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January 14, 2003

SUVs and SOBs II

The first installment of SUVs and SOBs talked about Keith Bradsher's new book, High and Mighty: SUVs, which debunks the myths of SUVs as safe vehicles (for their drivers or anyone else), and argues that driving SUVs is immoral on multiple levels—primarily because SUVs pose such a threat to drivers in other vehicles and because they consume so many resources. It turns out that Bradsher's book couldn't have come out at a better time. First, and most recently, you've probably heard about the "SUVs support terrorism" ad campaign being led by Arianna Huffington, and also about the tv stations refusing to run them. Call it a more aggressive take on last November's "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign; both are attempts to get people to think about the effects their massive consumption of resources might have on the world around them. Of course, as Bradsher's book shows, such campaigns will largely fall on deaf ears if they try to reach SUV drivers, since, on average, SUV drivers are very antisocial people. That's why the Huffington campaign seems so great to me—it makes an argument that's sensational enough to get people who don't drive SUVs to question those who do. With enough of that kind of thing, even antisocial SUV drivers might find the disapproval associated w/driving their vehicles too much to take. If the campaign seems far-fetched, don't forget that the U.S. government produced similar propaganda during WWII. (My favorite slogan: "Should brave men die so you can drive?")

Meanwhile, did you know that our tax code offers huge incentives to Detroit to continue making SUVs, and to buyers to continue buying them? It's true. First, a tax loophole exempts "light trucks" from a tax automakers pay on high-pollution vehicles they sell. (Note: The information I found on this is from 2000, so this may have been changed since then.)

Second, another tax loophole gives tax rebates to buyers of the largest SUVs. Apparently only "small business owners" qualify for this rebate, but there are enough of them to translate into a lot more SUVs on the roads. Plus, since the tax advantage is so great—as much as $25,000, which might make a $50k SUV downright affordable—that lots of small business owners who have no use for an SUV are choosing to buy one anyway, just because it's such a good deal for them. I understand that this tax break was meant to help small business owners afford the equipment necessary for the work they do, but the unintended consequences here are too serious to ignore.

Posted 11:39 AM | Comments (1) | general politics

What War?

This may sound random, but I'm hoping someone can help me out here. I keep hearing things about our "wartime President" and that this or that is necessary in "a time of war." The thing is, I just can't find any evidence—other than rhetoric from the Bush Administration, of course—that we, the United States, are at war. Did Congress ever officially declare war on anyone or anything? Did I miss that somewhere? And if not, shouldn't we be concerned that our government is in violation of Article I of the Constitution of the U.S. if it claims to be at war w/out official declaration from Congress?

I'm not talking about a war against Iraq, specifically, but a war on anything—terrorism, terrorists, Osama bin Laden. I mean, many people have said we're at war with these things, but there's a difference between people (even the President of the U.S.) saying we're at war and the U.S. Congress officially declaring war. I know, for example, that Congress "authorized the use of force" against Iraq, but does that mean war? Does that authorization give Bush and the Defense Department and everyone else the same rights and options that an official declaration of war would give them?

A Google search on the subject turns up some interesting things from the past year or so, but if anything, all these pieces simply raise the problem (or related problems), but don't answer it. The one piece that seems to directly address the question of whether the U.S. is really at war with anything argues pretty convincingly that, indeed, it is not.

As I write this, I vaguely recall some punditry about this problem sometime in the last 18 months, but for some reason, no one seems interested in pressing the point that we've got a problem if we allow presidential rhetoric to push us into a war that seems to exist only because the executive branch of government says it does. I've been told that the last time Congress actually declared war was WWII, meaning that Korea, Vietnam, and Gulf War I were all wars in which Congress abdicated its responsibilities. So I guess the precedent for this was set long ago and we can expect to go to "war" any time a President decides we should, despite the fact that the framers of the Constitution wanted to prevent exactly that possibility when they gave Congress the responsibility to "make" (later changed to "declare") war. Brave new world and all that, I guess?

Posted 10:49 AM | general politics

What Will Be in 2003?

Hi hi hi hi. After a looong and luxuriously stress-free break from school/work and other demands of "real" life, the time has come for getting back to business—both here at ai and elsewhere. But rather than bore you with a litany of the mundane and unfun things I now must do to prepare for the spring semester (which begins next week), I'm going to indulge in the belated but fun ritual of annual predictions/hopes. I'm no oracle, so these are just a few ideas that are a combination of what I think might happen, as well as what I hope will happen in 2003.

First, we're going to war. [1] I still have hope that this won't happen, but not much. What I think will happen is that the U.S. will commence battle during sweeps month (is that Feb. or March?), both to get maximum viewers for the show when they want to brag about something, as well as to make sure there are plenty of other diversions (in the form of a new tv lineup) for American couch potatoes if things don't go smoothly. There seems lots of reason to believe things won't go that smoothly for the U.S.—Iraq could attack Israel or gas U.S. troops, or the growing peace movement could reach critical mass and U.S. leadership could find itself engaged in a war w/out popular support. (This would be especially likely if Rep. Charles Rangel is successful in his attempt to bring back the draft. He won't be, but his effort has opened a new avenue for critique of Bush's war plans.) At this point it's looking like the best outcome here is that an attack on Iraq creates enough global anger at the Bush administration that the U.S. will be forced to start playing nicely with others and the Bush administration will have zero hope of being re-elected in 2004.

Many things in 2003 will likely hinge on what happens w/Iraq and N. Korea. If there is war on Iraq, and if it is "successful" (meaning not too many Americans die and somehow international and domestic opinion blesses it as a "good or at least not bad thing"), the Bush Administration will probably have carte blanche to continue its insanity of tax cuts, increased military spending, and starving all other domestic and social programs. But that's a big if. On the other hand, if the Iraqi war doesn't happen or goes south somehow, perhaps Americans will wake up and start being a little more critical of the dismal places Washington is sending our country (and our world). Already it's starting to look like Democrats (and many Republicans) are gaining traction w/their criticism of Bush's tax cut/"stimulus" plan—very few people seem convinced that allowing the wealthiest Americans to keep more cash is really good for anyone but the wealthiest Americans. [2]

In 2003 we'll see a shakedown of democratic candidates for President. I haven't had a chance to really take a look at the field as it's forming, but from the little I've seen, John Edwards looks like a great potential candidate. I'll be following his campaign via Oliver Willis' blog, Americans for John Edwards. If Edwards can maintain his "raw potential" approach as something of a Democratic outsider (and if he really turns out to be the people's candidate he claims to be), he just might be able to re-invigorate the Democratic Party and have a good chance at getting the nomination. With regard to the 2004 election, I predict (hope) that as the contest heats up, a vigorous national debate will begin about the value of the electoral college. [3] Following an earlier post on the subject, I also predict that blogs will begin to play a bigger role in the political process. [4]

In an issue of special local interest, I predict (hope) that Illinois Gov. George Ryan's commutation of death sentences in Illinois will trigger a nationwide debate about the justice and necessity of the death penalty. Have you ever stopped to think about the connection between the death penalty and the U.S.'s militant foreign policy? Is it merely a coincidence that one of the only "free" countries in the world that still sanctions state executions is also the "free" country that is most aggressive militarily? We seem to have a culture that says that when someone does something we really don't like, that person has to die. On a micro level, this means the death penalty; on a macro level, it means war. In most free countries, people do not sanction state executions; they put a higher premium on human life than we do. Perhaps this also makes them much more reluctant to go to war. I submit that this is a good thing. So here's hoping that Americans will pause to seriously examine their approach to state-sanctioned murder on both micro and macro levels.

Another domestic conversation that will continue to heat up in 2003 concerns America's dependence on foreign oil, global environmental degradation, and the morality of driving SUVs. I've talked about this before, but also look for an upcoming post to return to this—it's becoming one of my favorite topics.

In my own life, it's looking more likely that by August I will be living in D.C., where I hope to be attending law school. Right now my ideal scenario is that I'll be awarded the Public Interest Scholarship at American University, which will allow me to afford to pay rent, eat, and be a good student. Honestly, the prospect of attending law school without a really significant scholarship is looking pretty scary. How do you concentrate on your classes when every breath you take costs approximately $5?

Finally, I have yet to hear from any marketing/video maestros with brilliant ideas of how I should go about selling myself to the producers of "Survivor," so whether 2003 will see me taking a critique of social darwinism to national prime-time television remains an open question. ;-)

[1] This "war" will not only ultimately prove a mistake for America's long-term health and security, but it will also be illegal and reveal some of the deep problems with our so-called "democracy"—primarily that Congress has abdicated its constitutional responsibility to declare war. This is such a crazy fact that it deserves a post of its own—look for it to follow this post.

[2] I heard Cokie Roberts on NPR this morning saying that the Bush Administration is breaking new ground in attempting to use tax policy for purposes of social engineering by reducing the so-called "marriage penalty," rewarding investment in the stock market, etc. I couldn't believe what I was hearing; tax policy has always been used for social engineering—it's called redistribution of wealth! The problem with the Bush vision is that it wants to do all it can to make sure wealth is redistributed up into the higher classes, rather than the other way around. If there's anything new about this it's simply the brazeness with which it's now being done. In the past the plutocrats tried to be more discrete about their attempts to shortchange the poorest Americans in favor of the wealthiest; now they seem to feel they don't even need to pretend anymore.)

[3] For those readers who have detected any cynicism in ai, please attempt to recall the last time there was a vigorous national debate about anything. If, like me, you have trouble thinking of a recent example, I think you'll agree that my predictions in this regard are quite optimistic—utopian, even. ;-)

[4] If you haven't heard it already, check out the story of Tara Sue Grubman, the woman who sort of ran for Congress via a blog. She didn't win, but she did show the value of a blog to allow voters to get to know a candidate, and to allow a candidate to communicate directly w/voters in a relatively raw way. Sure, a blog could be "spun and polished" just like a tv commercial, so blogs will likely have a positive effect on the political process only if candidates use them honestly. Yes, another big "if."

Posted 09:39 AM | life generally

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