WP Comments on Judicial Elections, Religion in Politics, the Energy Independence Sham, and the Link Between Crime and Lead Exposure

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

gasoline lead crime


In It’s a Smart, Smart, Smart World, Nick Kristof celebrates the fact that humans have gotten more intelligent over the past century.  In response to Mr. Kristof’s reference to the removal of lead from gasoline playing a role in such increase in intelligence, Winning Progressive explained that the removal of lead from gasoline and paint is also credited with helping to significantly reduce crime over the past few decades”

I was glad to see you identify the removal of lead from gasoline, which occurred only thanks to the strong advocacy of environmentalists, public health professionals, consumer safety groups, and others in the 1960s and 1970s, as playing a role in increasing levels of intelligence.

A growing body of science shows that the removal of lead from gasoline and the removal of lead paint from houses has also played a key role in the dramatic drop in crime that has occurred throughout the US over the past 30 years.

Lead is a neurotoxin that damages or hinders the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which provides humans with impulse control. When that area of the brain is damaged or underdeveloped, people become more aggressive and impulsive. By reducing lead exposure, we’ve reduced such prefrontal cortex damage and, according to a number of convincing studies, helped create the 30-70% drops in crime experienced throughout the country.

Of course, more work remains to be done as many houses, especially in older and poorer neighborhoods throughout the country, still have lead paint that is impairing childrens’ development. Every dollar spent on lead paint removal is estimated to save $17 to $221 in societal costs. But the fiscal scolds have succeeded in slashing the CDCs lead paint prevention budget from $29 million to $2 million for 2013.

In Social Science Palooza III, David Brooks provided a seemingly random sampling of the findings of recent social science research.   Winning Progressive commented on one such study, which found that state court judges in Washington State hand out harsher sentences in criminal cases as the judges get closer to election day:

Evidence that judges hand out harsher sentences around election time provide yet another reason why judges should be appointed, not elected.

The election of judges undermines the judiciary and our system of government in two ways. The first is that, in our system of checks and balances, the judiciary is supposed to serve as a check on the power of the other two branches. One of the critical checks that the judiciary provides is making sure that the other two branches do not unjustly trample the rights of groups that are not in the majority. But if judges are elected, they become just as susceptible to majority will as the executive and legislative branches are and, therefore, judicial protection of the minority becomes largely a non-starter.

Secondly, courts lack any real enforcement power for their rulings, except what comes from the moral authority they gain from being seen as independent and neutral arbiters of the law. But if judges are ruling with an eye out for their next election, they aren’t engaging in such neutral enforcement of the law and their credibility goes out the window.

While our federal court system, with its lifetime appointments, is far from perfect (see, for example, Bush v. Gore), it is widely understood to be a fairer and more professional forum than state courts. And part of the reason is that most state court judges are worried about re-election.

In The God Glut, Frank Bruni interviewed former Senator Bob Kerrey, who is a rare agnostic public official, and addressed  concerns about increasing officially sanctioned religious proselytizing at the West Point military academy, as reported by former West Point cadet Blake Page.  Winning Progressive offered some thoughts on the role of religious belief in politics:

I am a technical agnostic (I don’t think there is a god, but I don’t have enough faith to be able to definitively say that there absolutely is not a god), but I readily acknowledge that religious belief does and should play a role in politics for many people.

For example, religious belief has always been a prime motivator of the civil rights movement, the social justice work of people like Dorothy Day, and of groups opposed to war and the death penalty. In many, many areas, religious belief has been a force for social good. I am motivated by secular humanistic values, but if other people are motivated by religious belief to help society, that’s great.

Where problems arise is when people try to use politics to impose their religious beliefs to limit the rights of others, whether it is on issues of choice, marriage equality, or access to contraception. If you don’t believe in gay marriage, then don’t have one, but don’t try to use the power of the state to prevent other people from having them.

And certainly we shouldn’t be using government to indoctrinate people in religious faith. That is especially so when it comes to the military. History has shown us time and time again that the combination of religion with military power is a dangerous mixture. Let’s make sure we don’t go any further down that road here.

In American Bull, Roger Cohen offers a significantly misguided argument that increased domestic natural gas and oil production will create energy independence for the US that will lead to a geostrategic shift by ending the “political dependency and expediency” that results from our reliance on Middle East oil.  Winning Progressive responded as follows:

Mr. Cohen, I hate to rain on your parade, but this whole energy independence thing is mostly a sham.

For one thing, we are not nearly as directly reliant on oil from the Persian Gulf as people think. 38% of our oil already comes from the US. Another 20% comes from Canada, and 7.5% comes from Mexico. That’s 65% that comes from North America, compared to only about 12% that comes from the Persian Gulf. So, it is hard to see how increasing the portion that comes from the US to 50% would lead to any major change.

Second, with regards to price and the need to stay involved in the Middle East, it doesn’t matter all that much where we get our oil from because the oil market is an international one. As such, major changes in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere will impact our oil prices even if we aren’t purchasing directly from countries there.

Finally, what we need to be focused on is reducing our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels regardless of whether it is domestic or foreign. If we achieve “energy independence” simply by drilling, fracking, and mining more, the impact on the climate and the environment will be disastrous. Instead, we need to be prioritizing efficiency, and the development or renewable sources of energy. If we don’t, any energy independence “victory” will be hollow and short-lived.


Upset About Rising Gas Prices? President Obama, Not the GOP, is Offering Solutions

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Desperate to find a way to halt their slide in the polls, Republicans have tried to blame President Obama for rising gas prices, claiming that he has somehow failed to make the US energy independent.  Entirely on cue, much of the mainstream media has echoed this attack, giving wall-to-wall coverage of high gas prices and GOP claims about it.  But the attack is entirely off-base, as rising gas prices are caused primarily by increasing demand overseas, and the long term solutions – increased fuel efficiency and development of alternative fuels – are being promoted by President Obama and fought by the very same Republicans who are trying to make a political issue out of gas prices.

There is no dispute that gas prices have been going up, though they remain below the high reached in mid-2008 and they were kept unnaturally low in late 2008 and 2009 due to the Bush Recession.  But Republican claims about energy independence, the purported need to “drill, baby, drill,” and the alleged refusal of the Obama Administration to allow energy development are simply false.  In reality, US oil production is at an eight year high, to the chagrin of many environmentalists (including Winning Progressive) the number of oil rigs in operation have skyrocketed, the U.S. was a net oil product exporter in 2011 for the first time since 1949, and as the image above shows, U.S. dependence on foreign oil has declined every year since President Obama took office.

The reality of the situation is that oil and gas prices are set by a global market that is largely beyond the reach of any U.S. President.  For example, the biggest cause of the increase in gas prices is skyrocketing demand for gas and oil in China, India, and other rapidly developing nations which is pushing up prices globally.  Second, supply disruptions in Syria, Sudan, Yemen, and the North Sea has at least temporarily reduced global supply.  Third, concerns about a possible military conflict with Iran (which many conservatives are actively cheerleading) has created an opening for financial speculators to drive oil prices up even more.

Contrary to the Republicans’ caterwauling, there is little that President Obama, or any other political leader, can do to force gas prices to decline.   Instead, there are two things that need to be done to address rising gas prices.  The first is to reduce income inequality in the US, in order to alleviate the impact that rising gas prices have on working class and poor Americans.  On that front, President Obama has been actively fighting for a fairer tax and economic system, while the GOP has focused almost entirely on trying to reduce taxes for the wealthiest 1%. In light of this record, the GOP’s claims to care about the impact of gas prices on consumers rings hollow.

Second, we have to find ways to reduce and eventually end our dependence on oil from any source over the long term so that Americans need to purchase less gas.  And on that front, President Obama, while far from perfect, has shown leadership often in the face of pathological intransigence from the GOP.

Most importantly, the Obama Administration has significantly increased vehicle efficiency in order to reduce the amount of gas Americans need to purchase.  In April 2010, the Administration finalized a regulation increasing Corporate Average Fuel Economy (“CAFE”) standards for cars to 35.5 miles per gallon (“mpg”) by 2016.  Last year, the Obama Administration reached an agreement with the auto industry to increase average fuel economy for cars and light-duty trucks to 54.5mpg by 2025.  Such standard will save $1.7 trillion in fuel costs for American consumers and reduce oil usage by 2.2 million barrels per day.

Second, as Josh Marks explained a couple of days ago, President Obama has been actively investing in developing alternative fuels, such as algae-based biofuels that could replace up to 17% of our nation’s oil imports.  Republicans are, predictably, mocking the algae research, even though they previously requested federal support for such research.

Third, President Obama has sought to end the more than $4 billion of taxpayer subsidies that the oil industry receives every year.  In a speech yesterday in New Hampshire, the President explained how those subsidies give the oil industry an unfair economic advantage over cleaner fuel sources, and could be used to, among other things, help finance the transition to cleaner fuels.  To date, Republicans have refused to heed Obama’s call on ending oil industry subsidies, so the President is turning up the pressure by urging his supporters to call their Congresspeople and Senators and demand that they vote to end the subsidies.

From a progressive perspective, President Obama has been far from perfect on the issue of gas prices and clean energy.  For example, he has yet to follow through on his call during the 2008 election campaign for a windfall profits tax on oil companies that could be used to reduce the impact of high gas prices on lower income Americans.  In addition, President Obama’s framing of his energy policy as an “all-of-the-above” strategy could improperly suggest that fossil fuels (including coal) are a key part of the long term energy solution.  In fact, while we will need natural gas and oil for the foreseeable future, we should be promoting cleaner fuels and efficiency as rapidly as possible.

But these concerns should not distract us from the fact that the Obama Administration is not to blame for rising gas prices, the Administration is making significant progress is advancing fuel efficiency, alternatives fuels, and other long term solutions to rising energy prices, and President Obama rightly rejects the GOP’s fallacious “drill, baby, drill” approach.

Unfortunately, the GOP is trying to ride the gas price issue back to political relevance.  It is up to us to make sure they do not succeed.  Two ways you can help are by writing a letter to your local newspaper editor explaining how rising gas prices will require long term solutions that President Obama is pursuing, and by calling your Congressperson and Senators to urge them to vote to end the more than $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies that the oil industry receives every year.


Egyptian Turmoil Can Affect America’s Economic Future

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

(By Mark McCutchan)

I’ll say up front that I’m no foreign policy expert, but the groups in Egypt calling for an end to the Mubarak government appear to be getting stronger.  How the turmoil will end is anyone’s guess, from government overthrow to violent putdown; we all hope for a peaceful and democratic conclusion.

The Middle East has been a politically unstable region for a long time, and will be for the foreseeable future.  This political instability has affected Americans most directly through the availability and price of oil, from the gas lines of the 1970s until today. The price of crude oil jumped 7.6% to almost $92/barrel over the last two trading days, due to concerns for safely shipping oil through the Suez Canal.  Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq are nearby and together provide about 30% of our crude oil imports; unrest spreading there could spell real trouble economically.

Rising oil prices have an effect on U.S. economic growth in two ways – direct and indirect.  When gasoline prices jump, drivers feel a hit to the pocketbook every time they fill up, reducing the money available for other purchases.  Additionally, products like cars and high-tech gadgets require large amounts of cheap energy to mine, transport and process the raw materials.  Even small increases in oil prices have a multiplied effect on the cost of production, leading to either a higher price tag (depressing demand), or a lower profit margin (depressing stock prices and market growth).

To maintain oil price stability and thus our economy, Republicans (and a few Democrats) have said, “Drill, baby, drill! Unleash oil companies on U.S. soil, and we can produce enough oil to handle our needs”.   This statement is based on a major fallacy: Oil produced on U.S. soil does not go solely to the U.S. needs.  Like all oil produced, it goes to the highest bidder on the world market, and if China outbids American customers, China gets it.

We need to reduce our dependence on oil (and all fossil fuels) as a basis for stable economic activity.  Oil price hikes do act as a tax on consumption, and depress oil demand somewhat; unfortunately, the revenues go to major oil producers rather than the U.S. government.  Additionally, price fluctuations make businesses hesitant to invest in new methods or equipment that would reduce energy usage.

What America needs is a strong energy policy that businesses and consumers can have certainty about (that’s the latest GOP catchword – let’s co-opt it):

* Promotion of renewable, American energy sources like solar, wind, and hydroelectric through effective tax policies and renewable energy standards.   Clean energy development can also create over a million new jobs.

* Promotion of energy efficiency and conservation through education and tax credits.

* Elimination of tax subsidies to the oil, coal, nuclear and ethanol industries.

* Most importantly, a carbon tax on fossil fuel.  It may not have the touted “market efficiency” of cap-and-trade policy, but it is simple and adjustable.   A carbon tax would have the added benefit of reducing global warming, and the tax revenue could be used to offset increased electric bills, invest in renewable energy development, transition fossil fuel industry workers, and reduce the deficit.

Please contact your congressperson and local newspapers, and explain how a strong energy policy is important to you and our shared economic stability.

Here are links for submitting letters to the editor for national papers, and to newspapers in Colorado, Connecticut, DelawareIllinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin.