Sunday, August 3, 2008

Domestic Drilling

Obama is almost certain to come under fire for a shift in his position on drilling in areas of the United States where drilling has previously been prohibited. The anger makes sense, as he had previously expressed a different opinion (and how dare politicians act differently under different circumstances!), and more importantly as the left are often the stewards and protectors of wilderness (it's creatures, delicate climates, etc.). And don't get me wrong, I am right up there with "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part". The environment is hugely important, and the cynic in me says that the best thing humans can do for much of nature is stay far, far away. So I understand where the anger at Obama is coming from.

But I disagree with it completely.

Let me clarify: protecting wilderness is good, and is one of the fundamental roles of humans and of government as stewards of this planet. But government, and especially democratic government, has a priority which overrides most other sacred tasks: a government has to provide for the dignity of its people. This is part of my new running theme about "human dignity = justice", and this works especially well with the debate over drilling.

The debate is framed in two ways, and the framings are:
"Times are harsh, and we need to do everything we can to make the people have an easier time economically, even if it means letting a few animals perish" (This is on the right, courtesy of McCain)
"No matter how dire the circumstances, we need to preserve our wilderness, and maybe limiting the domestic production of oil is a good thing, as it will force people to be better gas consumers and yay happy alternative energy whoo!" (The left, courtesy of the left)

McCain's approach is the one that will stick. It will stick because it addresses the hardship of voters, and portrays the government as moving to restore their dignity in the face of hardship, instead of being heavy-handed and imposing a set of values from above. For this reason alone, the left (and specifically Obama) needs to embrace domestic drilling. The framing of the issue is too strong, and the left will be unable to portray themselves as sympathetic to the working class if they cannot let the immediate crisis of human dignity take precedence.

This is not to say that drilling will actually work. Odds are it will take many years to yield anything, and that the production will be really very small. There are valid reasons such as "useless" to think domestic drilling is bad, and those reasons are pretty solid. But this only helps with a democrat deciding to support drilling. It's much easier to affect how the bill will play out when in support of it, and it is much easier to mitigate fears when actually doing the legislating.

The bill can be changed and crippled in committee, or it can be amended to the point of minimal environmental impact. It's known that the results will not be great; what people want is to know that government is doing everything they can do to help make things easier for them, and people would be upset if, after hearing about drilling as an option, it wasn't pursued. That's why expressed vocal support of drilling is important. But it also allows for elected officials to make the drilling happen in the least harmful way possible, even perhaps authorizing it and forestalling it.

Sure, it's Machiavellian, but it is also politics.

Edit 8/7/2008: Thanks to some question from handy gadfly Evan, I realize my intended point here does not come across as strong as I would like it to come across.

I am not in favor of domestic drilling. I am in favor of saying one is in favor of domestic drilling. I think that the effects of drilling, were it to happen, would be negligible to the point of being indistinguishable from how things are currently. But I'm not most people, and I think that when told more oil is available at home, it's a pretty easy connection to make that "letting us get our own oil = electable", while "keeping us from a resource we need = crazy lefty fringe". So I think that the politician that wants to get elected should say they are in favor of drilling.

But I really like the muddled processes of congress here, and the whole "sausage factory" aspect. It's easy to write a bill that addresses an issue in name and origin but in fact does nothing of the sort. This is where the bold environmental stand can be made. A bill authorizing domestic drilling could add so many conditions, regulations, considerations, and oversights to any new ventures that it isn't simply profitable, and no self-respecting capitalist would try. Or it could only allow exploration for a few years, and require that a ludicrously high predicted yield be discovered before another bill is written to authorize actual drilling for production.

Should a crippled bill like that get passed, it'd be much harder for the advocates of drilling now to say "we passed a bill to drill now but them libruls dun killed it", because a bill would have been passed. People would realize that latter, if they were still paying attention, but by then November would have come and gone. And both houses are in Democratic hands right now. It wouldn't be hard to pass a bill like that, especially because everyone would still look good by election time.

Qualifier: yes, I'm advocating lying to one's constituency, or acting in a way that is tantamount to lying. It's excused here (far as I'm concerned, at least), by the fact that it isn't quite oath-breaking, that it's in the best interest of the nation, and that every other politician (excepting Kucinich) would be doing it too.

Edit 2, 8/11/2008: My further thinking on this issue, revised thoughts and retracted statements, can be found in this post. They're companion pieces, so I encourage you to read both or neither, but don't just read one.


Evan said...

Gah! No. Yes, I agree with your statement that "human dignity = justice," however, I disagree with your stance on domestic drilling. Domestic drilling and US "oil independence" will not alleviate the energy problems that we are experiencing today. The only thing that domestic drilling will do is raise public opinion of government officials. If this seems cynical, that's because it is. There is almost nothing to be optimistic about in this government, and even the "candidate of change" seems to be infected with Washington Madness. Anyway, even if we do find usable oil and are able to harness its power, it is nothing but a short-term solution that will direct attention away from the main problem: THE WORLD IS RUNNING OUT OF OIL. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, not next week, and perhaps not even for a century or two, but the fact remains; we will run out and before that happens we must rid ourselves of dependence on oil, even the domestic kind. Sure, "alternative" energy sources aren't perfect, but think how many decades we've had to improve petroleum usage to where it is today. Given the amount of money and time required, alternative energy sources can and will become strong competitors in the market, if that's the way you like your decisions made. (Interesting fact - did you know that the US government seriously considered using nuclear warheads to melt the oil out of shale deposits in the 60s and 70s? This is how addicted we are. It blinds us to common sense.)
I understand the need for government to represent its people's needs and wishes, but let's face it, most people are relatively uninformed and believe mostly what politicians (who receive millions of dollars a year from record-profit-making oil companies) tell them. What is in the best interest of the people of this country and of the world as a whole is not a temporary solution - a patch - but a long term one that we will be able to use until the Earth goes cold, the sun dies, or the wind stops blowing. And if any of those things happen, trust me, we'll have much bigger problems than $6/gallon gas.

Post Script - I was at a lecture by Jack Loeffler, an author and environmentalist, about Ed Abbey, another author and environmentalist, this past weekend. He was reading from a book of his, and he quoted Ed Abbey as saying "Every living thing has the right to live, simply by virtue of being alive." This really got me thinking. I realize that the responsibility of government is to protect and serve its people, in fact I have argued this point numerable times. However, I agree with Ed Abbey in that all things have value, and it seems to me that it is morally wrong to ignore this right to existence and to actively assert that because we are human, and therefore better, that we have any more right to exist than anything else in the world. My two cents. (For some reason your UU morals post isn't on the blog yet, but I read it on the RSS feed)

Kelsey Atherton said...

Evan - I came across as way more centrist than I meant to be. That is what happens when i play Machiavelli

I know that drilling won't actually do anything - that;s kind of the point. I'm not arguing in favor of drilling here. I'm arguing that politicians should claim to be in favor of drilling, and then realize that 1) even if drilling went through immediately, it would do nothing, and that 2) enough restrictions could be put on a bill in congress to make drilling impossible while in name allowing it. I don't believe for a second that drilling will help, but I am not the voting public.

What I'm saying here, or trying to say, is that it is possible to act like one is in favor of drilling, to vote in such a way as to be construed in favor of drilling, but to not actually pas laws that make it possible to drill. Plenty of people are outraged about the idea of drilling, and to be fair many of them are outraged because it is useless except as a way to boost confidence in government officials. I'm saying why not take that boost now (in name authorize drilling) but make it meaningless in effect (by passing weak, crippled bills that do not actually make drilling a doable thing).

Evan said...

I understand where you're coming from, but I just can't stand the inherent dishonesty. Yes, it's what US politics are all about, yes it's absolutely necessary to get everyone on board, but by doing this we would be walking a very, very fine line between lying for the sake of the people and lying for our own sakes. If a precedent of misleading the public, even with good intentions, is established, I don't believe that there will be any going back. Of course, just about every single elected official has mislead the public at some time or another, so who's to say we aren't already on our way to seeing V for Vendetta's frightening society become a reality?

One last thing on the matter: if a citizenship is incapable of making decisions to its own benefit, t whom does the responsibility fall of making those decisions? Should we impose intelligence requirements on voting (which strays towards eugenics, a field most people will start screaming "Nazi!" at the very mention of)? Do we allow deception by our elected officials, who, it is assumed, know better (which approaches an oligarchy)? Or do we simply resign the whole thing to anarchy (which would be fine for those capable of taking care of themselves, but not for everyone else)?

Kelsey Atherton said...

Thanks for calling me on my shit, Evan. This is me trying to play political-power-grab, and I'm not as skilled as the right at it (see: exclusionary principle), and I lose the point of winning if I compromise morals this way.

It's been an accepted fact since Plato that politicians have a right/duty to lie to their constituencies. Of course, Plato advocates both eugenics, mind control, and oligarchy, so he is easy to discard.

Our government is based on consent politics (a post I'll write later). The trick is that in order to make a responsible decisions, we need informed consent. Our education system has been failing us at the same time that issues have acquired a complexity that requires more information being in the average voters hand. In a more perfect US, I think that voters would already understand that drilling at home will not help any right away. With that, they could still decide that drilling whatever we can in the US makes sense, and vote based on that decision.

But I don't know. I'm not sure we have a population that can legitimately offer informed consent on issues like this. If we did, framing and spin wouldn't be so important, and I think that doing the smart thing here will, as is so often the case for democrats, be a moral stand that loses. Anti-intellectualism is strong enough in this country already, though i suppose finding out the charming intellectual president lied to people because he thought they were stupid doesn't help.

Bah. It's tricky, and you're morally right here. I can't argue that. I just want to make sure my part doesn't go the way of 1983 Labor, and I'm ready to make Faustian bargains or Machiavellian maneuvers for that.

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