Sunday, May 09, 2010

Politically impossible?

Last week I spoke before a very committed group of juniors and seniors taking a college class on sustainable cities. In our discussion I suggested that one approach to improving public transit would be 1) to end all subsidies for fossil fuels, cars and trucks including road building and repair subsidies and 2) to place very heavy taxes on fossil fuels and the use and ownership of roadway vehicles. This I conjectured would make private investment in and ownership of city transit and intercity passenger rail attractive (which is the way it used to be) and could lead to a relatively rapid buildout and improvement of such services. But, I concluded, the first two steps are, of course, politically impossible.

My last remark evoked a spirited rebuttal from a woman in the class. She said, "I'm tired of people in your generation saying that everything we really need to do is politically impossible. All of us here are graduating soon, and we will be moving into positions of responsibility including ones in government. When we're the generation making the decisions, the things we need to do won't be politically impossible." Point taken. I promised in the future to tack on the words "right now" to any declaration that some action seems politically impossible.

With this exchange in mind, as the week unfolded, I began to notice that certain things which only a few months ago seemed "politically impossible" were now be trumpeted as possible and perhaps likely. Who would have guessed a few months ago that the U. S. Senate would be seriously debating whether the country's largest banks should be broken up into smaller banks? Who would have given such a move even the slightest chance of passing let alone a fighting chance? Even though the proposal was defeated, it garnered 33 votes. It seems doubtful that the issue is dead given the continuing rage against the large banks, and the possibility that another financial panic may result from the sovereign debt crisis in Europe or from a crash in China as its real estate bubble collapses. And, the financial reform bill as a whole which the Republicans and the big banks vowed to stop now seems headed for approval.

I have also begun to think that maybe the Obama administration's energy and climate legislation which includes an end to some subsidies for fossil fuels might actually pass. Congress has yet to act on it; but the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has put the entire fossil fuel industry on the defensive. How quickly things change. Even the sclerotic, corrupt U. S. Congress--made pliable and timid by the monied interests through campaign contributions and the threat of attack ads--seems to have awakened from its long slumber of submission.

When the president first proposed changing the health care system to provide universal coverage, I gave such legislation no chance of passing. I was certain the insurance companies could sink any bill through attack ads, fake public demonstrations, a monstrous media relations disinformation campaign, and direct contributions to key members of Congress. Although I'm not particularly pleased with what did pass, I was completely wrong about whether something could pass. Apparently, it was not "politically impossible" to do so.

Circumstances, strategy, personalities, evolving political alignments and myriad other variables change what is politically possible and impossible from week to week, from month to month and from year to year. But, after being stuck in first gear for a long time, history seems to be on the move. The oil price spike, the financial crisis, a dramatic election that put the first African-American into the Oval Office--something that was previously deemed "politically impossible"--all seem to have shaken even the entrenched U. S. political establishment out of its torpor and made, in some cases, the unthinkable, thinkable and the politically impossible, possible.

If my young student is any indication, there is more to come.


twessels said...

First, all economics is politics in disguise. Second, nearly every politician's vote is controlled by the corporate lobbyists who contribute money to their campaigns. The only divergence you ever see is when a politician decides to "retire" and occasionally a few of them will bite the hand that has fed them. Unfortunately, since out our elected politicians don't really know what to do about crafting social policy, they must be told what to do by corporate lobbyists. At that point the solution to every social problem is always cast in the need for more economic growth, which means creating a more favorable political (economic) environment for corporations. Our government was setup from the beginning to function on the basis of one dollar = one vote. And given the recent Supreme Court ruling, it appears that corporate control over our political process is completely legal. So, if any young person sitting in a classroom thinks they are going to change anything when they leave school they should think again about what it will take to really change the way politics (economics) works in this country. If they want to fight to make it illegal for corporations to engage in any political lobbying or advertising and make all federal elections publicly financed then they might have a chance at making real change. This process would also require revoking the "personhood" protections of corporations. Doing anything less than this is just engaging in wishful thinking about the ability of the next generation to make change.

John Rawlins said...

Kurt, until 2 years ago I taught a physics of energy course in a local community college in progressive Bellingham, WA, and in 2004 it turned into a peak oil primer. I kept getting the same student rejoinder as you did. However, as I continued reading around the subject of peak oil impacts I stumbled onto William Catton's "Overshoot" and newer his new book "Bottleneck" - and they were game-changers for me.

Then I re-skimmed the old Limits to Growth book from decades ago. Then I remembered the Robert Hirsch et al DOE document reminding us that it takes 3 decades in a capitalist society (which depends totally on economic growth to operate). Taken together, they suggest the rejoinder to your student: "But it's 3 decades too late." When my students came to this realization, the still wondered "what am I to do?"

We've been in the bottle forever, and as time relentlessly continued we are now at the start of the narrowing, and must go through the bottleneck. We just have to go through it and strive to re-create livable conditions for those who enter the new bottle, which will be much much smaller than ours.

My students and I reached the same conclusions - learn (re-learn?) sustainable living skills, share them as widely as possible, and thereby increase the odds a bit that some of them will indeed pass through to future generations of far fewer humans. Besides, it's fun (at least for me) developing those skills.
John Rawlins

jagged ben said...

If you want to see something happen, don't call it politically impossible, because that CONTRIBUTES to making it politically impossible. If you don't want to sound naive about something, then say "politically difficult" or "it's going to take a lot of work", or something like that. But don't call something political "impossible" unless you have decided that you don't want it to happen.

Robin Datta said...

There is no need to "tack on the words "right now"" to "are, of course, politically impossible"; it does not imply "will be politically impossible".

mattbg said...

Kurt, I agree with your suggestion -- end subsidies on fuel and raise taxes on it. I'd rather do something like this much more than I would tax something ambiguous like carbon.

But, about the young woman in your class, I don't see any evidence that it'll be different when her generation is in charge.

Many if not most people her age are still attached to the idea of personal mobility. They aspire to have a car one day. Many still aspire to have a family and a house in the suburbs. Walking is for losers, and so is bicycling -- unless you're doing it for exercise, but not to actually get anything done in life.

And, weren't things supposed to be different when the boomers became in charge? And Gen X (don't trust anyone over 30)? These people all go through an activist stage in their 20s and then later start having families and get mortgages and other bills to pay. At that point, they acquire an investment in the system.

Who would have thought that the peace-loving boomers would preside over the 1980s, the explosion of suburbia and exurbia, the SUV, etc? I guess you could say it's somewhat logical that they turned economics into a kind of psychological warfare to replace the weapons-based warfare they sat in against so often.

In Toronto, the chair of the transit system is in his early 30s. Change has been mostly cosmetic -- he has a Facebook page. He was caught having an affair with an 18-year-old.

People who aspire to positions of power are generally a breed all by themselves, I think, regardless of the generation they come from.

Activists are loud but usually temporary, and never speak for the majority.

Weaseldog said...

Change in our political system will come about when the players can no longer continue doing what they are doing.

I agree with John Rawlins, it's 30 years to late to fix the problems.

But for now, continuing to pile onto those problems can still produce massive profits.

Change will come in the form of people living with the aftermath, when society no longer functions at a level where the likes of Monsanto and Goldman Sachs can function.

And sure, change is possible. i can envision a race of alien beings that could do things differently than we do. But then, they wouldn't be faced with our problems, because they wouldn't have made the choices we made, to begin with.

We are where we are, because we did our very best. This is the human race, doing the very best it can, with what it has to work with.

Now in the past, humans did make radical course directions. but those were bloody, messy affairs, like King Louie's Bad Hair Day.

If we have that kind of change now, then I don't the solutions that we want would arrive in the near future.

Your students won't change politics, anymore than any other generation did.