Opposites Repel

In an earlier blog I mentioned an editorial by Michael Brune in the Sierra Magazine who expressed his optimism about the possibility of bipartisan cooperation in Washington, D.C. on climate change. He mentioned his meetings with several political big-wigs on both sides of the aisle, one of whom indicated that “on climate change there’s really not much separating us.” He was speaking for the Republicans with whom he is identified and to whom his loyalties lie — to the point where he fears possible repercussions from his colleagues should he speak his mind. As he himself went on to say “there’s no way I can say that publicly.” He spoke to Mr. Brune “off the record.”

What we have here is a politician — described by Brune as a “prominent Republican” — who is unable to speak publicly about his concerns over one of the most pressing issues facing this nation if not humankind because of party loyalty. Think about that. Washington politics is no longer about what is good for the country — if it ever was — it is about what is good for the party (and the folks who have bought the party and now run the show).

In the era of what the editors of Sierra magazine called “The Worst Congress” ever it is not possible for the two sides to come together to hammer out some sort of compromise on energy and climate change. The “Worst Congress” — even worse than Newt Gingrich’s  104th Congress — has passed 247 anti-environmental measures and voted 77 times to undermine Clean Air protections. 94% of the Republican members of this Congress have cast anti-environmental votes and there have been 37 votes to block any action whatever on climate change.

This is why one of the more powerful members of that political party cannot speak publicly about his own concerns regarding one of the major issues of the day: he might be ostracized by his fellow party members and once outside he may never get back in. What we have is people on both sides of the aisle who are apparently concerned about climate change and the damage we are doing to the environment but who cannot get together for fear the they will be called “disloyal” — not to their country, but to their political party.

This impasse is not peculiar to environmental issues, of course, and it may well be the reason the confidence of voters around the country in the political system has fallen to new lows and Barack Obama has recently sounded like the great mediator, promising to work “with both sides” in the coming years if re-elected. Even the dullest person in the local bar complaining to his buddies can see that this system is broken. If the two sides cannot come together to work some sort of compromise on issues such as climate change, the repercussions will be heard around the world. This is not hyperbole or exaggeration. The system seems to be broken, and if it is then the American experiment in democracy must be deemed a failure.

I couch these dire pronouncements in the conditional mode because there is always the possibility that even the dullest politician whose loyalties are deep and true to his or her political party may at some point realize that there are larger issues at stake and that party loyalty is not worth beans if the experiment does indeed fail. At some point, let us hope, a strong voice will be heard in the Congress that rises above the din of party loyalties and rallies colleagues on both sides of the political aisle to the deeper cause — which is to save the country, if not the planet.

In the meantime, thank goodness, small but encouraging steps are being taken by bright, innovative, and caring individuals and small groups — even some state legislatures — that give us hope that even without a national environmental policy which makes sense, we will somehow turn the tide.

False Cause

An informal fallacy that is committed so often it has become part of our daily discourse is called the “post hoc” fallacy, or the “false cause.” The full name is “post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” and I used to tell my students to remember that so they could parade the phrase before their parents to convince them that their money was well spent on their kids’ education! (Echoes of Stendhal!) The reasoning goes as follows: since B follows A the latter must be the cause of the former. The natives in Bobka throw virgins in the volcano to appease the volcano gods and the volcano remains calm. Therefore, since we all want the volcano to remain calm, we need to make sure we have a plentiful supply of virgins on hand. Absurd? You bet. But common, especially in politics these days. Consider the following story:

WESTERVILLE, Ohio (AP) — Mitt Romney on Friday encouraged young Americans facing bleak job prospects to “take risks” — and even borrow money from their parents — to help improve their economic fortunes.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee noted that the nation’s economy is recovering but blamed President Barack Obama for presiding over the “most anemic and tepid” comeback since the Great Depression. Continuing his recent focus on younger voters, Romney said Obama’s policies are making it harder for college graduates to be successful.

There are so may things wrong with this story one hardly knows where to begin. But let’s take the “false cause” first. Romney has always taken the line that since the economy is weak and Obama is President, therefore Obama is the cause of the weak economy. Now, surely, even he knows this is absurd. The weak economy is the result of multiple factors and the sitting President cannot be singled out, given the fact that he has little to say about the course this country takes with the majority in Congress in the opposing party. Obama hasn’t been able to do much of anything, in fact, much less make the economy worse — or better. The economy is improving, though slowly. But while he is willing to blame Obama for the weak economy in the first place, Mitt is reluctant to credit Obama with the recovery, calling it “anemic.” Sometimes you can’t win for losing. And you’ve got to love the claim that Obama’s policies “are making it harder for college graduates to be successful.” There’s that post hoc fallacy again!

But then Mitt goes on to urge students in college to borrow $20,000.00 from their parents to start a business — like Jimmy John. He forgets that not all American kids have fathers who can cash in a few stocks to send their kid to college, as Mitt’s father did for him. More typical is the American family that has to go into debt to send their children to college in the first place; they cannot afford to cough up $20,000.00 for a 21 year-old kid who may (or may not) be the next millionaire.  Surely, it would be better to address the issues of (a) the growing debt facing college students and (b) the exploding cost of tuition and fees. The two issues are not unrelated. A bill was introduced in the House recently by Rep. Hansen Clarke (HR 4170) that would forgive the student loans. But as Clarke is a Democrat it stands to reason that Mitt would not speak in favor of such a bill even though it might win over some young voters and give the economy a much-needed boost.

Romney mentions “divisiveness” in this speech and he is certainly correct about that. And he is part of  it, as suggested above. The divisiveness in politics these days has positively crippled government, making it impossible to get anything done. There has always been party strife, going back to the founding of this country. But the idea was that the two sides could come together and work out a compromise. As things stand today, the two sides cannot come together because they are loyal to their own party and their corporate sponsors rather than to the nation they are sworn to support. This is a real problem, and it can hardly be laid at the feet of Barack Obama. Or even Mitt Romney. But it is a problem that all politicians should address — though they almost certainly will not.