Thursday, October 13, 2011

Grist for Elections

Politicking on Actions or on Aspirations?

Logical conundrum
 ~ The Australian House just passed a national carbon tax. It was quite a fight. While the merits of the law are worth discussion, more interesting is the light shone on the political process both in Australia and here in the United States.

Advocates championed the law, saying it would make polluters pay for their costs, address climate change, protect the environment, enable selected tax cuts elsewhere, and fund renewable energy investments.
“Today our MPs have voted yes to creating a stronger economy, yes to new jobs in clean industries and yes to giving our wildlife a fighting chance,” commented WWF Australia chief executive Dermot O’Gorman in a statement.
Opponents fulminated about the loss of jobs, unfair taxation, and the futility of action on climate change without international agreement and coordinated action.

Most MPs, however, were simply exhausted from the fight, which has gone on for years and more than one elected government.

The parliamentary scenes of Labor MPs cheering, clapping, hugging and even kissing were not so much a sign of jubilation as relief. As one minister told Inquirer yesterday: "It's never going to be popular, people won't like it, but it's done, it's through."
Passage of the law is good news, and not just because such action is necessary for our future whether it a cap-and-trade scheme or a carbon tax (or a carbon emissions tax in this case). It's good news too because every time another country passes such legislation it makes it easier for more countries to do so, as they argument about voting one's country into a position national competitive disadvantage fades away.

But the most interesting part of this, and the lesson for the United States and its voters, is that they actually passed something. You know, real legislation that takes a strong position on an issue of national (or global) significance. While there was the inevitable compromising around the margins, the new Australian law is unabashed in being a tax, targeting climate change, promoting environmental responsibility and supporting renewable energy.

When was the last time the United States passed legislation that really took a strong position on an issue of national policy? The past few years have seen precious little such. When our pathetic Congress actually bestirs itself to pass anything it is almost always either of trifling relevance or so utterly watered down that it accomplishes little.

Worse, half-hearted or half-assed legislation that is little more than a mezzo mezzo plate of discordant and conflicting policy solutions not only does nothing, it provides no evidence of policy success or failure. If we never try anything bold, will we ever learn what could work, or demonstrate what does not?

Instead, both sides point to limp legislation to justify their policy positions and claim political superiority. No longer is legislation enacted to solve anything, but rather solely to provide more grist for the ceaseless wrangling of pundits and polls in the now permanent process where we are always waging an election.

All we do now is fight over what the other party wants to do, not what it does. The debate has been abstracted from the good and the bad of legislation and policy. Shunted into the realm of speculation of what good or bad legislation or policy might produce, we argue over hypotheticals. Unsurprisingly, the argument is never resolved, and evermore shrill invective is needed to move the needle of political opinion in an electorate inured to outrage over the inconsequential.

Can't we just try enacting something meaningful to see what happens?

The fight in Australia now segues to when the next election will be.

Julia Gillard's governing Labor party, which pushed for and passed the law, wants the next election to be after results from the law's effect are known. The opposition wants to vote sooner, before any effects can be determined, and, if they win, promise to promptly repeal it.

Just like the conservatives in this country, the Australian opposition would prefer to campaign on the fears of supposed damage to the economy and the specter of massive job losses. They don't want to take the risk, they say, of allowing damage to the economy to occur by what they argue is a misguided law. In reality, however, they don't want to risk the damage to their ideological position should the law actually be beneficial. They don't want to risk there being evidence that a carbon tax works and is good policy. And of course, they don't want to look at evidence of where it has worked elsewhere, like British Columbia.

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