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The Murky Moral Questions of Libya

March 29th, 2011 No comments

I’ve remained silent on the Libya issue until now for a number of reasons, the first and foremost being that it’s taken me a long time to settle on a position. Even now my opinion is highly nuanced and subject to change as the situation develops and more information comes to light. Normally I’ll only write a blog post when I feel very strongly about something or I have an opinion that I don’t see being expressed much elsewhere, but since this is a rather significant event in modern American history I feel obliged to write down my thoughts even if they’re neither unique nor firmly held.

The question of whether the United States should have gotten involved in the conflict between Gadhafi and the rebels seeking to overthrow him can be approached from two basic standpoints: intentions and consequences. If we take the stated intentions of President Obama at face-value, it seems we did the right thing going in. Gadhafi did promise to murder many thousands of his own people, and if the prevention of genocide isn’t a justifiable reason to use military force then I don’t know what is. I think we have a moral obligation to prevent genocide wherever and whenever we can.

However, it’s hard to justify intervening in Libya when we didn’t also intervene in Rwanda, the Sudan, and Darfur. It calls our motives into question when we selectively intervene like this, and the fact that Libya has oil while these other countries don’t taints the entire moral calculation as to whether or not our intentions here are correct.

But when all is said and done, oil or no oil, consistency or inconsistency, I think it’s better to have done something than to have done nothing. As one commentator said, I’d rather prevent some genocide some of the time than to prevent no genocide any time.

As for judging the rightness of our actions based on the consequences, this is almost impossible at this early stage. We may help the rebels topple Gadhafi and pave the way for a bourgeoning democracy, in which case history will judge our actions quite kindly. We might fail to oust Gadhafi and genocide will occur anyway, in which case all we’ll have done is waste a lot of resources. And we might find ourselves locked in yet another quagmire from which we can’t seem to extract ourselves no matter how many allies initially went in with us, in which case we’ll have another Iraq- or Afghanistan-like situation on our hands and we’ll have to judge Obama just as harshly as we judged Bush for getting us into a mess with no clear plan for getting us out.

But for now, we seem to have prevented Gadhafi from murdering thousands of his own people, so from a standpoint of consequences I would still judge our actions correct at the moment.

Of course it’s even more complicated when you consider some of the side-issues involved here. For one, I think we did the right thing by acting under the banner of the United Nations, letting France make the first move and handing off leadership as soon as possible. The last thing we want is to reinforce the perception of those in the Muslim world that we’ll use any excuse we can to drop bombs on Muslim countries. I think that if we play our cards right, this could really help us change the narrative of Muslim perceptions of the United States. In this case, at least, we are siding with the people against their brutal dictator. If we did this more consistently, I think it would be a far more effective tactic in the “war on terror” than any occupation ever could.

However, we can’t escape the possibility that this whole thing could backfire. If we help the rebels topple Gadhafi and then pull out and say, “you’re on your own” and the situation descends into chaos and violence, we might very well be blamed. Once you extend your hand to help one side win a fight, it could look very bad for us to pull our hand away when the initial fight is over. Conversely, if we stick around to help the freed Libyans in the aftermath of their revolution, we could be perceived as once again meddling in affairs we have no business sticking our noses in. Making sure this is a multi-national operation will help to mitigate that perception, but I worry we may soon find ourselves in a lose-lose situation.

Then there’s the issue of whether Barack Obama should have sought congressional approval for this military action. I am personally very uncomfortable with the idea of the imperial presidency, so I would have liked to see some discussion about this before we went in. I don’t like how the president can just plunge our nation into an international conflict without giving our representatives a chance to debate the merits in public and the media a chance to delve into the details for the sake of the public’s understanding.

From a pragmatist’s standpoint, however, I understand why this particular president would have chosen to bypass this particular congress at this particular moment in American politics. The Republicans will seize any opportunity to weaken the president no matter what the consequences, and handing them a chance to obstruct this military action for the sake of scoring political points would not have been worth the potential loss of tens of thousands of Libyan lives. Still, I would rather have seen some more discussion about this before we went in, and I’m very wary of the idea that any future president can bomb any country for any reason without seeking the approval of the American people in any way.

The final point I want to make is perhaps the only opinion I hold with 100% conviction, and that is that every American with a shred of respect for logic has to admit that the Republican Party has no interest in either ideological consistency or what is best for this country. I don’t think anyone who is honest with themselves could believe that had George W. Bush done the exact same thing in this situation, the Republicans who are currently criticizing Obama wouldn’t have supported him 100%. It should be abundantly clear to any rational person that Republicans and the commentators on Fox News will criticize Obama for anything, for any reason, no matter how much it contradicts positions they’ve previously held.

Either he shouldn’t have intervened at all, he should have intervened sooner, or in Newt Gingrich’s case both—depending on which day you ask. Some who cheered for the Iraq invasion now jeer American intervention as though they’ve always been opposed to it. Some who derided anyone who criticized Bush’s policies at a time of war as “unpatriotic” and accused them of “demoralizing the troops” are the very same people who are now criticizing Obama’s policies at a time or war. Somehow it doesn’t “embolden the enemy” to criticize a Democratic president at a time of war, only a Republican.

And last but certainly not least by far—any Republican who called for intervention (either before or after the actual intervention) should be forced to explain to the American people why we can afford to pay for foreign military campaigns but we have to cut pay for middle-class workers, take away food stamps and heating assistance from the poor, slash Social Security and Medicare, de-fund NPR, bust up the unions, and do all of these other things they insist we must do for the sake of “fiscal responsibility”. If we can afford to send hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cruise missiles to Northern Africa, I think we can afford to hand out a few food stamps.

So these are my thoughts on the Libya question at this point in time. I rarely support the president these days, but on this one I think he did the right thing (although I do have my reservations about his failure to involve Congress). I’m not an ideological pacifist or an isolationist—I do think violence can be justified to prevent more violence and I do think stronger nations ought to defend weaker ones—and I think this falls into the narrow category of morally justifiable military actions. I just wish we were more consistent.

Nuclear Follow-Up

March 23rd, 2011 No comments

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After attending a large anti-nuclear demonstration in Hannover this weekend, I brought some of the arguments I heard to the E.ON employees whom I teach English to and gave them a chance to respond.

Those of them who are involved in the nuclear branch of E.ON Energy are quite frustrated with the uncertainty resulting from the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster in Japan, as now the German government has decided to hold off on their plan to extend the operational lifetimes of seven nuclear power plants back to their original expiration dates. The stated reason is that we now need to re-evaluate the safety of these plants given what happened in Japan (although the reality is that they just want to kick this issue down the road until after this weekend’s elections).

At the demonstration I played Devil’s Advocate on behalf of the energy industry, and with my E.ON students I played Devil’s Advocate on behalf of the anti-nuclear crowd. Here are the three strongest points in favor of not extending the lifetimes of these nuclear plants, and how the E.ON employees responded.

1- Now that another nuclear disaster has taken place, we have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes that were made there. Isn’t it sensible to put the lifetime-extensions on hold until we can look at that information and adjust our plans accordingly?

I put this question to someone who works in risk management, and while he said that it sounds like a good point on the surface, it’s actually meaningless when you look at the details. He walked me through the whole process of how risks are calculated and drew a graph of the probability curve of severe earthquakes occurring—a downward sloping line with low-intensity earthquakes coming in greater frequency to high-intensity earthquakes barely occurring at all. Prior to the 9.0-magnitude earthquake in Japan, the government had already evaluated the safety of the nuclear plants and determined that they could withstand any earthquake up to a magnitude that could be reasonably expected in Germany, which I believe is somewhere in the level-8 range.

The risk of a level-8 earthquake occurring here is still very small, and the risk of a level-9 quake is so small as to be statistically negligible. The fact that a level-9 quake occurred elsewhere in the world does nothing to change that calculation.

Nor does it factor into the equation that in a worst-case scenario—a nuclear explosion—a great deal of people will die. To an individual, death is death no matter what the cause. The harm to one person is the same whether the death is a result of a nuclear explosion or a car accident—the latter of which is far more likely.

Basically, the government spent years evaluating and re-evaluating the safety of these plants and determined that the risk of harm to the German people was low enough to justify continuing their operation until the planned expiration dates. The disaster in Japan doesn’t change that.

2- Given the problems associated with nuclear power—not just the potential for a disaster but the problem of nuclear waste disposal–shouldn’t we be working to make the switch to clean and renewable energy sources as quickly as possible? According to the demonstrators, Germany could potentially power the entire grid with renewable energy in five years’ time.

First of all, every E.ON employee is skeptical of the claim that Germany’s entire grid could in fact be powered by clean energy sources in five years’ time. But even if that were technically true, they said, it’s just not practical. The sun doesn’t shine very often in Germany and in the south there is too little wind to justify the cost of building wind turbines. You’d have to harness and store this energy in the north, then distribute it throughout the country which would require the construction of an entirely new grid, nearly doubling the amount of power-lines criss-crossing the German landscape.

Even the Germans know the expression, “Not in my backyard,” and it doesn’t just apply to nuclear power plants. People also get out and protest when they want to construct new power-lines, wind turbines or solar panels, simply because it spoils the scenery. Try to explain to them that it’s a choice between a less picturesque landscape and green energy or wire-free fields and nuclear energy and they’d probably choose the green energy, just as long as you build those pylons somewhere else.

Incidentally, Germans are already paying more for energy due to the politics of renewables. It costs more to distribute energy from windmills and solar panels through the grid, but they distribute 100% of this energy in order to boost the overall percentage of how much of Germany’s energy usage comes from clean sources. Rather than keep the nuclear reactors running at the same level all the time and bringing wind and solar into the mix only at times of peak usage, they have to keep adjusting the output of the nuclear reactors depending on how much energy is coming from wind and sunlight at any given time, which drives prices up and is worse for the long-term lifetimes of the reactors.

3- If the government doesn’t force the energy industry to invest in more research and development of green energy, what financial incentive would they have to do so? If they’re making such huge profits from nuclear plants, why bother trying to switch to renewables in the first place? If the government doesn’t extend the lifetimes of these nuclear plants, the protesters argue, it will force the industry to move toward green technology.

I thought this was the strongest point in favor of cutting short the lifetimes of the nuclear plants, but it may actually be the weakest.

First and foremost, doing this would actually have the opposite effect of what the anti-nuclear protesters want. The deal between the energy industry and the German government was that they’d put a large percentage of the profit they make from the nuclear plants into a government fund to research and develop green energy technology in exchange for extending the lifetimes of these plants. If the lifetime extensions get tossed out the window, so will this green technology fund.

The natural follow up question would then be to say that there might be no government fund, but wouldn’t it force the industry to do more development of green technologies on its own, seeing as how its energy-generating options would then be limited to the kinds of energy the people demand?

And in an ideal world, that would be the case. If there could be some sort of grand worldwide consensus among the people that they would be willing to pay more for energy, use less of it, and distribute it as equally as possible in one giant global power-distribution grid, then we could shut down every last nuclear reactor on the planet (as well as coal and gas-fired plants while we’re at it) and simply force our energy-generating corporations to give us the kinds of energy we want.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where different countries have different attitudes towards different types of energy, and where corporations can simply go wherever the profit is. E.ON itself considered taking its business out of Germany a couple of decades ago when they saw which way the political winds were blowing, but they stayed and now regret their decision.

If the German government told E.ON and the other major energy companies that they could no longer produce energy in Germany through anything but clean and renewable technology, it would be financial suicide for these businesses to remain here and they would either declare bankruptcy or move elsewhere. The only financial incentive you could give them to stay would be massive taxpayer-funded subsidies to offset the greatly increased cost of making this switch. And how many German citizens would really be willing to not only pay more taxes but much more for energy if it really came down to it?

It would be wonderful if every German would say, “Yes, absolutely. I don’t care about the cost—I’m willing to take a financial hit for the sake of the environment”. They would be a bright shining example to the world of a country truly willing to put its money where its mouth is and make sacrifices for the sake of the long-term health of the planet.

But it’s far more likely that they’d say, “France is using nuclear energy. So is the United States and China and many other countries around the world. Why should I have to pay more for my energy when these other countries aren’t willing to do the same?”

So I say put it to the people. Have a referendum. Really educate the citizenry about this issue so that everyone is familiar with the arguments on both sides, and then let them vote. If the German people want to get rid of nuclear energy and they are really willing to deal with the consequences of that decision, then by all means let’s get rid of it. I would be very happy if that were the case. But don’t say we should just abolish it and expect that a shift to a completely green-energy grid will just magically take place without angering a lot of ordinary people in the process.

Skeptic at the German Anti-Nuke Protest

March 20th, 2011 No comments

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For the past two and a half years I’ve made my money by working for a private language school that stays in business mostly through one major client, E.ON, one of Germany’s largest energy companies. E.ON has power plants of every kind from coal and oil to wind and solar, but generates most of its electricity through nuclear power. Nuclear energy has been tremendously unpopular among the German people for decades, and over the course of my time as an English teacher for E.ON employees I’ve heard just about all of them lament at one time or another how uninformed the people are on this issue. Anti-nuclear protests are nothing new in Germany, and the visibility of this public sentiment has made the politics of nuclear power very difficult for the politicians, as they struggle to find a balance between the interests of the energy industry and the will of the people.

As an American, it surprises me that for the most part, the government has generally responded more to the pressure of the masses than to the energy lobbyists, and for awhile planned to close down Germany’s nuclear reactors after only a fraction of their natural lifetimes. The E.ON employees I teach find this monumentally stupid, as they all tell me that without nuclear energy in the mix, Germany would simply not generate enough power to keep the grid running. They would have no choice but to buy energy from France, which generates most of its energy through nuclear power anyway. When Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat Party (CDU) ran their re-election campaign in 2009, one of their platforms dared to go against popular sentiment and extend the lifetimes of these nuclear plants back to their original expiration dates. Naturally, the E.ON employees were all quite happy when her party won the election.

It took some time and much additional lobbying to get them to actually follow through on their promise, but last year it began to look as though the German government was finally going to extend the lifetimes of these plants. Then Fukushima happened, and this decision was instantly called back into question. Plans to extend the lifetime of these nuclear plants have now been put on hold so the politicians can debate it even more, giving time to leftist organizations and political parties to launch another major anti-nuclear campaign nationwide.KT20110319_Atomdemo_06_imagelarge

One of the anti-nuclear rallies took place yesterday in the city of Hannover where I live. One of my friends, Lena, the girlfriend of another friend Oliver, is a member of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany (MLPD) and she wanted to take part in this demonstration. I decided it would be an interesting experience to go as well, even though my opinion on the nuclear issue is more closely aligned with that of the E.ON employees I teach. I was hoping to hear some arguments against nuclear energy that I could take to the E.ON employees this week to see how they respond. My mind is not entirely made up on this issue.

Here is where my opinion is now: I agree that nuclear energy is dangerous, but I don’t think it’s as dangerous as most people think. The incident at Chernobyl was a result of poor planning and design, and the Three Mile Island incident was more of a scare than a disaster as it resulted in no confirmable loss of life. As for Fukushima, there were some design flaws as well, but in any case I do think it’s foolish to built nuclear power plants when your country is in the Ring of Fire, positioned along a major fault line in the earth’s crust that you know for a fact is one day going to erupt in a major earthquake. But in Germany, where the earth’s crust is stable and where government oversight is stricter than almost anywhere in the world, I think building nuclear power plants is quite sensible at the current point in time. The E.ON employees have thoroughly convinced me that with all of the safety measures and failsafes upon failsafes that must be put in place before a nuclear reactor can start operating, disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima would be unthinkable here.

But obviously, nothing is impossible, and even if the plants are safe there’s still the matter of the nuclear waste, which we still have no ideal way to dispose of. We should not go on using nuclear energy indefinitely, and I’m firmly in favor of a worldwide shift to renewables in the coming decades. Where I differ with the protesters is that I think we need to keep using nuclear energy for the time being, as the technology behind wind and solar power is still in its infancy and generating power from these sources is still very inefficient. Most of the base-load energy generation is from nuclear and fossil-fuels, while wind and solar only come into the mix during periods of high energy usage. They supplement the power generated by nuclear and fossil fuels, and couldn’t power the entire grid on their own by a long-shot.

So if we decide at this very moment to shut down the nuclear reactors in Germany, we would have to A) buy energy from France which is generated through nuclear power anyway, and/or B) use more fossil fuels, thus accelerating global warming. The biggest virtue of nuclear power in my opinion is that it does not add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and thus does not contribute to climate change. If we replaced all coal and oil-fired plants with nuclear plants, the climate change problem would be far less dire.

For these reasons I think we should go nuclear for now, while we invest heavily in improving renewable energy technology so that we can one day move away from nuclear as well.

At the demonstration in Hannover, it felt very strange to think that I might have had the most conservative opinion there. I’m normally to the left of just about everyone in a room, but on this issue I was to the right of the whole crowd. I was hoping to engage a few people in a debate about the topic and possibly learn some things I didn’t already know, but nobody likes to speak English so the only people I talked to were Lena and others I already know.

The crowd itself was something to see. They expected about 3,000 people but I read online later that there were at least twice that number, and now they’re estimating 10,000. You could see banners and flags of all kinds of organizations and political parties there, from Lena’s communist party to the more mainstream SPD, Green Party, and Die Linke. The crowd was about as mixed as you could imagine as well, with just about every age group  represented.

Last year I attended a different protest in Hannover, this one against the military. It was in response to a group of high-ranking military officials and members of Germany’s military industrial complex meeting for a fancy dinner at Hannover’s Congress building, and the only groups there were the leftiest of the left. There hadn’t been a specific issue behind that protest other than the demand to remove German troops out of Afghanistan, but it was mostly just to yell and shout at these officials with their blood-stained hands as they made their way into the Congress building. The crowd there was only between one and two hundred, almost all of them in their twenties or thirties and looking like the stereotypical hippie-protest crowd.

KT20110319_Atomdemo_21_imagelarge But the people at this demonstration just looked like any random sample of Germans, plain and ordinary people who came out in all likelihood as their way of responding to the disaster in Japan. There were old people, families with babies and little kids, and even teenagers there. At the anti-military demonstration there had been about one police officer to every protester in case things got out of hand, but here the police force was barely visible.

There were a lot of kids coming up to the MLPD stand where Lena was working, as they had set up a little fund-raising game where for 50 cents kids could throw tennis-balls at a stack of tin cans with pictures of Germany’s nuclear power plants taped to them. Honestly, I thought this was rather silly, but the kids liked it and the Marxists managed to raise a total of €15 which apparently goes to pay for the cost of printing flyers.

I spent the first thirty minutes helping out there while the crowd gathered strength outside the opera house, and then the march began. It was then that I asked Lena if she could find someone to convince me that nuclear energy generation in Germany should be stopped, and she took a stab at it herself. It was nothing I hadn’t heard before—what about the waste? What if there’s a disaster? Etc. I gave my counter-argument that because renewable energy technology isn’t yet efficient enough to power the grid, our only two real options now are fossil fuels and nuclear power so we should go with nuclear as a temporary means of keeping things up and running. Lena had to go do something else at this point, so she passed me over to Kai, a guy I met at the MLPD New Years’ Eve party, who struggled to find the English to explain why I was wrong. He said that Germany produces more energy than it uses and that it exports 7%, so if they just stopped exporting they wouldn’t need nuclear, an argument I found very un-convincing. But he also insisted that Germany could transition to a completely green-energy-based economy in just five years, a fact that if true would give me reason to reconsider my view, but I’m skeptical about that.KT20110319_Atomdemo_32_imagelarge

I stopped talking politics for awhile and just marched next to Oliver making jokes and scanning the crowd. It was amazing to see how many people were there. A line of protesters marching down the street as far as the eye could see—this was definitely the largest demonstration I’ve ever been a part of (though I’ve only been to three).

The day took a much different turn as Oliver and I got bored with the march and broke ranks with the protesters to go have a beer, which led to another beer and then another and before we knew it the protest was over and we were sitting in an Irish pub where Lena met up with us when her work was done.

Lena and I got back into the discussion and she gave me some additional arguments that I can’t wait to take to my E.ON students this week. She insisted that if they were really serious, the German government could switch to an energy grid powered entirely by renewables in five years’ time. This morning she sent me links to the sources from which she got her information, including an online pamphlet from Greenpeace, an article from rf-news busting some supposed myths about nuclear energy, an official document about the future of Shell, and a few other anti-nuclear pamphlets from various organizations. Unfortunately my German abilities aren’t good enough to parse these documents, but they at least prove that the anti-nuke crowd has plenty of facts on their side. What’s unclear is just how selectively chosen those facts are.

The last point I made to Lena was about the efficacy of these protests themselves. In an ideal world, the German government might actually respond by forcing the energy industry to convert to purely green-technology as quickly as they possibly can. But that’s not the political reality. The German government, widely viewed by the people as a pathetic do-nothing body of squabbling politicians, would never make such a bold move. At best, these protests will result in the shutting down of Germany’s existing nuclear reactors before they reach their natural expiration dates, thus forcing more energy to be generated by greenhouse-gas emitting power plants or imported from France where it would be merely come from their nuclear power plants instead of Germany’s. Germany’s nuclear problem would merely be replaced with other problems.

Lena said she completely understands that point, but she offered one last counter-point that I thought was actually quite strong: if we don’t force the energy industry to convert to green energy, what incentive do they have to do it? Nuclear power plants are like money-printing machines for the industry, generating about €1 million in profit per day. Why would they bother investing so much money in more research and development on wind and solar technology when they can just keep on doing what they’re doing? What’s to stop them from building more nuclear plants in the future instead of wind and solar farms if the people aren’t demanding they don’t?

In the coming week I’ll be taking these arguments to the E.ON employees and hearing their responses. If I learn anything interesting, I’ll write a follow-up post next weekend.

But for now, I just want to say for the sake of my American readers that while I am comfortable with nuclear plants being used in Germany, I don’t feel the same way about building new nuclear plants in the United States where regulation and government oversight aren’t quite so strict. Given what happened last year with BP in the Gulf of Mexico and what happened before that with Massey Energy in West Virginia, I think it’s safe to say that the U.S. government does not have a very good track record of making sure corporations don’t cut corners. The cutting of corners claimed 25 lives in West Virginia and 11 lives in the Gulf as well as massive environmental damage, but these disasters would be nothing compared to what could potentially happen if a lack of oversight leads to an explosion of a nuclear reactor. Building a nuclear plant in this kind of political environment is just as short-sighted and potentially disastrous as building one in a volatile geological environment.

As for those victims and potential victims of the nuclear industry in Japan, my heart goes out to them and I sincerely hope that the worst is behind them. It is entirely appropriate that this crisis makes us take a second look at nuclear power generation, but let’s make sure we have an intelligent discussion instead of just a massive knee-jerk reaction, and that the policy changes we make are based in facts and not just political calculation.

Boiling the Middle Class

March 10th, 2011 No comments

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We’ve all heard the anecdote about cooking frogs. If you toss a live frog into a pot of boiling water, the shock of the heat will be so great that the frog will immediately leap out to save itself. But if you place the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and then slowly start to boil it, the change in temperature will happen so gradually that the frog will be boiled alive before it can realize what’s happening.

The American middle class was placed in a pot of lukewarm water three decades ago with the advent of “trickle-down” economics, and the temperature has been rising steadily ever since. More money goes to the very top by way of tax-cuts and subsidies for large corporations, and recently through massive taxpayer bailouts of giant financial institutions, and in order to make up for the deficit more money is cut from programs that benefit the middle class. The temperature in the pot has been getting increasingly uncomfortable for quite some time.

When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker began his attempt to strip public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights, thus effectively removing any last shred of real political power from these middle class workers in his state, we reached the verge of the boiling point. As the national Republican Party celebrated this move and Republican governors across the country got poised to follow suit, it seemed that the pot was beginning to boil nationwide.

Here I have to tweak the analogy just a little, and imagine that the frog in the pot is split-brained. While the left side of the frog realized what was happening and tried to leap out of the pot by launching massive demonstrations against the union-stripping bill, the right side of the frog—being more easily duped by corporate propaganda—was convinced that the other half was over-reacting and that the water was actually too cold. While the left-brain wanted out of the pot altogether, the right-brain wanted even more heat.

But even now the analogy doesn’t accurately reflect reality. You’d have to imagine that the left side of the frog is almost twice as large as the right, as poll number after poll number has consistently indicated that about two-thirds of the American people are opposed to the union-stripping measure. The impulse of the frog to leap out of the pot was stronger than the impulse to stay and boil, and yet…somehow…the frog has remained right where it is.

After waking up Wednesday to the news that Governor Walker actually seemed ready to compromise by weakening the union-busting part of the bill, I thought this might finally be it. The American political left, having been far too silent for far too long as the pot kept getting hotter and hotter, had finally stood up and spoken out and sent a message to the cooks in the kitchen that they were not going to sit around and be boiled. Might the chefs have finally gone too far? Might this finally be the end of the relentless rightward-drift America has been on for my entire lifetime?

Then I woke up this morning, Thursday, to the news that the Wisconsin state legislature had done an end-run around the Democrats and rammed through the union-busting portion of the bill through a sudden stroke of political trickery. Because they needed at least one Democrat to hold a vote on the state budget, they had to remove the union-busting measure from the bill and vote on it as a separate piece of legislation, for which no Democrats were needed. It’s as though the moment the frog was finally leaping out of the pot, they grabbed it, tore off its left leg, and tossed it back in the pot from which it is now incapable of escaping.

Had this draconian anti-union bill been proposed twenty or even ten years ago, it never would have passed. That would have been going too far, too fast. The entire frog—both the left side and the right—would have noticed the sudden change in temperature and leapt out immediately. But the Republicans seem to have paved the way for this just slowly and gradually enough that they felt the time was ripe to deliver this final blow to the middle class and let boiling begin.

Slowly but surely, they’ve managed to get a sizable enough chunk of the middle class to direct their anger away from the corporations and wealthy people to whom all of their money is actually being funneled and direct it instead at organized labor. It’s not the Wall Street fat-cats who are the problem, it’s those fat-cats who work in…public education? It’s the nurses who are to blame for everyone’s economic woes?

Enough people have been fed these lies for a long enough time that they no longer even question them. And while there are definitely valid criticisms to be made about teachers’ unions and the like, it’s a huge leap from saying they may go a little too far at times to blaming them for the budget crises in local and national governments, especially when tax-rates among the super-rich are at historic lows and defense spending is at a historic high.

A recent poll asking Americans how they would balance the budget came back with results proving my conjecture that America is far more progressive than most Americans believe. When asked how they would save money, 81% said they would raise taxes on millionaires, about 76% said they would cut defense spending, and about 74% said they’d end subsidies for oil companies.

Washington just recently voted to keep giving subsidies to oil companies, there’s no talk of seriously cutting defense spending, and as for raising taxes on millionaires…well…hopefully your short-term memory isn’t so terrible that you’ve forgotten Obama’s deal to extend the Bush tax-cuts back in December.

Americans were also asked what would be unacceptable to cut. The three items at the top of that list, each with over 75% of the American people saying it would be unacceptable to cut them, are Social Security, K-12 education, and Medicare. And yet Washington remains poised to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare while local governments—including Scott Walker’s in Wisconsin—are busy slashing education.

Democracy, it seems, is in its death pangs. When you have a huge consensus among the American people that they don’t want labor unions stripped of their collective bargaining power but the people supposedly “representing” them in government do it anyway, when the vast majority of Americans agree on which programs they want to see cut and which they don’t want touched but their “representatives” in government do precisely the opposite, when weeks of grassroots protests across the nation send a message loud-and-clear that what one party wants to do is unacceptable but those “representatives” do it anyway, something is seriously, deeply, profoundly wrong.

When a journalist prank-called Governor Walker pretending to be the billionaire political financier David Koch to encourage him on his union-busting efforts and the governor’s response revealed just how squarely in the pockets of powerful business interests he’s in, that should have been the end of his career. Ten or fifteen years ago, there would have been such an outcry over this transparent disregard of the interests of average citizens that the governor would have been forced to resign. Nowadays, he was not only able to remain in office but to win the political fight he knew the vast majority of Americans opposed him on.

The pot is boiling. Poll numbers don’t matter anymore because it no longer matters what the average American thinks. The average American is broke. The only opinions that matter are those of the Koch brothers and their billionaire-brethren who can afford to finance political campaigns (now without limit thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling). The fact that even in the face of overwhelming public opposition, even in the face of massive, nation-wide protests, the Republicans still feel safe doing the bidding of their corporate masters at the expense of the middle class, is all the evidence you need that they think the frog is pretty much cooked.

There is only one avenue of escape left to the frog, and that’s to not let the momentum of these protests die down. Just because the battle is lost does not mean the war is over. If efforts to recall Governor Walker and the State Senators who voted to pass his democracy-destroying legislation manage to succeed, other governors will have to seriously consider putting the brakes on their plans to do the same things in their own states. The protesters have already succeeded in scaring some of these governors like Chris Christie in my own state of New Jersey (who is, incidentally, much admired by my conservative parents) into backing off for now, but if the people of Wisconsin and their supporters all just pack up and go home now that they’ve lost this fight, we may have lost our last change. If the massive amount of campaign contributions these Republicans will now be receiving allows them to prevail in upcoming elections against Democrats who will no longer be able to look forward to quite as much funding from labor unions, you can rest assured that the same kind of legislation that Wisconsin lawmakers just rammed through their state will be back on the table everywhere else.

It’s up to us, America. We can either let our right half keep our much-larger left half stuck to the bottom of the pot while we all boil together, or we can keep reaching for the rim and trying to pry both halves out in spite of the other side’s misguided resistance.

It’s time that the middle class on both the left and the right realize that we’re both part of the same frog, and that we need to stop fighting ourselves when the real enemies are those who are trying to cook us.

Parallel Universes

March 5th, 2011 No comments

I haven’t had the will to write about politics these days, but last night I watched an episode of “The Universe” about parallel universes that generated enough thought for a quick philosophical post.

Image from Sciencephoto.com 

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve contemplated the concept of infinity. If existence is infinite, it logically follows that everything that could possibly be, is, at some point in space and time in some universe. For every event with different potential results, there is a universe in which each of those results is the one that occurred. For every decision you could make at any given juncture in your life, there is a universe in which each one of those decisions is the one you made. There’s a universe where you never gave up playing the guitar and you’ve become a huge rock star, a universe in which you had the guts to talk to that girl all those years ago and now you’re happily married, a universe in which you weren’t smart enough to avoid dangerous drugs and now you’ve died, and so on.

This is all highly speculative, of course. In fact, the idea is in a sense offensive to our whole outlook on reality. We like to believe that we are beings with free will and that our lives are a result of the choices we’ve made. But if there are an infinite number of universes in which every possibility is a reality, we are—every one of us—an inevitability. You exist as you currently do in the life situation you’re currently in because of logical necessity, because given an infinite amount of universes there had to be at least one in which you are the way you are.

The episode of “The Universe” that rekindled these thoughts in me surprised me by claiming that cosmologists have recently been conducting experiments that actually support this hypothesis—that quantum mechanics is leading the world’s leading scientists to believe that such a scheme of things is not only possible but perhaps even probable. I couldn’t possibly explain all of the science behind it (and the show itself didn’t go in-depth about the details as like most TV entertainment it tries to appeal to a low common denominator), so as a layman I’ll just have to take Michio Kaku’s word for it.

And what a horrifying possibility it is! To think that everything that can happen does happen is almost too much to bear, as it would mean there’s no reason to care about anything. For every single human being, there are universes in which they die of old age as well as universes in which they tragically die young. All of us die every single day in some universe (and hopefully you’re not in one of those universes today), so why even care about death? Your friend only died in this universe—there are plenty of universes where that friendship is still going strong.

And why bother fighting for a cause? There’s a universe in which Nazism prevailed in spite of the Allies’ best efforts to fight it, a universe in which the United States is still a British colony, a universe in which the Indians are still flourishing in the Americas, and on and on and on. There’s even a universe in which corporations don’t have an obscene amount of power which they use to funnel wealth from the masses of the world to consolidate even more of it. So what if we live in one of the universes in which they do?

There are only three ways to avoid falling into this sort of “cosmic apathy”, the first being what you’re already doing by default: just don’t think about it. There may be an infinite number of universes out there but as long as you maintain your focus on just this one, you won’t have to be bothered by the fact that there may very well be an infinite amount of you’s living vastly better or worse lives than the one you’re living now.

The second way is to just reject the premise of the whole infinity-argument altogether. Isn’t it philosophically possible to have infinite existence without universes repeating themselves? There may be an infinite number of universes, but we could imagine that none of them resemble each other. If the only requirement of infinity is that God go on creating things forever, why couldn’t God just keep creating different things without resorting to creating every possible version of the same things? (I’m only using God in a figurative sense here—there’s no need to posit an intelligent creator at all, just some force whereby potentialities become realities.)

The third way is one I came up with a long time ago but which is extremely difficult to wrap your head around and might just lead to the same problem. We may posit that there really are an infinite number of universes in which every possibility is realized, but if we separate consciousness from those universes we could imagine that only a finite number of those universes are experienced. We’d have to be dualists, asserting that mind and matter are two entirely separate phenomena, and we’d have to imagine that mind exists in a fundamentally different way than matter. Mind would have to have the ability to continuously shift from universe to universe depending on the conscious decisions it makes.

We can imagine it as a line drifting upwards through an endless sea of parallel platelets, each platelet representing one possible universe. With every decision, this line moves from one platelet to just one of the infinite number of platelets representing the next instant in time. This way, there are an infinite number of potential lives that exist for us but we only experience one (or perhaps a few, if we have the option of going back and trying again).

Where this theory runs into some very real conceptual difficulty is when we consider other minds. As our minds influence others, we may draw other lines with us into our chosen universe for awhile, and they may eventually drift away again. If each “soul” (and again I use this term figuratively) chooses its own path through the sea of potential universes and not all potentialities are experienced by each soul, then you could have universes in which you are the only conscious person because no other souls have chosen a path that led them to your universe. You might have chosen to marry that girl, but the soul that was in her when you made that decision might have taken a different path and now you’re married to a mindless zombie that only acts like she would have acted if her soul had chosen that path.

So that idea turns out not to be any more comforting than the idea that everyone experiences everything in every conceivable way. We are still in danger of slipping into cosmic apathy, as we could imagine that those who appear to be suffering might not actually be suffering because no soul would have chosen to be conscious as them.

These disturbing possibilities exist, unfortunately, and there’s currently no way to disprove them. All we can do is hope that the grand scheme of things is not as senseless as it would be if they were true. And if we want to live in a world where our actions do have meaning and the decisions we make actually do matter, we have to treat our lives as though they really are unique, and treat the world as though there’s only one.