Obama Makes the Case for Government

Jan 25, 2012Jeff Madrick

The president didn't go as far as he needed to, but he began to articulate an argument that the American people need to hear.

The president's State of the Union speech last night was not a progressive's delight. But it straightforwardly and strongly put forth a case for government that the president has heretofore not made. Perhaps America is again ready to listen after the dominance of an anti-government narrative for so long.

The president didn't go as far as he needed to, but he began to articulate an argument that the American people need to hear.

The president's State of the Union speech last night was not a progressive's delight. But it straightforwardly and strongly put forth a case for government that the president has heretofore not made. Perhaps America is again ready to listen after the dominance of an anti-government narrative for so long.

Last night, the president covered a lot of territory, and in fact almost all the important bases. He made several unfortunate nods to the right, including proudly boasting of his new offshore oil drilling plans and a renewed offer to use Social Security and Medicare as negotiating tools in order to raise taxes on the wealthy and cut taxes for the rest. He did not suggest that perhaps we could live with this deficit until the economy righted itself. He certainly did not suggest new stimulus, which is what we need. But the overall impact of the speech was to make a case for government.

He took on the loss of manufacturing jobs as his first item of business, after some deliberately patriotic claims about how the world is much safer today. This was important. Most mainstream economists, including many who lean Democratic, have little taste for government interference in the markets to create more manufacturing jobs. They say declining manufacturing is only natural. But Obama rightly said he would use the tax code to penalize those who send jobs overseas and reward those who bring them home. He will set up a task force on unfair trade practices. He called China out for such practices. This was pretty tough talk. Granted, he didn't call for less currency manipulation but that would have been pretty insensitive in a State of the Union address.

He made proposals regarding education, infrastructure, housing, and energy, calling for investment in clean energy as well as dirty energy like fracking and offshore drilling. But he also said in a direct attack on Republicans that we have subsidized oil too long.

He also made a deliberate, explicit case for government regulation in general -- over drilling, on Wall Street, everywhere it was needed. Aside from making the tax system more progressive, his case for regulation was perhaps his most important ideological claim for a strong government. But his case for government -- from tax subsidies to infrastructure investment to higher taxes on the wealthy to a new attack on financial fraud -- was unmistakable.

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Inequality was high on his list of problems in America. He called for a millionaire's tax. He repeated that America must work for all. He criticized Wall Street with some pretty nasty language, willing to anger more than a few donors there who still think they are doing God's business.

Many are now pointing out that the political climate has changed, less talk of deficits and more talk of inequality. Bravo Occupy Wall Street. They are even talking about inequality at Davos, sensitivity reaching the upper strata who breathe only the fumes of self-regard but now realize even they are jeopardized by the distortions created in many free market economies.

But in the end, the American economy needs the stimulus mentioned above, and the president avoided the issue. Unfortunately, the economy is not as willing to ignore sources of weakness. He did not mention the eurozone crisis, either, or other reasons for concern. But he did say he would present a new mortgage relief scheme. Other than that, is a continuation of the payroll tax cuts enough? And doesn't it now begin to undermine Social Security?

As I said, this was no progressive's delight. He wants those who make $250,000 or less to be spared of any tax increase. At some point, taxes will have to rise somewhat for the middle class if America is to do what is necessary. But in the end, Obama was running for re-election. It was in many ways an us-versus-them speech. Either you are with me or you are with them, them being the irresponsible rich blessed with a tax system so favorable that even America, where we are told (I don't believe this) everyone dreams of being rich, is sick and tired of it. The election will be fought on those terms and I think Obama is on target.

Now we await some details and some real legislative proposals. How good will the mortgage relief plan be? What will an energy policy look like? Will he offer a new infrastructure program? Will he hang tough on his message, in the end?

My view is that Obama should put up his programs as soon as possible, even if a few are politically difficult, and let the Republicans shoot them down if they must. Then he can go to the public and tell them it is the Republican opposition that is holding the nation back. And he would be right.

Yes, we need a lot more than the president is willing to do. He is still above all a moderate politician. But he has a workable plan to be reelected. And let me board the cliché train: do you really want one of the opposition to be president? Let me answer: No, you don't. Even in only four years, irreparable damage can be done to the nation. Look what Reagan did in his first term.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the author of Age of Greed.

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Roosevelt Reacts: Obama's SOTU was Heavy on Campaign Themes, Light on Policy

Jan 25, 2012

As President Obama delivered his third State of the Union address, we asked Fellows and staff from the Four Freedoms Center, Campus Network, and Pipeline to weigh in with their thoughts on what they wanted to hear and how the speech matched up:

Ellen Chesler, Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute:

As President Obama delivered his third State of the Union address, we asked Fellows and staff from the Four Freedoms Center, Campus Network, and Pipeline to weigh in with their thoughts on what they wanted to hear and how the speech matched up:

Ellen Chesler, Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute:

"Since Obama's speech was so overtly political and partisan, challenging Republicans on basic principles, I was actually surprised at first that it contained so few explicitly 'gendered' references. Candidate Obama, after all, can only win a second term handily if he woos back the independent women voters who favored him by such a wide margin in 2008, but then abandoned congressional Democrats in the midterms over their disenchantment with his handling of the economy.

Granted, the speech had a predictable shout-out to 'equal pay' and a coy but definitely pre-meditated reference to the owners of small businesses as 'shes,' not 'hes,' which reminded us of my very favorite little-known employment statistic -- that women-owned businesses employ more people in this country than all the Fortune 500 companies combined.

But by and large, Obama eschewed the potential divisiveness of identity politics in favor of a few overarching themes: I inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression, but we've created millions of new jobs since I've been here; after eight years of Republican rule, the gap between rich and poor has never been greater in this country, but I will end this extreme and unsustainable inequality; and I took on two wars, but today not a soldier remains in combat in Iraq, American troops are leaving Afghanistan, Bin Laden is dead, and his henchmen are in retreat.

And this may be the wiser strategy. The great majority of elections since 1984 have seen a sizable gender gap, with woman endorsing the government activism and commitment to fair play that Democrats represent. There have been only two exceptions: 2010, when the economy tanked, and 2002, when national security trumped all other issues after 9/11. Reminding those women that they and their families will be far better off and a whole lot safer under Democrats is really all candidate Obama needed to say about the State of the Union."

Suzanne Kahn, Fellow, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline:

"Last night's speech was full of really interesting and exciting proposals. But in a speech that was full of fairly detailed policy suggestions, the one mention of equal pay for equal work for women was remarkably flimsy. President Obama said women should earn equal pay for equal work, but gave no further detail on how to make that happen. This is an issue that has been on the table for half a century, yet women still earn about 77 cents for every dollar men earn.

At this point, we know there are a range of policies that would help close this gap -- everything from more affordable childcare to stronger rules that allow women to discover wage discrimination and sue for damages. But President Obama did not point to any of these policies last night. He didn't tell us how he wanted to make his stated desire for equal pay become a reality. Without concrete proposals, it's hard to see how this rhetoric will become anything more than that this year. That's too bad, because women have demanded and needed stronger equal pay protections for decades."

Minjon Tholen, Fellow, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline:

"A State of the Union address at the beginning of an election year means high stakes for an incumbent president. Sandwiched between the country's military accomplishments and foreign policy strategies, President Obama delivered a well-crafted speech that redefined American values to include fair play and equal opportunity, shared responsibility, working together, and having each other's backs. His repeated call for receiving bills proposed by Congress was his critique of polarizing, ego-driven, and stalled negotiations that were meant to discredit the Obama administration rather than to do what is best for the American people. The president's attitude and words were energetic, clear, defiant, strong, and optimistic; I want to see this character and backbone reflected throughout his campaign and second term, and for it to be translated into actions and innovative policies.

I especially appreciated Obama's dedication to accessible and effective education and health care, tax and government reform, and gender equality. I was happy to hear statements such as 'Women should earn equal pay for equal work,' 'I won't allow insurance companies to charge women differently than men,' and 'We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings -- men and women; Christians, Muslims, and Jews.' I am concerned about the lack of proposed concrete actions and comprehensive policy changes to accomplish these things. Still, Obama may be the most feminist president this country has known thus far. And who's next -- Hilary Clinton? On that note, seeing Secretary Clinton's strong and positive presence at the SOTU makes an Obama-Clinton ticket for this year's campaign a tempting thought. Not only could it reenergize the campaign and reinforce the legitimacy and competency of the administration, it would also be an even stronger force to reckon with, which is something we will surely need this election cycle."

Thomas Ferguson, Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute and Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, Boston:

"Some of the president's proposals are intriguing, but they are hard to assess until we see details -- the mortgage refinancing program above all. I don't see any reason why the attorney general needs to be assisted by state attorneys general in investigating mortgage fraud. The latter have spearheaded all serious efforts to rein in the banks; this new federal/state initiative looks like an effort to curb the more vigorous state efforts.

The president's words were clear but only sometimes reassuring. It is fine to talk exports and jobs, but the heart of those programs are mostly special subsidies to business. It would be far better for all of us if the president abandoned his fixation on the deficit for the next few years and focused on sustaining total demand in the economy instead of myriad special subsidies. The proposals on political money are weak indeed; the president is really punting on that issue, especially the role of secret funds. And there is deep contradiction between the president's emphasis on education and the actual conditions of the states. Most education funding from the federal government gets channeled through states and localities. But they are broke. And while it's fine to cut interest rates on student loans, the real problem is that students are assuming way too much debt. A useful federal government initiative on public higher education has to address that. One also has to say that the rhetoric about the United States being more respected than ever is, well, politics.

One of the most striking characteristics of the European financial crisis has been the muted role of the U.S., and there is no mystery about why that is: the U.S. cannot afford to contribute much of anything except Federal Reserve swap lines. Those are important, but it's a long drop from the role the U.S. played in previous financial crises."

Taylor Jo Isenberg, Deputy Director, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:

"No one doubts that the president is an oratory genius. His ability to deliver a speech makes dreamers out of pessimists and believers out of skeptics. And after the last three years, it's easy to argue that there are plenty of the latter out there, particularly among Millennials. Every single issue he tackled in the State of the Union has long-term implications for our generation -- from worrying trends in college affordability to frightening statistics on a shrinking middle class. The stakes are high for us. We get that.

We also get that governing is hard. There is frustration with undelivered promises and dispiriting inaction on key issues, but we understand that nation building takes time and that it takes all of us, every day. President Obama summoned the fiery, activist candidate that inspired millions in 2008, and it was a reminder of the inspiration we have to tap into -- and the civic responsibility we must commit to -- if we are to continue to work towards a more progressive society. The speech was powerful at some points, flat at others; it stated important truths, but shirked difficult topics. What's more important is whether the country decides to take his final message and hold fast to the truth that this nation is 'great because we get each other's back.' Where the hope and promise now lies is the fact that we, as a generation, definitely get that."

Reese Neader, National Policy Director, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:

"President Obama effectively laid out a new economic blueprint in his State of the Union address. This long-term vision reflects his narrative of 'winning the future' and is a sensible plan for how the United States can promote shared prosperity in the early 21st century. There are seven fundamental issues of 'nation building' that we must address to move our country forward: Investment in every stage of education so that American children can grow up to compete on an even playing field in the global economy and have the skills necessary to grow American jobs. Investment in innovation so that U.S. businesses can brandish a competitive edge in the global economy and U.S. households can power themselves with American-made energy.

1. Investment in every stage of education so that American children can grow up to compete on an even playing field in the global economy and have the skills necessary to grow American jobs.
2. Investment in innovation so that U.S. businesses can brandish a competitive edge in the global economy and U.S. households can power themselves with American-made energy.
3. Investment in infrastructure that allows the U.S. to maintain its competitive edge in the global economy and increases economic opportunity for all Americans.
4. Financial reform that effectively regulates excessive market risk, creates new markets for economic growth and job creation, and ensures U.S. households and businesses get the support they deserve.
5. Tax reform that rewards U.S. companies for innovation and job creation, while ensuring that every person pays their fair share into the system.
6. Immigration reform that favors well-educated, high-skilled workers and provides reasonable opportunities for undocumented workers to obtain citizenship.
7. Governmental reform that will allow all of these goals to be achieved much more efficiently and effectively.

The president's fundamental vision is that the federal government has a positive role to play in our lives: ensuring that 'everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.' His blueprint for change is designed to steer our country toward a new era of shared prosperity. Working towards that vision with focus and vigor is the only way that our country can 'win' the 21st century."

Winston Lofton, National Field Director, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:

"The president did not spend much time talking about the 'State' of the 'Union.' There was a sprinkling of typifying American stories and a nod to widespread frustration with the culture of Congress and money in politics. There was no acknowledgement of the nearly one in two Americans who are not economically secure, the damage our food and energy infrastructure is doing to people and the planet, or the powerlessness Americans feel in the face of collective challenges. He paid no heed to fresh instances of institutionalized Islamophobia, or to the compounding inadequacies of housing, schools, jobs, and criminal justice facing urban and rural communities. He book-ended his address not by focusing on the plight, nor the brilliance, of our mothers, sisters, and cousins, but by focusing on the might and glory of our military. This was not so much a 'State of the Union' as a 'State of the Empire.'

That's because last night, the president did not speak to me. He spoke to members of Congress as if they were -- or at least as if they represented -- rich, powerful elites whose primary concerns were beating plutocrats and oligarchs in other countries and continuing to be the world's biggest, baddest bully. Even in acknowledging the dismal state of American education, he discussed how that system is inhibiting Bill Gates's access to a productive workforce, not failing our children and parents. His solutions were small (e.g. addressing "insider trading" as a solution to money in politics) or outmoded (for example, his nostalgic focus on the need for a manufacturing-heavy labor market).

Ultimately I'm a pragmatist, and I know that actually improving the material realities for Americans on the ground is far more important than articulating wishful thoughts of a utopian future on high. I appreciate the need for trust, constructive dialogue, and the negotiation of overlapping consensus in Congress. This just wasn't the place for it. This was the place for the president to set the framework in which that negotiation takes place, to highlight the contours of what's right and wrong with our Union today, to tell Aunt Nancy that he understands her pain and that there is a way forward. Instead, he took a center-right set of assumptions as a frame and attempted to project Candidate Obama as the reasonable convener with some okay ideas.

The State of the Union address was another reminder that we can't look to one man to solve our problems from afar. We need a lively democracy with distributed, engaged, savvy leadership in synagogues, community colleges, and break rooms across the country."

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Kristen Tullos, Fellow, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline:

"As I expected, President Obama did not have as much to say about housing, although he mentioned it in several places. There was some speculation before the SOTU that he might unveil a new pilot program to convert vacant homes owned by Fannie and Freddie into rental property, which would put those properties to productive use and satiate some of the demand that is driving a steady increase in rental prices. Alas, we'll have to wait for another speech. He did mention a plan, yet to be unveiled, that will give every homeowner about $3,000 in savings through refinancing their mortgages. Like much of the SOTU, the plan sounds good in theory (and certainly in President Obama's tone and inflection) but lacks the details that will determine the outcome. His administration has tried to help homeowners many times before, but each program fell short of its purported goal. One positive thing I took away is that President Obama wants to charge the large banks a fee to fund the proposal. I strongly support making banks help homeowners, although I believe we should go much further than paying a (likely) small fee. This jives with my basic ideas of fairness and justice, and I expect it will resonate with many Americans.

At the same time, I took issue with the many times he used the terms 'responsible homeowners' and 'responsible families who want to buy a home.' It's like trying to categorize the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. Good luck. Investigations done after the housing crisis have shown that most of the subprime lending was driven by investors and especially brokers who had every incentive to put unqualified people into complex, risky loans while keeping none of the risk. In addition, lending is an area where there is a huge asymmetry of information. I hope that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, also mentioned by President Obama, will simplify and clarify lending documents."

Alan Smith, National Program Director, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:

"Where was Obamacare? In last night's State of the Union, Barack Obama started off laying out major wins from his presidency: Soldiers are out of Iraq; Bin Laden is dead; even Dodd-Frank's Wall Street reforms got a shout-out. But he didn't mention Obamacare even once over the course of the evening.

If he's already started running on his record, why not mention the ways that health care reform has already started to have positive effects? Why not highlight the impact of one of the few huge pieces of legislation that he got passed? I don't love the idea of treating the State of the Union as a campaign speech, but there are a lot of positive things to mention.

Around 2.5 million young adults have insurance now that didn't have insurance before. Another 2.5 million senior citizens saved a few hundred dollars each on their prescription drug costs in the 'doughnut hole' that Obama closed. There's a lot more -- hard numbers that would serve as good applause lines in the SOTU.

He also could have used it as a moment for teaching viewers about the many big picture changes and savings that are still to come in 2014. I worked hard to make the health care bill as awesome as it could be, and while I was disappointed with some of the things that the final legislation left on the table (cough cough, public option, cough) I did feel it was a signature achievement."

Rajiv Narayan, Senior Fellow for Health Care, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:

"The State of the Union is stronger than the president gives it credit for. While following the nostalgic trip back through a year that featured economic recovery, an end to war, and an end to many dictatorships, I was waiting for President Obama to underscore the underdog story of health care reform. Despite obstructionism in the legislature, noncompliance in some states, and uncertainty in the court system, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has managed to make great strides. It's no small feat that 2.5 million young Americans have gained health coverage in a little over a year. But I am not surprised discussion of health care reform did not make the final draft. The elephants in the room would be less than receptive to news of success. Perhaps I am alone in thinking public controversy is not all bad. Since the last mention of health care in a 2009 congressional address was greeted by the now-immortalized 'You lie!' from Rep. Joe Wilson, we've learned that outbursts are more often remembered for their silliness than their salience. When the whole world is watching, the administration should stick to all its guns, not just those that are universally popular."

Dante Barry, Chapter Services Coordinator and Summer Academy Coordinator, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:

"At the end of the president's address last night, he reminded us that the story of this country is much bigger than politics. He noted that this country wasn't built by any one person; it required a team effort and a shared vision. At this point, Congress is in a political deadlock where partisanship is obstructing action. I am so proud that the president spoke with conviction and confidence. He reminded me that the work that Campus Network members do is a part of the journey forward that he mentions, and that it will strengthen the state of the country as they work with their communities to address their challenges."

Nick Santos, Fellow, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline:

"In general, the president's tone was very optimistic and success-oriented, which is to be expected. I think he made excellent use of phrasing that demanded legislation on his desk that he promises to sign, allowing him to come across as action-oriented in comparison to Congress' obstruction. His proposal to take savings from the war and put that toward paying down the debt and building infrastructure is a great idea and a strong message.

As for energy policy, the president played to the right wing in his chosen messages and devoted significant time to fossil fuels. He played the security card most heavily on energy, making mention of the Department of Defense's efforts and reductions in foreign energy. He used the Republicans' message of ‘all of the above' for energy, talked first about expansion of offshore oil drilling, and focused heavily on choosing natural gas (a fossil fuel) for being cleaner than other fossil fuels.

When the president got to clean energy, he kept with the optimistic tone of the rest of his speech and didn't mention the problems we face, like waning fossil fuel supplies or climate change. This is a huge problem for issues that need to be talked about to be credible. He did, however plug some practical solutions to these problems that are economically sensible, create jobs, and are populist. He mentioned policies like expansion of energy efficiency programs, use of public lands for clean energy, clean energy tax credits, and ending oil subsidies. His most controversial energy policy was only a brief mention of a clean energy standard.

My feeling is that this was not the kind of ambition we need on as vital an issue as energy, but it is the kind of compromise I expect from Obama. It is a position that delicately straddles the line on policies that compete with one another. It's a pragmatic approach to passing energy policies and may be more effective in the short run, but a more visionary approach to energy that addressed our greatest needs would have involved a call for a cap on our carbon emissions to stem the greatest effects of global warming, a commitment to shutting down old, dirty coal plants, skipping the rhetoric on expanding fossil fuels, commitments of federal government agencies outside of Defense to buying clean energy, and more time detailing the clean energy policies that he mentioned in passing. Many of those are good policies that would help encourage our young clean energy economy to grow."

Erika Solanki, Senior Fellow for Economic Development, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:

"What I found most significant was the president's reference to the importance of job market integration with community colleges. In the midst of troubling economic circumstances with ever-more powerful competition from countries like India and China, it's critical for America to ensure that its young adults have access to the education that gives them the skills to compete on the world market. Complementary to access to higher education is the issue of optimization. We need to reinvigorate our economy by increasing efficiency and strategizing potential within community colleges. It is imperative that community college students are able to translate their scholastic training into real earnings.

Ultimately, community college educations can become powerful mechanisms for economic mobility, however, in order to achieve this ideal, we need to bridge the gap between community colleges and employers. Currently, more than two thirds of community college students fail to complete their community college education or fail to transfer to a four-year school. In order to utilize post-secondary education as an economic tool, it is critical that community colleges work with employers to illuminate the immense possibilities and dividends that can become apparent upon successful completion. By more actively and directly connecting community college programs with career-driven professional tracks, we can institute generational socio-economic transformations among many families."

Rahul Rekhi, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network member, Rice University chapter:

"This week marked the start of the Lunar New Year -- a clean slate, a fresh beginning, the start of something, well, new. But what was compelling about last night's presidential address was neither its novelty nor its unorthodoxy. Indeed, for all of its grandiose trappings, for all its hubbub and stately decorum, this State of the Union -- and, by extension, the president's policy palette -- can be summed up quite neatly in just two words: common sense.

Because ultimately, at least from this millennial wonk's perspective, the proposals President Obama advocated largely seem to be just that: common sense. Ending discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, as done under the Affordable Care Act? A no-brainer. Increased student aid? Unambiguously valuable. Corporate tax reform? Not even a question. Increased investments in medical research and basic science? You guessed it -- just plain common sense. In just a little over an hour, the president articulated many of the most pressing policy concerns that remain most troubling to Millennials: burdensome student debt, the staggeringly high unemployment rate, and continued access to health care, just to name a few -- and proffered solutions that were, for the most part, both bipartisan and substantive.

Yet, despite this, it is unlikely, given the current standstill state of Congress, that more than just a few -- if any -- of these must-have solutions will be signed into law this year. Whether that's due to the president's shortcomings as a negotiator, historically unparalleled Republican intransigence, or the intrinsically unyielding nature of partisan gridlock is unclear. One thing, however, is for sure: the limiting reagent in Washington right now is not ideas, but action, and until that changes, the American Dream alluded to tonight may, for my generation and those that follow, remain just that -- a dream. 2012 may well be the Year of the Dragon, but it might just be remembered for a chimera of an entirely different sort."

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Meet the Millennials Who Are Changing the World

Jan 24, 2012Bryce Covert

Who says young people aren't paying attention? This year's Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellows have ideas that aim to solve issues from boosting economies in developing countries, finding new thinking in the Arab world, and ending the school-to-prison pipeline. They may still be in school, but their ideas could reach every corner of the country -- and even the globe. Watch them talk about their inspiring projects:

Who says young people aren't paying attention? This year's Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellows have ideas that aim to solve issues from boosting economies in developing countries, finding new thinking in the Arab world, and ending the school-to-prison pipeline. They may still be in school, but their ideas could reach every corner of the country -- and even the globe. Watch them talk about their inspiring projects:

Whoever thinks that young people are only good for knocking doors and showing up on election day hasn't spoken to these students. Ahmad wants to "think about things in a new way" after the Arab Spring. David plans to "engage a whole new group of students in policy activism" through new approaches to global warming. May wants to "give [students] the power to talk to administrations, draft things out, look at budgets and be like, 'Wow, this really isn't effective.'" And Rajiv wants to "make sense of the byzantine way in which [health care] policy is created."

You won't find apathy here. Stay tuned for an upcoming series on all of the ideas proposed by Campus Network students for the annual 10 Ideas publication.

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Keystone Reveals Consensus on Infrastructure Jobs -- So Where Are They?

Jan 20, 2012David Weinberger

need-job-150Republicans and Democrats both agree: infrastructure projects create jobs. So is anyone going to pass a plan and put people to work?

need-job-150Republicans and Democrats both agree: infrastructure projects create jobs. So is anyone going to pass a plan and put people to work?

President Obama issued an announcement this week that he has rejected the Keystone XL pipeline as it currently exists, a move that effectively cancels the long-debated project for the foreseeable future. As expected, the reaction from Republicans has been anything but positive, as conservative members of Congress have lamented the thousands of potential jobs lost as a result of the project's cancellation. As they complain, there are obviously inconsistencies between the jobs rhetoric now emerging from the right and Republicans' opposition to the president's American Jobs Act in September of last year.

Transcanada's controversial Keystone XL pipeline project would have brought natural gas and oil 1,700 miles, from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada through six states and down to the Gulf Coast. Yesterday's announcement was not the first time President Obama had attempted to cancel the pipeline. In November, the White House delayed his decision, opting to wait until 2013 for the State Department to review an alternate route that would avoid regions that environmentalists had identified as being highly environmentally sensitive. This delay was considered a fatal blow for the project and a boon for President Obama, who would not be required to issue an official decision until after the election in November.

But as part of the tax deal he cut with Republicans at the end of last year, the president was required to make a decision on the pipeline by February 21. Republicans in Congress and right-leaning pundits see Keystone XL as a symbol of jobs creation and a sure way to restore the national economy. Congressional Republicans hoped that by pushing up the decision to before the election they would be able to leverage Obama's dismissal of a jobs-creating project during campaign season.

As if on cue, Speaker of the House John Boehner issued a statement yesterday condemning the White House's decision to block the project, citing the "tens of thousands of jobs" that Keystone XL would have created. "The president," said Boehner, "is selling out American jobs for politics." This is particularly interesting, considering the stance that Republicans in Congress have taken against the president's jobs bill since it was proposed back in September.

The American Jobs Act, if passed in full, would have made hundreds of billions of dollars worth of investments in public projects, employing as many as 1.9 million Americans as they upgraded, repaired, and expanded highways, bridges, rail, and other crucial infrastructure across the country. It also included billions of dollars in provisions to keep teachers, firefighters, and police officers at work, as well as billions more for youth summer employment programs and an extension of unemployment benefits.

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The rhetoric that came out of the right at that time included accusations that what the president was proposing was an irresponsibly massive expenditure, dismissing the act as an unnecessary addition to the deficit and an attempt at garnering electoral support ahead of the 2012 election. This was despite the president's assertion that it would be paid for by the supposed reductions from the ill-fated super committee.

The prolonged debate on jobs creation and Keystone XL can be distilled to two points of agreement between both parties. First, everyone agrees that infrastructure investment in times of economic downturn leads to returns in the private sector. The point of divergence here is that Republicans believe in backing direct private investment, while the president stands firmly behind the importance of public seed money for spurring private investment. Second, the goal of any economic policy today is to create and sustain as many American jobs as possible.

While Republicans may disagree with the means to arrive at more jobs for Americans, it is difficult to argue with the numbers. The most optimistic estimate had the Keystone XL pipeline creating 13,000 construction jobs and 118,000 spin-off jobs -- jobs that would come as a result of increased activity in local economies along the pipeline. This, of course, does not account for the potentially devastating economic effects of situating a tar sands pipeline within close proximity to some of the most thriving biodiversity hotspots in the United States. On the other hand, the American Jobs Act could have created about 1.9 million American jobs with virtually no impact on the environment.

If Republicans in Congress are going to back an investment in infrastructure, it would be most beneficial to support the kinds of national public projects that will put millions of Americans back to work and will enhance the country's infrastructure. By throwing their weight behind the pipeline project, Republicans have missed a crucial opportunity for economic growth. Once again, politicization of a simple economic principle -- that infrastructure investments lead to jobs creation -- has left millions of Americans without a paycheck. Still, now that the Keystone XL pipeline has been canceled, Republicans should back the job-creating infrastructure projects proposed by the president if they are serious about getting Americans back to work.

David Weinberger is the Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment at the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a senior at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

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Six Issues That Should Make Progressives Care About Agriculture Policy

Jan 5, 2012Lauren Servin

At the heart of our food policy lie core issues such as national security, energy and the environment, and public health. We should pay attention.

At the heart of our food policy lie core issues such as national security, energy and the environment, and public health. We should pay attention.

Agriculture is possibly the most critical issue of our time. Our food system is increasingly vulnerable to complications created by risky farming practices, climate change, and instability in international markets. While the media covers sensational food stories such as Congress declaring pizza a vegetable or Michele Obama planting an 'organic' vegetable garden at the White House, the everyday American public does not typically scrutinize agriculture policy.  Rarely are issues of agriculture featured in political debates, nor do politicians use it as an issue to court voters. While politicians and the media may not find it as spicy an issue as abortion or gay marriage, progressives need to make this our issue. We need to push our representatives to ensure that our tax dollars are spent on the foods that keep our kids healthy, promote practices that do not harm the environment, and enact policies that contribute to our long-term food security. Because sound agriculture policy leads to a safer country, a better environment, less energy use, a diminished role for big money, improved foreign policy, and a healthier citizenry.

1. National security: Agriculture plays a large role in our national security. More people than ever depend on fewer farmers for their food. As of 2009, the 285 million people living in the U.S. were fed by 960,000 farmers, meaning that well under 1 percent of the population supports the other 99.6 percent, while they also export their harvests around the globe. Our most basic necessity is concentrated in the hands of a few and entangled in international trade, leaving U.S. citizens and the world's ability to feed itself vulnerable to oscillations in the global marketplace, fluctuations in climate, and large-scale crop disease.

2. Environment: Agriculture, specifically industrial agriculture, has an immensely damaging impact on our environment and is one of the world's largest polluters, contaminating both air and water. Toxic pesticides and fertilizers leach into our waterways, destroying river ecosystems and contaminating our drinking water. Animal farms are major producers of green house gases such as methane, and animal waste products are also a major source of runoff that creates dead zones in rivers by providing algae with abundant nutrients, causing it to grow out of control and deplete the water of oxygen, killing fish and other organisms that we depend on for food.

3. Energy: Energy usage and creation is also a major aspect of the agriculture sector, particularly in industrial agriculture. Such agriculture is a very heavy user of fossil fuels both as fuel for its machinery and in the production of fertilizers and pesticides. A study by the University of Michigan in 2000 estimated that 10 percent of U.S. energy consumption is used by the food industry and 40 percent of that is used in creating fertilizers and pesticides alone. Agriculture also affects energy usage through the production of corn for ethanol. President Bush saw corn ethanol as a way to get off of foreign fuel, but the sad reality is that for every gallon of fossil fuel we use to make corn ethanol, we get a gallon or so of product, making it not worth the effort.

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4. Big money: The inputs necessary for industrial agriculture require financing from big money, giving large corporations an upper hand and enabling them to harness large portions of the market. Monsanto, the big seed giant, is known for capitalizing on patented seeds and suing farmers whose fields have accidently been contaminated by their product. The other top two seed companies, Pioneer Hybrid (Dupont) and Syngenta, together with Monsanto, garner almost 50 percent of the market. Last month, farmers marched on Wall Street. "[F]ood has become a commodity that enriches a few at the expense of the many," wrote Kerry Trueman in her article about the protest. Large agriculture companies continue to control more and more of the market as they file lawsuits against small farmers, putting many out of business. Agriculture policy has greatly benefited such companies, as they have lobbied the government for subsidies and against regulating their risky patented and genetically altered seeds. They are pushing "the 99%" out of the farming business and ruining the livelihoods of family farmers across America and the world.

5. Foreign policy: Foreign aid also plays a huge role in global agricultural markets and in systems of farming around the globe. Our food aid program began when surpluses in the U.S. were high. President Eisenhower explained that program's aim was to "lay the basis for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and peoples of other lands." While food aid has saved many lives during emergencies, it has also flooded rural areas in poor countries with cheap or free food, which has undercut local farmers, thus creating a dependency on such aid. Now USAID is trying to rebuild the agriculture sector in many developing countries with the aim of making them self-sufficient. However, the practices USAID is trying to instill in farmers make them even more dependent on outside sources for their sustenance, as they are providing small farmers with costly inputs such as "improved seed," fertilizers, and pesticides. Farmers will eventually have to purchase all of these inputs every year without many government subsidies. Our farmers are able to afford these inputs as our government provides them with subsidies. Most governments in developing countries do not have the capacity to provide agricultural subsidies, especially to individual smallholder farmers, whom the USAID programs target. If such farmers have one bad season, they are left with no seeds, as the "improved" variety produces sterile seeds. The soil is left in poor condition, as the pesticides and fertilizers have killed many of the vital microbes that build soil nutrition. Many farmers, particularly in India, have committed suicide due to their lack of ability to feed their families.

6. Health: We are increasingly seeing public health issues in the U.S. involving obesity. Agriculture policy has played a huge role in creating this epidemic, as it influences which crops are grown. The food that receives subsidies has led to the abundance of cheap sugary and fatty foods, while fruits and vegetables receive few to no subsidies and as a result are more expensive. As of 2008, 34 percent of adults and 17 percent of children in the United States were considered overweight or obese, leading to an estimated health care cost of $147 billion annually. If Congress shifted some subsidies to fruits and vegetables, healthy foods might be more readily available and affordable for all Americans. Now that Michelle Obama has planted her garden, she should push for these changes in agriculture policy so that the rest of America can experience healthy food, like her and her family.

Those are just a few of the issues affected by agriculture policy. Progressives must care about the issues that involve our food system and look deeper into its incredible complexities.

Lauren Servin is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow focusing on agriculture policy and food security.

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We Need FDR-Style Proposals to Solve All Our Big Problems

Jan 3, 2012Jon Rynn

fdr-signing-papers-150The New Deal took on many interconnected issues all at once. We need to do the same.

fdr-signing-papers-150The New Deal took on many interconnected issues all at once. We need to do the same.

Both Democrats and environmentalists seem to be searching for new sources of support, according to articles from Thomas Edsall and Leslie Kaufman. For Democrats, the problem is the state of mind of the “white working class,” while for environmentalists the problem is to convince the public that something should be done about climate change. In both cases, the dilemma is the same: the solutions offered do not solve the existing problems, and the public knows it. The working class would likely be wooed if someone proposed a government-led policy of putting millions of people to work rebuilding our infrastructure and the manufacturing base. The general public would likely back policies to prevent global warming if someone advanced a credible program of building a carbon-free economy. Both could be combined in a program that would employ tens of millions to build sustainable transportation, energy, and urban infrastructure, as I have proposed. It will take a holistic -- and therefore credible -- plan to convince voters.

Edsall’s article, and much of the discussion surrounding it, neglects to mention an obvious problem: working class voters are working class because most of them, throughout history, have had manufacturing jobs, and in the United States, those manufacturing jobs have been disappearing by the millions. The Democratic Party, for all of the policy proposals that address the decline of manufacturing, has never put forward a convincing plan to revive manufacturing and the millions of jobs that would go along with it. Surely if the central plank of the Democratic Party was to revive manufacturing -- and if there was a credible plan to do so -- then much of the white working class would come streaming back.

Part of the problem is that the Democratic Party never faced such daunting projects like rebuilding the core of the national economy. When FDR or even LBJ were president, the United States was the manufacturing colossus of the world. Their problem was to redistribute wealth, create a safety net, and increase demand for a never-ending supply of domestically manufactured goods and good, middle-class manufacturing jobs. There is no precedent in the United States for what needs to be done now -- a focused industrial policy led by the government.

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But the New Deal offers a political lesson on the importance of an interlinking set of policies that cut across issue areas, a lesson that can help both the Democratic Party and the environmental movement. FDR’s programs incorporated labor policies in the form of the Wagner Act, legalizing the activities of unions, which helped lead to a thriving middle class. It included conservation policies, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, that employed millions of people who helped to rebuild forests, parks, and agricultural areas. There was the TVA, which used a holistic approach to build up the economy of an entire region based on an energy plan. It included the first plans for a national road system, which eventually resulted in the Interstate Highway System. The mortgage industry, and thus the basis for the later housing industry, was virtually created from scratch. Social Security and the first welfare programs were designed to give people a safety net. Glass-Steagall and the Pecora Commission restructured the financial system.

The parallels are clear for what is needed today. We need millions of green jobs, and tens of millions of jobs, period. We need energy plans and a rebuilding of the agricultural system, and we need an interstate transportation system, this time centered on electric rail. We need a different financial system, perhaps centered on public banks. But what we probably most need is to interconnect all of these issues and create a base for a majority coalition of the electorate, just as the public came to support FDR’s programs under the label of the New Deal.

Similarly, policies for overcoming global warming and other environmental catastrophes will need to be incorporated into a wider rubric, perhaps a "Green New Deal," that encompasses manufacturing, jobs for the tens of millions who are unemployed or underemployed, renewable energy, transit, rebuilding infrastructure, and financial reform.

The point is not to idealize the New Deal or deify FDR. We need to learn the lessons of American history that can be useful for us today. We now face a linked set of economic crises, as did progressives in the 1930s. A program that says, “We will hire tens of millions of people” lets people know that the problem, unemployment, will be solved. A program that says, “We will build the wind farms and solar panels and transit and buildings that will make our economy carbon-free” informs people that the proposers of this kind of program know how to solve the problem. A truly believable plan has to convince people that both outcomes will be reached.

These ideas may seem politically impossible, but all great changes seem impossible before they happen. It is possible to propose policies, and the Democratic Party could propose programs that would be guaranteed to put the working class, and the rest of the employable population, to useful, well-paying work. Environmentalists could propose policies that have a reasonable chance of correcting civilization-endangering environmental problems – which would also involve putting everyone who wanted a job to work. Let’s think outside the box.

Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

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How the CCC Blazed a Trail for Conservation and Education

Dec 22, 2011David B. Woolner

A new book details the history of a program that educated and employed millions of Americans and established one of our most precious resources.

A new book details the history of a program that educated and employed millions of Americans and established one of our most precious resources.

In a remarkable new book entitled Our Mark on this Land: A Guide to the Legacy of the CCC in America's Parks, Ren and Helen Davis remind us of just how powerful and long lasting visionary leadership can be. The book details the enormous impact that Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) had on our country, not only through the massive reforestation programs that resulted in the planting of over 3 billion trees, but also through the restoration and expansion of one our nation's most treasured public resources: our state and national parks.

Over the course of its 10-year history, the CCC employed over 3 million men in what the authors describe as the largest peacetime mobilization of manpower in U.S. history. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that this mobilization began within the first 100 days of FDR's administration, in the midst of the worst economic crisis in American history and at a time when there was little to no state apparatus to launch such a program. Moreover, like many of the New Deal programs, the CCC was multifaceted. It was designed to accomplish multiple goals simultaneously and was in fact much more than a conservation program. It was also a youth unemployment program, an urban assistance program, and -- as is largely unknown -- an educational program.

Within months of its inception, CCC administrations discovered that there was a critical need for technical training and, above all, basic literacy instruction. As such, CCC workers were also tasked with building their own classrooms where CCC employees could take remedial classes. As the CCC program progressed, more advanced instruction was offered in a variety of subjects, including mathematics and history, along with more basic technical and vocational training. These programs also helped to employ many jobless teachers. Over time, the educational mission of the CCC became extremely popular and by the late 1930s more than 90 percent of the CCC workers were enrolled in some sort of educational program.

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But it is the more tangible work of the CCC that is so magnificently catalogued in this book. As the Davises note, the legacy of the CCC lives on in hundreds of parks across the country. Here, CCC workers cut thousands of miles of trails, built innumerable bridges and roads, designed and constructed thousands of rustic cottages and other buildings, and helped transform the National Parks Service into a truly national agency. Most important, however, was the effect that the CCC had on the ethos of the nation. For in sponsoring what the authors call a "second golden age" of conservation, and by providing through their labor unprecedented access to our nation's wild places, the CCC fostered greater appreciation for the preservation and enhancement of our nation's natural resources. And as more recent scholarship reveals, it also helped sow the seeds of the modern environmental movement.

At a time when the United States is once again struggling with high unemployment and growing level of poverty, especially among the urban poor, launching a program like the CCC to help restore our nation's blighted and impoverished inner cities makes sense. Such a program could do much to help restore both the physical and ethical challenges we face as nation. It would also provide the millions of young people trapped in the despair of poverty with meaningful employment, a chance to further education, and the one thing that FDR was determined to provide above all else: hope for the future.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938. He is also the co-author with Henry Henderson of FDR and the Environment.

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Powering Forward: The Case for Renewable Energy Incentives

Dec 20, 2011Cory Connolly

To create jobs, encourage economic growth, and ensure a sustainable future, Congress must continue to support clean energy.

To create jobs, encourage economic growth, and ensure a sustainable future, Congress must continue to support clean energy.

Since the recession began, renewable energy, the environment, and climate change have taken a back seat in political discussions. However, the development of the renewable energy industry has been a rare bright spot during tough economic times. The clean energy economy continues to grow, creating jobs, mitigating carbon emissions, improving energy security, and carving out a place in the international market. For this progress to be sustained and even accelerated, federal tax incentives need to be extended.

Clean energy industries, like wind, solar, and biodiesel, have taken advantage of federal tax incentives like the Production Tax Credit (PTC), Investment Tax Credit (ITC), and the Treasury Cash Grant to carve out an important and growing sector of the U.S. economy. However, many of those incentives are now in danger. The PTC, which provides 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of wind energy produced for the first 10 years of a project, is set to expire at the end of 2012. Its extension is currently being debated in Congress and is critical to the continued viability and progress of the wind industry. With 54,000 new or saved jobs at stake in wind, industry leaders are also advocating for a four-year extension of the PTC. The cash grant, also known as program 1603 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is slated to expire at the end of 2011. According to an SEIA report released last week, this will spell trouble for the solar industry.

With calls for austerity measures and government cutbacks on basic social services, these incentives may not seem affordable, but what many aren't aware of is the progress and innovation that these policies have stimulated. Solar energy is expected to reach grid parity in the short term, wind energy is becoming more competitive, and in a few regions of the U.S. both technologies are now claimed to be competitive with traditional sources. In the last four years, wind generation has accounted for 35 percent of all new generating capacity, and at the current rate the wind industry alone is expected to create 500,000 jobs by 2030.

The SEIA report also showed that installed generation capacity from solar has increased 10-fold since 2005 and that the third quarter of 2011 saw 140 percent growth in capacity installed compared to the same quarter in the previous year. In 2011, federal incentives helped the industry reach a total of over 100,000 solar-related jobs in the U.S. The cash grant has made 3,600 grants, totaling $1.5 billion, and, according to Milbank's Alan Marks, has leveraged over $22 billion in private investment. Having funded 22,000 projects in 47 states, the cash grant's impact has been remarkable and its ability to support a still developing industry is proven.

As these incentives have stimulated progress in clean energy industries, they have clearly had an economic impact at the state level. As of early 2011, clean energy technology was the fastest growing sector in Michigan, the auto capital of the world. California is home to 25,575 solar-related jobs alone. Combined with state renewable portfolio standards (RPS), which set a target percentage of renewable generation by a specific year, and other state and municipal incentives, the federal tax incentive programs have had amplified success in numerous states.

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Not only have the tax incentives accelerated the adoption of clean energy and driven the creation of manufacturing jobs, but they have also helped stimulate innovative and entrepreneurial activity in the energy sector -- something that has rarely been done in an industry that is traditionally centralized, concentrated, and unaccommodating to entrepreneurs. Innovative business models have been developed by companies like SunRun and Sungevity. These companies utilize incentives to help make solar affordable and accessible for consumers in the short term and are helping build the foundation for distributed energy generation in the long term. While nonprofit ventures like Solar Mosaic are not necessarily qualifying for federal incentives, they are also infiltrating the energy generation sector with models for community ownership of clean energy generation, thanks to the continued advancement of the industry. As new business models develop and this industry "booms," the only thing less desirable than the current uncertainty is the actual expiration of federal tax incentives.

Some might balk at or criticize subsidies for clean energy, and Congress clearly doesn't want to be seen as "picking favorites," particularly in light of the recent Solyndra controversy. Given these likely talking points, there are a couple of factors that need to be kept in mind when talking about subsidies for clean energy. First, the extension of the federal tax incentives is not indefinite -- federal incentives will be removed as soon as the technologies and the sector have matured enough to compete and thrive. That is to say, they will be removed when they have done their job. Second, subsidies and tax incentives are pervasive but unbalanced in the energy industry. According to the 2011 IEA World Energy Outlook, global fossil-fuel subsidies amounted to $409 billion in 2010, while global renewable energy subsidies totaled a mere $66 billion. Renewable energy technologies are advancing rapidly but need support to compete with established carbon emitting fossil fuels and the already existing subsidies.

While monetary support is clearly lopsided internationally, it is important to note that from 2007 to 2010 renewable energy subsidies increased from $39 billion to $66 billion globally. This indicates that, despite the global economic downturn, governments are seeing an upside to increased investment in renewable energy. As Steven Cohen pointed out in a Huffington Post piece supporting the extension of 1603, "Destroying solar energy in America will not kill the industry worldwide, it will simply eliminate America's prominent role in a very promising, emerging industry." With volatile oil markets, continued climate concerns, and the electrification of developing countries, it is clear that there is an important place for clean energy in the international market -- it is just a matter of America's ability to capture it.

A clean energy economy is in sight, but if we don't embrace its successes and support its growth, we'll lose its economic and environmental benefits. We need to find better ways to advertise and communicate the progress of clean energy and the important role of incentives in these and future successes. The wind and solar industries have seen unprecedented success in recent years thanks in large part to the Production Tax Credit and the section 1603 cash grant. These industries aren't yet prepared to stand on their own, but given enough time and support they may become strong enough to fuel a rejuvenated U.S. economy.

Cory Connolly is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow focusing on the development of the clean energy economy.

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Seven Reasons Climate Change is a Fact, Not a Belief

Dec 14, 2011Nick Santos

Information is most trusted when it comes from a credible source, so there's no time like the present to talk to family and friends about the science behind climate change.

Information is most trusted when it comes from a credible source, so there's no time like the present to talk to family and friends about the science behind climate change.

Anyone paying attention to the debate around climate change understands how difficult it is to even talk about it. People feel the need to reject the credible science on climate change in order to reject policies they disagree with -- often with valid concerns that must be addressed. The U.S. public understands that climate change is a hot topic, but the knowledge mostly doesn't go deeper than that due to misinformation and "belief." One of the primary changes we need in order for our polluting country to take action on climate change is to foster the knowledge that climate change is a fact -- not a belief. This requires credible information to be delivered by the credible sources.

Here are seven reasons that climate change is a fact and not a belief:

1. Over 98 percent of the most respected scientists studying climate change say that it is occurring and it is caused by human activities like burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

2. The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is attributable to human sources such as fossil fuel burning. Across multiple studies, the ratio of different isotopes of carbon in the atmosphere -- slightly different versions of the same element -- has changed in a direction consistent with burning more fossil fuels. (1,2)

3. Far from being something that "might" happen, hundreds of studies have shown that climate change is already occurring and damaging our economy and ecosystems.

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4. Satellite data verifies that as we increase concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere, less heat escapes to space (and thus, more is trapped in our atmosphere, warming the planet).

5. While energy output from the sun has decreased over the past few decades, the climate has warmed significantly.

6. Temperatures today are significantly warmer than at any time over the last 100 years -- or even the last 1,000 years.

7. Models of the Earth's climate that don't include greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide fail to align with experienced temperature, but once greenhouse gas emissions from human sources are factored in models match known temperatures.

Ultimately, it matters who delivers this information. Research has continually shown that it matters more who says something than what they say, and the best messengers are family, friends, and trusted organizations. We need those messengers now more than ever. In a 2010 Yale study, 52 percent of Americans sampled would have failed a climate change exam, with another 40 percent receiving a C or D. So, if you know someone who disagrees with climate science, ask them to talk to you about their specific concerns so that we can move this debate into the realm of viable solutions.

Nick Santos is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow working on climate change education. He runs Environmental Consumer, a nonprofit, and works with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

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We Need a World War II Effort to Tackle Global Warming and the Great Recession

Dec 12, 2011Jon Rynn

earth-150If the government doesn't go bold on the environment, the economy and the earth will continue to suffer.

earth-150If the government doesn't go bold on the environment, the economy and the earth will continue to suffer.

The news from the world of global warming science is grim. We need to keep the planet from warming by more than 2 degrees centigrade or the climate could become extremely dangerous. To stay below that level would require a drastic decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in the next several years. Many commentators, from Al Gore to Thomas Friedman to Lester Brown, have argued that we need a World War II type effort to prevent the worst of global warming. Such an effort would have the bonus effect of reviving the economy. When FDR was confronted with a world war, he converted as much as one third of the economy to that effort, with the federal government in the lead. The result: fascism was defeated along with what was left of the Great Depression. Can we do something similar today?

When World War II started, the federal government converted several industries, including the automobile industry, to make tanks, planes, and other military goods. A planning department was set up, and all resources that were necessary for the war effort were carefully counted and controlled. At the peak of the war, about one third of all output (GDP) in the United States went into the military. One third of today's economy would be about $5 trillion dollars.

While there is a debate about whether the war actually ended the Great Depression, it certainly finished off the scourge of high unemployment. The construction of new machinery for the factories laid the groundwork for the post-war boom, as well as enlightened policies like the G.I. Bill, which paid for college for returning soldiers and made housing loans available through the government.

Today we have a different problem, but it could become just as deadly as a world war. Modern global civilization will become difficult if not impossible to maintain if the planet overheats, according to a new report. Our society is not designed to deal with increasing sea levels, indefinite droughts in some areas and unpredictable deluges in others, forests destroyed by warm weather pests, dead oceans, and disappearing glaciers that lead to the destruction of many of the world's most important rivers.

So what would a World War II-type program to prevent global warming and end the Great Recession look like? As I argued in my book, Manufacturing Green Prosperity, we would need to spend on the order of one trillion dollars per year, for 20 years, in order to build the necessary transportation, energy, urban, and agricultural infrastructure. And by "we" I mean "we the people" -- that is, the federal government.

I recently completed a chapter for a book about a green energy economy that should come out in 2012, and I proposed that with a budget of $1.2 trillion dollars per year we could employ about 24 million people, of which over 5 million would be manufacturing jobs. A revival of manufacturing sparked by this program is vital to ending the Great Recession.

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Here are the federal programs needed to create a full-employment green economy, along with the annual budget required:

1. An Interstate Wind System that would generate all of our electricity, which is currently provided mostly by coal and natural gas plants at $150 billion

2. An Interstate Electricity Grid that would be able to carry all of this electricity throughout the continent at $85 billion

3. Solar photovoltaic panels that would generate a quarter of our current electricity needs, which would make up for the electricity that the wind system would require at $150 billion

4. Geothermal heat pumps under all residential buildings that would provide all heating and cooling needs at $50 billion

5. Weatherizing half of the homes in the country at $25 billion

6. A 17,000 mile Interstate High-Speed Rail System at $30 billion

7. An expanded freight, medium-speed, and commuter rail system at $25 billion

8. A vastly larger transit system at $60 billion

9. A 100 percent organic agricultural system at $10 billion

10. Recycling/reusing almost everything at $100 billion

11. Last but not least, housing half of the population in dense, walkable neighborhoods, which would cost $500 billion per year if 100,000 250 unit apartment buildings were constructed

At the end of this 20-year program of economic reconstruction, the United States would emit virtually no greenhouse gases. As added benefits, it would not use petroleum, whose supply is shrinking and on which the U.S. is very dependent, nor would it destroy the water, soil, and forests of its ecosystems. We could also implement a "government as employer of last resort" system so that everyone who wanted a job could have one.

Even this program would not actually be at the level of a World War II-type effort, since $1.2 trillion constitutes less than one tenth of the economy, whereas the real WWII effort required one third. We could double the rate by doubling the budget to $2.4 trillion, which might be required to avoid out-of-control global warming -- particularly if, as I suspect, it took 10 years to accumulate the "political will" to implement such a program (assuming it could happen at all).

The good news: it is technologically feasible to create a thriving civilization without emitting greenhouse gases. The bad news: there will have to be major shifts in economic, and therefore political, power in order to build a sustainable civilization.  We have a much different political constellation than in FDR's era. In 1941, the top 1 percent constituted a much smaller portion of national income and thus had less power. There was an 81 percent top tax rate in place, which peaked at 94 percent in 1944-5 (and was still 91% in 1963).The Democrats, a significant percentage of whom were truly progressive, were dominant in Congress, and FDR sat in the White House. This was all accompanied by a very strong set of left-wing movements and institutions, including strong trade unions.

And how would all of this be paid for? There are several ways to come up with $1.2 trillion. First, we can do it the same way that the government did for the Iraq war or the financial bailout: we could simply go into debt (preferably through a public infrastructure bank). World War II was paid for with debt -- which was brought down very quickly because of the post-war boom. Second, the top 1 percent makes about 24 percent of national income, which in 2009 was about $12 trillion. So we could obtain, say, half of the needed $1.2 trillion by imposing a 25 percent tax on that income bracket. We could pay for the whole thing with a 50 percent tax. Third, we currently spend almost $1 trillion on the military. The Defense Department keeps its budget high not because we need such a large military, but because it has created a "military-industry-congressional complex" that doles out money to almost every congressional district in the country -- and creates good factory jobs. Most of the 6 million people either employed directly by the Department of Defense or indirectly through the industrial complex could be converted to working on our number one national security issue: creating an economy that will not implode.

Ultimately, an economy cannot thrive if the ecological foundations on which it rests are collapsing. That is where we are heading, and unless the government steps in directly, and in a big way, there will be no nation to secure.

Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

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