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Post-election political reality, part III

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

In Throwing the Bums Out for 140 Years, David Kennedy adds a historian’s touch to the thread we have been developing since Thursday—wild swings in recent elections and the inability of the federal government to either confront or gain traction on tough social and environmental challenges:

Explanations for our current political volatility abound: toxic partisanship, the ever more fragmented and strident news media, high unemployment, economic upheaval and the clamorous upwelling of inchoate populist angst.

But the political instability of our own time pales when compared with the late 19th century. In the Gilded Age the American ship of state pitched and yawed on a howling sea of electoral turbulence. For decades on end, “divided government” was the norm. In only 12 of the 30 years after 1870 did the same party control the House, the Senate and the White House.

…And yet there are features of the Gilded Age that suggest some disturbing parallels with our own time. Generations of American scholars have struggled to find a coherent narrative or to identify heroic leaders in that era’s messy and inconclusive political scene. The history books give us a succession of Lilliputian presidents often described as “bearded, bland and boring.”

…In the face of all those challenges, like our Gilded Age forebears, we have a political system that manages to be both volatile and gridlocked — indeed, it may be gridlocked not least because it is so volatile. And, like their 19th-century forebears, today’s politicians have great difficulty gaining traction on any of those challenges. Now as then, it’s hard to lead citizens who are so eager to “throw the bums out” at every opportunity.

…So perhaps the stasis of the Gilded Age and the stalemate of our recent years reflect not so much the defects of our political structures as the monumental scale of the issues at hand. From that perspective, “wave” elections mark a necessary stage of indecision, shuffling, avoidance and confusion before a fractious democratic people can at last summon the courage to make tough choices, the creativity to find innovative solutions, the will to take consequential action and the old-fashioned moxie to put the ship of state again on an even keel.

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More on the post-election political reality

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

The opinion pages at the NY Times are lighting up with more analysis of the wild swings from one political party to another in recent elections.

Some argue that America lacks the political leadership to confront pressing  challenges and that the large swing to Democrats in 2008 and then to Republicans in 2010 is a desperate search by the voting public to find this leadership.

The Rauch piece provides a complimentary, but different, perspective and is especially interesting. It suggests that the polarization of the parties along ideological lines over the past 20 years has made single-party control of Washington particularly unstable because voters in the minority react negatively to the policies of the majority party.  Divided government, although messy in appearance, he argues, may be the more stable and effective form of federal governance for getting things done.

David Brooks:

Democrats have, at least temporarily, blown the opportunity they were given to connect with the industrial Midwest. Voters in this region face structural problems, not cyclical ones. Intensely suspicious of government, they are nonetheless casting about for somebody, anybody, who can revive their towns and neighborhoods.

…American politics are volatile because nobody has an answer for these people. They will remain volatile until somebody finds one.

Bob Herbert:

It would be easy to misread the results of Tuesday’s elections, and it looks as if the leaders of both parties are doing exactly that.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are offering voters the kind of change that they seem so desperately to want. We’re getting mind-numbing chatter about balanced budgets and smaller government and whether Mitch McConnell and his gang can chase President Obama out of the White House in 2012.

What voters want is leadership that will help them through an economic nightmare and fix a country that has been pitched into a state of sharp decline. They long for leaders with a clear and compelling vision of a better America and a road map for getting there. That leadership has long been AWOL. The hope in the tumultuous elections of 2008 was that it would come from Mr. Obama and the Democrats, but that hope, after just two years, is on life support.

Tuesday’s outcome was the result of voters, still hungry for change, who either switched in anger from the Democrats to the Republicans or, out of a deep sense of disappointment, stayed home.

…Our leaders in Washington seem entirely out of touch with the needs, the hopes, the fears and the anxieties of the millions of Americans who are out of work, who are struggling with their mortgages or home foreclosures, who are skimping on needed medication in order to keep food on the table, and who lie awake at night worrying about what the morning will bring. No one even dares mention the poor.

What this election tells me is that real leadership will have to come from elsewhere, from outside of Washington, perhaps from elected officials in statehouses or municipal buildings that are closer to the people, from foundations and grass-roots organizations, from the labor movement and houses of worship and community centers.

Frank Rich:

You can’t win an election without a coherent message. Obama, despite his administration’s genuine achievements, didn’t have one. The good news — for him, if not necessarily a straitened country — is that the G.O.P. doesn’t have one either. This explains the seemingly irrational calculus of Tuesday’s exit polls. Voters gave Democrats and Republicans virtually identical favorability ratings while voting for the G.O.P. They gave Obama a slightly higher approval rating than either political party even as they punished him. This is a snapshot of a whiplashed country that (understandably) doesn’t know whose butt to kick first.

…In the 1946 midterms, the unpopular and error-prone rookie president Harry Truman, buffeted by a different set of economic dislocations, watched his party lose both chambers of Congress (including 54 seats in the House) to a G.O.P. that then moved steadily to the right in its determination to cut government spending and rip down the New Deal safety net. Two years after this Democratic wipeout, despite a hostile press and a grievously divided party, Truman roared back, in part by daring the Republican Congress to enact its reactionary plans. He won against all odds, as David McCullough writes in “Truman,” because “there was something in the American character that responded to a fighter.”

Jonathan Rauch:

A GRAND victory for Republicans in the 2010 midterm election? Yes, of course. But also no. In all three of the most recent earthshaking midterm elections — 1994, 2006 and now 2010 — the same candidate won: divided government.

…Divided government comes about when one party controls the White House and the other controls either or both chambers of Congress. Washington has been split between the parties for more than 21 of the past 30 years (the exceptions being 1993 and 1994, part of 2001, 2003 to 2006, and the past two years). The middle four of President George W. Bush’s eight years represented the longest stint of unified government in that span. Not at all coincidentally, they also saw his party’s support nosedive.

Consistently, when either party, never mind which, obtains total control, its popularity collapses and the voters take the first available opportunity to bring in the other side.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon. From the Great Depression until the Ronald Reagan years, the public had no problem with keeping Democrats in charge of Congress for decades, no matter which party held the White House. In those days, however, both parties were ideologically broad coalitions. Northeastern Republicans stood to the left of Southern Democrats, for example. Regardless of which party was in power, ideological diversity was assured, and like-minded politicians worked across party lines.

That changed, and changed in a big way, as the parties re-sorted themselves along ideological lines. Today, almost all Democrats are to the left of all Republicans. The result is that the system behaves very differently when one party is in control than when they share. So differently, in fact, that you can fairly say that the country has one Constitution with two distinct modes of operation.

In Mode 1 — unified government — the minority party in Washington, shut out of power, has every incentive to make the majority’s life difficult, and does so. Its partisans, with no stake in whether anything gets done in Washington, treat the government as if it were under control of an invading army.

…In Mode 2 — divided government — the dynamic is reversed. Both parties, responsible for governing, have a stake in success. Forced to negotiate and compromise, they drag policy toward the center, allowing moderates to feel represented instead of ignored. Most important, the country itself becomes more governable and meaningful laws stand a likelier chance of passage…

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Photo credit: Stephen Little

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Post-election reality and what that might mean for our common future

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Lots of interesting analysis in the wake of yesterday’s elections, including some surveying the dynamic political landscape and what this means for the country’s ability to deal with crises including jobs, energy, and climate.

Some have suggested that the large Republican shift in 2010 is a (over)correction of the large Democratic (over)correction in 2008.  Like a water hose flailing wildly back and forth out of control, does this portend increasingly variable election cycles going forward as people become more-and-more frustrated with the inability of the federal government to confront problems?

John Judis at The New Republic offers this:

Does losing over 60 House seats and as many as eight Senate seats simply make this a below average outcome, or did something much more serious and significant happen in yesterday’s election?

Republicans might say it’s the re-emergence of a conservative Republican majority, but that’s not really what happened. What this election suggests to me is that the United States may have finally lost its ability to adapt politically to the systemic crises that it has periodically faced. America emerged from the Civil War, the depression of the 1890s, World War I, and the Great Depression and World War II stronger than ever—with a more buoyant economy and greater international standing. A large part of the reason was the political system’s ability to provide the leadership the country needed. But what this election suggests to me is that this may no longer be the case.

…Like the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s, this slowdown was also precipitated by the exhaustion of opportunities for economic growth. America’s challenge over the next decade will be to develop new industries that can produce goods and services that can be sold on the world market. The United States has a head start in biotechnology and computer technology, but as the Obama administration recognized, much of the new demand will focus on the development of renewable energy and green technology. As the Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans understand, these kinds of industries require government coordination and subsidies. But the new generation of Republicans rejects this kind of industrial policy. They even oppose Obama’s obviously successful auto bailout.

Instead, when America finally recovers, it is likely to re-create the older economic structure that got the country in trouble in the first place: dependence on foreign oil to run cars; a bloated and unstable financial sector that primarily feeds upon itself and upon a credit-hungry public; boarded-up factories; and huge and growing trade deficits with Asia. These continuing trade deficits, combined with budget deficits, will finally reduce confidence in the dollar to the point where it ceases to be a viable international currency.

The election results will also put an end to the Obama administration’s attempt to reach an international climate accord. It will cripple its ability to adopt domestic limits on carbon emissions. The election could also doom Obama’s one substantial foreign policy achievement—the arms treaty it signed with Russia that still awaits Senate confirmation.

…[I]f I am right about the fundamental problems that this nation suffers from at home and overseas, then any politician’s or political party’s victory is likely to prove short-lived. If you want to imagine what American politics will be like, think about Japan.

Japan had a remarkably stable leadership from the end of World War II until their bubble burst in the 1990s. As the country has stumbled over the last two decades, unable finally to extricate from its slump, it has suffered through a rapid of succession of leaders, several of whom, like Obama, have stirred hopes of renewal and reform, only to create disillusionment and despair within the electorate. From 1950 to 1970, Japan had six prime ministers. It has had 14 from 1990 to the present, and six from 2005 to the present. That kind of political instability is both cause and effect of Japan’s inability to transform its economy and international relations to meet the challenges of a new century.

[L]ike Japan, we’ve had a succession of false dawns, or what Walter Dean Burnham once called an “unstable equilibrium.” That’s not good for party loyalists, but it’s also not good for the country. America needs bold and consistent leadership to get us out of the impasse we are in, but if this election says anything, it’s that we’re not going to get it over the next two or maybe even ten years.

Posted in energy, policy, solutions | 1 Comment »

The diversity of values held by conservation scientists and why this matters

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Right up there with climate change, biodiversity conservation is one of the most challenging issues at the intersection of nature and culture.  Part of this challenge arises because of genuine differences in how people value other species.

In an interesting forthcoming article in Conservation Biology, Chris Sandbrook and colleagues at Cambridge University argue that these value differences not only show up in society at large, but among conservation professionals, who—like climate scientists—are drawn to the possibility of developing scientific consensuses to inform policy debates:

Conservation biology has been called a crisis science and a mission-driven discipline. Both the mission, and its urgency, seem clear, and there has been a substantial increase in activities intended to address the rapid decline in the variety of life on Earth at all levels of biological organization (structure, composition, and function). Nevertheless, there are tensions within the field about the values that underpin the conservation mission, particularly concerning the nature and singularity of these values and the role of values when conservation professionals try to inform or influence policy.

Recently, the values held by conservation professionals themselves have been debated. Conservation professionals often refer to both instrumental values (the usefulness of nature for humans) and noninstrumental or intrinsic values, and there may be an element of opportunism when they do so. Thus, although some may privately base the positions they hold on intrinsic values, they may espouse use-value arguments in public, adapting arguments to the interests of their audience. Some call for conservation scientists to return to a conservation ethic derived from intrinsic values

…[Others] propose a more pragmatic engagement with material values of nature in their focus on what they see as the “hard socioeconomic realities in real-world conservation problems.” The environmental philosophy of pragmatism, with its acceptance of both intrinsic and instrumental values of nature, is the hallmark of adaptive management

To study values held by conservationists, the research team posed a set of values to scientists and asked them to rank the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the statements (Q methodology).  The responses were then run through a set of statistics (factor analysis) to distill the huge pile of value-by-person data into four overarching factors that summarized the main values held.

Their results suggest that consensus building may not only be difficult, it may be counterproductive…

(more…)

Posted in biodiversity science, communication and framing, environmental ethics, nature and culture, policy, population, race and class, science advocacy, social science, sustainable development | No Comments »

Land consumption and open space loss across U.S. cities

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

The issue of land use change is a complex, with many factors being important historically, such as

  • population growth (more land required for more people)
  • technology (e.g., automobiles made suburban expansion feasible)
  • economics (cheaper land and rents in suburbs compared to cities)
  • policy (things like 30-yr mortgages, mortgage insurance, and FHA loans had a large impact on urban sprawl because they often made it cheaper to own rather than rent)
  • cultural values (the romanticized notion of a detached home in a safe, pollution-free neighborhood with good schools)

In this week’s PLoS One, Robert McDonald and colleagues1 examined land use change for 274 metro areas (figure 1) in the U.S. to determine tends across cities.

Their results were interesting (excerpts):

  • 1.4 million ha of open space was lost, and the amount lost in a given city was correlated with population growth.
  • American cities vary by more than an order of magnitude in their MSA-wide per capita land consumption. Generally large cities have small per capita land consumption, with the five smallest in 2000 being New York (459 m2/person), Miami (476 m2/person), Philadelphia (519 m2/person), Los Angeles (535 m2/person), and Washington, DC (536 m2/person). Conversely, many small cities have large per capita land consumption, with the five biggest in 2000 being Grand Forks, ND (5394 m2/person), Bismark, ND (3913 m2/person), Flagstaff, AZ (3381 m2/person), Enid, OK (3249 m2/person), and Cheyenne, WY (3073 m2/person).
  • The per capita land consumption (m2/person) of most cities decreased on average over the decade from 1,564 to 1,454 m 2/person, but there was substantial regional variation and some cities even increased.
  • Cities with greater conservation funding or more reform-minded zoning tended to decrease in per capita land consumption (scroll to table 1) more than other cities.
  • The inequality of land consumption varied geographically, with less inequality on the East Coast compared to the West Coast (scroll to figure 4).

They provide a simplified snapshot of how development changes with history and geography (for a more-thorough yet readable treatment of land use in the U.S., check out Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson):

The process of development plays out differently in cities with different socioeconomic histories. Moreover, cultural differences exist among and within many U.S. cities, leading to varying spatial patterns of development. However, a general historical pattern exists. In many U.S. cities, an urban core existed in the decades or centuries prior to the widespread use of the automobile, and these neighborhoods have high population density and small amounts of developed area per capita. The surrounding suburban and exurban areas, created predominately after WWII, contain residents living at lower population density and consume more land per capita. There are substantial economic links between these two zones, and in contemporary U.S. cities commuting occurs in both directions. Northeast U.S. cities that developed before the automobile typically follow this narrative. Many have a relatively dense urban core, but have adopted zoning policies that ensure contemporary suburban settlements occur at lower density. While they remain dense compared to other U.S. cities, they are getting less dense over time, as proportionally more of the population is in suburban areas. The declining manufacturing cities of the Rust Belt and the Southern Appalachians are an extreme example of this spreading out of population.

Southeastern U.S. cities, excluding Florida, are often newer and have less of a legacy of a dense urban core. They do not appear to be getting markedly denser, and the relatively fast population growth of these cities implies that their total impact on natural habitat in coming decades will be large. In contrast to the Southeast, Western cities appear to be getting denser, including those that do not have a historical legacy of a dense urban core such as Phoenix. These Western cities are often still growing quickly and consuming a great deal of land, but contemporary development is making these cities denser than they were previously. Many of these Western cities have a strong conservation culture, and the degree of conservation funding and reform-minded zoning correlates with how much denser they are getting. However, it should be noted that contemporary development in Western cities is still well below the densities found in the dense urban core of Northeastern U.S. cities, posing problems for designing effective public transit systems.

1McDonald, R., Forman, R., & Kareiva, P. (2010). Open Space Loss and Land Inequality in United States’ Cities, 1990–2000 PLoS ONE, 5 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009509

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Photo Credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/bobjagendorf/ / CC BY-NC 2.0

Posted in behavior, land use, nature and culture, policy, population, sustainability, transportation, urban | 1 Comment »

Al Gore weighs in on the state of climate change

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

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…in an op-ed piece in today’s NY Times.

Excerpts (links his):

[T]he scientific enterprise will never be completely free of mistakes. What is important is that the overwhelming consensus on global warming remains unchanged. It is also worth noting that the panel’s scientists — acting in good faith on the best information then available to them — probably underestimated the range of sea-level rise in this century, the speed with which the Arctic ice cap is disappearing and the speed with which some of the large glacial flows in Antarctica and Greenland are melting and racing to the sea.

Because these and other effects of global warming are distributed globally, they are difficult to identify and interpret in any particular location. For example, January was seen as unusually cold in much of the United States. Yet from a global perspective, it was the second-hottest January since surface temperatures were first measured 130 years ago.

Similarly, even though climate deniers have speciously argued for several years that there has been no warming in the last decade, scientists confirmed last month that the last 10 years were the hottest decade since modern records have been kept.

The heavy snowfalls this month have been used as fodder for ridicule by those who argue that global warming is a myth, yet scientists have long pointed out that warmer global temperatures have been increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, putting significantly more moisture into the atmosphere — thus causing heavier downfalls of both rain and snow in particular regions, including the Northeastern United States. Just as it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees, neither should we miss the climate for the snowstorm.

….The political paralysis that is now so painfully evident in Washington has thus far prevented action by the Senate — not only on climate and energy legislation, but also on health care reform, financial regulatory reform and a host of other pressing issues.

….Some analysts attribute the failure to an inherent flaw in the design of the chosen solution — arguing that a cap-and-trade approach is too unwieldy and difficult to put in place. Moreover, these critics add, the financial crisis that began in 2008 shook the world’s confidence in the use of any market-based solution.

But there are two big problems with this critique: First, there is no readily apparent alternative that would be any easier politically….Second, we should have no illusions about the difficulty and the time needed to convince the rest of the world to adopt a completely new approach.

Updates: There is a wide range of opinion on the IPCC these days:

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Photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/adc/ / CC BY 2.0

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Posted in climate change science, climate economics, climate skeptics deniers and contrarians, communication and framing, energy, policy, sustainability | No Comments »

Are business externalities really this big?

Friday, February 19th, 2010

How much does pollution (and other environmental impacts) from corporations cost each year?  These costs, borne by society rather than corporations, are called negative externalities.  An example is the cost of medical expenses and the loss of forests caused by air pollution.

The Guardian is running a story by Juliette Jowit suggesting that the total cost of externalities for the 3,000 largest companies in the world could be as much as $US 2.2 trillion in 2008.  As the story points out, that’s a lot:

  • more than the economies of all but 7 nations
  • about one third the value of the profits of these companies

Excerpts (links by Jowit):

Later this year, another huge UN study – dubbed the “Stern for nature” after the influential report on the economics of climate change by Sir Nicholas Stern – will attempt to put a price on such global environmental damage, and suggest ways to prevent it. The report, led by economist Pavan Sukhdev, is likely to argue for abolition of billions of dollars of subsidies to harmful industries like agriculture, energy and transport, tougher regulations and more taxes on companies that cause the damage.

“What we’re talking about is a completely new paradigm,” said Richard Mattison, Trucost’s chief operating officer and leader of the report team. “Externalities of this scale and nature pose a major risk to the global economy and markets are not fully aware of these risks, nor do they know how to deal with them.”

“It’s going to be a significant proportion of a lot of companies’ profit margins,” Mattison told the Guardian. “Whether they actually have to pay for these costs will be determined by the appetite for policy makers to enforce the ‘polluter pays’ principle. We should be seeking ways to fix the system, rather than waiting for the economy to adapt. Continued inefficient use of natural resources will cause significant impacts on [national economies] overall, and a massive problem for governments to fix.”

Another major concern is the risk that companies simply run out of resources they need to operate, said Andrea Moffat, of the US-based investor lobby group Ceres, whose members include more than 80 funds with assets worth more than US$8tn. An example was the estimated loss of 20,000 jobs and $1bn last year for agricultural companies because of water shortages in California, said Moffat.

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Posted in climate economics, policy, pollutants | No Comments »

Is a post-Copenhagen roadmap emerging?

Monday, February 1st, 2010

WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM ANNUAL MEETING 2010 DAVOSOver the past few years, there have been a couple of major approaches for dealing with climate change:

  • Use political tools to set emissions targets (e.g., 80% reduction by 2050);
  • Invest heavily in green technology to drive green energy prices lower.  Only then will these technologies take hold. Carbon reductions are an important byproduct but not the main goal.

Of course these are not mutually exclusive, but they might as well be given the way they have played out on the political stage.

With a lot of people down on political solutions to deal with climate change, strong advocates of the latter approach may now gain the upper hand.  Folks like Shellenberger and Nordhaus have been arguing that green energy needs to be produced as quickly and cheaply as possible—forget all of the games with cap and trade or carbon taxes.   Tom Friedman has also argued the need for swift action on energy, while also endorsing political solutions like carbon taxes.

If you look for areas that are gaining or have the potential to gain traction, there seem to be two levers that may work:

Both of these general concerns have attracted Republican support for green energy and climate change mitigation, including Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

This may be a signal of potential game changers and the clearest path forward that we’ve seen in awhile.

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Photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/worldeconomicforum/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

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Posted in climate economics, conflict, energy, policy, risk analysis, solutions | 1 Comment »

Extreme climate and the vulnerability of least-developed countries

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

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Happy New Year, everyone.  Sorry for the lag in posts, but there wasn’t a lot happening in the news or journals over the past week.

A few years ago, I saw a talk by Thomas Schelling (Nobel laureate in economics) who argued that we need to accelerate the economic development of poor countries so that they are able to cope with climate change.  This analysis is interesting, if not fraught with additional challenges, such as development in a carbon-based energy world hastening the very problem to which these nations are attempting to adapt.

In an article1 in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access), Anthony Patt and colleagues argued that the need for assistance by Least Developed Countries (LDCs) is dependent on vulnerability, which, in turn, depends on both exposure to climate change and how socioeconomic factors affect the sensitivity of LDCs to climate change.

To assess this hypothesis, they first examined how deaths caused by disasters (floods, droughts, and storms) varied across the level of development in several LDCs.  They used the UN Human Development Index—HDI, a composite metric of income, education, and life expectancy—as a proxy for development.

Here’s what they found…

(more…)

Posted in climate adaptation, climate economics, policy, race and class, risk analysis, social science, sustainable development | No Comments »

Copenhagen post-mortem and analysis roundup

Monday, December 21st, 2009

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Food for thought—today’s latest on what happened at Copenhagen, what it might mean, and where we go from here:

1. SLATE:  The Party’s Over Why Copenhagen was the climate conference to end all climate conferences.

2. NY TIMES:

3. TREEHUGGER:

4. GRIST:

5. WSJ: Climate Chaos: Is There a Silver Lining to the Copenhagen Fiasco?

6. PIELKE, JR: Post-Copenhagen: More questions than answers

7. BREAKTHROUGH INSTITUTE: BBC World Service: Who is to Blame at Copenhagen?

8. MONBIOT (GUARDIAN): If you want to know who’s to blame for Copenhagen, look to the US Senate

9. NISBET: Schwarzenegger Says It’s Time to Regionalize the Climate Change Debate

10. MCKIBBEN:

11. ROMM (CLIMATE PROGRESS)

12. MOTHER JONES: Obama’s Copenhagen Deal

13. THE VINE (NEW REPUBLIC):

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