In an era of climate risk, is cost-benefit analysis enough?

David Roberts at Grist thinks not.  Great article, with deep links to hardcore World Bank wonkery.  Food for thoughts for Evans students (and profs):

As time horizons and uncertainty increase, cost-benefit analysis becomes less and less useful, more and more “a knob-twiddling exercise in optimizing outcomes,” as economist Martin Weitzman put it. Differences in social/political/ethical assumptions, like discount rates, start determining model outcomes. “Results from the cost-benefit analysis,” says the World Bank, are “extremely dependent on parameters on which there is no scientific agreement (e.g., the impact of climate change on hurricanes) or no consensus (e.g., the discount rate).” It’s still possible to construct models and get answers, but the danger becomes higher and higher of getting the wrong answer, i.e., optimizing for the wrong thing.

If we’re going to fix Washington State’s initiative system, let’s really fix it

It’s difficult to tell whether the recent proposal to amend the Washington State Constitution to fix our savagely broken initiative system is serious or just election-year posturing.  I’m all in favor of requiring initiatives to pay for themselves, but if we’re going to go to the trouble of amending the Constitution, let’s talk about the reform that will really fix the initiative system: banning paid signature gatherers.

The problem with our initiative system isn’t “unfunded mandates”–that’s a symptom.  The problem is that it’s too easy for organized money to put absolutely terrible policies on the ballot.  Banning paid signature gatherers would ensure that only measures with real grassroots support could get on the ballot, and once again make the initiative the people’s check-and-balance it was intended to be.

If you’re interested in more, David Broder, no raging leftist, writes about this at length in Democracy Derailed.

Truth from power

Bravo Reuven.  This hits the nail on the head.  I’m proud to have you as my representative in Olympia.

I do this to attempt to genuinely educate the public about the true cost of asking for disproportionately higher public spending in education, health care, transportation, capital budgets and so much more all the while sending legislators to Olympia who prioritize anti-tax pledges to Washington, D.C.-based anti-government organizations.

If, as some argue, we have a massive state budget deficit because spending from Olympia is out of control, we have that deficit in large because we can no longer sustain an unbalanced status quo by which only 6 primarily urban counties are ‘net contributor’ of taxes while 33 primarily rural are ‘net recipient’ counties.

Our rural communities are part of the soul of our state’s glorious history and residents deserve the same quality education and health care that urban communities receive. I am not troubled by the massively unbalanced subsidy of tax dollars from state government to rural areas, I am troubled by the disingenuous political arguments of those who pretend those subsidies don’t exist and prioritize anti-tax pledges above all else.

Re-appreciating Abraham Lincoln

One of the unexpected intellectual delights of grad school thus far has been the opportunity to re-engage with Abraham Lincoln.  We’ve been spending a bit of time with his speeches, most importantly the Gettysburg Address.  (Feel free to take five for a quick re-read.)

We’ve been reading Garry Wills’ masterful book “Lincoln at Gettysburg” which had just been published when I last took an American history class in 1992.  It’s a masterful analysis and contextualization of the speech, worth reading for so many reasons, but the insight I like the best is Wills’ analysis of how Lincoln uses the Gettysburg Address to literally redefine the fundamental notion of what America is and where it grounds its political and moral legitimacy.

What Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address was to ground the idea of America not in the Constitution, a necessarily flawed and incomplete set of rules, but in the Declaration of Independence, a document that lays out a forward-looking vision of human rights grounded in the inherent dignity of each individual.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This is a transcending and universal statement of ideals, and the task of succeeding generations (Lincoln’s and ours) is to ever more closely align reality with that bold ambition.

What Steve says

The always-insightful Steve Wright pretty much nails it in this short post on OWS (emphasis mine):

Social media does a fantastic job of creating noise and through noise you get attention. But noise has no narrative. The decentralized approach has served us brilliantly. Again, I am grateful and in awe of those in the OWS movement who have done what I do not have the courage to do myself.I believe we are rapidly approaching the time when old school Port Huron style organizing is necessary. Reading up on the early days of the last civil rights movement, it took them about 10 years to get to the catalytic moment of 1968. I think we are at our 1968 moment today but don’t have the structure underneath us.

Three keys to understanding Occupy Wall Street

I don’t have much original to say about Occupy Wall Street, other than that I find it quite fascinating on many levels.  Here are three articles from cutting-edge progressive social change organizers that I think offer important, non-obvious insights into what is really going on and what it could become.

  1. from liberty plaza, Adrienne Maree Brown
  2. Turning Occupation into Lasting Change, Tom Linzey and Jeff Reifman
  3. Occupy Wall Street is Not a Brand, Marty Kearns

Very different perspectives, but some amazing thematic resonance: opportunity, radically democratic process, networks instead of organizations, diversity (of people and ideas).  Will these seeds blossom or wither and wait for the next season of discontent?

Losing the language to talk about economic security

There’s a powerful, disturbing op-ed in today’s New York Times by Yale professors Theodore R. Marmor and Jerry L. Mashaw, who observe that over the past decades, the language we use to talk about our national economic situation has changed from a language of shared goals and moral concerns to a cold, clinical language of accounting.

In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other — not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions. Programs of social insurance have become “entitlements,” a word apparently meant to signify not a collectively provided and cherished basis for family-income security, but a sinister threat to our national well-being.


Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost the words — and with them the ideas — to frame our situation appropriately.

What is left unsaid is the fact that this is yet another example of deliberate right-wing framing that has insidiously crept across the partisan divide.  She who names the problem gets to prescribe the solution.