The mess in Gaza

It’s depressing to see the same pattern unfold in Gaza. Tom Friedman provides some useful background on the situation.

One point Friedman makes is that Iran can now dictate when fighting will resume in the region. Given how low gas prices have further decimated the Iranian economy, one has to wonder whether Iran is pushing for more rocket attacks with the purpose of having this conflict increase oil prices.

  

Bailing out the auto companies

What should we do about the auto companies? It’s infuriating to think that we would have to bail them out, given the mismanagement over the years. On the other hand, the economy is on the brink, and letting GM go under in this environment could take down the entire economy. Also, given the financial bailout, throwing another $25 – $50 billion to save Detroit doesn’t seem like an outrageous idea.

Of course, the devil is in the details. Many, like Tom Friedman, want to throw out management as part of the deal. This doesn’t make sense. Certainly, Rick Wagoner and the rest of the braintrust at GM made tons of mistakes, but in the past year they have made substantial progress on innovative cars like the Chevy Volt and big changes to their cost structure with the UAW. Without the financial crisis they had a credible path to recovery. Ford is in less trouble, and their new CEO should not be blamed for past mistakes.

The real issue is how many strings should be tied to the bailout. Obama wants to see real progress towards building green cars here in the United States. Investing in this area would have significant short-term and long-term benefits. The cars companies are already moving in this direction, so getting agreement on these points may be possible.

The bigger issue raised by Friedman relates to those in Congress who supported the auto industry and their disastrous policies.

The blame for this travesty not only belongs to the auto executives, but must be shared equally with the entire Michigan delegation in the House and Senate, virtually all of whom, year after year, voted however the Detroit automakers and unions instructed them to vote. That shielded General Motors, Ford and Chrysler from environmental concerns, mileage concerns and the full impact of global competition that could have forced Detroit to adapt long ago.

Indeed, if and when they do have to bury Detroit, I hope that all the current and past representatives and senators from Michigan have to serve as pallbearers. And no one has earned the “honor” of chief pallbearer more than the Michigan Representative John Dingell, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who is more responsible for protecting Detroit to death than any single legislator.

This has led to a huge battle currently brewing in the Democratic caucus in the House.

In the first big post-election clash on Capitol Hill, two House heavyweights are battling to lead an influential committee that will have jurisdiction over global warming in the new Congress.

The fight pits California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, a key ally of environmentalists, against Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, who has ties to the auto industry. Waxman is trying to oust Dingell as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

While Waxman supporters say they think they’ve got enough votes to prevail, Dingell is fighting hard to keep the position.

In an interview with WJR radio, he called Waxman an “anti-manufacturing left-wing Democrat” and said it would be a mistake to have him in charge, particularly with the auto industry struggling.

If Waxman is successful in his attempted coup, it means that two Californians would take leading roles in the contentious debate over global warming. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is the head of the Senate’s environmental committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue.

The 82-year-old Dingell, the most senior member of the House, has long resisted higher fuel standards and tighter limits on greenhouse gases.

Dingell needs to go. He’s a slave to the auto lobbyists, and nothing will get done if he’s blocking the move towards alternative fuels in the House. Hopefully, Waxman will prevail.

  

Huge opportunity in Iran

Tom Friedman writes about the huge problems facing Iran now that oil prices have collapsed.

I’ve always been dubious about Barack Obama’s offer to negotiate with Iran — not because I didn’t believe that it was the right strategy, but because I didn’t believe we had enough leverage to succeed. And negotiating in the Middle East without leverage is like playing baseball without a bat.

Well, if Obama does win the presidency, my gut tells me that he’s going to get a chance to negotiate with the Iranians — with a bat in his hand.

Have you seen the reports that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is suffering from exhaustion? It’s probably because he is not sleeping at night. I know why. Watching oil prices fall from $147 a barrel to $57 is not like counting sheep. It’s the kind of thing that gives an Iranian autocrat bad dreams.

After all, it was the collapse of global oil prices in the early 1990s that brought down the Soviet Union. And Iran today is looking very Soviet to me.

As Vladimir Mau, president of Russia’s Academy of National Economy, pointed out to me, it was the long period of high oil prices followed by sharply lower oil prices that killed the Soviet Union. The spike in oil prices in the 1970s deluded the Kremlin into overextending subsidies at home and invading Afghanistan abroad — and then the collapse in prices in the ‘80s helped bring down that overextended empire.

This is an example of the tremendous leverage we get by destroying domestic demand for oil by switching to alternative fuels.

  

The Big Oil Ticket

John McCain has paid lip service to being a “green” candidates, despite his numerous votes in that past against alternative energy. Now he’s given up the charade by picking Sarah Palin as his VP.

It’s crazy for the United States to be subsidizing oil and sending billions of dollars overseas for our energy. Of course we can’t solve this overnight with renewable energies, but investment in this area will spur economic development and over time will reduce our dependency on oil.

Tom Friedman takes on McCain:

I am not against a limited expansion of off-shore drilling now. But it is a complete sideshow. By constantly pounding into voters that his energy focus is to “drill, drill, drill,” McCain is diverting attention from what should be one of the central issues in this election: who has the better plan to promote massive innovation around clean power technologies and energy efficiency.

Why? Because renewable energy technologies — what I call “E.T.” — are going to constitute the next great global industry. They will rival and probably surpass “I.T.” — information technology. The country that spawns the most E.T. companies will enjoy more economic power, strategic advantage and rising standards of living. We need to make sure that is America. Big oil and OPEC want to make sure it is not.

Palin’s nomination for vice president and her desire to allow drilling in the Alaskan wilderness “reminded me of a lunch I had three and half years ago with one of the Russian trade attachés,” global trade consultant Edward Goldberg said to me. “After much wine, this gentleman told me that his country was very pleased that the Bush administration wanted to drill in the Alaskan wilderness. In his opinion, the amount of product one could actually derive from there was negligible in terms of needs. However, it signified that the Bush administration was not planning to do anything to create alternative energy, which of course would threaten the economic growth of Russia.”

  

Rebuilding America

Under George W. Bush we’ve wasted billions of dollars on a war in Iraq, while we’ve ignore our economy and infrastructure at home. The world is moving forward, but we’re going backwards.

Tom Friedman went to China during the Olympics, and he was struck by incredible progress made by the Chinese in such a short period of time. Meanwhile, we’re asleep at the switch.

The difference is starting to show. Just compare arriving at La Guardia’s dumpy terminal in New York City and driving through the crumbling infrastructure into Manhattan with arriving at Shanghai’s sleek airport and taking the 220-mile-per-hour magnetic levitation train, which uses electromagnetic propulsion instead of steel wheels and tracks, to get to town in a blink.

Then ask yourself: Who is living in the third world country?

Yes, if you drive an hour out of Beijing, you meet the vast dirt-poor third world of China. But here’s what’s new: The rich parts of China, the modern parts of Beijing or Shanghai or Dalian, are now more state of the art than rich America. The buildings are architecturally more interesting, the wireless networks more sophisticated, the roads and trains more efficient and nicer. And, I repeat, they did not get all this by discovering oil. They got it by digging inside themselves.

I realize the differences: We were attacked on 9/11; they were not. We have real enemies; theirs are small and mostly domestic. We had to respond to 9/11 at least by eliminating the Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan and investing in tighter homeland security. They could avoid foreign entanglements. Trying to build democracy in Iraq, though, which I supported, was a war of choice and is unlikely to ever produce anything equal to its huge price tag.

But the first rule of holes is that when you’re in one, stop digging. When you see how much modern infrastructure has been built in China since 2001, under the banner of the Olympics, and you see how much infrastructure has been postponed in America since 2001, under the banner of the war on terrorism, it’s clear that the next seven years need to be devoted to nation-building in America.

We need to finish our business in Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible, which is why it is a travesty that the Iraqi Parliament has gone on vacation while 130,000 U.S. troops are standing guard. We can no longer afford to postpone our nation-building while Iraqis squabble over whether to do theirs.

A lot of people are now advising Barack Obama to get dirty with John McCain. Sure, fight fire with fire. That’s necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Obama got this far because many voters projected onto him that he could be the leader of an American renewal. They know we need nation-building at home now — not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in Georgia, but in America. Obama cannot lose that theme.

He cannot let Republicans make this election about who is tough enough to stand up to Russia or bin Laden. It has to be about who is strong enough, focused enough, creative enough and unifying enough to get Americans to rebuild America. The next president can have all the foreign affairs experience in the world, but it will be useless, utterly useless, if we, as a country, are weak.

  

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