The Thing That Couldn’t Die: Yucca Battle Continues in Congress and in the Courts

(low resolution movie poster reproduction via wikipedia)

In the 1958 cult horror classic The Thing That Couldn’t Die, a young lass out water-witching (of all things) discovers a curious and ancient box–one that, whether you follow the conventions of the genre or the entreaties of the film’s internal expert, should obviously remain closed.

But, as these things are wont to go, greed and ambition get the better of a few mere mortals, and the box is breached, revealing the intact–and living!–head of a sorcerer executed hundreds of years earlier. The wayward wizard then uses his telepathic powers to manipulate some of the more foolish, godless humans to unearth the rest of his body so that it might be reunited with the head and realize the full force of its destructive powers.

It is hard not to think of this black and white bubbe meise while reviewing the most recent chapters in the battle over the future of the partially excavated, purportedly moribund Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in southwestern Nevada.

As noted here last month, the life and death of the Yucca project was at the center of a public face off between President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who just happens to hail from–and represent–the Silver State. Although the administration has sided with Reid on cancelling work on Yucca Mountain, Obama’s move to re-appoint Kristine Svinicki to another term on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission–over the vocal objections of the Majority Leader–registered with Yucca watchers like stirrings from the grave. Svinicki, after all, has been a staunch proponent of the Yucca project since she worked at the Department of Energy. . . writing the support documents for the Yucca nuclear waste repository. This week’s official re-nomination of Svinicki by the White House seems to say that rumors of Yucca’s demise are somewhat exaggerated.

Or at least that is what the nuclear industry and its army of lobbyists, captured regulators, and purchased politicians would have you believe.

As Republican members of Congress try to exert pressure on Reid and Senator Barbara Boxer (whose committee has jurisdiction over the NRC) to quickly confirm Svinicki, two states with heaping helpings of nuclear waste have gone to court to make sure that the Yucca repository is kept, if not on track, at least on life support.

Last week, lawyers for South Carolina and Washington State went before a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, arguing that while the government hadn’t allocated any more money for Yucca, there was still some money in the project’s budget, and even though it wasn’t going to get anything anywhere close to finished, the NRC and the Department of Energy were obligated to spend it. Congress had, after all, passed measures designating Nevada as the future home of the country’s high-level radioactive waste, and the law is the law.

The government, in turn, has argued that not only would it be throwing “good money after bad,” since the DoE has withdrawn the licensing request for Yucca Mountain and the White House has not put any funding for completing the facility in the next budget, the roughly $10 million remaining would not be enough to again wrap up the project when no more money is allocated.

The leftover $10 million, it should be noted, is not only a drop in the bucket when compared with the $90 billion projected cost of developing Yucca Mountain or the $10 billion already spent, it is only half the $20 million it cost to fund the project each month it was active.

As previously examined, the nuclear industry desperately needs Yucca Mountain, or some answer to long-term waste storage, if it ever hopes to expand, or, realistically, even continue to operate its existing fleet of antique reactors. Current moves reveal the strategy of atomic energy advocates to try to keep Yucca alive, however tenuously, in expectation that the political climate might change enough to revivify the cash-hungry corpse that is not just the Nevada dump, but the entire US nuclear power industry.

House Republicans–and some Democrats, too–are playing their part. In April, a majority of the House Appropriations Committee concluded that the Obama administration’s moves to shutter Yucca were “counter to the law,” and then they put your money where their mouths were:

The committee bill [provides] DOE with $25 million to work on a solution to storing commercial nuclear waste, but only if it is directed at Yucca Mountain. Also, the bill would bar DOE from spending any funds to eliminate the option of Yucca Mountain as a waste site.

So, you’re saying you want the radioactive waste to go where now?

Interesting little side note: the Appropriations Committee is chaired by Hal Rogers of Kentucky, the state that is home to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, the nation’s only operating uranium enrichment facility providing fuel for commercial nuclear reactors (oh, and a contaminated, toxic mess). And the Ranking Democrat on the committee (who also supported the Yucca provision) is Norm Dicks, whose great state of Washington is a litigant in the Yucca Mountain lawsuit (described above) and the address of Hanford, the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States.

The Senate, as those who have read this far might have guessed, has a different take on the Yucca line item. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s Energy and Water Development Subcommittee didn’t include Yucca Mountain in its appropriations bill. Instead, Feinstein’s language directs the DoE to explore moving nuclear waste to temporary, aboveground storage sites.

Of course, the porous, dank Yucca repository and unstable, vulnerable aboveground casks are both unsuitable solutions to the existing and long-term high-level radioactive waste storage crisis, but with the House in GOP hands and the Senate under Democratic control, the assumption might be that neither option will ever come to fruition. And the assumption might be that the story ends there.

But it doesn’t. Not even temporarily.

Again, the so-called “nuclear renaissance” depends on a place to move the tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste generated every year. The way it is stored now is expensive, the way it is stored now is dangerous, and, perhaps most urgent to the industry, the way it is stored now is pretty much full. Something has to give.

While some states hit the courts and the House moves to restart Yucca, the president has picked a fight with Harry Reid on what is generally recognized as the Senator’s signature issue. And House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R CA-49, a district that includes the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station) continues to fan the flames under Gregory Jaczko, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman who was once a Reid staffer and has sided with the Senator and the White House (at least as its position was delineated prior to last month) in the battle to close Yucca Mountain.

Should attempts to unseat Jaczko succeed, he will almost certainly be replaced by a commissioner more friendly to the industry and, thus, to the Yucca site. Should the Democrats lose control of the Senate in November, Reid will lose his Majority Leader post, and with that will go the power to control the budget and the fate of Yucca Mountain. But even if the Democrats hold on to a Senate majority, Reid’s position as its leader is not guaranteed, and Obama’s willingness to challenge him on the Svinicki nomination underscores that uncertainty.

And without Reid in power, there is serious question as to how long president Obama would stand by Reid’s protégé Jaczko.

And there is yet another wrinkle–there is actually a second pot of money set aside for development of a radioactive waste storage facility. It is money collected by the nuclear industry in the form of surcharges on electricity consumers’ utility bills. It is estimated to now total about $21 billion (or maybe as high as $29 billion)–again, not enough to finish building the Yucca repository, but more than enough to keep hope alive, as they say.

But if Yucca is not going to be built, then state regulators, in a lawsuit separate from the one previously described, say that the government should stop collecting the surcharge. And Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has introduced legislation to give back to nuclear energy consumers most of the money collected.

It shapes up as a potential win-win for the nuclear industry. On the one hand, it is one more pressure point on the federal government to, shall we say, shit on Nevada or get off the pot–to restart Yucca or lose a good chunk of money needed for any permanent waste facility. On the other hand, if money is refunded, and if future surcharges are cancelled, it is another way to artificially deflate the price of electricity generated by nuclear plants, and another way to hide the true cost of nuclear power.

Hiding the true cost of nuclear power is, of course, essential to perpetuating the myth of a nuclear renaissance–in fact, it is essential to sustaining the industry as it limps along now. The price of long-term high-level waste storage is but one part of the equation–one part almost always ignored by nuclear adherents–but it is a crucial one. The cost of storing waste at the various nuclear power plants is not only noticeable to the industry’s fragile bottom line, the potential dangers inherent in on-site storage are problems plant operators would rather belonged to someone else.

Yucca Mountain would seem the easiest prescription for this headache. One could say the industry needs Yucca to sustain its influence the way the evil sorcerer head needed a body to fully exercise its powers. But unlike the case of the torso-less thaumaturge (spoiler alert!), nuclear waste does not disintegrate when it comes in contact with a crucifix. The roughly 300,000 tons of high-level radioactive garbage that lies scattered across the US will remain deadly dangerous for at least another 100 millennia–and each operating nuclear plant adds to that terrifying total by about 20 tons each year. Without a government-funded waste repository, nuclear power simply could not continue to live–and that is why, to the nuclear industry, Yucca Mountain is something that cannot die.

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Occupy Innovation

Actress Anne Hathaway marches with demonstrators on the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. (Photo: Elana Levin)

Two days after thousands of police broke up the around-the-clock occupation of New York’s Zuccotti Park, tens of thousands of demonstrators converged downtown to celebrate the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and stress that with or without Zuccotti, the protest and its message remained strong and relevant.

One of those in the march, the actress Anne Hathaway, carried a sign that read “Blackboards not Bullets,” and though much attention was predictably paid to the 29-year-old star’s presence, the message she carried that day shouldn’t be ignored.

A month earlier, shortly after a company called Boston Dynamics unveiled a prototype of its “Legged Squad Support System” AlphaDog, a walking robot financed by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Rachel Maddow featured the technological marvel in a segment contrasting current advances in military hardware with what is currently on offer for consumers.

Her featured guest in that segment was US Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ). Holt had, a month earlier still, gone on record in the midst of Washington’s deficit hysteria arguing that the government should actually spend more on scientific research, writing that the framing of the budget debate set up a false choice between basic science and elementary education.

Nothing demonstrates the effectiveness of the young Occupy movement more than the rapid shift in frames. The “cut, cut, cut” of the manufactured deficit crisis that Holt had to fight against has been largely drowned out by the chant of “banks got bailed out; we got sold out” and the reevaluation of spending priorities that came with nationwide demands for an accountable government acting in the service of the 99 percent.

But, to state the obvious, four months of Occupy has not been enough to really transform the way the federal government prioritizes spending, nor has the movement yet transformed the way the country evaluates real progress.

For instance, with December’s formal end of US military operations in Iraq, and a promised drawdown coming in Afghanistan, as well, has anyone in official Washington (or in the commentariat, for that matter) started talking about what America will do with its “peace dividend?”

In fact, the beneficiaries of profligate wartime spending are marshaling their surrogates to warn that cuts in Pentagon spending will actually subtract valuable research dollars from the economy. Citing large contractors like SAIC, Computer Sciences Corporation, and CACI International, a recent New York Times story tried to make the case that massive military spending in the last decade has been an important catalyst for the economy and for innovation in the broader marketplace. If these companies–all three of which have been involved in major scandals over the last several years–stand for anything, however, it is that the unchecked expansion of the defense budget is a catalyst for shameless corruption. (An observation glaringly absent from the Times piece.)

Indeed, for all the sincere excitement that might spring up around robot dogs, or a stream of other “war dividends” that might find some purpose in the consumer marketplace–from high-resolution cameras to improved prosthetic limbs–the wow factor not only obscures the full cost of the innovation, but distorts the measure of innovation itself.

A marketplace of ideas?

Many conservatives (and neo-liberals) love to argue that the marketplace is the best judge of winners and losers. Competition is the key to innovation, they argue. But in the consumer market, innovation isn’t always about providing a better product. Just as often, “innovation” means exploiting a leverageable point of difference or streamlining the manufacturing process in pursuit of better profit margins.

Was Coke Zero an innovation over Diet Coke? Was Nexium an innovation over Prilosec? Certainly, marketing said “yes,” but the research, at least in the case of the pharmaceuticals, stated otherwise:

It’s expensive to produce an innovative drug. On average, the bill runs to more than $400 million. So drug companies often take a less costly route to create a new product. They chemically rejigger an oldie but goodie, craft a new name, mount a massive advertising campaign and sell the retread as the latest innovative breakthrough.

This strategy has shown great success for turning profits. Nexium, a “me-too” drug for stomach acid, has earned $3.9 billion for its maker, AstraZeneca, since it went on the market in 2001. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classified three-fourths of the 119 drugs it approved last year as similar to existing ones in chemical makeup or therapeutic value.
….

Nexium illustrates the drug makers’ strategy. Many chemicals come in two versions, each a mirror image of the other: an L-isomer and an R-isomer. (The “L” is for left, the “R” is for right.) Nexium’s predecessor Prilosec is a mixture of both isomers. When Prilosec’s patent expired in 2001, the drug maker was ready with Nexium, which contains only the L-isomer.

Is Nexium better? So far, there’s no convincing evidence that it is. . . .

The study goes on to point out that the money spent on developing and marketing a “me too” drug is money not spent researching truly new treatments.

The energy sector practically turns the notion of marketplace innovation on its head. From underpriced leases for drilling on federal land to underwritten loans for construction of new nuclear reactors, “innovation” has been about finding ways to preserve the status quo.

Take, for example, a so-called “next generation” reactor design, known as the AP1000, certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission just before Christmas. Though touted as a “radical” new design, in reality, the new model represents little more than a riff on 50-year-old pressurized water reactors. While manufacturers contend the AP1000 offers improved options for backup reactor cooling in an emergency, the real “innovations” for plant owners are the number of systems and components that do not differ from what has already been licensed and manufactured – shortening the approval process – and the promise that the new model requires fewer components, far less concrete and rebar, and smaller staffs to operate, thus saving on construction and labor costs.

Nothing about the new reactor design has actually impressed “the marketplace” one iota. No bank will indulge the risk – without billions in federal loan guarantees, none of the reactors now approved and fast-tracked for construction and operating licenses would ever come close to getting built. In addition, the federal government is still paying to clean up after mid-20th Century uranium mining, decades of nuclear fuel processing, and numerous radiation leaks of varying size, and will remain saddled with the burden of providing a long-term storage solution for nuclear waste. The Price-Anderson Act also shields the nuclear industry from the full liability of any accident. None of these costly government investments supports innovation – indeed, it could be argued they prevent it.

The military innovation complex

But as costly as it is to backstop the nuclear industry, it pales in comparison to the military model for innovation. Far from being tested in the “marketplace,” military innovations seem to go through a “spaghetti test” – throw multiple options at the wall, and see if any stick. This is a phenomenally expensive model, and can also cost dearly in terms of lives, but it is a system born of the “cost is no object” approach encouraged by the shock of war, and sustained by the Military Industrial Complex and its enablers.

As a result, as Rep. Holt observed, “The military spends a lot more on development than research. More on the ‘D’ than the ‘R.'” Tax dollars spent in this sector contribute little to primary research, the kind that has the potential to radically shift paradigms. Instead, military innovation focuses on incremental improvements, usable in theater as soon as possible.

And the incremental approach is notably desirable for military contractors. There is so much more profit in producing an assortment of tweaked prototypes and modest upgrades than there is in having a few scientists or engineers work on models. A war–and the war frame for thinking about innovation–might get you many relative improvements, but it rarely produces radical inventions.

In addition, Holt points out that military R&D is often less fruitful for the greater economy because much of the research is kept secret.

Military spending is also much more capital intensive than investments in other vital sectors – and a new study from the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) quantifies just how much more.

The study, titled “The US Employment Effects of Military and Domestic Spending Priorities” (PDF), calculates the number of jobs created by a set amount of military spending, and then contrasts that with what the exact same amount would do when invested in four non-military alternatives: tax cuts for personal consumption, clean energy and efficiency, health care, and public education. The differences are staggering.

PERI found that $1 billion in military spending produced 11,200 jobs, which sounds impressive until it is placed next to the alternatives. Tax cuts, no reputable economist’s favorite way to create jobs, still outpaced military spending – $1 billion in tax cuts would create an estimated 15,100 jobs. But even that looks weak when compared with more direct government investment in crucial alternative sectors. A billion dollars spent on clean energy and improved efficiency would result in 16,800 new jobs. The same amount in the health care sector would mean 17,200 jobs. And $1 billion of government investment in education would create 26,700 jobs – well over twice the jobs created by the same amount spent on the military.

It is often argued that military jobs are better compensated than others – mostly because of the superior health benefits – however, the money spent in the private sector is so much more efficient at job creation that more jobs are created across the spectrum, even in the upper tiers. (Indeed, for jobs in the upper brackets, clean energy investment leaps ahead of health care – though, in every category, education is the leader in dollars-for-jobs effectiveness.)

Such numbers have major and obvious implications at a time when, in Washington, anyway, leaders talk of the need to cut government spending, but paradoxically also warn of the consequences – especially with regard to employment – of cutting the military.

Innovation and its discontents

So, while it is probably human nature – and an admirable part of it – to get excited about an agile and intuitive robot, the rapid improvements in mechanical dog technology raise important questions: What if the US had the same level of commitment to innovation outside the military? What if the government took just a fraction of the money it poured into Iraq and Afghanistan – wars arguably fought to help preserve America’s access to cheap oil – and instead invested it in renewable energy innovations and improvements in energy efficiency? What if some of the $2,200 spent by every resident in the United States on the military in 2010 (to use the most recently available figures) had been repurposed for education? How much lower would the jobless rate be? How many innovations and improvements equal to or better than AlphaDog would now be receiving the oohs and aahs of an amazed public?

Or is it, as Ezra Klein observed in a response to the Times story, that military R&D is “economically inefficient but politically efficient“–that there might be better ways to spend a research dollar, but the one that Beltway thinking can sustain goes through the Pentagon? Not only is that construct what Klein calls “depressing,” it makes several assumptions about the values of extravagant wartime budgets while ignoring the known and numerous downsides. (The Times piece itself includes two professors who posit without any apparent irony that the biggest economic benefit of inflated defense spending is “what it prevents”–presumably, war and other threats to domestic security.) But, worst of all, Klein’s take on realpolitik is myopic and shortsighted.

If the US fought for the post-carbon economy the way it fights for nebulous state-building goals in foreign wars, the future would be brighter, cleaner, safer and cheaper, with more jobs and perhaps – because it would need to secure less of that foreign oil -fewer wars. If the country built new classrooms with the same urgency it built armored vehicles, more American teens could be choosing between colleges instead of choosing between minimum and sub-minimum wage jobs – and fewer would eventually need public assistance. If the government spent more on blackboards and less on bullets, it would create more jobs today and more innovation in the future.

Neither the military nor the marketplace has proven to be the great incubator of innovation that proponents of defense spending and free markets wish to believe. Instead, both facilitate what author Malcolm Gladwell calls “tinkering” – refinements that might improve upon a big invention, rather than the big invention itself. This is not to slight tinkering: Edison’s light bulb and Apple’s iPod represent the kind of tinkering that can markedly affect everyday life. But those were improvements on earlier discoveries, not the world-changing discoveries, themselves (and, as has been demonstrated, not every tinkering innovation is for the benefit of the end-user).

No, if the United States truly wants to “think different” (as Apple’s advertising once implored), it needs to once again embrace the innovations upon which the country was founded: Real representative democracy, transparency, accountability, checks and balances of three co-equal branches of government, no taxation without representation, trial by jury, a wariness of foreign military entanglements, and, as was added soon after Independence, access to free public education as a right. They are ideals remarkably similar to those embraced by the Occupy movement – if not assumed by most Americans to be part of their national identity.

But they are precepts that have been tarnished by the masters of the marketplace and the adherents of the military industrial complex. Perhaps they don’t need re-invention, but it appears some serious re-dedication is in order. If the innovation in public discourse known as Occupy Wall Street can continue to re-frame the crisis, rethink the role of government and reinvigorate the democracy, then maybe America can re-occupy itself.

* * *

(A version of this story previously appeared on Truthout under the headline Occupy Innovation: Neither the Military Nor the Market Does)

The Party Line – July 29, 2011: Those Who Can’t Teach, “Compromise”

I seriously cannot believe I am again writing a post with one eye on the wire, still waiting for a conclusion to the debt-ceiling debacle, looking for real news to read, instead of just thrice re-boiled tea leaves. But here I am—here we are—sweating out a crisis that is as malicious as it is manufactured, knowing that when a “resolution” comes, no matter which version/option/compromise we get, it will be both terrible and impermanent.

That’s not easy to think about, but it is quite easy to say. There are no smart options on the table. There are not even smart planks left to use as bargaining chips. America, with its economy gasping for air, is left having to choose from a trio of plans that are all (as best as we are allowed to glimpse them) comprised of draconian cuts to so-called discretionary spending, no serious attempts at increases in revenue, and seismic blows to the bedrock programs of our social safety net—and none of which do a single, solitary thing to stimulate job creation. The only resemblance to a life preserver here is that all the plans look like a big, fat zero.

That the federal budget deficit is not even our real problem is a message completely absent from the national “debate.” That there is a difference between the debt ceiling and the deficit has been lazily obscured or purposefully ignored. And, again, the interests and desires of vast majorities of the American people—that jobs are more important than deficits, that a higher percentage of taxes should be paid by the very wealthy, and that the military should be cut before Social Security and Medicare—are marginalized as “extreme,” “not serious,” “unreasonable,” or (horror of horrors) “not adult.”

And who is out in front of this march to mindless mayhem? Believe it or not, as flawed and feckless as Congressional leaders seem, as uncompromising or unhinged as TEA Party sympathizers (T-simps?) appear, the guy that must bear the lion’s share of blame is the one with the bully pulpit.

When President Barack Obama took to the primetime air on Monday, many a Beltway pundit huzzah-ed the appearance of “the educator-in-chief.” We were told that the president went over the heads of the Washington elite to explain the complexities of the debt-ceiling debate to the people. We were told that Obama’s continued “eat your peas” tone was just the sort of talking-to that the unruly brood in the people’s house (you know, the House) needed to hear. And we were told that when the president asked folks to call Congress and say they expected compromise, he had scored a political victory (even as some poopooed his “politicizing” the moment).

And no doubt the president believed his own press, for as the week draws to an end and we are no closer to any kind of meaningful arrangement (good, bad, really bad or otherwise) to raise the debt ceiling, there is nothing new coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Well, this might come as a bit of a news flash to President Obama (not to mention the DC press corps), but being “reasonable,” or “unflappable,” or even behaving as the “adult” is not the same thing as being a leader.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich noticed this “abject failure” on Wednesday, calling Obama “seemingly without a compass. . . an inside-the-Beltway deal-maker who does not explain his compromises in light of larger goals.”

Perhaps this is because the president has no larger goals. It has often seemed that, to Obama, compromise—like “bipartisanship”—is goal enough, an end rather than just a means to an end. Perhaps, as Reich puts it, it is more important to the president that he be “seen as a reasonable adult rather than a fighter.” Or perhaps the larger goals are so singularly unpalatable that he dare not explain them. It is bad enough that the White House is stripping Democrats of a solid campaign issue by joining the GOP in its pursuit of cuts to Social Security and Medicare, if the president had to call such cuts a “goal,” as opposed to a “compromise,” his own re-election might be in peril (or even more in peril).

But the “why” is not as important as the “what”—and what is going on is deplorable, in both practical and political terms. As Reich notes:

[Obama] is well aware that the Great Recession wiped out $7.8 trillion of home value, crushing the nest eggs and eliminating the collateral that had allowed the middle class to keep spending despite declining wages—a decrease in consumption that is directly responsible for the anemic recovery. But he doesn’t explain this to the American people or attempt to mobilize them around a vision of what should be done.

Instead, even as unemployment rises to 9.2 percent and at least 14 million people look for work, he joins the GOP in making a fetish of reducing the budget deficit over the next decade and enters into a hair-raising game of chicken with House Republicans over whether the debt ceiling will be raised. Never once does he tell the public why reducing the deficit has become his No. 1 economic priority. Americans can only conclude that the Republicans must be correct—that diminishing the deficit will somehow revive economic growth and restore jobs.

Instead of powerful explanations, we get the type of bromides that issue from any White House. America must “win the future,” Obama says, by which he means making public investments in infrastructure, education, and research and development. But then he submits a budget proposal that would cut nondefense discretionary spending (of which these investments constitute more than half) to its lowest level as a share of gross domestic product in over half a century.

Reich is kind in phrasing this as a situation into which Obama has “allowed himself to be trapped,” but I fear he is being too politic. Two-and-a-half years removed from inauguration day, the president has enough of a track record to deserve the label of “active participant” in the trapping.

When the will and wisdom of the electorate has threatened to interrupt what we used to think of as a Republican narrative of “austerity for the many and rewards for the few,” it is President Obama that has time and again jumped in to shore up and shape his theoretical opponents’ frame. It was the new president that negotiated with himself a too-small stimulus and then over-promised what it would do. It was the White House that hamstrung healthcare reform with secret deals, an artificial maximum price tag, and long delays for the start of most programs, and then forced Democrats in Congress to embrace it and defend it straight through disastrous midterm elections. It was Obama that created the Catfood Commission when Congress itself failed to appease the deficit peacocks—and it was Obama that stacked the commission with members predisposed to disemboweling the social safety net. It was the president that forced his caucus to embrace his December budget deal that extended Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and slashed the estate tax—two major factors in our current budget shortfall. And it is Obama that continues Bush’s wars of choice—justifying them with Bush’s climate of fear—another giant drain on federal coffers.

And it is Obama now, throughout the months that this debt-ceiling circus has continued to send in the clowns (along with high-wire acts and performing seals), who has served as ringmaster.

Obama, as I have described in the past, could have argued that we have more than enough borrowing capacity, and that, with interest rates so very low, now is the time to strengthen our economy by creating jobs, expanding our safety net, and stimulating demand. He could have used this crisis to build on the New Deal, to improve his flawed healthcare law, or to help power the next great engine of American economic expansion (by perhaps giving a Kennedy-esque “moon landing” speech declaring we will replace carbon and nuclear fuels with renewables by a date certain, and then funding R&D)—and he certainly could have used all of this to draw a sharp contrast between Democrats and Republicans. But instead, the president has embraced the austerity meme, argued only for “compromise,” and has turned the entire debate into a contest over whose plan has more cuts. Obama has failed to explain to anyone how compromise, in-and-of itself, will help create a job or put food on the table, but he has succeeded in enhancing a dangerous and growing cynicism among voters well on their way to dropping out of the political process to devote more time to just making ends meet.

It might not be hard to “mobilize” people around a tactic—Congressional phone lines were jammed the day after Obama’s call to call—but a week (or two?) later, when government services have been sacrificed in the name of saving the country’s bond rating, will any of this telephone army feel like they won the fight?

It’s hard to imagine they will—certainly not the next time unemployment numbers come out, or a bridge falls down, or their kids are forced into a more crowded classroom. It is those real-life “lessons” that will do the teaching absent any true leadership from the “educator-in-chief.”

(A version of this post also appears on Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – June 10, 2011: Hope Floats

The Obama administration has a problem. As much Republican good will or corporate campaign cash as they expect to gain from their reinforcing of the deficit hysteria meme (which, let’s face it, will not be very much at all), even the most cynical of the president’s economic team realizes that all this budget cutting isn’t going to do squat for the current economy. Without something directly stimulative, the recovery likely stalls. Without some sort of jobs program, the unemployment picture continues to look grim. There is no “car” to worry about putting in reverse—it has been spinning its wheels for some time now, and, as most Americans see it, it never did drive out of that ditch.

Yes, with 2012 shaping up to be another “it’s the economy, stupid” election year, O & Co. has a problem—but with the same deficit hawks and scorched-earth partisans controlling Congress, what is a president obsessed with bipartisan-like process to do?

A natural place to look would be the deal the White House cut last December with House Republicans—and indeed, Obama went to that well earlier this week. During an appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the president floated the idea of extending a central part of that deal, the two-percent payroll tax cut for employees, for another year. Then, never failing to miss an opportunity to negotiate with itself, the White House later posited an employer-side payroll tax break (instead of the employee-side cut? in addition to? hard to say, but it is fairly easy to guess which would be favored by the GOP) as an incentive to business for some sort of job creation.

Payroll taxes, however, are not some sort of rainy-day fund the government puts aside when it can, there to use if it needs a new washing machine. . . or the economy is in a ditch. These payroll taxes—the ones Obama is offering to cut—go to fund Social Security and disability. The 2010 deal cost roughly $112 billion, and it figures extending the cut another year will cost the same. If the employer-side cut is comparable, and it is paired with an extension of the employee-side holiday, Social Security could be out close to $400 billion by the end of next year.

The Obama administration has assured us that the Social Security shortfall will be made up from the general revenue, but if the White House does not think it has the political capital to push through a more straightforward (and almost certainly more effective) money-for-jobs stimulus plan, why are we to grant that they can engineer a repayment of the Social Security fund? And even if that transfer were politically possible, what $400 billion cut in the federal budget will have to be made to appease the deficit peacocks?

All of this—or any of this—puts additional pressure on Social Security, or, more accurately, lends ammunition to those already taking pot shots at the long-term viability of the program. If there are already “serious” people trying to shock-doctrine in changes to the retirement plan, how much more shocking could they make things seem after taking a two-, three-, or four-hundred billion-dollar bite out of its reserves?

None of these cold calculations likely come as a big surprise to the White House. In fact, this is all possibly part of the political calculation—that one of the reasons Hill Republicans might go along with an Obama-proffered plan of any sort is the resulting dent it puts in the Social Security trust fund.

That might seem like a successful trade to administration insiders, buying themselves some small bit of help for an economy on the skids and sure to suffer from any “deficit reduction,” but it comes at a heck of a price. Not only does the economic upside of this bargain look relatively small, the political downside is potentially huge. As both the recent Medicare scare and the 2005 Social Security privatization push have taught us, American voters hate it when you threaten their “entitlements.” If Republicans can muddy the waters, or actually drag the White House into the mud with them, on Social Security “reform” (read: benefit cuts), they will have taken away one of the Democrats’ most effective salvos for the coming campaign.

And that will come in addition to a litany of “wins” for the corporatists, deficit hawks, party hacks, and TEA-totaling ideologues—more tax breaks, less federal spending, a dead-weight economy, and a damaged social safety net. To counter all of that, the Obama administration offers its float of payroll tax cuts and the hope that this and a little economic luck will change things for the better. . . or at least keep enough voters from noticing how they have gotten worse.

(A version of this post appears today at Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – May 27, 2011: Gates of Wrath

So, Bob Gates, still the Secretary of Defense for about another month, has been talking a lot about fruit of late:

When it comes to our military modernization accounts, the proverbial ‘low-hanging fruit’ — those weapons and other programs considered most questionable — have not only been plucked, they have been stomped on and crushed.

Gates has been vocally working the fields, trampling out his vintage whine, to let it be known that he has cut and cut, and he is done cutting. . . well, at least when it comes to military hardware.

“Understanding” the need to further trim the Pentagon budget, however, Gates does say there is a field that is now quite ripe for harvest. . . and stomping. . . and this would be so-called personnel costs—military pay, pensions, and health care.

To reiterate: big, expensive, new weapons systems–forbidden fruit. The people that pilot those weapons and fight our wars—crush ‘em.

Because when the government bestows its largess on a defense contractor, it is so much easier to harvest the return, be it in the form of campaign contributions or future pay for revolving-door jobs. When federal dollars are spread out over hundreds of thousands of service members, it might help a greater number of people, but it doesn’t help the guys who run the orchard—at least not as obviously or nearly as much.

And Sec. Gates–who does have his future to think about, after all–wants to make sure his successors (or at least his future employers) understand. No more defense contractors need get tossed into the terrible winepress of budget austerity–there are plenty of fighting folks, ready for trampling.

(A version of this post previously appeared on Firedoglake.)