A Lesson in the Demise of Senator Skelos

Former New York State Senator Dean Skelos is going to jail for steering government contracts to his son as well as constructing quid pro quo arrangements for his son. The man was president of the State Senate and now he is convicted felon. At a newsy level his story is just another corrupt politician in a state with a long history of government corruption; however, the Skelos drama was almost an immitigable tragedy for the environmental health of the state.

One of the contracts Senator Skelos was trying to steer to his son was a consultant’s post for a fracking consortium. The deal was contingent on the state legislature passing a bill allowing fracking and Governor Cuomo signing off on the bill. The bill passed, regulatory agencies waffled, and only at the last minute did the governor refuse fracking in the state.

In one of the depositions, Skelos stated something to the effect that nobody wanted fracking in the state anyway. For a sum of a few hundred thousand dollars, the senator was willing to ruin the groundwater across numerous counties affecting thousands of residents and to accelerate climate change with the release that much more carbon into the atmosphere. The greed is bad enough but there is more to consider.

The consequences of fracking cannot be remediated. There are no courses of action that can purge the contamination of aquifers due to fracking. Further, there is no method to recall and seal away the millions of tons of carbon that are released into the atmosphere by fracking. Fracking is destroying areas of the country for lifetimes to come at the least and accelerating possibly irreversible climate change, which is our worst fear. Skelos was willing to do this for $400,000.

At every stage of this fracking debate in New York State, citizens and environmental organizations fought hard, bring to bear the science, the community concerns, and the moral imperative to keep fracking out of the state. Skelos did not give a scintilla of a thought to the science though he did not dismiss it. Worse, he ignored it. He had no moral compass, meaning that all of those impassioned arguments against fracking were trivialized as well. He heard all of the rancor and discord, dismissing it all in a narrow quest for the money.

Those of us who fight for legislation based on climate science are a serious lot, taking upon ourselves this burden as a life or death issue. It is. Former Senator Skelos and his ilk repudiate our fight as if it is just another political skirmish, another opportunity for scoring political points or securing personal financial gain. Their approach is morally reprehensible. Humanists and God believers alike are repulsed for the same reason of short-sighted moral bankruptcy.

The lesson of Senator Skelos is that we cannot relent on the pressure we bring to bear. Dean Skelos was never going to listen but Governor Cuomo did. In any given legislative or regulatory push, we may never know where our voice of reason and merit will overcome the obstacles. So we push; we push everywhere. To friends and foes alike, let all take note that we will not stop until our planet is pulled back from the brink.

Lazy Binary

In an interview on NPR, Charles Blow was discussing his recently published memoir that contains traumatic subject material. He dismissed a great deal of the commentary that has surrounded the subject matter, labeling it “lazy binary.” The binary refers to the digital world of “0’s” and “1’s” that excludes the use of any other terms. The literary practitioner of the lazy binary is guilty of ignoring shades and subtlety, but also of a logic fallacy of insisting that there are two equidistant views of a controversy that resides in the middle between them.

Subtlety is not convenient. In the tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) world of digital media, readers skim rather than read through the text. Subtlety requires paying attention and following an argument step by step as it moves from broad statement to specific points of explanation. Subtlety takes time and focus. Subtlety is the victim of sound bites and twitter. Most would agree that the world does not need more sound bites.

Subtlety has a long history of being ignored or denigrated but the logic fallacy is actually more pernicious. This insistence that there are two equally worthy opposing views on any given assumption is a favorite tool of partisans, ideologues, fanatics, and hell bent capitalists. In a given circumstance, there may only be one legitimate point of view but an opposing view is given equal billing because it seems fairer or reads better. Given a forum, a self-serving ideologue can do a lot of damage.

I feel like we are discussing elementary school. Subtlety does not exist because the young minds have not developed enough. The idea that a controversy may have more than one side is also an early academic grades lesson too. So is the corollary that not all sides are equal.

Why then do we have to constantly remind ourselves now of these early lessons? Lazy binary, indeed.

American Democracy 2014, part 2

The United States has the best Congress that money can buy. The funny thing about that statement is not the money, which is true, but the idea of the best Congress. The approval ratings for Congress among the polled population of the United States is in the ten’s or teen’s. If we were viewing Congress on Amazon or Zappos, we would not be clicking the “Buy” button.

Congress is not happy with themselves either. They will not sit in the same dining room with each other, nor exchange greetings in the hallway or even acknowledge the others’ existence except as caricatured villains. Why are they unhappy?

They have the same issue their constituents have – they despise the money that funds their legislative seat. Individual senators and representatives must spend hours each day raising campaign money. They must raise between $1,500 to $10,000 each day (analysts disagree on a number) to fund the ever more expensive, longer campaign season. Your legislators sit in a Democratic or a Republican campaign office just off of Capitol Hill every day trolling for money. They will spend more hours asking for money than they will spend legislating according to some commentators.

Almost everybody is unhappy with the system we have now. Almost everyone.

Our national legislators may be compared to hamsters on the wheel in a cage, a very nice cage to be sure. They have to keep going; they have to fill the campaign chest. They also have to write legislation and vote on it. People are on the other end of the phone telling the senators and the representatives how they should vote but it is usually not constituents. Constituents talk to the legislative consultants on staff. Their leadership is telling them how to vote for the sake of the party apparatus, which also needs money. Somewhere, far out there is in the field, is a press secretary telling the constituents that the representative and the senator is doing all he/she can to get it right for them.

The nature of American democracy is that there should be some money involved. People willing to put up money to fund a candidacy is a legitimate test of worth and electability. However, we are far beyond the reasonable test of money in campaigns. The extremely high bar for dollars that we have now has invalidated and corrupted what was once a worthwhile hurdle.

American democracy 2014 is the most expensive Congress that money can buy. We expect Congress to help us when it seems that we need to help them more.

American Democracy 2014

Every year I take High School students to Capitol Hill to lobby on issues of Social Justice. Watching the students engage and and argue their points with the legislative consultants in the offices is an uplifting experience. However, none of these students will be making donations to their legislator’s campaigns and that niggling fact pesters we as I walk the halls of the Canon and Rayburn buildings, especially after the Citizen’s United decision from the Supreme Court allowing corporations to make unlimited donations.

I was wrong. Citizen’s United did not change voting patterns in the U.S. Congress. The twist is that the voting patterns had already changed a dozen years earlier. A new study out of Princeton University compares opinion polls on issues and bills before congress with money spent by lobbyists in the employ of specific interests whose opinion was contrary to the constituents. The special interests won more often – a lot more often.

The radical conclusion of the new study is that the United States is no longer a democracy but an oligarchy. Legislation is passed that reflects the opinions of the very wealthy and disregards the opinions of the rest of the citizens.

The study is found here: http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf

A synopsis of the study is found here: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/04/14/us-oligarchy-not-democracy-says-scientific-study