We are earning the scorn and condemnation of history”

He’s hardly a household name, but US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (a Democrat representing Rhode Island) delivered a quite extraordinary 23-minute speech last week on the floor of the Senate – the speech we hoped, back in the heady days of late 2008, to hear the incoming President one day deliver – and deliver on.

That, of course, hasn’t happened, and the world’s inexorable slide towards resource exhaustion and carbon-fuelled climate collapse has barely been dented by the change of incumbent in the White House from an outright climate change denier to a young president who has turned out to be simply a captive of a corporatised, utterly broken and bastardised political system. In hindsight, it was naive on my part, and on the part of millions around the world, to think that any one politician could or would dare to step beyond politics-as-usual and put his career on the line for the overwhelmingly greater good of preventing climate chaos.

Perhaps I didn’t really think Obama would succeed, but I was certain he would at least try. Wrong again. Long after Obama’s presidency is a footnote in history, I suspect future historians (or more likely, palaeontologists), should they happen upon the words of one Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in October 2011, will find many clues to help them unravel a vexing mystery: how did a relatively technologically advanced, science-literate civilisation doggedly fail to act to prevent its own certain, widely flagged collapse and brutal extinction event in the mid-21st century?


“Mr. President, I am here to speak about what is currently an unpopular topic in this town. It has become no longer politically correct in certain circles in Washington to speak about climate change or carbon pollution or how carbon pollution is causing our climate to change.

This is a peculiar condition of Washington. If you go out into, say, our military and intelligence communities, they understand and are planning for the effects of carbon pollution on climate change. They see it as a national security risk. If you go out into our nonpolluting business and financial communities, they see this as a real and important problem. And, of course, it goes without saying our scientific community is all over this concern. But as I said, Washington is a peculiar place, and here it is getting very little traction.

Here in Washington we feel the dark hand of the polluters tapping so many shoulders. And where there is power and money behind that dark hand, therefore, a lot of attention is paid to that little tap on the shoulder. What we overlook is that nature — God’s Earth — is also tapping us all on the shoulder, with messages we ignore at our peril. We ignore the messages of nature of God’s Earthand we ignore the laws of nature of God’s Earth at our very grave peril.

I have little doubt future generations will curse our names if we keep listening to the “siren song of well-paying polluters.”  Whitehouse makes this point better than any national politician I’ve heard — by reviewing the science and the politics in a speech few of his fellow politicos have the guts or wisdom or conscience to deliver.

There is a wave of very justifiable economic frustration that has swept through our Capitol. The problem is that some of the special interests — the polluters — have insinuated themselves into that wave, sort of like parasites that creep into the body of a host animal, and from there they are working terrible mischief. They are propagating two big lies. One is that environmental regulations are a burden to the economy and we need to lift those burdens to spur our economic recovery. The second is the jury is still out on climate changes caused by carbon pollution, so we don’t need to worry about it or even take precautions. Both are, frankly, outright false.

Environmental regulation is well established to be good for the economy. It may add costs to you if you are a polluter, but polluters usually exaggerate about that.

For instance, before the 1990 acid rain rules went into effect, Peabody Coal estimated that compliance would cost $3.9 billion. The Edison Electric Institute chimed in and estimated that compliance would cost $4 to $5 billion. Well, in fact, the Energy Information Administration calculated the program actually cost $836 million, about one-sixth of the Edison Electric Institute estimate.

When polluters were required to phase out the chemicals they were emitting that were literally burning a hole through our Earth’s atmosphere, they warned that it would create “severe economic and social disruption” due to “shutdowns of refrigeration equipment in supermarkets, office buildings, hotels, and hospitals.” Well, in fact, the phaseout happened 4 years to 6 years faster than predicted; it cost 30 percent less than predicted; and the American refrigeration industry innovated and created new export markets for its environmentally friendly products.

Anyway, the real point is we are not just in this Chamber to represent the polluters. We are supposed to be here to represent all Americans, and Americans benefit from environmental regulation big time.

Over the lifetime of the Clean Air Act, for instance, for every $1 it costs to add pollution controls, Americans have received about $30 in health and other benefits. By the way, installing those pollution controls created jobs because they went to manufacturers to build the controls and to Americans to install them. But setting that aside, a 30-to-1 benefit ratio to keep our air clean sounds like a mighty wise investment to me.

That 30-to-1 ratio doesn’t even count the intangible benefits — intangible but very real benefits — of clear air and clean water, the benefits of the heart and the soul, the benefits to a grandfather of taking his granddaughter to the fishing hole and still finding fish there or of the city kid being able to go to a beach and have it clean enough to swim there or the benefit to a mom who is spared the burden of worry, of sitting next to her asthmatic baby on the emergency room albuterol inhaler waiting for his infant lungs to clear.

Well, unfortunately, polluters rule in certain circles in Washington, and they emit propaganda as well as pollution, and they have been emitting too much of both lately.

Their other big lie the jury is still out on is whether human-made carbon pollution causes dangerous climate change and oceanic change. Virtually all of our most prestigious scientific and academic institutions have stated that climate change is happening and that human activities are the driving cause of this change. Many of us in Congress received a letter from those institutions in October 2009. Let me quote from that letter.

“Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science”.

Let me repeat that last quote.

“Contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science”.

This letter was signed by the heads of the following organizations: the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Society of Agronomy, the American Society of Plant Biologists, the American Statistical Association, the Association of Ecosystem Research Centers, the Botanical Society of America, the Crop Science Society of America, the Ecological Society of America, the Natural Science Collections Alliance, the Organization of Biological Field Stations, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, the Society of Systematic Biologists, the Soil Science Society of America, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

These are highly esteemed scientific organizations. They are the real deal. They don’t think the jury is still out. They recognize that, in fact, the verdict is in, and it is time to act.

More than 97 percent of the climate scientists most actively publishing accept that the verdict is actually in on carbon pollution causing climate and oceanic changes — 97 percent. Think of that.

Imagine if your child were sick and the doctor said she needed treatment, and out of prudence you went and got a second opinion. Then you went around and you actually got 99 second opinions. When you were done, you found that 97 out of 100 expert doctors agreed your child was sick and needed treatment. Imagine further that of the three who disagreed, some took money from the insurance company that would have to pay for your child’s treatment. Imagine further that none of those three could say they were sure your child was OK, just that they weren’t sure what her illness was or that she needed treatment, that there was some doubt.

On those facts, name one decent father or mother who wouldn’t start treatment for their child. No decent parent would turn away from the considered judgment of 97 percent of 100 doctors just because they weren’t all absolutely certain.

How solid is the science behind this? Rock Reverse Phone Lookup solid. The fact that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs heat from the Sun was discovered at the time of the Civil War. This is not new stuff. In 1863 the Irish scientist John Tyndall determined that carbon dioxide and water vapor trapped more heat in the atmosphere as their concentrations increased. A 1955 textbook, “Our Astonishing Atmosphere,” notes that nearly a century ago the scientist, John Tyndall, suggested that a fall in the atmospheric carbon dioxide could allow the Earth to cool, whereas a rise in carbon dioxide would make it warmer.

In the early 1900s, a century ago, it became clear that changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might account for significant increases and decreases in the Earth’s average annual temperatures and that carbon dioxide released from manmade sources, anthropogenic sources — primarily by the burning of coal — would contribute to those atmospheric changes. This is not new stuff. These are well-established scientific principles.

Let me look for a moment at the book I talked about, “Our Astonishing Atmosphere,” published in 1955 — the year I was born, more than half a century ago — for the “Science for Every Man Series.” Let me read:

Although the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remains at a concentration of 0.03 percent all over the world, the amount in the air has not always been the same. There have been periods in the world’s history when the air became charged with more carbon dioxide than it now carries. There have also been periods when the concentration has fallen unusually low. The effects of these changes have been profound. They are believed to have influenced the climate of the earth by controlling the amount of energy that is lost by the earth into space. Nearly a century ago, the scientist John Tyndall suggested that a fall in the atmospheric carbon dioxide could allow the earth to cool whereas a rise in the carbon dioxide would make it warmer. With the help of its carbon dioxide, the atmosphere acts like a greenhouse that traps the heat of the sun. Radiations reaching the atmosphere as sunshine can penetrate to the surface of the earth. Here, they are absorbed, providing the world with warmth. But the earth itself radiating energy outwards in the form of long-wave heat rays. If these could penetrate the air as the sunshine does, they could carry off much of the heat provided by the sun. Carbon dioxide in the air helps to stop the escape of heat radiations. It acts like a blanket to keep the world warm. And the more carbon dioxide the air contains, the more efficiently does it smother the escape of the earth’s heat. Fluctuation in the carbon dioxide of the air has helped to bring about major climate changes experienced by the world in the past.

This is 1955. This is “Our Astonishing Atmosphere,” out of the “Science for Every Man” Series This is not something that was just invented.

Let’s look at the facts that we actually observe in our changing planet. Over the last 800,000 years — 8,000 centuries — until very recently the atmosphere has stayed within a bandwidth of between 170 parts per million and 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide. That is not theory, that is measurement. Scientists measure historic carbon dioxide concentrations by, for example, locating trapped bubbles in the ice of ancient glaciers. So we know, over time — and over long periods of time — what the range has been.

What else do we know? We know since the industrial revolution, we — humankind — have been burning carbon-rich fuels in measurable and ever-increasing amounts. We know we release up to 7 to 8 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year. A gigaton, by the way, is 1 billion metric tons. So if you are going to release 7 to 8 billion metric tons a year into the atmosphere, predictably that increases carbon concentration in our atmosphere. “Put more in and find more there” is not a complex scientific theory. It is not a difficult proposition. And 7 to 8 billion metric tons a year into the atmosphere is a very big thing in the historical sweep.

So we now measure carbon concentrations climbing in the Earth’s atmosphere. Again, this is a measurement, not a theory. The present concentration exceeds 390 parts per million.

So 800,000 years and a bandwidth of 170 to 300 parts per million, and now we are over 390.

This increase has a trajectory. Plotting trajectories is nothing new either. It is something scientists, businesspeople, and our military service people do every day. The trajectory for our carbon pollution predicts that 688 parts per million will be in the atmosphere in the year 2095 and 1,097 parts per million in the year 2195. These are carbon concentrations not outside of the bounds of 800,000 years but outside of the bounds of millions of years. As Tyndall determined at the time of the Civil War, increasing carbon concentrations will absorb more of the Sun’s heat and raise global temperatures.

Let me end by reviewing the scale of the peril that we are facing if we fail to act. Over the last 800,000 years, as I said, it has been 170 to 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Since the start of the industrial revolution, that concentration is now up to 390 parts per million. If we continue on the trajectory that we find ourselves, our grandchildren will see carbon concentrations in the atmosphere top 700 parts per million by the end of the century, twice the bandwidth top that we have lived in for 8,000 centuries.

To put that in perspective, mankind has engaged in agriculture for about 10,000 years. It is not clear we had yet mastered fire 800,000 years ago. The entire development of human civilization has taken place in that 800,000 years, and within that 170 to 300 parts per million bandwidth. If we go back, we are back into geologic time.

In April of this year, a group of scientific experts came together at the University of Oxford to discuss the current state of our oceans. The workshop report stated:

Human actions have resulted in warming and acidification of the oceans and are now causing increasing hypoxia. Acidification is obvious — the ocean is becoming more acid; hypoxia means low oxygen levels.

Studies of the Earth’s past indicate that these are the three symptoms associated with each of the previous five mass extinctions on Earth.

We experienced two mass ocean extinctions 55 and 251 million years ago. The rates of carbon entering the atmosphere in the lead-up to these extinctions are estimated to have been 2.2 and 1 to 2 gigatons of carbon per year respectively, over several thousand years. As the group of Oxford scientists noted:

Both these estimates are dwarfed in comparison to today’s emissions. As I said earlier, those are 7 to 8 gigatons per year. The workshop participants concluded with this quote:

“Unless action is taken now, the consequences of our activities are at a high risk of causing, through the combined effects of climate change, overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss, the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean”.

The laws of physics and the laws of chemistry and the laws of science, these are laws of nature. These are laws of God’s Earth. We can repeal some laws around here but we can’t repeal those. Senators are used to our opinions mattering a lot around here, but these laws are not affected by our opinions. These laws do not care who peddles influence, how many lobbyists you have or how big your corporate bankroll is. Those considerations, so important in this town, do not matter at all to the laws of nature.

As regards these laws of nature, because we can neither repeal nor influence them, we bear a duty, a duty of stewardship to see and respond to the facts that are before our faces according to nature’s laws. We bear a duty to shun the siren song of well-paying polluters. We bear a duty to make the right decisions for our children and grandchildren and for our God-given Earth.

Right now I must come before the Chamber and remind this body that we are failing in that duty. The men and women in this Chamber are indeed catastrophically failing in that duty. We are earning the scorn and condemnation of history — not this week, perhaps, and not next week. The spin doctors can see to that. But ultimately and assuredly, the harsh judgment that it is history’s power to inflict on wrong will fall upon us. The Supreme Being who gave us this Earth and its abundance created a world not just of abundance but of consequence and that Supreme Being gave us reason to allow us to plan for and foresee the various consequences that those laws of nature impose.

There is no wizard’s hat and wand with which to wish this away. These laws of nature are known; the Earth’s message to us is clear; our failure is blameworthy; its consequences are profound; and the costs will be very, very high”.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
This entry was posted in Global Warming, Sceptics, Sustainability and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to We are earning the scorn and condemnation of history”

  1. seafóid says:

    Nader :
    The corporate state moves on. Corporate power has unique characteristics. It is perfectly willing and able to corrupt, regardless of sexual or ethnic preference. It offers equal opportunities to be corrupted or coopted . That’s why it’s very difficult for the civil community, which is affected by principles, nuances, honest disagreements, to confront the monistically commercial corporations. No one says ‘the big debate inside Exxon is whether to go more for oil or solar. That’s why every religion in the world, in their scriptures, issues a warning not to give too much power to the merchant class. The commercial instinct is relentless, consistent, limitless in achieving its goal. It will run rough-shod to destroy, co-opt or dilute civic and spiritual values that stand in its way.


    And Sheldon Wolin makes that point in Democracy Incorporated, that what we have been fooled into thinking is that the utopian vision of globalization and NAFTA and deindustrialization is somehow progress. Everything we do is sort of defined as progress. When, in fact, Chomsky and Wolin are right, that we should be looking back and seeing that a system that we had set up, however imperfect, was far better than what is being put in place to replace it, and that our battle should be to defend what—let’s be clear—thousands of workers endured tremendous amounts of oppression and even murder to create. The rights that we have—Social Security, the 8-hour workday, an end to child labor, benefits, health insurance—these were paid for with the blood of working men and women.
    We need to look back. Of course, the kind of historical amnesia that is fostered by the corporate state does a wonderful job of obliterating whole sections of American history and rewriting it around a mythic kind of version of Horatio Alger and the American Dream and all this kind of stuff. We need to go back and understand what it was that was fought for, the price that was paid to achieve it, and what it’s going to take to—of course, I can’t even say defend it because so much of it has been dismantled—but to get it back.
    You wrote speeches for Ralph Nader in his 2008 campaign. At the same time, you’re talking about the electoral system as a charade. I was wondering how you reconcile that. You have also said we must abandon the two-party system and to begin to build a viable socialism. Where do you see in the political landscape out there the roots of that possibility happening?
    Nader is a socialist. He just doesn’t use the word “socialism,” but he’s a socialist. I was never under any illusion that Ralph Nader was going to win anything. It was a way to express an opposition and challenge the orthodoxy of the corporate state and corporate media and corporate political parties. It was a recognition that there is no way in this country to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase. And it was a call for defiance. I think that it was an understanding that the two- party system, the corporate duopoly, no longer functions to further the rights or interests of citizens, and that the longer we’re fooled by this belief that reform can come through these formal structures of power, the more disempowered we’re going to become.
    You’re arguing along two different tracks. And I don’t mean this as a criticism. I find it interesting because I experience the same thing myself. You say, on one hand, “This time when the empire collapses, it will be global, the whole system will go down with us, we stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history.” At the same time, you’re saying, “I have hope. Battling injustice allows us to retain our identity in the sense of meaning, and ultimately our freedom. Rebellion should be our natural state.”
    If you read carefully, that’s not the same thing as saying we’re going to win. It is an understanding that rebellion becomes a way to protect your own dignity and to keep alive another narrative. Corporations are, theologically speaking, institutions of death. They commodify everything—the natural world, human beings—that they exploit until exhaustion or collapse. They know no limits.
    There are no impediments now to corporations. None. But I think that, of course, what they want is for us to give up. They want us to become passive. They want us to become tacitly complicit in our own destruction. Again, although I’m not a particularly religious person, I go back to the religious left that I come out of, that there are moral imperatives to fight back. As Daniel Berrigan says in Death of the Liberal Class, “We’re called to do the good,” or at least the good are insofar as we can determine what it is. And then we have to let it go. It’s not our job to know where the good goes. Faith is a kind of belief that it’s not meaningless, that it goes somewhere. Camus says the same thing. Except, I suppose the difference is that Camus thinks that it goes nowhere. But still you have that moral imperative to rebel. In his book The Rebel that’s what essentially he says.
    I think that that’s right. The bleakness of what faces us is difficult to swallow. But as long as we engage in happy platitudes and a false kind of vision of the possible, it may empower you over the short term, but it is eventually, because of the reality in front of us, going to lead to despair and cynicism and apathy. I think it’s better to swallow hard the bitter pill of what we’re up against.
    My little 3-year-old looks at books of fish. He loves fish. He’s fascinated. And every time I see it, I think, when he’s my age the fish stocks of the ocean will probably all be dead. The shredding of Kyoto by Obama and corporate figures in the industrialized world in Copenhagen is a retreat into magical thinking, as if we have much time left. Even if we stopped all carbon emissions today, it would still rise to about 500-550 parts per million. And we’re not stopping it.
    So I think we’d better grow up. You strive towards a dream. You live within an illusion. We are the most illusioned society on the planet. We have to become adults. And it’s hard, it’s painful. I struggle with despair all the time. But I’m not going to let it win. I don’t have any false illusion that I’m going to build some great populist movement or be part of some great populist movement that’s going to overthrow the corporate state and impose light and goodness. Yet, I think it is incumbent upon all of us that at the same time we recognize how dark the future is, we also recognize the absolute imperative of resistance in every form possible.
    In February you had a baby girl. When you look in her eyes, what are you thinking besides love and affection?
    Well, that it’s not about me. I’m doing this for them. That even if I fail—look, what is the next generation going to say? What kind of an earth, what kind of a world are we going to leave them. I at least want my children to look back and say, “My daddy was being arrested at the White House fence and booed off commencement stages and he was trying.” Really, at its very core, that’s why I do it. I do it for them. I do it for not just my children but all of those kids, because we betrayed them. Our generation and preceding generations have betrayed them in a very deep way. We should at least have the moral integrity, even if we can’t win, to get up and battle on their behalf. That’s why I do it.

  2. seafóid says:

    This is very good


    Curtis White begins his 2009 article in Orion, entitled “The Barbaric Heart: Capitalism and the Crisis of Nature,” with: “There is a fundamental question that environmentalists are not very good at asking, let alone answering: ‘Why is this, the destruction of the natural world, happening?’” It is impossible to find real and lasting solutions until we are able satisfactorily to answer this seemingly simple question.

    It is our contention that most of the critical environmental problems we have are either caused, or made much worse, by the workings of our economic system. Even such issues as population growth and technology are best viewed in terms of their relation to the socioeconomic organization of society. Environmental problems are not a result of human ignorance or innate greed. They do not arise because managers of individual large corporations or developers are morally deficient. Instead, we must look to the fundamental workings of the economic (and political/social) system for explanations. It is precisely the fact that ecological destruction is built into the inner nature and logic of our present system of production that makes it so difficult to solve…..

    ……The incestuous connection that exists today between business interests, politics, and law is reasonably apparent to most observers.40 These include outright bribery, to the more subtle sorts of buying access, friendship, and influence through campaign contributions and lobbying efforts. In addition, a culture develops among political leaders based on the precept that what is good for capitalist business is good for the country. Hence, political leaders increasingly see themselves as political entrepreneurs, or the counterparts of economic entrepreneurs, and regularly convince themselves that what they do for corporations to obtain the funds that will help them get reelected is actually in the public interest. Within the legal system, the interests of capitalists and their businesses are given almost every benefit.

    Given the power exercised by business interests over the economy, state, and media, it is extremely difficult to effect fundamental changes that they oppose. It therefore makes it next to impossible to have a rational and ecologically sound energy policy, health care system, agricultural and food system, industrial policy, trade policy, education, etc.

  3. John Gibbons says:


    Thanks for above two very thought-provoking posts (unfortunately, looks like it’s just you and me left here to continue this dialogue – which in itself says a lot about the crushing inertia/indifference to the issues under discussion).

    The lines below struck a strong personal chord:

    “I struggle with despair all the time. But I’m not going to let it win. I don’t have any false illusion that I’m going to build some great populist movement or be part of some great populist movement that’s going to overthrow the corporate state and impose light and goodness. Yet, I think it is incumbent upon all of us that at the same time we recognize how dark the future is, we also recognize the absolute imperative of resistance in every form possible.”

  4. Seafóid says:

    I think Hedges is really on the ball, John. The interesting thing about OWS is the
    response of so many people who have been thinking.

    The first 3 minutes of this are very interesting


    And this is the end of Koyaanisqatsi, which is where we are headed
    without a reset


  5. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Hi John, Seafóid, – Just a note to say I am finding all this very informative indeed and most helpful, so don’t give up! The article to which Seafóid refers above, ‘What every environmentalists needs to know about capitalism,’ is particularly useful. I have been looking for stuff like this, and been reading books, articles, etc, as I thought we needed a new economic system but I couldn’t see what would work. No one seems to have worked it out fully but it’s beginning to crystallise now, it seems. It’s going to take a long time but it will happen.

    As Magdoff & Foster put it: “New forms of democracy will be needed, with emphasis on our responsibilities to each other, to one’s own community as well as to communities around the world. Accomplishing this will, of course, require social planning at every level – local, regional, national, and international – which can only be successful to the extent that it is of and by, and not just ostensibly for, the people.”

    Okay, that doesn’t really help to explain it much, so I would advise readers to go to the article and read all of it.

    Very encouraging speech, John, by that US Senator, Sheldon Whitehouse. Thanks for posting it. There seems to be quite a lot happening in America all of a sudden. There are Hollywoods actors getting personally involved in Occupy Wall Street and in rallies against the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and the ‘hands around the White House’ action to shame Obama into action, and so on. For example, Mark Ruffalo, David Strathairn. These guys are brilliant actors, and Strathairn came close to winning an Oscar about three years ago. There’s also Daryl Hannah, Leonardo di Caprio, etc. Pity we don’t have this kind of high-profile actor activity over here. Okay, well Brendan Gleeson tries! Will people power make a difference, I wonder? We should know soon enough.

    Seafóid, I’ve seen some of your posts on Irisheconomy.ie, very good. I would like to know who you are, please. It is annoying not to know and it really is a cop-out to use a pen name. If you have a very good reason for remaining anonymous, can you give us a hint what it is? I’d like to know who you are and where you work. Maybe you could post me the details privately, even?

  6. seafóid says:

    A Choilin

    Could you send me a mail ? I can’t find any contact address for you. I think the protocol varies by website and most of the other ones I use are anonymous and it’s good to have the same handle for all so if I want to find something I posted elsewhere it comes up faster.

    I agree that that things are getting very interesting. OWS has struck a nerve. David Orr in “Down to the wire “says we need a new politics and that it must transcend right and left since these boxes are meaningless.

    Re “what every environmentalist needs to know..”, this comment on irish economy was very interesting


    Everyone needs a functioning planet. The economics profession will need a long think about how we got to where we are too


    “Even just the basics: recognizing that money is not real wealth, money is just a number, and it has no intrinsic value, and that to essentially mine and destroy the real living wealth of nature and community to grow the numbers on computer hard drives is an act of collective insanity.”

    This is another good one from Monthly Review . I just renewed my sub.


  7. seafóid says:

    John Bellamy Foster is one of the people who wrote “what every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism” and he edits Monthly Review

    “We can worry about the operating system later ”
    “Capitalism sells people out. That is the nature of the system”


  8. seafóid says:

    Washington: Will the Lobbyists Win?
    April 9, 2009
    Michael Tomasky
    So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government
    by Robert G. Kaiser
    Knopf, 398 pp., $27.95

    Susan Biddle/The Washington Post
    Robert Byrd, George McGovern, and Gerald Cassidy at a celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of Cassidy’s lobbying firm, Washington, D.C., May 17, 2005; from Robert Kaiser’s So Damn Much Money
    After the passage of the $787 billion stimulus bill in mid-February, the Obama administration entered what we might call its second phase in that month’s final week, when the President spoke to a joint session of Congress on February 24 and, two days later, unveiled his first draft budget of more than $3.5 trillion. Rudolf Goldscheid, an early-twentieth-century Austrian Jewish sociologist and reformer, once said, “The budget is the skeleton of the state stripped of all misleading ideologies.” Although we don’t really talk that way anymore, the remark’s meaning still holds true today: the budget is the document through which an administration announces just what sort of polity it envisions, and which fights it is willing to take on to realize that vision.
    The Obama vision, in sum, is for a much more activist government that would spend large sums on health care—chiefly, at first anyway, to reduce costs—and preventing climate change, and would finance those ambitions through higher taxes on the wealthy and the elimination of some tax breaks for certain categories of powerful interests: insurers, oil and natural gas companies, large farmers, and banks, to name a few. Although Republicans spoke of tax increases on “hardworking American families,” in the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell the day the budget was released, the budget proposal would raise taxes only on American families earning more than $250,000, and even then only starting in 2011, when the Bush tax cuts are set to expire.1
    Republicans can be counted on to conflate the wealthiest 2 percent or so of households2 with the more generic and universal “hardworking American families.” That rhetoric constitutes the usual sophistry we’ve heard since Ronald Reagan’s time. But their coming defenses of their corporate benefactors will be in earnest. The Obama budget really does take on several of them. For example, the plan would levy an excise tax on Gulf of Mexico oil for an anticipated $5.3 billion in revenue over ten years. It would impose a fee on nonproducing energy leases, bringing in another $1.2 billion during the same period. It would also close several other smaller oil and gas loopholes.

    In proposing to spend $634 billion over ten years on various health care provisions, billed as a mere down payment on larger reform to come perhaps this year, the budget calls for $316 billion in Medicare and Medicaid savings. A significant amount of this would come from reduced government payments to private insurers serving the elderly (many analysts over the years have argued that these insurers have padded their bills and received inflated reimbursements). The plan also calls for the establishment of a so-called cap-and-trade system for the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, which will force companies that exceed new emissions targets set by the government to purchase credits from companies that stay under those targets. Finally, the budget would cut around $5 billion in payments to agribusinesses and farmers with more than $500,000 in annual revenue, and about $4 billion in subsidies to private banks that make college loans (the number of Pell Grants would be increased to offset this cut).
    In other words, the budget takes on oil, gas, insurance, banks, and utilities, among others. Obama, in his Saturday radio-video address at the end of that final week in February, said:
    I know these steps won’t sit well with the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they’re gearing up for a fight as we speak. My message to them is this: So am I.
    A central aspect of Obama’s entire approach to governance has focused on reducing the power and influence of these lobbies. The near-universal assumption appears to be that while he will score wins here and there, and perhaps some significant ones, the lobbyist culture of Washington is a permanent and intractable feature of life. But as I read Robert G. Kaiser’s excellent book, I was surprised to find myself thinking that maybe that culture is not so intractable after all.
    So Damn Much Money ends in the twilight of the Bush era and doesn’t even so much as mention Barack Obama. Nevertheless, it is illuminating on the question of the system that Obama is trying to change. Kaiser, the managing editor of The Washington Post during much of the 1990s and now that paper’s associate editor and senior correspondent, traces the story of the rise of the “corroded culture,” as he calls it, largely through the story of one firm and one man, Gerald S.J. Cassidy, who has been one of Washington’s top lobbyists for thirty years.
    Cassidy began as a young idealistic liberal with a tough Brooklyn background who investigated hunger and nutrition issues for George McGovern. But Kaiser traces his evolution into a power broker whose personal fortune exceeded $100 million and whose clients included General Electric, Wal-Mart, the Business Roundtable, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. As he does so, he shows how the lobbying business in Washington grew, along with other developments like the dramatic increase in the cost of election campaigns, leading to the present-day mess.
    Cassidy was finishing law school at Cornell in the mid-1960s when he decided to work in a legal aid program for itinerant farm workers in Florida (CBS’s famous Harvest of Shame documentary had made a profound impression on him). He was sent to Fort Myers, where his colleagues included Mickey Kantor, later Bill Clinton’s trade representative. In due course he befriended another young idealist, Kenneth Schlossberg, who worked for the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Schlossberg helped Cassidy get a job on the committee’s staff.
    McGovern, after his 1972 presidential defeat, began to lose interest in Cassidy and wanted him replaced by another young idealist with a more political turn of mind by the name of Bob Shrum, later famous as a political consultant. In 1975, Cassidy and Schlossberg left Congress and went into business together in the basement of Schlossberg’s Capitol Hill townhouse for the purpose of providing
    a broad range of services to industry and government including but not limited to research, counseling, evaluation, planning, policy making and analysis of agricultural, food, nutrition and health programs, policies and products.
    As Kaiser notes dryly: “No lobbying there.”
    How is a background in matters like poverty and food stamps parlayed into lobbying riches? Well, you start with what you know. A California businessman whose company provided ingredients for school lunches had complained that he had not been paid by the Department of Agriculture. The son of the man who owned the business had met Schlossberg “from the industry side of child nutrition programs” when Schlossberg was on Capitol Hill. Cassidy knew the person to call at the department. The business got its check, and the firm its first fee.
    The Kellogg Company then came calling, looking for help to get breakfast cereals included in the school lunch program. The National Livestock and Meat Board wanted a report on how anticipated changes in nutrition policy might affect the cattle industry. The National Frozen Food Association needed a report on congressional attitudes toward supermarkets. “After six months in operation,” writes Kaiser,
    Schlossberg-Cassidy was a going concern. Pillsbury, Nabisco, and General Mills had joined its roster of clients. Schlossberg and Cassidy had real income, several thousand dollars a month each.
    The cherries really started lining up on the slot machine in 1976, when a Frenchman named Jean Mayer, who had gained attention as a nutritionist at Harvard by chairing a White House conference on nutrition, was appointed president of Tufts. Mayer, sensitive to Tufts’s low status compared to Harvard, wanted to start a world-class nutrition center at the university. Could Cassidy and Schlossberg help somehow? As Kaiser points out throughout the book, one of the first things a resourceful lobbyist does for a paying client is to comb the statutes and regulations looking for an angle. And so:
    Cassidy found a law on the books “that you could say authorized a national nutrition center,” as he put it. It had been sponsored by Senator Quentin Burdick of North Dakota, and money had been appropriated for a project in North Dakota under the authorization. As Cassidy realized, its wording seemed to allow room to fund the facility Mayer hoped to create at Tufts.
    What Mayer sought was something quite unusual at the time—a specific appropriation for a specific institution to use for a specific purpose. Sound familiar? It should. It was an earmark. Perhaps, Kaiser writes, one of the first. The team’s efforts were not hurt by the fact that the local congressman in Boston was Tip O’Neill, who in short order would succeed Carl Albert as the speaker of the House of Representatives. The Tufts center was funded and built.
    No one had quite been aware that a single university could petition Congress on such a matter. But once it happened at Tufts, other universities quickly took notice. Soon Georgetown and then many others were angling for their piece of the action. Cassidy and Schlossberg had invented something. They were delivering. And soon, they were getting rich.
    An occasional matter pricked at their consciences. They signed up Ocean Spray, which wanted cranberry juice included in the school lunch program. Schlossberg played a round of golf with members of the board, one of whom “delivered a diatribe against FDR and his works—you’d have thought it was 1932.” The money kept coming, though, from Ocean Spray and many others. The firm’s revenue rose from $700,000 in 1982 to $17.5 million in 1987. But Cassidy was much the more hard-driving, and according to Kaiser he split with Schlossberg at the Democratic Convention in 1984, when long-simmering matters came to a head, the unlikely breaking point being a dispute over whether Schlossberg and his wife could use a limousine the firm had hired to drive about an hour north of San Francisco to look at some Brittany spaniel puppies.
    This history is interesting for its own sake, and Kaiser’s narrative skills are formidable. He can make a suspenseful story out of a twenty-five- or thirty-year-old dustup over academic earmarks involving John Danforth, a solemn former Missouri senator. He had ample access to Cassidy, Schlossberg, and all the other principals, and he clearly spent his share of time in the archives looking up the firm’s old contracts.
    But where So Damn Much Money really stands out is in the chapters that trace the broader trends that Cassidy’s rise represented. Kaiser explains how earmarks became routine. He describes the explosion in the number of political action committees after the post-Nixon campaign finance reforms of 1974. He surveys the astounding increases in the costs of campaigns, from $77 million for all Senate and House campaigns in 1974 to $343 million just eight years later, with costs for television ads accounting for much of the difference.3 He discusses the rise of the new class of political consultants and the new technologies they began to use, the incessant polling and focus-grouping we know so well today. He analyzes the appearance of what the journalist Sidney Blumenthal termed, in 1980, the “permanent campaign,” which turned lawmaking into a nonstop battle for partisan advantage. He chronicles the rise of Newt Gingrich, who employed these techniques to lead the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 1994 election. And he assesses the towering impact all of this had on the political culture of Washington.
    If the outlines of this squalid story are familiar, the details (such as the costs cited above) still have the power to shock, and the corrosive influence of high-powered lobbying is clear. Kaiser tells the story of how, in 1982, Mississippi Democratic Senator John Stennis was facing his first potentially strong challenge in ages, from the Republican Haley Barbour, now that state’s governor. Stennis had never raised more than $5,000 for a campaign. But this time, some Senate friends pressed a consultant on Stennis, who encouraged the senator—the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee—to seek contributions from LTV and McDonnell-Douglas, two major defense contractors. Stennis demurred at first: “I hold life and death over those companies. I don’t think it would be proper for me to take money from them.”
    In the end, though, he did, and he beat Barbour nearly two-to-one. In recent years, politicians haven’t even feigned Stennis’s attempt at restraint. When, in 2007, House Democrats initiated an effort to raise the tax rate on the earned income of hedge and equity fund managers from 15 percent to 35 percent, New York Senator Charles Schumer sprang immediately and publicly into action to oppose it. For the 2008 elections, Schumer ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Under his leadership, congressional Democrats raised $4.9 million from hedge funds, twice the amount raised from hedge funds by Republicans in Congress.
    Such stories happen to involve Democrats, and responsibility for the rise of this system lies to some extent with both parties. But Kaiser clearly believes, without quite saying so, that the Republicans are much more to blame—especially Gingrich and longtime Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Gingrich, he writes, got rid both of old customs that produced a degree of collegiality and of the idea that members of Congress should have any meaningful expertise on issues, assigning them to committees based less on their knowledge of and interest in issue areas than on their ability to raise money from groups with business before the committees in question.
    Kaiser quotes Bob Livingston, the former Republican congressman from Louisiana who briefly served as Speaker of the House during the Monica Lewinsky madness until news of his own infidelity forced his resignation. Naturally, he’s a lobbyist now, but his insights about Gingrich are valuable:
    One of Newt’s biggest mistakes was to tell members to leave their families [back in their districts]. I think that so many of the problems today stem from that effort. Once they started doing that, they wanted to stay home not only Saturday and Sunday, but on Mondays and Fridays…. They’d come into Washington Tuesday night, work Wednesday, and leave Thursday…. So what you had was ninety subcommittees, and all of the political committees, and all of the leadership committees, all meeting Wednesday morning between nine and twelve. You can’t run Congress like that. You can’t run any institution like that. And the institution broke down….
    He believed that the more committees and subcommittees a person can be on, the more attractions they can acquire to present to contributors and to voters, to say “Look what I’m doing for you.” The problem is, they don’t know anything about anything that’s going on in any of those committees, because they can’t be in more than one place at one time….
    When the Republican House of Representatives did attempt to legislate, it was often in blatant service of its corporate guarantors. This was the famous “K Street Project,” the DeLay-led effort—fabulously successful, too, at least for a while—to coerce major lobbying shops and trade associations to hire people approved by the GOP and freeze out Democrats. (Since many influential law and public relations firms have offices on K Street, it has come to stand for the power of the lobbies.)
    The story of the K Street Project has been told often, but Kaiser gets a first-hand account from Chuck Hagel, the now retired Republican senator from Nebraska, who, while conservative, had an independent streak and was resistant to the permanent campaign mentality. Recalling how the partisan efforts of Gingrich and DeLay to control K Street had exerted an influence on weekly policy lunches, Senator Hagel told Kaiser:
    They wanted to build a triad: the White House, K Street and business, and Congress, and just lock up the issues…. Our role, the Republican Congress, was to do the bidding of the Republican business community as represented on K Street. That K Street Project was about as blatant as anything I’ve ever seen.
    It all came crashing down, at least for a while, around the figure of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who swindled Native American gaming interests out of millions of dollars and is now in jail. The Abramoff scandal implicated several aides of DeLay. It led ultimately to DeLay’s downfall (he’d gone on an Abramoff-sponsored golf junket to Scotland) and sent an Ohio GOP congressman to jail and two other legislators to defeat, while one decided to retire.
    Cassidy, meanwhile, had tried to swim with the tide. At heart, he remained through all these years and millions a liberal Democrat. But business was business, so, in 2003, with Republicans riding high, Cassidy offered a job to a well-connected Republican House aide named Gregg Hartley, who took over much of the visible management of the firm. When the Democrats took back control of the House in 2006, Cassidy lost some clients. His “fantastic journey…hadn’t ended,” Kaiser writes, “but his magic carpet was slowing down.”
    What could I possibly have found hopeful about this sordid tale? While it is true that lobbying has been around forever, what is striking as one reads through So Damn Much Money is how recent these more toxic developments are. Kaiser writes that some of the main trends he describes—such as earmarks and political action committees—began in the 1970s, and that’s true. But the really big money didn’t start infiltrating the system until the mid-1980s. The most blatant excesses didn’t arrive until a decade later, and many of the Republicans responsible for them are now at worst in jail and at best out of power. And unless Obama really screws up or the economy gets even worse than most experts imagine, they appear unlikely to be back in power again anytime soon.
    The Democrats, while a long way from having clean hands on these matters, have taken some positive steps. In January 2007, both the House and the Senate, now in Democratic hands, passed impressive reform packages. Gifts from lobbyists were banned, as was most subsidized travel. Efforts to influence the hiring practices of private firms for partisan reasons (that is, the K Street Project) were made subject to criminal penalties, including removal from office. Kaiser thinks these changes have had an effect:
    Lobbyists did stop picking up [dinner] tabs, according to many of them. Parties that lobbyists and their clients used to throw at national conventions were strictly limited and mostly did not occur in 2008, a real change.
    One change Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid could not push through was a two-year “revolving door” ban on lobbying Congress after members and staff had left. Too many members—of both parties—had enviously seen too many of their colleagues go from making the member’s $162,500 a year, or the staff person’s $95,000, to a salary of $300,000, or far more, on K Street overnight.
    But here, Obama has stepped in with what are almost certainly the most stringent ethics and lobbying rules that any administration has applied to its officials. On his first full day in office, Obama issued an executive order forcing “every appointee in every executive agency” to observe a list of stringent rules. They can’t accept gifts. They can’t participate for two years in any matter they worked on in prior employment. They can’t lobby Congress for two years upon leaving the administration, and they can’t lobby the Obama administration ever.4
    These regulations should, over time, have some kind of positive impact. As Kaiser notes, 283 former Clinton administration officials became lobbyists, along with 310 Bush appointees. Obama can’t do anything about those people, but his executive order should strongly discourage applicants who might have mercenary motivations in joining government and thereby reduce the pool of people who can sell their inside knowledge to the highest bidder.
    In addition, the Obama transition team’s famous questionnaire for job applicants is surely the toughest ever promulgated. Notwithstanding the failure to vet the appointments of Timothy Geithner, Tom Daschle, and Hilda Solis, its sixty-three questions are part of a vetting process that longtime Washington observer Norman Ornstein called “the equivalent of full body cavity searches.”5 The questions are broken down into eight sections: professional background (nine questions); publications, writings, and speeches (five); relationships and affiliations (six); financial information (twelve); tax information (nine); legal and administrative proceedings (eleven); domestic help (four); and miscellaneous (seven).
    Question number thirty-two, asking if the applicant or spouse had ever received a gift greater than $50 outside of normal family/holiday circumstances, seems especially onerous. I would have flunked out at number one (“please furnish copies of all resumes and biographical statements issued by you or any other entity at your discretion or with your consent within the past ten years”).
    Obama is trying to change the lobbying culture. He recognizes that doing so is not only a question of good government but also one of advancing his progressive policies. If he is to pass major health care reform or a comprehensive cap-and-trade system to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, the power of various corporate lobbies must be curtailed. It is after all the lobbies, and their servants on Capitol Hill, who typically defeat such measures. Public opinion often supports them.
    It’s impossible to make such changes overnight, or in two or three years. It will take more reform legislation, especially in campaign finance, on something like free television time for political campaigns (the activity on which they spend most of their money). But it will take still more than that. On a range of fronts, the Obama administration and Congress have to follow a process that lobbyists don’t control and produce outcomes that lobbyists did not pervert. A health care bill that passes against the major lobbies’ opposition and then actually works to deliver better health care to people will go a long way toward diminishing the power of all large lobbies. Even Cassidy told Kaiser that he anticipates “a day of reckoning coming” against his own kind. When the crises are so severe and the system so inadequate to the task of addressing them, he says, “people will really come to understand that they are stakeholders.”
    Are we at that moment? The upcoming budget fight will tell us a lot about how close we are. There are certain encouraging signs. The Washington Post reported in early March that Obama’s $634 billion health care proposal “has attracted surprising notes of support from insurers, hospitals and other players in the powerful medical lobby.”6 Of course, some of these interests are going along in part because Obama’s health care ambitions, so far, are relatively modest—he and his aides speak, for example, of moving toward universality, but are not yet insisting on a plan with universal coverage. And the same Post piece notes that some opposition is already taking shape: the head of a chain of Florida urgent-care clinics has launched a group called Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, which promises a $20 million campaign to fight Obama’s lurch toward “socialized medicine.”
    Obama’s approach on health care and other matters is to bring all interests together and tell everyone up front that they’ll be heard but won’t end up getting everything they want. This openness may well end up being a weakness. The President’s bet—and he might be overestimating his own powers of persuasion—is that he can use his high approval ratings and popular support for reform on these matters to force outcomes that are negotiated in more-or-less good faith. History gives us ample reason to be skeptical. But if he can do this on health care or energy policy, there may be reason to believe that the culture of Washington will change, and that the Gingrich-Bush era represented not the permanent new face of business as usual but a nadir from which we might yet emerge.
    —March 11, 2009

  9. Geoff Berry says:

    I also just read the article “what every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism” and found it very helpful as a clarification of certain issues. I thought the challenge of thinking a system free of capital a worthy one; i guess the push towards thinking a new kind of socialism is the best way of putting it. As an environmentalist first, i’ve always been less interested in the political regime of the day. My opinion is that we act on behalf of the earth’s ecosystems and all life upon them first and worry about how a political/economic system works after that. Obviously, though, real action on behalf of the earth will equate to the end of capitalism as it is known today – relentless growth based on unsustainable profiteering. Thanks for the leads.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *