Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Vote with Cash!

Thanks to the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), corporations now have unlimited spending power in elections. Our patronage makes corporate political influence possible, and now, more than ever, our everyday purchases have broader electoral consequences.

Everyday we vote with our cash.

At a minimum we can avoid the worst right-wing supporters. Progressive companies (are growing in number), and there is help to find them.

Liberal Consumers is an organization whose "...purpose is to provide liberals and progressives with a resource for finding companies and products that support progressive candidates and policies." Their website is: http://www.liberalconsumer.com/

As elections draw near, we need to put our money where our values are.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why Can't the United States Learn from the Miracle of Medellin?

A recent article in Foreign Policy reviews the transformation of Medellin, Colombia--home to drug-lord Pablo Escobar--from being a fortress of violence to a prosperous tourist destination through innovative government action.

Given that urban planning and social programs drove Medellin's success, the authors argue "Think government can't deliver smart, intelligent urban design that changes lives? Travel to Medellín, and it's hard to remember why it is that Americans have given up trying."

The article acknowledges that social programming costs a lot of money. They go on to explain that Medellín's "uniquely civic-minded business elite" made spending possible by accepting tax increases.

Medellín still has far to go, but Americans can learn a lot from its measured success.

To read the entire article click here.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

GOP supports public radio - but only in Cuba.

While House Republicans showed no difficulties in placing National Public Radio (NPR) on the chopping block in mid-March, they have overlooked conservative pet projects that are far more costly, of lower quality, and ineffective. Two such projects are the anti-Castro broadcasts Radio and TV Martí, both funded by the U.S. government and aired in Cuba. Both are expensive and fruitless remnants of Cold War-era propaganda battles. Their termination would go largely unnoticed by Cubans and be applauded by most U.S. taxpayers, who presently shell out roughly USD 30 million every year to fund the broadcasts. - This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Zoë Amerigian

For full article click here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Can we please talk about infrastructure?

A recent article, "Re-imagining Infrastructure", by Mark Gerenscer published in The American Interest, provides a lucid analysis of America's infrastructure needs, deficiencies and reasons for underinvestment.

In the face of our bleak present, the author outlines several important steps to consider to actually improve our infrastructure. In particular the article stresses having a national vision, leadership that integrates diverse stakeholders, and designs that account for cross-overs in jurisdictions and sectors, and that anticipate technological advances.

In conclusion the author aptly cautions, "If we fail at this [rebuilding our infrastructure], we risk our nation’s future—not only our quality of life, but our economic competiveness and our national security."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: A case for Alternative Energy, Biodiesel

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been ongoing now for 66 days. The amount of oil spilled is now estimated at 67 to 127 million gallons of oil, by far the largest US oil spill and coming close, using the upper bound estimate, to becoming the worlds largest accidental oil spill, second only behind the IXTOC-1 spill also in the Gulf of Mexico (Saddam Hussein’s army purposely released around 400 million gallons of oil when retreating out of Kuwait, easily topping the list of largest oil spills in history, but the Deepwater and IXTOC-1 spills were obviously accidental).

Is it worth the risk of another disaster like this occurring to continue offshore drilling? I will now attempt to answer this question with numbers and facts rather than with ideals and speculation.

First of all, how much oil, currently, does the US get from deepwater wells? The US produced about 97.6 million barrels of oil in 2009 from offshore drilling, which includes deep water offshore drilling. The total crude oil produced in the US was about 2 billion barrels, so offshore drilling contributed 5% of the total oil that the US produced. However, if you look at the amount of oil we import, export, as well as produce, then you see that crude oil from offshore drilling was about 1.8% of total crude oil consumed or stored in the US in 2009 (see calculations and references at the bottom). So, almost two percent of the oil in the US comes from offshore drilling. That is not an insignificant number and may actually increase in the future with more oil drilling.

If we cut out 2% of US oil production can we continue life as usual? The answer is, emphatically, yes. We have seen what effect it has on short-term oil prices: absolutely nothing, in fact the prices have gone down in the three months since the oil spill. If demand were suddenly so much greater then you would expect prices to go up proportionally. Though, of course, the price of crude oil isn’t necessarily tied directly to demand so we should look at anther statistic.

Let’s look at biodiesel. The production capacity of biodiesel in the US was estimated to be 2.69 billion gallons or 62 million barrels of pure diesel. Of course this is not actually being produced at the moment in the US but it is a possibility. Though the prices would be fairly high for these bio-products it would at least be able to easily compensate for any lost crude oil. If the government used $10 billion of the $20 billion escrow account to fund current biodiesel companies, that are capable of mass production, to kick production into high gear and get things moving then we could easily surpass the amount of lost crude from offshore drill with domestic diesel. Using the estimate that one barrel of crude oil produces 20 gallons of motor oil and 7 gallons of diesel that puts the total number of barrels of diesel fuel from offshore diesel at 16,278 barrels of diesel fuel, which is far, far, less than the upper limit of biodiesel fuel production predicted. The reason that biodiesel does not currently have larger market is because the cost per barrel of crude is low enough that it is not competitive, but if the US increased taxes on oil companies (or just got rid of their subsidies, which are somewhere around $15 to $35 billion annually!) and used the money for biodiesel production subsidies then we could easily ban offshore drilling altogether with no effect on the usage of oil in the US.

Unfortunately, diesel fuel cannot be used in all engines, just diesel engines. Most trucks and construction equipment that require heavy loads or a large amount of torque use diesel fuel. Lower power engines such as cars do not require that kind of energy and can use motor oil. If most diesel engines were required to run on biodiesel then the crude oil taken from land could be refined so as to produce more motor oil for cars instead of diesel fuel, thus making up for the lack of motor oil coming from offshore drilling.

So, I have shown one option that makes offshore drilling unnecessary and keeps the US operating completely normally. Biodiesel is an easy, proven, alternative to the dangers of offshore drilling and therefore that option should at least be tried before allowing for the possibility of another environmental disaster like the Deepwater Horizon spill. Most biodiesel also has the added benefit of being a carbon neutral source of energy, in that it requires as much CO2 from the air to create it as is produced after the fuel is burned—two birds with one stone—seems like an easy decision to me.

[Update: Below is a comment on this post by an industry scientist working for a leader in biodiesel production in the US, and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met (my dad!). His research uses genetically engineered yeast to produce diesel fuel.]

“Your analysis is sound, but the situation is more complicated because biodiesel is only for diesel engines (so only a small fraction of cars and no airplanes) [this post has now been updated to attempt to take this into account]. Crude oil can be converted to fuels that work in any engine. As long as there is a high demand for gasoline, there is an economic incentive to drill for crude wherever it is. Deep water drilling will only be stopped with laws, and those laws can only apply near the country that passes those laws. We may be able to stop deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, but not elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, as long as we have a Senate, such laws will probably never get passed anyway. It’s a crazy world out there.


In 2009, total US production of crude from land and sea was 2,035,797 barrels. Offshore drilling accounted for 97,669 barrels. That means that 4.8% of US crude oil production in 2009 was from offshore drilling. The US also imported 3,307,058 barrels and exported 15,985 barrels. So a total of 3,307,058+2,035,797-15,985 = 5,326,870 was either used or stored in the US. So 1.8% is the percentage of crude oil versus all crude oil sources in the US.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Threat to Democracy

The health care reform debate in the United States brought a primary question about democracy to the forefront: “Does a democratic state have a responsibility to guarantee its citizens a basic level of well being?”

The opposition decided that civil liberties and health care were mutually exclusive. Providing 46.3 million people [1] with healthcare constituted a fundamental denial of all Americans’ individual rights. Proponents of the health care bill fought back. They argued that no one in the United States should be forced into financial ruin because of a medical condition. The government needed to regulate maniacal health insurance agencies.

Both sides extolled American democracy.

Both sides also belied reality. Democracy in the United States is not as robust as it might seem. Since 1978, only about half of eligible voters in the United States voted in elections.[2] In 2006, a national survey asked Americans to rate their satisfaction with how democracy is working on a scale of 0 to 10—nearly half gave it a rating of 5 or below. [3] Despite this, Americans remain confident that democracy is superior to any other form of government.

But American confidence in democracy does not match experience, at least not in the Americas. In Latin America, countries are asking a slightly revised version of the United States’ question: “Can a democratic state guarantee its citizens a basic level of well being?”

Latin America has had two decades of free elections, high inequality, and uneven access to basic services. Most governments in Latin America respect civil liberties and political rights. [4] However, for a good many people in these countries, living in a democracy does not mean having access to good education, job opportunities, or even clean water and reliable electricity. Many governments’ social spending favors the rich, with the poorest fifth receiving less than their fair share. [5] Governments spend lots of money on higher education that rich kids get for free, but neglect primary schools that serve mostly poor and low-income children. [6] Nearly half of the region’s workers are in the informal sector, which are often low-quality, low-productivity jobs that offer little or no chance of upward mobility. [7] Wealthy neighborhoods pay for private generators, while poor communities who pay for city services experience rolling blackouts. Constitutional referendums in Venezuela and Ecuador as well as the political schism in Honduras are just three examples that show that, when push comes to shove, respecting civil liberties and political rights is not enough for democracy to survive.

The deterioration in security, increasing disregard for democratic institutions, and surge in violent civil unrest in many Latin American countries are clear indicators that democracy is in trouble. The same is true for the United States. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. [8] The United States performs well below average on student achievement tests in math and science. [8] We trail other developed nations in environmental preservation and alternate energy. In 2005, we watched as one of our cities drowned in a hurricane we knew was coming, because infrastructure failed. Our bridges and highways are increasingly falling below standards. [10] As of 2009, over 300,000 Americans were in danger of losing their homes. [11] We are already the most unequal industrialized nation in the world. [12] Gaps in incomes continue to grow, and our middle-class continues to shrink. [13]

Latin America is the canary in the democracy mine. Latin American governments have failed to ensure a basic well being for their citizens, and now citizens in several countries are opting out of democracy. Our accolades notwithstanding, half of Americans in the United States don’t invest any time or energy in our democracy. If we continue to avoid common sense, and entertain the Republican ideology of refusing to ensure our citizens’ well being, we shouldn’t be surprised when apathy towards democracy turns to rejection.

[1] US Census Bureau 2008 http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/income_wealth/014227.html
[2] 45% to 63% US Census Bureau
[3] www8.georgetown.edu/centers/cdacs/cid
[4] http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=351&ana_page=352&year=2009
[5] ECLAC Social Panorama 2007
[6] http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=47172&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html
[7] http://intranet.oit.org.pe/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1186&Itemid=1155
[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html
[9] http://international-education.suite101.com/article.cfm/us_students_left_behind
[10] http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/2008cpr/hilights.htm
[11] http://www.realtytrac.com/foreclosure/foreclosure-rates.html
[12] World Development Indicators, World Bank
[13] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/29/business/29tax.html

Monday, March 8, 2010

Peace, Love, and Happiness...

I came across this video via BoingBoing of people in a New York subway line singing along to Hey Jude. It brought a big smile to my face and I really wish I had been there. It also brought up a couple thoughts on what the democratic party could be doing better, which I'll share after the video.

People really want to belong to something, to feel apart of a group, or feel like they are helping to benefit the greater good of human life. Think of the disastrous earthquake in Haiti: people all over the US started text messaging money to the relief effort, democrats and republicans alike. They wanted to be apart of the movement to help those in need, and even something as small as a text message made them feel as if they were apart of that bigger group.

The democrats have not done a good job of maintaining that feeling of togetherness that was so strong when Obama was elected. Over the course of a year the spirit of the democrats has dwindled. Most democrats still believe that expanded healthcare is important, that global warming is one of the most important issues that humans will ever face, that banks and financial institutions should be regulated to better protect the assets of everyone, and that civil liberties and human rights need to be better protected—but most people simply don't feel apart of the effort to make this change anymore. When Obama was running for election people felt that by campaigning and voting for him they were helping the causes that they believed in so strongly, but now the people aren't involved, they have to let congress do all the work and it seems as if no work is getting done. At the very least the ideas that were so ferociously fought for during the election campaign are being diluted into meaningless bills that no longer represent what the people originally wanted.

There is a disconnect from the government. We need to change that. We need a way to make people feel more involved with their government again. Just like the Teabagger party for the republicans, the democrats need something to rally around. If we could organize large demonstrations to show how many people really do support health care reform, and at the same time organize the people who believe global warming is a problem, and bank regulation, etc., imagine the numbers of people that would show up. We need to rally around our core values as democrats and we need it to be very public, and very positive. Think of the huge demonstrations against the Iraq war, they were a rallying point for those of us who felt we couldn't do anything else, and they helped to energize the party; we won majorities in the house and senate in 2006, and a super majority in the senate in 2008 along with the president. When people see that their beliefs are accepted by many other people they feel energized to get up and do something, to voice their opinions and make real change. Now that we see how stagnant our congress is, even with as large a majority as we have, we need to stand up and voice our opinions very publicly to let them know: we are still here, we still believe in the core values of the democratic party, and we want you to do something about it now that you can.

The election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts has reinvigorated the democrats in congress because they no longer have their magic 60 senate votes. His election, while overall bad news for democrats, has actually helped the health care reform debate because it has caused people to get passionate again about the party. Again there is that feeling that we need to get out and do something to make sure we don't lose this debate, as well as show the republicans that they cannot stop all legislation through filibuster—more than 3/5ths of the country wants these reforms to happen. It's time we started to show the rest of the people who aren't as enthusiastic yet that their beliefs are still valid, and that there are a lot of other people out there who have the same beliefs. If we can do that then maybe we can even get the reconciliation package to include a public option. It may be too late for a major push for health care reform for this year but there are still lots of other ways that we can improve this country, and getting people excited enough to voice their opinions, to show up to rallies, talk to friends and family, and call or write their senators is the first step to making it all happen.

A simple song like Hey Jude has the power to get people together to sing along and feel apart of something bigger than themselves. Can we as democrats find that note that resonates with the people well enough to bring us all together to fight for what we really believe is the right way forward for America?

Update: More public inspiration from song in the subways of NYC (again via BoingBoing)! In this video: Alice Tan Ridley, the mother of the academy award nominee Gabourey Sidibe from Precious, sings I will Survive.