Saturday, December 20, 2014

Why Cuomo’s Fracking Ban Won’t Matter Much

By Robert Bryce
Friday, December 19, 2014

Amid the many explanations offered by New York governor Andrew Cuomo and his various lieutenants about their reasons for imposing a permanent ban on hydraulic fracturing in the state, one of them made me laugh out loud.

“We lack the necessary data,” said New York’s health commissioner, Howard Zucker. I’ll discuss why that claim made me chuckle in just a moment. Before turning to that, let’s be clear: Cuomo’s decision is not surprising, and it’s not very significant either.

It’s hardly surprising that a liberal Democratic governor in one of America’s most liberal states chose to ban fracturing. Indeed, in most liberal/left groups, hatred of the oil-and-gas sector isn’t just popular, it’s a membership requirement. On Thursday morning, Dan Henninger of the Wall Street Journal put it exactly right when he told Charles Payne on Fox Business that “the Democrats have been captured by the Greens.”

New York has had a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for years. To change that policy now, after all the campaigning that has been done in the state by environmental groups, would have been a truly surprising move. That Cuomo formalized that moratorium and made it official is not surprising in any way.

As to the significance of the move, it has made environmental groups giddy and added a tiny dollop of political theater to the discussion about domestic oil and gas development. It’s also clear that the move is negative for the economy of upstate New York. In 2011, Timothy Considine and two colleagues were asked by the Manhattan Institute (where I’m a senior fellow) to estimate the economic opportunities of shale development. Considine’s report found that shale-gas drilling in New York would spur more than $11 billion in economic output and create as many as 18,000 jobs. Now, thanks to Cuomo’s move, the possibility of that economic development — along with those thousands of jobs — has vanished, probably for decades.

But in the big picture, the ban on fracturing in New York won’t matter much for domestic energy production. To understand why that’s true, we need only compare the attractiveness of New York as a place to get into the oil-and-gas sector with that of other states. Given the political risks of operating in New York, drillers have simply opted to take their rigs, workers, and capital and put them to work elsewhere. Sure, New York has lots of oil and gas in the Marcellus shale that could be extracted. But there are plenty of hydrocarbons in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania, too. Ohio has the Utica shale, North Dakota has the Bakken, Texas has the Eagle Ford, Louisiana has the Haynesville. Why would a driller consider locating in New York, given the political uncertainty? The answer is obvious: They haven’t, and now, thanks to Cuomo, they won’t.

Look at what has happened in New York’s neighbor to the south, Pennsylvania. Oil- and gas-related jobs in the Keystone State now outnumber steel-related jobs. More than 21,000 Pennsylvanians are currently working for oil and gas companies. And they are making good money — about $71,000 per year, on average.

Further, the amount of natural gas now being produced in Pennsylvania is staggering. Since about 2009, gas production from the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania alone has grown by nearly 16 billion cubic feet per day. That volume of natural gas is roughly equal to the amount of gas being produced by Iran.

On the national level, the number of jobs that have been created in the drilling sector is similarly impressive. According to the energy consulting firm IHS, between 2008 and 2012, the natural-gas industry alone added 2.1 million jobs here in the U.S. And last fall, Wallace Tyner, an energy economist at Purdue University, estimated that the shale revolution was adding some $473 billion per year to the U.S. economy, or about 3 percent of GDP. That’s a huge stimulus, and all of it has happened without New York.

As for Zucker’s claim that there’s a lack of data about hydraulic fracturing, let me explain why it’s so ludicrous. The process has been used more than 1 million times on oil and gas wells here in the U.S. If fracturing is as dangerous as many environmental groups are claiming, then hundreds, perhaps thousands, of domestic water wells would have been contaminated by now. And surely the public would have been made aware of those many contaminated wells. That hasn’t happened.

In 2011 Lisa Jackson, who then headed the federal Environmental Protection Agency, testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. During that appearance Jackson said, “I’m not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.”

In 2011, the MIT Energy Initiative released a 170-page report on natural gas that addressed hydraulic fracturing directly. It said:

    The fracturing process itself poses minimal risk to the shallow groundwater zones that may exist in the upper portion of the wellbore. . . . The physical realities of the fracturing process, combined with the lack of reports from the many wells to date of fracture fluid contamination of groundwater, supports the assertion that fracturing itself does not create environmental concerns.

What’s clear about Cuomo’s decision to permanently ban hydraulic fracturing in New York is that politics — and by that, I mean the politics of hard-left Greens – has triumphed over sensible energy policy and economic development.

The good news in this story is that New York’s ban won’t stop the shale revolution. Thanks to the ongoing development of shale oil and shale gas in other states, the U.S. has effectively broken OPEC. In addition, it now has an energy-price advantage over nearly every other country in the world.

So let’s agree to ignore the news out of New York. The ban on hydraulic fracturing is not at all surprising, and in the long run, it’s not going to be that significant to the U.S. economy.

Boycott Cuba, Conservative Hellhole

By Charles C. W. Cooke
Friday, December 19, 2014

‘Only the left,” The Nation’s Tom Hayden suggested after Obama’s announcement on Wednesday, “can recall, narrate and applaud the long resistance of tiny Cuba to the northern Goliath.” Next year his comrades in arms intend to do just that. In May, the magazine will take a long-planned trip to Havana, that they might enjoy a “specially curated” expedition and immerse themselves in “Cuban politics, culture and history at private seminars and concerts featuring prominent Cuban professors, top government officials, urban planners, journalists, musicians, artists and community activists.” Their hope is that such tourism will catch on. “If the president has his wish,” Hayden writes, “the Obama family will be seen on the streets of Havana before his term is up.”

This, I think, is deeply problematic. The Cuban government is to be praised for its brave stand against untrammeled freedom of speech and bourgeois cultural selfishness; for its steadfast resistance to the dangerous, outdated notion that citizens have a right to self-defense; for its refusal to permit abstract notions such as “the rule of law” and “human dignity” to get in the way of altruistic goals such as universal child care and free dental care; and for the scorn that it has poured upon the cheap, inauthentic baubles of unchecked American capitalism (McDonalds, Starbucks, SUVs, purified water, etc.). Yet I worry that, despite these considerable achievements, people of good conscience have little choice but to stay away until it changes for the better.

For all its professions of socialist purity, Cuba remains a redoubt of high-level social unrighteousness. The island is run by a pair of elderly, politically conservative, rurally raised, white-Hispanic dude-bros who took charge by staging a racist, old-fashioned, and decidedly non-nonviolent coup against a person of Spanish, African, Indian, and Chinese descent. The leader of that coup, Former President Fidel Castro, has been a consistent enemy of diversity and a shameless champion of ableist hegemony. After attempting for years to hide his disabilities — successfully body-shaming anybody who hoped to begin a dialogue about his condition — Castro handed power over to Y-chromosome-privileged member of his social strata rather than consider the many highly qualified Cuban women who are still struggling mightily under the hot glass ceiling.

All things considered, the Castros’ behavior should come as no surprise, for the Cuban constitution that they produced is shot through with concessions to the racist, militaristic, and homophobic patriarchy. “The state,” the document proclaims in a particularly antediluvian section, “protects the family, motherhood and matrimony.” That same “state” resolutely refuses to recognize or to celebrate untraditional family structures. The Cuban government, the constitution records, “recognizes the family as the main nucleus of society and attributes to it the important responsibilities and functions in the education and formation of the new generations.” There is not a single mention anywhere of the valuable contributions that skolioplatonic Cubans have made to society, nor are polyamorous types recognized as being legitimate. “Marriage,” meanwhile, is defined unequally, as “the voluntarily established union between a man and a woman, who are legally fit to marry, in order to live together.” No progressive can in good conscience visit a country with this kind of law on the books.

Concessions to capitalist hegemony remain everywhere, too. “Work in a socialist society,” Article 45 establishes, “is a right and duty and a source of pride for every citizen.” This is nothing short of a kick in the teeth for those among us who realize that work is a barbaric Anglo-American relic and every citizen, non-citizen, and otherkin in any just and forward-looking society should have a minimum income, regardless of how they hope to contribute to the tapestry. And it gets worse. “Every man or woman, who is able to work,” the document proposes, “should have the opportunity to have a job with which to contribute to the good of society and to the satisfaction of individual needs.” You will, of course, note the triggering gender binary in this particular asseveration. As of last night, there were over 50 different genders. Is it too much to ask that the Cuban constitution should list them and append a favorable note to each?

Some myopic, self-serving commentators — including some members of The Nation’s caravan, have celebrated the new access afforded to the island’s more mundane pleasures: Cuban cigars, the island’s remarkable collection of vintage American cars, the legendary nightlife that Havana and the island’s other cities have to offer. The problems here are legion: Higher cigar consumption among Americans is the last thing the doctor ordered for a nation with an appalling record of disability-adjusted-life-year per health-care dollar spent (not to mention the habit’s association with a fat-cat lifestyle that has no place in a just, egalitarian society). Older cars are unsafe, belch a considerable amount of soot for the pleasure produced, and can act as a trigger for those still scarred by the oppressive experiences of America in the 1950s. The nightlife, meanwhile, is a draw for underpaid and under-protected sex workers, and the hyper-sexualized contradanza music only serves to reinforce stereotypes that have been superseded by progress.

So we might let The Nation enjoy its holiday and let them wonder at the glittering trinkets of Castro’s small steps toward the society of the future. And we might forgive them, too, for they seem to know not what they do. But the smarter set must resist the temptations, and, if justice is to be done, we must insist loudly and proudly that until the people of Cuba have been freed from the yoke of the white supremacist gerontocracy, none of our clean and virtuous feet will touch its guilty, reactionary soil.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Signposts of a Broken Culture

By Sonny Bunch
Thursday, December 18, 2014

So, Sony has pulled The Interview—its upcoming comedy about the assassination of Kim Jong Un by James Franco and Seth Rogen—due to threats of violence. A bunch of hackers who appear to be affiliated with North Korea warned of a 9/11-style terrorist attack if the release went forward. Many people (including myself) are not thrilled by the development and have called the studio cowardly for kowtowing to a gout-riddled tinpot dictator with a horrible haircut presiding over “a nation of racist dwarfs.”

Others responded, rightly, that Sony and the theater chains engaging in this cowardly behavior would be sued out of existence if screenings went ahead and such an attack were to go down. Jonathan Chait suggested the United States should promise to make whole any organization that was sued as a result of an (incredibly unlikely) attack. That’s not a terrible idea. I’d like to focus my attention, briefly, on this entirely accurate, utterly insane sentence of Chait’s, however:

    In the unlikely (but far from impossible) event that terrorists carried out their threat to attack a showing of the film, the legal liability to Sony would be immense.

This is totally true. The legal liability to Sony would be immense. They would be inundated by lawsuits. We’re talking about hundreds of millions in potential liability, probably. Consider that Cinemark is still dealing with a lawsuit related to the mass shooting that happened at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Returns—a shooting for which there was no warning ahead of time, no reason to expect violence. There are trial lawyers out there who will sue whomever has the deepest pockets on whatever flimsy pretense they can muster because, hey, dolla dolla bill y’all!

This is also totally and completely bonkers.

Think about this for a second. What we are saying—nay, what we have accepted, as a society—is a situation in which a totally blameless third party would be held responsible for the evil committed by an irresponsible actor. Sony and the theater chains are being punished for the mere potential of a terror attack against them.

I joked with a friend that tort reform immediately became my number one concern for 2016. He pointed out, rightly, that this is a much larger issue. Tort reform? That’s just futzing around at the edges. Our problem runs much, much deeper than concerns over insurance costs for doctors. Our true problem is that, again, we have accepted, as a society, that it’s okay to sue a party for the bad behavior of a second party even if the first party has no role whatsoever in the malfeasance.

That’s the saddest part of all this. Yes, Sony and the theater chains have acted cowardly and without honor throughout this ordeal. But it’s not their fault. It’s ours. We made this world. They’re just living with the rules we adopted.

How Obama Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Unilateralism

By Charles C. W. Cooke
Thursday, December 18, 2014

Deflecting the potent charge that President Obama has of late begun to behave as might a prince, progressives tend to fall back on the numbers. “Not all executive orders are illegal,” they will note, and then they will explain with studied irritation that Obama has signed fewer such decrees than any president in the last century.

Both of these arguments have always seemed rather desperate. For a start, one examines the legality of a given action on its own merits, not within the context of other, unrelated measures. Moreover, the question of legitimate presidential power being a qualitative and not a quantitative one, how many times the executive has contrived to act alone seems to be entirely beside the point. Suppose that a rogue president decided to drop a nuclear weapon on San Francisco. In such a case, would his apologists point out that he had “only ever issued one executive order, which is far fewer than almost every other president”? Of course they would not. We judge legality by the law, not mathematically.

And yet, politically speaking, there’s something to the idea. For a while now, the claim that Obama has been unusually reluctant to act alone has been presented as evidence that he is running a modest and restrained administration. “Obama,” New York magazine’s Dan Emira wrote back in January of 2013, “has used this lever of presidential power less frequently than every other president in modern times.” “In fact,” he added, “you have to go all the way back to Grover Cleveland in the nineteenth century to find a president who has issued executive orders at a lower rate than Obama.” Emira’s proposition here was clear: That the White House’s aristarchs should not be so “riled up,” that the suggestion that Obama was behaving “like a king or a monarch” was downright false, and that conservatives who claim that this administration has represented a dangerous departure from the American settlement are merely revealing their own partisanship. Indeed, such talking points have been heard from the president himself. Speaking in Texas last July, Obama mocked Republicans for their reaction to his impending immigration move, arguing that “even with all the actions I’ve taken this year, I’m issuing executive orders at the lowest rate in more than 100 years.”

If vetos and executive orders are a sign of weakness, we might conclude, then, that Obama is a powerful man indeed. And yet there is a tiny problem with this argument — one, I’d venture, that should change our calculation entirely: It simply isn’t true. As USA Today’s White House correspondent Gregory Korte recorded yesterday afternoon, one can really only regard Obama as a paragon of executive restraint if one indulges in a clever semantic game. Obama, Korte confirms,

    has issued a form of executive action known as the presidential memorandum more often than any other president in history — using it to take unilateral action even as he has signed fewer executive orders.

    When these two forms of directives are taken together, Obama is on track to take more high-level executive actions than any president since Harry Truman battled the “Do Nothing Congress” almost seven decades ago, according to a USA TODAY review of presidential documents.

“Like executive orders,” Korte explains, “presidential memoranda don’t require action by Congress.” Nevertheless, “they have the same force of law as executive orders and often have consequences just as far-reaching.” How far reaching? Well, Korte proposes, “some of the most significant actions of the Obama presidency have come not by executive order but by presidential memoranda.”

Now, this game is not in and of itself illegal — although it certainly drives another nail into the notion that Obama’s is the “most transparent” presidential administration “in history” – and the fact that this president has been the most active since Harry Truman does not render his actions unacceptable per se. Nonetheless, that he has been so quick to pick up his pen does tell us something interesting: specifically, that the Barack Obama who was going to change Washington and win hearts and minds with his soaring oratory has instead relied upon unilateral power to an unanticipated degree. Having recently signed a historically unprecedented and constitutionally dubious immigration order, quixotically attempted to cut the Senate out of the treaty-making process, and reversed a half-century-old American policy toward Cuba, the president is apparently looking to see where else he can work without the legislature. Now into his final two years, Politico reports today, Obama increasingly “feels liberated,” and he “sees the recent flurry of aggressive executive action and deal-making as a pivot for him to spend his final two years in office being more the president he always wanted to be.”

This, of course, is his prerogative. Providing he doesn’t do anything illegal, a president may use his enumerated powers to his heart’s content. But it must surely be disappointing for this president’s champions to watch his tenure descend into unilateralism and isolation? During his initial run for the White House, Senator Obama liked to slam George W. Bush for having attempted to “bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all.” If elected, Obama told his audiences, he would “reverse” this course. In office, however, he has done no such thing. Indeed, not only has Obama moved far, far beyond his predecessor’s limited imperial proclivities, but he has also constructed and codified a collection of extra-constitutional arguments that will haunt the country for years to come. Critics of the contemporary Republican party would most likely argue that the often implacable opposition that Obama has faced is at least in part to blame for the president’s volte face. There is something to this, albeit the case is wildly overstated. By contrast, Obama’s detractors would presumably contend that the fault lies with Obama himself. Because he is temperamentally incapable of shifting with the electoral winds, they would propose, and because he showcases such blatant disregard toward the republic’s longstanding constitutional norms, he represents a problem case that no amount of legislative acquiescence could defray.

All in all, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, whichever of these cases one finds more convincing, one thing at least should be glaringly obvious to all and sundry: to wit, that for all the hype, the man just isn’t that good at politics. In a representative government such as ours, there is a good deal of space between the machine in Washington, D.C., and the public at large. If one so wishes, one can certainly blame the fractious passing of Obamacare on party-wide Republican intransigence and the supposed ideological “extremism” of the right-leaning political class writ large. “When Republicans had announced that they would refuse to work with the president,” we could say, “what did you expect to happen?” But how, then, do we explain away the stubborn refusal of the American public to change its mind? It has now been more than four years since Obamacare was signed into law, and almost six years since the president began routinely stumping for his plan. Despite the incessant propaganda campaign, it is more unpopular now than it ever was. Likewise, if one were so minded, one could contend that Obama “had to do something” about the “immigration crisis,” and that Congress’s steadfast refusal to act had forced the president’s hand. Again, though, one wonders how we should explain the unpopularity of Obama’s action, and his inability to move public opinion sufficiently strongly in his direction to put pressure on his opponents in the legislature.

The simple answer is this: We can’t. Instead, we should perhaps accept that there is a great deal of space between Obama the idea and Obama the president. Far from being a strong leader who has been forced to deal with an obstinate minority, Obama is coming to resemble the man who couldn’t sell a bottle of gin to Peter O’Toole. That he sees this lame-duck period as an opportunity to become “the president he always wanted to be” is illustrative indeed. Strip away all of the glitz and the hype and we are left with a man who came into power to heal and to restore but who has assiduously failed to recruit the other branches of government to his cause, who has been routinely unable to win the approval of the American public, and who has, on the cusp of his seventh year, been left sitting alone in his splendid office, writing sweeping instructions on leaves of ornately adorned paper, and remembering those happy days when the people who elected him twice believed that he was going to bring them along for the ride.

As Vermont Goes . . .

By John Fund
Friday, December 19, 2014

The one state that not only embraced Obamacare but insisted on going beyond it to a full single-payer system was Vermont, the haven of hippies and expatriate New Yorkers, which has become one of the most liberal states in the nation. In 2011, it adopted a form of neighboring Canada’s government-financed health care and promised to implement it by 2017. (And Jonathan Gruber was a key architect of this plan as well as of Obamacare.) This week, however, Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, admitted the state couldn’t afford the plan’s $2 billion price tag and consequent sky-high taxes, and pulled the plug. The lessons for Obamacare are obvious and profound.

Scott Milne, the little-known Republican who opposed Shumlin in last month’s election and came within 1 percentage point of winning the most votes, isn’t surprised. “During the campaign I said that single-payer is dead — I’m telling you that now, and Peter Shumlin’s going to wait until after the election,” Milne told the Burlington Free Press. Milne is still running for governor, since Shumlin won only 46 percent of the vote, and Vermont requires the state legislature to elect the governor in January if no candidate wins the majority. Despite his prescience, however, Milne is highly unlikely to persuade the Democratic legislature to substitute him for Shumlin.

But Milne certainly has won a moral victory. Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott, a Republican, called the cancellation of singe-payer a victory for “overtaxed Vermonters.” Noting that the state’s fiscal plan for implementing single-payer was now almost two years late, he said in a statement: “We’ve already spent far too much money exploring this idea, and the discussion has paralyzed our business community.”

Business realities weighed heavily in Shumlin’s retreat. His experts calculated the state would need an 11.5 percent payroll tax and an additional income tax of up to 9.5 percent. That’s California-style taxation. “My health-care costs would have gone up by 61 percent if that plan had gone through,” Win Smith, the owner of the Sugarbush ski resort, told reporters. “If there were that 9 percent [income tax] on employees, many would have been paying more than they’re paying now. It would have been a lose-lose.” Shumlin admitted it would be irresponsible for him to be “pushing prematurely for single-payer” when “the risk of economic shock is too high at this time.”

But like any good liberal, Shumlin insisted on painting a rosy fantasy that he would bring back a single-payer plan. “[Medicare] took 31 years to become law. Medicaid took 50 years to pass; Social Security took 25 years,” he said in a statement. “Our time will come.” James Haslam of the Vermont Workers’ Center wasn’t buying it, calling Governor Shumlin’s retreat “a slap in the face” of single-payer backers.

Health-care experts from outside Vermont point out some of the implications. “It’s a very liberal state, and its leaders spent years trying to design a system that would work,” Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute observes. “If Vermont can’t make it work, single-payer can’t work anywhere in the country where the economy has free and competitive markets. It’s more evidence that centralized government health care is simply not workable in America.”

Vermont’s decision should embolden Republicans in Congress and state governments to fight harder against Obamacare. While President Obama insists he will tolerate no changes in his program that he doesn’t unilaterally declare through personal whim, his stubbornness may be more difficult to sustain in coming months. The Supreme Court is set to hand down a ruling in June that could declare unconstitutional the subsidies for low-income people in 37 federally run insurance exchanges. The heart of Obamacare would be cut out should the Supreme Court rule that the exchanges are invalid.

Transition rules and discretionary budget accounts could delay the loss of insurance by policy-holders for a while in those states, but a more permanent fix will be needed.

Republicans in Congress would be right to insist that the price of their passing such a legislative fix should involve massive reforms in Obamacare. Republicans in the 24 state governments where they completely control lawmaking would be foolish not to demand complete freedom from Washington’s rules dictating how they run their out-of-control Medicaid programs as the price for stabilizing the exchange markets in their states.

Nancy Pelosi famously said of Obamacare that “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” The reality is that Obamacare had to pass before it became clear just how unworkable it is. Vermont’s decision is a canary in the coal mine for liberal health-care-reform zealots. It represents a warning signal that in order to avoid further economic and health-care dislocations they will have to, like liberals in Vermont, give in to reality. The alternative is to face even more punishing political consequences in 2016 than they did this November.