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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Hunger is at an all-time low. We can drive it even lower.

A few observations on hunger, extracted from the latest FAO report on The State of Food Insecurity, 2015

1. The percent of humanity that’s hungry is at an all-time low.

According to FAO, 11.3% of the world is undernourished. Most of that hunger is concentrated in the developing world. There, an estimated 12.9% of people are undernourished. In absolute terms, this is a staggering 780 million people. Yet as a fraction of humanity, it’s just over half of the fraction in 1990.

Hunger Trends in the Developing World  - FAO Status of Food Insecurity 2015


Going back further, FAO estimates that in 1969, 33% of the developing world (or around 875 million people) lived in hunger. Even as population has roughly doubled since 1969, the percent of the world living in hunger has dropped by almost a factor of three.

Hunger Trends Developing World 1969 - 2010 FAO


2. Countries Once Synonymous with Hunger Have Made Huge Progress

Ethiopia, as one example, has cut its hunger rate in half. At more than 30%, it’s still tremendously too high. But the trendline is extremely encouraging. Other examples, both good and bad, abound in report.

Hunger Trend in Ethiopia  - FAO Status of Food Insecurity 2015


3. Every Large Region of the World Has Seen its Percent Hungry Drop

Latin America has cut its hunger rate in a third. Asia’s has dropped by half. Even Africa – the large region with the slowest progress , has seen the proportion of its people living in hunger drop by a quarter, from 27% to 20%.

That said, Africa’s reduction in the percent of people living in hunger has been slower than its population growth. So the absolute number living in hunger has climbed there by 50 million people.

Hunger Trends by Region  - FAO Status of Food Insecurity 2015


4. Higher Economic Growth Correlates with Lower Hunger

Not surprisingly, the countries that have higher per-capita growth rates see lower rates of hunger. Growth matters.

Hunger vs Economic Growth - FAO Status of Food Insecurity 2015


5. More Industrialized Agriculture Means Less Hunger

Also not at all surprisingly, countries where agriculture is more industrialized have dramatically lower rates of hunger. The graph below shows a measure of agricultural worker productivity. Towards the left are countries where agriculture is extremely labor intensive. Towards the right are countries where a small fraction of the population grow the food, using more modern means.

The further right on the scale one goes, the lower hunger drops.

Hunger vs Labor Productivity - FAO Status of Food Insecurity 2015


6. Instability, Civil War, and Crisis are the Biggest Drivers of Hunger

Where are people most likely to be hungry? In countries that lack stability, are going through internal armed conflict, or otherwise exist in a state of protracted crisis.

Hunger and Protracted Crisis  - FAO Status of Food Insecurity 2015


Reasons to Be Optimistic

Despite the problems the sections above close on, we’ve cut the percent of people who live in hunger nearly in half since 1990. And the trend line is consistently down. While much work remains to be done, and great hurdles still exist, the likelihood is that hunger will be even more scarce a decade or two from now.

The Sunlight is Where the Energy Poverty Is

The future world energy system will undoubtedly be a mix of many different energy technologies – nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, and some fossil fuels for decades and decades to come.  Yet I’m particularly optimistic about solar. One reason is its incredible price trajectory, a trait that no other modern energy technology shares.  Another is that solar availability lines up extremely well with the regions of the world where people live in energy poverty, generally completely off the grid.

Off-the-grid, diesel electricity often costs 3x as much as grid electricity.  And running new power grids out to these location is an expensive, capital-intensive project.  In these areas in the developing world, decentralized solar is particularly well positioned as a tool to provide energy to meet people’s needs in a low-carbon way, without the enormous cost of extending a national grid.  It’s similar to the leapfrogging of mobile phones past landlines.

See for yourself.  Here’s a map of energy poverty around the world:

And here’s a map of solar availability around the world (total amount of sunlight falling per year):

The match isn’t perfect. But the availability of sunlight is tremendously higher in Africa and South Asia than it is in, say, Germany, where solar power has been championed the most this past decade.  The US and Australia are also particularly well endowed.

I write much more about solar, wind, energy storage, and why innovation in them is a great reason for hope in combating climate change even as we lift billions out of poverty, in my book on solving the environmental and natural resource challenges that face us: The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet