Daily Digest - July 29: Companies Look to Turn Off the Tap on Free Water

Jul 29, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Companies Proclaim Water the Next Oil in a Rush to Turn Resources into Profit (The Guardian)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Companies Proclaim Water the Next Oil in a Rush to Turn Resources into Profit (The Guardian)

As the CEO of Nestle publicly declares that any water beyond survival needs should be paid for, Suzanne McGee considers the potential horror story of commodifying water.

Paid Leave Encourages Female Employees to Stay (NYT)

Federally mandated paid maternity leave could be one of the most powerful tools to reverse the decline of women's participation in the U.S. labor force, says Claire Cain Miller.

One More Clue that the Obamacare Lawsuits Are Wrong (TNR)

In light of current legal fights over health care exchange subsidies, Jonathan Cohn looks back to a 2010 e-mail from an influential House staffer for proof of Congress's intentions.

History Suggests Ryan Block Grant Would Be Susceptible to Cuts (Off the Charts)

Richard Kogan points out the vulnerability of block grants, which have less obvious impacts than individual programs. Of 11 major anti-poverty block grants, nine have faced cuts since 2001.

A Bill to Get the Labor Movement Back on Offense (The Nation)

George Zornick reports on a proposal by House Democrats that would make labor organizing a civil right and allow workers to take their complaints outside the National Labor Relations Board.

Fast Food Convention Portends Escalation in Strikes (MSNBC)

Ned Resnikoff writes that workers at this weekend's fast food convention pushed for more radical tactics as well as cross-movement collaboration with groups like Moral Mondays in North Carolina.

New on Next New Deal

After the End of the Innovation Era

Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, envisions a future of slowed technological growth in his speculation for the Next American Economy project.

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Daily Digest - May 12: Walmart Sets the Wrong Example for a Progressive Future

May 12, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Did Obama Make a Mistake by Touting Solar Power at Walmart? (All In with Chris Hayes)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren says this speech rewarded a company that is failing on the environment and on inequality, which makes it a confusing political choice.

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Did Obama Make a Mistake by Touting Solar Power at Walmart? (All In with Chris Hayes)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren says this speech rewarded a company that is failing on the environment and on inequality, which makes it a confusing political choice.

Thousands in Pierce County Trapped in Underwater Mortgages (Tacoma News Tribune)

Kathleen Cooper speaks to Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal, who says these mortgages slow economic growth because homeowners spend so much on debt payments.

Making Ends Meet at Walmart (NYT)

When Walmart reviewed its financials to determine performance pay for executives, it made adjustments to ensure larger bonuses despite a rough year, reports Gretchen Morgenson.

Undocumented NYC Domestic Workers Clean Up with Collective (AJAM)

Forming an environmentally friendly cleaning co-op has ensured fair wages, steady income, and safety for some undocumented workers, writes Kaelyn Forde.

Heller May Try to Attach Unemployment Extension to Tax Cut Bill (Roll Call)

Humberto Sanchez reports that an upcoming set of corporate tax breaks with bipartisan support could be key to a deal that would renew unemployment benefits.

FCC Head to Revise Broadband-Rules Plan (WSJ)

Gautham Nagesh says FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is trying to address public backlash with this latest revision of rules, which could be a good thing for net neutrality.

New on Next New Deal

For U.S. Mothers, Conservative Policies Can Be Deadly

Maternal mortality rates have increased in the U.S., and Roosevelt Institute Fellow Andrea Flynn argues that conservative policies like refusing Medicaid expansion make things worse.

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Reducing Flood Risks is Worth the Effort – and the Savings

Apr 1, 2014Melia Ungson

Programs aimed at cutting flood insurance premiums by reducing risk have their pluses and minuses, but the positives deserve strong consideration from local governments.

Programs aimed at cutting flood insurance premiums by reducing risk have their pluses and minuses, but the positives deserve strong consideration from local governments.

FEMA administers the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to make flood insurance available to many communities, as most standard home and property insurance policies do not cover losses from floods. In 2012, Congress passed the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, which called on FEMA to raise flood insurance rates so that they better reflect flood risk. This has spurred concerns about people’s ability to afford flood insurance and maintain property values.

One program that strives to help make flood insurance more affordable and encourage communities to reduce flood risk is the Community Rating System (CRS), which began in 1990. Communities that participate in CRS receive a discount on flood insurance premiums. The more a community does to reduce flood risk, the larger the premium reduction. According to FEMA, CRS has three main goals: to reduce flood damage to insurable property, to strengthen the insurance aspects of the NFIP, and to encourage a more comprehensive approach to floodplain management.

CRS is a points-based system, where 500 points is required for participation. A community can earn CRS points by taking on actions from an approved list. These activities are broken up into four main categories (public information, mapping and regulations, flood damage reduction, and flood preparedness), and include everything from disseminating brochures with flood hazard information to developing mapping information.

Based on the number of points accrued, communities are assigned to one of ten CRS classes. Class 10 is for those who are not participating or who have less than 500 points. Class 9 communities, with 500-999 points, receive a 5% reduction, and Class 1 communities, with 4,500 points or more, receive a 45% reduction. The increasing reductions create incentives for communities to expand flood protection activities.

Despite the benefits, CRS communities represent only about 5% of the communities in the NFIP. Most communities that participate in CRS fall between Class 5 and Class 9. In New England, most participating communities fall between Class 7 and Class 9. Improving class takes time and resources, but for a program that has been around for nearly 25 years, there are surprisingly few communities at the top classes. Roseville, California is the only Class 1 community, inspired to take on the CRS after devastating floods, and its 45% reduction saves residents an average of $792 per plan. Additionally, only three communities have achieved a Class 2 rating. Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has creeks that cause flooding, saves residents an average of $514 per plan. Unincorporated King County, Washington, which focused on preserving floodplain open space, saves residents an average of $586. And Pierce County, Washington, which focused on public information, saves residents an average of $550.

Beyond premium reductions, FEMA argues the program has other benefits. These include improving public safety and awareness, facilitating easier comparison and evaluation with a standardized classification system, providing technical assistance, and focusing on maintaining measures to reduce risk.

Indeed, CRS does have major benefits, not least of which is the reduced premium. With the incentive to reduce flood risk, the program balances recognizing the real risks and costs of living in areas with flooding dangers, and also trying to make those communities more prepared and resilient. Acquisition and relocation are incentivized through CRS with high point rewards, as is preserving hazardous flood areas as open space, though the bulk of the program’s actions focus on reducing risk in areas that will remain inhabited. Additionally, FEMA offers free training for local officials and makes emergency management specialists available to support CRS applications.

However, the very low number of NFIP communities that participate in CRS suggests that there are obstacles to applying for and maintaining CRS status. Despite Tulsa’s success in CRS, overall interest in the program has been declining in Oklahoma, as local officials weigh the benefits and costs of implementing CRS. A major issue is limited local capacity. Communities that are already struggling to stretch budgets and personnel may not be able to take on the additional work required by CRS to benefit residents living in flood zones. This may be particularly problematic in cases where the residents of flood zones are those who are struggling with the added costs of flood insurance and are most in need of the premium reduction. Since individual residents cannot take steps to gain points, the community must rely on local officials to prioritize CRS.

Furthermore, upgrading levels is difficult and takes time. King County, for instance, went from being Class 10 when the program started in 1990 to Class 9 in 1992. It then took 15 years to work up to Class 2. That long time horizon may be discouraging to getting communities to apply. A 5% discount may not seem like much in comparison to the time and work required for a class upgrade, so communities may postpone their participation until they accrue enough points for a larger reduction.

Lastly, the number of communities participating, and especially the number of communities in the top classes, suggests that there may be a gap between national standards and local capacity. Though the cost of implementing CRS varies, communities have reported costs ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 and above, largely for disseminating information and developing maps. Some communities may be hesitant to proceed too far along with CRS, as it poses restrictions on development, such as elevation requirements.

Despite the challenges, CRS is an important tool. While local communities may have limited capacity, FEMA, too, can only do so much to reduce risk in communities across the country. CRS empowers local officials to take action, while also putting money back into the hands of residents. The challenge is to make the case to local residents and officials that participation in CRS is worthwhile. It is a big commitment, with the application likely taking significant time and resources, and it is an ongoing commitment, as communities must demonstrate they are maintaining measures to reduce risk and inform the public. Yet many of those actions are valuable, and even doable with the resources offered by FEMA and other agencies. While CRS may fairly not be a top priority for many communities, it is worth serious consideration.

Melia Ungson is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment.

 

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Solving California's Water Crisis Requires A Look Beyond This Year

Feb 19, 2014Melia Ungson

Reactive measures won't solve the long-term problems of this drought, which require thinking about more permanent changes in water use.

Reactive measures won't solve the long-term problems of this drought, which require thinking about more permanent changes in water use.

It’s not every day that your local paper has a section of its website dedicated to news about days without rain and reservoir levels, but the San Francisco Chronicle’s drought page is one marker of the water crisis in the West. On January 17, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, directing Californians to voluntarily conserve water and state officials to assist communities facing water shortages, reduce water use, hire more firefighters to combat the elevated fire danger, and expand public awareness.

California state health officials announced in mid-January that 17 communities – all rural – could run out of water within 100 days, with other communities not far behind. Then on January 31, authorities announced that for the first time in its 54-year history, the California State Water Project, which moves water throughout the state and serves roughly two-thirds of the its population, would allocate zero water supplies to urban and agricultural users. The contractors who usually get water from the project will instead have to rely more heavily on other sources, like groundwater.

On February 14, President Obama spoke in central California, linking the drought to climate change and emphasizing that the country must find a better way to manage diverse water needs and concerns. Yet instead of spurring local innovation and opportunity, action thus far has focused on restricting activities and competing for water use.

Beyond concerns about having adequate supplies of water for drinking, industry, and agriculture, priorities to protect ecosystems and water quality are being put to the test. Officials are relaxing requirements for water releases from reservoirs, which lowers water quality in key areas such as the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in order to increase available water supply. California Republicans proposed a bill arguing for a stricter cap on the water allocations for environmental restoration and additional water allocations to the Central Valley and Southern California, which would hamper efforts to protect endangered fish. The bill’s proponents argue that addressing water shortages should take precedence. This shows how decisions made to manage the drought this year will not only affect future water supplies, but also the health of ecosystems, protected species, and agricultural sectors.

Even though California, along with much of the West, has managed with droughts in the past, this is a new scale. Just take the snowpack. Even in the driest year to date, 2013, the Sierra snowpack in mid-January was at normal or just above normal levels in mid-January. As of mid-January this year, however, the snowpack is at only 8-22 percent of normal levels across the Sierras. This snowpack is California’s largest and most reliable water supply, but if the driest year on record followed a normal snowpack in January 2013, the low measurements of January 2014 spell nothing but trouble. To ensure that the state can push through this drought, and ensure resilience in dry years to come, it is critical that communities and decision-makers act boldly with an eye for long-term consequences and lasting change.

Unfortunately, the current policy approach is more reactive than pro-active, with only a few cities, like San Francisco, having made investments to ease water shortages after prior droughts. Voluntary cuts have a limited impact, in part because mandatory cuts are sometimes just around the corner. Those who follow the voluntary cuts are hit even harder if or when mandatory cuts set in, forcing them to reduce water use even further, especially if mandatory measures are percentage cuts, rather than restrictions on activities like watering lawns or washing cars. While cuts and restrictions may help the state make it through this drought, they are not a long-term solution. Given that California’s population continues to grow and that water resources are dwindling, the approach must instead focus on finding opportunities, linkages, and incentives that strive to prepare the state for a resilient future.

The drought is a wake-up call that it is time to do away with outdated infrastructure and environmental policies, come together as communities to reassess our values and priorities, and broaden the discussion of climate change beyond energy. For young people in the West who know that they will be living through more dry years to come, this is a chance to innovate and find ways to reduce the need for water. In California, this means a renewed focus on innovation in agricultural water use and management systems. Agriculture accounts for about three-quarters of California’s water use, and it plays a critical role in California’s economy and food supply. However, rural communities often lack the resources to invest in new water infrastructure or manage water uncertainty from year to year.

Though urban areas use less water, they must address this question as well, particularly as populations grow. This must include some lifestyle changes, such as re-envisioning home and park landscaping to be drought resistant instead of green and grassy. It also requires searching for waste and opportunities to link systems, such as using grass and weed cuttings from medians and other areas as feed for livestock instead of using water to grow separate pastures. Looking forward, we can change what we use and what we waste to better reflect the realities we see in our communities. Instead of relying heavily on massive state-wide water plans and waiting for officials to announce mandatory cuts to water use, we can aim for creative locally-based actions that will prepare our communities to better manage our water in the long-term.

Melia Ungson is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment.

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President Obama: Give Millennials a Seat at the Table on Climate Change

Nov 22, 2013Melia Ungson

Solutions to climate change begin at the community level, and tomorrow's leaders must be involved in the planning process today.

Solutions to climate change begin at the community level, and tomorrow's leaders must be involved in the planning process today.

Over the past several months, climate change has finally inched toward the spotlight. President Obama issued a Climate Action Plan in June, and a few months later he directed the EPA to enforce carbon emission limits for power plants. As a recent UN report further solidified that human activity is the cause of climate change, Obama has taken another step toward ensuring that the United States sticks to its international commitments and that the country is prepared to mitigate and adapt to changes at home. Shortly after the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, on November 1, the President issued an executive order, “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change.” This executive order paves the way for more prepared and resilient communities, but it is no substitute for young people, who will be the leaders of tomorrow, engaging in conversations to reenvision government’s role in addressing climate change.

In the executive order, Obama recognizes first the obligation to leave a healthy planet to future generations, and second that communities are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Added to the urgency is the fact that the communities most greatly impacted by climate change are often those that already contend with other problems, such as weak economies or regional health problems.

According to the White House, the executive order is meant to ensure that the federal government is equipped to effectively support “community-based preparedness and resilience efforts” through policies and investment priorities that advocate preparedness, protect infrastructure, support scientific research, and “protect and serve citizens in a changing climate.” More concretely, this means finding a way to modernize federal agencies and federal programs in order to encourage government at every level to consider climate risks and implement mitigation and adaptation strategies. 

To do this, the federal government is looking to the state and local levels. President Obama has created a task force made of governors, mayors, and tribal and local officials who have volunteered to participate. According to the White House, the task force will provide recommendations on how the federal government can remove “barriers to resilient investments, [modernize] Federal grant and loan programs to better support local efforts, and [develop] the information and tools they need to prepare.”

Far from a government takeover, the executive order calls for the federal government to look to state and local officials to gain insight on how to improve federal programs and better understand how communities can boost preparedness and innovation. Ultimately, the failure to prioritize climate change on the federal level is and will continue to be played out on a local level. This means that the local officials of tomorrow, who are the young people of today, will be forced to contend with changes in their communities and will be responsible for navigating the state and federal programs designed to provide support. Nancy Sutley, head of a White House environmental council, explained that communities are “on the front lines of dealing with the impacts of climate change.” That makes this bottom-up approach critical while the federal, state, and local levels of government incorporate climate change risks into project planning.

This order is an important step in ensuring that government at every level will be better equipped to plan for and address climate change in the future. It will spur greater innovation by encouraging officials in DC and around the country to think creatively by promoting data-sharing and collaboration for informed and coordinated efforts, and by opening a space, through the task force, for officials to come together and provide feedback.

Furthermore, this action is important in building a more vibrant economy and government in the long run. The federal government will continue to be called on to foot the bill for disaster relief after major storms or droughts, to compensate for the effects of ailing infrastructure, and to support communities that are struggling to adapt to climate change. Given this potential for real burdens on the government budget, we cannot wait to act if we want to protect both our communities and our economy. We need to create our own climate insurance of sorts. The steps we take now toward preparation and mitigation could be less costly overall than waiting until the urgency is greater and options more limited.

White House staff understand this need. John P. Holdren, the President’s science advisor, noted how the executive order emphasizes the need to make current investments “produce a much more resilient society.” This future-oriented thinking is essential if we want to effectively address climate change and if we want to fulfill the moral obligation to leave future generations with a healthy planet and resilient communities. More immediately, when Millennials are in positions of power, we know that climate change will be high on the agenda, and therefore understand that it is our generation that will reap the rewards or manage the clean-up of whatever actions we take or do not take in the coming months and years.

Our generation needs to go one step beyond this executive order. This call for a bottom-up approach, for crowdsourcing ideas, feedback, and innovation should extend to Millennials around the country as well. We know we have a huge stake in preparing our communities for the future, and we cannot sit back and wait for our turn to take the reins. A clear next step to the executive order would be to engage youth representatives, students, and young professionals in a task force that would emphasize a forward-thinking approach. To get there, Millennials can take an active role in learning from local officials grappling with climate change impacts as they arise, so that we are more knowledgeable and prepared when the problems are squarely in our hands. Millennials can also take an active role in proposing and testing solutions that will start building stronger communities today. We must take on the responsibility to engage with local officials, harness our creativity and skills, and stay dedicated to a long-term vision. 

Melia Ungson is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment.

Hurricane Sandy image via Shutterstock.

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California's Environmental Regulations Provide a Vision for the Future

Oct 8, 2013Melia Ungson

Millennials are looking to environmental regulations to ensure their quality of life in the future, but those regulations don't have to be seen as opposed to economic development.

Millennials are looking to environmental regulations to ensure their quality of life in the future, but those regulations don't have to be seen as opposed to economic development.

I am grateful for the clean, potable water that runs from my tap, for the peace of mind that the buildings in which I work and play are free of many toxins that could harm my health, and for the confidence that I will be alerted when air quality is dangerously poor. I appreciate the reliable flow of electricity generated from a variety of sources. And I cherish the housing, the transit systems, the businesses and industries, and the parks that make our communities so vibrant while minimizing the negative impacts on residents and local ecosystems.  

Most of all, I am thankful for the environmental regulations that strive to make all of these things possible.

Environmental protection and economic growth are often put at odds with one another in our public discourse. One need only look at the reaction to President Obama’s plans to set limits on the emissions of new gas-fired and coal power plants. Opponents have claimed that the regulations will harm job creation and economic growth, calling it the next step in the president's “war on coal.” However, I am convinced that we can incorporate both environmental considerations and development needs in our vision for more resilient, strong, and vibrant communities.

Central to this effort are environmental regulations at the national, state, and local levels that require projects to recognize environmental impacts and take steps to mitigate the costs. One law that has been hailed as setting the highest environmental standards in the country is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which California legislators weakened earlier this year. Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, signed CEQA in 1970. It was during the height of the environmental movement and the National Environmental Policy Act had been passed just a year earlier. Among its more unique strengths are calls for thorough review of both public and private projects, a prohibition on piecemealing (which requires that developers consider their projects holistically), and legal standing for the public to evaluate projects with environmental costs. Since then, CEQA has served as a model for similar laws in over a dozen other states.

However, it has also been a source of controversy. Opponents say the law is often invoked for reasons unrelated to environmental concerns as a way to stop or delay projects and that the litigation process is opaque. The reasons for litigation or the threat of litigation range from labor disputes to efforts to block competing projects or firms. There are examples where these complaints ring true; for instance, in one case, a gas station owner invoked CEQA while trying to delay or discourage a competitor from adding additional pumps, a move that cost the competitor an extra $500,000. CEQA lawsuits about the environmental impact review process also delayed San Francisco’s plan to add bike lanes on major streets.

But by and large, the law has not actually created a maze of red tape that has caused developers and industry to run from the Golden State. On the contrary, a number of reports show that CEQA has not hurt California’s GDP and has boosted renewable projects. A report issued earlier this year found that since CEQA’s passage in 1970, California has been a leader in green power plant projects and has had fewer cancelled projects than states with less stringent environmental laws. The report also found that California’s per capita GDP, housing relative to population, manufacturing output, and construction activity grew as fast or faster since CEQA has been in place.

Despite those statistics, some legislators in California wanted to weaken CEQA. There was much heated debate, but legislators eventually settled on something of a middle ground. The bill signed by Governor Jerry Brown and proposed by Democratic leader Senator Darrell Steinberg waters down CEQA by exempting urban projects from parking and aesthetic (view-blocking) reviews, which have led to the most litigation, speeding the pace of litigation, and redefining how traffic impacts are determined.

Unfortunately, by squeezing in this reform to streamline the process for a Sacramento sports arena and keep the Sacramento Kings in the city, California missed a real opportunity to make meaningful reforms that would enhance the benefits of CEQA while also helping to address the openings for abuse or lack of clarity. This is part of a larger conversation: how do we use environmental protection to push sustainable development and innovation that will provide for a healthy and prosperous future?

As a Millennial looking far down the line, I want to think about how cities, communities, development projects, and sensitive ecological environments will hold up in the long run. We need development projects that will help usher in economic growth, bring jobs, cultivate vibrant communities, and more. But none of these goals can succeed unless we also aim for a healthy environment—one with clean air and water, with green spaces that allow local biodiversity to flourish and residents to lead healthy lifestyles, with transit and electricity systems propelled by clean fuels. By grounding regulations in our vision for the future, we can come closer to ensuring that regulations and development can work hand in hand. Environmental regulations can guide industry, provided that policymakers grant them the flexibility needed to make adjustments.

Melia Ungson is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment.

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Denialism and Bad Faith in Policy Arguments

Aug 14, 2013Mike Konczal

Here’s the thing about Allan Meltzer: he knows. Or at least he should know. It’s tough to remember that he knows when he writes editorials like his latest, "When Inflation Doves Cry." This is a mess of an editorial, a confused argument about why huge inflation is around the corner. “Instead of continuing along this futile path, the Fed should end its open-ended QE3 now... Those who believe that inflation will remain low should look more thoroughly and think more clearly. ”

But he knows. Because here’s Meltzer in 1999 with "A Policy for Japanese Recovery": “Monetary expansion and devaluation is a much better solution. An announcement by the Bank of Japan and the government that the aim of policy is to prevent deflation and restore growth by providing enough money to raise asset prices would change beliefs and anticipations.”

He knows that there’s an actual debate, with people who are “thinking clearly,” about monetary policy at the zero lower bound as a result of Japan. He participated in it. So he must have been aware of Ben Bernanke, Paul Krugman, Milton Friedman, Michael Woodford, and Lars Svensson all also debating it at the same time. But now he’s forgotten it. In fact, his arguments for Japan are the exact opposite of what they are now for the United States.

This is why I think the Smithian “Derp” concept needs fleshing out as a diagnosis of our current situation. (I’m not a fan of the word either, but I’ll use it for this post.) For those not familiar with the term, Noah Smith argues that a major problem in our policy discussions is “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors.” But if that was the only issue, Meltzer would support more expansion like he did for Japan!

Simply blaming reiteration of priors is missing something. The problem here isn’t that Meltzer may have changed his mind on his advice for Japan. If that’s the case, I’d love to read about what led to that change. The problem is one of denialism, where the person refuses to acknowledge the actually existing debate, and instead pantomimes a debate with a shadow. It involves the idea of a straw man, but sometimes it’s simply not engaging at all. For Meltzer, the extensive debate about monetary policy at the zero lower bound is simply excised from the conversation, and people who only read him will have no clue that it was ever there.

There’s also another dimension that I think is even more important, which is whether or not the argument, conclusions, or suggestions are in good faith. Eventually, this transcends the “reiteration of strong priors” and becomes an updating of the case but a reiteration of the conclusion. Throughout 2010 and 2011, an endless series of arguments about how a long-term fiscal deal would help with the current recession were made, without any credible evidence that this would help our short-term economy. But that’s what people want to do, and so they acknowledge the fresh problem but simply plug in their wrong solutions. The same was true with Mitt Romney’s plan for the economy, which wasn’t specific to 2012 in any way.

Bad faith solutions don’t have to be about things you wanted to do anyway. Phillip Mirowski’s new book makes a fascinating observation about conservative think tanks when it comes to global warming. On the one hand, they have an active project arguing global warming isn’t happening. But on the other hand, they also have an active project arguing global warming can be solved through geoengineering the atmosphere. (For an example, here’s AEI arguing worries over climate change are overblown, but also separately hosting a panel on geoengineering.)

So global warming isn’t real, but if it is, heroic atmospheric entrepreneurs will come in at the last minute and save the day. Thus, you can have denialism and bad-faith solutions in play at the same time.

The fact that we can get to the denial and bad-faith corner makes me think this can be made generalizable and charted on a grid, but I still feel it’s missing some dimensions. What Smith identifies is real, but I’m not sure how to place it on these axes. What do you make of it?

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Here’s the thing about Allan Meltzer: he knows. Or at least he should know. It’s tough to remember that he knows when he writes editorials like his latest, "When Inflation Doves Cry." This is a mess of an editorial, a confused argument about why huge inflation is around the corner. “Instead of continuing along this futile path, the Fed should end its open-ended QE3 now... Those who believe that inflation will remain low should look more thoroughly and think more clearly. ”

But he knows. Because here’s Meltzer in 1999 with "A Policy for Japanese Recovery": “Monetary expansion and devaluation is a much better solution. An announcement by the Bank of Japan and the government that the aim of policy is to prevent deflation and restore growth by providing enough money to raise asset prices would change beliefs and anticipations.”

He knows that there’s an actual debate, with people who are “thinking clearly,” about monetary policy at the zero lower bound as a result of Japan. He participated in it. So he must have been aware of Ben Bernanke, Paul Krugman, Milton Friedman, Michael Woodford, and Lars Svensson all also debating it at the same time. But now he’s forgotten it. In fact, his arguments for Japan are the exact opposite of what they are now for the United States.

This is why I think the Smithian “Derp” concept needs fleshing out as a diagnosis of our current situation. (I’m not a fan of the word either, but I’ll use it for this post.) For those not familiar with the term, Noah Smith argues that a major problem in our policy discussions is “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors.” But if that was the only issue, Meltzer would support more expansion like he did for Japan!

Simply blaming reiteration of priors is missing something. The problem here isn’t that Meltzer may have changed his mind on his advice for Japan. If that’s the case, I’d love to read about what led to that change. The problem is one of denialism, where the person refuses to acknowledge the actually existing debate, and instead pantomimes a debate with a shadow. It involves the idea of a straw man, but sometimes it’s simply not engaging at all. For Meltzer, the extensive debate about monetary policy at the zero lower bound is simply excised from the conversation, and people who only read him will have no clue that it was ever there.

There’s also another dimension that I think is even more important, which is whether or not the argument, conclusions, or suggestions are in good faith. Eventually, this transcends the “reiteration of strong priors” and becomes an updating of the case but a reiteration of the conclusion. Throughout 2010 and 2011, an endless series of arguments about how a long-term fiscal deal would help with the current recession were made, without any credible evidence that this would help our short-term economy. But that’s what people want to do, and so they acknowledge the fresh problem but simply plug in their wrong solutions. The same was true with Mitt Romney’s plan for the economy, which wasn’t specific to 2012 in any way.

Bad faith solutions don’t have to be about things you wanted to do anyway. Phillip Mirowski’s new book makes a fascinating observation about conservative think tanks when it comes to global warming. On the one hand, they have an active project arguing global warming isn’t happening. But on the other hand, they also have an active project arguing global warming can be solved through geoengineering the atmosphere. (For an example, here’s AEI arguing worries over climate change are overblown, but also separately hosting a panel on geoengineering.)

So global warming isn’t real, but if it is, heroic atmospheric entrepreneurs will come in at the last minute and save the day. Thus, you can have denialism and bad-faith solutions in play at the same time.

The fact that we can get to the denial and bad-faith corner makes me think this can be made generalizable and charted on a grid, but I still feel it’s missing some dimensions. What Smith identifies is real, but I’m not sure how to place it on these axes. What do you make of it?

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

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Audacity, Audacity, Always Audacity: Why Obama and Baucus Should Push for a Carbon Tax

Apr 29, 2013Bo Cutter

A carbon tax would bring long-term rewards, but it will take leaders willing to make short-term sacrifices.

We are at an unacknowledged turning point for the economy and the environment. We could, right now, substantially reduce our debt and deficit projections, take a major step toward a better environment, create a simpler and fairer tax system, make job creation easier, and raise economic growth a bit. For all of these reasons, we could and should adopt a carbon tax.

A carbon tax would bring long-term rewards, but it will take leaders willing to make short-term sacrifices.

We are at an unacknowledged turning point for the economy and the environment. We could, right now, substantially reduce our debt and deficit projections, take a major step toward a better environment, create a simpler and fairer tax system, make job creation easier, and raise economic growth a bit. For all of these reasons, we could and should adopt a carbon tax.

Taking this step depends on two men: President Obama and Senator Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Both men want to leave an important legacy, and both are in a unique political position: they still possess real political power, but neither will ever face another election. (Obama, of course, is limited to two terms, and Baucus has just announced that he will retire.) Acting together, the two of them could completely change the odds of enacting a carbon tax this year.

Right now, if you ask around, as I have, there are many across the ideological spectrum who agree that a carbon tax would help us solve a lot of problems, but they won't take a public step because they see no leadership support. My own gut feeling is that there would even be energy industry support for a carbon tax. President Obama and Senator Baucus could change this picture by making a carbon tax a priority and building bipartisan support for the project.

Why should we care? Let's look at four issues: federal revenues, the tax system, jobs, and – oh, yeah – the environment.

First, a carbon tax of $20 a ton would raise about $120 billion a year, or $1.2 trillion over a decade. Right now, everyone anywhere near the budget debates is in a convenient and delusional state of mind about revenues. The conventional wisdom is that we either do not need more revenues or they are easy to find. So here are some counter-assertions: (1) despite the right’s imaginations, we are not going to cope with the retirement of the boomers, the doubling of folks on Medicare, and our need for fundamental infrastructure investment without new revenues; (2) despite the speeches the left makes to itself, the problem won't be solved by taxing whomever the left decides is rich; (3) we aren't going to end the home mortgage and charitable deductions. There will come a point when $1 trillion in new revenue over the next decade that actually makes the economy and the world a little better will look pretty interesting, so why not try for it now?

Second, the tax system is a mess and more caught in a state of political gridlock than even the rest of the federal budget. The system is far too complicated, and it probably lowers economic growth and job creation. More practically, raising new revenues from this structure is next to impossible; the 40-year strategy of broadening the base and lowering rates (a strategy I agree with) has played itself out. With the carbon tax's $1 trillion, you could exempt low-income families, reduce the payroll tax, lower overall tax rates, and still bring down the debt and deficit. Sure, there would be fights about how to use the extra revenue, but those are fights the political system is supposed to have.

Third, jobs. We rely way too much on payroll taxes. They are very, very inefficient, and they directly and visibly add to the costs of job creation. Back when the U.S. economy was an unstoppable job machine, these taxes looked as though they were cost-free. Not anymore. I am optimistic about our long-term economic prospects, but I also think the jobs of the future will require much more education and training content than the jobs of the past, and therefore employers will be much more sensitive to other costs, i.e., taxes. Anything sensible we can do to make job creation easier and less costly is a step we should take.

Finally, the environment. A lot has been published recently about climate change and its sensitivity to greenhouse gases. Cutting through all of the models and the uncertainties, the net conclusion is that warming is probably a small bit less sensitive to greenhouse gases than we have thought. Climate change deniers have used this for the obvious purposes. But the actual end conclusions haven't changed much. At current rates, we will put half a trillion more tons of carbon into the atmosphere by 2045 and 1 trillion more by 2080. Because of this the Earth's temperature will probably warm about three-quarters of a degree in the next 30 years and 1.5 degrees over the next 50. (30 years may seem a long time to some of you; from my perspective, it's a blink of an eye away.) And the math keeps suggesting that the earth's sensitivity to extreme events is increasing more rapidly than global warming. So the future may be less hot but more dangerous.

Isn't it worth a small amount of political difficulty and a fairly small tax now to slow down these trends? Everyone in politics talks a lot about political courage – mostly their own. As far as I can tell, political courage normally consists of doing something your supporters love and your opponents hate and then bragging about it. But maybe the two leaders I mentioned at the start will realize that they can afford to change that definition and leave a real legacy.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

 

Melting Earth image via Shutterstock.com

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Millennials Identify Three Keys to Preventing the Next Superstorm Sandy

Apr 22, 2013Preeya Saikia

Current and future leaders convened at Yale to explore a proactive approach to natural disasters.

Current and future leaders convened at Yale to explore a proactive approach to natural disasters.

It’s been six months since Superstorm Sandy devastated the Northeast, but its impact can still be felt. Recently, members of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network held a conference at Yale University to consider the policy implications of the disaster. New Haven Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro set the stage for the conference with a keynote reminding us that “disasters test contracts of citizenship.” This notion was embodied in student presentations on ongoing policy work influenced by actions that governmental and non-governmental agencies took to manage the crisis.

A guiding principle behind these student policies and the speaker presentations: planning efforts for a natural disaster are hardly limited to trouble-shooting the problem when it occurs. As future policymakers, we must have thoughtful disaster plans in place, anticipate factors that contribute to the occurrence of natural disasters, and forecast the ramifications of rebuilding an area after a disaster strikes.  

Preparedness

Sandy was an opportunity for citizens to pull together in the face of adversity. This positive outcome aside, we should not lose sight of why community members had to create ad hoc campaigns in the first place: they were filling gaps in formal disaster relief efforts, some of which still haven’t even been identified. Students advocated for increased efficiency in relief plans to help neglected segments of the population, with one calling for an assessment of the role of civilian first responders in order to understand what public agencies can do to organize this manpower going forward.

To take one example, Sandy separated many mental health patients from their caretakers and limited their access to medicine. As one student policy pointed out, well-intentioned individuals tried to fill the void, but they lacked the background to handle these situations. Speaker Mary Casey Lockyer, Manager of Disaster Services for Health Services at the Red Cross, explained that while many Red Cross volunteers are registered nurses who have the training to handle mental health issues, they are also over the age of 50. These well-practiced volunteers faced challenges in moving around during the storm due to their advanced age. Her recommendation is for younger people to volunteer with the Red Cross as apprentices to these professionals so that they can be trained and mobilized in the event of another Sandy-sized disaster.

Another student policy in progress identified the asymmetric level of relief available to low-income Americans compared to their wealthier counterparts. In identifying this gap, public agencies can revise disaster plans to incorporate all Americans. Speaker Robert Smuts, Director of Emergency Management in New Haven, stressed that it is critical for public agencies to anticipate what will go wrong and prepare the right units accordingly. In anticipation of Winter Storm Nemo, which brought 34 inches of snow to New Haven, he prepared snow trucks that also had medical supplies and tools to cut down fallen trees.

Preventative Measures

Natural disasters are not entirely preventable, but there are measures that public agencies can adopt to mitigate the level of damage and the frequency with which they occur. Several student policies made the connection between climate change and natural disasters. One Roosevelter investigated the role of weather forecasting in disaster prevention. In her research, she found that America’s forecasting model lags behind Europe’s. This is a critical technical deficiency, since an advanced computer model could alert us to disasters sooner and allow us to build adequate buffers to mitigate damages and limit human suffering by evacuating people from areas that are likely to be devastated.

Another approach to prevent the effects of climate change is to limit the use of fossil fuels that release greenhouse gas emissions. One student policy looked at using solar power towers to harness the sun’s energy in lieu of fossil fuels.

Rebuilding    

If there is one takeaway from the conference, it is that we need to rebuild devastated areas thoughtfully. Speaker James Rausse, President of the American Planning Association’s New York chapter, enlightened us on the reality of overseeing a rebuilding project in Breezy Point. The storm destroyed several businesses, which had repercussions for the local economy. The challenge of rebuilding Breezy Point lies in deciding what ought to be developed and how to finance the project.

Congresswoman DeLauro addressed the challenge of financing rebuilding efforts through a National Infrastructure Bank. This entity would leverage private investments for public projects. The Concourse Fund, a student-run microfinance institution that began in Fordham University, suggested a stock market model for ideas on rebuilding in order to answer the question of “what ought to be developed.” The exchange would provide public officials with the opportunity to review all rebuilding ideas, as well as the cost and effectiveness of these ideas. This would allow them to make sound decisions and justify those choices to the public based on the market results.

Students also contributed their own ideas on what ought to be built, including a suggestion that we create a national park to serve as a buffer between high sea levels and residential communities in the Lower East Side. This would also allow the community to raise revenue from park entrance fees and events.

In order to answer the questions of “what ought to be developed” and “how to finance projects”, the Concourse Fund introduced the idea of retrofitting buildings with green roofs, which limit the fossil fuels that city buildings use for maintenance. As an added advantage, these green roofs would be financed through small business loans from community banks, which would result in active small businesses that stimulate the local economy.

The conference at Yale was an invaluable experience for all who attended. Several of the student presentations led to collaborative brainstorming sessions, which led to partnerships to develop ongoing policy work. Students also connected with speakers to help them develop their policies. Some of these students have already shown interest in showcasing their projects at the Roosevelt Institute’s annual Policy Expo in Washington, D.C., and submitting their final policies for publication in the next edition of the 10 Ideas journal. The conference was a unique opportunity for students to hear from individuals who are active in the Sandy recovery and rebuilding efforts, and it gave current leaders the chance to hear from future leaders in public service.

Preeya Saikia is the Economic Development Policy Director at The City College of New York's Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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Mike Konczal: The BP Trial Could Be Environmental Regulation's Last Stand

Mar 4, 2013

This past weekend, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal joined a panel on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss the significance of the BP trial and the true cost of the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Because of weak laws and regulatory capture, Mike says, the civil court system "is ultimately the last form of regulation we have." But will the punishment, if any, fit the crime?

This past weekend, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal joined a panel on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss the significance of the BP trial and the true cost of the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Because of weak laws and regulatory capture, Mike says, the civil court system "is ultimately the last form of regulation we have." But will the punishment, if any, fit the crime? "It's one thing for them to say, 'There's all these damages and we're going to pay them out.' That's just basic fairness," Mike argues. But "without a serious payout that is punitive and that actually deters future behavior, we're going to see more things like this." Unfortunately, "People will tally up things that they can measure, but human suffering, third-order poverty that has skyrocketed as a result of all this industry collapse, that is very difficult to put a price tag on."

Watch the full video of Mike's appearance below:




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