Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Coal's Second Chance?

By the second half of the twentieth century, it had been established with reasonable certainty that high-sulfur coal had the potential, when burned, to damage the environment. Scientists hypothesized that this type of coal, also known as ‘lignite’ or brown coal, could be a contributing factor to “acid rain.”

Anthracite, a low-sulfur coal, was by that time recognized as environmentally friendly. Also known as hard coal, it is composed of nearly pure carbon and gives off few pollutants during combustion.

Between those two is a third type, bituminous coal. Known as ‘black coal,’ it contains detectably more sulfur than anthracite. For this reason, some lobbyists and activists wondered if it posed a threat to the environment.

Given the possibility of pollutants from bituminous coal, legislation was enacted to reduce, and in some cases nearly eliminate, its use. Industries hurried to find alternative energy sources. Nuclear power was seen as the future of electrical generation in the early 1970s, and while those plants were being built - a nuclear power plant takes several years to build - natural gas was burnt as a temporary measure to replace some of the coal. Jeanne Marie Laskas writes:

The federal Clean Air Act of 1970 and its amendments in 1977 and 1990 placed stringent controls on the sulfur dioxide emissions from burned coal. Acid rain was the thing. Power plants were forced to turn to more expensive but cleaner-burning natural gas, while the industry flirted with nuclear technology.

The United States had relatively few lignite reserves, and not much of it was mined or burned. The ban on such high-sulfur brown coal had little impact on industry, and seemed reasonable, at least as a temporary measure, until the matter could be further studied.

But bituminous coal was a major industry. It was, and is, a major source of electrical power. Millions of refrigerators, microwaves, computers, lights, iPods, phones, and other devices rely on black coal. Electricity prices increased significantly and suddenly as utility companies tried to quickly find other sources of power. Jeanne Marie Laskas records the impact of this shift in fuel, as thousands of people lost their jobs:

Coal? Suddenly, you could hardly give away the stuff they mined in the East, the medium-sulfur bituminous coal of the Pittsburgh Number 8 seam and similar-grade stuff of the 6A seam.

The media gave black coal a bad reputation and called it “dirty.” Activists had yet to demonstrate any clear link to alleged environmental damage. For the sake of possible connections between bituminous coal and pollution, lobbyists were willing to demand huge strip-mining operations in the western United States, which yielded a type of coal which the industry deemed inferior to bituminous:

That coal burned dirty. Power companies turned to the far less efficient but cleaner coal out west, where very large-scale strip mines became coal’s new cash crop. Mines throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia closed as the industry in Appalachia went into a free fall.

A full-fledged economic disaster threatened thousands of mining families in the eastern states, while all Americans faced rising electrical prices. Regulations were crippling the ability of one large industrial sector, and retarding the ability of several others - all because of an allegation of a hypothetical risk of environmental damage.

Happily, a total disaster was avoided: “The eastern mines started reopening in the late 1990s,” Laskas notes, writing in 2012:

The mines reopened because the power plants had figured out how to burn that gloriously efficient dirty coal and was the emissions, meeting EPA standards. They’re still reopening today, at a fierce rate, thanks to “clean-coal technology.”

Although the “scrubbers,” as the emissions-reducing devices are called, removed even the possibility of environmental harm, they did raise the cost of doing business, and so did not completely remove the burden from ordinary families who must pay for their electrical power needs.

Despite continued attacks from regulators, the coal industry experienced a partial renaissance.

Scientists are figuring out how to convert coal into liquid fuel to power cars and jets. The country is in a decidedly passionate mood to let go of its dependency on foreign oil.

Geologists continue to find new coal reserves, both anthracite and bituminous. Because alternative energy sources - like solar, wind, and geothermal - are still decades away from contributing a significant percentage to the nation’s electrical supply, coal, together with nuclear power, remains the most likely option for the future.

The opponents of the coal industry falls into two camps: first, the sincere environmentalists, who are concerned about the possibilities of environmental harm, no matter how remote or hypothetical; second, the cynical manipulators, who exploit environmentalism as a cover for their true motive, which is a desire to harm the U.S. economy and reduce the standard of living for the ordinary citizen.

The United States has, needs, and can benefit from its large coal reserves, and can do so without measurable harm to the environment. The only obstacle to coal, and to the health of a large segment of our industrial sector, is politics.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Obama: the New Nixon?

Scholars continue to find President Nixon to be a complex and intriguing figure. Possessing both keen insight into policy and an excess of personal ambition, Nixon alternated between brilliant political maneuvers and tragically self-defeated power-grabs.

When he discovered that his campaign staffers had broken into, and attempted to steal information from, an office in the Watergate building complex, his pride prevented him from simply turning them over to the police. Had he done so, he might have retained the presidency. But instead, like Shakespeare’s MacBeth, his ambition and pride led him down the path to destruction.

But the Watergate scandal was merely the occasion for further investigations into, and revelations of, improprieties in the Nixon administration. His use of the IRS to bully his enemies was troubling. The press labeled his administration “the imperial presidency” because of his overbearing and officious attitudes and expectations. Matt Kibbe writes:

In January 1973, Richard Nixon ended the military draft in the wake of a series of high-profile draft-card-burning protests by antiwar activists. (That’s right, a Republican ended the military draft. And it was Nixon.) His presidency would soon enough end ignominiously, though, in part due to his eagerness to use the IRS to selectively punish his political enemies. The Democrats, the Republicans, the left, and the press were all outraged by this remarkable abuse of executive power.

The parallels between Nixon and Obama are striking: the use of the IRS to harass political enemies; the “imperial” attitude; illegal monitoring of telephone conversations and other information intercepts for political, not policy, purposes; the staff’s functioning as a White House “under siege” administration; and a growing psychological distance leaving the president “out of touch.” Matt Kibbe continues:

The current IRS scandal, where the agency systematically targeted moms organizing their communities to defend constitutional principles like the freedom to associate and peaceably assemble, elicits no such outrage from Democrats or the many tentacles of leftist activist organizations. Few seem willing, or even interested in, defending everyone’s civil rights and the First Amendment protection of political speech those guys. How sad.

Obama may be spared Nixon’s fate, however, because the media are either inclined, or required by their employers and owners, to be less critical of Obama, and because the machineries of Congress have either been neutralized or are controlled by Obama’s partisans.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Senate Breaks Bad

Since the United States Congress held its first meeting in 1789, the bicameral legislative process has been adjusted and refined over the centuries. Many small changes, and a few large ones, have taken place, but perhaps none more impactful than the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913.

Originally, the Constitution called for the legislatures of each state to elect two senators. The Constitution did not specify how the legislatures were to elect them, it merely said the senators were to be “chosen by the legislature” of each state. In practice, the state legislatures usually chose the senators by a simple majority in each of the legislature’s two houses.

The Seventeenth Amendment introduced the direct election of senators by the electorate of each state. Those in favor of the amendment indicated two reasons for their support of it: first, they felt that the original system created opportunities for corruption; second, there had been several cases of deadlocked state legislatures which sent, for a period of time, no senator to the national capital because they could not agree.

Those opposed to the amendment noted that opportunities for corruption would also be present after the adoption of the amendment, and that the deadlocked legislatures remained so for relatively brief periods of time, after which a duly appointed senator was properly sent to the Congress.

The amendment also reduced the stability of the original system, in which representatives were directly elected and senators chosen by the state legislatures. The original system balanced the more-quickly changing opinions of the voters with the more stable configurations of the legislative bodies, whose blocs remained steady between elections.

In favor of the amendment were William Jennings Bryan, who at the time was Secretary of State, and William Randolph Hearst, who owned and controlled majors newspapers across the United States. Hearst was able to manipulate media coverage of discussion about the amendment prior to its adoption; Hearst’s influence was a decisive factor in moving both individual states and Congress to approve the amendment.

Opposed to the amendment were Elihu Root, who had been both Secretary of State and a member of the U.S. Senate, and George Frisbie Hoar, a senator from Massachusetts who died before the amendment was approved.

The net effect of the amendment’s adoption was to make the election of senators into a sort of national referendum. While the smaller size of congressional districts ensured that the direct election of representatives to the U.S House of Representatives remained a matter of local concern, the state-wide nature of senatorial races effectively removed local concerns from those races, and attracted political attention and campaign resources from out of state.

Before the amendment, local concerns dominated the selection of senators. After the amendment, out-of-state factors influenced senatorial elections to the extent that truly local matters, the matters which senators are supposed to represent in Washington, were nudged aside by national questions.

Mathematically, if there are senatorial elections in one-third of the states in a given year, then two-thirds of the states - or more precisely the political groups in two-thirds of the states - are free to direct their resources to the campaigns going on in other states. Thus out-of-state influence on what is supposed to be a local election might be twice the domestic influence.

The U.S. Senate, in the wake of the Seventeenth Amendment, changed its tone. No longer representatives of their home states, the senators were now representatives of nationwide political movements. The Senate thereby became a sort of “club,” as Matt Kibbe notes:

The filibuster, a last-ditch attempt by a single member of the Senate to stall consideration of legislation, has a storied history in legislative warfare. Typically, this roadblock has been used to defend the status quo inside the cloistered walls of the most closed, insulated institution in America - the U.S. Senate. They don’t call it a club for nothing: It’s a privileged cadre unaccustomed to the bright light of public attention. And that’s the way they like it.

The impact of the Seventeenth Amendment, transforming the Senate into a club-like atmosphere, had implications for many pieces of legislation, e.g., for the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Backed by President Eisenhower, the bill intended to clearly restate the voting rights of Blacks, and articulated specific measures to ensure that those rights were fully available for Blacks. Eisenhower’s popularity gave the bill reasonably good prospects of passage.

A truly representative body - i.e., a body in which the legislators represented the interests and opinions of the state which sent them to Washington - would have quickly passed with bill without objection. That’s what happened in the House of Representatives. But the Senate, in its post-Seventeenth Amendment condition, was different: the senators did not feel themselves compelled to represent their home states. They were representing political parties and interest groups - they were representing the powers which had put them into office.

And so it was that there was significant Senate opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Matt Kibbe continues:

The most infamous use of the filibuster, of course, was by Democratic senator Strom Thurmond, then a segregationist who famously fought against the the efforts of Martin Luther King.

Senator Thurmond organized and energized the senators from his party. If they could not stop the bill entirely, they would at least attempt to remove its most effective provisions.

Thurmond would later argue that “King demeans his race and retards the advancement of his people.”

The “civil rights movement” was in motion and had gained momentum during the early 1950’s. Eisenhower, during WWII, had desegregated the army’s combat troops, and during his presidency worked to systematically implement that desegregation throughout the armed services.

The momentum of the civil rights movement was strong enough that only a legislative body which had ceased to be truly representative of its home states could afford to oppose it. The House of Representatives, more closely reflecting the electorate, was more supportive of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. As Matt Kibbe notes,

In 1954, the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education had ended “separate but equal” and started the process of integrating schools all over the country. A year after that, Rosa Parks famously refused to sit in the “blacks only” section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her bravery helped force racist government policies into the public psyche.

Contradicting the Supreme Court decision, contradicting public opinion, and contradicting the American voters, the Senate, now safely removed from public pressure, now clearly under the direction of lobbyists and political parties, was comfortable in its opposition to the civil rights bill.

On August 28, 1957, at 8:54 P.M., Thurmond took the Senate floor in opposition to major provisions of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. He would not stop until more than twenty-four hours later. He denied that any blacks were being denied a right to vote and argued that every state already had sufficient voter rights protections in their existing laws. “I think it is indicative that Negroes are voting in large numbers. Of course, they are not so well qualified to vote as are the white people.”

Initiating a filibuster under any circumstances requires audacity, but Thurmond, and his fellow senators from the Democrat Party, were not only starting a filibuster, but doing so in direct contradiction to a clear and growing public opinion - the voters of the nation were affirming the civil rights movement in increasing numbers, and the Supreme Court had voiced itself in the Brown decision.

African-American political freedoms had fallen from the highpoints they had reached between the late 1860’s and the 1890’s. After enduring the humiliation of having their voting rights violated for several decades, Blacks demanded a return of their political liberties, and the majority of United States voters sided with them. But safely insulated from the pressure of having to represent their alleged constituents, the senators blithely moved in the opposite direction. Matt Kibbe writes:

To this day, Thurmond’s remains the longest verbal filibuster in U.S. history. Ultimately, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 passed the Senate and was signed into law, but not before Thurmond and his Democratic colleagues had stripped the legislation of key provisions.

In a masterpiece of political deception and doublespeak, Thurmond, whose presence in the Senate was the result of a violation of states’ rights, claimed that he was acting in the name of states’ rights. The seventeenth amendment harmed the rights of states to freely choose their own senators; the senators now so chosen could safely ignore the states’ desires.

Had the states truly had their rights, the nature of the Senate would have had a different composition, a different self-conception, and a different set of operating habits. The presence of Thurmond and others like him was a direct result of a violation of states’ rights. Had states’ rights been observed, the opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 would have been weaker. Matt Kibbe continues:

Segregationists like Thurmond had thoroughly corrupted the notion of “states’ rights” and the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution - vital and legitimate check on federal abuses of power - to obfuscate their real agenda. Thurmond and many others used the excuse of federalism to justify the oppression of individuals - unequal treatment under law - but that was never the intention of the federalist system. Yes, the states must not submit to federal tyranny, but that does not give them license to be tyrannical themselves. It was all about the rights of the individual.

The result was mixed: the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was passed by the Congress, and President Eisenhower signed it into law. But the act had been weakened, and some of the key provisions altered, by the Democrat Party’s filibuster. This was partly remedied when Eisenhower supported the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which was then passed by the Congress. But three years were wasted.

After Thurmond’s filibuster ended, and after Eisenhower signed the bill into law, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus denied the rights of Black students to attend a public high school in Little Rock. In a display of resoluteness, President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to escort the African-American students into the high school.

In the wake of Thurmond’s filibuster, the Republican Eisenhower would not let another segregationist member of the Democrat Party, in this case Orval Faubus, stand in the way of equal civil rights. As Matt Kibbe writes,

Free people should judge others based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin. If you believe in liberty and the dignity of the individual, you inherently believe in treating everyone equally under the laws of the land. This is a first principle. It’s nonnegotiable. Defending the rights of the individual, including equal treatment under the law, is a fundamental responsibility of a constitutionally limited government, as James Madison had so eloquently argued in Federalist 51.

Thus, in a long and complex narrative, the Seventeenth Amendment was passed by a progressivist movement, headed by a racist president, Woodrow Wilson, who, as head of the Democrat Party, imposed racial segregation into the offices of the federal government which had been racially integrated since the Reconstruction era. That same amendment, and its effect on the culture of the U.S. Senate, would be used half a century later as Strom Thurmond organized his fellow Democrat Party senators to oppose civil rights.