Herbert London is the author of Decade of Denial (Lexington Books), America's Secular Challenge (Encounter Books) and most recently Diary of a Dean (Hamilton Books), and publisher of American Outlook. He can be reached at: www.herblondon.org.
Despite all the talk about energy independence emanating from Washington D.C., this government and its allies in the environmental movement do whatever they can to thwart this goal. Based on reliable discoveries in Utah, Arizona, and Colorado there may be enough fossil fuel from shale and natural gas to avoid any reliance on foreign oil. Why then is nothing happening to mine these resources and bring them to market?
The answer very simply is that extremist elements in the environmental movement have supplied sufficient pressure to make any drilling and mining impossible in these areas.
Using an array of tactics to challenge companies and impose their agenda, the environmentalists have been quite successful in hindering and preventing oil drilling and exploration. No doubt groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace want to elect politicians sympathetic to their cause, but they are also adopting guerrilla tactics designed to stop corporations from making contributions to causes they oppose.
The green campaign against Koch Industries illustrates how environmentalists harass privately owned companies that are impervious to social pressure and unwilling to appease their foes. From television to magazine accounts the Koch brothers have been featured as "monsters" without regard for the environment. That these charges have little foundation is of no consequence to environmentalists playing to win.
In the wake of the Supreme Court Citizens United decision permitting unlimited corporate contributions, activists have heightened their efforts to undermine corporate interests. One of the overarching areas targeted for propaganda purpose is environmental matters. Pull the curtain from shareholder proxies and you find a network of environmental advocacy groups promoting their agenda of "alternative" and "renewable" energy.
The goal of environmental activism is clear: attempt to curtail political contributions to candidates who oppose the extremist agenda. Getting companies on their side is the tactic and, remarkably, when companies feel the heat, they often concede. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, is a prime example of a business leader who has been converted into an environmental activist. He now makes it appear he is on the side of the angels, even though his position militates against the development necessary to deal with our dependency on foreign oil.
Immelt, among others, contends that the nation should pursue electric cars and solar panels, innovations that cannot possibly eliminate the need for oil-driven cars, home heating oil, and other fossil products, despite rhetoric that suggests clean technology will solve our energy woes.
So deeply embedded is this propaganda that it defies the scientific knowledge well known to officials in the Energy Department. When grants are given for the so-called clean energy technologies, opposition voices are often silenced.
Activists realize that if you can get government agencies and corporate leaders on your side using propaganda and intimidation as tactics, an effective alliance for environmental positions can be created.
For those who are scientific realists, this propaganda effort is discouraging. Not only does it place the United States in a disadvantageous economic position, and force our government to expend blood and treasure defending foreign oil fields, but it also challenges scientific verities and destroys corporate integrity.
The Nation's Economic Future
For most of last few months the Obama administration has maintained a "recovery" is underway. Seizing on a modest reduction in the unemployment rate, the president has waxed lyrical about the upswing in the nation's economy.
But the most recent economic data provides a very different picture. The 2011 economic slowdown is worse than any of the forecasts and is likely to be as substantial as the "crawl" in 2010. Growth has slowed from 3.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010 to 1.8 percent in the first quarter with an anticipated rate of 1.8 percent in the second quarter.
Some of the slowdown can be attributed to weak auto production, some to tragic effects of the earthquake, and tsunami in Japan, and some to the inability of the Congress and the president to come to grips with the fast-approaching economic crisis based on accumulated debt.
There is no question that economic growth is the only politically effective way to keep a financial disaster at bay. Growth should be at the 3 to 4 percent level in order to finance a debt over $14 trillion, that will rise to $26 trillion by 2020. But on the basis of present forecasts that goal may be unreachable.
The precarious nature of the bond market with well-known financial experts expressing concerns about Treasury Bills, suggests a gloomy foreshadowing. Moreover, the reluctance on the part of the present administration to curb its appetite for spending and its recalcitrance to consider budget retrenchment have put the financial markets in an uncertain and perilous environment.
Ultimately the market seems to be counting on a compromise over the debt limit that allows for an increase along with a reduction in expenditures. However, partisan sentiments are running high in this year before a presidential election, with each side driving their advantage for electoral support.
A recent New York Democratic victory in a Congressional seat normally held by a Republican has convinced the party leaders that "Mediscare" can be a tactic for further success. If this is true, any discussion of retrenchment in this program that in itself accounts for more than half of the national debt may be impossible.
On the other side of the ledger, Republicans eager to compromise have Tea Partiers looking over their shoulders arguing that compromise is ostensible defeat. Since the Tea Partiers have given vitality to a moribund party organization, this view cannot be overlooked.
Although this is not the time for stasis, this is what we have. Both parties are captive to their constituents and the arguments that follow from that connection.
The backdrop for this financial slowdown is related to endogenous issues of the kind mentioned in this article, but they are also related to the exogenous issues of bailouts, bank failures and sovereign debt across the globe. Chickens are coming home to roost as generous government programs undermine the incentive for and capacity of private enterprise. So many want so much from so few. The free rider is an international resident.
What this adds up to is not a pretty picture, despite present rhetoric offering a different scenario. We are at an economic precipice and decisions must be made to avoid another major crisis of the 2008 variety. The question, of course, is whether anyone has the will, the determination, to do what is necessary, even if unpopular. The test of democracy's resilience and the fate of the financial system lie in the balance.
The World of Political Discourse Enjoins the Imagination
When the president of the United States says we have to control expenditures and then advocates dramatic increases in the budget, I am perplexed. When I am told the economy is in recovery, but according to recent reports the unemployment rate has ballooned to over 9 percent, I am confused. When I am told we must win the war against radical Islamic forces, but we will be withdrawing our troops from the Middle East, conundrums emerge.
This is not merely Orwellian double-speak, something else is at work. Words create a picture, but it's a picture obscured by reality. Ludwig Wittgenstein spent his life trying to show how language can be useful in understanding the world, while still remaining inexact. "The limits of my language are the limits of my world," he noted. We are presumably imprisoned by what we can say.
The mathematician Godel spoke of the incompleteness theorem: "a statement cannot be proved." In other words there is a truth outside the limits of words and logic. A logical argument cannot prove its own axioms, and, as a consequence, logic itself must begin with an act of faith beyond logic.
What this suggests for those who are trying to make sense of the contradictions in the political world is that language is imprecise and truth is evasive. Invariably politicians use metaphor or word pictures to convey impressions. President Obama, during the course of his presidential campaign, relied on a tabula rasa in which his constituents could project onto his views anything they would like him to embrace.
It is instructive that the citizen searching for truth realizes at some point truth cannot be final. There is always a next truth. Frank Fukuyama may discuss "the end of history," but history cannot have an end. Ultimately the sensible person tries to assemble an understanding of life through the thickets of specialized terminology, political propaganda and conceptual coinage, searching for that active radiance, the moment of revelation.
Ralph Waldo Emerson noted "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"; however, inconsistency in the political realm leads inevitably to cynicism. What can you believe, what confidence can you have in leaders, when one action contradicts the next? Politics by its very nature is the metaphorical on steroids. Impressions are what count. Facts give impression texture, but it is what lies beyond logic that enters our imagination. Thomas Mann in Doctor Fautus characterized this well by noting "all that one may well call vast, strange, extraordinary, magnificent, without thereby giving it a name because it is truly nameless." This space, this vast ocean of the unknown, kindled Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream in which Bottom says, "I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream."
There is much that we know without knowing it. And there is much we would wish to explain, without explication. Alas the world is confusing, but our politicians have an obligation to at least make the metaphor reach the outer reach of our imagination. There is something to be said for sound impressions.
Fin de Siecle Attitude
Is this the end of an era? Is Western civilization on a collision course with extinction? In a media world that thrives on pessimism, it is hard to know. Yet there is the nagging feeling that the myrmidons of doom may be right.
How can one explain the fact that a prostitute who slept with the former governor of New York is rewarded with a newspaper column on love and sex? Why should a down and out British actor be given a role as a movie star after revealing that he slept with a world-famous mannequin? Is getting attention by wearing foolish looking outfits or provocative gear the source of success in the music business? When did pornography become a legitimate business?
These are not merely questions filtered through tabloid perusal; they represent a shift in the public sensibility, a movement away from the bourgeois impulse, a shift of dramatic consequence.
One fine day, I know not when, the world moved from "Ozzie and Harriet" to Charlie Sheen, from sobriety to the drug-addled mind. It seems that the freedom secured through blood and treasure during World War II turned to license. "Anything Goes" is more than a Cole Porter tune; it is a Nietzchean call to test the limits of human existence.
Perhaps the roots of this challenge go back to the French Revolution when the "le deluge" was welcomed as a giant broom sweeping the past away. Jean Jacque Rousseau argued, "A little bit of agitation gives motivation to the soul, and what really makes the species prosper is not peace so much as freedom." This, of course, was a self-serving comment, since Rousseau consumed the fumes of revolution. In my experience, people weigh the benefits of freedom and security or peace, giving up a little of one to create some timely balance with the other.
What we have at the moment is neither freedom nor peace, but chaos. Several years ago when there were riots in Los Angeles over the Rodney King case, Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, noted that:
. . . looting is the dominant way of life in America, and the hypocritical cries of outrage at what happened in Los Angeles were not wrong because the rioters were justified, but were wrong because they were classically racist: They selected and condemned one group for behavior of other groups that are not being equally condemned.
He singled out the rioters' "racist response" promoted by the fact that most of us know that we are complicit with the culture of looting. Here in undiluted form is cultural chaos theory. Presumably since, "looting is the dominant way of life," we are all complicit. The only thing wrong of course, is that looters chose to abuse only one racial and ethnic group.
Lerner seemingly confirms the T. S. Eliot aphorism that "People who have stopped thinking make for a powerful force." When people stop thinking any thought is acceptable including nonjudgmental thought. As a consequence, culture is in the odd position of not being criticized. Talent is relative along with every other consideration. I'm reminded of Daniel Boorstein's comment that "celebrity is someone who is known for being well known." Does Madonna have any discernible talent except for marketing herself as a talent? Does Reverend Al Sharpton have anything of substance to say, except proclamations of racism and self-promotional advertisements?
Down the slippery slope we go wondering whether recovery is possible. Tennyson, the eternal optimist, wrote, "Come my friends, it is not too late to seek new worlds." I hope he is right, but the worlds I see are drowning in chaos and the loss of limits. There isn't direction and there are days when hope seems to evaporate. But then "Spring is here, the world rejoices, nature comes, and you hear her voices." Sometimes the world turning isn't so bad.
Fraud Up and Down the Education System
In Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz the Wizard tells his constituents that he wants an educated populace, "so by the power vested in me I will grant everyone diplomas." Welcome to the education system of 2011. Much of what we now observe comes right out of the Baum novel.
When Charles Eliot was president of Harvard, he was asked why there is so much intelligence at this college, He replied, "because the freshman bring so much in and the seniors take so little out." My guess is if a university president were completely honest today, he might say the freshman bring almost nothing in and leave taking nothing out.
The question is if the society spends billions on primary, secondary, and higher education, why is it that so little is accomplished. There are, of course, many answers to this question, but I would argue the overarching reason is fraud, fraud at every level in order to satisfy political demands.
At the elementary school level it is simply embarrassing to have a large number of students leave who are illiterate or semi-literate. As a consequence, students pretend to read and teachers pretend to assert their competence. Test scores are altered to satisfy political concerns. In a society suffering from the Lake Woebegone effect in which everyone is above average, you can't tell Mom that Johnny and Mary cannot read at grade level. Rather than declare inadequacy, you change the grade. The disparity between NAEP scores - the gold standard of evaluation - and state sponsored tests is startling with NAEP scores 20 to 30 percent lower on average. Obviously some manipulation is at work.
When scores are low, mayors and governors are held accountable. Since most are vulnerable to the political heat, the incentive to cheat is overwhelming. In fact, across the country there is a euphemism for this cheating: scrubbing. This practice suggests that teachers should "search" for clues in the test that would allow for an alteration in scores.
At the high school level, graduation rates are invariably employed as a standard of evaluation. Yet here too most scores are bogus. If a student is pushed through the system through social promotion, his cognitive skill may be near zero, but he is added to the percentage of graduates nonetheless. Rigor rarely exists as a demand or a practice, a condition that explains in large part why American students compare unfavorably to foreign students on international tests in language skills, math, and science.
Once holding a diploma in their hands, however questionable their skill level, these high school graduates are now deemed college ready. Since America has a college for everyone and the society is committed to mass education, students who can read at only a marginal level or who cannot solve quadratic equations are seated in institutions of higher learning.
Surely something has to give. Invariably remediation must take place, but that is insufficient to deal with widespread incompetence. Obviously course content and requirements are modified. A physics instructor at the City University in New York told me recently it is impossible to teach real physics when your students are incapable of engaging eighth grade math.
Of course there are exceptions to the lugubrious picture I've painted. Yet in far too many cases fraud from one level to another is passed on like a virus that cannot be controlled or cured. In fact, most teachers and professors who know the truth become complicit in this institutionalized fraud in order to retain their jobs. They simply cannot say college isn't for everyone, and most students are not prepared to engage in college work, or that rigorous exit requirements at any level do not exist. Hence, there is the clarion call for more money; there is the deceptive claims about the success of our educational systems; and there is the belief this investment is worthwhile.
Unfortunately there is rarely a soul who will say fraud keeps this system going, and like it or not the emperor hasn't any clothes. *