An Open Letter to Barack Obama and John Kerry

Dear President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry:

As a concerned Canadian, I am writing to urge you to reject TransCanada’s application to build the Keystone XL pipeline for purposes of transporting dirty oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries in the United States.

I assure you that not all Canadians are quite as eager to export climate-busting bitumen as our federal government seems to be. Many of us recognize that the high energy demands required to exploit this unconventional resource give it a dangerously large carbon footprint. For this reason, we consistently oppose similar projects, such as proposed pipelines to the Canadian West Coast by Enbridge and Kinder Morgan.

According to estimates of greenhouse gas trajectories needed to avert runaway climate change, global emissions need to be peaking right about now (if not earlier). That means that we as a planet need to start drastically decreasing our use of coal, oil, and natural gas. At a bare minimum, we must not engage in further expansion of existing fossil fuel infrastructure — especially when it involves something so exceptionally dirty as tar sands bitumen.

Many Americans seem to recognize this too. Barely a week ago, tens of thousands gathered in Washington for the country’s largest ever climate rally. Earlier this year, the Sierra Club agreed for the first time in its 120-year history to adopt the use of civil disobedience. Any jobs that may or may not temporarily be gained from the proliferation of pipelines are more than outweighed by the jeopardization of the climate system upon which agriculture, forestry, and our very ways of life depend.

So please reject TransCanada’s application once and for all. To do so would benefit both of our countries, as well as the world at large.

Sincerely,

David Taub Bancroft

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Advertisement

Obama, Romney, and the Electoral College

2008 Electoral College

2008 Electoral College

With opinion polls ahead of next week’s election showing the two candidates for President approximately tied but giving Barack Obama a slight edge in the Electoral College, there now exists the real possibility that the latter could be reelected despite losing the popular vote. In other words, we could have a reversal of 2000.

Now perhaps this occurrence is less likely than it appears to be, but in some ways, it could be an ideal outcome. First, Mitt Romney would not be President, so yay! Second, the sight of an Obama win despite his second-place finish in popular support might be just the infuriating kick in the crotch Republicans need to align themselves with efforts to get rid of the Electoral College. And with Democrats still fuming over George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore in 2000, this kind of reform might actually have a chance.

The Electoral College is the archaic institution that — despite all the symbolic hoopla of a one-person-one-vote national election — is solely responsible for selecting the President of the United States. Its members are chosen by state governments on the basis of state-by-state results of the national vote. In other words, whichever Presidential candidate wins in a state gets all of that state’s Electoral votes (except in Maine and Nebraska where Electoral votes are distributed by Congressional district).

The problem with this method of indirectly electing a President is threefold. First, there is the aforementioned chance that the popular vote winner might lose the election, an anti-democratic travesty that has already occurred in 1876, 1888, and — most famously — 2000. Second, states with small populations are overrepresented in the Electoral College (be afraid, dear Republicans, this sounds suspiciously like redistribution!) — with one Electoral vote being worth 478,000 eligible voters in Pennsylvania, but only 139,000 in Wyoming. And third, it is thanks to the Electoral College that Americans must put up with the absurd spectacle of virtually all the campaigning in a supposedly national election occurring exclusively in ten to fifteen “swing states.” Taken individually, the majority of American voters who live in “safe states” — red or blue — have virtually no impact on who wins the Presidency.

So what can be done? Even with considerable bipartisan support, there is little chance of a Constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College. Such a reform would require two-thirds support in both houses of Congress, plus the approval of three-quarters of the states — an almost prohibitive level of consensus. Thankfully, there exists an alternative in the form of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

According to this voluntary agreement, state governments pledge to distribute all their Electoral votes to whichever Presidential candidate wins the national popular vote, regardless of in-state results. Once the agreement comes into effect with states representing more than fifty percent of Electoral votes signing on, it would, in effect, allow the Electoral College to be bypassed without having to bother with a Constitutional amendment. And with eight states and the District of Columbia already having agreed, advocates of this plan are nearly halfway to their target.

So now it is only a matter of finding the other half. If Mitt Romney wins the popular vote next week while Barack Obama wins the Electoral College, it is conceivable that more than a few red states might climb aboard the popular vote bandwagon, and the United States could be one giant step closer to this strange idea that in a democracy, you vote for your leader directly.

On Polarization in America

Tea Party protest

Tea Party protest

Every four years, the American airwaves are saturated with pundits claiming that the upcoming Presidential election is the most important in the nation’s history. Partisans — official and unofficial — paint dire pictures of apocalyptic disaster should the wrong candidate be voted in. Ever-escalating stakes seem an indelible feature of the American electoral game.

This framing has always struck me as somewhat silly, especially since everyone knows that Republicans and Democrats are one and the same. Yes, there is the “polarization” people have long complained of, but this seemed more a matter of tone and symbolism and rhetoric than of substantive disagreement. A bipartisan consensus came about decades ago that favoured neoliberalism and military misadventure, resulting in a much narrower scope of policy debate in the United States than in almost any other democracy.

Or at least, that’s how I used to feel.

Yesterday, I filled out a questionnaire set up on the Wall Street Journal website by Vote Compass, the Canadian organization that tries to situate participants on the political map next to the candidates and parties they have the most in common with. I have filled out Vote Compass surveys many times before in the context of Canadian federal and provincial elections, but I was surprised to find that when dealing with American issues, my answers were much more extreme than usual. In this latest questionnaire, I was more likely to “strongly” agree or disagree with a statement than to “somewhat” agree or disagree.

Something new has happened in recent years. America’s infamous Tweedledum/Tweedledee political system, as Ralph Nader described it, has suddenly become interesting.

I believe that this change, which has come to define Barack Obama’s entire first term as President, originated in the 2008 financial crisis. Now, for the first time in as long as I can remember, there is a battle of ideas being waged in the United States — specifically, over the role of government in the economy. In a country so often dismissed as having become an anti-intellectual wasteland, the ideas of thinkers such as John Maynard Keynes and Ayn Rand have forced their way into mainstream discussion. Grassroots(ish) movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street popped up and shifted the national debate. Politicians and regular people alike are having something that looks eerily similar to a grown-up conversation about taxes, regulation, and government programs. Obama, while hardly a leftist dreamboat, has to some extent picked a side in this fight by implementing a stimulus package and calling for a slightly higher tax rate on the rich in the face of ridiculous class warfare accusations from his rivals.

But for all the excitement of substantive, intellectually stimulating debate, there are undoubtedly risks too. While Obama is the first sitting President in decades to embrace quasi-Keynesian policies, the vast majority of recent polarization comes courtesy of an increasingly extreme Republican Party. Mitt Romney may be playing to the centre now that the Presidential campaign is winding down, but he made too many promises to his party’s right-wing base during primary season to be able to govern the country as moderately as he did Massachusetts. The Tea Party, while perhaps less reflective of public opinion than Occupy Wall Street, has been much more successful at worming its way into the party structure and influencing political elites.

So this time around, American voters do indeed face a real choice, as well as at least some of the urgency and alarmism being propagated by the nation’s characteristically hyperbolic talking heads.

All this being said, even in this brave new era of open debate and expanded possibilities, there are still some vitally important issues that Democrats will not touch. I would give anything to see Obama put himself on the line on climate change — the globe’s foremost challenge at the moment — in the same way he did for health care. Instead, he brags about oil production having gone up during his Presidency.

On the subject of the United States’ bloated military budget, there is disconcertingly little distinguishing Democrats from Republicans. Perhaps the President could go beyond mere lip service in promoting worldwide nuclear disarmament.

And I would love (maybe once the economy gets stronger) to see the beginnings of a national discussion on revenue that would include the possibility of raising corporate taxes, capital gains taxes, and perhaps even the income taxes of the much-pandered-to middle class. America needs to get over this foolish impression it has that taxes are only a cost. If well spent, they benefit everyone.

The sad truth is that any American readers who agree with me on the above issues cannot realistically expect much from either of the two major parties. Instead, the enterprising voter is advised to look into that dark, most cavernous place where few have ventured before: third-party candidates. In particular, I recommend Green Party Presidential nominee Jill Stein. Granted, her party does not have ballot access in all fifty states, and I can understand if some swing state progressives are reluctant to vote in any way that might hand Romney an unearned victory. However, the majority of American voters whom these considerations do not apply to should seriously consider Stein as a positive choice for their country — not to mention as a means of gently prodding the Democrats in a more productive direction.

Yes, there may now be political choice in the United States of a kind that did not exist a few years ago, but there could always be more. Polarization is not all bad. Diversity is necessary for a healthy society no less than for a healthy ecosystem.

So please, America, why don’t you give those talking heads something to really talk about?

The Three Obamas

Barack Obama on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart

One of the most fascinating things about the race for the Presidency currently underway down south is the dearth of enthusiasm shown both Obama and Romney by their respective supporters. Nobody is excited about their guy; rather, what motivates them is how horrible the other guy is.

Perhaps I am deceived by the political amnesia we all fall victim to from time to time, or by my relatively young age. (Yes, I may be thirty now, but I’ve only lived through seven Presidential elections. “Just a pup,” as I was recently told.) Perhaps this lack of hopey-changey passion is precisely what happens every time a first-term President runs for reelection. The practical experience of governing has sapped the incumbent’s supporters of optimism while providing ammunition to the challenger.

Yet somehow, I cannot resist the arrogance of the present with respect to past and future. This time, I insist, is different. Brace yourselves, Republicans, for there now exist in America no less than three distinct President Obamas.

The first is a fictional character crafted by Romney supporters. They have constructed a fantasy world — “Bullshit Mountain” in the parlance of Jon Stewart — in which Barack Hussein Obama is a socialist, Black nationalist, anti-colonial, Kenyan, Islamic fundamentalist atheist hell bent on providing solace to America’s enemies abroad while waging a class war at home that will radically transform the country we all know and love into a leftist dystopia that not even a million Reagans could fix.

The second and third Obamas come courtesy of his supporters, who fall broadly into two categories. The first, more-or-less mainstream wing sees their candidate as neither the messiah (as they did four years ago) nor the spawn of Satan (as Republicans do today), but as a somewhat moderate and competent administrator who may not be as perfect as everyone would like but is at least better than the other guy. “A modicum of progress is possible with a second term,” they maintain.

The second grouping sees their candidate as quite a bit more problematic. This camp of downright hostile supporters will attempt to reelect the President with fingers pinched firmly to nose, because for all his faults, they fear Mitt Romney would be infinitely worse. “Obama doesn’t go far enough,” they complain. “He compromises too readily on taxes and health care without demanding anything in return. His stimulus plan was too small to be truly effective. He has done next to nothing to solve the problem of climate change or close down Guantanamo Bay. It’s nice that he came out in favour of gay marriage, but why did he have to take so long? And let’s not forget the countless drone strikes halfway around the world — attacks that we would be out in the streets demonstrating against if George W. had launched them (which he did and we were).”

(Ahem. I haven’t betrayed my biases, have I?)

So the question is: whose mass of unenthused, lukewarm supporters will be sufficiently motivated by hatred of the other guy to win an election? I fear that Romney may have an edge here due to his base’s seemingly unprecedented conspiratorial fervour and flight from reality. The only way for the President to recapture the momentum — especially after losing last week’s much hyped debate to a less-cardboard-than-usual Mitt Romney — is to experiment with an innovative new campaign strategy: giving the people something to vote for rather than against.

I know that 2008 magic hasn’t run out yet. Come on, America. Get excited again.

Friendly Canadian Input on the US Election

The sun is shining. The flowers are blooming. We are in a year that is divisible by four. I think we all know what that means. In a matter of months, our American friends will once again start hanging chads or whatever it is they do to hold a presidential election, and the entire world, as usual, will be watching.

I hope my southern neighbours (yes, we spell it with a “u” up here) will not take offence (with a “c”) if I offer a little advice. Barack Obama is without doubt a much better choice than Mitt Romney, but he is still far from ideal. For this reason, I recommend that American voters consider all their options in November and not hastily rule out third party candidates such as presumptive Green Party nominee Jill Stein.

This, of course, leads us to that perennial (or at least quadrennial) topic of political contention, strategic voting. In my quaint little Canadian elections, I have yet to fall victim to this temptation, for I question its long-term value. Yes, strategic voting can be a useful way to prevent the worst of the worst from taking power, but is that all we should aspire to? What incentive do Obamaesque moderates then have to take strong progressive stances without the pull of small third parties putting the fear of God in them and threatening to siphon off their votes? Even if the Greens and their ilk have no realistic shot at victory in the current election, they can have an excellent influence on those who do win.

So does that mean that strategic voting (or tactical voting, more accurately, keeping in mind the military distinction between tactics and strategies) is never justified? No. Sometimes there is so much at stake in a single election that the conscientious voter must temporarily abandon the long view.

So what is at stake in 2012?

One word (umm, give or take): health care.

With Obama’s health law no longer at risk of being tossed out by the Supreme Court, the fight is set to move onto centre stage of the election campaign. Mitt Romney has promised that if elected President, he will immediately kill Obamacare with an executive order, and while his constitutional ability to do so has been questioned, he probably does have at least some ways of sabotaging the young law with or without a compliant congress.

As I have argued in this space before, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is far from perfect, but it is a major step in the right direction. For the first time in American history, it is illegal for health insurance companies to deny someone coverage simply because he or she has a prior condition. Many an entertaining semantic tussle could be waged over whether or not this truly qualifies Obama’s law as “universal health care,” but whatever it is, this year’s election is the Republican Party’s last and best chance to destroy it. They know that if they don’t dispose of Obamacare before the benefits start to kick in over the next few years, they never will. Voters might discover that they actually like it.

So with the fate of tens of millions of uninsured Americans hanging in the balance, it is crucially important that Romney not be elected President. Does that mean that all progressives need to vote for Obama? Thankfully, no. The Electoral College is an archaic institution, but its one redeeming feature is that since only a few “swing states” decide presidential elections, most Americans can safely follow their hearts without risk of splitting the vote. Simply by browsing one of the web’s many electoral maps, progressive voters can devise informed voting strategies based on where they live.

But do not think that just because I wish to prevent the other guy’s election, Obama is off the hook. It is up to environmentalists, civil libertarians, and corporate accountability advocates (even if they live in swing states and wind up voting for Obama) to maintain — indeed, crank up — the pressure. From now until election day and beyond, the President must be lobbied, petitioned, and constructively protested until he agrees to make up for the shortfalls of his first term — chief among them the appalling lack of action on climate change. If Romney is the one to be sworn into the Oval Office, however, it will all have been for naught.

In summary: a vote for Obama in the swing states, a vote for Jill Stein in the safe states, and unrelenting pressure on all who wield power. That, my American readers, is a surefire formula for success. Now if only you would be so kind as to advise us on our own government problems.

Do you still do regime change?

Update 14/07/2012: This post has been republished here at backofthebook.ca.

President Obama and Marriage Equality

Same-Sex Marriage

First thing’s first. Barack Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage yesterday should be celebrated. On the heels of similar pronouncements by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, this marks the first time that a sitting US President has taken such a bold stance in favour of marriage equality.

However, just as light can be considered both a wave and a particle in quantum mechanics, every announcement by an elected official exhibits a similar duality. Was Obama’s decision motivated primarily by principle or by politics?

I believe there were elements of both. On the surface, a stronger case can be made for principle. Although most recent polls show a slim majority or plurality of Americans in favour of legalized gay marriage, it is still an incredibly touchy subject. And with Mitt Romney, Obama’s soon-to-be-confirmed opponent in November’s Presidential election, railing against the evils of not just gay marriage but even civil unions, one would think that Obama could safely have continued speaking favourably of such watered down compromises in order to pacify the left — who after all have virtually nowhere else to go — without overly alienating the right. So the fact that Obama rejected this strategy suggests that he acted for reasons other than mere electoral advantage.

However, according to administration officials, Obama was already planning to come out in favour of gay marriage in a matter of months — i.e. closer to the election. Biden’s announcement simply forced his hand. If this is true, the Obama campaign must have seen some kind of political benefit in backing gay marriage — probably as a means of mobilizing the base and portraying the President as strong and decisive.

In fact, if Obama can be accused of cynicism and political gaming at all, it is not for the announcement he made yesterday, but for his failure to do so earlier. The President almost certainly supported gay marriage all along, as he admitted while running for Illinois state Senate in 1996 — back when it was far more of a liability. The fact that, in the intervening years, he stuffed his true beliefs back in the closet (so to speak) reflects a concern that they might have jeopardized his ever-escalating political ambitions.

But different times and different campaign strategies have changed all that. Politics and principle have finally converged to compel the President to make the right choice. This does not mean that legalized gay weddings will immediately sprout up in all fifty states. But the cultural shift is undeniable. Obama has done something without precedent, and it falls on officials in all three branches of government and at federal and state levels, as well as on individual Americans, to act. Will they one day look back upon their behaviour with shame, like those who resisted women’s suffrage and desegregation? Or will they join with the current of history and stand up for equality?

Obama has made his decision. Romney has made his. Let’s see how these next few months play out.

What Obama Should Say If His Health Bill Loses in Court

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform bill, had its three days in the Supreme Court last week, and by most accounts it did not go very well. Nothing is certain until the Court delivers its ruling in June. But if it does declare the bill unconstitutional, this is what — in my yes-we-canniest of dreams — I would like to hear the President say:

My fellow Americans,

The Supreme Court issued a decision today that I don’t think was right. It declared that Congress does not have the Constitutional authority to compel Americans to purchase health insurance.

I personally believe that this “individual mandate” was a crucial part of the health care law. It’s not there just because I think it’s good for Americans, just because Washington fat cats like me know what’s best for everyone. It’s there because health care reform requires insurance companies to provide coverage to applicants with pre-existing conditions. Without the individual mandate, people would only bother to buy insurance once they got sick, insurance companies would go out of business, and the entire industry would collapse. The individual mandate was never about big-government paternalism; it was about protecting private enterprise.

But you’ve all heard these arguments before. I won’t repeat them. Nor will I reprise the regrettable performance I gave during the emotional aftermath of the hearings last spring, and complain of judicial activism just like conservatives do whenever they lose a case. The Supreme Court justices are good people who were just doing their jobs.

What I will do in the face of the legal lemons I have been handed is make lemonade. I will propose an alternative foundation for universal health coverage. And to my political opponents who have accused me throughout my Presidency of orchestrating a government takeover of health care, I’ve got news for you:

You ain’t seen nothing yet!

If there is any sector in our economy in desperate need of government intrusion, it is those profiteers of death, those deniers of coverage to the sick and the poor, in the health insurance industry. So here today, I am announcing that I will stake my entire re-election campaign on the pledge to enact a single-payer health care system for America.

I have always preferred single-payer to the compromise on a compromise we actually wound up with. Also known as “Medicare for all,” it would be funded entirely through taxation, and would therefore not require the individual purchase of insurance policies. As in most other industrialized democracies, health coverage would be automatic, rendering the mandate unnecessary and sidestepping any Constitutional objections.

Of course, Republicans will scream “socialism,” just like they always do. But before you get swept up in their vintage red-baiting rhetoric, please consider what kind of health care plans they will offer up instead. I can tell you right now what Republicans will give you, whether in the House, the Senate, or the Oval Office: more of the status quo. A country in which, despite its riches, 50 million people lack health insurance, and tens of millions more are inadequately covered; in which people are forced into bankruptcy — or worse, into early graves — by medical bills; in which your friends, your relatives, your neighbours, your co-workers, live one unlucky diagnosis away from destitution.

If a drop of socialism in our capitalistic sea is what it takes to right this wrong, then slap a beard on my face and call me Fidel. Some things are more important than political labels. I believe that most of you understand this, and if the Republicans don’t, then it is up to you to teach them on November 6.

Thank you. And may God bless . . .

Et cetera, et cetera.

Nuclear Weapons, Iran, and War

Stop Sign in Iran

With an all-too-familiar rhythm, the drums of war are sounding. The target? An authoritarian Middle Eastern regime set on acquiring exceptionally destructive weapons.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

This time around the country is Iran, and the weapons allegedly being developed are nuclear. The Israeli government (although apparently not with the blessing of its people) seems to be laying the diplomatic groundwork for an attack on Iran, claiming an existential threat. Meanwhile in the US, Republicans are showing off their hyper-conservative chutzpah by forcefully condemning President Obama’s reluctance to lead or to sanction such a military adventure.

Most of the talk on this issue, from both politicians and the media, fails to consider two key points:

  1. Iran, should it develop nuclear weapons, is extremely unlikely to use them against Israel.
  2. Among belligerents in the present international war of words, the United States and Israel are the only ones who actually have nukes.

According to many analysts, including US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Iran is not currently building a nuclear weapon, but simply developing the capability to do so should it wish to exercise that option quickly at a later date — a capability which many non-nuclear states (such as Canada) already have, and which in itself does not contravene any international laws. But even if Iran does fully acquire nuclear weapons, why is it a foregone conclusion that it would use them? Countries are generally not in the business of committing suicide, and a nuclear Iran would be far more inclined just to exploit the deterrence value of its weapons than to invite nuclear retaliation from Israel and the US.

While every country individually is unlikely to launch a nuclear war, these low probabilities begin to add up as membership grows in the club of nuclear powers. We should not ignore the threat of catastrophe through theft, accident, or the inexorable illogic of a nuclear-armed game of chicken. But Iran is no more inherently dangerous in this respect than the US or Israel.

There is widespread belief in the West that the world can be neatly divided into countries that are and are not “responsible” enough for nukes, but the only objective measure for such a division is the historical record. How many countries have actually used nuclear weapons in war? One, the United States. How many additional “close calls” have there been? Two that come to mind are the Cuban Missile Crisis and the incident of the American scientific probe launched near Russia in 1995. The myth that longstanding nuclear powers are somehow more trustworthy than so-called “rogue states” is unfounded. Iran has as much reason to feel threatened by Israel’s nukes as Israel has to feel threatened by Iran’s.

Going to war will at best delay what nuclear ambitions Iran has, not destroy them. Instead of seeking to preserve the current global system of nuclear apartheid, the only realistic and non-hypocritical way to halt proliferation is to work for a just and lasting peace in a nuclear-free Middle East, and ultimately, a nuclear-free world.