by Ron Kenner
Baldwin Hills, Calif.
November 30, 2012
Part II: THE UNMENTIONABLE CONUNDRUM
LOS ANGELES, Calif., Nov. 25, 2012 -- The majority of the electorate made it clear in the 45th presidential election that they want neither a king nor watered-down half-measures that pass for progress, nor more of the same Congressional obstructionism that marked President Barack Obama's first Administration, but instead seek a genuine transformation of America that is peaceful, constructive and consistent with our constitutional values and heritage.
You can kick a can down the road for so long before it gets boring. Now, unless both sides of the aisle in the House reach some reasonable agreement, a looming, indiscriminate across-the-board 10 percent spending reduction in January "could," as the New York Times put it in one of its two lead stories recently, "send the economy back into recession."
Even House Speaker John A. Boehner, no font of liberality, gave fellow House Republicans a little talking-to after the election. They should have expected repercussions - and you have to wonder how they missed seeing them.
These past four years we've seen more obstruction from the Republican Party than from any Congress during the past four decades. Even many authentic Republicans - those who still believe in the idea of government - were shaking their heads, and enough of them crossed over to help ensure that Mr. Obama got re-elected - no small accomplishment in difficult times.
We don't have 25 percent unemployment, as they do in Spain, but it's tough enough; and it's almost a given that since FDR, presidents don't get re-elected during hard times.
Despite some real achievements in President Obama's first term, it's clear that many people were hoping for more, and no doubt some voted for his re-election because they didn't want Mitt Romney as King - a severe 'flip-flopper' who seems to announce his policies out of a whim or for political convenience, often with few details, explanations or credible stories for the public, but likely results that tend to favor the rich.
In addition to his dismissal of the cellphone video of an aristocratic and unsympathetic Romney as he wrote off "47 percent" of the population, it's hard to top his turnabout just weeks before the general election. After nine months as a "severely conservative" candidate, on the day of the first presidential debate - whether for real, or just severely pandering and then severely breaking from the Tea Party GOP constituency - the "new" Romney emerged as Moderate Mitt. Yeah, sure!
Yet, beyond Mr. Obama winning the election and sparing us an Administration that is not to the broad electorate's taste, not all Democrats are thrilled. President Obama may have piloted us out of a tailspin and pulled off a safe landing, but we're not nearly out of the woods.
Admittedly, it's been four difficult years, but the hope is that it'll get better. I'm reminded that two weeks before the election two very pleasant well-dressed Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door and on leaving left me a pamphlet with the heading: 'All Suffering SOON TO END!'
Wow! As the two ladies explained it to me, God never planned for politicians to take charge. He was supposed to run things., and that change was coming soon. I couldn't resist noting,"Our planet has been around for some six billion years. What's taking Him so long to get things straightened out?"
"Well," one of the two responded, "God has a different time sense and a billion years to Him is like a single day for us."
"So, if we could wait a single God-day for better times," I suggested, half asking, "maybe we could wait four more Earth years for President Obama to show more improvement?"
Now Mr. Obama readies for a second Administration, but his re-election is hardly a mandate - at least from Democrats - for half-measures. He may not have the votes in Congress to push through the kind of stimulus that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt won to help pull the country out of the Great Depression, but, as noted, the majority of the electorate surely voted for - if not a New Deal - at least a Better Deal.
There's no doubt that in the election, the Presdident - in a remarkable upturn after his first sleepy debate with Romney, and despite a persistently weak economy - pulled us out of a second potential tailspin by precluding the election of an anti-government Republican president, under which everyone would have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps - even if they don't have boots. Far from the probability of reaching consensus, there's little likelihood of progress if Mr. Obama and the Democrats in Congress play softball with the GOP's hard-ballers like John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Given the gross failure of the prior GOP Administration, President George W. Bush was almost comically kept in hiding during the 2012 election campaign. If we see a continuation of the same Republican obstructionism, the whole GOP will have to go into hiding. And any one-party system is not good.
So far, whether pandering to the ultra-conservative base or not, the truly conservative GOP candidates who sought the presidency - Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann - Romney and the current GOP leadership still control the House of Representatives. Yet the majority of the broad electorate has now made clear to Congress and the nation that extremism - to the point of seeking to dismantle the government - is not for us.
There's been much rhetoric lately about the need for compromise across the legislative aisle in the hopes of attaining consensus and a "transformative" presidency. Yet experience suggests that merely reaching consensus won't likely bring the kind of significant change the majority of voters really want and have been promised.
Aa I just said, after months of campaigning as a "severely conservative" candidate, Romney suddenly metamorphosed into the supposed "moderate Mitt" (for a few weeks or so, anyway), and is now receding as the defeated candidate. After Romney's hundreds of millions of dollars of rhetoric, sound bites, slogans and commercials, the majority of the electorate - unlike Mr. Obama's first time at bat as President - is not in a good mood.
Too many are still jobless, homeless, hungry, or severely concerned, to put it differently, and want serious action - something other than near-comical efforts to dismantle the government and the American safety net, to reduce taxes, and to balance the budget with a secret Romneyesque plan.
We're still waiting for the missing details on the GOP's proposed budget savings to enable more tax cuts for the well-to-do. Most voters have already figured it out, but we're still waiting for the GOP to grasp that neither the deficit nor the federal government is our biggest problem.
Neither cynical acrimony in the Republican-led Congress nor half-measures by a newly ascendant President Obama show much promise. The Republican-led Congress has boasted the most conservative leadership in generations, with some ideas so outrageous as to make President George W. Bush look like a statesman.
Instead, the electorate has once again given President Obama a chance at bat, and is waiting, with cautious optimism, to see how it goes. The Tea Party has now struck out with the general electorate, and the failure of the GOP leadership to see that eventuality coming has to tell you something about reactionary political instincts that are far removed from the instincts of conservatiuve but more practical Republicans - the Percys, Nixons, Javitses, Bayhs, Tafts, Fords and Eisenhowers - of better times.
President Obama now has a clear mandate to hit some home runs and bring the crowd to its feet. The public booing of Congress is largely a response to the GOP-controlled obstructionism. It's no surprise that in recent months the U.S. Congress, has reached all-time, extremely low ratings - ratings as extreme as some of their views.
On May 2, 2012, as the Congress reconvened, and - helped along, perhaps, by the protests of the Occupy Wall Street movement - there was a strong sense nationwide that things were not well in America. On that day, a Gallup poll reported a miserable 11 percent approval rating for the highly polarized, GOP-controlled Congress.
Various business leaders, journalists, lawyers and other professionals weren't ranked all that high, either. Remarkably, Congress had actually improved since the online Huffington Post, in an article by Alana Horowitz on Nov. 16, 2011, noted that an October New York Times poll showed Congress had "an all-time low [approval rating] of 9 percent."
According to the Times poll, Horowitz said, approval of Congress lower than the public gave polygamy (11 percent), the massive BP oil spill (16%), bankers (23 percent), and pornography (30 percent).
Shocking! Yet, upon reflection, it seemed fitting for our times. Flip-flopping, favoritism, bias and partisanship in politics is as old as kissing babies, but even so, many citizens don't recognize the former Republican Party, or its leadership. To many, the Grand Old Party seems to have gone off the deep end.
Ending nasty partisan bickering. first, and breaking the logjam to find consensus in a still-polarized nation, second, would seem to be a step in the right direction. But is it? If so, it's easier said than done. The first goal seems to contradict the second. More often than not, consensus requires half- measures, and these half-measures have a poor record of success. Merely reaching consensus may well mean the defeat of the genuine progress that partisan dominance - such as under President Lyndon Johnson in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination - can bring. But such dominance, as so many new democracies around the world have showed us - can bring ruin.
I think the majority of the public now recognizes the failure of GOP obstructionism as a popularity-booster, and the lack of imagination that the current Republican leadership has displayed as a loyal opposition. As in Hurricane Sandy, the majority also support government playing a significant role in leading a devastated public and assisting its recovery.
Voters at the very least made it known that opposing this role for government is tantamount to discarding the Constitution and taking us back hundreds of years into a darker age. At the same time, in giving President Obama a second chance, the American public has shown it wants real change, not only insofar as the economy but in returning to the powerful tenets of our Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Many are still waiting to see some of the promises of the first Obama Administration put into effect. Can the re-elected President Obama still serve as a "transformative" figure for our nation?
As the first black president, Mr. Obama raised the bar to embody a new ideal of civil rights for the U.S. So, too, did his start of a health care program reaching millions of uninsured citizens. These are both significant accomplishments, yet by themselves they don't achieve the transformation many of us are looking for.
The current version of Obamacare is less sustainable than, say, the single-payer, universal (as Social Security is) health care practiced in every other advanced nation in the Western World, rich and poor.
The fierce debates and passage of the Affordable Health Care Act have left us still a long ways from an efficient and more readily affordable program for everyone. Among other things, in a more universal system, larger purchases from drug companies that are precluded by the Act can obviously help keep medical costs, for the government and the public, at more sustainable rates.
As for issues of race and equality, merely demonstrating that a black man can be both elected and re-elected is persuasive, but is in itself not a great transformative leap forward. Obviously, even with a President who is a member of a once-segregated minority, in this age of polarization and spectacular inequality between rich and poor we're nowhere near "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." We're closer, as an uncle of mine used to proclaim, to a regime "With liberty and justice for oil!"
Yet the oil companies are not the ones burning the oil. We are - we aptly named "consumers." The oil companies pump the oil out of the earth, and amazingly get a tax depletion allowance for using up these irreplaceable and vital resources even as scarcity helps push up the prices. And despite the slowdown in the U.S. economy, we're seemingly in a fierce race - with an element of "playing chicken" as things heat up - to use up a disproportionate share of the world's oil and other resources.
The consuming public in the U.S. pays a fairer share of taxes for oil than do the oil companies, but we've hardly been model citizens of the world. With some six or seven percent of the world's population, we consume some 25 percent of the world's resources, which include food, oil, water, generated electricity and consumer goods.
We don't hear about that much - sunshine is always an easier sell than rain - and the last thing you want to do if you're running for office is to talk much about the plight of the poor - even when one-sixth of our nation is struggling to buy food.
Whatever our problems in the First World, the disparities between the First and the Third World are as awesome as the quantities of consumption. According to World Watch Institute, "12 percent of the world's population lives in North America and Western Europe and accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, but a third of humanity who live in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa account for only 3.2 percent."
In such a context we're all big spenders, not least when it comes to oil. The Web site Green Living Tips provides some of the stunning statistics. For example, "The uptake of air-conditioners continues to grow, with 144 million units expected to be sold between 2011 and 2017 (ACR News). Air conditioners place one of the heaviest loads on electricity infrastructure, creating a need for peak power plants that may only operate for a few days each year."
Newspapers may be going out of business, but not paper. As Green Living Tips quotes from Co-Op America, "Industrialized nations, representing only 20% of the world's population, consume 87 percent of the world's printing and writing papers, and global production in the pulp, paper and publishing sector is expected to increase by 77% from 1995 to 2020. The pulp and paper industry is the single largest consumer of water used in industrial activities in OECD countries and is the third greatest industrial greenhouse gas emitter, after the chemical and steel industries."
Have you ever taken a long ride for dinner? Well, maybe more often than you think. "The food we eat now typically travels between 1,500 and 3,000 miles [also known as "food miles"] from farm to dinner plate. That distance had increased by up to 25 percent between 1980 and 2001," according to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
Here's another consumption tale that could be called food for thought: "If the Chinese consume resources in 2031 at a level that Americans do now, grain consumption per person there would climb from around 600 pounds today to around the 2000 pounds needed to sustain a typical Western diet. This would equate to 1,352 million tons of grain, equal to two-thirds of all the grain harvested in the world in 2004."
Large-scale operations sometimes enable efficiencies, but the widescale transportation of food, not to mention the required refrigeration, makes you wonder. The production for years of more energy-efficient cars by Japan, and then by other European carmakers - as compared to our own culture, where parking spaces have grown narrower as autos and SUVs grow wider - may qualify as a transformative step.
But when you wonder about the cost of food transportation, how about the environmental cost of transporting tens of thousands of cars thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean? Indeed, in seeking and obtaining improvements in fuel efficiency, we will find there are a number of hidden drawbacks that rarely get mentioned.
For example, barnacles are a multimillion-dollar threat to the environment that cling to the bottoms of ships, creating drag and vastly increasing fuel costs. Transporting Asian cars - though, given the economy, many thousands just sit waiting for better times to justify their transport - may still be justifiable, given some of the behemoth gas guzzlers produced in the U.S.
Years back, in the late 1960s, I was once walking by an intersection in Copenhagen during a busy time of day and saw a full contingent of European cars. They all looked relatively small compared to a Volkswagen "bug." For decades, though, the American consumer opted for the purchase of large, gas-guzzling cars.
Clearly, if anything ever qualified as what I call "secret intelligence," the customer is not always right - whether in the wisdom of one's purchases or in the failure to question the impact of one's purchases. Many customers in the U.S. buy things they can't afford - one complaint of many pundits after our latest housing bubble popped.
As one example, many customers also buy new automobiles that they can't afford; for many, that's because that may be the only reliable car they can afford to buy on credit, given that the new car has sufficient collateral to back up the loan.
"Big business," and most shareholders and the country's Chambers of Commerce, never worried much - so long as they were getting paid - about anyone overspending or maxing out on credit. To the contrary, to push the sale along (whatever the consumer's credit or financial capacity), such concerns were more typically left to the fine print - at least until the latest housing crash came along. Then the banking, mortgage and finance industry and others gained new motivation to help spread the blame around.
Ironically, with jobs more insecure in these difficult times, many consumers are more cautious about spending, especially on credit. And that poses a new problem because, in a slow economy, when consumer demand is down, many businesses have been slow to reinvest, thus creating jobs.
Meanwhile, in the First World, fewer consumers are relying on credit cards, and yet on the whole, with or without global warming and even in the poor economic climate, we're still depleting the world's resources very rapidly.
The statistics of growth are clearly helped along by an increasing world population. As Green Living notes, for example, "In 1950, the global population was 2.6 billion people. We had 53 million cars - which works out to be one car for every 50 persons. When Earth's population hit 6 billion people, there were 500 million cars - more than one car for every dozen inhabitants."
That's another one of those near-unmentionable problems - an economic problem, and also an environmental storm cloud. Even if businesses and consumers have money to spare to increase demand and keep the wheels moving, in many instances we're simply over-producing - even when many companies are not close to operating at full capacity. And despite some claims to the contrary, it won't help much to fire tens of thousands more federal or state employees.
We ought to find consensus that we can neither consume profligately nor allow people to needlessly suffer. For real transformation, we need real progress. Let us hope President Obama will, though seeking reasonable consensus, not rely too heavily on small, heavily compromised steps, but opt instead for a good number of large, solid ideas and bold action.
Think of the handful of scientists, social, labor and religious leaders who altered society in transformative ways. Think of the Marshall Plan with its massive successful aid program abroad - which also helped us sell our surplus products. Think of the GI Bills at home, which both helped house our citizenry and educate our citizenry and train millions of taxpayers for better-paying jobs that were the foundation of a broad middle class.
Think of the major positive difference these transformative people made. Meeting our urgent needs means believing and investing in the full nation, and keeping promises for real change. Credible investments pay off!
But what will it cost if we fail to meet the challenges facing us locally and globally?
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the author referred to a "10 percent tax cut." In fact, he intended to refer to a "10 percent spending reduction" mandated by the sequestration law.
Ron Kenner is a celebrated author, editor and longtime AR contributor based in Baldwin Hills, Calif., where he heads RK Edit.