Washington Is Not Working — Literally

The House of Representatives isn't doing much these days unless it's voting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Photo/Keith Schneider
The House of Representatives isn’t doing much these days unless it’s voting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Photo/Keith Schneider

WASHINGTON — Two events occurred here on Thursday this week that together are a nearly perfect distillation of why this otherwise pleasant city has become the capital of intransigence and frustration for people like me concerned about our national interest.

In the morning the U.S. Supreme Court announced, in a 5-4 decision, that campaign donations are a form of free speech, and that the wealthy can spend just about as much as they like to elect candidates of their choice. The ruling is the latest evidence that the hard right turn that the nation took with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 is producing ever bigger dividends for his supporters.

Reagan’s administration was devoted almost entirely to instituting Reaganomics, then touted as a means to reduce taxes and balance the budget. But what Reaganomics was really about, as its critics predicted, was enabling the wealthy to become so rich they could completely segregate themselves from the rest of the country. The Thursday Supreme Court ruling makes it much easier for the rich to control legislation and erect even higher barriers of self-protection.

Within hours of the Court’s ruling, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to repeal a provision of the Affordable Care Act. It was the 52nd time the House has moved against President Obama’s health care law. And like all the other times, the legislation has no chance of being enacted. The vote came a few days after the White House announced that 7 million people had signed up for insurance under the health care law, in my view an administration accomplishment. Republicans barked that the White House made up that number.

The larger point is that aside from harping on the president, and hoping voters send more arch conservatives to Washington in the fall, the House has expressed scant interest in anything else — wages, unemployment, immigration, energy, climate change, tax reform. Americans spend a lot of money to keep politicians and their bright young staffs idle in Washington.

I’ve spent a long time around Washington since 1980. My work as a journalist and former non-profit executive involves interviewing elected lawmakers, agency heads, and research personnel, and collaborating with public interest experts. I worked full-time in Washington, from 1985 to 1993, as a correspondent for the New York Times, which comes with unusual access to centers of influence and the responsibility to dig and report well in the public interest. Continue reading “Washington Is Not Working — Literally”

Warnings — They Are So Easy To Ignore

Six months after a Himalyan flood that may have killed 30,000 people and wrecked Uttarakhand's hydropower sector, Sonprayag presents heart-rending evidence of the disaster. Photo/Keith Schneider
Six months after a Himalyan flood that may have killed 30,000 people and wrecked Uttarakhand’s hydropower sector, Sonprayag presents heart-rending evidence of the disaster. Photo/Keith Schneider

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Reporting on a righteous disaster, one that unfolds in the various stages of direct impact, colossal damage, rising body counts, and fiercesome cost, always comes with the mandatory account of warnings issued and ignored. Ten days ago a mountain slope collapsed north of Seattle, unleashing a river of mud on a rural community, killing over 20 people and causing an estimated $10 million in damage to property. It is said to be one of the worst landslides in American history.

While visiting my mother in Manhattan over the weekend, she recounted these details and also noted: “You know, there were warnings. The people said they never got them.”

Aah. American landslide as global metaphor.

In the work to define accountability, I explained, the issued warnings and the culpability of local officials who did not deliver them is sure to be the stuff of courtroom testimony. But in the real world of Washington State or just about any other place in America, had those warnings actually been issued and gained attention they would have attracted nothing but political outrage.

Property owners in the hillside’s shadow would have pelted local officials with sharp rhetorical objects designed to shut off communication, preserve property values, and keep insurance costs down. Where was the scientific proof of an impending collapse, they would have asked. How could their local leaders put property values in such jeopardy? Nobody would want to invest in their land and homes if the claims of impending disaster persisted.

What about that 2006 partial collapse? See, it was no big deal. The hillside hardly moved.

And then it did — at the speed of a flood. A square mile of land at the hill’s bottom was covered in mud, in places 70 feet thick. That’s deep enough to entomb most of the missing.

The Snohomish County landslide occurred at the same time the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the latest of its scientific studies on the rising consequences of the Earth’s warming atmosphere.

As you’ve read here with magnifying urgency, the Earth is not playing around. It’s pushing back hard against industrial depradations, carbon pollution, population growth, and mismanagement of every kind. Continue reading “Warnings — They Are So Easy To Ignore”

Algae Blooms, A New Visitor, Ruin Sleeping Bear Dunes Shoreline

Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan's gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider
Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan’s gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider

EMPIRE, Michigan — It’s winter in Northwest Michigan, the coldest and deepest season of ice and snow in years. It’s possible that the severe winter will produce the conditions necessary to curb the newest noxious and unsightly threat to the region’s waters: the algae blooms overtaking northern Lake Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The blooms not only illustrate the presence of rising levels of nutrients in the water. They also are evidence of the weakening resolve of citizens, their state, and the nation to secure America’s clean fresh water. Write me – keith@circleofblue.org – if you’re interested in organizing to halt this frustrating risk to the national park in our own backyard, and to addressing this insult to our lakes and rivers.

No place in the United States, it seems to me, is a better place to start. In 1970 the United States Congress authorized land purchases to establish Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — 35 miles of towering dunes, broad forests of maple and hemlock, and magnificent shallow blue bays along the northern Lake Michigan shoreline west of Traverse City.

In almost every way conceivable, Sleeping Bear’s founding reflected the best impulses of a nation determined to prove that economic development could coincide with new measures to conserve land, and scrub the air and water clean of multiple pollutants.

The 71,000-acre national park, founded at the very center of the five Great Lakes, met two primary national goals. Sleeping Bear restored the deteriorated bounty of soil, forest, and water that supported, into the early decades of the 20th century, a necklace of tiny maritime communities and several thousand fishing, farm, and forestry jobs.

And second, Sleeping Bear helped to prove that a new and much larger economic sector could be formed from policies that preserved a region’s ecology, limited pollution, and effectively enforced environmental law.

In the course of two generations, the air and water in and outside the park were largely cleared of pollution and improved to near pristine quality. Rivers in and outside the park grew colder and clearer, supporting active salmon and trout fisheries. Forests in and outside the park grew taller, more dense, and more supportive of wildlife, including regular sightings of bobcat, bear, goshawks, and once-endangered bald eagles.
Continue reading “Algae Blooms, A New Visitor, Ruin Sleeping Bear Dunes Shoreline”

As We Build More, Use More, The Earth Is Pushing Back Hard

The 1989 revolution that ended Communist rule and freed the Czech people is a vivid example of human persistence and valor. Photo/Keith Schneider
The 1989 revolution that ended Communist rule and freed the Czech people is a vivid example of human persistence and valor. Photo/Keith Schneider

PRAGUE — City Square erupted at the start of the 2014 New Year with a deafening and blazing midnight fusilade of rockets and cannon blasts. The air filled with spent gunpowder and smoke so dense the brilliance of the firebursts was obscured. The Czech crowds, so slim and young and dressed in chic leather and spiked heels, cheered with the joy and lusty charm that comes with political security and social success.

This 1,000-year-old river city of 1.3 million, the capital of a first generation democracy founded in 1989, is a swirl of light and modern efficiency. Trams speed through narrow streets paved with square stones the size of Rubik cubes. Malls stir with shoppers hunting post-Christmas bargains. Cafes offer all manner of cheese, beer, bread, booze, and sweets. The sidewalks are filled with children in bright coats and knit caps running to keep pace with their parents.

The mood in the Czech Republic is so plainly defined by the satisfaction of building from the economic mustiness of Soviet repression a nation that is prosperous, clean, and among the world’s safest and best educated. Less than two generations ago bullet holes were still visible on the walls of Prague’s historic buildings. Adults huddled in attics, speaking in hushed voices with only their most trusted friends, if the subject was politics.

Prague, and the rest of this beautiful country of 10.5 million residents, provides welcome evidence of the capacity of people to agree on shared but difficult goals, and work together to achieve them. Prague represents needed hope for humanity’s ability to manage its affairs in a way that produces order from disorder, recognizes opportunity in changing circumstances, and responds responsibly to all manner of economic and ecological transition.

In neighboring Germany, there is more evidence such progress is possible. Germany is in the midst of a third industrial revolution fueled by its lower-polluting, water-conserving renewable energy sector. Almost 20 percent of the 600 terra-watt hours of electricity that Germany generates annually is supplied by power from wind, solar, water, biomass, and municipal waste. Germany’s photovoltaic solar sector alone accounts for 24,000 megawatts of generating capacity, and almost 20 terra-watt hours of electricity production. Power produced from coal-fired stations has dropped to 40 percent of Germany’s electricity supply.

And while solar yields three to five percent of Germany’s electricity production (depending on the season), that 24,000 megawatts of generating capacity is more power produced from the sun than in all of the rest of the world combined. And it’s happened very quickly. Because utilities are required to buy solar power from producers, including individual homeowners, banks of photovoltaic panels are bolted to the roofs of barns, big box stores, schools, and homes across the country.

Germany's solar sector has more generating capacity than the rest of the world's combined. Photo/Keith Schneider
Germany’s solar sector has more generating capacity than the rest of the world’s combined. Photo/Keith Schneider

As a journalist who’s now spending months each year overseas reporting on the fierce global contest for energy, grain, and water in the era of a fast-changing climate, the examples of human progress on display in the Czech Republic and in Germany are encouraging. So too, is what Ontario, Canada completed this year — a decade of policy change that has ended coal-fired power generation.

But these examples aren’t the norm.

Continue reading “As We Build More, Use More, The Earth Is Pushing Back Hard”

Government Shutdown, Default Reveal Fanaticism’s Depth

The hard right’s strategy to shut the Government and threaten a default shows contempt for the law, for precedence, and for the majority of Americans. It reveals a streak of fanaticism in suburban and rural Republican voters that won’t go away very fast even as the rest of the country moves on. This poster in New York’s Times Square illustrates a minority view that is in tatters. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW YORK — This is the city and the new American experience that too many white suburban and rural voters loathe. Good leadership and smart taxpayer investments modernized the subways, scrubbed clean the shoreline, rebuilt Harlem, and turned Brooklyn into a multi-racial millennial hot spot for good jobs and housing. Crime is down, way down. City revenues are up. Voters here support an African American president, public education, gun control, gay marriage, the science of climate change, clean energy, immigration reform, and medical marijuana. Intelligent design describes a new energy-efficient office building, not an explanation for the origins of the 6,000-year-old Earth.

New York, in sum, is the capital of the newly dynamic America that is moving on from the era of dysfunction and disinvestment, the period of national reckoning and stagnation that followed 9/11 and the Great Recession. It turns out that many cities and regions across the country are thriving again. American democracy still works in places that reward insightful and strong leaders, and have replaced ideology and revenge with shared values and some measure of common decency.

Two hundred miles south of here, in political Washington, D.C., the nation watches in fascination and no small measure of horror the desperate acts of a minority — white suburban and rural voters — who either feel boxed in or have been ruthlessly misled. It’s probably a mix of both.

Fear, though, has led these voters to countenance an extortion attempt — demanding the rollback of the healthcare law in exchange for opening the government and approving a debt ceiling increase. Having lost an election that considered the healthcare law as a primary issue, the extortion bid displays contempt for law, democracy, and precedence. These same voters would find such tactics intolerable from foreign leaders seeking influence in the United States. And they certainly would recoil from these tactics if they were deployed by a Democrat or Al Qaeda.

Still, most House Republican voters support what their representatives are doing. Despite what Democrats here in New York hope, and mainstream editorialists predict — that the GOP will pay for this recklessness at the polls — I’m not convinced that is true. GOP voters are calling for their House representatives to be more strident, not less. Giving up is a sign of weakness. The disdain that GOP voters have for government will not recede because of this manufactured fiscal and political crisis.

What it’s producing is not just divided government. It’s splitting the nation. City from suburb. North and West from South and Plains states. White from every other American. Baby Boom from millennials. It is draining the country’s ingenuity and imagination. Anger and frustration, stridency and recklessness are hardening the lines between a blue America and a red America. Having failed to convince a majority of Americans that “government is the problem,” the next apparent goal of the right wing minority is promote the politics of division. That goal, it seems to me, is precisely what GOP voters and their elected representative are after.