They Aren’t Even Pretending Anymore

For the past several years, political scientists and pundits have published articles bemoaning the erosion of democracy and democratic norms, and Americans who follow government and politics have nodded in measured agreement.

I say “measured” because we still retain the trappings of democracy–campaigns, elections, the free press that so annoys Donald Trump. But this year, we are coming face-to-face with a reality we’ve been avoiding: our elections are mostly a sham, and legislators–who haven’t felt the need to reflect the will of those who voted for them for quite some time–no longer are bothering even  to pretend that they are “representative.”

David Leonhardt has noticed.

In November, the people of Utah voted to provide health insurance for about 150,000 state residents who lacked it. Last week, Utah’s legislators overruled their own constituents and took away insurance from about 60,000 of those 150,000 people.

The legislators claimedthey were trying to save money, but that’s not a credible rationale: The federal government would have covered the bulk of the cost. The true reason — which the legislators weren’t willing to admit publicly — was a philosophical objection to government-provided health insurance.

Utah’s turnabout is the latest worrisome exampleof politicians rejecting the will of voters.

The offending politicians have been mostly Republican, as they are in Utah. “You see a rising, disturbing trend here of equivocation, if not worse, in the commitment to democratic norms on the part of a growing number of Republicans,” Larry Diamond, a Stanford University democracy expert, told my colleague Ian Prasad Philbrick. “Is this what the Republican Party wants to be? The anti-democracy party?”

Leonhardt provides examples from Idaho, Maine and Michigan, and notes that, In Missouri,  legislators are attempting to subvert a ballot initiative that would reduce gerrymandering.

In Utah, the legislature partly overturned a new law allowing medical marijuana.

These examples involved lawmakers ignoring the results of state referenda. Indiana doesn’t allow referenda, but our lawmakers have been equally willing to ignore the clear wishes of their voters.

This year, both the Indiana and Indianapolis Chambers of Commerce have made passage of bias crimes legislation a priority. Business and civic leaders throughout the state formed an organization, Forward Indiana, to support the bias crimes bill. The governor has asked the legislature to pass it. In a poll of Hoosiers on the issue, 84 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents, and 63 percent of Republicans supported passage of a hate crimes bill focused on marginalized Hoosiers.

The Senate GOP eviscerated the measure, gutting the language that made it legally effective. All indications are that the House–which, like the Senate, has a Republican super-majority with a history of homophobia–will concur.

If Indiana lawmakers actually represented their constituents, passage would have been a no-brainer. But thanks to gerrymandering, Indiana lawmakers feel free to ignore the wishes of the public they ostensibly serve, and they do so with some regularity.

As Common Cause has explained, we have a system in which the legislators choose their voters rather than a truly democratic system in which voters choose legislators. And until that  changes, lawmakers will continue ignoring We the People.

Like the lawmakers in Utah and other states, they don’t even bother to pretend any more.

It’s Not Easy Being Green…

There has been a lot of discussion about the “Green New Deal” proposed by several Democrats. Critics have pooh-poohed it as “pie in the sky,” while others have praised it for setting high aspirations.

As usual, Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars has cut through the sanctimony, pro and con.

It’s really just a set of goals, not a really specific program for how to achieve those goals. The resolution calls for a “10-year national mobilization” to work toward the end goal of ending greenhouse gas emissions and replacing all of our energy production with renewable sources. In order to keep the rise in global temperatures at 1.5% or lower, it sets these goals:

(A) global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human sources of 40 to 60 percent from 2010 levels by 2030; and
(B) net-zero global emissions by 2050;

This doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to me. What I have long called for is a national program similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority project, which was a huge push from the federal government to electrify rural areas in that valley. It should be the policy of the government to invest enormous resources in the development of new renewable energy technologies (principally solar and wind), better battery storage and to replace the current electric grid with modern technology.

As Brayton points out, the measure also calls for conservation– especially through the upgrading of older buildings and building new ones with energy efficiency in mind.

At this point, the Green New Deal is primarily symbolic; its passage would signal recognition of the threat that climate change poses, and America’s determination to do everything we can to ameliorate that threat. Recent scientific reports have underlined the immediacy of the damage being done by a warming earth: insects are disappearing; oceans are warming and rising, contributing to extreme weather events; coral reefs are disappearing…the list goes on.

In a time of significant political polarization, climate change is the common enemy: we really are all in this together. At the very least, our quarreling and hostile tribes should be able to come together to combat the changes that threaten the planet. And as the U.N. Report makes clear, those changes are on our doorstep. 

Oceans have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished and the sea level has risen. From 1901 to 2010, the global average sea level rose by 19 cm as oceans expanded due to warming and ice melted. The sea ice extent in the Arctic has shrunk in every successive decade since 1979, with 1.07 × 106 km² of ice loss per decade.

Given current concentrations and ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases, it is likely that the end of this century that global mean temperature will continue to rise above the pre-industrial leve. The world’s oceans will warm and ice melt will continue. Average sea level rise is predicted to be 24–30 cm by 2065 and 40–63 cm by 2100 relative to the reference period of 1986–2005. Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries, even if emissions are stopped.

There is alarming evidence that important tipping points, leading to irreversible changes in major ecosystems and the planetary climate system, may already have been reached or passed. Ecosystems as diverse as the Amazon rainforest and the Arctic tundra, may be approaching thresholds of dramatic change through warming and drying. Mountain glaciers are in alarming retreat and the downstream effects of reduced water supply in the driest months will have repercussions that transcend generations.

I don’t think we can get “too ambitious.”

Journalism Declines And Scandals Rise

I know I harp a lot on the importance of accurate, credible journalism–especially at the local level, but it is really, really important.

Believe it or not, the ongoing scandals in Virginia, which have embroiled the top three state officeholders, are illustrations of what happens when local coverage goes missing.

As Amanda Marcotte observed in Salon, 

The Virginia scandal is a reflection of a larger trend where politics will be driven more and more by revelations, gotcha moments and resulting scandals. The decline in robust, in-depth journalism, particularly on the local level — coupled with the rise of social media and well-funded partisan opposition research — is creating an atmosphere where political scandals, legitimate or not, will increasingly dominate politics and media.

“You have this degradation of resources in local journalism, which has been going on for a while now,” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, which is currently offering a fellowshipfor local investigative journalism. “You also have this counterpart, which is that it’s easier than before for opposition researchers on all sides to dig up dirt of this sort.”

Benton explained that the decline in local journalism allows politicians in the early stages of their careers, when they are likely to be running for school board or city council,  to escape the scrutiny they would previously have gotten from the relevant local media.

Philip Napoli, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, added that this trend has coincided with another, “the rise of social media and the ways that political candidates are able to communicate with their constituencies directly” and present a version of themselves that’s more to their own liking.

The result is that politicians simply don’t get the vetting they might once have received as they climb the career ladder from smaller offices to statewide and even national offices. Red flags that might have been noticed before a politician reached a position of significant power get overlooked, because local papers simply don’t have the resources to catch them.

The decline in local coverage has coincided with the rise of partisan outlets– not just national networks like Fox and Sinclair, but local talk radio and blogs less concerned with accuracy than with scoring points.  Add to that the gift of the internet– the wealth of materials that vigorous opposition research can now unearth– and you have a recipe for ongoing scandals appearing at extremely “inconvenient” times in politicians’ careers.

In the “old model,” Benton said, people  who wanted to share damning information like sexual assault allegations or past episodes of racist conduct would “go to a reporter and hand him or her the documents or the evidence,” and that reporter would “determine whether the information that’s being handed to them is correct or not.”

 “Now, increasingly you can just post it online and skip that step in the process,” he added. So questions about whether the information is true and legitimately newsworthy don’t get answered in advance.

It appears that the Virginia accusations are all true, although the stories were “broken” by a sleazy partisan web site. But in other cases, innocent parties and organizations sustained real (and sometimes permanent) damage before manufactured allegations could be debunked. Remember when Breitbart accused the nonprofit ACORN of being involved in sex trafficking? Its story was entirely false, but it led to the group’s collapse. A doctored video was used to accuse Planned Parenthood of selling “baby parts” from aborted fetuses and was gleefully spread far and wide. It was later shown to be part of the ongoing, deceptive effort to convince lawmakers to stop funding Planned Parenthood, but pro-life groups continue to cite it as “evidence” of the organization’s evil doings.

In the absence of adequate, reliable reporting, conspiracy theories and partisan invention will fill the void. And citizens won’t know what they can and can’t believe.

The problem is national, but far more prevalent at the local level.

Meanwhile…

Like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, most of America is transfixed and distracted by the daily Gong Show in Washington.

It’s bad enough that–while the news focuses on the President’s most recent bizarre and misspelled tweet storm– cabinet members are busily rolling back regulations protecting citizens from contaminated air and water, protecting students from predatory “educators,” or protecting irreplaceable national lands from being ravaged and looted by fossil fuel interests.

Worse, we are also being distracted from emerging reports about changes to our planet that should terrify us.

The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

The planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinctionin its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animalsthat are easier to study. But insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.

We are beginning to see reports of the collapse of insect populations, and the researchers who authored the report say that the phenomenon extends globally–far beyond the specific collapses that have been documented. As the article in the Guardian put it,

The researchers set out their conclusions in unusually forceful terms for a peer-reviewed scientific paper: “The [insect] trends confirm that the sixth major extinction event is profoundly impacting [on] life forms on our planet.

“Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” they write. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”

The article, published in the academic journal Biological Conservation, attributes the dramatic decline of insect populations to intensive agriculture, especially the heavy use of pesticides, although it also found that urbanization and climate change are significant contributors to the problem.

There have been a number of stories about the mysterious loss of bee colonies-indications are that western states like Oklahoma lost half of their bumblebees between 1949 and 2013. But the problem extends far beyond bees, and the consequences of the predicted insect loss would be staggering.

One of the biggest impacts of insect loss is on the many birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish that eat insects. “If this food source is taken away, all these animals starve to death,” he said. Such cascading effects have already been seen in Puerto Rico, where a recent study revealed a 98% fall in ground insects over 35 years.

The new analysis selected the 73 best studies done to date to assess the insect decline. Butterflies and moths are among the worst hit. For example, the number of widespread butterfly species fell by 58% on farmed landin England between 2000 and 2009. The UK has suffered the biggest recorded insect falls overall, though that is probably a result of being more intensely studied than most places.

I strongly advise clicking through and reading the entire, depressing article. At the very least, it will give you something to be depressed about other than the disaster in the White House.

No Merit In Merritt?

Jim Merritt wants to be the Mayor of Indianapolis. It seems timely, then, to evaluate whether his performance in the statehouse has been in the best interests of those of us who live in the city he wants to lead.

His most recent performance fails that test.

During this session, a really important bill was sent to the Senate Utilities Committee, which Merritt chairs. Introduced by Sen. J.D. Ford, it would  have repealed last year’s highly controversial and damaging measure phasing out net metering in Indiana.

Merritt refused to give it a hearing.

Net metering is a billing arrangement between a customer who has a renewable energy system—typically solar panels—and the customer’s electric utility. When the system generates more electricity than the customer uses, the excess gets added to the grid and the customer gets credited at the same rate the utility charges when the customer is purchasing energy from the grid. Even though it’s an even swap, however, the customer also pays the utility an amount sufficient to cover its overhead costs–billing, meter reading, etc. Fair enough.

Net metering benefits utilities, customers and the general public by increasing grid resiliency and security, reducing carbon emissions, and reducing toxic air emissions.

But Senate Bill 309, passed last year, phased net metering out. Instead, it required customers to sell all of the electricity they generate to the utility at a much lower price than the utility charges its customers, and then buy back what they need at the “retail” price.

As I calculated it at the time, utilities would pay customers somewhere between 2.5 and 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour, but customers would have to buy it back at retail rates between 11 and 16 cents per kilowatt hour. It effectively priced rooftop solar and small-scale wind generation out of Indiana’s market–at a time when other states were encouraging it.

An Indianapolis Star investigation looked at how such laws have played out in other states, as well as the impact of the bill’s introduction, and warned that SB 309 “could put an entire industry at risk of stagnation at best — and, at worst, collapse.”

The Columbus’ Republic accurately summarized the bill at the time as a “fundamental change to Indiana’s solar energy policy,” based  “on a lack of evidence and faulty logic”and warned that it would severely undermine the future of solar power in the state.

The newspaper called the measure a “Trojan Horse,” and ended with a plea to Indiana legislators to defeat the bill.

A number of legislators opposed the measure. Representative Carey Hamilton–one of the most environmentally knowledgeable members of the Indiana legislature–argued that the task of determining rates should be left to the IURC, rather than the legislature. (During the committee hearing, Brant Hershman–the bill’s sponsor– admitted that he had “come up with” the rate in the bill himself.)

Rep. Matt Pierce, who also opposed the bill, pointed out that it would create uncertainty for small businesses and Hoosiers investing in the solar industry. Pierce also pointed out that there had been six hours of testimony, and the only people in favor of the bill were the utilities.

Senator Ford’s bill was a welcome effort to reverse what every knowledgeable observer considers bad policy. Senator Merritt refused to hear it.

I assume the utilities are properly grateful. Voters shouldn’t be.