More on the Flip-Flop Factor

Re my recent post outlining The Flip-Flop Test, persistent Iraq-watcher George Packer has a smart piece in the current New Yorker advising Obama to start modulating his position on the Iraq pullout–recognizing, as he should, the limited but real successes of the surge– but to do so in a way that inoculates him against both the Flip-Flop Flak Attackers and McCain’s charge that he is hopelessly naive in foreign policy. Key line:

 

The politics of the issue is tricky, because acknowledging changed ideas in response to changed facts is considered a failing by the political class.

That’s it exactly. Read the whole piece here if you like.

On The Radio: My Best Summer Job

My daughter just finished her first summer job.

 Did she wait tables? Nope. Mop floors? Nope. Sack groceries at Piggly-Wiggly? Forget it. No, she spent four weeks singing and dancing in two or three shows a day –in other words, stuff she loves to do–in a play enjoyed by hundreds of kids from local day-care centers and church groups. And she collected a nice paycheck in exchange for having all that fun. Not bad for a 13-year old’s first glimpse of the working world. But it’s all downhill from here, snarled her jealous father, remembering all the groceries he sacked.

Seriously, I did have some grease-stained summer jobs as a kid, including one at a movie theater where we were ordered to save all the unsold popcorn, reheat it, and sell it along  with the fresh stuff the next day. (Let the buyer beware.)  And there was the time I got canned because of a bizarre allergic reaction (not my own) to Jade East cologne.  Long story.   But I also had a couple of great summer jobs. Here  is a KERA/NPR commentary about the best one.

 

The Flip-Flop Test

In yesterday’s post about our imperfect choices on energy policy, I noted in passing that I don’t see John McCain’s recent change of mind on off-shore drilling as a serious “flip-flop,” in mediaspeak.

The issue here is not McCain, who, if recent polls are predictive, may be headed for a defeat of Mondalian, if not Goldwaterian dimensions.  Every campaign season produces plenty of heated rhetoric and flying charges of flip-flopping on every conceivable issue. Opposition research teams dig back into their rival’s distant past to find every time he or she ever changed his mind about anything. “Today, Senator Marglebargle talks a fine game about women’s rights. But in 1971, as an Ohio state representative, he spoke out against the Equal Rights Amendment.”

Which prompts the question: What’s a flip-flop, anyway? What’s the difference between a dishonest, craven flip-flop and an actual new view of a problem?

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m deeply interested in how and why people change or don’t change, so naturally the Flip-Flop question intrigues me. On the one hand, we always praise people who learn and grow and educate themselves and reach out to new perspectives and try to get everyone to the table and hear all the voices in the debate.  On the other hand, if a pol announces a change of mind on anything, the Flip-Flop-Flak-Attackers pounce on him and rip his flesh.

Of course, the most hopeless people on this matter, as always, are the purblind partisans of Left or Right, those who only want to win at whatever cost. These are the people, whatever their party, that I just can’t stand to listen to anymore. Life’s too short. That’s why I just grimace and click away when Chris Matthews or Chris Wallace tries to get, say, Terry McAuliffe, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, to admit that she might have made a mistake, or to grant that McCain or some other Repub might have just the smallest flicker of a good idea. Not gonna happen.

Here’s a beginning stab at a distinction, a Two-Part Flip-Flop Test:

1. Has significant new information emerged on the issue? Has some game-changing development taken place? Is it possible that Candidate X was not aware of certain key facts five years ago, but knows about them now? Has  the passage of time  exposed unintended consequences of a position that were not apparent in the past?  Perhaps a pol enthusiastically supported NAFTA in the 90s, but now comes to believe that the trade agreement has had negative consequences for her district, state, or the country as a whole. Is she supposed to remain wedded to her original vote forever, denying all new evidence of bad consquences? If she now comes out against NAFTA, is that a Flip-Flop or a response to new conditions?

2. Is the change in position being made in a moment of political crisis? Is there an obvious looming reward for dumping the old position, or a looming punishment if the change is not made? Do you hear the voice of Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady saying, “Well, isn’t that convenient?”

I think that test is a good start on the Flip-Flop question. To that, we might add a note of human sympathy, which I know will brand me as a sappy wimp and dupe: Elected officials take “positions” on hundreds of issues, some of which are of  minor importance in any big scheme of things, some of which they took after a seven-minute briefing by an aide twenty years ago. If reporters dredged up  tape and transcripts of  all your happy hour chats from 20 years ago, how many “flip-flops” and deviations would be revealed?

 

Offshore Drilling? Nuclear Power? Old Ugly vs. Old Nothing

Should we drill offshore? Drill in Alaska? Drill in Crawford, Texas? Never ever drill anywhere ever again? Build a few nuclear power plants? Fuel all vehicles with a sawgrass-Taco Bell grease formula?

The current back-and-forth on energy policy between some Dems and some Repubs reminds me of what I call the Galloway Rule,  after a local sports radio yakker.

Discussing a contest between two second-rate teams, Galloway would allow that Team A was far from stellar but would nonetheless stomp Team B, which not only had  mentally deficient coaches  but five starters sidelined by injuries. “Old Ugly will beat Old Nothing every time,” he would declare.

The Galloway Rule also applies to political questions. It would be peachy to have the Perfect Solution With Absolutely No Downsides whenever we have to make a choice. But the PSAND almost never exists, a fact frequently and conveniently overlooked by partisans of all stripes.  All too often we’re left with a choice of flawed choices, a field of Old Uglies each with its own hairy warts and double chins. We must choose the Least Ugly of the lot.

This is definitely the case with energy policy.

No need to recite all the many Old Ugly Factors in our current addiction to oil–environmental, geopolitical, economic, etc. So what about the alternatives?

New offshore drilling? I’m visiting Santa Barbara, California this summer. It’s the site of the huge 1969 oil spill that helped to launch  the American environmental movement and led to the current ban on any new offshore drilling in the U.S.  A huge oil spill is  Old Ugly with a vengeance. Nobody wants another drop spilled in any of the earth’s oceans. And there is no doubt that any new offshore drilling will carry the risk, however remote, of a spill.

Nuclear? As John McCain notes below, many countries aren’t as superstitious as we are about using nuclear power.  Yes,  nuclear plants  can malfunction  with serious consequences, but mankind’s history with nuclear power shows those accidents are rare indeed. Three Mile Island has become a rallying cry for the No-Nuke faction, but not a single person was killed in that mishap.

Wind? Solar? Let’s build ’em. Let’s invest. The sun and wind can be a part of the solution–but not the whole answer anytime soon.

Mass Transit?  Put it in the mix. My home town, Dallas, a capital of Car Culture, has proved over the past decade that even a sprawling metroplace will make use of  light rail. All along the DART rail line from Plano to South Dallas, we’ve seen mass transit prove popular enough to spark all kinds of development both residential and retail. People want to be near the rail line. But again, this is a partial solution: 90 percent of greater Dallas lives too far away from rail to make it a feasible transit solution, a situation replicated in most of the big Sun Belt cities.

Conservation? A big yes, and here’s the beauty part: We don’t need to wait for Explicit Instructions from Washington on this score. Set that thermostat on 78 degrees. Drive less. Drive slower. Plan errands better. Car pool. Walk or bike a bit. I started being more aware of my driving habits when gas crossed $2.50 a gallon.

You get the picture. Every energy answer has an Old Ugly factor. Some alternatives carry environmental  dangers. Others are hugely expensive. Others nibble at the edges of the problem but don’t bring a total solution. Others will take slow, agonizing work over decades. Others require personal sacrifice.

As you may have gathered, I’m for trying  everything. Our energy demands present  a monstrous challenge, a war with a thousand-mile front, and we’ve got to try all kinds of combinations to tame the beast.  But  you know what? Every combination we come up with will have its downsides. No combo will be perfect. All will be Old Ugly in one way or another.

But Old Ugly will beat Old Nothing every time. I think that should be the  rule for all the voices in the energy debate: You can’t advocate Old Nothing. You can’t just sit there and shoot down every proposal that gets proposed, pointing out their flaws and pretending that the status quo isn’t riddled with flaws of its own. Even if you think we should get all petroleum out of our lives pronto, it’s not going to happen in the next 10 or 20 years.  This country is  going to use vast amounts of energy for a long, long time, and we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, because in this case there is no perfect solution.  It’s not enough to denounce market speculators or greedy oil barons, or to  wish we could live like the Plains Indians or the old Navajo, our moccassins treading lightly on Mother Earth. Blame and nostalgia do not form an energy policy.

That’s why I don’t see McCain’s newfound acceptance of offshore drilling as being some kind of scandalous flip-flop. If it is, I’ve flip-flopped too. (Entry to come on flipflops vs. growth and evolution.)  Back when we could get distant others to do the  dirty work of oil extraction at a reasonable price, I saw no reason to drill anywhere near our shores. I also like having other people come around and pick up my garbage, but if they wanted $500 bucks a bag, I’d truck it to the dump myself.

 I spent a happy week on Florida’s pristine, white-powder beaches last summer, and it was paradise. And yes,  I know it takes a decade to find and extract any new oil, and yes,  I know we can’t “drill our way out” of this problem. But some kind of new drilling may well be one part of the big combo of answers we’re going to need, so just repeating the party line –“Drilling offshore now won’t affect our gas prices at all”–is just mindless and unhelpful. Of course it won’t help now. Duh.  But now has a way of leading to later, and then it might help.

Anyway, with all options on the table, here’s Mccain on nuclear power:

 In the speech, Mr. McCain also intends to renew his call for new nuclear reactors in the United States, where none have been built for more than three decades. “One nation today has plans to build almost 50 new reactors by 2020,’’ Mr. McCain is to say. “Another country plans to build 26 major nuclear stations. A third nation plans to build enough nuclear plants to meet one quarter of all the electricity needs of its people — a population of more than a billion people. Those three countries are China, Russia, and India. And if they have the vision to set and carry out great goals in energy policy, then why don’t we?’’

Good question.

 Obama is also more receptive to a nuclear option than the typical Dem, or at least he has been. According to some of the nuke-watchers at this site, his support may have wavered as he sought the Democratic nomination. Each party has its third rails, of course. The GOP can’t alienate the Religious Right, and the Dems can’t ruffle the teachers’ unions or the hard-line, anti-nuke enviros. But, assuming Obama doesn’t get backed into a “Read My Lips, No New Nukes” capitulation between now and November, maybe he can switch back after he’s elected.

Gary Hart Gets it Right Again

Gary Hart, whose absurd womanizing in the 1988 election cycle sent him into the wilderness for years, has emerged in the past decade as a voice of wisdom, as I noted here a few months ago. Today Hart pens a NY Times Op-Edifier dishing advice to Barack Obama. A quote:

Senator Obama has two choices. He can focus on winning the election to the exclusion of all else and, like Robert Redford in “The Candidate,” ask, “What do we do now?” after it is over. Or he can use his campaign as a platform for designing a new political cycle and achieve a mandate for starting it.

Of late, alas, it’s looked like Obama has decided to take the just-win-baby Redford Option, bemoaned here a few days ago. For more advice on what he should be doing, check Hart’s full piece here.

One Energy Fix: Boot the Commute

 The age of cheap energy, which made possible and sustained much of contemporary American life,  may be  gone forever.  With so many of us defining the good life as a never-ending parade of consumption and painless mobility,  some wrenching and unpleasant changes may lie ahead.

It’s interesting to see the spectrum of opinion developing, with some adamantly arguing that we can “drill our way out” of the problem and glide on down the highway forever, and others saying that the day of Energy Apocalypse draws near and cannot be avoided. Among that latter group, one of the most eloquent doomsayers is the author James Howard Kunstler, who has addressed (and, some believe, overhyped)  the problem both in nonfiction (The Long Emergency) and fiction (World Made by Hand). I’ll be reading some of Kunstler in the next few weeks and reporting on what I learn.

While some of the changes ahead may require doing new things, at least one response may involve not doing something that millions of us hate to do anyway: Drive to work. At some point on the trail from $4 gasoline to $5 and beyond, lots of people mired in the morning commute are going to look over at the driver stuck in the next lane and say, “Why in the hell are we doing this?” Already, some large employers are asking just why it’s necessary to have all their employees schlep off to the same beehive every morning. Click here for one smart response.

 And if you’ve got to have that workplace cameraderie, rent several episodes of The Office.

MUSE MACHINE MILESTONE: 500TH POST!!!!

 Maybe it lacks the drama of A-Rod’s 500th (see below),  but according to the tireless statisticians who labor in the WordPress tech netherworld, this is the 500th post I’ve done on this blog, which was born in March 2007. According to my own rough estimate, about  40, 345, 389 blogs were born and died during that stretch. So when any blog reaches the ripe old age of 500 posts, well, attention must be paid for at least 14 seconds.

I’ve tried to anticipate some of your questions about this milestone: What have I learned? How has the blogging experience changed me? What sustained me back in the early days when my readers could be numbered in mere dozens? What sustains me now, 500 posts later, when my readers can be numbered in mere dozens?

Okay, I’m being falsely modest. Again according to the WordPress number crunchers, I’ve found a pretty decent audience with some of my posts; a recent one about trying to quit eating meat, a longtime concern, drew more than 500 sets of eyeballs, assuming everyone who clicked in had both eyes open. And, without making a virtue of necessity, I really don’t worry much about not drawing a lot of comments, for two reasons:

1. I think reading and not commenting is pretty standard on the bloggintubenet.  I’ve read certain blogs for six or seven years now and have never tossed in a thought.

2. The vast majority of comments I’ve ever seen on blogs were angry, vitriolic, obscene, and misspelled. As I noted in my General Explanation of Why This Blog Exists, I’m not in the blood-sport game, I don’t do name-calling, and I don’t substitute profanity for thought. So I’m not the kind of target that’s going to draw a lot of hate-flak.

But for those of you who have dropped in now and then over the past 500 posts, thanks. I hope I’ve raised some good questions now and again. I know your time is valuable and I promise not to waste it.

And now it’s on to 1,000 !!!!!!