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Whitehouse should rethink his rhetoric

By Dennis Sheehan

In the CQ-Roll Call profile of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse that appeared in The Newport Daily News on March 14, Sen. Whitehouse laments “How sad it is that after 200 weeks of speeches, there is still so little progress on climate change. It is an indication of the extent (to) which the fossil fuel industry owns the joint.” Most of us who have tried to do something 200 times without success would rethink our approach.

In that spirit, let me offer Sen. Whitehouse some new ideas. First, stop calling people names. Reading the senator's speeches, it is all too easy to find people referred to as “thugs,” “liars,” “flunkies,” and “stooges.” He has said “The fossil fuel industry, on the other hand, is neither honest nor decent.” Accusations like this make for good political theater - which might be the senator's real purpose - but they don't make for good discussions.

Second, end the hyperbole. As an example, in the Roll Call article, Sen. Whitehouse claims that “he sees weekly full-page ads in his local paper for services to protect homes from rising seas.” If the senator's local paper is The Daily News, I have to say that I have never seen weekly full-page ads for such services. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration prediction for Newport of a rise of 0.9 feet over 100 years might explain the lack of ads.

Third, rethink the “fossil fuel industry controls everyone” idea. Again, it's good political theater: Giant corporations buying our elected representatives to do their bidding. But it isn't credible. Let's look at ExxonMobil as an example. ExxonMobil is the largest U.S. oil company, roughly number five in the world by revenues. Like all firms, ExxonMobil is subject to reporting requirements about its political activities. In 2016, the ExxonMobil PAC contributed a whopping $957,000 to candidates for federal and state offices; the corporation contributed $300,000 to several national political organizations and another $222,000 to state candidates. In total, about $1.5 million. If ExxonMobil is buying politicians, you all apparently come cheap.

ExxonMobil also spent roughly $12 million in 2016 paying lobbyists. The names of the lobbyists they hired are in the corporate reports they file every quarter. Also listed is every bill and issue they lobbied on, all 131 of them just in the fourth quarter of 2016. Are some of these related to climate change? Of course. But given we know who is doing Exxon-Mobil's lobbying and how much they are getting paid, it's not as if there is a conspiracy to “own the joint” as Sen. Whitehouse claims.

To put these numbers into perspective, Exxon's revenues in 2016 were about $200 billion. So its campaign contributions amounted to 0.0007 percent of revenues, and its lobbying was 0.006 percent. In contrast, the firm spent almost 1,000 times as much paying dividends to people ($12.6 billion) and about 1,200 times as much investing in plant and equipment ($16.2 billion). Some further perspective comes from OpenSecrets. org, which shows that for 2016 the oil and gas industry was fifth on the list of top 20 lobbying industries; pharmaceutical and health products was at the top of the list, spending more than twice as much as the oil and gas industry. Perhaps they own the House of Representatives?

As Sen. Whitehouse thinks about his next 200 “Wake Up” speeches, he ought to reflect on whether his tactics of namecalling, hyperbole, and blaming things on the fossil fuel industry are helpful rhetorical devices. Acknowledging his opponents as (mostly) people of goodwill, who have different opinions, would help the senator achieve the objectives to which he is dedicated.

Dennis Sheehan has taught economics, finance, and statistics at various universities. He recently retired from Penn State University and moved back to Aquidneck Island, where he grew up.

Dennis Sheehan has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley.

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