The other day, a friend of mine, who works for a modest sized manufacturing company, told me why his boss had to lay-off most of his workers. Apparently, some official from Cuba called to place a rather large order. My friend and a handful of his coworkers reminded their boss that there was an embargo against Cuba. He reassured his workers that the order was legitimate. The order was legitimate, but his boss quickly learned he was, in fact, not permitted to ship his products to the shunned island nation, after his employees finished the entire order. Because the order used a custom design, my friend’s boss had to throw away several hundred thousand dollars worth of material. If he did not own an established business, this would have ruined him.
As this business owner struggles to cope with such a significant loss and his relevantly low paid employees try to make do with their unemployment benefits until they can be called back to work, if they can be, businesses should focus on a couple of lessons. In this day and age, it is tempting to simply say government got in the way of this business owner and present the most basic deregulation argument in order to simply cater to business interests. If one recalls the history behind the Cuban Missile Crisis and the embargo, the policy was put in place for very good reasons, i.e. revolutionary forces seized US property interests then the USSR used Cuba to point nuclear weapons at the United States. As such, this mistake cannot be blamed on government.
Whether you agree with the continuation of the Cuban embargo until Castro’s regime wilts away or favor a loosening of sanctions to better reflect the realities of the modern world, the policy is law and has been law for over fifty years. Consequently, the business owner made a serious mistake that he should not have made. This man has an education and was old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. For those who do not believe political science is a useful field of academic study, this is the very reason schools need to impart a very robust understanding of the social sciences. Considering the globalized nature of the world, especially when it comes to business, this scenario exemplifies why it is important for all Americans to pay attention to what is going on inside and outside of the United States.
Furthermore, American workers have varying degrees of education, but few workers are able to fully utilize their educational experiences in their workplaces. One reason is that employers do not take advantage of their workers’ broad bases of knowledge and skills. The culture from which this businessman, my friend, and myself hail often discourages workers from improving the workplace through unsolicited creative thinking and problem solving. In fact, it is almost considered disrespectful or insubordinate to ask questions. (Keep in mind, the US manufacturing sector desperately needs a revolution of innovation.) Although this particular individual was open to his employees voicing their opinions, he did not consider their input. Had he investigated the warnings of his employees, he would not have made such a costly mistake, which hurt them as well. You never know where a good idea will come from, so a wise man will listen carefully to anyone willing to share her thoughts and make decisions understanding he could be wrong.
Quite frankly, any government shutdown would be a failure on behalf of our elected officials, particularly those who use it so willingly to force their agenda. That said, a government shutdown would accomplish nothing constructive for the political Right. If the government shutdown goes into effect, moderates on both sides of the aisle will unite, either immediately or eventually. Unlike the 90’s shutdown under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Republican Party is no longer beholden to a unified position while there is little, aside from the eventual dismantling of our government, the Tea Party and the other extreme elements of the GOP are willing to accept, i.e. Obama cannot appease the supposed Conservative vote without giving up key Democratic positions and appeasement now will only guarantee future threats of shutdowns. As such, moderate Republicans will have to split from their less moderate colleagues.
If a truce holds, Congress will start accomplishing some of the priorities shared by Democrats and moderate Republicans, but Tea Members will lose leverage and, possibly, elections. If the truce does not hold as is likely, nothing gets done and threats to shutdown government will continue until, at least, the next election. The GOP will likely lose the next election in overall wins. Even if Tea Party members continue to enjoy the favor of their voters, this would mean the GOP would lose the leverage they need to influence the outcomes of issues Democrats put forth and shape with their increasing leverage, thus the GOP and Tea Party agendas would become even more irrelevant. Unfortunately, this would mean the bad habits of the Democrats would be unchecked, thereby ensuring American interests will not be fully represented and our Nation’s problems cannot be solved.
Long regarded as one of the most professional, stable governmental bodies of the world, the US Congress has rapidly grown increasingly dysfunctional over the last decade or so. Part of this degenerative trend stems from changes in rules that largely eliminated the practice of earmarking. As House and Senate members can no longer bring home the bacon, which has actually become an increasingly unpopular practice anyways, Party leaderships have lost a great deal of leverage over their members. This is particularly problematic for the GOP due to the structure of their Party being far more rigid with a far more centralized agenda than the weak coalition that has long been the Democratic Party. Having pushed an antigovernment theme for decades, Republican voters have turned to Libertarian and Tea Party candidates who fiercely embrace their independence, anarchy in some regards, and have established their own fundraising bases. The consequence is an inability of the Republican leadership to pursue an agenda that actually allows for some degree of governance.
Unfortunately, the lack of cooperation and failing governance tempts us to conclude legislative perks like earmarks are necessary evils for proper governance, but doing so would require us to embrace a terribly narrow understanding of the issues paralyzing government. Like all bad habits, the abuse of earmarks helped Party leaders deal with a variety of internal issues, but they also fostered unhealthy practices instead of solving problems. As the Democratic and Republican Parties began to polarize, earmarks allowed our elected official to function just enough to accomplish an acceptable level of governance, yet it improperly compensated for the dysfunctional nature of this polarization. In fact, it encouraged elected officials to stop working with others across the aisle when doing so went against the interests of the Parties. As voters grew increasingly anti-Democratic and anti-Republican, they elected politicians who mirrored their sentiments, thus the Parties and their members could no longer cooperate. When crises like the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2008/2009 Great Recession demanded large, ongoing responses, the inherit conflicts of these polarized political views eventually exploded in deep division. In essence, earmarks only hid a lack of cooperation and willingness to address opposing viewpoints as increasing friction eventually overwhelmed our political will to work with others when crises demanded cooperation. Over time, this unhealthy dynamic left us with a whole list of bad policies that have caused their own crises, including a ballooning National Debt.
Consequently, reinstating practices like earmarks may help temporally alleviate some of the division seen in the US Congress, but such a solution will only prevent the underlying issues behind the dysfunction from being addressed. Members of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate must learn to build consensus through a balancing of the America People’s interests in order to fix government. A large part of this process hinges upon US citizens becoming more involved in government. Quite frankly, the American People cannot expect their interests to be addressed by their government unless they retake control of their democratic government. Above all, bad thinking and destructive habits of our elected officials need to be flushed out through the removal of extreme political thinking, i.e. those not willing to address the interests of opposing perspectives must be removed from office and those not willing to work with solutions offered by others must be scolded by the American People until they do find viable compromises. With the loss of practices like earmarks, the only form of leverage in Washington and our state Congresses is the will of the constituents. Accordingly, the American People need to reshape the behavior of our political leaders, so they act in our interests, instead of on their own whims and for the will of those financing their campaigns.
Healthcare accounts for nearly one-fifth of the US economy while America is by far the world’s largest economy. Obamacare represents a serious economic concern for everyone in the global economy. More than that, healthcare is a very personal matter that thoroughly affects our overall wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of our families and communities. With key provisions of the Affordable Care Act coming into play over the next few weeks, most notably the individual health insurance exchanges know as the Health Insurance Marketplace, people are very anxious. Not only do these changes impact what type of healthcare services will be available to every American, healthcare alone represents such a significant portion of the average American’s income that the burden could easily bankrupt most families, if something goes wrong.
Beyond the anxiety of waiting for unanticipated failures, most Americans are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding changes in law. Americans focus on what we are good at and just want to do our jobs. Carpenters just want to build and writers just want to write. Unfortunately, the world more and more requires individuals to think and act like businessmen, accountants, lawyers, etc. even if most people lack the innate qualities, education, and time required to pursue the skill sets involved.
When it comes to policy changes, this is problematic since most people only have the time and skills required to understand proposed legislation as a handful of overall bullet points. Quite frankly, people get frustrated and tend to ignore serious issues for this very reason. This inability to engage the political and legislative process has, however, hurt our democracy while it has resulted in public policies that go against the interests of most Americans. When it comes to personal and financial matters like healthcare, people find themselves in a situation where they cannot simply ignore policy changes and must deal with the paperwork, to put in the simplest of terms. As such, I think it is fair to say the impulse of most Americans is to reject changes like those created by Obamacare, because of the confusion and frustration involved in the process of change.
Although political leaders on the right are capitalizing on this impulse to push their agenda, Obamacare does address some serious issues that were only certain to grow. Most importantly, Obamacare deals with the precondition clause that prevents anyone with a supposed precondition from obtaining health insurance while it also prevents insurance companies from capping benefits. It is essential to remember health insurance came into existence as a means of ensuring those who happened to get sick would be able to afford healthcare; the precondition clause and the lifetime limits run counter to this basic goal. In addition, Obamacare sets meaningful standards for health insurance benefits while forcing insurance companies to spend the majority of health insurance dollars on healthcare, i.e. the 80/20 split, instead of displacing the costs of research solely onto American consumers and putting profit/bonuses above benefits.
What Obamacare does not do is thoroughly address the affordability issue directly, among other shortcomings. Looking closer at the aforementioned benefits of Obamacare, guaranteeing basic healthcare for more people was certain to drive costs up, though overall cost projections seem to be coming in lower than they would have without Obamacare. Because a basic public option was not politically feasible, the Affordable Care Act adopted the individual exchanges as well as the individual/business mandates. (It is important to remember the Republican alternative was similar to this exchange idea, except it directly imperiled employer-sponsored health insurance by transferring tax credit from businesses to individuals while it failed to set standards for insurance plans.) Because Obamacare did little to address the affordability issue, the individual and business mandates have grown more frightening while they have always conflicted with the innate need of Americans to have the freedom of choice, no matter the cost.
Clearly, Obamacare has problems and many of these problems have existed since the basic plan was put forth by Republicans in the 1990s. Many of these problems, however, could have been addressed by political leaders had the Republicans been willing to fix these faults. Instead of running a continual campaign to repeal Obamacare since its passage in early 2010, the Right should have been trying to amend the Act to address these problems. At the very least, they should have pushed a replace and repeal campaign with improved legislation versus trying to push already rejected “solutions” that would have created even bigger problems. With the 2012 election leaving the Democrats in control of government and the Supreme Court rejecting Constitutional challenges to the individual mandate, Republicans have only redoubled their efforts in form of foolishly threatening to shut down government with the desperate hope of defunding Obamacare.
If Republicans are going to use issues like the Debt Ceiling to respond to Obamacare, they should, at the very least, pursue legislation that will address the shortcomings of the original Act, instead of provoking a fight they have no hope of winning. In other words, our political leaders should be using these “showdowns” to get something done by actually addressing issues with legislative solutions that have some hope of passing. For example, our tax code needs reworked and moderate Democrats want to demonstrate they too are deficit hawks. A large part of the problem is that both sides have gotten into the habit of trying to get ahead by undoing and undercutting each others’ legislative efforts. What they should be doing is using what progress has been made, whether or not they would have pursued the path taken, as a starting point to address problems that have been created or were left unaddressed. In the case of Obamacare, repeal is not necessary to address its short falls while Republicans can find solutions that are palatable enough to Democrats that more progress can be made on healthcare reform as well as other issues like the economy and National Debt. Since our political elites do not feel the need to do that, we will simply have to anxiously await the consequences of this past action and present inaction to play out.
September 20th, 2013, the EPA announced new regulations that limit the amount of carbon-dioxide emissions for new power plants to 1,000 pounds per megawatt of electricity for natural gas power plant and 1,100 pounds per megawatt of electricity for coal power plants. In order to achieve reductions in emissions, proponents of these caps want power producers to turn to carbon capture technology. Unfortunately, this technology has yet to be commercialized on such a large scale. In fact, the most advanced, lowest carbon admitting power plants in service, or soon to be in service, produce around 1,800 pounds per megawatt of power. Consequently, these new standards may well be a bit premature.
The wonderful thing about carbon capture technology is that it prevents carbon from entering the atmosphere while the captured carbon can be used to produce byproducts like ethanol. The not so wonderful thing about carbon technology is that it adds costs to electricity production, unless the value of any potential byproducts can equal or exceed those increased costs. All emerging technologies need time to reach a point of equilibrium where the costs and manufacturing capacity of such products are able to approximate their intrinsic values versus artificial demand creating spikes in consumer costs. In other words, a push to rapidly force these technologies into the marketplace can create unnecessary price spikes for consumers and producers of electricity while offering little return benefit for doing so. The consequences is increased costs and an unwillingness to adopt newer technologies, which prevents further decreases in pollution while further increasing costs through a ongoing lack of efficiency.
The truth is that these efforts to reduce emissions from new power plants will have negligible benefits to the environment, because they only apply to power plants that may come into existence. Should these regulations be extended to already existing power plants, the environmental benefit over the next few months or years would also be minimal. As such, the most prudent action is to rollout these regulations in a smarter fashion. If 1,800 pounds per megawatt is achievable now, all new power plants should be limited to or slightly below this amount. Adding a carrot to this stick, power plants should receive tax credits for reducing the amount down to at or below the 1,100 pound limit. (A progressive tax credit structure may be helpful.) This would help foster the construction of more efficient, new power plants that can replace old power plants, which is important as the US is light-years from shedding our reliance on coal power. As part of a second phase, old power plants can then be required to adapt increasing limits that encourage power producers to either use carbon capture technologies on these plants or replace them. In tandem, the EPA should also tighten all standards the development of new technologies, i.e. lower caps and drop the threshold for tax credits.
Moreover, this approach would force change without creating too much economic instability in the form of price spikes and incentivize our power industry to progress as it must.
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