Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Shame on you GM

What a sham! On the way to work, the news reported that General Motors was offering qualified buyers a cap on the gasoline they buy. The models that are eligible, and must be bought between may 25 and July 5, are some of the largest, most gas-guzzling models GM currently offers. Included in that bunch is the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, the Hummer H2 and H3, the GMC Yukon, and more. The rebates apply only to those buyers in California or Florida and are also contingent on purchasing the OnStar diagnostic system.

Thank you, GM, for continually lowering the bar on helping to rid ourselves of oil dependence and working to preserve the environment. While nearly all other major auto manufacturers have worked to develop cleaner burning, lower emission, higher mileage vehicles, you create this. This is what happens when a stagnant auto maker, seeing the numbers falling on their beloved SUVs as people wisen up to the costs - both social, environmental, and financial - of owning such hulking monstrosities, decides that, rather than adapt to the market and improve their autos, they're going to jam their fingers in the dam and hope to hell that staves off disaster. Ford didn't follow this example; they introduced a hybrid vehicle. VW has improved their diesel offerings. Only you are sitting here pining away on the glory days of SUV bumper crops. It's time to face the facts GM and get with the program. I hope your rebate program goes no where.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

How Green is my Basket?

It is too bad that the American people are so oblivious to their own power. Beyond their political voices, which are usually under-represented in the polls every November, Americans are able to “vote with their dollars” to quote the now-trite phrase. And while that concept is thrown around a lot, few understand the power that it can direct towards changing our society, and even our government. The cases where it has been applied we can see positive results emerging, usually in sectors where the government has proven too sterile in effecting the changes that people – judging from their fiscal “voting” – desire. Traditionally, these areas are environmentally-friendly products and/or services and consumption choices that positively augment the position of people around the world.

One of the nice qualities of these movements is they are usually grassroots, which has generally been associated with a popular movement growing up and gaining strength. It shows mass popularity for something to grow from the small end of the spectrum. Smaller businesses are easier to be “green” or “organic” or whatever eco- or social-friendly moniker you desire to ascribe to them. Large businesses have a sort of economic momentum due to their size and corporate culture which imposes barriers to such changes. They are also not inherently socially conscious, focused upon profits and shareholders as opposed to workers or the environment. It is not to say that these companies are inherently evil, it is just their nature within a large capitalist market. Smaller businesses are able to adapt to changing consumer patterns rather quickly, and it is in these small stores and markets that such concepts as fair trade certification, organically grown crops, recycled packaging, shade grown foods, and other socially conscious developments emerge. (Plus, and it is important to note, that these stores have a clientele that is able to afford the higher prices that accompany the initial costs associated with not only developing a product in this manner, but also having it certified by a recognized international oversight organization. This is almost a crucial aspect to the success of such movements, and thus can be best executed in first world nations.)

This is a curious precipitation from strict, traditional capitalism: the people’s will to see and affect a change in the world around them that does not, initially or intuitively, grant them a benefit. And as these movements – based in small stores, farmers markets, co-ops, and other niche retailers – grows, it builds more and more momentum. It is a good reward for those who take the time to adopt such products into their stores, as well as the consumers who choose to consciously make these purchases due to the social and environmental implications they carry. The momentum can carry these new tenets of business practices all the way to the “big boys.” It is heartening to see when big companies adopt these products or practices, a successful apex to each grassroots beginning. And they have been, spurred on by the dollar votes of consumers. The examples are almost limitless:

There are numerous debates on how large companies and organizations can still maintain the ideals and spirit of the measures they have adopted, and that is a valid concern. But what is most striking is that these large businesses and organizations even thought along these lines. And all of that translates directly into the power of consumers, whether they are people buying lattes or students paying for an education, to shift the paradigms that rule businesses.

One would think that with this record of success in deploying these initiatives among businesses it would become a more standard procedure to attack problems from a fiscal perspective. However, this is sadly not the case. The overriding reason, I believe, is that implementation of these solutions from the ground-up takes too long to manifest itself; only the most careful of planning and execution can pull off these coups. But victory is possible. And there is no shortage of social ills that one could apply this methodology towards.

I see oil consumption as the next major battle to be waged and won through financial means. The government has regularly shown its incompetence towards achieving a viable solution to the problem of our fossil fuel “addiction” as our President put it. This is not a condemnation of either side of the aisle, but of the government as a whole. Tax rebates, ANWR drilling, protectionist mergers are all as equally useless as they are clouding to the debate. But the people are speaking. Toyota was one of the first to bring an assembly-line hybrid vehicle to the market, a car which provides substantially higher gas mileage than normal cars (55mpg per Toyota’s testing versus 27.5 for the American fleet average). Instantly the demand flew through the roof. There were reports that there existed a 7-month wait period merely to purchase one of these technological wonders. Detroit must have been scratching their heads, wondering why no one would patiently wait seven months for a new Ford or Chevy. And it grew. Honda quickly caught up with their own hybrids, Toyota expanded their line up. Ford got on board by leasing Honda’s technology. Most car manufacturers are set to introduce hybrid vehicles within the next year if they haven’t already. And since transportation still consumes the majority of America’s oil, this is a good place to start. Other solutions include bio-diesel, ethanol (General Motor’s E85 program is growing) and liquid natural gas (LNG) vehicles. This is a much better solution than what Washington is providing, and more effective than the lamely-introduced “boycotts” of oil companies that periodically surface yet never work. The gears are in motion.

Americans need to wake up to the fact that using their buying power wisely and effectively can mean bringing about the changes that we desire to see in our nation. As much as buying power can be used for positive reinforcement (consumers buying from a certain company because they provide the desired products/services), it can also be negative punitive measures when companies do things that the citizens/consumers of this country dislike. Boycotts, when organized effectively, can highlight public awareness, visibly display disapproval of a certain organizations’ actions, and serve to, through financial burdens, and force a change for the better. I wrote of this back in April within the environmental movement , but it can apply to whichever cause you desire to augment with your efforts. That, and a little personal sacrifice which is a whole other issue. In capitalism, the ultimate weapon, ruler, and metric of a people is the dollar. Learning to wield those dollars in wise ways could go far to cut through current problems we face and unveil new and innovative solutions from which all global citizens’ benefit.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Red Scare or Red Herring?

With the energy crisis that is rapidly speeding towards America, indeed the whole world, there is a rush to politicize fossil fuels, as well as mounting international competition for those resources. Energy security and energy politics are the new buzzwords for governments everywhere. Russia was recently accused by Vice President Cheney of using their energy reserves as “tools of manipulation or blackmail.” Evo Morales, Bolivia’s new President, decided to nationalize their natural gas reserves, calling it, “a historic day in which Bolivia retakes absolute control of [Bolivia’s] natural resources.” For the United States, however, there is a single, primary competitor in the world of energy resources. The world’s largest fossil fuel user, it seems, is entering a direct confrontation with China, the world’s fastest-growing fossil fuel user. This competition is setting the stage for energy policies for decades to come, and unfortunately there exists a blindness associated with this duel that makes for bad politics, grandstanding, and a deflection from some of the real issues and solutions. Politicians have used China’s recent energy-gathering measures as a kind of new scare of Communist domination, when 1) China is merely playing the US’s game, and winning; and 2) there are more important solutions to be focused upon for our energy issues.

The first salvo fired in the energy wars between the two behemoths occurred last year, when the Chinese firm CNOOC Ltd. put in a bid for an American oil company, Unocal Corp. The bid, in good capitalist fashion, beat out a competitive offer from Chevron Corp. by over $2 billion. However, the deal was squashed. Why? Pressure from American politicians, worrying about the implications that China may be consolidating oil futures for itself, construed the take-over bid as a hostile maneuver against American national security. It drew immediate fire from politicians of all sorts, even prompting a threat of an investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a secretive committee designed to investigate whether or not foreign takeovers and investments constitutes a threat to our national security. This would have been the first time CFIUS would be reviewing a natural resource company. Skeptics wondered about the true threat the bid posed. James Lewis, a technology transfer expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “From a security perspective, it’s as much of a threat as when the Japanese purchased [New York’s] Rockefeller Center.” There was nothing untoward about the deal from the Chinese company (which was ultimately withdrawn in the face of such pressure). In reality, it was just good capitalism that was squashed by protective political maneuvers. This is not such new news for the United States, as protectivism has been documented in this administration towards the Vietnamese fishing industry, international steel industry, and others.

The rhetoric escalated this past week when Cuba announced that it was opening up a portion of its territory on the Florida Straits to offshore drilling – with China being one of the main bidders to attract the contract. China was not the only country negotiating the leases to drill off of Cuba’s coast; India, Spain, and Canada were also represented in the company’s agreements. This land is thought to hold a fair amount of oil and natural gas, commodities that are undoubtedly important given the instability in the Middle East, decreased American domestic production of oil, and rising demand worldwide. Politicians in the United States were quick to jump on the anti-China protectionist bandwagon. Senator Larry E. Craig, R-ID, even made a compliment which smacks of Cold War fear-mongering, saying “Red China should not be left to drill for oil within spitting distance of our own shores without competition from US industries.” Red China? Excuse me? Are we still stuck in the 70s here?

The rising concerns over energy, its availability and its pricing, has led politicians to use this as a new weapon to attack other governments, especially China. Yet nothing that China is doing is so unlike what other nations, the United States included, has done in the past to secure energy futures. Britain spent decades trying to subvert efforts for Iran to become a free nation with U.S. assistance. The companies of the United States hold oil development land rights across the globe, including Libya (not exactly the most U.S.-friendly nation), Venezuela, Australia, and more. China is asserting itself on the global scale now; they are stepping up and trying to secure their energy to ensure their future development. To use such trite phrases to intimidate them, or to spur anti-competitive action, is childish at best.

No, these observations are inherently counterproductive to developing a cohesive national energy policy. The anti-competitive statements merely prejudice our public and shift their attention away from viable solutions, of which protectivism is not one. Trying to bully China away from drilling in Cuba will not save the US from our energy woes either. Indeed, trying to form some anti-Chinese competition by drilling our own Florida Straits region is an equally undesirable answer. There is not enough oil residing there to last the U.S. more than 15 years, most likely in the range of a dozen; are we willing to allow their political grandstanding to set us back a decade or more in energy development and management, at which time we will have no reserves left and an even larger energy demand?

Fostering these sentiments and creating this antagonism is very easy politically for it requires no major input or sacrifice by the public, merely stirring up protectivist and nationalistic fervor among the public. But it doesn’t solve the underlying issues at hand. To achieve that, America needs to look at the more difficult, but entirely plausible, solutions of alternative fuels, conservation, and higher efficiency. These solutions are available to us; look at the new GM plan of the E85 standard, which uses a blend of 85% ethanol with 15% regular gasoline. Imagine cutting our transportation fuel usage by 85%. The world would be dumbstruck. Or the hybrid line of fuels which is gaining in popularity. Another efficient, gas and cost saving measure. CAFE standards are another option, used by Carter in the 70s to great positive effect, could be resurrected to help force the changes we all want to see. Smarter urban planning which allows for improved public transportation (or even non-motorized transportations, like walking or biking [gasp!]). These options are here for us to utilize, if only the politicians, our leaders, would get behind them and breathe life into them for a truly positive change in this country. The benefits are beyond comprehension. Instead, they seem to be focused merely on blowing a lot of hot air around. I hope there’s a change in the winds soon.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Biker’s Manifesto

[a change from the political-based stories I usually share... but something important nonetheless]

Having lived life as both a driver of a car and as a biker (an actual commuter, in-the-streets-everyday biker, not an “I love using my $2,000 bike after Sunday brunch” biker), I feel it is time to give some tips to both sides of the wheeled traffic universe as to how to better get along and not kill one another. There is an inherent antagonism between these two species of transportation, each stubbornly clinging to their own ideals and beliefs while thinking the other side is either, a) tree-hugging hippies; or b) gas-guzzling capitalists. The truth lies somewhere in between.

To Cars
: Your innate momentum and inertia gives you a certain feeling of supremacy over others on the road ((until you run into that 18-wheeler), and it tends to dilute your thought processes and perspective of others on the road. To you, I say the following:

  • Don’t squeeze us out. Bikers have as much a right to the road as you do; don’t try to run us off onto the curb or onto the sidewalk. Since we are smaller, we usually leave the majority of the lane to you so you can pass if necessary and so we do not take up a lot of room, since we know we are smaller and slower. But, when you approach a red light and know a biker is coming up soon, do not slide as far to the right as you can to prevent them from scooting up to the front. That just annoys us and makes us more likely to scratch your car. Likewise, do not shout at us to get off the road or other such nonsense. Bikes do not belong on sidewalks, and don’t try to relocate them there by force (Bikers, see below for your own admonishments).
  • Signal. For the love of all things holy, making sudden turns without signaling is dangerous, and very, very rude. Even when turning right, give us a signal so we know to slow down or swerve to avoid you, since bikes usually are traveling to the right of your front door. And when you do turn, do not speed up in order to beat us to the light. Most likely you will have to slow down to make the turn, and that has led to many an accident with a bike plowing into your passenger side doors. Just sit back, be patient, and
  • Relax. Bikers do not have your acceleration or stability; sometimes they wobble, and it takes us a little longer to start up from a stand-still. So if we’re in the left-turn lane and it clears, don’t honk or get annoyed while we get up from 0mph to cruising speed. The extra two seconds it takes us is not worth losing your head over. Remember, you’re faster than us. You can make up the time.
To Bikers: You have taken on the ideas that you are some sort of privileged pedestrian pedaling through the streets; this must stop. Sharing the road with cars has great advantages, and is mandated by law, but also by that law you must obey.
  • Obey traffic signs. If there is a red light, do not assume you can “jay-bike” across and everything’s cool. I have nearly hit bikes who did not see me and ventured into an intersection against a red light. If it is red, stop and wait for the light to change. It aggravates drivers to no end when you dart away, weaving through cars and busing lights. Similarly, if there is traffic and you approach a stop sign, YOU ARE REQUIRED TO STOP. Do not roll through like some bougie pedestrian. You’re part of traffic. Get with the program.
  • Signal. Just like cars, make sure you signal when you are turning. Especially when turning left, bikes tend to wobble in the intersection while waiting for a clearance in traffic, and that makes drivers nervous. Giving them a sign as to your intentions will help ease the strain on both sides.
  • Stay off the sidewalks. You are a part of wheeled traffic when you are on your bike. You are not a pedestrian; you move to fast and cannot stop as easily. Thus, do not ride your bikes on the sidewalk. Not only is it illegal, it is against common courtesy. Stay in the street where you belong.
If all of us could heed these suggestions, we’d be much better off as a transportative society. Be respectful and considerate of your fellow travelers; they share the same road with you and are facing the same set of problems and frustrations. Don’t hate; be at peace with one another, and you will all get to your destination on time and unfrazzled. Safe commuting!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Sympathy for the Devil

I know I am going to catch hell for this, but oh well. I found some quotes the other day tucked in a report authored by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt and released by the John F. Kennedy School of Government, of Harvard University. The report, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, takes aim at a lot of the issues brought about by the United States’ seemingly unconditional support of Israel, since its inception. They also go further, looking at the pro-Israeli lobby that helps to foster such support within our government. It is a fascinating article, a real eye-opener to some of the positions we have taken, and the political power that this lobby wields over our Congress and President.

But the quotes I mentioned are interesting, in my humble opinion, regarding the perception of Israelis towards the Palestinian movements. It is more interesting to note that they arise from prominent Israeli politicians, some of whom were the most Zionist in their approach to a Jewish state. The quotes seem to indicate an understanding of the Palestinian cause and root of the conflict. It also implicates the Israeli people as being complicit, even accepting, of terrorism as a means to get what a group wants (this is no new news; the Zionist movement used terrorism extensively in their fight against colonial Britain). Thus, how can the state of Israel as a whole denounce the Palestinians’ motives and methods, when they are rooted in the Israeli’s own history and collective psyche? Seems a bit hypocritical to me, but I will leave you with these things to ponder on a Friday afternoon.

David Ben-Gurion: “If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country…. We come from Israel, but two thousand years ago, and that is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?”[1]

Ehud Barak: “[had I been born a Palestinian, I] would have joined a terrorist organization.”[2]

Yitzhak Shamir: “Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat.”[3]

1 - Nahum Goldmann, The Jewish Paradox, trans. Steve Cox (NY: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978), p.99.

2 - Bill Maxwell, “U.S. Should Reconsider Aid to Israel,” St. Petersburg Times, December 16, 2001.

3 - Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999), pp.485-486.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Is America Falling to the Left?

It is unmistakable the swing to the left that Latin American politics has taken of late. Beginning roughly eight years ago with the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, leftist leaders have popped up in a variety of countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and recently Morales’ election in Bolivia. And with elections in Peru, Mexico, and Nicaragua, even more Latin American countries could fall under leftist sway.

The large question is how did this come to pass? Not making any judgments on the merits or detractions of left governments in place in Latin America, but merely how did a segment of the political spectrum that the United States spent decades arduously striving to keep out of power return so confidently and abruptly? The United States used a multi-faceted campaign in Latin America to keep leftists, who were suspected of joining Cuba or the USSR, from coming to power. For example, the Chile Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (1976) details the interference perpetrated by the United States in Chile from 1963 to 1973. Included in its findings, the United States spent millions on covert intervention in Chilean politics from 1970-1973. The money financed such operations as planted “news” stories in Chilean magazines and newspapers; propaganda; and political activities among workers, students, women’s groups and other civic organizations. President Nixon, with Henry Kissinger, even developed and executed a highly secretive coup to prevent Salvador Allende, Chile’s Marxist leader, from ascending to power after the 1970 elections. The coup failed, so the US used various economic and propaganda methods to discredit Allende and foster hostility against him. These included cutting off access to international loans and stimulating local capital flight; feeding misinformation to Chilean military officers to engender fear of Cuban subversives working in Chile; and financing opposition groups, including terrorist right-wing movements. This method of approach was not unique to Chile either; America spent a great deal of money and energy to keeping leftist movements under the rug in Latin America. So why have we seemingly surrendered so easily now?

One could make the argument that, not that the Cold War is over, there is little to no threat of leftist governments making deals with Communists to become a “danger” to America. This is largely true. While Castro remains in power, Cuba’s Communist threat pales in comparison to the USSR of yesteryears. However, this lack of ideological enemy does nothing to diminish the fact that there is a lot at stake in this for America, indeed all of the Americas.

Latin America’s shift to the left has been precipitated from decades of mismanagement, interference, and neglect by the West, most centrally the United States. The emergence of Communist Cuba brought the US to abandon the Monroe Doctrine and actively begin direct and indirect interference in Latin American politics and economies. What arose from decades of such intervention was a mutant form of US-bred capitalism. This system consolidated power into the hands of right-wing governments and perpetrated the spread of rampant cronyism. The majority of the populace did not see an up tick in their relative stations in life, nor was there an improvement in basic governmental services. The result? Distrust for the American way of doing politics and economics.

These rebellions against American hegemony have become increasingly visible. The Summit of the Americas last fall is a perfect example, with major demonstrations against the United States, and the election of a non-US-backed candidate to the Organization of American States. Venezuela’s nationalizing of its oil programs has led Bolivia’s president-elect to begin nationalizing his country’s natural gas resources. The list goes on and on.

What does that mean for us as a country? Plenty. If the socialist agendas espoused by these new leftist leaders begins to succeed, and it brings up the majority of impoverished peoples in terms of their quality of life, then the American methodology of economics as a model to the rest of the world is compromised. Countries have a viable alternative that excludes the United States completely. While it is not necessary for everyone to follow the US’s method of development, it has been a doctrine, enforced by our capitalist business method, that we have enforced for decades, and has helped make us a very profitable nation. Thus, this could also shut out American business interests, as these countries would be more likely to work with other socialist countries or countries that are merely not the United States. And since American business has depended on developing nations to provide labor, land, and materials for so long, their loss of VIP status in such regions of the world could have drastic repercussions in the American economy.

There are other areas where we could fall as well. Politically, we would be undermined by this ideology of social equality and justice, should it succeed where our efforts to extinguish it have failed. We lose face, and also compromise the ability to have an effective input into the decisions of other regional leaders. Isolated. And, taken to an extreme, the socialist movement could find its way back to our own soil. Last winter, Venezuela’s president decided to subsidize heating oil to the poorer residents of New England, a move that was wise politically for him, as it also bolstered his image in the United States. However, it also gives some segment of the US population a taste of what socialism might hold for us. It is not a perfect system; not by any means. But there has not been a large socialist movement since the early part of the last century. If it were to gain momentum, due to partly the actions of these neighbor governments, there could be some major policy changes, both domestically and internationally, for the United States.

And not let us forget the drug war, that pest of American foreign policy. I have been against the war since I was old enough to make up my mind about it. But it has been a cornerstone of america’s foreign policy, particularly in regards to Latin America. But the left’s ascendancy has the potential to recreate our allies and stances on the war. Morales in Bolivia recently promised to legalize coca, the main plant used in forming cocaine, and Mexico’s government recently legalized the possession of small amounts of a variety of drugs, from marijuana to ecstasy. These changes, so openly in contrast to American desires, flaunts the left’s newfound power, and might force some reckoning by the United States to arrive at a compromise.

Now a lot of this is speculation, some of it far-fetched. But it represents a possibility of what can happen if the United States remains apathetic to the changes that are transpiring around us. These are the dangers that lie in being too complacent over what is happening to our neighbors. I would not advocate for a second moving back to the contras and coups which defined our policy towards Latin America for a long time. However, there are great implications that could arise from what is taking place down south in its drive to the left. And I hope these countries succeed; I would not wish destitution on any nation, and socialism has a great deal of advantages to it; some of which we would be wise to heed for our own citizens. But this is a warning to our own country that our policies are not as powerful, as embraced, as they once were (or as we hoped), and their fall, without an alternative, could prove disastrous to this country. America would do well not to interfere, but to listen to what these countries are saying, acknowledge their messages, and work together to form a better future for all of us.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Positive Step

Quick note: A victory has been scored for our public health. It is being reported that major soda manufacturers will pull vending machines out of schools. They will vend only water, unsweetened juices, and milk to elementary and middle school kids; they will add diet sodas for high schoolers.

This is great news. People should not take it as the end of childhood obesity, but it is a good step to take. Kudos to the drink manufacturers, and definitely congratulations to all the people who fought to have this happen. It is unfortunate that people can't take care of their own health, that it needs to be mandated like this, but for now, that is the way it must be.

You can find coverage of the story here.