Schakowsky's Deficit Plan Shows How to Get Things Done

Nov 17, 2010Richard Kirsch

It's time for progressives to take the offensive on the deficit.

It's time for progressives to take the offensive on the deficit.

Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a member of the President's deficit reduction commission, put out a straight-forward plan yesterday that demonstrates what you can do if you believe that we need a strong middle class to build a strong economy. Unlike the recommendations of the commission's chairs, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowls, which would hurt growth and long-term recovery by cutting supports to the middle class and increasing the wealth gap, the Schakowsky plan is aimed at spurring economic growth and closing our growing inequality chasm.

Schakowsky's plan has three components: cutting the deficit, investing in growth immediately, and closing the long-term funding gap in Social Security. Taken together, the plan would help short-term recovery, reduce long-term budget shortfalls while encouraging growth, and assure that Social Security is in good shape for the foreseeable future.

Schakowsky would cut the deficit through a combination of actual cuts in waste and inefficiency, such as eliminating a program that helps McDonald's market overseas and introducing energy savings to federal employees' computer usage. It finds savings from elimination or reduction in 20 specific defense programs. It reduces the amount that the federal government pays for prescription drugs and includes a robust public option in health reform. It also cuts farm subsidies.

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On the revenue side, she goes after corporate tax subsidies and wealthy individuals. Her biggest proposals would discourage corporations' over-reliance on highly leveraged financing and tax capital gains and dividends as ordinary income. She also includes raising revenues from cap and trade, with protections to help low-income consumers, which helps to reach another major policy goal: tackling climate change.

On Social Security, she firmly rejects proposals to cut benefits and instead proposes changes that would not only put the program on a firm financial footing for decades, but allow some benefits to be improved. She does this by raising the amount of income that is applied to Social Security and introducing a legacy tax on earnings above the cap, which would make the tax system a lot more progressive.

Finally, to help get the economy going now, Schakowsky's plan would invest in immediate job creation and protect against growth-killing cuts like shutting off unemployment compensation or federal funding to states for Medicaid.

Is her proposal dead on arrival with this deficit commission and Congress? Maybe so, but that's not the point. You can't win a debate with nothing. So next time someone says that we can't get out of this financial mess without "sacrifice," point to the Schakowsky plan and ask: Sacrifice for who? Here's a plan that will close the deficit by telling big corporations and the wealthy that it's time they pay their fair share. Plus, it will spur the economy, protect average taxpayers, keep Social Security's promise, and while we're at it, help prevent coastal cities from sinking into the ocean.

Time to take the offense. Let's run with that.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and is writing a book on the progressive campaign to enact health reform.

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Dems Can Learn from GOP to Build Interstate Transportation Systems

Nov 16, 2010Jon Rynn

train-200Want to break our addiction to oil and create jobs? Take a page from Teddy Roosevelt and Ike Eisenhower.

train-200Want to break our addiction to oil and create jobs? Take a page from Teddy Roosevelt and Ike Eisenhower.

As incredible as it sounds, Republican presidents, along with their Republican Congresses, have initiated some of the biggest public works projects in American history. Theodore Roosevelt single-mindedly pursued the construction of the Panama Canal and Calvin Coolidge signed the legislation to build what became known as the Hoover Dam. Democratic presidents continued and expanded on these accomplishments, as when FDR followed up on the Hoover Dam and built many others, including the TVA system. During his administration, the first ideas and plans for a national highway system were developed, which that great socialist Dwight David Eisenhower then pushed through in 1956.

Today there is a crying need for an interstate high-speed rail system. In 1954, only $175 million had been allocated to a national road system, clearly too little to do the job. In 1956, $25 billion was allocated for a system that wound up costing $425 billion in 2006 dollars. In the last couple of years, the Obama administration has committed $8 billion to high-speed rail, mostly for small, unconnected segments. The US High-Speed Rail Association estimates that in order to build a functional, 17,000 mile system (the Interstate Highway System is currently 48,000 miles), it would cost about $600 billion over 20 years. The New York Times recently ran an article comparing a high-speed rail network to the Interstate Highway System.

But what would motivate the construction of such a system? By the 1950s, the Big 3 car makers were reputedly saying things like "what's good for General Motors is good for the country," and that included a national road system. The suburban boom, with critical help from the federal and local governments, was in full swing, and with it, the shift from trains to cars as the main passenger vehicle. As a young lieutenant, Eisenhower had participated in the first transcontinental truck convoy. Ike then witnessed the autobahns that Germany built at the end of World War II. Even with a political environment that had barely emerged from the McCarthy-ite hysteria over communism, the political will existed to construct one of civilization's most ambitious examples of public construction.

The reasons for focusing on high-speed rail are oil, oil, and also, oil, in that order. Professor Michael T. Klare has done a good job of explaining all three. First, the supply of cheap oil is leveling off, and will probably start to decline in the near future. This is known as the "peak oil" argument. After all, the Earth does not have infinite resources, and the oil supply certainly is not infinite. While the rise in the price of oil in the summer of 2008 was probably in part the result of financial manipulation, it was mostly caused by demand overrunning supply. It was a grim reminder that even short-term fluctuations in the price of oil can have colossal economic impacts.

Second, the coming scarcity of oil will lead to major conflicts among nations, including the possibility of more wars. The Iraq War may have been a small-scale demonstration. As oil exporters use more and more of their oil for their own population and their ability to pump oil declines, the amount of exported oil will decline even quicker than the supply of oil in total. Even without wars, much of American foreign policy and part of its huge military burden is attributable to the warping effect of our dependence on oil.

Third, as we saw this summer, oil has devastating environmental effects. A Gulf oil spill equivalent takes place every year in the Nigerian delta, which according to some estimates is rich in oil. The exploitation of oil has regularly been destroying ecosystems for decades now. Even more ominously, burning oil accounts for almost as much greenhouse gas emissions as coal, about 18% of total global greenhouse gases.

For all of these reasons, we need to shift the transportation system from a 99% dependence on oil to at least a 90% dependence on electricity. Electricity can be generated in a renewable, pollution-free manner, as I have argued previously. The US can supply all of its own electricity, forever.

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It took from the beginning of the 20th century to after World War II to switch from electricity and coal to petroleum, so it will take decades to switch back to electricity. So the sooner we start, the better. The powers-that-be in 1900 were streetcar operators and railroads; now the oil companies and car companies, plus suburban real estate interests, have an even larger voice in government. They will surely fund groups that claim that the government should stay out of what it was once involved in: spending the equivalent of trillions of dollars to transform the transportation system and urban structure. It will take an educated public, hopefully worried about the long-term future, to push the government to spend trillions in moving to a system based on electric trains.

Trains are the best way to use electricity for a transportation vehicle. This is because trains can use an overhead electrical wiring system (or in the case of subways and some light rail, an underground one). That is, they can obtain their energy from outside the vehicle. They don't have to drag around their energy in a fuel tank. They can also tap into the continental electrical grid, which can be fed by many different sources.

According to Chris Steiner in his book "$20 Per Gallon", at $8 per gallon airline flights under 350 miles will no longer be profitable, and at $12 per gallon flights under 500 miles won't be either. Europe, China, and Japan are feverishly working to create major high-speed rail routes over just these lengths with trains that run at least 200 mph.

However, in order to move away from oil, we will also have to move most freight with trains instead of long-haul trucks. The Millennium Institute estimates that transferring freight to electric rail, including at least part of a passenger rail system, would cost between $250 and 500 billion. But the bigger problem would be that much of the commercial infrastructure of the country, including the big box stores like WalMart and hundreds of suburban malls, would probably have to relocate to more dense city regions in order to take advantage of an electric rail system.

Which brings us to the biggest problem of all: replacing oil-dependent cars. Robert Bryce and Kris De Decker argue that electric cars have always been over-hyped and that there is no reason to think that they will ever replace the large, high-speed, long-distance automobiles that we have now. So let's assume that they are right and that electric cars will always be slow, say with a maximum speed of 30 mph, fairly small, and with a range of about 50 miles. As the City of New York is now informing its residents, that speed would actually decrease the likelihood of death from accidents to only 20% -- and driving at 20 mph has even more beneficial effects.

But this would only be practical if three very far-reaching changes were made. First, most people, even in suburbs, would have to live about 10 miles away from a town center. Second, those town centers would have to be tied together and linked to a city center by an extensive and rider-friendly electric train system. Third, the city centers would have to incorporate buildings at a high density and transit systems large enough to avoid the need to use nonelectric cars.

There is another good reason to build these systems besides not using oil: if the high-speed trains and subways and electric cars and high-rise buildings were built using goods manufactured in the U.S., then the manufacturing economy of the U.S. could recover, and with it, the middle class and the long-term prosperity of the country.

If the Republican Party can make big changes, why not the Democratic Party?

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 from the City University of New York.

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Green Work is Women's Work

Nov 3, 2010Amy Norquist

green-jobs-150After the crash, the downturn was dubbed a "mancession." As the meme continues to circulate, we asked leading thinkers to help us sort fact from fiction. Are men suffering more than women in a weak economy? Is Washington doing enough to address female unemployment?

green-jobs-150After the crash, the downturn was dubbed a "mancession." As the meme continues to circulate, we asked leading thinkers to help us sort fact from fiction. Are men suffering more than women in a weak economy? Is Washington doing enough to address female unemployment? How do we ensure a jobs agenda that's fair and equitable? In the eighth part of our ongoing series, "The Myth of the Mancession? Women & the Jobs Crisis", Amy Norquist calls on the green sector to include women from the beginning.

The federal stimulus package earmarks billions of dollars in green technology, primarily renewable energy, for projects that will take place over the next several years. The effectiveness of the funding is still debatable, as it remains the slowest draw down of any category in the stimulus. The White House estimates that close to 200,000 new jobs were created as a result of the funding, but the Department of Energy puts that number at closer to 80,000.

Are women being left out of this sector? I think there is little doubt that women are not being hired in large numbers through this particular focus on the energy sector. But in fact, even though green jobs tend to fall into categories of non-traditional options for women such as engineering, science, and construction, there is far greater opportunity for the inclusion of women in significant numbers than in the past. That's because green jobs are much broader than the energy sector. They are defined as those that provide goods and services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources, or jobs in which workers' duties involve making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources.

So how is it that non-traditional jobs in the green sector can somehow be more accessible to women than jobs past? There are more women CEOs in green business -- largely entrepreneurs -- than in traditional construction, and they tend to value authenticity and transparency, which disables the old boys network. Green businesses have the element of being mission-driven and focusing on the triple bottom line: social, economic, environmental. This is appealing to women, and it provides an alternative structure within the construction industry in particular.

Furthermore, new technologies and new industries often don't require particular previous  job skills. (A Berkeley study focused on green employers, for example, found that 86 percent of the green business owners interviewed and hired workers who had no previous direct experience.) This also removes barriers for women entering traditionally male-dominated fields.

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And there are programs out there that focus on training women for green jobs. There is a non-profit called NEW in New York City, which trains women in non-traditional fields but also offers a program called "ReNEW" for green jobs. (Two-thirds of minimum wage jobs in NYC belong to women.) The program does a good job of educating students about what jobs are even available and gives them exposure to these new technologies, industries, and employers.

As the owner of a women-owned green roofing business, called Greensulate, I can say that my company has benefited in significant ways from the stimulus act and from growing awareness of the value of green jobs and the green industry among supporters. The direct benefit to Greensulate came through training funds (using funding from the stimulus act) from NYC Small Business Solutions. This funding enabled us to train and hire 10 people this year.

And the private sector is picking up the slack -- unlike in other male-dominated construction industries -- when it comes to supporting women. Greensulate was recently selected into a program, Growth Opportunity Loan and Services Program (GOLS), sponsored by The Clinton Foundation, Booz & Co., Goldman Sachs, NYU Stern, and SEEDCO Financial. The program provides loan funding for growth (which we were unable to get through our bank) and significant management consulting and mentoring.

I can say that as a green construction industry, green roofing brings women into the fold of some of the few green and white collar jobs available. For my first few years, I was the only woman up on the roof. Now I'm joined by other "greensualtors" -- one of whom is a graduate of the NEW ReNEW program. We are now 35% female, in a non-traditional field for women.

The key to beginning and continuing the trend of hiring women for green collar positions is being continually vigilant in educating women about the opportunities available. And it begins with the value of inclusion. Even in programs whose focus is training women and placing them in currently non-traditional arenas, one still sees quotes like, "It is satisfying doing men's work". Green jobs are not "men's work." They are good work, and there is a chance to integrate parity from the beginning. Emerging industries have the responsibility -- because they are emerging industries -- to break the mold.

Amy Norquist is the President and CEO of the green roofing company Greensulate.

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Third Gubernatorial Option for NY: A Green New Deal?

Oct 18, 2010Bryce Covert

howie-hawkinsHowie Hawkins is the Green Party candidate running for New York State governor against Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican Carl Paladino. I got a chance to sit down with him to discuss his ideas for a Green New Deal.

howie-hawkinsHowie Hawkins is the Green Party candidate running for New York State governor against Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican Carl Paladino. I got a chance to sit down with him to discuss his ideas for a Green New Deal. He told me how his plans will create jobs, address climate issues, and base our economy on real production -- not speculation.

Bryce Covert: You're running on what you call a Green New Deal. Will you explain what you envision?

Howie Hawkins: We are emphasizing this because the Democratic leadership has abandoned the New Deal legacy. I think people support the majority of things in the New Deal. There's evidence in polls for support of funded schools, higher wages, the single payer option. We adopted the New Deal to appeal to the rank and file, the little guy. Today's politicians talk Left and walk Right once they're in office. They respond to their funders -- telecom, defense, oil. And now Social Security is in the sights of fiscal commission. We have to defend the idea that in a recession we need fiscal stimulus. It's basic macroeconomics.

I'm focused on three areas: full employment, national health insurance, and public enterprise.

Full employment: In the original Social Security Act there was employment assurance. It generalized the WPA program. It had centralized taxes but decentralized distribution. Counties planned public works and services and the Federal and state governments funded the jobs. I want to bring this back, particularly now in the jobs crisis, with the "new normal", and a slow recovery. It's fiscal stimulus itself -- people with jobs go spend money.

Public health insurance: It was taken it off the table. We're continuing a system where profits go to the private sector and the poor go to public services. Taxpayers pay for that. This would be particularly significant in New York because in upstate New York it makes up for over half of the county budget. The most powerful move would be the state taking over Medicaid through a single payer system. The state's own study said that compared to the individual mandate, the single payer system would save New Yorkers $10 billion per year. You get better health care at lower cost.

Public enterprise: You can use the TVA as a yardstick. There was racial discrimination, but the principle was that public enterprise can step in when the private sector fails and set a standard. This can happen in health care, energy -- municipals and co-ops provide cheaper power with less perks and corporate compensation.

BC: Why is it important to not only put people back to work, but also to focus on the energy industry?

HH: New York had been a very diverse manufacturer in the 20s. After WWII they sold that out. It made the city less stable in this economy. It's a one-crop economy: financial services.

We have excess capacity in so many industries, and it's not sustainable how much CO2 we're spewing into the air. We need a World War Two-scale mobilization to convert to a green economy. What stands in the way is the incumbent energy industries: oil, gas and nuclear.

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It could function as a public jobs program. Local officials would work with the state agency and say, "What needs do we have here?" Maybe it's building repairs, services, childcare, elder care, parks revamped, infrastructure repair. The sewer and water systems are old and leaky. In Syracuse it will cost $2 billion to fix the sewer and water system, and the city can't finance it. It requires state and Federal aid. Officials could look at their communicates and see what's needed and then create jobs. The WPA was about public works.

One area that fits in is building green and efficient buildings, retrofitting buildings, conducting audits, and adding solar panels, even on homes. I used to do this in the 70s and 80s in Vermont. Those jobs require training but they should be a part of the public works. You can set the wage at a minimum wage to compete with the private sector. People can get the training from the public works program and then go get a private sector job.

I'd like to see 7 million energy efficient homes in 10 years. A public jobs program could spawn the business that would do that.

BC: How would you finance your plans for a green economy and public works programs?

HH: I would create a state bank like the Bank of North Dakota [a state-owned bank]. The problem with the huge financial industry is that it's mostly speculation, not investment by banks. They're focused on M&A and derivatives -- it's all about rearranging paper entitlements to existing income from an existing means of production. The theory of giving money to the wealthy was they would invest in new production and employ people. That hasn't happened. If you don't make things that add value it won't be self-sustaining. You can only do so many back-door deals.

The state bank can give the public a measure of control in terms of economic development and how to get to a sustainable green economic recovery. Through taxation you can take a portion of the wealth in speculation and run it through the public sector and put it to better use. It relates to the stock transfer tax. That tax took in $15 billion and it was all given back. That would have led to $7 million in surplus. They deny they've heard of it but the forms are easy to find.

Obama and Andrew Cuomo have versions of an infrastructure bank, but the investment goes to the private sector and it will attach debt to assets we're creating rather than having the interest paid to the public and owned by the public. This bank could be organized as a worker co-op. When I did this it was a co-op. I worked in construction, and it was the best of both worlds. You share, work regular hours and get the full fruit of your labor. There are 100,000 of these in Europe.

BC: How do you view our current political system?

HH: Liberals have to realize that the Democratic Party is a complete dead end. Obama is all image but not policy substance. If you look closely, he's really corporate and conservative. Cuomo is the lesser evil. He says he will slash everything. He's all about fiscal austerity. I say have austerity with Cuomo or Paladino or prosperity with the Greens.

Progressive social movements -- labor and ethnic movements, the women's movement, environmental, peace -- it's time to understand that you're being taken for granted if your vote is in the Democrats' pocket. These movements are Charlie Brown and the Democrats are Lucy. The movements ask to hold the football, they say can I get reform, and Democrats say we'll hold the ball. The movements go out and campaign and they kick the football and it's not there. We need an independent movement. Labor could fund it -- they've spent $15 billion on Democrats since 1980. Imagine that spent on an independent party. You could have a labor newspaper, talk radio, a labor party organizer in every county.

Democrats and Republicans outbid each other on how much they say they'll cut in spending. They say they will create jobs, but I say it'll only create a depression. Only public spending can raise demand. As for the underlying problem of excess capacity and overproduction, I argue that we need to build a new system. We can get the economy going and get on a green path.

BC: Women hold a fraction of green construction jobs. Do you have plans to address their needs in this recession?

HH: This is part of the reason I'm including services and not just focusing on construction. It excludes women, blacks and Latinos who are fighting to get into those trades. If you focus only on construction you won't help all the same. You won't help women and racial groups.

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Jonathan Schell: The Nuclear Paradox

Oct 18, 2010Lynn Parramore

jonathan-schellThis is the fifth installment of "The Influencers," a six-part interview series that Lynn Parramore is conducting in partnership with Salon.

jonathan-schellThis is the fifth installment of "The Influencers," a six-part interview series that Lynn Parramore is conducting in partnership with Salon. She sat down with Jonathan Schell, author of "The Fate of the Earth," Fellow at the Nation Institute and Distinguished Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, to talk about nuclear disarmament. They discussed America's conflicted stance, the obstacles to nonproliferation and the connection with global warming.

Lynn Parramore: Where are we today in terms of nuclear nonproliferation?

Jonathan Schell: I think you have two contending waves. On the one side you have President Obama's new commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons, although he says that's not going to happen in his lifetime. He's framed that very much as a kind of weapon to use against proliferation -- most specifically against proliferation by Iran and North Korea. But on the other side you have a kind of counter-movement against that commitment within the U.S. government. And there are people in the woodwork of the bureaucracies who have struck back. The vehicle for doing that was the Nuclear Posture Review (a process that determines U.S. nuclear weapons strategy), and, to a certain extent, the new agreement with Russia.

Each has good things in it. I'm glad the numbers are coming down. I'm glad they've promised not to make any new nuclear weapons or have any new nuclear missions. But on the other hand, there are some things which are very disappointing and which do not really reflect at all Obama's commitment. In the Nuclear Posture Review there was a refusal to have a thorough-going renunciation of what's called "first use" -- in other words, refusing to have a no-first-use policy. What that means is that the United States still reserves the right in certain circumstances to use nuclear weapons -- even when nuclear weapons are not used or threatened against it.

If this country, with all its conventional superiority and so on, thinks that it can't be safe in the world without a threat to use nuclear weapons -- even against conventionally armed countries -- then what country in the world could say to itself, by that standard, "well, we're safe without nuclear weapons?" And most particularly, if you're a North Korean, or if you're an Iranian, and you're facing a very hostile and angry United States, you might well decide, "we need these things, too." So there's a kind of contradiction that's built in there. On the one hand, the United States is saying: "we're ready to do without nuclear weapons over some long term." But on the other hand, "we need them now, and we even need them against countries that don't have nuclear weapons." So in the contention between those two points of view, some direction will eventually emerge. But in my opinion, it hasn't really emerged yet.

Of course, I should have said, there are really three waves, because you also have proliferation itself. You have countries who are looking a little bit more interested in nuclear weapons. It takes the form of an interest in nuclear power. There are almost a dozen countries in the Middle East who are suddenly saying, "we're really interested in nuclear power." That's a way of keeping your options open for nuclear weapons. And so whether Obama's commitment to disarmament is going to be enough to bring to the table with the countries that are potential proliferators is very much open to doubt at this point.

What is your earliest recollection of nuclear danger?

I began my life as a writer as a reporter in the Vietnam War. That was way back in 1966. And the experience of being in Vietnam certainly set me on the path that eventually led me to thinking about nuclear weapons. When I arrived in Vietnam I really didn't know anything about the war. I didn't know the history and so on. But just from what I saw with my own two eyes it became apparent in the first day that this was a massive governmental enterprise that was absolutely making no sense of its own terms. It was radically and 100% mistaken. Shockingly so. It was self-defeat, which you could see every day, every hour of that war.

So it was the fallibility of government that struck you?

Precisely. It opened my mind to the idea that there could be vast governmental enterprises that most people were saying were sensible but were actually chaotic and made no sense whatever. I still believe that about the presence of nuclear weapons in our world. That was one way that I arrived at it. The other way was that when you looked into the reasons that the United States had got into the war in Vietnam, and, more particularly, the reasons why it couldn't get out -- the whole arena of nuclear strategy began to loom large. The way that worked, to say it very quickly, is that Vietnam was conceived as a so-called limited war. There was actually a "Bureau of Limited War" in the Kennedy White House before there was ever any major intervention in Vietnam. Well, what was limited war? What was the opposite of limited war? General war? That was nuclear war. So in a certain way, the fighting in Vietnam was an escape from the paralysis of the unfightability of the general war, which meant a nuclear war. Now these two things were joined at the hip in a paradoxical way, so it led me to think about it. That was a pathway into thinking about it.

How does attitude towards nuclear weapons reflect our evolution as human beings?

I now think that the nuclear dilemma is the first in an array of dilemmas that have arisen in which we discover the self-destructive potential of human life is unlimited. We've seen that most notably through global warming, but also through a whole other array of ecological threats including the incredible acceleration in the extinction of species in the rain forest and elsewhere around the world, and in the depletion of fish stocks and the whole multi-dimensional ecological crisis. So what we are finding is -- and again it goes back to my experience in Vietnam -- that many of the activities that seem to be our salvation or that seem to be positive turn out to have an unlimited dark side to them. They have their positive side, too, industrialization being an example, or the use of fossil fuels. It's great: We can sit here and have this conversation because we have a tape recorder that's fueled by fossil fuels, and so on -- your computer and all the rest. But to state what's now becoming clearer in an array of fields -- these sources of hope and betterment have turned out to have a dark side that really is without limit.

A nuclear holocaust is often described as "unthinkable." How do the limits of our imagination impact our ability to prevent such a catastrophe?

Well, it's a problem with many levels. I don't think that we have succeeded yet, collectively, to apprehend what is at stake here. After all, in some ultimate sense, it is the survival of the species that is at stake. That was put on the table in 1945; it became very acute during the Cold War. Now it's receded quite a bit, although the technical means are still in place. One problem -- and the whole arena is full of paradoxes -- is that with nuclear weapons present, you can't really fight a major power war. Well, that's a great thing -- not to fight a great power war. But one result of it is that you have no experience of nuclear destruction since Nagasaki. And so thought is given little to chew on. We're left with a lot of theory, and all nuclear strategizing is pure theory. Military strategizing used to be based on actual experience -- millennia of experience of war. But nuclear strategy is quite otherwise because there's never been a nuclear war. The Japanese didn't have nuclear weapons, so that wasn't a nuclear war.

So nuclear holocausts are relegated to science fiction movies?

Well, that's right. And now, we don't even have the Cold War. And yet the dilemma is there. These things are deeply embedded in our world. And we can see from the resistance that Obama gets -- or anyone gets -- who actually talks about eliminating nuclear weapons. They've become part of the furniture of the world. They've become domesticated and deeply lodged in our institutions and our thinking, and so on. And yet, they rarely are brought into consciousness.

On the flip side of that domestication is the romance of the idea of this world-destroying weapon. Do you think that's part of our attachment?

When the H-bomb was invented, they called it "The Super," and I think it was this use of "super" that put the word "super" in "superpower." So, the weapon is associated very deeply and primally with holding immense power. And that's of course a legacy of war itself traditionally throughout the millennia. The countries that had the best weapons and the best militaries and so forth were the most powerful. They could fight these wars and win them. It's no longer true with nuclear weapons. They turn out in actual practice to be rather a paralyzing influence than an enabling one. But I think that that deep association that's left over inappropriately from the whole tradition of warfare. Psychologically, it means that people still hold tight to these instruments of seeming supreme power even though they are nothing of the kind in reality or in experience.

What is the most dangerous illusion that we cling to with regard to nuclear weapons?

The idea that we can hold onto nuclear weapons while at the same time stopping their proliferation to other countries. That is an absolutely unworkable proposition. It just cannot happen in the real world. And that's why I think that Obama's pledge, or his commitment, that the United States is ready to surrender its nuclear weapons has to become something that's active and real in our world now. It's the only way we're going to be able to stop proliferation, including proliferation conceivably to a terrorist group.

Can human beings create policies big enough to deal with a threat as huge as nuclear weapons?

I think that in a whole array of areas, there really are new stakes on the table in politics. And the essence of it is the threat to the natural world. Only a part of it is the threat of the extinction or mutilation of our own species. So, really there's a new framework in which you have to consider political actions and political thinking -- and the nuclear weapon really was the first expression of that, the first manifestation of this new crisis, which is a crisis of the natural order, as I say. But now others have appeared. And so I don't know whether we'll find out whether we're able to act on that scale -- whether we're able to step up to the level of danger that we now live with.

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A Middle Class Renaissance with a Green New Deal

Oct 13, 2010Jon Rynn

green-jobs-150Thinking outside the box to lower unemployment, boost the middle class and rebuild the country.

green-jobs-150Thinking outside the box to lower unemployment, boost the middle class and rebuild the country.

Currently, there seems to be no consensus on what a progressive candidate should stand for, particularly in terms of the economy. Reregulating the financial system, as important and difficult as it would be to achieve, will not by itself rebuild the middle class. Neither would Medicare for all, as critical as that would be, or ending our wars, or even forcing China to revalue its currency. The rot in the US economy is too great to be healed by simply stopping many of our destructive policies.

It seems to me that the centerpiece of a progressive economic agenda has to be about creating and maintaining jobs: permanent, high-skilled, good-paying jobs. And not just a million jobs here and there, but tens of millions of good jobs, to bring under- and unemployment down, lift the new (and old) poor out of poverty, and retain what remains of the American middle class.
The self-sustaining job creation engine that has propelled growth for the last two centuries is broken. That job engine was fueled by the manufacturing sector. Particularly since the Age of Reagan began, those industries have been out-sourced, and with them, much of the middle class and their jobs. In 2007, manufacturing accounted for 11% of all jobs, whereas in 1970 it accounted for 24%. So the 13% of the jobs that used to be in the factories could easily soak up the 9.6% of the working population that is currently unemployed, as well as about half of the 7% that are “involuntarily” part-time workers.

Each manufacturing job leads to many more service jobs. According to a 2003 report by the Economic Policy Institute, each manufacturing job supports almost three other jobs in the economy. But that also means that the loss of each manufacturing job leads to three others being lost. There is simply no way to turn around the jobs situation without turning around the decline of manufacturing.

So how can we kick start a manufacturing boom? This is where economic logic meets environmental necessity. We need to drastically cut carbon emissions if we are to have any hope of keeping the same planet as the one that civilization developed on. We need to rid ourselves of oil before its coming decline in availability rids us of our ability to transport ourselves or our goods. And how do we reach those goals? By creating a transportation system based on electricity, electricity that is powered by the wind and the sun. Such a system would be centered on electrified passenger and freight trains, with electric cars and transit mainly moving people to and from train stations, within densely populated town and city centers, which will also have to be built or rebuilt.

Reconstructing transportation, energy, and urban infrastructures will more than take up the productive energies of the almost 27 million underemployed and unemployed people. (According to the latest statistics, there are 14.8 million officially unemployed people, plus 9.5 million involuntarily part-time and 2.5 million “marginally attached” -- that is, people who want to work but can't for a longer period of time than the “unemployed”). In fact, these rebuilding projects would probably soak up many of the people employed in the kinds of low-level service jobs that the “post-industrial” economy has been so good at creating.

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These new jobs would involve both constructing the new systems and working in the factories that provide the trains, cars, rails, electric transmission system, wind turbines, solar panels, and many other products that would be needed to put a green transformation in place. A manufacturing renaissance would ensue only if those factories were located in the United States, whether run by foreign or domestic firms. From Alexander Hamilton's advocacy of the protection of “infant industries” to China's meteoric rise, governments have supported industrialization on their own soil, and this transformation must also stay within the US.

A believable explanation of how to restore the US economy would serve as an anchor for a Green New Deal. Progressives could take the offensive instead of falling back on the defense. In fact, we could put the conservatives on the defense. Their version of how the great job creation engine works is based on the fantasy of standing back and letting “the market” do it's magic. We can pray to the gods of the market to somehow come up with tens of millions of jobs, or we can use the government to build badly-needed systems and finance the employment of tens of millions of people. That's not socialism; that's called realism.

A program based on a self-sustaining jobs machine, with manufacturing at its core, would allow progressives to add other planks to the platform in a holistic, integrated, reinforcing way. A public banking system could be used to funnel capital to critical infrastructure projects, such as a high-speed rail system, instead of into the casino economy. The military-industrial complex could be turned into an infrastructure-industrial complex. Medicare for all would mean less costs for all businesses. Workplace democracy, the idea that employees should own and operate their own firms, would guarantee that firms, factories and jobs would stay in the United States. States and localities would have new sources of revenue to maintain our collapsing infrastructure and repair the education system, which are needed for all of the new jobs and construction.

Even taxes for the middle and lower classes could go down if transportation, energy, and urban systems were built using debt-free greenbacks, as in Lincoln's day. The revenue from these systems, the savings from retiring the national debt with greenbacks, and fair taxes on the wealthy and corporations would all lead to little or no income taxes for the bottom 80% of the population. Drink that, Tea Partiers!

With a possible political debacle staring us in the face, it behooves the progressive community to look “outside the box”, as the New Dealers did in the 1930s. As in the 1930s, not every desired outcome can be achieved, but the programs implemented then and since grew out of ideas that took time to percolate and circulate among wider audiences. A Green New Deal will take many, many news cycles to generate. If we can look to the future, we can give ourselves time to build campaigns that are based on the idea of “rise and shine” as opposed to “inevitable decline”.

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 from the City University of New York.

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The Other Side of the ‘Mancession’: Women Left Behind

Sep 23, 2010Bryce Covert

The world can't work without women -- but are they getting a raw deal on job creation?

The world can't work without women -- but are they getting a raw deal on job creation?

As construction and manufacturing jobs crumble, many have dubbed this downturn a “mancession”. It’s even prompted some to declare that we are facing the "end of men". But women shouldn’t celebrate their economic victory just yet. It’s true that men have lost more jobs than women -- according to Newsweek, they’ve made up for two thirds of the 11 million jobs lost since it all began. But are women getting left out of President Obama's job programs and stimulus spending? They hold only 12% of the total US engineering jobs and 25% of manufacturing and construction jobs. Yet a study by the United States Conference of Mayors found that half of the projected new “green” jobs being created by stimulus programs will be in heavily male-dominated areas such as engineering, consulting, manufacturing, construction and forestry. Infrastructure spending, such as Obama’s recent proposal, will also be funneled toward construction and manufacturing work, where few women find employment. These programs are putting people back to work and rebuilding our physical infrastructure, creating jobs that are sorely needed. But will women be an unintended casualty?

While men felt the brunt of the initial bubble burst, traditionally female-heavy industries such as nursing and education are now getting slashed in the wake of falling state revenues, points out Eileen Boris, Hull Professor and Chair of the Department of Feminist Studies at UC Santa Barbara. High unemployment has hit states’ tax bases and tapped them out for benefits, so they’re looking to save anywhere they can. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has estimated that these budget cuts imperil 100,000 to 300,000 public school jobs. Hospitals have had to shut their doors in the face of mounting debt loads. Women are highly concentrated in these suffering industries. As of 2009, 2.6 million women worked as registered nurses and 2.3 million as elementary and middle school teachers, making up for 82% of all teachers, according to the Department of Labor. And while some of the stimulus money went to propping up Medicaid programs and schools, indirectly saving women’s jobs, it never created new ones, Boris adds.

And just because men find themselves without jobs, it doesn’t mean women are making strides, Mary Gatta, Director of Gender and Workforce Policy at the Center for Women at Rutgers, points out. Women started out at a disadvantage long before the recession. They often work lower wage jobs, support their families and -- more and more often -- relatives, and experience a wage gap compared to male peers across all industries. And Jennifer Klein, professor of history at Yale University, adds that women often work in “precarious” jobs with irregular hours and low benefits. Women’s unemployment is “incredibly significant right now,” she says, not just because so many are heads of household -- over 20% in 2000 and trending upwards -- but because these days two working parents are necessary to keep most families financially afloat.

Unfortunately, there is historical precedent here. FDR’s groundbreaking public work programs, such as the CCC and CWA, had dismal numbers on including women. Only 8,500 women were employed in the CCC, compared to about 3 million men. The WPA was slightly better (after advocates like Eleanor Roosevelt pushed hard for inclusion), employing 460,000 women at its peak in 1936, but still put women to work on projects specifically for them: sewing, nursing, housekeeping, etc. These tended to be lower-skilled and lower-wage jobs than construction work. Public policy was shaped this way because, just as in this recession, people thought that women weren’t suffering from unemployment as much as men, Klein explains. But she points out that “women were in the workforce and certainly unemployed during the Depression… It was just a question of whose unemployment was prioritized.” It is estimated that more than 2 million women were unemployed at the start of 1933. There was also a pervasive social stereotype that cast men as the sole breadwinners and women as dependents, even if that “didn’t necessarily correspond to reality and for millions of families,” says Klein.

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Beyond false social assumptions, there are political reasons that led both FDR and Obama to focus spending on construction jobs. Linda Gordon, professor of history at NYU, points out that such jobs have visible results, which were an imperative for both presidents as they faced strong opposition to their programs. Just take a drive up the Hudson River Parkway in New York, Gordon suggests, and you will soon see beautiful bridge after beautiful bridge thanks to the New Deal. These projects also have a multiplier effect, as they don’t just employ bridge builders, but also steel workers who make the raw materials. In women-heavy industries, which Gordon calls the “caring professions” and the “educational professions,” it’s hard to quantify the beneficial effects. No one can agree on what makes a “good” teacher – see the fracas over a recent attempt by the LA Times – but it’s pretty easy to tell how much a bridge costs and whether it works. How much is a well-educated child worth? How do you quantify a comfortable old age? How much should we pay for librarians who bring literacy to their communities?

But there are indeed multiplier effects in investing in woman-heavy industries, whether or not they are as easy to quantify. While few doubt that America’s infrastructure is badly in need of repair and that we’re being outmatched in green innovation, we also have to invest in what Gordon calls the “human infrastructure.” Instead of nonprofit groups like Teach for America throwing college grads into classrooms, the government can invest in making that person a teacher’s assistant, simultaneously training a new teacher while easing another’s workload. Less-skilled workers can be employed in libraries to take some work off of the higher-skilled librarians, who can focus on archival tasks. There is a tremendous need for elder care in this country as the population ages and more families support older relatives. But care facilities are often understaffed and the staff is underpaid, leading to poor care, she adds. And meanwhile these jobs -- health care workers, child caretakers, even waitresses -- are “here to stay,” because they’re hard to outsource, says Gatta. Investing in these jobs keeps the money in our own economy.

It’s also important that government spending on jobs programs doesn’t perpetuate the segregation of the labor market. The New Deal assumed that women couldn’t or wouldn’t work in construction. But women are perfectly capable of participating in the green economy, says Amy Norquist, President and CEO of green roofing company Greensulate. “I think the barriers are more related to re-training oneself to address the needs of a new kind of industry,” she says. Stephanie Hass, Fund Development Associate at STRIVE, a job training organization that has a program for women in green construction, agrees. “When you say construction, [women] imagine themselves on a site and lifting heavy stuff, but I think there’s a lot of different opportunities.” The same was true during the 1930s, Gordon says. During World War II, when factory jobs were heavily staffed by women, “women loved these jobs.” At the end of the war, when the jobs were being handed back to the returning men, around 80% of women said they would keep their factory job if they could. The CCC was overwhelmed with applications from women. “It certainly is not true that women don’t like to work outdoors,” Gordon says. But in order for women to have equal access to those jobs, they need access to training and education programs. That requires outreach to women to let them know what’s available. “I think women can, should and will play a big part in this -- especially in finding ways to innovate,” Norquist says.

At the same time, none of this should come at the expense of the jobs women already hold, warns Boris. We need to make sure more jobs are created in women-heavy industries and ensure that the jobs they already hold are livable. Women are heavily concentrated in jobs with low pay, with 1.7 million working as nursing home aides, 1.3 million as maids and housekeepers, and 1.2 million as child care workers, according to DOL. Meanwhile, the quality of these workers’ jobs is being degraded by an industry speed-up, Gordon points out. Classrooms are packed with more and more students. Nurses handle more patients while their hours and pay stay the same. These service and care jobs need to be improved so that they have livable wages and benefits, as well as access to career ladders, Gatta says. They should be revalued by making sure they pay a living wage, fall under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and be allowed to unionize, Boris says. Women also need access to child care so that they can pursue these careers. These jobs should be revalued -- for, after all, “The world can’t work without them!” Boris adds.

So where does this leave us? While the first wave of layoffs may have been dumped on men's shoulders, perhaps the "mancession" has ended -- because now we're all affected. The stimulus projects and green collar jobs need to continue. But we can -- and must -- open up our policies to make sure they cover us all.

**Stay tuned for more on this subject as we continue to explore the ways the recession has affected women.

Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0.

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The Political Economy of Energy

Sep 9, 2010Joe Costello

From the BBC:

The inventor of a low-cost solar cell that could be used to build electricity generating windows has been awarded this year's Millennium Technology Prize.

From the BBC:

The inventor of a low-cost solar cell that could be used to build electricity generating windows has been awarded this year's Millennium Technology Prize.

"Gratzel's innovation is likely to have an important role in low-cost, large-scale solutions for renewable energy." "Natural photosynthesis was the inspiration, and our solar cell is the only one that mimics the natural photosynthetic process."
Gratzel cells rely on nanotechnology to produce power from sunlight. "We are using nanocrystal films in which the particles are so small, they don't scatter light," said Professor Gratzel. "You can imagine using those cells as electricity producing windows. What's very exciting is that you collect light from all sides, so can capture electricity from the inside as well as the outside."

"You could think that the glass of all high-rises in New York would be electricity generating panels," he said.

NYT:

This week, in one of several recent breakthroughs merging natural processes and solar technology, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described the creation of solar cells just a few billionths of a meter wide that mimic this ability of plants’ chemical engines to self-repair and regenerate.

“We’re basically imitating tricks that nature has discovered over millions of years,” Michael Strano, a professor of chemical engineering who led the team behind the discovery, said in an M.I.T. news release.

The transistor and the photo-voltaic cell were invented at roughly the same time. However, the amount of money spent developing the transistor and the microchip exponentially dwarfs the amount spent on developing the solar cell and all other forms of renewable energy combined. There's important reasons for this and they're essential to understanding the political economy of technology. First, energy from fossil fuels in the early 1950s was relatively cheap, subsidized, and the costs of its environmental impact socialized. Nuclear fission, the military-industrial complex's new energy technology became the designated energy of the future and devoured almost all energy development dollars.

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Secondly, energy was monopoly-controlled. In the case of electricity, the reform of the electric industry in the 1930s created a system controlled by state sanctioned public and private monopolies. While the oil industry's conglomerates are not officially state sanctioned, they are nonetheless monopolistic. Technologies create their own infrastructures, companies, bureaucracies, and even elected officials, whose most important job becomes protecting the established technology. This creates a problem that is as much political as it is economic or technological in replacing entrenched technologies -- the politics of technology. From an energy perspective, if you add the swapping-out of existing fossil energy sources with renewable sources creates no new net societal wealth, except for in areas of environmental restitution.  Instead it is a process of wealth redistribution -- taking wealth from established power. In most cases, it is established power intimately entwined with the state. Understanding this in all its facets will give you a better understanding of the political economy of energy.

Joe Costello was communications director for Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential campaign and was a senior adviser for Howard Dean’s effort in 2004.

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Getting Off Oil is Job #1

Sep 3, 2010Joe Costello

The International Energy Agency announced the world is going to become increasingly reliant on OPEC for oil, more accurately the Persian Gulf, as other members of OPEC will soon enough be formerly petroleum exporting countries. The WSJ writes,

The global dependency on the members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries for oil will rise in the next five to 10 years as production by non-OPEC nations declines, the chief of the International Energy Agency said Friday.

The International Energy Agency announced the world is going to become increasingly reliant on OPEC for oil, more accurately the Persian Gulf, as other members of OPEC will soon enough be formerly petroleum exporting countries. The WSJ writes,

The global dependency on the members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries for oil will rise in the next five to 10 years as production by non-OPEC nations declines, the chief of the International Energy Agency said Friday.

"We have seen an increase in non-OPEC supplies. But in the mid-term, non-OPEC production will decline," Nobuo Tanaka, the agency's executive director, told reporters on the sidelines of a conference. "So, dependency on OPEC oil will increase."

OPEC's 12 members, who include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, account for about 40% of the global oil (production).

So, I guess a trend that's been going on for over three decades is news. The increase in non-opec supply is almost entirely due to the global economic contraction. Here's some better numbers, not that numbers have any relation to economic reality these days, nonetheless, the countries around the Persian Gulf have 60% of known global oil reserves -- speaking of unreal numbers -- while, the EU, the US, China and Japan, who conveniently enough account for 60% of the world's economy have only 9% of the world's remaining oil reserves, and if you cut the US out of that equation it would drop to 3%.

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The entire corporate globalization experiment of the past few decades is built on the premise of cheap oil. The entire global "oil market", increasingly unable to provide cheap oil, is built on the American military, and the American military is built on debt, which each year becomes ever more unsustainable. Now, we could go to the EU, China, and Japan and say you guys need to start kicking-in to pay for our military service, but I doubt that would go over well with anyone, no one's going to give money without a corresponding increase in say. Or we can begin to realize that the entire corporate globalization experiment, premised on cheap oil, is at best problematic and more accurately a failure. We as a planet need to begin creating a non-oil based economy, that is, we need to truly become post-modern. But when you have an economy, politics, and culture completely addicted to oil, that's difficult. Instead you get desperation like ethanol and biofuels, which is the equivalent of the addict selling-off the food, furniture, and soon enough the house. Getting off oil is job 1 for any sustained economic revival and that means a complete redesign of our infrastructure.

Joe Costello was communications director for Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential campaign and was a senior adviser for Howard Dean’s effort in 2004.

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Broken Politics, Bubble Pricing, Environment, and Agriculture

Aug 30, 2010Joe Costello

Shed your fears and lose your guilt
Tonight we burn responsibility in the fire
We'll watch the flames grow higher

Shed your fears and lose your guilt
Tonight we burn responsibility in the fire
We'll watch the flames grow higher

As I was standing by the edge
I could see the faces of those who led pissing theirselves laughing
Their mad eyes bulged and their flushed faces said,
"The weak get crushed and the strong grow stronger."
In the funeral pyre, we'll watch the flames grow higher
-- Paul Weller

However effective you think "markets" are at pricing, one thing you can say is bubbles completely distort pricing mechanisms to the point of being valueless. When you add into that a corrupt political process using government to further distort costs, you get a system that is completely dysfunctional and incapable of meeting the challenges of the times. Here's two good examples. The first is a piece in the Post about the establishment environmental groups lamenting the fate of climate legislation in DC. Any legislation to increase fossil fuels price was doomed with the financial crisis and resulting economic slowdown, though in return, the slowing economy gave you the greatest reduction in fossil fuel use in 30 years, certainly much greater than any proposed legislation at this point. Much, certainly not all, of the established environmental movement has propagated the notion that the mechanisms, culture, and practices that led us to environmental breakdown are going to be the same ones offering solutions. Let's look at one, the idea that a broken politics, without first being repaired, can get us needed change. The Post has a piece with one of the most ludicrous quotes I've seen in 30 years following politics:

"The oil industry has tremendous reach and control in the United States Senate," said David Di Martino, a spokesman for Clean Energy Works, a coalition of more than 60 groups that includes big names such as the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund. "Our mistake was miscalculating . . . how far into the Senate it went."

Miscalculating? Really? The oil industry has power in DC? Don't misunderstand, this kind of political thinking is rampant in environmental circles. Many think they don't need to educate the public and can just pull the levers of a broken system. Try to get money from the big non-profit funders for public education on taxing oil. You can start with Pew founded by Sun Oil, then go to the Rockefeller Foundation, or if both of them don't work try the Ford Foundation. There are few funders who believe in public education -- after all, its expensive, and well, who wants to deal with the great unwashed? And don't worry, they won't react when the price of energy goes up, Al Gore has told them the world's ending.

Anyway, right now on energy there's two viable things to push, money for renewables and efficiency/conservation.

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The environmental movement is simply about looking at the human impact on natural resources and natural systems. Energy of course is fundamental, but even more so is food. You can go without energy a lot longer than without food. Now, there's been a growing number of stories about potash (potassium) appearing in the news, since BHP is attempting to take over one of the world's largest producers. Mined potash is a necessary element to modern agriculture practices. Limited increasingly by area, that is Canada and Russia dwarf all other known reserves, the price of potash, like many other agriculture commodities went through a massive price spike before the financial crisis. Here's an interesting BBC discussion on the entire global agriculture issue(tx zerohedge). Pay attention to Hugh Hendry's quote near the end. He states,

"For thirty-years, the price of agriculture has collapsed, fallen 90% in real terms. So, we haven't invested in this sector. As a society, as a world society we acutely vulnerable to the business of feeding ourselves."

Agriculture prices have been falling for a couple hundred years. Modern agriculture practices developed in the last hundred years are totally tied to fossil fuels, and no doubt, the last three decades precipitous fall is also tied to the preceding great rise in commodity prices caused by the oil crisis of the 1970s. But Mr. Hendry's point is well taken, we haven't invested in agriculture, in large part because our bubble financial system of the past quarter-century has not accurately priced its importance. If you want to bet which of the great environmental threats will be the first to bite us, I'd put money on our completely unsustainable agriculture practices.

The most important point of both these stories is what got us here isn't going to get us out.

Joe Costello was communications director for Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential campaign and was a senior adviser for Howard Dean’s effort in 2004.

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