The 5 Questions That American Politics Must Resolve

What if I told you that we could solve a lot of problems in American politics if we answered just 5 questions? What if I told you that we could have a much more peaceable, civilized, and rational discourse about our government if we got to the bottom of those questions? Would you be interested in hearing them?

Here’s the catch: these 5 questions are really hard. In fact, I myself do not know the answer to any of them. But if Americans are going to make any progress, we must grapple with these questions because what really divides people goes much deeper than any particular candidate or even any particular political party. So even though I doubt any of us can find a neat answer to these questions, I am presenting them here for you to consider.

1. How Responsible Are Criminals For Their Own Actions?

We know that about half of all prison inmates have a mental health diagnosis. The new chief of mental health for New York City’s prison system has stated that nearly every patient she saw had experienced a broken and abusive childhood. Not everybody in the prison system is mentally ill, but it is clearly a significant component in many crimes.

On the other hand, the vast majority of mentally ill people simply suffer with their condition without hurting anybody else. And a lot of these mentally ill inmates have committed horrible crimes. Their victims deserve some measure of justice, too.

So at what point do we recognize prisoners are often products of their background while at the same time holding them accountable for their actions?

2. How Much of Our Earnings Do We Deserve (and How Much Did We Really Earn?)

We know from various studies in that in the United States, the best predictor of your personal success is the background of your parents. If your parents went to college, you probably will too. If they went to a Top 10 College, your chances of getting into one dramatically increases.

Of course, most would say that doing well in school has to do with character traits. But how inherent are those traits? Am I a hard worker because that’s the way I am or is it because I was lucky enough to be born to parents who taught me the value of hard work? If my intelligence is at least partially due to my genetics, then is it fair for me to earn more money as a result?

If my wealth is due at least in part to luck and the privileged background I was born into, then is it ok to tax my income and give it to other people who are less fortunate?

3. Is Making More Information Available Always a Good Thing?

When we talk about the tug between hiding information or making it available, we are usually referring to government and corporate secrecy. The question of how much information the government should share with the public is its own thorny problem, but I’m asking a much broader question: does having more information always lead us to make better decisions?

Consider medical studies. You once had to go to a specialized library to read them, but now a lot of them are available online to anybody with an internet connection. That has undoubtedly improved a lot of lives, but it has also allowed people to selectively cite evidence in order to assert that vaccines cause autism.

I’m not saying we should institute a censorship regime or make information hidden from the public. Those would be terrible ideas. But whereas people once dreamed that the rise of the internet would lead to people making better decisions due to more widely available information, we now know that’s not true at all. Is it enough to just release information and trust people to figure it out? Do we need to also release interpretations to guide how people receive this information and think about it?

4. When Should We Let People Make Their Own Choices?

Your first reaction upon reading that question was probably, “Everybody should always be allowed to make their own choices. Duh.” But stop and think about that for a second. How far are you willing to take that belief?

We don’t allow people choose an attorney without a legal education to represent them in court. It doesn’t matter how much research the person has done, how carefully they have considered the ramifications of their decision, or how much time they’ve spent weighing costs and benefits. People are allowed to represent themselves in court, but if they are going to have a representative, that person must have a law degree and have good standing in the bar association. We’ve placed this restriction because an incompetent lawyer can do enormous damage to their client.

Similarly, we require that all prescription drugs should undergo clinical trials and be approved by the FDA. We don’t expect that patients will do their own research on a drug, find out its effects, and then make a decision for themselves about what medications to take.

There are certain kinds of complicated investments that members of the general public are not allowed to invest in. That’s because they are so complicated that most people can’t understand them and therefore they cannot properly understand the risk they are taking on.

But if that’s the case, then why do we allow people to choose their own health insurance policy? If you think about it, a health insurance policy is very much like a financial instrument. Choosing the ideal policy for yourself involves making a risk assessment about the future and then evaluating the monetary value of various insurance options to figure out what has the best chance of reducing your financial exposure. Do we really think most Americans are going to be good at making that decision?

Where I live, people can choose which company supplies electricity to them. You would think this is a good idea, but it has led to a lot of scams as power suppliers promise one thing and then hide a lot of costs in fine print. Is it really such a bad idea to just let some appointed panel of experts make that decision for us?

5. Do You Always Know What’s Best For Yourself?

Modern cognitive science tells us that humans are pretty bad at figuring things out. We are prone to react on an emotional level instead of figuring things out dispassionately. We make really weird risk assessments such as being frightened of terrorism or violent crime while not being terribly concerned about automobile accidents. When presented with a change that will make our lives better, we usually gripe about how that change disrupts our routine or makes our lives worse in one way while completely ignoring how that change makes us measurably better.

What’s even worse: we’re all hard-wired to think that we are completely rational. We don’t like to think of ourselves as relatively foolish animals who stumble around the world guided by instincts and primal emotions.

This is one reason why a lot of decisions in the American government is made by appointed experts and bureaucrats who are largely unknown to the public. When it comes time to decide whether we should adapt one particular broadcast spectrum standard or another, we don’t put that up to a vote. We let some duly appointed experts make that decision for us and mostly go along with it.

But if you take this too far, you end up with paternalism and policies such as banning large sugary drinks. There’s no doubt that a soda ban would make all of our lives better, but we have decided that as a moral principle, we won’t allow the government to make that decision.

So the question is where do we draw the line?

GamerGate Died Just Like Occupy Wall Street

It began as a seemingly spontaneous uprising, startling the establishment and gathering a popularity that nobody expected. Its participants were fueled by a righteous sense of justice and communicated with each other using social media in ways that observers hadn’t anticipated. For a while, they were all the talk of the town, and there were pundits in the media who openly speculated that this movement would lead to a permanent change. And then, slowly but surely, the momentum died down, the press started paying less attention, and the participants dispersed except for a dedicated core group. A few years later, hardly anybody talks about it, and no actual change has come out of all the noise and fury.

This was the story of Occupy Wall Street, and a few years from now, it will be the story of GamerGate. Not too long ago, the front pages of many traditional newspapers as well as blogs and social media were posting new stories about GamerGate on a daily basis. Now it’s already pretty clearly dead, having accomplished nothing that anybody can discern. The unofficial motto of the movement, “It’s about ethics in videogame journalism,” is now more likely to be used as a sarcastic punchline than a sincere wish. To understand what happened, I think it will be useful to look at how Occupy Wall Street started with a similar bang and then slowly collapsed in upon itself.

Continue reading “GamerGate Died Just Like Occupy Wall Street”

Whoa…What Happened Here?

I was not a big fan of California State Senator Leland Yee. If you know him at all, it is probably because he kept trying to censor videogames. I always thought he was merely uninformed and misguided. And I did think he was doing the right thing when he tried to investigate whether a university was overpaying Sarah Palin to give a speech.

But now comes news that he has arrested and charged with bribery and corruption. And not just any old bribery and corruption. He struck deals to illegally import weapons.

Yes, he’s technically innocent until proven guilty, but the evidence against him sounds extensive including discussions with undercover FBI agents. I haven’t thought about Leland Yee in several years, so I can’t even begin to understand what’s going on with him or how long he’s been engaged in this activity. All I can say is: wow. Who’d have thought?

Senator Dianne Feinstein Speaks on Iran

Very few people seem to have taken notice of a speech that Senator Dianne Feinstein gave on the floor of the Senate about Iran sanctions. I think that’s a shame because it’s a pretty amazing speech, particularly since she is normally considered on the hawkish side of the Democratic party. Fortunately, the Congressional Record has a transcript of her speech, so I’m going to reproduce it here without any further comment. You can also watch the C-SPAN video below.

I come to the floor this evening to discuss an issue of national security, and that is how to prevent a nuclear armed Iran.I was thinking about our troubled history with Iran and whether more sanctions at this time makes sense for our national security interests, and I asked myself these questions:

Can, in fact, a country like Iran change?

Is it possible for an isolated regime to rejoin the community of nations and change its behavior after several decades?

Must a country and its people be held captive because of the behavior of pre- vious leaders in earlier times?

So I thought back in history. I was a young girl during World War II. I re- member when Imperial Japan killed millions in Southeast Asia, and particularly in China, during its brutal wars of expansion. Today, Japan is a peaceful democracy and one of this Nation’s strongest allies in Asia.

I remember when Hitler and the Ger- man Third Reich committed unspeakable atrocities across Europe, including the murder of 6 million Jewish citizens. Germany is now a close ally, a leader in the European Union, an institution created to ensure a war never again oc- curs in Europe.

I remember General Franco’s Spain, which was so diplomatically and economically isolated that it was actually barred from the United Nations until 1955. Spain is now a close partner of the United States and a fully democratic member of the European Union.

The former Yugoslavia, Vietnam, and South Africa have all experienced tremendous change in recent decades. Independent states have emerged from the painful dissolution of Yugoslavia. Vietnam has opened itself to the international community but still has much progress to make. South Africa has shed apartheid and has emerged as an increasingly stable nation on a much divided continent.

So I believe countries can change. This capacity to change also applies to the pursuit of nuclear weapons. At one time, Sweden, South Korea, and Argentina each pursued nuclear weapons.

Following World War II, Sweden pur- sued nuclear weapons to deter foreign attack. It mastered nuclear technology and built and tested components for a nuclear weapon. It may have even obtained enough nuclear material to build a bomb. But in 1970, it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and it ended its nuclear weapon program.

In the early 1970s, South Korea actively sought a nuclear device. The United States heavily pressured South Korea not to go nuclear, and in April 1975, South Korea signed the non- proliferation treaty and halted its nuclear weapons activity.

Throughout the 1980s, when it was ruled by a military junta with an egregious human rights record, Argentina had a covert nuclear weapons program. It built uranium production, enrichment, and reprocessing facilities, and it attempted to develop nuclear-capable ballistic missiles before abandoning its nuclear weapons program and ratifying the NPT in 1995.

So the question comes, is Iran willing to change its past behavior and aban- don its pursuit of a nuclear weapon? It may well be, and it is the job of diplomacy to push for that change.

I believe there are positive signs that Iran is interested in such a change, and I would like to explain my reasons.

The election of Hassan Rouhani was a surprise to many long-time observers of Iran because he campaigned in sup- port of repairing Iran’s relationship with the West.

Since his inauguration he has tried to do exactly that. For the first time since the Iranian revolution, the leaders of our countries have been in direct communication with each other. Where once direct contact even between senior officials was rare, now Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman are in near constant contact with their Iranian counterparts. Those conversations produced the historic Geneva agreement which goes into effect in 6 days, on January 20.

Candidate Rouhani also promised to increase nuclear transparency, and he has delivered on that as well. Even before the Geneva interim agreement was reached, Iran slowed uranium enrichment and construction for the Arak heavy water reactor—maybe for technical reasons, maybe not, but it slowed. Iran has also reengaged with the IAEA to resolve questions surrounding its nuclear activities.

So what has been achieved in Geneva? The interim 6-month agreement reached between the P5+1 countries, the United States, China, Russia, the UK, France, Germany, freezes Iran’s nuclear program in place while a com- prehensive agreement is negotiated in the next 6 months. This agreement caps Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium at 5 percent. It stops the production of 20 percent enriched uranium. It requires the neutralization of Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent uranium. It prevents Iran from installing additional centrifuges or operating its most advanced centrifuges. It prohibits it from stockpiling excess centrifuges. It halts all significant work at the Arak heavy water reactor and prevents Iran from constructing a plutonium reprocessing facility.

Most importantly, the interim agreement imposes the most intrusive inter- national inspection regime ever. International inspectors will independently verify whether Iran is complying with the interim agreement. For the first time, the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will have uninterrupted access to Iran’s enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, centrifuge production plants, centrifuge assembly facilities, and Iran’s uranium mines and mills. Finally, Iran is re- quired to declare all planned new nu- clear facilities.

In exchange, the P5+1 negotiators offered sanctions relief limited to $7 bil- lion, an aspect of the interim agreement that has been criticized and I wish to talk about it for a moment.

Here are the facts on that sanctions relief which, in my view, does not materially alter the biting sanctions which have devastated Iran’s economy. The vast majority of sanctions relief comes in the form of Iranian repatriation of $4.2 billion of its own money. Iran will continue to lose $4 billion to $5 billion a month in lost oil revenue from existing sanctions. Iran will not have access to about $100 billion of its own reserves trapped by sanctions abroad.

For perspective, the total estimated sanctions relief is valued at approximately only 1 percent of the Iranian economy, hardly a significant amount.

I wish to take a moment to detail what is not in the interim agreement. First, it does not grant Iran a right to enrich. The United States does not recognize such a right for the five non-nuclear weapons states that currently have enrichment programs, and we will make no exception for Iran. But Iran does have a right to peaceful nuclear energy if it fully abides by the terms of its safeguards agreement under the NPT.

Secondly, the agreement does not in any way unravel our core oil and financial sanctions. Others have argued the suspension of any sanctions against Iran will unravel the entire sanctions regime, and that is false. The Obama administration has taken action to ensure that does not happen.

Two days after the interim agreement was reached, the United States settled with a Swiss Oil Services Company over sanctions violations. The settlement was more than $250 million. It was the largest against a foreign firm outside of the banking industry.

On December 12, the administration announced the expansion of Iranian entities subject to sanctions. These entities either helped Tehran evade sanctions or provided support to Iran’s nu- clear program.

On January 7 of this year, the administration halted the transfer of two Boeing airplane engines from Turkey to Iran. Through these actions, the Obama administration has made it abundantly clear that the United States will continue to enforce our existing sanctions against Iran.

Third, the agreement does not codify the violation of U.N. security resolutions. Critics have attacked the interim agreement for its failure to completely halt all of Iran’s nuclear enrichment by noting that six U.N. Security Council Resolutions have called on Tehran to do so and it has not done so.

The purpose of the U.N. Resolutions was not to suspend nuclear enrichment indefinitely. Instead, these resolutions were designed to freeze Iran’s nuclear activities until the IAEA could determine whether Iran’s activities were for exclusively peaceful purposes.

This is an important point. The interim agreement achieves what the six U.N. Security Council Resolutions could not. It freezes Iran’s nuclear progress while a comprehensive, verifiable agreement is being negotiated over the next 6 months.

The interim agreement was only possible because a strong international sanctions regime has worked to convince rank-and-file Iranians, candidly, that enough is enough.

According to the State Department, as a result of the sanctions, Iran’s crude oil exports have plummeted from approximately 2.5 million barrels per day in 2011 to around 1 million barrels per day in recent months. This decline alone costs Iran $3 billion to $5 billion per month in lost revenue.

In total, 23 nations who import Iranian oil have eliminated or significantly reduced purchases from Iran. In fact, Iran currently has only six customers for its oil: China, India, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.

In the last year, Iran’s gross domestic product shrunk by 5.8 percent. Its GDP shrunk in 1 year by 5.8 percent, while inflation is estimated to be 50 percent or more.

Prices for food and consumer goods are doubling and tripling on an annual basis, and estimates put unemployment as high as 35 percent while under-employment is pervasive.

This is why Iran says enough is enough. The sanctions are biting and they are biting deeply, and there is no need to put additional sanctions on the table at this time.

This body may soon consider the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act; that is, a bill to do exactly the opposite, to impose additional sanctions against Iran, do it now, and hold it in abeyance.

Before casting a vote, Senators should ask themselves what would happen if the bill passes and a promised veto by the President is not sustained. I would like to give my view.

I sincerely believe the P5+1 negotia- tions with Iran would end and, with it, the best opportunity in more than 30 years to make a major change in Iranian behavior—a change that could not only open all kinds of economic opportunities for the Iranian people, but help change the course of a nation. Its destiny in fact could be changed.

Passing additional sanctions now would only play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see diplomacy fail. Iranian conservatives, hardliners, will attack President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif for seeking a nuclear compromise.

They will argue that Iran exchanged a freeze of its nuclear program for ad- ditional and harsh punitive sanctions. Think about that. They will say that Iran did not achieve anything with this agreement. All we got were more sanctions.

Second, if the United States cannot honor an interim agreement negotiated in Geneva by Russia, China, France, Germany, the UK and ourselves—we are not alone in this—it will never lift sanctions after a final agreement is reached.

Above all, they will argue that the United States is not interested in nuclear diplomacy—we are interested in regime change.

The bottom line: If this body passes S. 1881, diplomatic negotiations will collapse, and there will be no final agreement.

Some might want that result, but I do not.

Iran’s nuclear program would once again be unrestrained, and the only remaining option to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon would be military action. I do not want that unless it is absolutely necessary.

To date, the prospect of just considering this bill has prompted Iranian legislators to consider retaliation. There is talk that the legislative branch, called the Majles, may move to increase nuclear enrichment far beyond the 5-percent limit in the interim agreement and much closer to, if not achieving, weapons-grade uranium.

So the authors of additional sanctions in this body and Iranian hardliners in the other body would actually combine to blow up the diplo- matic effort of 6 major powers.

The bill’s sponsors have argued that sanctions would strengthen the United State’s hand in negotiations. They argue that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. They contend that additional sanctions would force Iran to abandon its nuclear program.

I could not disagree more.

Let me give the views of a few other people who are knowledgeable in the arena: Dr. Paul Pillar, a former U.S. intelligence official and current professor at Georgetown University recently argued:

It is the prospect of having U.S.-led sanctions removed that will convince Iran to accept severe restrictions on its nuclear program. Threatening Iran with additional sanctions now—after it has agreed to the interim agreement and an interim agreement is about to go into effect—will not convince Tehran to complete a final agreement.

I couldn’t agree more.

If this bill would help our negotiators, as its authors contend, they would say so.

I believe this bill is an egregious imposition on the Executive’s authority to conduct foreign affairs. In fact, our Secretary of State has formally asked this Congress to give our negotiators and our experts the time and space to do their jobs, including no new sanctions.

What does this body say, sitting here? We are not going to do that? This is a Secretary of State who is of this body, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has been absolutely prodigious in his efforts to get this interim agreement, has gotten it, and we are going to run the risk that it is going to break apart during the next 6 months when a final agreement might well be negotiated?

If the Senate imposes its will, if we override the President’s veto, and it blows up this very fragile process, some would say: Too bad, what a tragedy.

We know what the Iranian reaction will be. The Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, who I happen to have known for a substantial period of time, has clearly stated what the result will be in five words, and it is this: ‘‘The entire deal is dead.’’

That is his direct quote. Why wouldn’t we take him at his word? So far he has been good to his word.

The ambassador of our staunchest ally, the UK, warned this body not to pass more sanctions. Sir Peter Westmacott recently wrote:

Further sanctions now would only hurt negotiations and risk eroding international support for the sanctions that have brought us this far. The time for additional measures will come if Iran reneges on the deal or negotiations fail. Now is not that time.

I deeply believe that a vote for this legislation will cause negotiations to collapse. The United States, not Iran, then becomes the party that risks fracturing the international coalition that has enabled our sanctions to succeed in the first place.

It says to the UK, China, Russia, France, and Germany that our country cannot be trusted to stand behind our diplomatic commitments. That is a very big statement.

Our allies will question whether their compliance with sanctions and the eco- nomic sacrifices they have made are for naught.

Should these negotiations fall apart, the choices are few and the most likely result, in my view, is the eventual and inevitable use of military force.

So I ask this body, Is that the choice we want to make? In 6 days the ten- tative agreement will go into place. We want to pass this? We don’t even want to wait and see what happens?

We don’t even want to wait and see what the IAEA finds when they are in there 24–7, 365 days a year?

I think what we ought to do is concentrate on Iranian compliance with the interim agreement.

On January 20, 2014, this agreement comes into effect, 6 days from now, and over the next 6 months the international community will be able to verify whether or not Iran is keeping its commitments to freeze its nuclear progress.

If Iran fails to abide by the terms of the interim agreement, or if a final agreement cannot be negotiated, Congress can immediately consider additional sanctions.

I deeply believe that additional sanctions should only be considered once our diplomatic track has been given the opportunity to forge a final, comprehensive, and binding agreement.

This is what is most distressing. If we had not reached an agreement, with the cooperation and leadership of the big powers of this world, that would be one thing. The fact is we have reached agreement and that action is just about to take place, and we are going to jaundice it, we are going to hurt it, and we are likely to collapse it by passing additional sanctions now which a President of the United States will veto with the aim of overriding that veto.

How does that make any kind of common sense? It defies logic, it threatens instant reverse, and it ends what has been unprecedented diplomacy. Do we want to take that on our shoulders? Candidly, in my view, it is a march toward war.

As Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I know the challenges Iran poses to U.S. interests around the world.

As I said, as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, I know the challenges Iran poses to the U.S. interests around the world. Its patronage of the terrorist group Hezbollah, its support for Syria’s Bashar Assad through the Revolutionary Guard Corps are two of the most troubling.

I would hope that as a followthrough of diplomacy we might be able to quell some of these activities.

Let me acknowledge Israel’s real, well-founded concerns that a nuclear- armed Iran would threaten its very existence. I don’t disagree with that. I agree with it, but they are not there yet.

While I recognize and share Israel’s concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war. By stating that the United States should provide military support to Israel in a formal resolution should it attack Iran, I fear that is how this bill is going to be interpreted.

Let me conclude. The interim agreement with Iran is strong, it is tough, and it is realistic. It represents the first significant opportunity to change a three-decade course in Iran and an opening to improve one of our most poisonous bilateral relationships. It could open the door to a new future which not only considers Israel’s national security, but protects our own.

To preserve diplomacy, I strongly oppose the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act.

My Visit to the George W. Bush Library

Cheers to Leland Yee (for once)

Unless you follow California politics very closely, the only reason you would know Leland Yee’s name is because he is a California state senator who went on frequent crusades against videogames. The issue reached its climax in the public mind when California passed an age restriction bill on videogames based on the ESRB. The bill was promptly struck down by the court system. You can read my analysis of a similar bill from Minnesota and the reasons it was found unconstitutional here.

The reason I’m posting now, though, has nothing to do with videogames. Rather, it’s because I noticed a story floating around that Leland Yee has been poking into a public university’s finances and has gotten hate mail for trying to find out the terms of Sarah Palin’s speaking contract. Contrary to what you might expect, this isn’t a public hit job on Sarah Palin. Rather, Leland Yee appears to be merely digging into the budget of Stanislau State University to find out how much they are paying Sarah Palin (who reportedly pulls a six-figure speaking fee). You can read a bit more about that story here. And I think this is a commendable thing. Regardless of one’s personal view of Sarah Palin, a state senator is well within his rights to want to know how a university funded by taxpayer dollars is spending that money and to ask whether a six-figure speaking fee for a politician is really the best use of resources. Before I get flamed, I know that the situation is a little more complicated than that, but it still boils down to the same issue. Stanislau State University in California is funded by the taxpayer and a state senator rightfully wants to know if paying for someone’s speaker fees is going to impact the education of students.

This story is one of those occasional reminders that people it is possible to agree with someone on some issues, disagree on other issues, and still not know much about personal character. I don’t know Leland Yee. And for all I know, he may be picking this fight in order to grandstand. What I do know is that he had a pet crusade on which he was wrong, he sponsored an unconstitutional bill, and he made a fool of himself in the eyes of many people in my generation. And now I also know that he is taking on a political task that I agree with and that I think any responsible citizen should agree with. Good for him.

Scones and Crumpets with Chris Van Hollen

Some of you have been asking me about the hecklers who showed up at the town hall with Chris Van Hollen (most of whom I would assume are self-identified Tea Party activists). I refrained from talking about them in my previous post for two reasons:

1. I was trying to give a comprehensive account of the event. I could report almost every word that Chris Van Hollen spoke, but by their very nature, I wasn’t going to catch every single outburst from the audience.

2. They just weren’t that interesting. If you are looking for some good stories, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.

I am not going to pretend to be an absolutely neutral and impartial observer. Anybody reading through my blog will know that I am not very sympathetic to the causes of the Tea Party movement. So with that said, here’s my long-winded summary and analysis of the debate between Chris Van Hollen and the Tea Party activists at his town hall on Monday.

Continue reading “Scones and Crumpets with Chris Van Hollen”

An Evening with Congressman Chris Van Hollen

Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat representing Maryland’s 8th District, is my Congressman. He is also a graduate of Swarthmore, my alma mater. So when he held a town hall meeting tonight, naturally I had to go. The town hall started with Congressman Van Hollen giving some remarks for about a half hour and then a lengthy (over two hours) question and answer period. There were self-proclaimed Tea Party activists there and at least one Lyndon Larouche supporter. Things got a little rowdy from time to time. They didn’t dominate the meeting, though. Somebody in the audience shouted, “Just ask Hitler!” during some question at which point I think the room palpably turned against the Tea Party.

Anyway, below is a quick summary of the questions that were asked to Congressman Van Hollen and his responses. If none of this holds any interest to you, feel free to just skip this post.

Continue reading “An Evening with Congressman Chris Van Hollen”

Greenpeace: You’re not helping

Now that the 2008 elections are over and now that the health care debate has subsided a bit, it’s time for me to get back to writing about games. Well, mostly. This post is still mostly about politics.

As you may have heard, Greenpeace has recently ranked Nintendo dead last in its annual report on 18 consumer electronics companies for the second year in a row. The problem is if you’re like me and you demand to read the actual report, all kinds of problems start cropping up. The report is structured as as sort of report card with several categories in which the companies are scored from “Good” to “Bad.” If you read the actual criticisms of Nintendo, you start to see a problem. Below is a sample of Greenpeace’s criticisms of Nintendo and their justifications for giving the company a low score:

Recycling e-waste:

Bad — Nintendo of America claims a near 100% recycling rate for product returns and repairs in the US, however, information on its take-back programme for obsolete consumer products is not given, neither is there any information on its recycling rate in other parts of the world

Use of recycled plastic content in products – and timelines for increasing content

Bad — No information.

Support for global mandatory reduction of GHG emissions

Bad — It is disappointing that Nintendo has yet to make a statement on the need for mandatory reduction of GHG emissions.

Amount of renewable energy used

Bad — No information given.

Throughout the report, the reader is provided with links to “More information.” However, the link invariably leads you to Nintendo’s corporate website where there is a generalized statement (if any) about its environmental policies. Over and over, Greenpeace knocks Nintendo for not giving enough information about its environmental policies. Now I would certainly agree that transparency is a good thing, but this is not a valid reason to give a company a score of “Bad” in that category. Nor, for that matter, would a statement of such a policy be a valid reason to give the company a “Good” score. The same issues abound for the top-ranked company in the report, Nokia. All of the links in that part of the report lead to Nokia’s website. There is literally zero independent verification or research done on these companies, and as far as I can tell, this report was generated simply by reading corporate websites and taking them at face value. I’m not the only one who thinks this. ArsTechnica had the same problem when they looked at the report back in 2007. And it’s worth noting that a web tool created by the EPA based on actual information (because companies are required to report to the EPA) seems to rank Apple much higher than Greenpeace would.

I’m a supporter of environmental causes. I have given hundreds of dollars last year to certain environmental groups and will do so again this year. I support a carbon tax because I believe it will be even more helpful than the cap and trade system currently being considered by the government. However, I do not consider Greenpeace to be on my side. This easily debunked, lazy reporting by the Greenpeace is useless at best and counter-productive at worst. All they are doing is giving ammunition to critics of the environmental movement and thereby making it harder for the rest of us to effect real change.

And while I’m at it, it’s not helping the cause of videogame journalists that they unquestioningly report press releases from Greenpeace without doing a minimal amount of fact-checking. This is part of the reason why I no longer want to be a journalist of any kind, let alone a gaming journalist.