Waste & Recycling


Some thoughts on the US election

I rarely use this space to comment on political issues, especially elections, but thought to share a few thoughts about the US presidential election.
Firstly, I won’t try to predict the outcome, which will make this post outdated almost as soon as it appears. All I know is that while national polls suggest a “tight race” this is not very meaningful since the American system is very different from the Canadian one in ways that make simply adding up the number of voters in favor of one or another candidate not so meaningful.
As we all know, Americans vote separately for their President and their legislators in both the House and Senate. (In Canada, the leader of whichever party wins the general election becomes Prime Minister.)
What’s less understood is the US system of electoral colleges. It’s a very complicated system that I wouldn’t dare try to explain, but even if it looks like Obama and Romney are in a neck-and-neck race (and it’s true that the country is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats), Obama has a decisive edge in the electoral college system on the eve of the election (most importantly in the swing states).
But, who knows what will happen? No matter what the results, I’m going to state why I don’t think the Republicans deserve to win this election. I’m also going to make a few comments about the Democrats’ shortcomings.
First off, the US President doesn’t actually wield all that much power, including the ability to “create jobs.” Both Obama and Romney talk about how they’ll somehow create jobs if they win the election. In truth, the economy is restructuring and changing in ways that few people understand, and no one has a magic bullet for job creation. You can’t just print money to inflate or tinker with interest rates and expect a bunch of factories to suddenly hire people and “get the economy going” anymore. That’s 1950s thinking.
China has become the factory to the world, and has eviscerated the American manufacturing sector. China holds most of the (heavily indebted) US debt, so the US can’t do much to actively fight the trade deficit. America walked into this trap a long time ago. (The only bright side is that the Chinese won’t likely go to war with the US, it’s biggest customer and debtor.)
Most importantly, technology has altered the economy and boosted productivity in recent years, at the same time as it’s thrown people out of work. Fewer people are getting more done, and instead of the broader population sharing the benefit in some kind of Popular Mechanics vision of Utopia, the tiny plutocracy (the famous one per cent) that rules America has seen its billions grow immensely even as joblessness is the order of the day, and more and more people can only find work (often just part-time) in the low-wage service economy.
Anyway, for me, the reason the Republicans don’t deserve political office, and why they need to serve more penance in the hinterland, is because of what they allowed the last time they were in power. I won’t go into detail here, but two documentaries pretty much sum it up. The first is Inside Job, the famous documentary about how Wall Street firms ripped off America first with its questionable and criminal mortgage loan products, and then conned politicians into having taxpayers bail them out.
The second is Gasland, a film about the “dirty” fracking industry in the United States. It’s really worth watching; I approached it with a skeptical eye, but have to admit it won me over. I’ll never forget those images of flames bursting from people’s kitchen faucets. And the segment about how Dick Cheney, shorty after George W. Bush was elected, formed a committee that managed to exempt the shale gas drilling companies from the Environmental Protection Act (which led, unsurprisingly, to an explosion [if you’ll pardon the pun] of reckless drilling all over the country, and a great deal of (ongoing) pollution. Bush really was a puppet of big oil, it turns out. (Something I wasn’t prepared to believe at the time.)
I think even a hardened insider and supporter of the oil & gas industry would have to admit, after watching Gasland, that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. And the wreckage to aquifers and streams and people’s lungs and lives continues, day after day, month after month, endlessly.
These are all things that took place while the American (and world) public was distracted — “watching the hand” — of Bush’s misadventures in Iraq. That’s what bugs me about the Republicans: it’s not the obvious things that the media usually dwells on, like the positions on abortion or gay marriage and so on. It’s all the stuff they allow their deep pockets benefactors to get away with behind the scenes, that we only find out about later.
But the Democrats aren’t much better.
While I imagine Obama and crew are intuitively more likely to be friends of the environment than Romney, there are many terrible things going on about which I don’t recall Obama saying or doing much. As just one example, consider the blowing up of mountaintops in the coal seam corridor that runs from Pennsylvania down through West Virginia.
The blower-uppers cleverly keep their activities out of sight of the public by creating their moonscapes at least one row of hilltops away from major highways, so you can be driving along an interstate highway with beautiful scenery, blissfully unaware that just behind that mountain facade is a complete moonscape.
In August I drove through New York State and Pennsylvania to Virginia for a family holiday; I decided to take some side roads away from the interstate and saw some of the blown mountaintops for myself. It was really shocking, and deeply upsetting to see. (I plan to go back for a road trip next year and take a closer look.)
This is the old America; the heritage landscape that Americans wax philosophical about. And it continues to be ruined whether it’s Republicans or Democrats in the White House or any other place. I guess they’ve just given up: the millions of people who’ve moved to the Sunbelt in the past couple of decades need that air conditioning for their oversized houses and shopping malls. The developers and the mall owners have political clout and cash, and no one is building in a truly sustainable manner.
(My favorite example is Las Vegas; take a look at those poorly-insulated glass towers sitting in the sun in the middle of the desert and remind yourself that the interiors must be kept at a comfortable temperature [cold even!] when it’s often well over 100 degrees outside. Madness!)
In closing, I’ll be marginally happier with an Obama victory than Romney, for the reasons mentioned above. But I won’t be thrilled about it, either. Neither party is really committed to a sustainable future and the tough choices people would have to make to get there, or the investments in green technology that might ease the transition.
I find myself more and more inclined to agree with Paul Watson, leader of the Sea Shepherd Society, who long ago stopped appealing to the public to change its ways, and committed himself to direction action against entities like the Japanese whaling ships. Watson feels human beings lost their minds some time ago; we’re an insane out-of-control species rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic even as we plow steadily toward an ecological iceberg.
Dealing with that after the election is more important to me than whether Thing One or Thing Two wins this presidential election, sorry to say.

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