Don’t Let the Terrorists Win – White Supremacy Edition

“Don’t let the terrorists win.”

We said that a lot after 9/11, and have for the last 16 years. As air travel became absurdly cumbersome, as civil liberties were eroded, as people were arbitrarily blacklisted or detained without room for appeal – we said the terrorists were winning, causing us to undermine the underpinnings of our own society, to crack down on the freedoms that are central to the principles of the United States.

Now, I see friends calling for cracking down on freedom of speech, for restricting the First Amendment, taking away its protections from speech they (and I) consider loathsome. I even see friends advocating for physical violence against people because of their speech.

That, my friends, is letting the terrorists win.

I loathe the ideology of white supremacy. But to let fear or anger at it undermine our notions of civil liberties or civil society… that would be letting the terrorists win.

We’re bigger than that. We’re stronger than that. Don’t let the terrorists win.

Why Trump Won’t be Impeached Any Time Soon

I see any impeachment of Trump before 2019 as extremely unlikely. Here’s why.

First, for context, I believe the GOP as a party would be better off with a swift impeachment and resignation than a protracted scandal. Every week this remains in the news, their ability to pass legislation is impaired, and the GOP’s risk of losing the House in 2018 goes up. When you have a festering wound, sometimes the best thing to do is to accept the pain of cauterizing it, quickly. However, I see very few signs of it happening.

The problem is this. Trump’s support is still high among his base. His popularity is likely extremely high among the minority of GOP voters who vote in the primaries. That means that any GOP House member who voted to impeach would be at major risk of losing to a Trump loyalist in the 2018 primary. Thus, no individual House member can dare be too aggressive without risking their seat.

A legislator can only move forward if they believe that the GOP’s base has or is imminently about to turn against Trump, thus protecting them from losing out to a more conservative opponent in the primaries.

Trump’s support among his base has to fall substantially before that can happen. There’s no sign of that happening any time on the horizon.

Or, of course, GOP Reps could vote to impeach if their conscience demanded it, at the risk of losing their seat. That’s possible. But I’d put the odds against it.

Healthcare Improvements Republicans Could Make

Here are some things the GOP could productively do on healthcare, that have little or nothing to do with repealing the ACA:

1. Price transparency and consistency. Require all providers (hospitals, doctors, etc..) to clearly publish their prices by service and by diagnosis in advance, physically and electronically, in both human and machine-readable formats.

2. Stop gouging the uninsured. Require that providers give people who are paying out of their own pocket “most favored nation” status – giving them the best price that the provider offers to any private insurer.

3. Easier approval for generics in the US – to create more price competition in drugs and devices, and bring prices down.

4. FDA drug approval reciprocity with Europe. Once a drug is approved in Europe or the US, it defaults to an approved state across the Atlantic.

5. Tort reform. Cap pain and suffering awards. Reduce some of the drive for defensive medicine.

6. *Increase* medical R&D from the NIH and elsewhere (instead of decreasing it, as the Trump budget proposed). And specifically fund R&D into more cost-effective treatments that can bring the cost of healthcare down.

7. Allow cross-state exchanges.

8. Slowly phase out the employer health care tax credit – the single thing that most ties health insurance to one’s job, and which significantly distorts insurance markets.

All of these are compatible with both market-oriented viewpoints and the ACA. If the GOP cares about improving healthcare, and wants to use market-oriented and innovation-oriented approaches to do so, all of these are paths towards that.

To Fight Climate Change in the Trump Era, Focus on the States

Summary: Focus on the states. Advocate for clean energy.

(This is a follow-up to my post on pushing for progress at the state level.)

Short Version

If you read nothing else in this post, follow these three steps:

  1. Find your state legislators and the contact info for your Governor’s office.
  2. Contact them: Call them up. Find out when their next town hall meeting is, and show up. Bring friends, or ask your friends to call too.
  3. Tell them you want to see more clean energy in your state. Tell them clean energy creates jobs. Tell them clean energy means cleaner air and water, and a healthier environment for the kids in your state.

Note: Say “Clean Energy” instead of “Climate Change

If you live in a deep blue state, talking climate change may work. But in a purple or red state, or, heck, even in most blue states, “boosting clean energy” is remarkably more popular than “fighting climate change”. Clean energy is popular among both Democrats and Republicans. Fighting climate change isn’t.

That’s why, in the current environment, where Republicans control the White House, the Congress, and the majority of state legislatures, the framing has to shift to “clean energy” if we want to see progress.

Long Version

How Bad Will Trump Be for Climate Change – How Do We Limit Warming – What Policies Should We Push For – What If I’m in a Red State?  

How Bad Will Donald Trump be for Climate Change Efforts?

Donald Trump is the President-Elect. The GOP has majorities in both the House and Senate, and will probably keep them in 2018.

How bad is this for our efforts to fight climate change? Opinions vary.

  1. If you think the most important element in fighting climate change is technology innovation that’s bringing down the cost of clean energy, Trump’s election isn’t great, but ultimately probably doesn’t matter much.
  2. If you think the most important element is policies inside of various nations, Trump’s election is bad. But not fatal.
  3. If you think the most important element is international agreements, Trump’s election is a complete disaster.

Obviously, all three of these are components. I place the most emphasis on 1 and 2. Prices will keep plunging and policies in other countries and in US states won’t change much. Trump will likely instruct the EPA to scrap the Clean Power Plan, but that was never a very ambitious policy.

Trump and the congress could accelerate the end of solar and wind tax credits, which matter more, but purported insiders claim that those bipartisan tax credits will remain. What’s very likely is that the US will stop leading on international climate negotiations. And Trump is highly unlikely to push for a massive acceleration of clean energy as Hilary Clinton proposed to.

This isn’t good news. At best a Trump administration represents a status quo in climate policy in the US, even at a time that US policy wasn’t ambitious enough. More realistically, we’ll see a weakening of clean energy and climate policy both at home and abroad. Meanwhile, 2016 will be a record hot year and we’re already not taking climate change seriously enough.

So what the hell do we do?

Let’s be honest. Limiting climate change to two degrees celsius is, at this point, extremely unlikely.

Even so, our actions matter. 2.1 degrees or 2.2 degrees of warming is far better than 3 degrees.

How Do We Limit Warming?

How do we limit warming? Fundamentally, we need to continue and accelerate the process of making clean energy and clean transportation cheap. Even cheaper than they are now. How cheap?

  • Cheap enough that they account for all or virtually all new electricity and transportation.
  • Cheap enough that nations are willing to decommission existing fossil-fuel based electricity and transportation, and replace them with the cheap clean options.

As I’ve posted before, the private sector is doing an amazing job bringing down the cost of solar power, wind power, energy storage, and electric vehicles. Clean energy can provide the large majority of the world’s power. But it still needs to get even cheaper.

How do we make these technologies cheaper? We scale them. The most fundamental observation in clean technology is that prices drop as the industry grows. No other factor predicts the price of clean energy better than the amount that we’ve installed.

Globally, clean energy will keep on getting deployed, as in many places solar and wind are the cheapest sorts of energy, even without subsidies.

Our Best Tools Are In the States, Now

Inside the US, while federal progress is unlikely, we have tools to drive more deployment of clean energy at the state and sometimes city levels.  So that’s what we’ll have to use.

How do we push for change at the state level? Well, first understand that state legislators hear tremendously less from their constituents than members of Congress. Each state legislators represents fewer people than each federal Representative or Senator. And voters have a way of fixating on national politics and ignoring the local and state level. That makes your voice more powerful. Phone calls, letters, attendance at town hall meetings, even contributions – they all have more power at your state level than they do at the national level.

So use them! Call your state legislators. Make your voice heard. Show up at their town hall meetings. If you have the means, contribute in close races to get someone who cares about climate policy elected. And call your Governor’s office as well.

Now, what do we push for at the state and local level?

1. Push for a (stronger) Renewable Portfolio Standard in Your State

As I posted last week, 29 states have Renewable Portfolio Standards which mandate a certain percent of electricity must come from renewables by a specific year. Voters in all 50 states can push – via the legislature, and in some states by initiative – to raise those targets, to invest more dollars directly in clean energy, to create taxes or caps on carbon emissions, to boost vehicle fuel efficiency standards, or for other laws that accelerate the deployment of clean energy, electric vehicles, or energy efficiency, or which directly cap or reduce fossil fuels.

Find your state below, or look up the specifics of your state’s policy here.

  • If your state is dark green, it already has a binding target for getting a certain fraction of its electricity from solar and wind. Call up your state legislators (again, you can find them here) and tell them you want a higher target. Then call your Governor’s office, and say the same.
  • If your state is light green, your state has a goal, but it’s voluntary. Call up your state legislators and Governor’s office, and say you want a binding clean energy target.
  • If your state is grey, then shame shame on your state. Call up your state legislators and Governor’s office, tell them that you vote, and that you want your state to move forward with clean energy.

state-renewable-portfolio-standards-from-ncsl

Talking points you can use:

  • Clean Air and Clean Water – Clean energy doesn’t produce smog or air pollution. It doesn’t contaminate ground water. It helps your communities have clean air and clean water.
  • Jobs Clean energy now employs more people in the US than coal. These are good, high-paying, local jobs.
  • Owe it to our kids – In polling, one of the most powerful messages across left and right is that “we owe it to our kids and future generations to leave them a cleaner, healthier world”

But I Live in a Red State!

Red states are no strangers to clean energy. Texas leads the country in wind power. The top 10 wind power counties in the country all have Republican congressmen.

In Florida, which Trump won, voters rejected an initiative that would have hurt rooftop solar.

And clean energy is popular across the political spectrum. It can be pushed for, even in red states.

2. Push for Electric Vehicles & Charging Stations

Clean electricity from solar and wind is getting cheap. But almost all cars run on gasoline, and that accounts for a third of our nation’s carbon emissions. If we want to beat climate change, we must electrify everything.

Fortunately, electric vehicles are plunging in price. But that price is still artificially high. If we included the benefit that electric vehicles bring by reducing carbon emissions, they’d be thousands of dollars cheaper. And charging infrastructure is still an issue. Without enough places to charge, drivers are less likely to opt for electric vehicles. Here again, the states can help.

Look up your state on this map of state-level electric vehicle policies. Find out what incentives exist:

  • Is there a tax credit for buying or leasing an electric vehicle? (To capture the benefit it brings us all be reducing air pollution and climate change.)
  • Can electric vehicles use the HOV lanes?
  • Does the state create incentives for private businesses to create charging stations?

If not, call up your state legislator(s) and your Governor’s office, and ask for those things.

4. Push for Rooftop Solar

Most US states now have some form of “net metering” policy. This is the policy that lets home-owners that have solar panels on their roofs sell excess energy back to the grid. But the quality of these polices varies widely.

Some of the sunniest states in the US, including Nevada and Texas, get an “F” on their net metering policy – either having none, cutting one that existed off, or cutting the amount they pay home owners for the excess electricity to well-below market rates. Find your state below, or at the interactive map at freeingthegrid.

state-net-metering-policy-grades-from-freeingthegrid-dot-org

Don’t like your state’s policy? You know what to do: Call your state legislators and your Governor’s office.

5. Push for Community Solar

Rooftop solar is great if you own a home with a roof that points south or west, and that isn’t blocked by trees. But what if you rent? What if you live in an apartment? What if trees or other buildings block the sunlight from your roof?

“Community Solar” is a new policy that lets you buy into a solar farm in your community, own a set of panels there, but treat it as if its on your roof – using the electricity that comes out of it for free (after the cost of paying for the panels, of course) and selling excess power back to the grid. It’s a leveler of the playing field, allowing often lower-income families who live in apartments or rent their own homes to tap into some of the value of solar.

It’s also quite new. Look at the map below. Is your state in the more saturated color of blue? No? Then there’s more work to do. Work you can help make happen by calling your state legislators and your Governor’s office.

community-solar-map-by-state

6. Take Action in Your City

Finally, states aren’t the only level at which action can be taken. More than a dozen cities around the world have signed on to the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, pledging to cut their emissions by 80% or more by 2050. Cities also have critical work to do on climate resilience – improving infrastructure to deal with rising seas, increased flooding, prolonged heatwaves, and other threats.

You can organize and act at the city level. Contact your city councilors (modify this search to find them) and your Mayor’s office.

Climate deniers may be in charge of the Federal government. But that’s no reason to give up. Many of the most effective policies in the US exist at a state level. Climate change is a divisive topic, but clean energy is loved across the political spectrum. Use your voice. Contact your state politicians, and tell them you want more clean energy in your state.

 

Trump Isn’t Hitler. The US isn’t 1930s Germany

Trump isn’t Hitler. And, more importantly, the US is a far different place than Germany in the 1930s. We’re a 240-year-old nation, not a 14-year old republic reeling from WWI. Our institutions are more solid and stable. They can’t be swept away in the way that Hitler was able to sweep away the Weimar Republic’s.

I don’t say this to encourage complacency: The next few years are likely to see a big regression in our laws, and rollback of some significant and important progress we’ve made. Trump’s election is not a good thing. There are darker days ahead. We need to work hard and smart to get the country back on track and headed into the future instead of the past. And we should be prepared for the possibility that things get worse than expected, as well.

But we shouldn’t panic. We shouldn’t give up. We shouldn’t flee.

We should stay here and win our country back.

We Can Push For Progress at the State Level

Donald Trump won. The GOP has the Senate and the House. They’re likely to retain the Senate in 2018. Trump will get to appoint at least one, and probably multiple Supreme Court justices, with a (presumably) friendly Senate.

Yet we live in a republic. And many of the most important issues can be fought for at the state level.  Here are 6 that come to mind:

  1. Criminal Justice Reform
  2. Ending the War on Drugs
  3. Climate Change and Clean Energy
  4. Education
  5. Responsible Gun Laws
  6. Anti-Poverty Measures

1. Criminal Justice Reform 

90% or so of the over 2 million people locked up in the US are at the state or local level. They’ve been arrested and possibly sentenced based on state laws, not federal laws. Their crimes, their lengths of sentence, their conditions in prison, the educational and reform opportunities they may or may not receive – all of those are set by state law, not federal law.

us-prison-federal-vs-state

Also, by the way, while private prisons are probably the worst 90% of the prisoners held in the US are held in public prisons, not private. The laws that land people in jail and keep them there, and the incentives to keep prisoners rather than turn them into healthy citizens, are the biggest issues.

private-vs-public-prison-populations-from-vox

Want to end mass incarceration in the US? Fight to change the laws, sentences, and prisons in your state. Specifically:

  1. Reduce sentences for crimes, especially first crimes and non-violent crimes.
  2. Push for more programs to train and educate convicts in prison, and to hire them when out of prison.
  3. Push for ex-convicts to regain full voting rights after their sentence has been served.
  4. Push for incentives for public and private prisons based on successful re-integration of ex-prisoners into society.

2. Ending the War on Drugs

More than 300,000 people are in jail in the US for drug crimes. Two thirds of those are in state prisons (see above). If you want to end the drug war, a lot of it has to start – and can start – at the state level.

And it’s happening. Eight states have now decriminalized recreational marijuana. Four of those states joined the list on the same night that Donald Trump was elected.

There’s more to do. Push in the states to turn all drug possession charges (yes, of any drug) into misdemeanors, and to redirect non-violent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison.

And yes – the FBI and DEA, under Trump, may try to enforce Federal drug laws. Those will still not be targeting individual drug users in the large majority of cases. Loosening state laws is the key to ending the war on drugs.

3. Climate Change and Clean Energy

Donald Trump can direct the EPA to eliminate the Clean Power Plan. He plus the GOP congress can, and may, eliminate solar and wind tax credits (which are currently phasing down over a five year period).

But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless. 29 states have Renewable Portfolio Standards which mandate a certain percent of electricity must come from renewables by a specific year. Voters in all 50 states can push – via the legislature, and in some states by initiative – to raise those targets, to invest more dollars directly in clean energy, to create taxes or caps on carbon emissions, to boost vehicle fuel efficiency standards, or for other laws that accelerate the deployment of clean energy, electric vehicles, or energy efficiency, or which directly cap or reduce fossil fuels.

state-renewable-portfolio-standards-from-ncsl

Even in Florida, which Trump won, voters rejected an initiative that would have hurt rooftop solar.

And clean energy is popular across the political spectrum. It can be pushed for, even in red states.

4. Education

K-12 education in the US is driven primarily by the states, not the federal government. Roughly 90% of spending is done by states and local communities.

Care about education? Work in your state, or in your county, or on your local school board.

One of the greatest injustices in education is that in many states, students in more affluent counties get more spent on them than students from lower-income counties (despite plenty of evidence that the latter are the ones who need more help in school).  Want to fix that? Go to work in your state.

5. Responsible Gun Laws

The 2nd Amendment leaves considerable wiggle room for the 50 states to enact responsible gun laws, including mandatory registration or licensing to purchase guns, background checks, waiting periods, restrictions on sales at gun shows and by private gun dealers, requirements for locking devices, and more.

Gun laws vary significantly by state. The corollary to that is: You can work in your state to improve those gun laws.

gun-laws-by-state-from-the-guardian

6. Anti-Poverty Measures

The Federal government runs multiple social safety net programs, but nothing prevents the states from running their own or augmenting those of the Federal government.

Are you a fan of a basic income? We don’t have one in the US, but we have a distant cousin – the Federal Earned Income Tax Credit. And a number of states boost the Federal Earned Income Tax Credit locally.

Think a higher minimum wage is a good idea? More than 20 states set a minimum wage higher than the federal level. Four states raised their state minimum wages the night Donald Trump was elected. Some cities, like Seattle, have their own, higher minimum wage. (For the record, I’m a fan of experimenting here – getting the data from states and cities on what happens when minimum wages go up is invaluable.)

This is a short, partial list. Not everything can be done at the state level or local. And many initiatives will only succeed in blue states, leaving behind the vulnerable in red states. This isn’t an ideal situation, by any means. The Federal government is an important tool for moving the country forward.

But liberals aren’t powerless, either. If we can’t get things done in Washington, D.C., we can still get things done in Washington State, or New York State, or California, or elsewhere.

2014 Was a Good Year: Better Than You Remember

Eric Garner. Michael Brown. The Sony hack and surrender to fear. 2014 seems to be ending on a crappy note. My twitter feed is full of people expressing good riddance to the year.

2014 was better than that. I want to take a moment to remind us, and to offer some perspective on the dark stories.

So, good things about 2014:

1. 2014 Was the Year Same-Sex Marriage Reached More Than Half of America

2. 2014 is the Year That American Support for Legalizing Marijuana Tipped

3. And the Year that the First Legal Marijuana Stores Opened in Two States

Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use of marijuana in the 2012 election, and opened their first stores in 2014. Oregon, Alaska, and Washington DC joined them in fully legalizing Marijuana in the 2014 election, while 20-odd other states have allowed medical use or softened penalties for recreational use.

And so far, the evidence is, legalization is working pretty well.

4. In 2014, the Internet Reached 3 Billion People for the First Time

That data is courtesy of the ITU.

Not only is that a staggering number, it’s more than half the adults on the planet. For the first time, this year, more adults have access to the internet than don’t, a trend that’s only going to continue, as seen below in this chart from a presentation by Benedict Evans.

5. 2014 Saw a Historic Climate Agreement Between the US and China

Remember when we would never act on climate change because we’d never be able to agree with China? Yeah, me neither.

While the US-China deal isn’t enough on its own to meet the world’s goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, it represents a sea change. It’s a turn of the steering wheel, starting the process of steering us away from the cliff we’ve been headed towards. There’s much more work to do, but every course correction starts somewhere. And, as Slate shows, quantitatively, this one is a big deal.

6. 2014 Saw a Record Installation of Renewable Energy and Energy Storage

Final numbers will show that 2014 had the largest ever deployments of wind power and solar power. This was also the year that saw the largest purchase of energy storage in US history. Both of these are vital steps in bootstrapping the industries that will allow us to power our civilization while cutting the emissions that cause climate change.

And they’re just the latest in the ongoing surge in renewable energy in the market:

Renewable energy remains a tiny fraction of worldwide energy use. It’s starting from an extremely low base. Even growing at its phenomenal rate, it will likely take decades to turn the corner in climate change, but it is possible.

7. 2014 Saw Mainstream Realization of Solar and Wind’s Incredible Price Decline

That possibility is made even more clear here: 2014 saw two incredible graphs from mainstream financial analysts on the price plunge of renewables.

Lazard Capital Management put out a report showing how, in the last 5 years, wind and solar in the US have dropped 58% and 78% in price, respectively, now putting them below the price of grid electricity in many regions. (The red lines below are my own additions.)

And AllianceBernstein published their even more provocative solar “TerrorDome” chart (with slight yellow arrow annotation from me) showing how, in the long term, solar is plunging even more phenomenally in price relative to traditional fossil fuel energy sources.

Both are as important for who published them as for what they say. These are not reports from environmental groups or even greentech investment funds. These are financial analysts advising their clients on trends in the costs of energy – trends they see as upending the market.

8. In 2014, Hunger and Malnourishment Reached a New Low

In 1969, more than 30% of the developing world lived in hunger. Now that’s down to 13.5%. The rate of hunger reduction has accelerated in recent years, according to the FAO. As a percent of humanity, it’s likely that hunger has never been this rare, in the couple hundred thousand years our species existed. And even absolute numbers have dropped over the last 25 years. There is a huge amount of work left to do – but 2014 is the best yet in this measure.

9. And So Did Global Poverty, Child Mortality, and a Host of Other Ills

We don’t have the final data yet, but it’s almost certain that when we do, we’ll find out that in 2014, global life expectancy was at an all-time high, global poverty was at an all-time low, and worldwide child mortality had reached another new low, as part of the long trends of progress on each of these metrics.

For instance, see the trend on poverty, via Max Roser

Or the trend on under-five mortality, which has dropped by half since just 1990:

10. In 2014, the US Became Healthier and Safer as Well

Here again, we lack final numbers, but when we have them, it’s extremely likely that we’ll find that in the US, 2014 continued the long trend of:

– Declining infant mortality

– Declining crime rates.

11. Finally, 2014 Will Be Seen as a Transparency Tipping Point

The stories that drew the most outrage in my corner of the internet – outrage that I shared – were stories of police violence, intentional or unintentional, without proper accountability. And so I’ve saved this for last.

I’m a pragmatist who believes that police are a vital part of society, but who also believes that those who have the most power should be held to the greatest accountability. That isn’t the case today.

On the flip side, many, primarily conservatives, viewed the Mike Brown case through an entirely different lens, instinctively seeing it as a police officer confronting a criminal, and defaulting to trusting the officer’s view of the world. The debate has been loud, acrimonious, and sometimes downright nasty.

What almost everyone agrees on, though, is that more transparency is good. Support for police body cameras has been voiced across the political spectrum. That technology isn’t a panacea, by any means. As we saw in the Eric Garner case, a video doesn’t lead to even an indictment, let alone a conviction.

But the best data we have is that wearing body cameras does reduce police use of force and complaints against them. In other words, if Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who used a prohibited choke hold on Eric Garner, had been wearing a body camera, he might have reconsidered his behavior. Garner might still be alive.

What’s just as important is the increasing ubiquity of cameras in all of our hands. The video of Pantaleo choking Garner didn’t lead to an indictment, but that very fact led to voices on the right and left expressing dismay. One case won’t lead to change. But enough clear-cut cases will. And with cameras becoming cheap and ubiquitous, police officers now need to assume that their every action will be recorded.

Transparency is the key to change. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. The problems of police over-use of force have existed for years, if not decades. The problem of police near-immunity from prosecution is even older. These aren’t new issues. They’re simply coming further into view. Social media allows us to take issues that might once have been obscure, carried on the back page of one newspaper, and shine a glaring light onto them. And the presence of cameras everywhere – in our pockets, most of all – means a flood of imagery that we lacked even a few years ago. That visibility is essential. It informs our opinions, our conversations, our votes.

Sunlight is the best disenfectant. In the first few rays, though, the world can look grimy indeed. Just remember, the grime was there all along. What you’re seeing isn’t new. What’s new is that we have the power, for the first time, to wipe it away.

2014 will be remembered as a transparency tipping point. A sunlight tipping point. It’ll go down as a year that authority – in at least one form – had to start becoming more responsive and more accountable to the public.

–Far From a Perfect World–

I could go on about a dozen other ways the world is getting better, but I won’t. This list isn’t meant to convey that the world has no problems, or that it’s getting better in every way. Plenty of things are getting worse. But I trust you can find lists of those pretty much everywhere you turn. They’re over-represented in our discourse, and especially in the news. The good news is radically under-represented.

Good news doesn’t happen magically. The above trends didn’t pop out of thin air. They represent the hard work of millions of people – maybe billions. Some of them are improving the world out of simple self-interest. Others are doing it out of some passion, out of altruism, or out of deep conviction. Either way, optimism isn’t the same as complacency. Optimism is about action.

So here’s to those who act.

I think 2015, while it will have its share of problems too, will be even better.

Political Polarization: Seek First to Understand

America is now more politically polarized than at any point in the last 20 years. This isn’t just Congress – this is the American people. That polarization shows up in beliefs about politics, about everyday life, and even in where conservatives and liberals live. And it’s most intense in those who are the most politically engaged.

In this world, I believe it’s more important than ever to try to actually understand what people of the ‘other side’ are saying, and to seek comprehension and to assume some positive intent behind their viewpoint, at least at the outset. That may turn out to be incorrect. Sometimes it’s just fear or hatred. But mutual comprehension is an increasingly scarce resource, and mutual distrust an increasingly abundant one.

I also believe it’s a civic responsibility to praise good ideas from the ‘other side’ and to point out misunderstanding, error, or bad ideas on one’s own side. I realize that isn’t popular (believe me, I do) but I see it as necessary if we’re to rebuild any degree of mutual comprehension and trust.

Is the US an Oligarchy? Not So Fast.

There’s a new study out which, press outlets are telling me, shows that the United States is now an oligarchy, ruled by the rich and powerful, and perhaps that the US has been sliding in this direction for decades.

You can see coverage of it at The Telegraph, PolicyMic, the BBC, and other places. You can also read the actual paper online:  Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.

The headlines about it are wrong. This study doesn’t demonstrate any such thing.

The BBC’s lovely illustration of the story

I certainly don’t want to see an oligarchy. I’m a fan of representative democracy. I don’t want a world in which wealthy individuals or powerful lobbies run roughshod over individual voters. That’s a continual and ongoing concern for democracy.

This paper, however, demonstrates essentially nothing. The fundamental problem is that the mathematical models in the paper have almost no predictive power of reality.

Specifically: The mathematical model the researchers construct to see how the preferences of ordinary voters, affluent voters, and lobbyists influence the chance of a policy being enacted have an R-squared of 0.07.

What does that mean? Well, an R-squared of 1.0 means perfect fit of your model to the data. It means your mathematical model predicts reality perfectly (at least for the data points you have.)

An R-squared of 0 means (basically) that your model predicts nothing. That it has no better fit to the data than random chance.

What does an R-squared of 0.07 mean? It means the model has almost no predictive value. That it’s just barely better than random chance.

And what is this model trying to predict? Why, it’s trying to predict how the desires of median voters, affluent voters, and various lobbies impact policy. And what it finds is…almost nothing.

That model is the one from which the authors and journalists are drawing their conclusion that the US is now an oligarchy.

Below is the critical table from the paper, including the R-squared values, with my comment.

In fact, this paper fails to find any strong effect of any variable that it looked at on the likelihood of policy being enacted. They mask this a bit by ‘scaling’ all the predictive powers back up to the range of 0-1 in the next table. Perhaps they intended that as a way to more clearly show the size of one factor vs another. But it masks the fact that none of the factors they found had much of any ability to predict which policies were passed.

The authors might have done better looking at more complex variables such as:

– The percent of voters who supported or opposed a policy.
– The total amount of lobbying dollars spent on either side.
– The total amount of advertising dollars spent on either side.

But they didn’t.

This doesn’t mean that the US isn’t an oligarchy or that lobbyists and elites don’t have too much power. We don’t know that from this paper.

All we know is that the paper doesn’t prove much of anything. And that the headlines based on it – while they probably draw a great many clicks – aren’t accurately passing on what the study says.

My WFS2011 Talk: The Infinite Resource: Growing Prosperity While Reducing Impact on the Earth

I gave at talk this morning at the World Future Society 2011 Conference in Vancouver.   The talk was entitled The Infinite Resource:  Growing Prosperity While Reducing Impact on the Earth, and it looks at what the ultimate limits of growth and prosperity on this planet are, how we’ve gotten where we are, and how we choose the prosperous future rather than the one wrecked by climate change, ocean collapse, and peak oil.

This talk is also, by the way, more or less a summary of my forthcoming book due in 2012 of the same name.

Slides below: