Thursday, April 18, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: Dangerous Progressive

Margaret Thatcher was a conservative. She saw socialism (even in its democratic, parliamentary form) as a threat to individual freedom. My stating of the obvious has a purpose, which is to make clear that, headline notwithstanding, I am not about to diminish the late British prime minister by treating her as my personal Rorschach test, imputing to her principles that she did not, in fact, espouse.

But, that said, by contemporary American standards the Margaret Thatcher of the 1980s was a progressive: on the environment, on healthcare, and on market regulation she was quite liberal (in the U.S. sense of the word). Thatcher’s stances on these three issues show how far to the Right the center of political gravity has shifted. Nowadays, a candidate with her principles and policy positions would have a hard time winning the Democratic nomination for President, let alone the Republican one.

Climate Change
“[F]ree markets are a means to an end,” Thatcher said in a speech to the United Nations in 1989, which she commenced with praise for Charles Darwin. “They would defeat their object if by their output they did more damage to the quality of life through pollution than the well-being they achieve by the production of goods and services.” She then demanded international action on climate change, saying “[i]t is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay,” adding that while environmental protection requires economic growth “it must be growth which does not plunder the planet today and leave our children to deal with the consequences tomorrow.” 

The expression "inter-generational responsibility" was not one that likely ever passed her lips, but that is exactly what Thatcher was propounding. Any Republican candidates with the courage to voice to such sensible thoughts today, with or without a laudatory reference to Charles Darwin, would have to brace themselves for the Tea Party hordes, torches and pitchforks in hand.

Margaret Thatcher accepted the need for the National Health Service (NHS) and, while ever hopeful of establishing “internal markets” within the NHS, never questioned the legitimacy of a publicly-funded healthcare system. In 1982 she told the Conservative Party conference “[t]he principle that adequate health care should be provided for all, regardless of ability to pay, must be the foundation of any arrangements for financing the Health Service.” The following year in Edinburgh she declared, “I have no more intention of dismantling the National Health Service than I have of dismantling Britain’s defenses.” And it wasn’t all talk.  Margaret Thatcher’s governments devoted an increasing share of public spending to the NHS, rising from approximately 10% in 1980 to around 12% in 1989, tracking the percentages that went to defense in the same period.

It is hard to imagine even a moderate Republican (something that is, in itself, increasingly hard to imagine) proclaiming fealty to the principle of publicly-funded healthcare for all. What more flamboyant form of hari kiri could there be than for a contemporary conservative in the United States to stand before the Republican party faithful and not only equate healthcare with the national defense, but also to agree that a civilized society should fund both through taxation?

Margaret Thatcher deregulated the financial sector, most famously via the Big Bang reforms of 1986, thereby creating the conditions that gave rise to the subprime debacle and meltdown 20-odd years later. That may be a truism, but is it true? In a recent articlePhilip Booth, program director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, reminds us what really happened during Thatcher's premiership:
"[I]n general, the 1980s was not a period of financial deregulation. Insider trading was made illegal in 1980. The life insurance industry, which had been almost free of regulation for over 100 years from 1870, was re-regulated from 1980 to 1982. Bank deposit insurance was introduced in 1979. The sale of investment and insurance products came under statutory regulation from 1986. Further, the first ever regulation of UK bank capital took place under Basel I, agreed while Thatcher was Prime Minister."
Failing as they do to align with the myth, perhaps the facts as Booth presents them are so discomfiting to Left and Right alike that they will remain conveniently out of sight and mind. Margaret Thatcher exercising oversight and setting limits on the financial sector is an image that triggers cognitive dissonance among both her supporters and detractors. Far easier, for current purposes, to remember Thatcher as a cartoon conservative, a free-market buccaneer hacking and slashing at the remains of the welfare state while dancing around a bonfire of regulatory red tape. If we choose to remember her a laissez-faire warrior, the scourge of the public sector, then the cabal that currently controls the congressional Republican Party looks comfortingly normal.

How much more challenging and chilling to recall the reality of Margaret Thatcher's policies -- her respect for climate science, commitment to universal public healthcare, and refusal to give speculators free rein -- that would mark her out to today's Republicans as an unelectable outcast. For that matter, how well would Thatcher's policy statements play in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, sounding as they do more like Bernie Sanders than Barack Obama? It is a measure of how narrow the political spectrum has become when we can ponder the Iron Lady's legacy and say, "Margaret Thatcher: dangerous progressive."

Monday, April 8, 2013

Out of the frying pan, etc.

Goodbye coal, and hello natural gas. Consistent with a nationwide trend, the Pioneer Valley looks set to replace one fossil-fueled power station with another. GDF Suez's coal-burning plant at Mount Tom in Holyoke seems poised to close in the next few years, by which point a 400 megawatt natural-gas-fired facility will have come online 15 miles to the southwest in Westfield.

When GDF Suez finally stops burning coal at Mount Tom, we will all breathe more easily (literally). But there are two reasons to hold in that sigh of relief for the time being: water and the climate. A new natural-gas plant would have big implications for drinking water in the area. And it would do nothing to reduce the state's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while increasing our dependence on fracking.

The company proposing the Westfield power station -- Pioneer Valley Energy Center -- expects that the new plant's cooling towers will need up to two million gallons of water per day. Where will it find all that water? From the Tighe-Carmody Reservoir in Southampton, which is owned and operated by the City of Holyoke. How much wastewater will the plant expel? About a quarter of a million gallons per day.

To put those amounts in context, the average family in the U.S. uses about 300 gallons of water per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. So every day of the week, the new power station would withdraw as much water as 6,600 families would use and discharge enough to account for about 800 families. In addition to wasting water, building yet another gas-fired plant will exacerbate the climate crisis.

About half of the electricity we generate in Massachusetts comes from natural gas, and because we don't extract it here (not yet, anyway) the power companies have to pipe it in from other parts of the country and Canada. For an overview of the pipeline network click here. Over the next 25 years or so, the Energy Information Administration is projecting that a steadily increasing proportion of our natural gas will come from shale formations. Extracting natural gas from shale requires hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

So what is the alternative to the Westfield gas-fired plant? One option is to keep generating energy at Mount Tom: clean energy.

Saying goodbye to coal should not mean bidding farewell to GDF Suez. If we can keep the company here, we will have a unique opportunity to transform Mount Tom site into a showcase for renewable-energy innovation. At a recent public meeting in Holyoke, Senator Michael Knapik said his legislative task force would welcome ideas to present to GDF Suez. Spending some of the company's €231 million research-and-innovation budget in the Pioneer Valley would be a good start. Located on the Connecticut River, surrounded by farmland, and in the heart of the Five College Area, the Mount Tom site would make an ideal home for a renewable-energy research facility focusing on hydro power, micro-hydro, and anaerobic digestion.  

Thanks to the current pause in global temperature rises, policymakers in Massachusetts and across the world may have just enough time to make the changes necessary to stave off climate catastrophe. But if we replace the coal-burning plant at Mount Tom with a gas-fired plant in Westfield, our regional CO2e emissions will remain constant or even rise while our methane emissions will increase. Electricity users in the Pioneer Valley may no longer feel quite so complicit in the disregard that Colombian mine-owners show for the lives of the miners who dig the coal (see blog post January 26, 2011); instead we can shoulder more responsibility for the fracking that makes projects like Westfield economically feasible. 

A group called Westfield Concerned Citizens has been leading the fight against the new gas-fired plant. On Thursday, May 23, at 7:00 p.m., they and local Greens are hosting a public meeting at the Westfield Athenaeum to rally opposition and present practical, clean-energy alternatives including solar, net-metering, and opting in to the Green Communities Act. So if you live in Western Massachusetts, please mark your calendar and come along.