We can learn some lessons from the pre-election hurricane

November 4, 2012

It didn’t take long for a couple of fringe preachers to proclaim that Hurricane Sandy was God’s retribution for homosexuality and other aspects of society they don’t like.

Such freakish, attention-seeking claims have become as common as the freakish weather that inspires them. But that doesn’t mean God or the forces of nature aren’t trying to tell us something.

There are a couple of obvious lessons in this pre-election hurricane, which killed at least 40 people and caused perhaps $50 billion worth of damage in the Northeast.

The first lesson is that Americans and their leaders should stop ignoring climate change and its increasingly disastrous effects. As the new cover of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine says in bold letters above a news photo of a flooded cityscape, “It’s global warming, stupid.”

Scientists say climate change can’t be directly blamed for any particular storm, or even hurricanes in general. But there is strong scientific evidence that man’s carbon emissions have increased the frequency and severity of destructive weather.

Global warming has caused sea levels to rise, and that magnified the storm surge responsible for so much of Sandy’s destruction.

Yet, climate change has barely been mentioned during the presidential campaign of 2012, which may end up being the warmest year on record. You can attribute that to willful ignorance and complacency on the part of a large segment of the population — and the encouragement of that ignorance and complacency by powerful business interests and the politicians who do their bidding.

You can find some of the most blatant examples of this in Kentucky, where the coal industry and its favored politicians have waged a “war on coal” propaganda campaign, which in reality is a campaign against clean air, clean water and public health.

Appalachian coal reserves are dwindling and cheap natural gas has eroded coal’s markets, but the industry seems determined to extract every last bit of profit from Kentucky, no matter how much damage it does.

The lack of action to address climate change underscores a failure of leadership in both government and business.

President Barack Obama rarely spoke about climate change during this campaign, because he knew it would hurt him politically. Instead, he trumpeted domestic oil drilling and “clean coal” technology, which is still more oxymoron than reality.

Challenger Mitt Romney was even worse. At the Republican National Convention, he mentioned climate change only mockingly. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” he said. “My promise is to help you and your family.”

There is strong scientific consensus on climate change, but acknowledging and addressing it remains politically controversial. That is because fighting climate change would threaten economic interests invested in the status quo — and because it would require citizens and businesses to make some sacrifices. Heaven forbid that any American should be asked to sacrifice, even if the future of mankind may depend on it.

And that brings us to a second obvious lesson from Hurricane Sandy.

For at least three decades, many political leaders — especially Republicans — have won elections by offering simplistic and unrealistic solutions to increasingly difficult problems. Tell voters what they want to hear, then blame the consequences on the other guys.

Storms such as hurricanes Sandy and Katrina underscore the inadequacy of our aging national infrastructure — and the likelihood that climate change will force us to repair and rebuild it more frequently in the future.

Rather than cutting taxes, piling up debt and wasting money on unnecessary weapons systems and wars of choice, we should be investing in the physical and human infrastructure that will keep America safe, secure and economically prosperous in the future.

Natural disasters remind us that sufficient and efficient government is essential. During the GOP primary, Romney suggested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s work could be turned back to the states, or even privatized.

Since Hurricane Sandy, though, he has ignored reporters’ questions on the subject.

If religious leaders are seeking sermon topics from this pre-election hurricane, here are a few possibilities: greed, selfishness, complacency and why leadership matters.


Lexington voters’ moods as gloomy as weather

May 18, 2010

Lexington voters’ moods seemed as gloomy as the weather Tuesday, at least what few of them came out to the polls.

I spent much of the day driving around town, talking with voters about the candidates and issues that interested them.

The most excitement I detected was among supporters of incumbent Jim Newberry and Vice Mayor Jim Gray in the mayor’s race, and among Republicans voting for Rand Paul in the U.S. Senate race.

Paul was embraced by the conservative Tea Party movement, while his opponent, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, was the GOP establishment’s choice. The race was being watched nationally as a barometer of Tea Party power.

Many Paul supporters said they were ambivalent about the Tea Party, but said he struck them as a departure from politics as usual — and they were plenty tired of that.

“Rand Paul brought me out,” said Connie Cooper, who lives off Pasadena Drive. “He’s different. I like his issues.”

“I don’t like the way the Republican Party has been going,” said Micah Fielden, 20, a pre-medical student at the University of Kentucky who said he voted for Paul.

Nelva Fitzgerald, who lives in Palomar subdivision, also was unhappy with the Republican Party — so she changed her registration Tuesday to Democrat. What sent her over the edge, she said, was Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices who voted to allow more corporate influence in politics, which she thinks is bad for the country.

Raleigh Deaton is a registered Democrat, but would have voted for Paul if he could have. He likes Paul’s fiscal conservatism.

“I’m tired of this doggone government giving money away like it’s growing on trees,” the utility engineer said. “That’s the worst thing we could be doing.”

As the results reflected, most people I talked to supported either Newberry, who finished first, or Gray, who finished second, in the mayor’s race. They will face each other in November.

A couple liked former Mayor Teresa Isaac, who finished third, but most people’s feelings were summed up by Fielden, who said he voted for Gray: “I think she had her shot and it’s time to move on.”

James Potter, an electrician who lives in Twin Oaks subdivision, said he came out to vote for Newberry. “With the World (Equestrian) Games and such, everything seems to be going pretty good,” he said.

Carrie Kennedy of Palomar agreed. “I think (Newberry) has done a good job,” she said.

But Gregory King, who lives in the Kenwick neighborhood east of downtown, disagreed. “I haven’t been much impressed with Mayor Newberry,” he said. “Jim (Gray) seems to have more creative ideas for Lexington.”

Josh Radner, a science teacher at Yates Elementary School, thought so, too. “He’s the more creative thinker,” he said of Gray. “He’s in touch with a wider group of constituents, including some who may not be the most powerful people.”

Allen and Zell Richards, a retired postal worker and teacher who live off Man ‘O War Boulevard in south Lexington, are Republicans and Paul supporters.

But the Richards split on the mayor’s race. He voted for Gray, because he didn’t like Newberry’s support of CentrePointe. She voted for Newberry, but agreed with her husband on that failed development.

“They jumped into that before they knew much about it,” she said. “I thought they should have renovated some of those old buildings. We have a beautiful city and we ought to keep older things around.”

“Yea,” her husband agreed. “Like us.”

Voters should listen to facts, not fears and smears.

October 29, 2008

Some Kentuckians will believe anything, unless they hear it from a person well educated on the subject.

Historians have long noted Kentucky’s anti-intellectual streak, which has helped keep the state near the bottom of national rankings in education, income and other measures of progress.

Some Kentuckians fear change and scorn “elites,” who are generally defined as anyone better-educated or more broad-minded than they are.

I happened upon an interesting example last week while driving back from an interview in London. I was flipping through the radio channels and heard WVLK talk-show host Sue Wylie introducing Charles Haywood as her guest that hour.

Haywood is a Ph.D. economist and retired dean of the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics. He was Kentucky’s first economic development secretary and is a former research director for Bank of America. He has appeared on Wylie’s show several times recently to discuss the economic crisis.

Wylie framed that morning’s show around this question: Are Barack Obama’s tax proposals socialism?

Haywood politely explained that returning tax rates for people earning more than $250,000 a year to pre-Bush administration levels was hardly socialism. Using that measure, he joked, you would have to call the tax policies that prevailed during Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration in the 1950s communism.

But Wylie and her audience were having none of it. She justified the assertion by repeatedly saying “a lot of people are talking about this.” Of course, she didn’t explain that those people are McCain and his surrogates.

Many people who called in to the show argued with Haywood and dismissed his expertise. At least one called him a liberal — talk radio’s favorite insult.

“I was surprised that so many people just didn’t really understand what’s going on, and certainly are misinformed about some things,” Haywood said when I called later to ask him about the show.

“I was trying to explain it to my wife, Judy, too,” Haywood said. “I said, well, there is just a lot of anti-intellectual sentiment out there. … It’s awfully hard to explain irrationality. It is a curious reaction from people who are obviously in a fairly low- to middle-income group and would benefit from a tax change.”

Haywood favors Obama’s economic proposals over McCain’s, although he didn’t say so on the air. He’s not alone.

An informal survey of academic economists by The Economist magazine found that “a majority — at times by overwhelming margins — believe Mr. Obama has the superior economic plan, a firmer grasp on economics and will appoint better economic advisers.”

Haywood went on: “The thing that’s so shocking to me is really the extent to which McCain has played fast and loose with the proposals of Obama.” Actually, it is in complete character with McCain’s increasingly shrill and desperate campaign.

For me, this election was an easy call. George W. Bush’s presidency has been a disaster. His tax breaks for the wealthy, giveaways to big business and aversion to government regulation have wrecked the economy and racked up a staggering public debt. The cake was iced with a huge bailout for the financial-services industry, which seems more interested in using public money to buy up weak rivals than in easing the credit crunch.

Rather than finish the job in Afghanistan, Bush led the nation into a senseless war in Iraq. Now we’re bogged down in both places, and Osama bin Laden still runs free. Bush has ignored the Constitution, embraced torture and government secrecy and seriously damaged America’s image among our allies. His administration has favored ideology over science, and it has consistently played to fear rather than reason.

The last thing America needs is another four years of the Republican policies that got us into this mess. And McCain’s decision to put Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin a 72-year-old heartbeat away from leadership of the free world says all I need to know about his judgment.

I find it interesting that people such as Warren Buffett, one of America’s most successful capitalists, and Gen. Colin Powell, Bush’s former secretary of state, have endorsed Obama’s ideas and leadership over McCain’s.

Many intelligent Kentuckians I know and like are supporting John McCain. Many are more comfortable with Republican ideology, or they prefer McCain’s résumé and leadership to Obama’s. I respect that.

What I can’t respect, though, is the gullibility and willful ignorance of Kentuckians who buy into and perpetuate right-wing fear-mongering.

How else to explain recent poll results that show 14 percent of Kentuckians — and 28 percent of Kentucky Republicans — think Obama is Muslim, even though it’s a well-publicized fact that he’s Christian. Like Obama’s race, it shouldn’t even matter. But we all know that it does to some people.

We must replace fear with hope, ideology with logic and ignorance with education. The stakes are simply too high.