sweden sponsored condemning summary executions. It sought to have the words “sexual orientation” deleted as one of the central reasons for such killings.

I guess there was a small thing to be thankful for yesterday at the U.N. in the General Assembly’s rejection of the move to have sexual orientation removed from the list of things for which summary execution is permissible.  However, it doesn’t appear that that resolution actually passed in the General Assembly yesterday either.  We need to keep following this story and hope that it will, soon.

As to the official U.S. position, according to the New York Times story:  

The official American position was based on highly technical legal grounds. The text, by using terminology like “without distinction of any kind,” was too broad because it might be interpreted as an attempt by the federal government to override states’ rights on issues like gay marriage, American diplomats and legal experts said.

How comforting that we had good reason for opposing a non-binding resolution to decriminalize homosexuality.  Let’s see how the U.S. does on the Swedish motion condemning summary executions if and when that comes up.

“What should be” is not a world in which being homosexual is a criminal act punishable by the state.   One would hope that an Obama administration would have taken a different position, but we can’t be so sure.  The decision by the President-elect to have conservative evangelist Rick Warren deliver the invocation at the inaugural means that we can’t really be very sure of anything when it comes to things political.    

Over the decades that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has been in business, we’ve come to view them as a benign player on the world stage.  They are anything but.  We have forgotten, if we ever knew, that they are group of “outlaw” nations that engage in behavior that would be illegal in most countries, at least in the West.  This is because it is not legal in most Western nations to conspire to keep prices artificially high.  It’s called restraint of trade among other things.  It is the essence of OPEC. 

I’ve been watching and observing OPEC for most of my lifetime.  It was founded in 1965 when I was eleven.  In my college years, studying natural resources economics at university, I watched OPEC play a key role in the oil crisis of the 1970s.  I recall experts predicting that the price of oil would only continue to increase in the years ahead.  I was amused last year as oil prices rose to record levels that experts were predicting once again nothing but higher prices for oil on into the future.  My reaction this time was, ‘well maybe, but it would be a first’.  It would be a first because over the 30 years that I’ve been watching the oil business I’ve observed that while the behavior of OPEC in reducing supply can result in high prices for a time, the market always wins in the end.  Every time prices get too high for too long, new investments are made and new technologies are employed to develop oil fields that, but for the higher prices, would have been uneconomic.  The new oil flooding the market causes a massive decline in oil prices.  This in turn triggers OPEC to take measures to restrict supply so as to again drive up the price of oil.  

That is in essence what OPEC has done yet again this week.  As reported in yesterday’s New York Times in the story Further Cuts In Output By OPEC Are Likely, OPEC is preparing yet again to cut oil supply in an attempt to drive up the price of oil.  This is notwithstanding the “dire state of the global economy” as the New York Times story put it.  You see, this doesn’t matter to OPEC.  What matters is maximizing the return from their production.

When oil prices rise again, as they will do, OPEC will be only one of the reasons.  Another reason is that low oil prices will have meant that oil companies will have cut back on their investment in new production.  Another New York Times story explains this phenomena.  It’s entitled Big Oil Projects Put in Jeopardy by Fall in Prices.  At today’s prices (the Times reports New York oil futures at $43.60 a barrel on Tuesday), oil companies can’t invest in new production and still make money.  With no investment, supply will fall, and sooner or later, in concert with the actions of OPEC to reduce supply, equilibrium will once again be reached and then breached as demand once again outpaces supply and the price climbs.

For now, the world economy gets a break.  It will be awhile before the OPEC actions and the impact of declining investment in new production begin to show in the market in the form of higher prices.  The world economic slump and its impact on the demand for oil could prolong this period.  In the meantime, every month the price remains low is stimulus to the world economy for which we can be grateful.  Imagine how bad things would have been if the world were still paying last year’s prices for oil.         

The longer term problem is that the oil price yo-yo does no one any good.  Stability in oil prices would be a far better for the world’s economies over the long term.  Industries could plan and consumers could make decisions rationally.  Now, it is anyone’s guess especially as traders collude and world events throw uncertainty into the equation.  How could this situation be improved?

I’d argue that at least in America, an ever-increasing floor on the price of oil (in essence a tax on oil), would contribute to price stability.  It would help send a market signal to consumers that conservation of oil is a good thing.  It would send the signal to Detroit that more efficient cars are an economic necessity.  It would signal to all American energy producers–oil and natural gas production companies as well as solar, wind and geothermal companies–that investments made will be able to be recouped.  It would also begin to address our overuse of carbon-based fuels and begin to cut our emission of CO2 in the atmosphere even in advance of passage of complex cap-in-trade legislation.  If implemented so that all government revenues received from the tax were refunded to consumers, it would be largely tax neutral and should not negatively impact economic recovery, indeed it would assure that the recovery that takes place is smarter from an energy conservation perspective.  See my posting entitled A Floor on Oil Prices and its reference to an excellent Washington Post editorial on the subject. 

I’d argue that imposition of the tax (via setting a floor on the price of oil) along with a meaningful opening of U.S. offshore resources to development and a responsible policy of onshore leasing on federal lands in the west would insulate political Washington and particularly the Obama administration from the shock of higher oil and natural gas which can be expected to hit the U.S. economy just about the time of the next general election in two years.  It would be both smart politics and the right thing to do.  

Some of us are natural Democrats and some of us are natural Republicans. Some of us are neither.  I suggest that a natural Democrat or Republican is someone who is almost always in total agreement with the party and with all of its various alliances; it is someone who could sign the party’s platform every four years as a statement of personal belief.  I’ve never been that person.  There will always be a number of things with which I would disagree.  More importantly there are affiliations with which I could never agree.  In my case I am offended by the all-to-close relationship between the Republican Party and the Christian right.  I am likewise alienated by the seemingly borderless relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party.  Sorry, but I like to think for myself.  If being a member of one of our parties means I have to check my views at the door, perhaps “Independent” is destined to be my permanent affiliation.

Echoing the point with which I began, for some people there’s no conflict at all.  They are perfectly comfortable as Democrats swearing fidelity to organized labor or as Republicans attempting to legislate morality.   Have at it folks, I’m glad you’re happy.  I suspect there are also others who might not necessarily agree with certain positions or affiliations but that nonetheless have decided to accept the bad with the good as a political necessity.  The same holds true for anyone elected to the U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate.  If you don’t affiliate with one party or the other, you are nobody: you don’t get committee assignments, you don’t get earmarks, you don’t get squat.  Thus, were a true independent to have been elected a few weeks ago, he/she would have to choose between Nancy Pelosi or John Boehner for Speaker.  What a horrible choice.

This leads me to my real point today.  We have a nominee for Interior Secretary, Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado, who is a supposed centrist.  So far, so good.  But how centrist can you really be when a major tenet of your party is “environmentalism” and a very major constituency is the the environmental community.  It has been my experience that it is a rare Democrat that can say “no” to environmental groups.  Indeed, it is a rare Northeast Republican who can say “no” to environmental groups.  These groups have got too many supporters in too many Congressional districts who’ve been brainwashed into thinking that what’s right for the environment is what these groups pronounce is what’s right for the environment.  It is all but impossible for a Democrat or Northeast Republican to be able to say “no” to them.  They would be taking a big political risk to do so. 

So now we have Senator Salazar nominated to the position of Interior Secretary.  For more information on Senator Salazara and this appointment, read the Washington Post story today entitled Obama to Name Salazar As Secretary of Interior.  First, don’t get me wrong, this is an outstanding appointment, especially if one considers some of the other candidates that had been discussed.  Congressman Grijalva would have been a disaster.  With Senator Salazar we have someone, as I believe we would have had with John Berry, who will make a sincere effort to balance interests in administering an agency with one of the most difficult mandates of any in government.  He is someone, unlike Grijalva, who will say “no” to environmental groups.  My concern is it won’t be often enough.  It won’t be often enough because as a Democrat Salazar simply won’t have the option of saying “no” as often as he should.  He’ll say “yes, but” or “no, but” a lot.  Everything will be a compromise.

What will get shortchanged in this the country’s energy policy.  It’s my view that there is no other agency of the United States Government that has more influence on this country’s energy policy or, energy prices, than the Interior Department.  This is because it controls so much public land, onshore and offshore, upon which so much of this country’s natural resources reside.  The department’s decisions therefore have a huge impact on the country’s ability to produce its own oil and natural gas.  Environmental groups like to paint the choice that has to be made as between “appeasing oil and natural gas production company interests” vs. “protecting wildlife and the environment”.  That’s not it at all though.  Oil and gas interests are but vehicles for a much larger and more important public interest.  That is the country’s interest in securing a domestic oil and natural gas supply that reduces our dependence on oil produced in other parts of the globe.  For both national security and economic reasons the U.S. can no longer afford, not that it ever could, to import the quantities of oil that we are presently importing.  We just can’t do it any longer.  Thus, the real debate is between “the country’s need for producing oil and natural gas domestically” vs. “protecting wildlife and the environment”.  The line is fuzzier.  It is even fuzzier if you factor in issues such as the environemental risk taken every day as mega-tankers traverse the world’s oceans with cargo that at any moment could result in an environmental disaster of proportions heretofore not experienced, or the lack of environmental safeguards for oil and natural gas drilling in many parts of the world that are standard practice in the United States.  It’s fuzzier too when one considers the economic ramifications of $350-700 billion (depending upon the price of oil) leaving the country every year to pay for this imported oil.  Every decision Interior makes should be made as if there’s an representative from the National Security Council or the Treasury Department in the room as well to make sure those interests are adequately represented.

People will argue that I’m forgetting climate change in this debate.  I’m not.  It is all too real and has to be addressed.  It would be best addressed through a carbon tax that starts to put a premium on the burning of fossil fuels.  (A less transparent and much more complicated alternative to a carbon tax would be institution of a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions into the atmosphere).  Applied to my argument above that we should be producing more oil and natural gas domestically and importing less oil from abroad, a carbon tax would mean that we would begin to discourage the overall use of oil and natural gas and concomitantly increase the overall use of alternative fuels (such as wind and solar).  The place not to engage in the battle between “oil and natural gas” vs. “alternative fuels” is in the field through denying access to public lands for oil and natural gas development.  That battle should be fought with tax policy at a macroeconomic level.  Fighting the battle locally, as environmental groups so like to do, only means, all things being equal, that the country will have to import more oil.  Every barrel of oil not produced in America is a barrel that will have to be imported.   

I want to also close with this observation.  The wildlife and conservation impacts of oil and natural gas development are widely overestimated by most people.  This is because people think of oil and gas development as requiring a far bigger footprint than it does or as a permanent alteration of an often pristine landscape.  It isn’t.  It is but a 20-30 year endeavor on relatively small locations, spread over a large territory and at the end of which remediation is mandated that will return the land to its natural state.  Furthermore, the footprint for oil and gas activity is minute compared to the solar and wind footprint, which are going to be far longer in duration than the 20-30 years for oil and natural gas.   Done correctly there is also no water impact, surface or subsurface, of oil and natural gas production.  Likewise claims about wildlife impacts of oil and natural development are frequently exaggerated.  Technology that limits the footprint of oil and natural gas production by use of directionally drilled wells lessens further all of the negative environmental impacts of oil and natural gas development.

So my bottom line is that Senator Salazar is a great choice.  My best wishes are with him as he takes on one of the toughest jobs in Washington, a job that is tougher for a Democrat centrist who is going to have to say “no” to a critical constituency more often than not if he’s going to do the job demanded of him.

It seems like a good day to address a number of things in one posting.  Let’s begin with the Obama cabinet selections.

Yesterday Obama announced his choices for Secretary of Energy (Steven Chu), Energy Czar (Carol Browner), Environmental Protection Agency (Lisa Jackson) , and the Council on Environmental Quality (Nancy Sutley).  He also all but announced his choice to be Secretary of the Interior (Senator Ken Salazar).  I’m going to largely withhold judgement on these folks.  It’s really difficult to determine at this point how adept at juggling reality with wild-eyed environmental fantasy they are going to be.  I hope good.  I will say only this about Chu.  I think it is great to put someone from the research community into our top energy policy position, but the fact he knows nothing about fossil energy, on which this country is going to have to depend for decades to come, is concerning.  I would have recommended picking a generalist with a knowledge of energy broadly and separating the Department of Energy (DOE) into the bomb-making part (probably 60-75% of DOE’s present manpower and budget) and the energy part and kept the Secretary in charge of the energy part.  As it is, energy secretaries must devote entirely too much time to the nuclear side of things, with its melange of past and present crises, and entirely too little time focused on energy.  I am also disappointed that my friend John Berry did not get selected for the interior secretary position.  It appears he was but a backup had Senator Salazar said no.  It’s clear Salazar had to wrestle with saying yes as it would seem he’s had the offer on the table for a while now.  I hope he does well.  It’s clear that knowing Senator Obama personally meant something.  For some additional insight into these appointments see Concern for Climate Change Defines Energy Dept. Nominee, Seasoned Regulators to Lead Obama Environment Program, and Hard Task for New Team on Energy and Climate.  They appear in the Washington Post (WP), WP, and the New York Times (NYT) respectively.

Well Carolyn Kennedy has yes, that she is interested in being considered for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat should Clinton be confirmed as Secretary of State.  See Carolyn Kennedy is Seeking Seat Held by Clinton (NYT).  I encourage Governor Paterson to just say no.  I said it all in yesterday’s post, Senator by Right or the Right Senator:  We don’t need Carolyn Kennedy in the Senate.  Let’s hope Paterson is smart enough to agree.

Obama has said yes to education reform.  In a previous posting two weeks ago entitled Obama’s Education Policy I expressed the hope and belief that Obama would make the right choice for education secretary by picking one of the reform candidates as opposed to one of the teacher’s union candidates.  He did.  He selected Arne Duncan from Chicago for the post.  It’s another good selection by Obama.  The story can be found in this NYT article entitled Schools Chief From Chicago is Cabinet Pick.

There’s an editorial in the NYT this morning advocating expenditure to build internet infrastructure as part of the stimulus plan being formulated on Capitol Hill.  It’s entitled Mr. Obama’s Internet Agenda.  I think such an investment would be entirely in keeping with what I noted in yesterday’s posting, Investment That Works .   Such an investment would seem to clearly be an investment in infrastructure that will aid not only this economy as a stimulus but many future economies in empowering ongoing economic growth.

There was a good piece in Sunday’s Washington Post by Joel Kotkin arguing that we need to take great care in formulating and executing an infrastructure spending bill.  He explains that there is good and productive infrastructure and there is bad and unproductive infrastructure.  Good infrastructure is infrastructure that includes people as well as things that will have value that lasts; it is infrastructure that will be able to contribute to economic growth for decades into the future.  Bad and unproductive infrastructure is exemplified in the glitzy infrastructure projects so common today in American cities today that aim principally at tourism, sports or entertainment.  The piece is entitled Make Sure All That Spending Is Well Supported.  Here’s the article’s conclusory paragraph:

The call for more spending on infrastructure represents a unique opportunity to rebuild our productive economy and create long-term middle-class jobs. But if the effects are going to last, the trick is to concentrate on the basics and forget the flashy, feel-good kinds of projects that have characterized many “infrastructure” investments in recent years.

This ties in well with my ongoing advocacy that we take enormous care in crafting this massive stimulus bill.  The dangers of doing it wrong are at least enormous as not doing anything at all.  The best projects will not only stimulate the present economy but build something of productive value for future economies.  This translates to me into “go slow, do it right”.  A rush by Nancy Pelosi and company to pass a bill in January sends shivers up my spine.  It’s imperative that the final bill be well conceived and well executed and be broadly and bipartisanly supported.  This will take time and a lot of work.  But, it is essential.

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