Aftermath of the Great Debt Ceiling Debacle of 2011

Last summer, the American people learned that the only way their Congress could overcome ideological and partisan divisions and agree to a balanced deficit reduction plan was by threatening itself with a deficit reduction plan so severe members of Congress on both sides of the aisle would gladly accept an alternative plan.

We then learned that even under these circumstances, our Congress could not pass a balanced deficit reduction plan. With the looming sequestration, the technical term for that threat Congress imposed on itself, I thought it would be useful to reflect on the events of last summer and where things stand now.

First, a recap of last summer is in order. Spurred primarily by Tea Party Republican members of Congress, who refused to approve a routine increase of the debt ceiling without the Democrats agreeing to significant reductions in government spending, the United States Congress and the President entered into an intense end-of-session game of chicken as the clock ticked down. If Congress did not raise the debt ceiling, the government of theUnited States of Americawould default on its debt.

Initially, President Obama requested a clean vote to raise the debt ceiling without any spending cuts attached. When this vote failed at the end of May, Democrats began to realize that perhaps as a result of the 2010 midterm elections which brought a new breed of Republican toWashington, Republicans in Congress were serious in their political brinksmanship. The Republicans were serious when they said they would not raise the debt ceiling without tackling the deficit. If the credit rating was downgraded, so be it.

There were several high-profile attempts made to reach an agreement on deficit reduction that would satisfy the Republicans enough for them to grant us all the privilege of not having our credit rating downgraded. Vice President Biden entered into negotiations with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, who walked out of negotiations by the end of June citing their opposition to the Democrats’ insistence on “job-killing tax hikes.”

Seeking what was labeled a “grand bargain,” President Obama advocated the passage of a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan that included both spending cuts and new revenue. For a brief moment, it seemed the President had convinced Speaker Boehner to agree to the plan.

If the President had gotten his grand bargain, he would have scored a major political victory. The grand bargain would have allowed him to claim the mantle of a uniter and a deficit hawk, which would appeal to those valuable independent voters. But Speaker Boehner and the Republicans were not about to give Obama a political victory of this magnitude. However, partisanship  and divisions between the parties do not offer a complete explanation for why President Obama was unable to reach a grand bargain. Divisions within the Republican Party, particularly between the more old guard Republicans and the Tea Party Republicans who were swept into office in 2010, made such a grand bargain politically infeasible for Boehner. As Speaker of a House with many Republican freshmen who won their elections by vowing to serve as a bulwark against government spending and taxes, embracing the grand bargain would have undermined his reputation and credibility within that faction of his caucus. Moreover, he probably would not have been able to corral the necessary votes for its passage, which itself would be an embarrassment for the newly elected Speaker.

The House of Representatives, led by Speaker Boehner, passed the Republican-approved Cut, Cap, and Balance Act which would have authorized an increase in the debt ceiling only after a Balanced Budget Amendment was passed by Congress. Just as this partisan bill failed in the Senate, Reid’s plan passed through the Senate but was rejected by the House. Meanwhile, the Gang of Six tried and failed to come up with a solution.

Finally, at the end of July President Obama announced an agreement between his administration and congressional leaders. There would be $917 billion in spending cuts and deficit reduction coupled with a $900 billion increase in the debt ceiling in the first stage. For Standard & Poor’s, this was too little too late, and the agency downgraded the U.S.credit rating for the first time. In the second stage, a special joint committee of Congress would be tasked with finding another $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction by the end of November. If this Super Committee failed, across-the-board spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion and split between defense and nondefense programs would be triggered. The sequestration was intended to provide an incentive for the Super Committee to reach an agreement. On January 15th, 2012, the deadline had arrived, the Super Committee had not reached an agreement, and the automatic cuts were triggered.

The $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts are set to go into effect in January 2013. The first round of the defense cuts, totaling $109 billion, will go into effect on January 2nd. While Republicans criticize the President and his Democratic allies of playing politics with the defense budget, many Democrats have suggested that the Republicans brought these defense cuts upon themselves. Sequestration is no way to make policy. The Founders envisioned a legislative branch of government that was deliberative and reached conclusions on matters of policy through consensus building and compromise. The Democrats were willing to go to great lengths to reach a compromise, with the President even putting Medicare and Social Security cuts on the table. Republicans took defense cuts and tax increases off the table. It was under these dire circumstances that sequestration was employed, and I think it was justified by these circumstances.

The ultimate test of the wisdom of a political tactic is whether that tactic achieved the desired results. It is not completely clear what President Obama and his allies in Congress hoped to get out of the sequestration. This ambiguity is particularly apparent with respect to the defense cuts.While the President’s own Secretary of Defense has likened the automatic defense cuts to shooting ourselves in the head, the President has not said much about the cuts himself. So where do the President and his party stand on the issue?

The President recently announced that military personnel would be protected from the automatic cuts, but has dismissed Republican demands that he exclude other defense cuts from the sequestration. While his administration sounds the alarm about how devastating the defense cuts would be and continues to push Congress to reach a balanced agreement that would avoid the cuts, the President and his allies in Congress do not appear to be going out of their way to avoid them. Republican leaders in Congress have requested that Senator Reid pass a package of alternative spending cuts in order to avoid the automatic defense cuts. Disagreements over taxes, of course, continue to prevent the two parties from agreeing on an alternative package.

President Obama has discussed his vision for a “leaner” military and a light footprint strategy. We have seen the strategy used effectively inLibya. A new Obama campaign television advertisement criticizes Romney for favoring increases in defense spending, among other things. He may not say it outright, but it does not seem like President Obama is strongly opposed to these defense cuts.

With the sequestration, President Obama essentially forced the Republicans to choose between increases in tax revenue and cuts in defense spending. The Republicans hated both options, but between Grover Norquist’s no tax pledge and the Tea Party, the Republicans had their backs up against the wall. A significant number of Republicans in Congress had won their seats in 2010 after promising not to raise taxes and to go toWashingtonas soldiers in the war against government spending. I think a number of Republicans may have believed that the defense cuts were so severe that members of both parties would eventually reach some agreement to exclude them from the sequestration. Believing or hoping that the sequestration was an empty threat, Republicans refused to raise taxes and accepted the risk of sequestration. Raising taxes would have had definite political consequences whereas the political consequences of the defense cuts were deemed to be only hypothetical.

Despite Republicans consistently making defense spending a sacred cow that must be off the table in any discussion of spending cuts, dramatic defense cuts are imminent. If it was their aim to cut defense spending, and it seems like it was in fact their aim, then it can be said that President Obama and his allies in Congress successfully employed a shrewd political tactic to achieve the results they desired.

What is now called the Department of Defense was once called the Department of War. The wars inAfghanistanandIraqwere not defensive wars. NeitherIraqnorAfghanistanattacked theUnited States. NeitherIraqnorAfghanistanposed an existential threat to theUnited States. President Bush and his administration tried their hardest to convince us otherwise. Such a broad conception of defense has led to misguided wars and excessive military spending. Today, those who favor a leaner military and anAmericathat truly walks softly and carries a big stick are on the verge of making some progress. Unfortunately, it took the messy politics of sequestration to make this happen.

Movie: ‘People’s Climate March News You Didn’t See’

Last Tuesday, Fossil Free Rhode Island screened an early version of Robert Malin’s documentary People’s Climate March News You Didn’t See.  While there is a lot to be said about this breathtaking documentary and the discussion that followed, this post  is more limited in scope and continues the Capitalism = Climate Chaos theme.

The documentary features an interview with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who made the following comments about the wind farm to be built off Block Island:

We’re doing our part in terms of carbon reduction. […] I’m particularly excited by the off-shore wind work that we are doing.  Rhode Island has set an example for the rest of the country in terms of how you site an off-shore wind turbine and for the first time we’ll be generating significant amounts of domestic, Rhode Island clean power. So, it’s exciting.

Excitement!  I love it, but at such moments my scientist’s instincts issue a red alert: “Where are the numbers?”  That brings me to David MacKay’s book  Sustainable Energy — without the hot air,  and in particular to its first part Numbers, not adjectives.  So, let’s see how the just-quoted adjective “significant” does in terms if numbers.  First, we need a little physics: a unit to measure power, the rate of energy production or consumption.  I’ll borrow the unit that MacKay uses because, as he says, it fits the “human experience.”  This unit of power is the kilowatt hour per day.  It is roughly what a single human worker can produce.  It is also close to the power used by an old-fashioned, 40 watt incandescent light bulb.  Just look at your monthly electricity bill, divide the total amount of energy consumed in units of kilo watt hours by the number of days in the month, and there you have your average power consumption in kilo watt hours per day.

Now, let’s figure out what the planned Block Island wind farm produces for the average Rhode Islander.  It is nominally rated at 30 mega watt.  That is on the “nameplate,” but we have to take into account the capacity factor, the fraction of the nameplate value that is actually generated after down-time and less-than-perfect wind conditions take their toll.  Capacity factors vary, but typically they are in the 25%-50% range.  Let’s be optimistic and go with 50%, which means that we can count on  an average of 15 mega watt.  Spread that out over the people of Rhode Island and you get about 0.35 kilo watt hour per day per capita.

At this point a light bulb should go on in your head: “That wind farm will light up what?  One third of a light bulb?”  Please, arithmophobes, bear with me; we need just one more number.  Go to  this web site of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and look up the total power consumed by the average Rhode Islander on electric power, transportation, home heating,  etc.   The total —only one third accounts for electricity— turns out to be 140 kilo watt hour per day per capita.  Just pause to realize that this is the equivalent of having 140 people working for every single one of us, 24-7.  Once you grasp that the fossil fuel industry is renting out a “140 person work force” to each one of us,  you understand why fossil fuel money is one of the major sources of corruption of our supposedly democratic system.

Putting all the numbers together, we find that the Block Island wind farm will account for a one quarter of one percent  of the “power experience” of the average Rhode Islander.  We, scientists with our admittedly poor appreciation of politician’s reality, do not call 0.25% a significant amount.  Unfortunately, without these sorts of rhetorical flourishes one does not get elected to public office.  Indeed, last June I spoke to Congressman Jim Langevin’s aid dealing with environmental issues.  After I had expressed my concern about the woeful inadequacy of our national greenhouse gas emission reduction “plan,” she gave me the same spiel about the great leap forward planned off Block Island.  Yeah, one quarter of a percent, here we come!

During that same conversation I was shocked to hear the congressman’s aid say that I was the first constituent who expressed concern about methane, the bridge fuel to nowhere and linchpin of our national climate plan.  As I have said in public before, our congressional delegation’s words are disconnected from its actions.  As always, specious rhetoric reveals how the system works for its corporate masters.  Sadly, “the best lack all conviction” and shine merely for want of competition.

Hot air may obscure but it cannot change that we are not doing our part for carbon reduction.  Globally, we have to reduce greenhouse gasses by 6% per year as of the beginning of 2014, almost a year ago. That percentage that will increase rapidly every year we continue business as usual, but once again in 2013, the greenhouse gas emissions increased by 2.5%, extending an age-old trend.  Our current trajectory will hit the cold-turkey limit of 100% instantaneous reduction in 2027.  Only those who live in fool’s paradise see a one-time planned emission reduction by 0.25% as “doing our part.”

poverty_is_the_worst_form_of_violence_gandhiA minor dose of elementary science may reveal that we’re being fooled, but it cannot teach us values and priorities.  The real issue is sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland Commission Report in 1987:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

This statement acquires meaning once one define “needs.”  The commission did that in stating that overriding priority should be given to the needs of the world’s poor.  It also mentioned limitations imposed by technology, social organization, and the environment, but failed to conclude that sustainable development is incompatible with capitalism, as is clearly shown by the 180 degrees that separate our system’s walk from its talk.

Most of all, those who live on the front lines of climate change know that the U.S. is continuing business as usual.  News You Didn’t See brought word that the tide is turning and that there is real movement in the streets, but let me quote what Melina Laboucan-Massimo, environmental activist and one of the indigenous women who had come from Canada, had to say:

Resource extraction and exploitation of our lands is so easy because they go hand in hand.  Violence against the Earth begets violence against women, and if we don’t deal with both of them, we are not ever going to resolve the issue of the colonial manners and the colonial mentality, and the values of patriarchy and the values of capitalism that essentially exploit the land and exploit our women.

Respect indigenous People's Rights End colonialism

Respect indigenous People’s rights — end colonialism!

We, the privileged people of the industrialized world, are carbon debtors;  we have vastly overspent our fair share of humanity’s carbon budget. Rather than continuing business as usual under the false flag of doing our part, we should be offering reparations, stimulating green power, opening borders to people rather than corporations, forgiving debts and doing away with patents.  We should be working seriously on removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.  Our current path with its free-trade agreements, denial and deceit moves us in the wrong direction; it will not address poverty nor will it restore even a semblance of morality.

For we sow the carbon, and they reap the whirlwind.

For we sow the carbon, and they reap the whirlwind.
This snapshot from News You Didn’t See shows Paul Quintos as he contrasts the distorted views of the world as seen from the perspective of those who benefit (top) and those who suffer from the disruption (bottom) brought on by fossil fuels.

News You didn’t See paints a picture of hope for the future and resonates with how Noami Klein, in her This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, sees the work that lies ahead:

Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis— embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. This is required not only to create a political context to dramatically lower emissions , but also to help us cope with the disasters we can no longer to avoid. Because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.

This new mode of thinking will not come from our “elected” cheer leaders with their Madison Avenue sound bites.  Yes, we have the problem stated by James Lovelock in the quote at the beginning of David MacKay’s book:

We live at a time when emotions and feelings count more than truth, and there is a vast ignorance of science.

But that is only a minor part of the problem; Evo Morales summed up what is at its core:

If we want to save the planet Earth, to save life and humanity, we have a duty to put an end to the capitalist system.

More later on how this will be done by means of

Green Power to the People!