New Test For Political Nominees

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on July 28, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

The Democratic and Republican parties announced their nominations for the November elections in towns throughout Fairfield County last week, eliciting little more than a collective sigh from an electorate weary of partisan politics. To be fair, the announcements were made even as President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner turned the crucial negotiations surrounding the need to raise the national debt ceiling into a high-stakes game of “he said/she said.” Faced with an opportunity for leadership, both sides reverted to childish antics more akin to “Thomas The Train” than Thomas Jefferson.

All sides in Washington agree we need to at least temporarily raise the amount the government can borrow by August 2 or risk defaulting on our obligations. This could mean further destabilizing the financial markets while devaluing the dollar and increasing interest rates. Rather than bowing to the gravity of the moment, both President Obama and Speaker Boehner chose to host separate press conferences vilifying the other.

On Sunday’s “Face The Nation,” US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner bemoaned that the histrionics resulting from these delicate negotiations have already gone too far. “You want to take this out of politics… you don’t want politics messing around with America’s faith and credit.” This simple posit can be applied to every major issue facing all levels of government today: painting each debate as an ideological struggle has wasted whatever credit our politicians had left. Few have faith in the ability of our elected leaders to play nice with each other, much less solve the problems set before them. A July 20 Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 80% of respondents are “dissatisfied” or “angry” about the way the government is working.

While discontent is not unique, one associates negative numbers like these with the Arab Spring more than a congressional recess. More and more Americans are growing sick at the prospect of further political gamesmanship among the major parties; former President Richard Nixon referred to this group of citizens residing in the middle of the two extremes as the “silent majority.” These are not flag-wavers or gavel-smackers; you won’t find them standing on the corner with sandwich boards or rallying in the streets. These are the folks whose time is taken up providing for their families, paying their taxes, and improving their community. They just want their government to work, and they’re smart enough to realize that some compromise is in order when working with a diverse population. To think otherwise is not merely childish but dangerous

It’s amid this backdrop that we meet the newest crop of nominations for local government, and one could be forgiven the cynicism that accompanies the platforms they trot out. I have the utmost respect for those local men and women who seek the thankless job of representing our best interests, but it’s hard to maintain that respect when important issues are held hostage to political affiliation. What we need is a layer of insulation between the strident ideology that paralyzes government and the consistent productivity which we desire of it.

In the interest of restoring some of that lost faith and credit in our elected leaders, I propose a simple three-part, common sense test to help weed out those whose “leadership” would contribute to political stagnation rather than remedy it. After all, we have to pass both a written test and a driving test before we get a driver’s license—shouldn’t we require a few things of those who will control our tax dollars?

First, each nominee should demonstrate familiarity with the primary definition of the word “compromise,” which is generally understood as a settlement of differences in which each side makes concessions. It is not, in fact, a dirty word, nor is it interchangeable with its secondary definition, which is to reduce in quality or value. Far too often, politicians seem to have missed the nuances between these two denotations. In short, if you feel that making concessions automatically means you’re compromising your values, you can leave your place in line and retake this test later when you come to your senses. You need to join a book club, not town council.

Second, each nominee should demonstrate the requisite level of creativity, adaptability, and resiliency necessary to accomplish the difficult tasks of representative government. Put bluntly, are you smart enough to figure out how to solve difficult problems and get other people to understand your solution? We don’t want to hear about the labor pains—just give us the damn baby. We’re sick of politicians whining about why things are broken—fix it or step aside and let someone else have at it. If you don’t have the ability to discover alternative solutions and see them though to fruition, don’t take up space on the ticket.

Finally, nominees should understand they are but stewards of a community that’s existed long before they were born and will continue long after. We don’t care about your won/loss record at town council meetings; we care about the pothole that just broke the rear axle. None of you will be in office long enough to change government, you can only nudge it forward or hold it back. If you’re pushing an agenda, step out of the line and paint it on a sandwich board. Leave the governing to those who value results over rhetoric and pointless posturing. If you don’t have the common decency to feel shame when little is accomplished on your watch, you won’t have the guts to take the blame. And yes, we expect that, too.

Sadly, it takes a certain kind of courage to submit to this kind of test, not coincidentally the same kind of courage it takes to become an effective leader. Platitudes are easier and allow for a larger pool of otherwise unqualified candidates to sneak in and gum up the works when elected. Like the mythical “Test To Become A Parent,” this test is too hard for the childish.

Fun with Footprints

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on July 14, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

Earlier this month, Canada joined France, Japan and Russia by refusing to extend the Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to limit the emissions of industrialized countries (the US reiterated at a recent G8 dinner that it would continue to fight for climate change “outside the Protocol”). Poor and emerging economies wanted to extend the pact, but the departure of these big countries at U.N. climate talks that ran from June 6th to June 17th in Bonn, Germany, have cast a pall over the Green movement. While I respect how important “green” sustainable living is to the future of our planet, the infancy of this movement makes for great comedy.

Take carbon offsets, for example. A carbon offset is a reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gases or any carbon dioxide equivalent in order to make up the emissions made somewhere else. In other words, my wife guilts me into buying and planting trees to make up for the fact that I bought an SUV six years ago. In theory, they bridge the gap between what we should do and what we will do. In practice, however, they can be ridiculous. Rather than doing the hard work of capping harmful emissions, companies turn to carbon offsets as sinners do to the Catholic confessional: do what you like, but one visit to the priest absolves all sins. Unlike your spiritual salvation, however, you don’t need to wait long to see if it worked; former vice president Al Gore gives you the dispensation immediately (especially if you work for Generation Investment Management, a company Al Gore co-founded in 2004 that buys carbon offsets for all its employees).

The logic defies me. The next time I go out to eat, I will respond to my doctor’s concerns about my weight with, “I’ll order all the food I want, but I’ll also make sure to buy my dog a big salad. That way, it’s almost like I ate what I was supposed to, and not like the bloated pig I’ve become.” Even better, carbon offsets are now treated as a commodity. The Kyoto Protocol sanctioned offsets as a way for governments and private companies to earn carbon credits that could be traded in the global marketplace. The protocol established the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a watchdog that ensures “real” benefits as a result of the actions taken. In my case, I can store up the “credits” I created when I was forced to eat a salad after I’d run out of pizza last weekend and really go hog wild before the next tailgate. I haven’t worked out the math yet, but I’m thinking one salad offsets about 6,000 calories. God I love healthy living.

Luckily, the creators of the Kyoto Protocol are not as dumb as I am, so surely they had a better way to get the word out to the public before the initiative began. After setting these important standards, the next logical step was to seek out high-profile backers such as Al Gore to create… the 2007 Live Earth Benefit for Climate Protection. Musicians from all over the world performed to raise awareness of the climate crisis by… creating a small climate crisis. You might remember the 7-7-07 advertisements, or maybe you just remember a string of really bad musicians preaching about turning the lights off when you leave the room. In the pantheon of benefit concerts, it registers somewhere alongside the 2003 Pack 13 Polka Marathon Boy Scout Benefit.

First of all, if you can’t get Bono for your benefit concert, you have to know something’s wrong. He is to “important shows” what Elton John is to celebrity funerals. Even that desiccated corpse from the Boomtown Rats, Bob Geldof, complained, “We are all (expletive deleted) conscious of global warming.” Did the guy who created Live Aid and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” just bitch-slap Al Gore?

Bob and Bono must have seen the p.r. avalanche coming: more than 150 performers flew more than 222,000 miles around the world to appear in concerts from Tokyo to Hamburg, many carrying their own dancers, crew members, hair stylists, etc. As an estimated two billion people watched or listened during the 24-hour concert, MSN streamed 30 million videos of the concert to over 8 million people around the globe. Assuming the typical computer uses 100-140 watts in addition to the 35 watts of a typical 17-inch display, and the average of 5 videos each lasted for the length of a typical Scissor Sisters song, you’re talking, like… many, many hundreds and thousands of energy (I was told there’d be no math).

The final tally from the “Live Earth Carbon Assessment and Footprint Report” was actually 19,708 tons of emissions. At 5-30 dollars per ton to offset, that’s… you know, I don’t know what the hell that is. What is a credit? Where do you get them, and for how much? Even my dog has looked up from his salad for this one.

It was fitting that the “have your cake and eat it, too” idea of carbon offsets was highlighted by the biggest collection of mediocre musicians in music history. What better way to promote a lighter carbon footprint than by headlining your show with Madonna, one of the world’s worst offenders at an estimated 1,018 tons of emissions per year while on tour according to John Buckley, managing director of CarbonFootprint.com.

In short, Live Earth was like hosting a wet t-shirt contest to encourage women’s rights. While the organizers did realize their goal of “zero net impact,” it probably wasn’t what they had in mind. Now the Kyoto Protocol seems destined for the same fate, and one can’t help hoping someone else will come along with a bigger footprint and a clearer plan to get us all moving in the right direction.