Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Climate Change Mitigation Policies

President Obama has quite a few very major political and legislative issues to deal with in the next year or two, but this one on climate change may well prove to be the most complex and challenging. I'll explain why.

Between December 7th and 18th delegates consisting of scientists, environmentalists, political negotiators, and government leaders representing more than 100 countries, including all the major players, met at the highly publicized climate change conference held in Copenhagen, Denmark. The conference took place essentially to follow up an earlier conference held in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, at which 187 countries, excluding the U. S., signed and ratified the so-called Kyoto Protocol dealing with actions to combat global warming and reducing harmful atmospheric emissions, especially carbon dioxide.

The recent Copenhagen conference, it was originally hoped, would conclude with a more specific global action plan to cut emissions and other related steps to help stabilize climates around the planet and thereby reduce the very serious risks associated with global warming, including especially the real possibility of a substantial rise in ocean levels leading eventually to massive flooding of coastal areas, a significant reduction in our critical global water supply and very volatile and harmful weather patterns. With respect to ocean levels, some scientific studies have concluded that water levels could rise at least 3 feet, and possibly to as much as 5-6 meters by the end of this century! That would be catastrophic.

While the Copenhagen conference was very useful in obtaining general agreement on the seriousness of the risks the delegates were discussing, sharing information on desirable action steps, and laying out the national interests and policy directions of the major players and regional groups of other countries, the conference did not achieve agreement of a specific global action plan. The expectation now is that President Obama will work with the Congress to come up with legislation laying out the U. S. government's plan some time late in the first half of this year and that another global conference will convene in the second half of the year with the objectives of agreeing on a plan that will include specific emission control commitments of individual countries and a satisfactory financing mechanism that will assist developing countries meet their commitments.

This is a highly complex and challenging issue for the Obama Administration and the Congress for a number of important reasons. While the great majority of recognized climate scientists, environmentalists and heads of state are very convinced that global warming is a very serious problem requiring a series of urgent, far-reaching and costly action steps world-wide, a vocal minority, including many Republican Party leaders, view it as a much less alarming and natural phenomenon. Global warming, its causes, potential consequences and appropriate mitigation measures are very complicated subjects involving many different areas of scientific knowledge, research and analysis, as well as highly technical climate related computer modeling. It is therefore very difficult for most of us to fully understand and follow the debate. However, given the above points, I don't see how one can not reasonably agree that it must be a high priority of world leaders to move forward urgently on an effective, pragmatic action plan.

It will be difficult for the Obama Administration for many good reasons. He has many other high priority policy issues to deal that must be judged even more important, at least in the short term, starting with additional more bipartisan efforts to stabilize the economy, generating quality jobs, and reducing the unemployment rate. Republican leaders will likely withhold support, in part due to a different view of the seriousness of the global warming problem and anticipated higher governmental spending to combat it, in part due to lobbying by the business sector who are legitimately concerned with higher costs for them associated with compliance with the expected action plans.

Another big reason it will be difficult is stubborn resistance from China and India to equitably participate in the global action plan, though they are very major emission pollutors, because they feel the more developed countries, especially the U. S., are primarily responsible for global warming problem we face. In their biased view, the developed countries should therefore commit to relatively greater emission controls and pay the lion's share of financial assistance needed by less developed nations. That will be very hard for budget-strapped developed countries to swallow, particularly considering the vast financial resources of China and status as the world's largest atmospheric polluter.

Additionally, it doesn't help that Obama and the still Democrat controlled Congress are faring poorly in public opinion polls and facing stiff challenges in the upcoming mid-term elections in November. The general public will most likely not support a costly global warming action plan until they are much less concerned about the economy, see meaningful reductions in unemployment rates, and gain more satisfaction with their personal financial and job security situations.

Over the next several months Obama needs to have his lieutenants working behind the scenes on building support for a sensible global action plan. This should include trying to build an even greater consensus among leading scientists about the problem. Even more important, though, is working with the major developing countries, especially China and India, but also Brazil and Indonesia, to obtain greater pragmatic agreement on the best plan.

However, clearly the top priority needs to be very specific and meaningful progress on the key domestic issues: the economy and jobs! He will most probably not be successful if he and his cabinet and staff, as well as the leading Democrats in Congress, do not reach out and collaborate much more closely with Republican leaders and independents in both parties.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Washington's Increasingly Blatant Partisanship

Perhaps I'm overreacting to what may be a largely unavoidable aspect of American politics, but I'm getting more and more disappointed and disturbed by what I view as increasingly blatant partisanship displayed by our elected representatives in Washington, D. C. By blatant I mean discourse that very inaccurately represents views of the speaker or writer's political opponents, that is purposely misleading, often mean-spirited, immature, unprofessional, and usually counter-productive in achieving its aims. Moreover, this discourse serves to sidetrack or slow down needed progress on important issues.

This partisanship is practiced by both Democrats and Republicans, and I'm thinking especially about members of Congress, where the volume and scope seem to be more prominent by those members who are in the minority, currently, of course, the Republicans. However, we also see it from time to time employed by the president and members of his administration.

We see examples of this inappropriate partisanship almost every day, particularly in discussions or negotiations dealing with major and controversial legislative issues, such as health care and our economic recovery, and in related media interviews. It's certainly not difficult to detect. Examples are Republican leaders accusing the Obama administration of supporting the government's "takeover" of health care in this country, by originally calling for the so-called "public option," and criticizing the Democrats' health plan as leading us to employ "death panels" in deciding the fate of ill seniors. Another related example is Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn proclaiming on how health reform will affect seniors, saying "I have a message for you: you're going to die sooner." Still another is associating Obama's policies with Communism and Nazism. Outrageous!

These comments are, of course, intended to mislead the public, increase conservative and right-wing passion and support from their Republican base, slow down and weaken progress in Congress on legislation they disagree with, and build up their support for the upcoming mid-term congressional elections. It's also clear that these comments purposely provide fuel for highly partisan criticism and cynicism by the popular conservative media, especially radio and TV talk shows.

The Democrats are not completely innocent of strong partisanship, but it doesn't seem as blatant and as common as is the case with Republicans, and it's no doubt in part because they currently control the Congress and have their man in the White House. My impression, for example, is that by unreasonably exercising their political power, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid have frequently not given Republican colleagues equal and fair opportunity in committee meetings to provide their opinions on legislative issues. I have no facts on this, but I suspect it's reasonably correct.

I give President Obama generally good marks on seeking bipartisanship and civil and pragmatic political discourse, but occasionally he may have gone a little too far. An example is when he recently publicly commented that some Republican leaders appeared to be rooting for him to fail, implying this was so even if it was not in the country's best interest.

My objective is not to allocate blame among Democrats and Republicans. My point is that blatant partisanship, as I tried to define it, while in most cases not illegal, is unethical and reflects poorly on the individual practitioners and on our political community at large. Our voters and taxpayers deserve better.

What can and should be done about it? President Obama should continue to try and set a good example and congressional leaders should rein in abusers and make it clear how their elected representatives and staffs should behave on this subject. Perhaps with greater effect, the public should assertively advise their elected representatives what they expect and the responsible media should highlight and criticize obvious abuse in their newspaper articles and editorials and radio and TV shows. Furthermore, voters should reflect their disdain in future elections and vote against serious violators.

Do I think this will happen? Probably not much, but at least I'm getting this off my chest. What do my readers think about this?

Monday, December 7, 2009

U. S.' Looming Fiscal Crisis

It's most probably not much on the minds of most Americans at this time, but with our current federal government debt and large budget deficits, we have a major fiscal problem facing the country which requires serious corrective actions that will have a big impact on virtually all of us, as well as on the whole world economy.

In brief, the major fiscal problem is that our U. S. government debt, commonly called the "public debt" or the "national debt," has grown a great deal in recent years in absolute terms and, more importantly, in relation to the growth of our economy as measured by our gross domestic product (GDP). This has been happening for a number of reasons, but it's largely reflected in our increasing and substantial annual government deficits, primarily the difference between government receipts and spending. Income tax collections and Social Security tax receipts have been increasingly greatly exceeded by expenditures, including especially Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security payments, and defense.

The national debt grew from roughly $2 trillion in 1980 to $5.8 trillion in 2008, and, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), is projected to increase to $14.3 trillion in the next ten years, from 41% of GDP to as much as 68%. The annual deficit for the fiscal year ended 6/30/09 was more than $1.4 trillion, about 11.2% of GDP, the largest deficit as a percent of GDP in the last 60 years. As most Americans probably know, major factors in the deficit in FY 2009, aside from those related to our continuing huge social programs, were the economic stimulus packages to pull us out of our deep recession, and the fast growing expenditures for Homeland Security and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The major problem these developments pose is that they weaken our country financially, politically and militarily, in both absolute and relative terms. Our federal government will have to spend more and more of government receipts on making interest payments on our national debt (it was $383 billion in FY 2009) and have increasingly lower amounts available for discretionary expenses, including Defense Department money for fighting wars, Homeland Security, expenditures for environmental protection and combatting global warming, as well as energy independence. Potentially impacting our national security and foreign policy flexibility in this regard, about $800 billion or 23% of our national debt is held by China and another $750 billion or 21% by Japan.

The crisis is not something most Americans are thinking or unduly concerned about, because they are understandably much more concerned about their personal financial issues, including getting and keeping their jobs, paying the bills, avoiding home foreclosures, dealing with troubling and expensive medical issues, and trying to save for college educations for their children and grandchildren, as well as to finance their own retirements. Another contributing factor on this subject is that national fiscal issues are rather complicated and not that often discussed in the general media. Senior federal government leaders, including President Obama and his staff, while quite familiar with our fiscal problems, are preoccupied and more concerned with immediate priority issues, like managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, negotiating the final terms of the pending health care reform legislation, promoting their views on financial institutions reform, preparing for mid-term congressional elections next year, and other largely partisan matters.

What can and should be done? Frankly, we're in a tough position and needed corrective actions will be quite difficult, politically very controversial, and, in many cases, not likely to be well received by much of the public. This is especially so given our high unemployment rate, the fragile state of our economic recovery, low consumer spending, state budget deficits, the continuing concern with global terrorism, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with much more aid seemingly to be spent over the next few years in Pakistan. However, we need to move toward a balanced budget as quickly as possible and plan to keep the budget balanced on a continuing basis.

There are three obvious actions for the federal government to pursue: a) cut spending, b) increase taxes, and c) find more ways to eliminate waste and improve efficiency and productivity. Among relatively reasonable actions likely to be well received by most of the public: tougher negotiations with other countries to share more equally in the costs of fighting global terrorism, accelerating plans to implement exit strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, increasing income taxes and their enforcement on the wealthy and upper level of middle income Americans, and temporarily cutting back salaries and the cost of benefits for at least the upper tier of federal employees. Another long overdue and obvious action is overhauling the IRS and greatly simplifying and streamlining the tax code and our unnecessarily complex and expensive income tax return preparation and reporting process.

Among needed actions which are likely to be unpopular to many or most Americans: reforming and cutting back the future costs of Medicare and Medicaid, imposing a hiring freeze for federal employees, substantially increasing sales taxes on gasoline to create more revenue and serve as an inducement to drive more energy efficient cars and trucks, and eliminating subsidies to agriculture/farmers and religious and most non-profit institutions. These actions should include serious bipartisan efforts to reduce the federal costs of the pending health care legislation, at least for the next three to four years until our economy fully recovers and tax receipts increase to facilitate balanced budgets.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Obama's Afghanistan Surge

As expected, there were very mixed reviews of President Obama's well-delivered speech at West Point Military Academy to the nation on Tuesday evening on his strategies for dealing with the difficult, complex and increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan. As could have been predicted, the primary controversial issues had to do with the number of additional troops to be soon deployed, the high costs associated with the surge, and the timetables for transitioning greater responsibility to the Afghan government and for starting to bring our troops back home.

Somewhat ironically, most Republicans in Congress seem to generally support his plans, while a high percentage of Democrats, especially the liberals on the left, his original main base of supporters, seem to have understandable serious objections and concerns, especially with the longer-term costs, expected casualties, and how long we will end up continuing this war, distracting us from adequate progress on important domestic priorities.

It is quite clear President Obama had no easy options with probable outcomes and consequences we could live with. After lengthy deliberations with his many advisors, he basically agreed with the bulk of advice and recommendations made primarily by Defense Secretary Gates and field commander General McChrystal, and, noteworthy, passing on most of the advice of Vice President Joe Biden. Aside from big concerns with expected overall costs and casualties, here are my major concerns:

1. The very uncertain capability of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his administration to do what they have to do in order for Obama's strategies to work successfully, including gaining broad national support for his weak government, eliminating the deep-rooted and endemic corruption at almost all levels, consistently delivering basic services to the population, dealing effectively with the tribal warlords, and managing the badly needed development and performance of his administration and the national military and police forces. With respect to the latter, part of my concern is based on the significant fact that the overall illiteracy rate in the country is a shocking 72%, while in the Afghan Army it is estimated even higher at 90%!

2. A key and appropriate part of Obama's strategy is working, assisting and coordinating closely with the government and large military of neighboring Pakistan to combat the insurgents and help stabilize this country as well. While very necessary, this is an added burden for the U. S. in terms of financial and equipment resources, manpower and logistics management. This represents another big risk, because if we aren't successful in Pakistan, we probably won't be successful in Afghanistan. Many of the bad guys will simply continue to hide out in Pakistan and move back to Afghanistan when we start eventually withdrawing our troops.

3. Since the 30,000 additional U. S. troops and hoped for additional allied mostly NATO country troops will all not have arrived in Afghanistan until June or July next year at the earliest, it is unrealistic that we will know by December next year whether or not we can start withdrawing some of our forces in the summer of 2011, only six or so months later, as planned by Obama. We should reasonably expect that withdrawal of our 98,000 or so troops will very possibly be stretched out over a longer period, with a concomitant adverse impact on our war costs. If we get out too soon, the Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents will probably have little difficulty in building up their forces again with new recruiting.

4. Another concern is with our own apparent capability and effectiveness in monitoring the extent to which our equipment, reconstruction and financial aid is appropriately deployed in Afghanistan. This was especially brought to my attention in an interview I heard on the radio yesterday with retired Major General Arnold Fields, Special Inspector General - Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), whose unit is responsible for much of this. To the interviewer's amazement and my own, General Fields said that only 25-30% of U. S. money for reconstruction ends up being used for the right projects, and roughly 10% is needed for private security. This means that as much as 60-65% of our taxpayer moneys is completely unaccounted for!! That's obviously outrageous and unacceptable.

Considering all the stakes, President Obama took a major risk in deciding on his announced strategies for Afghanistan and Pakistan, at a time when we're still in Iraq, we're concerned with Iran's nuclear build-up, our economy is still in the early stages of recovery from a deep recession, and he's trying to get a highly expensive healthcare reform package approved by the Congress. All Americans should hope he will be at least relatively successful in the Middle East. If his plans don't work, one must expect there's a fair chance that Democrats will lose control of Congress in the elections in 2010 and that he will be fortunate to win reelection in 2012. Much worse, the U. S. will have wasted a great deal of national resources in terms of military casualties and financial assets.