Archive for the ‘elections’ Category

Vacation and Vacating

August 22, 2010

August is a relatively calm time to reflect before the stormy months ahead. Congress is currently in recess, the president is on vacation. By contrast, the period after Labor Day will be marked with shrill posturing in Washington and heated campaigning throughout the country ahead of the November election.

I recently had my vacation with my family (and still recovering). Besides allowing me to get reacquainted with Carolina BBQ, Krystal burgers and my kids’ uncanny ability to frustrate and amaze me at the same time, it also enabled me to ponder some of the major policy events this year so far. Among them were a very unhealthy debate over health care which resulted in inadequate legislation, a deficit of bipartisanship and truth regarding the federal budget deficit and national debt, and little energy for energy and climate reform in Washington despite of the Gulf oil spill and other developments. All the while the sure-to-be-taxing debate over extending the 2001/2003 tax cuts has been put off, despite the fact that they expire at the end of the year.

Now that it appears that any real action on climate and energy policy was capped along with the BP well, I feel it important to lament the opportunity lost. While our leaders are enjoying vacation, they need to be called on how they vacated their responsibilities on this issue.   

The inability to produce any results stems, aside from the partisanship that is crippling all action in DC, from the unwillingness of policymakers to publicly acknowledge two fundamental realities:

  1. we cannot change how we produce and consume energy overnight;
  2. one way or another, we will have to pay more for energy, at least in the near term.

 Regarding the first point, many advocates of cleaner energy are unrealistic in their demands. Yes, we should have seriously begun transitioning away from fossil fuels more than thirty years ago, but we didn’t. So it will still take time to wean ourselves off of dirtier fuels. We must develop now the comprehensive energy strategy that we have failed to devise and implement for so long. But there will be a transition period between now and a cleaner energy future. A natural and realistic compromise is to expand domestic production of oil and gas in the short term in exchange for support of comprehensive energy reform in the longer term. The Gulf spill took offshore drilling off the table just when it appeared that expanded drilling would help pave the way towards such a compromise.

Secondly, those who vociferously decry that efforts to reform our energy regime will raise the cost of energy are disingenuous since energy prices are sure to rise regardless, for a variety of reasons. First of all, prices are relatively low now because of the global economic slowdown, which is inhibiting demand. Few economists doubt that gas prices will rise significantly once the economy recovers and demand increases. The problem will become exacerbated over the long run as the U.S. competes more with growing economic powers such as China and India for dwindling oil reserves. Furthermore, energy prices will also rise due to increased legal and regulatory burdens in response to recent developments, including the Gulf oil spill and the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in April.

The fact is that there are costs to our dependence on fossil fuel that are not reflected in the price we pay at the gas pump or in our monthly electricity bills. All too often the discussion on negative externalities is limited to climate change. This is unfortunate because, although not without merit, the climate change claims engender heated opposition and are difficult for many Americans to fully comprehend. On the other hand, external costs such as U.S. military involvement in the oil-rich Middle East, national security vulnerabilities of relying on oil from countries like Venezuela that are openly hostile to us, environmental damage such as mountaintop removal and oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaskan coast, and the deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia and 11 workers on the Deep Horizon oil rig transcend partisan differences and are easier to appreciate.

 All this points to a basic truth that many experts recognize, but that few politicians want to face – putting a price on carbon will be essential to achieving energy reform. Accounting for the true cost of fossil energy will make alternative sources more competitive and spur conservation and efficiency measures. Market-distorting subsidies and mandates will not get us where we need to be.

Another benefit of pricing carbon is that it would help improve the country’s fiscal situation. The increased revenues from pricing carbon could significantly reduce our national debt. While opponents of a cap-and-trade program have quite successfully stalled it in Congress by labeling it as “cap and tax,” with deficits and debt a top issue for voters, such an argument could be very persuasive.

When vacation ends, hopefully also will the vacating of action.

14 Props to California

June 19, 2010

Amid the hoopla over incumbents being booted in primaries and debate over the impact of the Tea Party in elections, an important development earlier this month that could change the shape of elections — and hopefully of politics — has been largely overlooked. California voters approved open primaries, which promise to diminish the influence of the fringes of parties and favor candidates who cater to the center of the electorate.

The success of Proposition 14 means that elections in the state will feature a primary where all candidates for an office compete against each other and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, move on to the general election. The system is modeled after Washington state’s “top two” primary system that has passed muster with the U.S. Supreme Court.

California has often been in the forefront of major transformations, namely the anti-tax and environmental movements. Combined with the adoption via ballot measure of serious redistricting reform in 2008, the state is now a leader in election reform. Reforms such as ending “Gerrymandering” and taking the redrawing of districts out of the hands of politicians, opening primaries, improving ballot access, and campaign finance reform can make elections more competitive, reduce the influence of special interests, improve the prospects of centrist candidates, and ultimately increase the interest and involvement of voters.

Some third-party and Independent advocates have argued that open primaries will hurt the prospects of their candidates because they will not be guaranteed a spot on the general election ballot. Yeah, like the traditional system has been so beneficial to campaigns outside of the two major parties. Have I missed all the Independents who are sweeping into office? Seriously, having your name on the general election ballot doesn’t mean much if you are running against candidates who have the full backing of the major parties, as evidenced by all the Independent candidates who hover at the one percent mark and usually only receive attention as “spoilers.”

Independent and third party candidates have a better chance in an arrangement where multiple candidates split the major party vote. I ask myself a simple question: If open primaries are such a boon to the major parties why were they the biggest opponents of the California initiative? The trick will be ensuring that ballot access requirements are such that they do not preclude viable Independent and third-party office seekers.

Here is my list of 14 reasons (in no particular order) why the passage of Prop. 14 is a positive development.

  1. Voters will have more choices because they won’t be limited to just candidates from the party they are registered with.
  2. Think of the fun Jay Leno can have with this. He needs all the help he can get.
  3. Elections will be more competitive (especially in conjunction with redistricting reform).
  4. Voters will be more interested, and more likely to vote, in primaries that are more competitive.
  5. The extremes of the parties will hold less sway because candidates will have to appeal to voters outside of their party.
  6. Compared to the 2003 gubernatorial recall election no open primary will look nearly as chaotic.
  7. A broad coalition of supporters including the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, California Business Roundtable, California Police Chiefs Association, AARP, California Farm Bureau Federation, and California Forward defeated a well-financed opposition that included the parties.
  8. The Governator got a big win.
  9. Special interests like the state teachers union got a rare loss.
  10. It should make for some interesting primary debates.
  11. Of course parties will try to hold “invisible primaries” to anoint a candidate and clear the field ahead of the primary, but good luck with that.
  12. Abel Maldonado may be the future of the CA GOP.
  13. If California can pull this off, then any state can.
  14. Moderate voters will be courted in primaries for once.