Welcome

Welcome to my webpage.

My name is Sasha Abramsky. I was born in England in 1972, grew up in London, and studied politics, philosophy, and economics at Balliol College, Oxford. I got my B.A. in 1993 and moved to New York to study journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. I lived in the Big Apple for ten years, before moving to California in 2003. I currently live in Sacramento with my wife and two kids.

I teach writing one day a week at the U.C. Davis writing program, am a fellow at the New York City-based Demos think tank, and spend most of the rest of my work-time reporting and writing magazine articles and books. For the past two years, I have worked on  Voices of Poverty: A Narrative of America’s Poor. It has provided the material for my new book on poverty 21st-century-style, The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives.

Here is the YouTube trailer for the book.

My most recent previous book, Inside Obama’s Brain, was published by Penguin’s Portfolio imprint (December, 2009).

If you want to contact me, my email is: Sabramsky@sbcglobal.net. I am available for speaking engagements.

An in-depth discussion of Inside Obama’s Brain at UC Davis can be seen here.

Here is a video of me speaking about hunger in America on GRITtv:

This video was embedded using the YouTuber plugin by Roy Tanck. Adobe Flash Player is required to view the video.

Sasha's Blog

The Voices of Poverty in America

Originally published Dec. 19, 2011 for Open Society Foundations.

Poverty in the United States is of a staggering scale, and becoming more entrenched by the month. Fifty million Americans live at or below the federally defined poverty line; a similar number survive on food stamps. Tens of millions more hover just above the poverty line, their lives dominated by insecurity, but deemed ineligible for government assistance.

Voices of Poverty was conceived, in conversation with the Open Society Foundations, as a way to tell the stories, in their own voices, of impoverished men, women, and children around America. My aim was to put together an audio archive containing the voices, and stories of America’s invisible poor.

Visitors to the site can listen to a growing audio archive of interviews, exploring many different gradations of poverty, causes for that poverty, and potential solutions to this crisis. Over the coming months and years, the site will grow to include stories from around the country. The site also contains national and statewide poverty data, as well as photographic archives documenting poverty.

As I have traveled around the country these past months, chronicling stories of hardship in 2011 America, three things have struck me with particular force:

The first is the sheer loneliness of poverty; the fact that poverty pushes people to the psychological and physical margins of society—isolated from friends and relatives, pushed into dilapidated trailer parks, shanties, or ghettoized public housing, removed from banks and stores, transit systems and cultural institutions. The poor live on society’s scraps—a few dollars in government assistance or charity, donated food, thrift store clothes. They can afford neither transport to venture out of their communities, nor simple luxuries such as movies or a cup of coffee with friends in a café, to vary the routines of their daily lives. Embarrassed by their poverty, many told me that they have essentially withdrawn from all but the most necessary, unavoidable social interactions.

The second thing that struck me is the diversity, the complexity, of poverty. Its causes, and therefore its potential solutions, cannot meaningfully be reduced to a pat list of features. There are people with no high school education who are poor; but there are also university graduates on food bank lines; there are people poor because they have made bad choices, gotten addicted to drugs, burned bridges with friends and family; and then there are people who have never taken a drug in their lives, who have huge social networks, and who still can’t make ends meet. There are people who’ve never held down a job, and others who hold down multiple, but always low-paying, jobs, frequently for some of the most powerful corporations on earth. There are people who have never had a bank account and use payday loans and other predatory lending sources whenever they need access to extra cash; and there are others who, during flusher times, owned huge suburban houses and expensive cars. There are children whose only hot meals are what they are given at school; young adults who have nothing now and never really have had anything earlier in life either; military veterans who have struggled to find a place in civilian life; middle-aged and once-middle-class people falling down the economic ladder as the recession fails to fully lift; and elderly people cascading into destitution as savings evaporate and expected equity in their homes fails to materialize.

Poverty is, in other words, as diverse as is America itself. What the poor have in common, however, is an increasingly hardscrabble existence in a country seemingly unable—or at least unwilling—to come to grips with their collective tragedy.

Yet if the lives of America’s poor are increasingly desperate, the desire to make something of those lives remains a force to be reckoned with. The third thing that struck me in my travels around the country is the sheer resilience of people who, battered by tough economic times, could be excused for thinking life never gives them any breaks. Instead, many of the men and women I talked to were doing everything they could to ensure that their futures would look brighter than their pasts.  They were going to school, taking job training classes, looking for any and every source of income, struggling to make sure that their kids had enough food to eat and little extras to enjoy. It was, in many ways, a humbling, inspiring experience.

Some of these people will, indeed, succeed; they will be the ones who pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. Yet millions of others, despite their best efforts, won’t. The problems confronting America, the scale of the poverty unleashed, is simply too large. They are problems that require tremendous social investments and political imagination. This is America’s challenge-of-the-moment.

In seeing the size of the challenge, my hope is that site visitors will be stimulated to place poverty back where it belongs: full-center in the American political debate. That fifty million Americans live in dire poverty, their economic security shattered, their prospects dim, ought to trigger both outrage and creativity: outrage that such a situation has been allowed to fester, to grow, for so long; creativity in that solutions to these problems have to emerge at every level of society—amongst the political classes, but also at the grassroots; amongst regulators and policy innovators, but also in classrooms, in community credit unions, in union halls and amongst the poor themselves.

The more time I have spent immersing myself in this project, the more I have come to believe that this is a challenge with existential significance. It’s not just about dollars and cents; it’s about our collective values, our priorities, our sense of justice.

Article on hunger in the Daily Beast

The Daily Beast website has a special section today devoted to hunger and the working poor. I have an article, based on my book reporting, in this section.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-11-18/the-new-blue-collar-hungry/

Obama year one

Here’s a link to an article I just posted on the Guardian’s  Comment Is Free website on the first anniversary of Obama’s election to the presidency.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/oct/30/barack-obama-election-anniversary-unemployment-economy 

Medical marijuana reform

A link to my article on today’s Guardian website regarding the Obama administration and marijuana reform.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/oct/21/obama-medical-marijuana-drug-war

Abramsky podcast on Truthdig

Truthdig has just put up a long interview with me about my book.

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20090529_breadline_usa_report/

Breadline USA

Just a quick note to readers. Having written three books on crime and punishment themes, I’ve moved on. My new book is titled Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It.  The title is somewhat self-explanatory… but I’ll explain anyway: It’s the story of modern-day poverty in America, the sort of poverty that hides behind minimum wage and near-minimum wage employment and that effects tens of millions of Americans everyday. When low wages combine with high energy prices, high healthcare costs, housing bubbles followed by housing market implosions, and decades of head-in-the-sand economic policy emanating out of DC, the result is often “food insecurity.” What that means is that many millions of people in the United States worry about where to get their next meal, how to provide adequate nutrition to their children, how to stock their empty pantries.Breadline USA tells these stories. It is part reportage-based, part the story of my own months’-long experiment with low-income living and the impoverished diet that accompanies this.   Breadline USA is published by PoliPoint Press. Its official publication date is June 16th. It’s already available on Amazon. If you read this posting and are interested, please spread the word: on Twitter, FaceBook, etc. And, should you get the urge, perhaps you could go into bookstores and ask for a copy of Breadline USA.  

The Muhammad Ali Moment

My piece in today’s Guardian newspaper:

 

Last week I convinced my editors to let me write a piece on the fabled “Brokered Convention.” To U.S. political junkies born in the past half century, this is a mythic beast, like the unicorn or snow leopard… It might or might not exist, it might or might not be a figment of our imagination. But if it turns out to be real, and if we ever see one, my word… we could all die happy.

 

Back in the day, primaries and caucuses didn’t exist. Instead, party bigwigs gathered in smoky rooms, cut deals, gave and extracted promises… fought each other into bizarre, and lengthy, stalemates. Then, gradually the bigwigs began ceding power: from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, ordinary party members across the country began taking more control over the candidate selection process.

 

By the World War One years, at the backend of a decade of Progressive-era election reform, a sort of comprehensive primary system was in place, albeit one that left tremendous power with the party bosses. Ordinary voters didn’t vote for presidential candidates; instead, they voted for delegates – and the delegates didn’t have to tell their voters upfront, and certainly didn’t have to give cast-iron guarantees, as to which candidate they’d be supporting. And, at least in some states, this is how it would remain into the 1970s.

 

Not surprisingly, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, stalemate was commonplace, as multiple candidates vied for supremacy. Until the onset of televised election coverage, and the rise of a competitive-because-televised primary culture, many leading candidates didn’t even bother to contend the primaries and caucuses, instead relying on unelected delegates – the Superdelegates of their era – or elected-but-uncommitted delegates to end-run the voters and hand them the nomination. In 1924, when the delegates couldn’t agree on a boss-approved man of the moment, the Democrats had to go through an amazing 102 rounds of balloting at their convention before a presidential candidate eventually emerged. Of course, given John W. Davis’s failure to capture the White House that November, one could well argue the sleepless days of head-butting and horse trading were all for naught.

 

The last time the GOP ended up in a convention tussle was in 1948; the Democrats followed four years later, ultimately choosing Adlai Stevenson, one of the best candidates never to be elected president, as their man. Since then, the increasingly frenzied, media-saturated, primary system has worked more efficiently to generate nominees-apparent.

 

Of course, there was the snafu in 1968, when police and anti-war protestors clashed outside the Democratic Party’s convention in downtown Chicago, and Chicago’s Mayor Daley was witnessed hurling anti-Semitic diatribes at Senator Abe Ribicoff, after the senator accused his police of employing Gestapo tactics on the streets outside. But that was the last time a convention produced anything more than staged speeches and smooth coronations.

 

So… back to last week.

 

After Super Tuesday, the odds seemed pretty good that the Democrats would be heading into their convention in Denver this summer without an obvious candidate having emerged from the primary season. My God! The fabled beast seemed about to rise from its lair once more. We’d all have to sit through hours, maybe even days, of highly publicized, even if theoretically backroom, wheeler-dealing. It’d be like Jim Callahan’s beer-and-sandwiches sessions with trade union leaders in England in the 1970s – albeit with 24-hour cable news coverage, and lattes instead of nicotine fueling the all-night gatherings. It’d be like watching for the wisp of white smoke to emerge from the chimney of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, signifying the choice of a new pope. It’d be like… well, you get the idea.

 

A week later, however, I have a new prediction to make. While it’s still possible that neither Obama nor Clinton will head into Denver with quite enough delegates to win outright, my guess is Obama will hit town with a large enough lead, say 250-to-300 delegates out of those directly elected by primary and caucus-goers, that the superdelegates will come around without a fight.

 

Here’s why: with his wins last week, his convincing Potomac primary victories Tuesday, and the likelihood of his winning Hawaii and Wisconsin next week, Obama will head into the March primaries with more declared delegates than Clinton and an unbeaten record nearly a month long. He’s clearly now the front-runner, and that’s a psychological shift of huge proportions. Listen to his speech in Virginia last Saturday and you’ll hear Obama has taken on the oratorical mantle of candidate-designate. He’s invoking history, claiming historical legacies – from Jefferson to Roosevelt to JFK – and he’s daring Clinton to take him down. The longer she’s unable to do so, the less credible her candidacy – which was always based primarily on managing to inculcate a sense of inevitability in the electorate — becomes.

 

It remains to be seen whether there’s as much political substance to Obama as there is image. But, make no mistake about it, that image is astonishingly powerful. In his ability to connect with a mass audience, to shift American culture through the force of his words and the sense of his presence, Obama is showing himself to be a combination of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

 

Watch the Illinois senator speak in a setting like the Virginia gathering last week, and you’re watching the Muhammad Ali of modern politics. Here’s a man who can make the most violent of sports beautiful, who can tease his opponents, dance with them, and then suddenly come through with a series of counter-punches devastating in their power.

 

Hillary Clinton’s good, but she’s not that good. Mano e mano, she’ll lose the PR game every time against Obama. And the longer she loses, the harder it will be for her to score those must-win landslide victories in Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania.

 

My prediction? After Tuesday’s wins, the nomination is Obama’s to lose. If he doesn’t screw up dramatically over the next two months, he’ll open up enough of a lead in the delegate count, and carry with him a large enough majority of the states, to make his nomination all but a formality.

 

Sure, in theory the superdelegates could hand the nomination to Clinton. But why would they? They might like her, they might owe both Bill and Hillary favors, but at the end of the day they like power. And nominating a candidate who has been outpolled and outperformed would be a surefire way to lose the election come November.

 

So, no real brokered convention. Oh well… there’s always next time.

Edwards for Labor Secretary, Anderson for Green Czar.

A slightly modified version of some suggestions I made in a recent piece for the Guardian:

 

Nevada’s Democratic caucus last week and South Carolina’s Democratic primary today mean two things: firstly, enough people now consider the Democratic race to be two-person affair that Edwards is rapidly devolving into a sideshow. He still may score moderately well in at least some of the secret-ballot primaries over coming weeks, but he’s not going to be the nominee. And that’s somewhat ironic, given that his economic message seems to be becoming more relevant by the minute, as stock markets around the world shrivel and the U.S. mortgage crisis grows.

 

Second,  while Obama’s clearly the man of the moment, Nevada’s results show that Clinton is a durable candidate. This one’s going down to the wire. And that means that both leading candidates sooner or later are going to have to start wooing Edwards and other leading national players, hoping to cast themselves as the person most capable not just of winning delegates but of building a durable campaign going into the November election.

 

Now the race is on for February 5th, when 22 states vote, including almost all of the states of the West. Indeed the idea of February 5th was initially a brainchild of Western political figures, who hoped to boost the region’s influence by creating a regional super-primary. Both parties are voting in Arizona, California, Colorado and Utah. Republicans are voting in Montana. Democrats are voting in New Mexico and Idaho.

 

With California the largest prize, and with much of the West now gravitating westwards (as I’ve talked about in earlier pieces) rather than eastward or southward in the broader regional alliances the states make, the candidates’ campaigns are looking westward … even to areas which will be remarkably non-competitive in the actual November election.

 

That’s particularly true in Utah, the most Republican state in the union. Only 26 percent voted for Kerry in 2004, and according to Quinn Monson, assistant director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, in the ultra-conservative Utah town of Provo, since 1982 Democrats have never captured the allegiance of more than 30 percent of Utah voters. In 1992, when Ross Perot was a third-party candidate, Bill Clinton came in third in Utah, the only state in the country where he polled third. Voters here are extremely religious – a great many of them members of the Mormon church of Latter Day Saints; they are concerned with the so-called morals “wedge issues” used so effectively by Republicans in recent years; and they tend to support an assertive, aggressive foreign policy. Monson’s polling data shows that fully one third of Utahans view themselves as being on the most conservative end of the Republican Party spectrum.

 

In 2008, those voters will almost certainly come out in strong numbers for any Republican candidate, though perhaps even more so if the candidate ends up being Mitt Romney, who lived in Park City, Utah – the home of the (currently underway) Sundance Film Festival – for years, and who shares the Mormon faith with his fellow Utahans.

 

Yet Utah isn’t monolithically conservative, and there are plenty of Democrats around who will turn out for the primary. Until January 7, when his term ran out, Mayor Rocky Anderson ran Salt Lake City, a mid-size city of 200,000 people, on a radically progressive platform. He implemented the Kyoto Protocol, on a local level, and became one of the stars of the international climate control scene in the process. He rejigged the way the city dealt with drug users, so more people went into treatment rather than jails and prisons. He promoted anti-sprawl growth policies, and invested heavily in public transit. He used his platform to call for President Bush’s impeachment over the Iraq war, and made impassioned speeches to this effect at the head of anti-Bush demonstrations when the president came to town in 2006.

 

Most observers consider Anderson one of the most progressive urban leaders in America. His successor, Ralph Becker, is cut out of the same cloth. “He was sworn in, and within two or three days had announced plans to have a domestic partnership registry [for gay couples] in Salt Lake City,” says Monson.

 

Democrats know they can’t win Utah in November, and once primary day is over the party will ignore the state for the rest of the election season; but until then, because Anderson so energized progressives in Salt Lake City, Democrats have something to campaign for here.

 

While the GOP contest is a closed primary, meaning independents can’t vote, the Democratic one is open, meaning independents can. Since Obama has been polling well with independents, and has also scored well in extremely conservative enclaves, including, as I wrote last week, in eastern Nevada, which is culturally something of an outlier for Mormon Utah, that could make for a tough contest between Clinton and him; and with the national race so close even a Republican gimme-state like Utah can’t be ignored by the Democrats during primary season.

 

To complicate the story, Rocky Anderson generates tremendous, impassioned, loyalty from his followers. Back in July he endorsed fellow westerner Bill Richardson. Now that Richardson’s not in the race, many of his supporters around the country have migrated to Obama’s camp – but so far Anderson hasn’t weighed in. Should he do so, his words could well determine the results of the state primary.

 

Watching how Utah breaks for the Democrats won’t tell much of anything about the presidential election itself; but with every state primary election still intensely competitive, and with the possibly that a mere handful of delegates could push one or another candidate over the finishing line, even a conservative state like Utah will have a scramble for primary day votes in the coming weeks.

 

And that brings me to the main point of my article. Rocky Anderson is a phenomenally intelligent, recently employed ex-mayor, darling of progressive urbanites, and star of the international anti-global warming community. The Utah primary offers an opportunity to either Clinton or Obama to woo Anderson’s fans and also do something genuinely sensible.

 

I’d like to see a candidate promise to create a cabinet-level job in D.C. to tackle global warming and start to set in place a national green energy infrastructure. Call it the Global Warming czar, akin to the cabinet-level Drug Czar position. And I’d urge that candidate to declare his or her support for Anderson being the person to fill that role should they win the presidency. There’s no other political figure in America more qualified for such a position.

 

And while we’re on the subject, let’s broaden the discussion beyond Utah: John Edwards has pushed issues of poverty – homelessness, hunger, lack of health insurance, lack of worker rights, the decimation of America’s trade union movement – back into the forefront of the American political debate. Even if Edwards fails in his quest for the presidential nomination, his contribution has been extraordinary. So, how about the candidate making a second job promise: John Edwards ought to be declared Labor Secretary-designate. It would piss off corporate America no end, but it would be a brave choice and would everyday give working Americans a powerful reason to go to the polls come Election Day. In such a role, Edwards could end being as powerful a voice for reform as was FDR’s labor secretary Frances Perkins, during the New Deal years.

 

We’re a long way from November, but I’d love to see a Democratic ticket with not just strong presidential and vice-presidential candidates, but Anderson and Edwards also in the wings. That would be a slate seriously worth voting for.

Beyond Horseracing

So, two down, forty eight to go. Yes, primary season is a long process, and, yes, I know, many of you are already bored to death of the horserace.

 

Will it be Obama, will it be Clinton, could Edwards possibly complicate the duel? Will McCain finally get his day in the sun, or will the genial, if loopily fundamentalist, Huckabee sneak by on the outside? Will the Republicans splinter so badly over the coming weeks that the party ends up with no anointed candidate come convention time this summer?

 

If you’ve tuned out, I don’t blame you. But I would suggest there are reasons not to do so.

 

Frankly, the horserace isn’t what’s interesting. Of course it’s important who the parties ultimately choose to be their presidential candidates – after all, like it or not they’re running for the most powerful job on earth, and the outcome of the 2008 election will impact people around the world for years to come. But for all the prophecies and predictions, at the end of the day it’s not the ink spilled and air-time seized by pundits that determines the outcome of these races. It’s not the instant-reaction news stories and it’s certainly not the breathy commentary about who the front runner du jour now is that really matters.

 

For me, primary season is always interesting for the pure political theater it inspires. Yes, money too-often dominates; yes, the endless commercials and phone bank calls are nauseating, as, too often, is the saturation media coverage. But at the same time, where else on earth do  political hopefuls have to put in this much raw energy over this length of time campaigning for votes in the most out-of-the-way places imaginable? Where else do so many ordinary-Joes get to meet senior political figures out begging for their individual votes? Where else do people like Mitt Romney get to spend tens of millions of their own dollars on a fool’s errand, only to be oh-so-publicly, deliciously, humiliated by their putative subjects?

 

I’m not going to predict winners and losers just yet, but I do think that several factors are coming together to make this election season more compelling and unpredictable than usual. First off is the extraordinarily high voter turnout in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Democrats in Iowa doubled their caucus turnout over 2004, largely because so many independents came out to vote; and the numbers out of New Hampshire suggest a similarly energized electorate. It’s part of a trend of higher than normal voter participation that goes back to the 2004 presidential election and continued into the 2006 midterms. Who knows, perhaps soon as high a proportion of us will vote as do in other first world democracies?

 

I have a theory about this: the Bush years have been so awful, so embarrassing, for so many people that, like a forest fire, they’ve cleared the dead wood and created conditions for a rebirth. After a forest fire, nature flourishes; after the Bush years, my prediction is that Americans, in reaction, will be less cavalier about their politics, more willing to get engaged in civic processes.

 

Tied in with this is the language being spoken by all the leading Democratic candidates. As I’ve argued in earlier columns, when even a politician as instinctually middle-of-the-road as Hillary Clinton starts talking the talk of populism and embracing the need for top-to-bottom change, then you know there’s a new political moment emerging. Listen to Obama and Edwards, and you’ll hear some of the most progressive ideas to exit the mouths of senior American politicians in at least a generation. Sure, there’s still sound-bite politics going on, but the sheer caliber, and intensity, of the policy debates is magnitudes higher than it’s been in years. It’s easy to throw mud at American politics, but mudslinging aside there are some fine ideas being bandied about this election season.

 

In fact, Obama’s victory speech in Iowa and his concession speech in New Hampshire both embraced a language of change and of hope that is so different from the language of the Bush years, and from that of most of the Republican candidates, as to be almost jarring. It’s like listening to Beethoven after overdosing on Kylie Minogue.

 

Or, to come back to the world of politics, in the calls to action being heard, in the demand for a constructive politics based around hope rather than fear, and in the willingness to use the tools of government to fashion a new social compact (one that, for example, guarantees access to health care for all Americans), we’re seeing a revival of the best strand of American liberalism.

 

After Herbert Hoover and the onset of the Great Depression, America chose Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. It’s certainly not impossible that after Bush and the calamitous collapse of the U.S. housing market, American voters will vote for someone and something equally new.

 

I’ve no idea if that will happen; but it’s certainly a dream worth clinging to through primary season.

The madness of George

A piece I just wrote for the Guardian newspaper’s comments is free section:

 

Webster’s dictionary defines “inanity” as a combination of vapidness and pointlessness, as something lacking in substance. Add an “s” into the mix, and the dictionary defines “insanity” as either a deranged state of mind, unsoundness of mind, a lack of mental capacity, or extreme folly or unreasonableness.

 

For the past day, I’ve been trying to work out how to interpret the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to refuse to grant California a waiver to national auto emissions standards so as to allow the state to impose stricter emissions standards on vehicles sold in the state. And, on balance, I’m leaning toward the “insanity” explanation.

 

For the past forty years, California has applied for, and routinely received, waivers that have given it the greenlight to pioneer better environmental protections than exist at a federal level. The state has asked for forty such waivers over the years and has gotten all forty of them. And then, once given cover by California, other states have followed suit with better environmental regulations of their own. It’s been a win-win for all parties: the national government passes laws affordable and palatable to all fifty states, and then California goes one or two steps better, and in the process crafts coalitions made up of the more environmentally conscious, oftentimes more affluent, states. The relationship is an unwritten compact, allowing California to be a sort of environmental bellwether for the rest of the nation.

 

In recent years, California has pioneered legislation forcing oil companies to produce cleaner fuel than exists in the rest of the country. Its legislators then passed SB 32, a landmark bill that commits California to long-term changes that will ultimately lead to 80 percent CO2e reductions, from 1990 levels, by 2050; and that gives regulatory agencies broad powers to begin to enforce these reductions. The final part of the equation is a 2004 law, AB 1493, that mandated the auto industry to bring online by 2009 new car designs that would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and raise fuel efficiency levels to an average of 36 miles per gallon by 2016. Taken as a whole, these policies mean that California is now at the cutting edge internationally in anti-global warming strategies. It is up there with the most assertive countries in Europe, and is miles ahead of the United States’ federal government.

 

For close to three years now, an increasing number of states have joined California in pushing for these new standards. And for those same three years, the federal government has stalled, humming and hawing over whether to grant the waiver. By late 2007, 16 states, containing almost half the total U.S. population, were waiting for the EPA to approve the waiver. Angered by the delay, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made it clear he was going to sue the EPA to force them to come to a decision.

 

So what happened? In mid-December, Congress finally got around to raising national fuel efficiency standards for the first time in over 30 years – calling for average fuel efficiency, spread across the passenger vehicle fleet as a whole, to reach 35 miles per gallon by 2020. A few days later, the Bush administration, which only recently even acknowledged the realities of global warming, denied California’s waiver request. Most likely, according to a number of analysts, this was as a “reward” to the auto industry for not putting up more sustained opposition to the fairly weak new national standards.

 

Is this simply vapid and pointless – in other words inane – or is there a level of extreme folly and unreasonableness rising to the level of insanity?

 

Well… let’s look at this: an administration that, in theory, is philosophically committed to “states’ rights,” to rolling back big government, has put a kibosh on one of the most important state laws to emerge in decades. A president who has belatedly recognized America’s “addiction” to oil has gone out on a limb opposing a law that actually does something to reduce that addiction. An unpopular Republican government that’s just been put through the wringer in Bali for its at best lukewarm commitment to tackling global warming turns around a week later and oh-so-publicly spits in the face of a popular Republican governor from California who had the gall to call for stricter environmental standards.

 

This has got to be a PR-miscalculation on a par with… oh, I don’t know, let’s say declaring Iran on the verge of starting a nuclear world war a month after the intelligence agencies told the president they had concluded Iran no longer had an active nuclear weapons program.

 

California has already declared that it will sue the federal government. The other states lined up behind California have indicated a similar desire to head to the courts.

 

In a way, the EPA’s bizarre decision has done the impossible. During a period of intense partisan bickering in California – over a looming, and enormous, budget deficit, over prison spending and a host of other issues – the EPA has brought California’s Republican and Democratic leaders together in amazed and furious opposition to the Feds.

 

Inane or insane? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.