Thursday, November 29, 2012

David Brooks Speaks Consiberally at Princeton

David Brooks, the ubiquitous political commentator, gave a fluid talk at Princeton University this past Monday evening, as the audience overflowed beyond the paneled confines of McCosh 50 into another room, and another room beyond that. On Public Broadcasting's News Hour, NPR's All Things Considered, the NY Times opinion page, and no doubt many other venues I'm not aware of, he plays the role of a moderately conservative commentator in an age when we see our politicians mostly through the filter of the punditocracy. Pundits like Brooks speak or write at length, while the words of our leaders are chopped up and delivered to us in sound bytes, with the exception every fourth year of party conventions and debates, and the annual state of the union address. Even on those occasions when political leaders get a chance to speak to us directly and unabridged, we still need commentators afterwards to tell us what we just heard.

But lest my own punditocratic tendencies obscure completely that of which Mr. Brooks spoke, here is an account:

David Brooks is a scintillating speaker who offers up a rich cuisine of anecdote, insight and perspective, sprinkled with humor and recommendations for books and articles worth reading. In a talk, he reveals aspects of his talent that remain largely hidden in his multimedia opinionating appearances. One witnesses a highly mobile and insatiable intellect that can morph at any moment into stand-up comedy.

Sometimes we found ourselves listening in rapt attention to a speaker telling us how messed up we are, as a nation, as a generation or as individuals. Other times, aware he was speaking to a room largely composed of Democrats, he served as go-between, making us privy to conversations he's had with his Republican friends. Much of what he says comes off as oblique criticism of the Republican Party he is hired to favor. Perhaps he could best be called a liservative or a consiberal, or a consiberal liservative, which when fused forms a consiberaliservative sandwich, in which liberalism is squeezed between two containing slices of conservatism and made visible only where it spills out around the edges.

So, again, let me aim to fend off digressions long enough to speak of what he spoke of:

First came an extended and many-angled comparison between 1950s culture and today. We are now more narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-satisfied, with higher self-esteem and lower achievement in math and science. We are worse followers, more obsessed with consumption and self-realization. There is less self-criticism, which might mean that people more often draw a line between good and evil not internally, through the middle of the self, but externally, as in us vs. them. There is a loss of public identity and public virtue. People live in information cocoons--witness Karl Rove denying the election results in Ohio. This most recent presidential campaign, Brooks said, was the most dishonest he had ever witnessed, and the campaign operatives were fine with that. (He preferred to imply that both sides were equally dishonest, which of course rewards the greater offender and punishes candidates who adhere more closely to truth.)

He made it clear he wasn't suggesting we return to the 1950s, but wanted to point out aspects from that time that had worth. Having become well-known and omnipresent in the political media, he somewhat ironically extols the virtues of the self-effacement common back then.

One thing Brooks would clearly like to bring back, though he won't say it explicitly, is the Republican Party of long ago. Republicans, he observes, "missed the shift" in America--the post 1950s changes in demographics, ethnicities, cultural norms. "The job of a conservative party is to conserve," by which he might mean remain the same in the face of change, though he could have noted that the Republican Party has not really conserved itself, but instead shifted dramatically in recent decades to embrace its more radical elements.

Many Republicans, he reports, wanted to quit Norquist's no new taxes pledge years ago, but are only now speaking openly about it. That would suggest a Republican Party under siege of its own ideology, its members afraid to speak their own opinions.

He says Republicans equate government action with dependency, while many growing elements of the electorate look at Pell Grants and community colleges as ways to become less dependent. Brooks calls for Republicans to return to a more Hamiltonian tradition in which government gives people the tools to excel. And he seems to empathize with Democrats trying to lead in a time when public virtue is less valued. He praises scientists for an ethos that shuns hasty conclusion and unsupported conviction. Brooks favors a national service requirement, in part because it would bring people of diverse economic and geographic backgrounds together in the service of the country, promoting a sense of shared destiny otherwise experienced only in times of disaster.

He is most optimistic about the judgement and spirit of those 35 and younger. He jokingly gave some credit for that to the parents of the below 35s, thus absolving just about all of us from his critical appraisal earlier in the lecture.

Despite Brooks' agile intellect, he is in some ways trapped, like those Republicans who can't, given the demands of ideological conformity, speak honestly about taxes or climate change. If Brooks wishes for a more honest, public spirited political discourse, then he must speak out directly and forcefully against the more rightwing elements he is employed to side with, rather than couching his criticisms in a "both sides are equally to blame" gauze of mutual culpability.

One could charitably say he is doing the best he can, as a conservative commentator in a time when conservatism, through radical drift and denial of reality, has mostly lost connection to its original meaning. But it's hard to sympathize. Brooks' mental agility can be used just as effectively to obscure truth as to reveal it, as in his Oct. 18 NY Times column's attempt to blame Al Gore for Republicans' refusal to support action against climate change:

"Al Gore released his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006. The global warming issue became associated with the highly partisan former vice president. Gore mobilized liberals, but, once he became the global warming spokesman, no Republican could stand shoulder to shoulder with him and survive. Any slim chance of building a bipartisan national consensus was gone."

After such a statement, conservatism lies eviscerated on the floor, an empty husk of what once may have been. Conservatism cannot preach personal responsibility while blaming others for its own intellectual cowardice. If climate change is real, and poses a grave risk to the country's future, then you don't sit back and blame one of the messengers for not being more lovable. When the status quo feeds radical changes in climate, attempts to "conserve" the status quo become a form of radicalism.

Like Christie in a talk in the same university lecture hall last year (see related post here), Brooks did not mention climate change.

He ended his talk with a final finale of one liners, worthy of a spot on Letterman's Late Show. During the Q and A, Brooks was accused by a morose-sounding fellow of making false assertions based on misleading interpretations of various studies, including a supposed comparison of American and Chinese values based on what they remember from looking at fish in an aquarium. A debunking can be found here, though Brooks refused to concede any error.

It would be a full time job to correct false impressions created by pundits. Their role is to speak authoritatively about myriad issues--an impossible task. Most lack the scientific training needed to appreciate the urgency of climate change, or to see nature as anything other than a distant backdrop for human drama. In fact, their training is not even considered relevant to whether we should take them seriously or not. Brooks' skill at sounding authoritative places him in high demand, but the more time he spends speaking or cranking out the next column, the less time he has to dig deeper into issues. Like a politician, he risks his living if he admits error or strays too far from his established positions. He can seem like an intellectual globetrotter, summoning whole eras for analysis and comment, and yet he is also trapped, struggling to escape from a box of his own making. Not surprising, then, that he's sounding consiberally more liservative with time.

The talk was a Stafford Little Lecture, part of the fall, 2012 Public Lecture Series

Monday, November 26, 2012

Lecture Notes: Realities Inside White House Energy Policy

Steve Fetter, a professor of public policy at University of Maryland, spoke to a packed room at Princeton University today about his experience working on science and technology in the White House. He first worked in the federal government during the Clinton administration, and then for three years in the Obama White House, setting priorities for policy and research. Some take-home points:

  • Much to his chagrin, he realized after his years of service that what he was most proud of was all the bad ideas he had been able to stop. It's far easier to stop bad ideas than to bring good ideas to fruition. 
  • One of his good ideas, in his estimation, was to protect the grid from any potentially debilitating massive solar storm that could occur in the future. The protecting technology is available and relatively inexpensive, and the risk, though only 1% in any given year, is substantial enough to be taken seriously. To bring the idea to fruition, however, would require working with some 2300 distributors of energy, and 50 states each with their own regulatory framework that would have to be amended. 
  • He thinks new initiatives in nuclear energy in the U.S. will prove impossible in the near term, because the "revolutionary" decline in cost of natural gas due to fracking technology will be maintained for at least ten or fifteen years. 
  • He thinks there is some chance that a carbon tax could be part of comprehensive tax reform (if such reform is allowed to happen) in coming months. He said that Republicans are open to new consumption taxes. Bob Inglis, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina who was ousted in the 2010 primaries by a Tea Party candidate, was mentioned again, as one of the people advocating among fellow Republicans for a carbon tax. 
  • He believes the Obama administration has done everything it could to promote green energy through executive order, given the resistance to larger initiatives requiring congressional support.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Romney's Next Campaign

The election results came more as a relief than reason for jubilation. For those living in New Jersey, the long campaign had registered as a distant rumble in battleground states, and yet there was no question that the stakes were high. After the first eight years of this century, followed by even further rightward drift by the Republican Party, few could entertain Nader's 2000 illusion that the two political parties are indistinguishable.

As election day approached, and Romney drew enthusiastic crowds in Pennsylvania, his voice sounding strong and confident on newscasts, I wondered if his campaign for freedom--freedom of the economy from the yoke of regulation, freedom of belief from fact, freedom of candidates from the tyranny of conviction--could prevail after all. Having seen some football games where the fates, or maybe the hand of God, had seemed to steer the outcome, I wondered if whoever is truly in charge--perhaps in this case the people--might have given Romney the nod, along with a giant wink for his well-documented veerings from truth.

Climate Change, running as an independent candidate rudely excluded from the debates, and without the financial wherewithal to buy media time, finally made landfall as a real contender for attention, riding on the coattails of Hurricane Sandy.

My greatest hope for Romney was that he had achieved his place at the top of the Republican ticket in the guise of a Trojan Horse, spouting views sufficiently rightward to gain access. Then, his presidential victory achieved, he would climb out of his wooden, ideological encasement, and move his party back towards the more moderate views that Romney had once claimed as his own. The doors of the heavily defended barricade would finally be opened to such realities as climate change, the role of regulation in preventing market meltdowns, and the lack of evidence that tax cuts raise revenue. It would have been a brilliant coup, but I had little confidence that he could escape from the wooden horse he had built around himself.

There's been some speculation about what Romney will do now. Mondale, trounced by Reagan in 1984, sought seclusion in a log cabin in the north woods. In Romney's case, however, his greatest campaign may still lie ahead. Having successfully staked out, over the course of his political career, dramatically contrasting positions, extending from center to far right, he is now well-positioned to launch a campaign against himself. As clearly demonstrated in his first debate with Obama, he has enough energy and mental agility to argue both sides. His Mormon background could inform the complex task of embracing two points of view simultaneously, in contrast to his past habit of divorcing one point of view in favor of another. And when the campaign inevitably gets nasty, he'll have enough wealth to sustain attack ads against his dueling selves indefinitely.

This solo campaign could go beyond filling the needs of political junkies in off years. Might his campaign function as a surrogate for irresolvable polarization the way sports can safely channel impulses that might otherwise lead nations to war? Romney will serve as a sort of medicine man or sin eater, absorbing and internalizing a nation's debilitating disease so that Congress can become functional once again. And if at some point he ran out of money and had to declare a winner, he would not have to suffer the humiliation of writing a last minute concession speech. Victory will have been pre-ordained.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Notes from a Talk by Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin

Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin gave a presentation at Princeton University this week on the politics of climate and energy. In 2007, she published a book on the increasing partisanship in the U.S. Congress called Fight Club Politics, and a subsequent book on sharks called Demon Fish. She found sharks to be more sympathetic creatures than many of the players in Congress.

Here are some notes from the talk, which was sponsored by the Program in Science, Techology and Environmental Policy:
  • She began by describing the shift in the Republican position on climate change. In 2008, Fred Thompson was the only Republican primary candidate for the presidency who denied human-caused climate change. By 2012, however, climate change had become a wedge issue for Republicans, Romney came under intense pressure to abandon his previous, more moderate views on the issue, and the EPA became the most attacked agency in Washington. 
  • The public is broadly supportive of action on climate change. A Washington Post poll showed 90% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans in favor of limits on greenhouse gases. There is, unfortunately, a lack of voter intensity on the issue. The number of voters who consider it a top concern (not sure if this is among all issues or among environmental issues) has dropped from 33% in 2007 to 18% now. She believes this drop is in part a response to the fact that politicians have stopped talking about climate. 
  • Democratic politicians feel they can take environmentalists for granted, given environmentalists have nowhere else to go for representation. The youth vote, however, requires more cultivation, and may be one reason Obama responded to's Bill McKibbon's demonstrations in Washington and delayed building the Keystone pipeline from Canada.
  • Eilperin listed a number of 2012 races for Congress in which environmentalists had a clear impact on getting Democrats elected, in Montana, New Mexico and elsewhere. The League of Conservation Voters in particular showed that it had learned how to be effective in campaigns. Her article on the subject can be found here.
  • She mentioned Bob Inglis, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina whose concern about climate change was used against him by the Tea Party to defeat him in a Republican primary a few years back. Since then, he's been spending time trying to get Republicans more concerned about climate. 
During Q and A, when asked about whether the mainstream media has adequately covered climate change in the past five years, Eilperin vigorously defended the Washington Post, NY Times and other publications and their coverage of the issue. 

The Importance of Repetition

What I believe is missing here is an understanding of how important repetition is for conveying the importance of an issue. Eilperin and other top reporters may publish well-researched articles, but it's the day to day reporting that determines what registers with readers. Since climate change doesn't generate as much news as, for instance, the stock exchange, then people will believe that the intensely reported daily swings of the market matter more than the largely unnoticed, relentless accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 
       Ms. Eilperin herself referred to the importance of repetition when saying people became less concerned about climate change when politicians stopped talking about it. 

Fire Ecology's Parallels with Climate Change

Afterwards, I asked her about an issue with parallels to climate change: fire ecology. Typical news coverage of wildfires will not mention that much of the destruction is human caused (more on this in another post, here), through mismanagement of forests and the building of homes in fire-prone areas. She responded by encouraging me to read several articles on fire ecology written by one of her colleagues. I'm sure if I can find those articles, they'll be excellent. But a few articles offering context will not compensate for the misleading template for day to day coverage of fires, which portrays humans as victims and blames the stray match or cigarette that may have started the fire, rather than the unnatural accumulations of fuel and the folly of building homes in harm's way. 
      This sort of day to day reporting reinforces the impression that people are victims of a "natural" disaster, while the truth is that human activity fuels the intensity and destructiveness of nature's fury. This oft-repeated misrepresentation--extending back many years before climate change became an issue and still embedded in the conventions of reporting today--makes people less receptive to believing that human activity could also affect climate. 

Bob Inglis

His transformation from Clinton-hating conservative firebrand to moderate, open-minded Republican deeply concerned about climate change is an inspiring story. There are many good articles on the web. This Wall Street Journal article is a good place to start, and if you can find the video of the congressional hearing in fall 2008, co-led by Inglis, you can see him in action in his last days as a Republican congressman.