What Is Wrong In Washington?

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By the early 1900s, express passenger trains were fast enough that their stopping distances were well over a mile. At such a distance, if the engineer of a train saw something blocking the track ahead, it was usually already too late to stop the train in time to avoid a collision.

Accidents were avoided with signals, which had come into use in the 19th century. An engineer who saw a signal to proceed could have a high degree of confidence that the railroad was clear all the way to the next signal, even though he could not see that far ahead. But if the signal told him to stop, there was often no telling what the problem might be. A train could be stalled. A bridge could be out. There could be a wildfire. Even though many tracks were supposed to carry only trains going in the same direction, in an emergency a train might be coming from the opposite direction.

Let me put a question to you. Suppose someone decided to ignore a signal to stop. Perhaps he wants to keep up with his schedule. Perhaps he suspects the signal was broken. He has a train loaded with passengers, but he ignores their safety because he finds protecting their lives inconvenient. Suppose you were on a train whose operator did this. How would you feel about that?

That image is, unfortunately, where the United States is on climate change, under the Trump administration. It is headed toward a possible wreck, against the signal. In fact, the person at the throttle is making every indication of increasing speed.

Some people take comfort in the idea that the government in Washington is under the control of conservative Republicans, who are acting in good faith for the benefit of the people of this country. As a person who lived most of his life as a conservative Republican, I can assure you that this is not the case.

Conservative Republicans have historically protected the environment. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon all signed acts or orders protecting environments, ecological systems, and species. They were responsible for national parks, wildlife preserves, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA). If they thought science was undecided on an issue, they erred on the side of caution, as Ronald Reagan did when he was confronted with the possibility of a hole in the ozone layer. What we see now is the reverse of this aspect of conservatism.

It is not the only area of traditional thinking that is being assailed. They claim to have Christian values, but attempts to exclude Muslims show clearly that they understand neither the Constitution nor the parable of the Good Samaritan. They do not hold to real conservative ideas on human rights, which many in the party started to abandon in the 1960s, shortly after Eisenhower enforced integration in the schools. They do not show a conservative approach to the empirical use of financial resources, for if they did, they would not be attempting to gut the EPA, which saves the country 10 times as much money as it costs. They are not interested in education, which I was taught was necessary for effective democracy. They are not interested in truth, and, in fact, appear to be horrified by it. Instead, they choose to follow ideology blindly.

A short look at the group in power in Washington shows that they do not represent the people of the country. They do not even represent traditional Republicans. In fact, they do not even represent “big business.” What they represent is the small portion of businesses and people that profit from fossil fuel extraction.

To excuse their deeds, many of them look for ideological guidance to the writings of Ayn Rand. And here, I believe, we can see where they have gone wrong. Ayn Rand is taken to be a great proponent of competence, but if you take a critical look at her writings, you can see fairly quickly that neither she nor her protagonists has any idea of what competence is.

Dagny Taggart was a main character of Atlas Shrugged. Early in the book, as an officer of a railroad, she ordered an express train full of passengers to proceed against a signal without any knowledge of why the signal told the train not to proceed. She did not belong in a railroad boardroom because of some ability she might have had. She belonged in prison because she recklessly endangered people’s lives for the sake of a schedule and her own convenience.

Ayn Rand did not understand that competence requires understanding and wisdom, and that means experience and knowledge. She was unable to see that assertive self-assurance, in the absence of wisdom and understanding, is merely a self-promotional form of gross incompetence. So she wrote about things she did not understand, creating horrors that looked attractive to people who also do not understand.

Combining the mindless egotism of Ayn Rand with what is termed a “Free Market” is having disastrous results. What is meant by “Free Market” is clearly anything but free, as it provides a framework within which the most powerful forces can exercise their greed without reference to the needs or rights of others. This concentrates power into the hands of a very few. It is a very few that may be competent at organizing a business or engineering takeover of a political system, but it is not made up of people who can competently run a nation full of people in a world in such a crisis as climate change.

Adherence to Rand’s ideology is sufficiently blind that it ignores virtually all else. While conservative Republicans may claim other important issues on their agenda, hijackers have made it all subject to the “free market,” and the conservatives have been sufficiently grateful to the hijackers for their party’s takeover of the Congress, that they have allowed themselves to be led by them.

This sort of capitalism is very flawed in part because it places the emphasis on the near term — typically, next quarter’s profits. It fails badly at long-term planning. And it fails utterly at putting value on anything that cannot be monetized in the marketplace. The environment only has value if it is in a park that can attract paying visitors. A species only has value if it can be exploited. Science and truth only have value if they contribute to short-term profitability. For the current government in Washington, dignity has no value, honor has no value, and grace has no value. Faith, hope, and charity have given way to the of a religion that can be monetized, the worship of Mammon.

Even as the cost of dealing with climate change is growing, the cost of electricity from wind, solar, and storage is falling to the point where they can compete successfully with natural gas. The question is not, I believe, whether the fossil fuels industry is heading to a derailment, but how many plants, animals, and human beings will be hurt.

A real conservative pays attention to signals.

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George Harvey

A retired computer engineer, George Harvey researches and writes on energy and climate change, maintains a daily blog (geoharvey.com), and has a weekly hour-long TV show, Energy Week with George Harvey and Tom Finnell. In addition to those found at CleanTechnica, many of his articles can be found at greenenergytimes.org.

George Harvey has 78 posts and counting. See all posts by George Harvey