Monday, August 8, 2011

The Changing Context of Science and Conservation

The context within which we scientists think about our research, our role in the national and global future, and the continuity or our own institutions, is coupled closely to national politics. That the context has changed grossly over the past two years and especially sharply recently is not news, but now even the purpose of government in the US is questioned. At a gathering yesterday of scientists in Woods Hole there was alarm, unprecedented in my own five decades of experience in research, at the accumulating cuts in budgets for education at all levels and the drastic cuts in federal support for research, especially on issues of environment and public health yet to come. There should be alarm, acute alarm, and much thought about what to do now. I found the editorial below a useful analysis in thinking about this strangely hostile milieu in which we must now operate. We have a new, urgent public role, in defining and defending the purpose and role of government, the critical issues of environmental integrity, the public interest and welfare, human rights including human birthrights, and what is required to preserve a civilization. It is time to start. GMW

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The Dysfunction at the Very Heart of American Politics

By Michael A Cohen, Guardian UK

07 August 11

As the system grinds into catastrophic gridlock, disillusioned voters feel it has less and less to do with their lives.

Nearly three years ago, on a night of great history, a slender
47-year-old black man who had just been elected to the nation's
highest political office offered the American people an optimistic
vision for the country's future. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, Barack
Obama spoke of national unity: "We are not enemies, but friends.
Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."

That night, Obama offered the American people a clear sense of his
overriding priority as president - it wasn't just to fix the ailing
US economy, provide healthcare for all or end the war in Iraq. But
rather, after eight years of political turmoil and disunity, through
the force of his personality and political temperament, Obama would,
as Lincoln said, "bind up the nation's wounds."

Things have not quite worked out as Obama planned. Even with poll
results suggesting that Americans prize compromise and are tired of
overt partisanship, the level of division and acrimony in Washington
has grown exponentially since Obama took office. The recent debt
limit debate is the apogee of Washington's dysfunction: and
indicative of a political system that is seemingly incapable of
dealing with national challenges. Indeed, whatever one may think of
Standard & Poor's recent downgrade of US debt, the ratings agency
view that "the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of
American policy-making and political institutions have weakened"
seems almost self-evident.

How has America been reduced to one party holding a gun to the US
economy and the other trading away its political principles to stop
the trigger from being pulled? The problem is that the US today has
one party intent on utilising government resources as a force for
social good and another that rejects any significant role for the
public sector. Compounding this collision of ideologies is a populace
so indifferent to the workings of their own government that they are
unable to choose which model they prefer.

This clash over the proper role for government in the US is one that
has defined our national politics for more than a century. But in the
last several years this conflict has become an existential one, with
Republicans basically abdicating their responsibility to govern. When
in power they made little effort to deal with the nation's many
challenges. In opposition, and particularly in the two and a half
years since Obama took office, they have used the tool of the Senate
filibuster and various other procedural impediments to try to stop
nearly all Democratic initiatives in their tracks. Whatever
legislation passed in the past few years is almost solely a product
of Democratic cohesion (an attribute that is generally in short
supply) - and a brief window in which Democrats enjoyed a
filibuster-proof majority in the US Senate.

From this perspective, threatening economic cataclysm in order to
further reduce the size of government, by refusing to raise the debt
limit, now seems like an inevitable step in Washington's scorched
earth politics. That it forced Democrats to agree to trillions in
painful spending cuts without any commensurate revenue hikes shows
how successful this strategy of policy extortion can be.

So why do Democrats put up with it? They have little choice. The
American political system discourages radicalism and relies on
compromise. Yet the violation of even the most customary rules of
governance has made such deal-making now nearly impossible. It was
once considered a given that, with the rarest of exceptions, a
president would be able to appoint his own charges to key
policy-making positions; and the debt ceiling was considered an
occasionally politicised but generally pro forma exercise. No longer.
In a system designed around collegiality, Democrats have few tools in
their arsenal to combat the GOP's political obstinacy.

As a result, America is increasingly moving toward a parliamentary
system in which politicians, rather than voting along regional lines
or in pursuit of parochial interests, cast their ballot solely based
on whether there is a D or R next to their name. Such a system might
work well in the UK, but in the US, with its institutional focus on
checks and balances and the many tools available for stopping
legislation, a parliamentary-style system is a recipe for inaction.

What compounds the Democrats' challenge is that they are the party of
activist government. When in opposition, they find it hard to use the
Republicans' jamming techniques; when in power they feel the almost
quaint need to act responsibly. Any scent of scandal or illegitimate
behaviour that undermines the electorate's confidence in government
in turn undermines the Democrat's brand.

Case in point on the debt: liberals far and wide urged Obama to
consider invoking the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, which
suggests that the country's public debt must continue to be paid. As
the left argued, this would have resolved the crisis. In a worst-case
scenario, Republicans might impeach the president in the House of
Representatives, but, as the argument went, wouldn't this be a good
way to rally the country around Obama? But such tactical
recommendations miss a crucial element; if low-information voters
(the vast majority of Americans) look to Washington and see the
nation's political leaders arguing about impeachment and
constitutional crises that have little connection to their own lives
it exacerbates their lack of confidence in government. For many
conservatives it would only confirm their irrational belief that
President Obama is a power-hungry tyrant.

Thus for Democrats, gridlock is their most pernicious enemy; a point
Republicans understand all too well. The more they stop government
from operating effectively the more it emphasises their key political
narrative that there is no reason to have any confidence in public
institutions. Tom Schaller, a political scientist at the University
of Maryland, said to me that Republicans understand that if you have
a vat of sewage and you pour in a glass of wine you still have a vat
of sewage. But if you pour a glass of sewage into a vat of wine,
guess what, you now have a vat of sewage. In short, a little
political poison can go a long way. So while liberal complaints that
President Obama is far too solicitous of Republicans and far too
wedded to his post-partisan agenda (all probably true), a reversion
to bare-knuckled politics is not necessarily going to make things any
easier or better for progressives.

As the Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg noted in the New York
Times, "voters feel ever more estranged from government" and "they
associate Democrats with government." More crises in Washington are
not going to help that process.

Why do voters put up with such a situation? Polling suggests that the
electorate wants their leaders to focus on jobs, rather than the
deficit; and work toward compromise, rather than gridlock. So why
then do they reward political parties, such as the Republicans, that
act decidedly against not only their preferences but also their interests?

The answer lies in the apathy of the American people toward their own
government. The ultimate check on Republican nihilism would be voter
revolt. But in the last congressional election, voters rewarded
unprecedented Republican obstructionism with control of the House of

What's worse, voter preferences are often contradictory. Polls
suggest that the electorate wants political leaders to cut spending,
but then also demand no cuts in any government programme that isn't
foreign aid. They want Congress to focus more on creating jobs, but
recoil at policies, such as the bailout of the US auto industry or
the stimulus package, that did just that. One problem is that
Americans have been so inundated with anti-government rhetoric over
the past 40 years they seem to have trouble identifying any link
between government engagement and a robust economy.

Worst of all, Americans may prefer Democratic policies, but they have
little confidence in government's ability to fulfil those promises
and then blame both parties for inaction. They are so mistrustful of
government and shockingly uninformed about its working that,
perversely, via the ballot boxes, they directly contribute to the
political stalemate they so regularly decry.

The result is a political system that is perhaps more incapacitated
than at any point in modern history. Across the US, states have to
cut social services and benefits because they are receiving no
support from the federal government. Infrastructure is crumbling,
millions of American students are trapped in under-performing
schools, the existential threat of climate change is off the
political radar screen and job growth is barely on the agenda. Even
the most recent agreement to cut the bloated federal deficit does
virtually nothing to deal with the greatest driver of national
indebtedness - healthcare spending. What all of this suggests is that
the episode played out over the past few weeks of one party
threatening to plunge the nation into economic catastrophe is not
some rare event - it's the new norm in American politics. And perhaps
the most glaring indication that Barack Obama's vision of new
post-partisan America will be a dream perhaps permanently deferred.