Saturday, January 29, 2011

What's Not to Like?

I had a lot going on this week, so I'm finally getting around to digesting the State of the Union. I enjoyed watching the speech; I like President Obama, and I felt like he was able to go back to the themes of bipartisanship that he campaigned on. The last two years were, predictably, about 1) bringing the economic collapse to a screeching halt, and 2) letting the opposition get their "I hope he fails" antics out of their system. Both sides learned a lot - I hope - and since the Tucson shooting coinciding with the beginning of the new Congress, there is a sense that the next two years will be about *actual* cooperation.

We shall see.

But my positive feelings aside, there were some things that I heard in this year's State of the Union that made me sigh. Here's a short list:

1. Bio Fools. I am keenly interested in seeing our energy policy move away from fossil fuels and toward decentralized renewable sources. As a consumer, I don't want to be dependent on a large, expensive infrastructure to deliver the power I need, and I don't want that power to come from sources outside of my control. I am mildly concerned about mankind's impact on the environment, but to be honest, I am more concerned with removing the alleged free market's ability to make decisions for me.

That said, there are energy policy ideas which I do not like that this President seems too willing to support. Bio-fuels, so-called "Clean Coal" and nuclear generation are where I feel he misleads himself. Bio-fuels/ethanol/corn-based alternatives are turning out to be a very poor replacement for petroleum-based fuels, according to environmentalists and scientists, and has an impact on farm subsidies and food supply, as well.

The case against "Clean Coal" is strong, too. It is an expensive attempt to sell environmentalists on the continued use of regular old coal, but ignores the problems of extraction and the expensive infrastructure of high-powered transmission lines needed for delivery.

I would personally like to see Nuclear power develop into the cleaner, safer source that the next generation of nuclear generation technologies promises to be, but even more than the still-young solar industry, this is a technology which is "not there yet."

2. Why Speed Trains? I would love to see public transit take off in this country. I would, as a free market consumer, LOVE to have a real choice between car and a system of reliable, timely buses, trains, etc. I pay so much in financing, fuel, maintenance, and insurance, I am certain that a competitive and profitable business of getting people from here to there within any metropolitan area could be built.

Highways are far and away the deadliest way to travel, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Congestion is increasingly costly (see Texas Transportation Institute stats). Compare fuel consumption (and see issue #1), too, while you're at it. It's pretty clear that our "free choice" to drive ourselves everywhere is not only an illusion of choice, but it is also a pretty poor one.

But are high speed trains the place to start building that? How am I supposed to get to one from my house? What about getting to and from the grocery store? Perhaps the self-driving Google car will make this a moot point? If so, then perhaps the President was right to include Google in the company of the Wright Brothers, after all?

3. The Feeble Response. Rep. Paul Ryan's response was a crucial part of the State of the Union. He had an opportunity to really make the GOP case that they have ideas and can compete with the President's agenda. But there was no "there" there. Never mind the factual inaccuracies; all he tried to do was restate the memes of "spending discipline" and "limited government" without explaining in concrete terms what either meme means.

Since the President talked about the debt and spending in some depth, and listed specific ideas for dealing with the issues, the GOP needed to address his ideas with specific ideas of their own. Instead, Rep. Ryan reiterated the tired rhetoric of the last two years - the stimulus failed (which is not necessarily the case), health care reform should be repealed (which is not necessarily a good plan or the right battle), and "unshackling business" will lead to new jobs and growth (for which there is no real evidence).

I would have liked to see Rep. Ryan come out in support of something truly innovative, like the FairTax legislation (now proposed by Sen. Chambliss). Or perhaps he could have talked about ways to make Social Security solvent without leaving those who paid into it their whole lives out in the cold? I don't know - I'm not a Republican, so I don't know what I should expect them to come up with.

At the least, perhaps they could publicly distance themselves from the odious talking heads and pundits lying to America in their name on Fox News and Talk Radio? (Just a thought.)

Let's see what happens this year.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Solution Is BORING!

Making things better is difficult and boring work. Breaking things is easier. The natural tendency to pick the easier path can be called "entropy". Our most important job - assuming we want to live in a safe, beneficial civilization - is to fight that entropy, and that means working on improving ourselves and keeping to the moral codes that society is built on.

We all need to apply this advice to ourselves, and to how we relate to others - whether they are people we know and talk to, or people we watch via the various media.

Assume good intent. It's always easy to find "evidence" to "prove" that someone else wants to take that easy entropic path - and it's impossible to deny that we all feel the urge to break everything down and start from scratch. But it is vital that we not act on that "proof". Act as though everyone really is working toward the same goal - never give them the excuse they need to decide that cooperation is pointless.

Don't settle for shortcuts or shorthand. What do phrases like "special interests" mean? How often are "some people" or "many people" accused of some action? How often are "most people" attributed with certain thoughts or beliefs? We all use these shortcuts because "everyone knows" what we're talking about - but it's too easy to fool ourselves into making assumptions that aren't true.

Don't confuse attitude with substance. The other side will ALWAYS seem smug to you, especially when they are right about something. The attitude of either party about their "correctness" does not affect that "correctness" in any way.

Don't act out of destructive frustration. Calling it "revolution" just jazzes it up. We all need to act out of a sense of constructive cooperation. We all want the same things - freedom, prosperity, happiness - and those are not limited commodities. NOBODY has the whole solution - that's why we form groups and argue. Argument itself, like cultivation or home maintenance, is necessary, difficult, and often messy work.

I hope that I'm helping. I trust that is your intention, too.