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.

I believe that government is a good idea

One of the main reasons I’m going to grad school for public administration is that, deep down, I believe that government is a good idea. It’s the way that we tackle problems that can’t be addressed alone. It’s how we make the rules that prevent “free markets” from degenerating into the anarchic violence of strong against weak. It’s how we provide justice and preserve individual liberty.

Apparently, in our present political climate, this makes me some sort of leftist weirdo. Well, that says more about the parlous state of our political discourse than it does about my politics. At the end of the day, though, I want people in government who actually think that government is a good idea, because the alternative a self-baking recipe for incompetence and tyranny.

What is effective environmental organizing?

We’ve been talking a bit internally at Groundwire here about how to define effective social change organizing.  Here’s what we have so far:

Effective social change organizing creates relationships in order to build measurable power and wields that power to achieve specific, significant behavioral, policy or political outcomes.

How does that work for you?

We like that it is succinct and clearly connects relationships, power and tangible outcomes.  But it also raises questions of what we might mean by “measurable power” and “specific, significant outcomes.”

Any organizing campaign or organizer will need to figure out what measures of power are most meaningful for their context, but in general, we think that power is most often measurable in terms of “I can motivate X people to take action Y, which results in Z.”

“Specific and significant” outcomes will also vary greatly across campaigns, but again, we want to emphasize how important it is to be able to articulate these outcomes in specific and measurable terms.  Some examples could include:

  • Winning an election
  • Passing legislation or administrative policies
  • Measure shifts in public opinion or behavior

If your “big hairy audacious” goal will take years to achieve, that’s OK, but you need to be able to define some specific shorter-term outcomes to let you know whether you’re on track.




Citizens United vs. United Citizens: Building a Movement to Drive Money Out of Politics

Today is the one-year anniversary of the Citizens United Supreme Court case.  Gideon Rosenblatt has a fantastic, in-depth piece up on Huffington Post that covers why campaign finance reform is an urgent, fundamental issue that the progressive community needs to rally around in a concerted, strategic way.   Hint: money is corrupting not only policy decisions, but the very democratic process itself.

Why not marginal property tax rates?

If Washington State voters (in their “infinite wisdom”) aren’t going to approve an income tax, I wonder if it is constitutional to enact a more progressive property tax system. For example, let’s have a higher marginal property tax rate for properties valued at more than 3 times the median price for their county.  Politics aside, is there any legal reason this isn’t feasible?

How to support your favorite candidate or ballot initiative this fall: place some targeted Google or Facebook ads

My parents-in-law asked me last night, “Is there any useful way can support I-1098 other than by phone-banking, which we hate?”

I thought about it a bit, and I said, “Well, you could place some Google or Facebook Ads, targeted at folks in Olympia, etc.”  Which got me thinking some more.

The obvious things to do would be:

  • Geotargeting — not just to the state level, but down to the city level.
  • Use Facebook interest targeting either to zoom in on likely supporters or to try to find possible swing voters
  • Instead of linking to the generic campaign website, maybe try linking to a landing page that explains how to place ads of your own.  (i.e. try to make the idea go viral)

Has anyone ever tried this?  Is it effective? It seems like it could be a lot of fairly inexpensive fun.

Copenhagen, a brief hypothesis

Copenhagen was doomed to failure from the day that Obama decided to do health care in 2009 and not climate legislation. Enviros should have recognized this and responded by de-emphasizing the strategic importance of Copenhagen, and focusing their limited resources to prepare for 2010.


If you didn’t already think that one of the most important long-term issues in our society is the twin hydra of corporate personhood and campaign finance reform, today’s Supreme Court ruling should be a shocking eye-opener for you.  Make no mistake, this is serious, worrisome stuff.

It’s time for all of the groups in the “progressive” spectrum to come together to mount a major, long-term campaign to end the misguided, extra-constitutional notion of corporate personhood.  It seems to me that everyone has thought this is “someone else’s issue.”  No longer.  If we don’t get our act together here, pretty soon we’re not going to have a democracy left to argue about.  It is well past time to see a serious infusion of resources and organizing around these issues.

Good starting points if you’re new to this whole issue area are POCLAD’s book “Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy“and CELDF’s “Democracy School.”

Time for tax reform in Washington State

County government simply isn’t sustainable, anywhere in the state, and no amount of focus on budget priorities is going to fix this over the long term. At some point, voters are going to have to accept that the level of revenue they are providing simply isn’t sufficient to support the level of services they’ve come to want and expect. But we’ll never have that painful conversation until our elected officials are willing to start it.

via HorsesAss.Org

Krugman on Climate

Paul Krugman has a great column on climate change today.  This leapt out at me.

“For three decades the dominant political ideology in America has extolled private enterprise and denigrated government, but climate change is a problem that can only be addressed through government action. And rather than concede the limits of their philosophy, many on the right have chosen to deny that the problem exists.”

And, not parenthetically:

“We can afford to do this. Even as climate modelers have been reaching consensus on the view that the threat is worse than we realized, economic modelers have been reaching consensus on the view that the costs of emission control are lower than many feared.”

On social change advocacy and its targets

Supporters of long-term social change should not just be providing resources to organizing campaigns. They should also be focusing on helping decisionmakers become more able to hear the messages that social change campaigns are sending.

What good is funding campaigns to send faxes, emails, tweets, phone calls and letters to legislators who are already overwhelmed by unstructured incoming messages?  Why not also work on tools to help the legislators track and manage inbound communications more effectively, so that they can actually hear the voice of organized people over the din of organized money?

Why not invest in providing government with the tools to run proper community engagement processes that bridge traditional in-person public meetings with online technologies?  This probably requires some interesting innovation in online discussion tools.

Most social change advocates believe fundamentally that government works.  Why don’t we systematically invest in helping it transform itself so that it can be more open and responsive to our advocacy?

“The Inheritance”

I just finished reading “The Inheritance,” a new book by New York Times foreign correspondant David E. Sanger. It’s a lucid, thoughtful look inside the Bush foreign policy legacy, with a strong focus on the challenging global security situations in North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan that the Obama administration must contend with.   Sobering and worthwhile.