In Response to Mr. Brooks, Part 2

Gradual government will fail in a changing climate

Cross-posted on December 24, 2013 by The Bard CEP Eco Reader

Last week I posted a response to a column written by David Brooks, the sensible conservative voice of The New York Times. I agree with Brooks that some of us waste far too much of our lives worrying about politics.

His picnic example skillfully illustrates the important yet barely perceptible role government plays in shaping the environment in which we go about our everyday activities:

“Imagine you are going to a picnic. Government is properly in charge of maintaining the essential background order: making sure there is a park, that it is reasonably clean and safe, arranging public transportation so as many people as possible can get to it. But if you remember the picnic afterward, these things won’t be what you remember. You’ll remember the creative food, the interesting conversations and the fun activities.”

Yet I disagree with the columnist’s assertion that “the best government is boring, gradual and orderly.” The piece even mentions, “Governing is the noble but hard job of trying to get anything done under a permanent condition of Murphy’s Law.” Murphy’s Law says, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

Brooks is mistaken. If Murphy’s Law applies I do not know when such a bogus axiom became a “Law”  then government must be much more than slow and orderly.

Had decisive action ruled the day after Hurricane Katrina, how many more people could have been rescued? Instead the local government delayed implementing their evacuation plan until the last possible moment, while the Federal government simply threw money and troops at the disaster, enraging local leaders by neglecting reality on the ground.

Liberty B24 bombers are assembled at the Ford Motor Company's Willow Run plant in 1943, as part of the Allies' World War II effort. *Source*: The Detroit News

Liberty B24 bombers are assembled at the Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run plant in 1943, as part of the Allies’ World War II effort. *Source*: The Detroit News

To relate this suggestion to my favorite topic, government must quit the slow, orderly background model and treat climate change like the crisis that it is. Before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt challenged American industry to become the “Arsenal of Democracy”; Detroit auto manufacturers stopped making cars and began to produce tanks, aircraft, and other military vehicles.

What if the Obama Administration declared war1 on global warming and told automakers that for the defense of the country  and the world  they must focus all their attention on zero-emission vehicles? What if our government helped make electric cars truly climate neutral by taking the radical step to require that electric utilities create a carbon-free grid by 2030?

The Department of Defense has, time and again, declared that climate change impacts pose significant threats to national and international security. The potential perils of a warming planet must be addressed proactively with war-like effort in order to prevent real military conflicts over land and resources.

The world looks to the U.S. for leadership, for worse or for worse. If our government is slow and focused only on keeping order, it will fail to keep order. Poor countries in regions most exposed to the effects of climate change will fight over necessities like clean water, food, and even land as sea level rise encroaches upon low-lying cities. More frequent and more energetic storms will come too quickly for traditional disaster response mechanisms to adequately protect and rebuild the infrastructure needed to maintain our standard of living in the developed world.

Proactive climate adaptation requires decisive government action and flexibility for adaptive management. In contrast, the “boring, gradual, and orderly” government described by Mr. Brooks is associated with reactive policymaking: rescue rather than evacuation, and then drafting new legislation to prevent the exact failure that has happened from recurring.2

Mr. Brooks’ big, plodding version of government accurately describes the federal government as it exists today. But if “government is properly in charge of maintaining the essential background order,” as Brooks writes, then Uncle Sam’s pace of operation will need to change drastically in the face of a changing climate.

Unless, of course, the U.S. Government is in charge of maintaining basic order for only affluent, politically empowered people. The state may be responsible for providing essential infrastructure and service to allow us to have our memorable meals in the great outdoors, but do poor people picnic in the park?

  1. Yes, Presidents can now declare war, Constitution be damned. 
  2. We take off our shoes for TSA screening at airports because someone once hid a weapon in his footwear, but rules rarely look forward to the next possible calamity. 

In Response to Mr. Brooks

Finally, a political commentator says we should stop paying attention to political commentators

Cross-posted on December 18, 2013 by The Bard CEP Eco Reader

New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks, in his first article in three months, writes, “Unless you are in the business of politics, covering it or columnizing about it, politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind.” In Brooks’ opinion, government should occupy the background of everyday life, an unexciting but necessary keeper of the peace, promoter of justice, and supplier of essential infrastructure.

First off, Brooks must believe that the average American cares as much about politics as he and his friends. This is clearly not the case. Voter turnout rates show that, on average, citizens of the US are an apathetic bunch.

Yet even among the minority who do allow political discourse to dominate their lives, I argue that this zealotry is chiefly misguided focus. We elect leaders because we trust their ability to represent our best interests in government––direct democracy, on the other hand, requires enormous time and effort investments from every citizen in order to stay current and well-informed about political issues. So, in theory, picking a few people to do politics as their full-time job frees us from letting politics capture all of our emotional and psychic space.

Columnist David Brooks. Photo credit: Josh Haner/The New York Times

Columnist David Brooks. Photo credit: Josh Haner/The New York Times

But in today’s “talk-show culture,” as Brooks calls it, we try to know everything about all the tasks that we are supposed to allow government to handle. For many of us, I believe that this anxiety over the ordinary routines of government shows that we don’t trust our representatives in public office.

This mistrust is not entirely misplaced: administrative agencies are captured by industry and congressmen are owned by their campaign financiers, which makes it much more difficult to have faith that government is going to do its job with the little guy in mind. So the majority of us, who possess little wealth or political power, follow government too closely because if “the Man” screws us over, we at least want to know about it. And those with substantial money and power follow government too closely because they know they can influence policy to work in their favor

Here is my idealistic solution: let us tell government what issues we care about, voice our strong feelings regarding how these problems should be solved, and then step back and let government handle the details. Along the way, proposals can be subject to public comment periods during which stakeholders weigh in, but we need not constantly peer over the shoulders of legislatures and administrative bodies.

Showing up to a meeting of the city council’s public works committee when they plan to discuss how to pave your favorite patch of dirt is healthy democracy. Listening to every commentator’s stance on the Affordable Care Act’s website is not, particularly if you are already insured.

The dream-regime necessary to achieve this representative utopia would be free from the influence of corporate lobbyists and Super PAC campaign donors. We need public servants whose primary, unconflicted interest is just that: serving the public.

These days, we let the mainstream media tell us what issues the government is working on––and even this agenda is routinely misreported. Then we blather on about what the government is doing, should be doing, and shouldn’t be doing in these policy arenas.

Yes, David Brooks, some of us should dedicate less of our emotions and psyches to politics. We should make our voices heard and then trust that policy makers and regulators are listening. Does this mean we should stop reading your column?