Demonstrator Sharon Garlena and others rally in support of Obama's pledge to veto any legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline, outside the White House in Washington on Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
Columnist

The Senate debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, as predictable as it is unedifying, exemplifies two of the most disturbing aspects of political discourse today.

The first is what might be called “talk-to-the-hand-ism” — or, perhaps updated to the tactic of New York City police officers — “turn-your-back-ism.”

The turned back, like the hand upraised to command silence, symbolizes the sad reality of modern political discourse: Nothing you can say will make me listen to you. Do not even bother to try.

In the context of the Keystone debate, talk-to-the-hand-ism means that both sides, supporters and opponents with equally unshakable fervor, already know what they think. No new fact or changed circumstance or cogent argument can serve to dislodge their set-in-concrete conviction.

Thus, supporters of the pipeline vastly, almost comically, oversell its job-creating potential, claiming that it will create 42,000 jobs.

That figure stems from the State Department’s estimate that, during the two years it will take for construction, the pipeline would create about 16,000 direct jobs and 26,000 jobs resulting from “indirect and induced spending.”

That’s great: Democrats who oppose the pipeline cannot simultaneously laud the benefits of increased infrastructure spending and ignore the impact when it comes to Keystone.

But these jobs are ephemeral. Thus, the State Department estimate of jobs is, drum roll, 35 “permanent” employees and 15 temporary contractors.

Meantime, pipeline opponents vastly, almost tragically, overstate its environment-destroying threat. They quote NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s warning that building Keystone would mean “game over” for climate change.

That dire assessment assumes that, if Keystone is not built, the Canadian oil will not be extracted. That assumption is, most likely, wrong. As pipeline construction has been delayed for years, the amount of Canadian crude moving by rail has soared.

In other words, the oil is coming out, and being transported, one way or another. The State Department concluded that Keystone construction is “unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.” Thus, the net impact on climate: not “significant,” according to State.

One big caveat here involves the dramatic recent plunge in oil prices. At prices between $65 and $75 a barrel — it’s now below $50 — the lower cost of transporting oil through the pipeline rather than by rail or truck could have a “substantial impact” on production.

How long oil prices will remain this low is a known unknown. What is known is this: Even assuming that the oil will be extracted only if the pipeline is built, that would add between 1.3 million and 27.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually to the atmosphere, according to State. Total emissions in 2013? Some 37 billion metric tons.

Hence my use of the word “tragically.” The big problem is climate change; the big challenge is to take serious steps to reduce overall emissions — not to focus so much effort on one relatively small contributor.

Which brings me to the second disturbing aspect of the Keystone dispute. It represents yet another elevation of the politics of symbolism over the need for real-world solutions.

Keystone has become a proxy for larger partisan political battles, reminiscent of the “public option” in health-care reform. For the left, the public option was the essential element of successful reform; the enterprise was hardly worth doing without it. For the right, it represented the camel’s nose under the tent of socialized medicine. Somehow, that argument has moved on.

Now comes another example of the dumb politics of symbolism: the withdrawal of Antonio Weiss as President Obama’s nominee for treasury undersecretary for domestic finance. Weiss’s transgression, in the eyes of liberal critics, was that he is head of investment banking for Lazard — work that included helping Burger King acquire the Canadian chain Tim Hortons and then move corporate headquarters to Canada.

Thus Weiss’s quasi-withdrawal — he’s going to serve as counselor to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew instead — is viewed as a big victory for liberals, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who led the charge against his confirmation.

No matter that Weiss’s actual politics seem entirely in sync with Warren’s, as reflected in a 2012 Center for American Progress paper that called for raising $1.8 trillion in revenue over a decade by hiking taxes on the wealthy. This is the kind of nominee that should be alarming Republicans, rather than Democrats. Not in the current atmosphere of Washington, which promotes symbolism over substance and cannot take in contrary arguments.

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