Electoral college redesign proposal

Designed to ensure that urban centers didn’t have an unequal voice in the election of the president of the United States and that the president was elected by states not people, the Electoral College bears some re-examination in light of contemporary society.

Under the United States Constitution, the office of president was not intended to represent the people, but rather be a representative of the republic itself. The voice of the people is established in the House of Representatives and to a lesser degree the U.S. Senate. To that end, the electoral college was created as a compromise as part of Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, the states were left to their own devices as to the manner in which electors for president were chosen.

To be clear, when we vote for president, we are not voting for the person, but are in actuality voting for the electors who will then cast their vote for the person. In the same way that we vote for senators and representatives who cast their vote on our behalves regarding laws, budget, etc.

The problem with this method is that as the country has gotten larger, as the issues have become more complex,  the president has been looked at as a caretaker of the nation’s intentions and potential and the bi-party political system that is embedded in our process isn’t allowing for the wide spectrum of needs. Because of this, there is — and has been — a loud cry for a popular vote to elect president.

That might seem like the right answer, but in that case, control of the office would go to the largest population centers which systemically have different needs than the rest of the country. In this election, data shows that the majority of people in rural America do not feel that Clinton is the right person for the job. A popular vote would essentially eliminate their voices. It’s not democracy if it’s oppression by the majority (Madison, Federalist Papers No. 10).

Here’s what I am thinking about:

  1. Make all primaries open and non-party specific. Change them all to direct election rather than caucuses. Don’t let the political parties control primaries, let the primaries stem from the number of candidates. Allow the primaries to the opportunity to winnow the entire field, not just the candidates from major parties.
  2. Allow all winners of primaries to take part in national debates for president. Again, remove the influence of political parties. Let everyone debate so that the public is better informed.
  3. Make electoral votes in each state proportional (like Maine does, for instance).This ensures that dissenting voices are heard and that the electoral votes more accurately represent the people without giving complete control to large population centers. Each state would maintain the number of electoral votes (number of senators plus the number of representatives). The percent a candidate gets is the percent of the electoral votes they receive.
  4. If no majority of the electoral votes is received by any candidate, the process would work as today.

As I’ve thought this through, I believe that we would see the following results:

  1. We would have a greater participation in the primary process.
  2. Party politics would have less of an effect on selection of candidates, thus also improving voter turnout.
  3. Third-party candidates would be given the voices they deserve in a democracy.
  4. We maintain the balance between rural and urban needs that the electoral college maintains, while also making individual votes matter more.
  5. We begin to erode the idea of “blue” and “red” states and binary thinking in general and our government becomes more representative of the actual population rather than political parties.

As a designer and systems philosopher, while I understand the need for a re-vamped electoral process, I think we cannot afford to just delete something we don’t like. We need to understand why it doesn’t work and for whom, how it can be made better, and move forward with an attitude of experimentation in order to truly fix it.

Lastly, I cannot stress enough the need for voter turnout to increase especially in the non-presidential cycle. The Constitution grants that the House and Senate are the direct voices of the people. They are our tools for keeping an unpopular president in check. While I believe that the electoral college can and should be redesigned, it won’t make things better if we don’t participate where it matters.

What do you think?

Salvage what we can

This is a longer one. Basically, I’m saying that I expected Trump to become president. I’m not happy about it, and I think I know how it happened. I have a few ideas on things we can focus on and maybe make the election process a little better the next time around.

What I originally wanted to do here was just write a big old “I told you so” in big old capital letters. Over and over and over again. I wanted to do that so badly, because it is unbelievably frustrating being someone who tried to speak up about the risk of running Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump. I was denigrated and harangued because of that, and I’m kind of not over it yet. But blowing a big raspberry at the general public is immature and unhelpful. It’s time to move on (see Michael Moore for his opinion on this matter). This will take longer to read than a big raspberry, but it’s time to look at the wreckage, salvage what we can, and move forward. That’s my perspective, and that’s my advice.

So what can we salvage? Well, if anyone was confused about or unwilling to believe how divided and angry our country is, that should be all cleared up now. Donald Trump won. If that’s not evidence of anger and division, I don’t know what is. Also, a bunch of people voted third party and exercised their option to write-in a candidate of their choosing. Don’t be angry at them, because they voted their conscience. We can work with them. Third, according to a variety of sources, voter turnout was lower this year than in both 2008 and 2012, though it seems to have hovered around the usual percentage of recent history at about 43% of the eligible voting age population. We knew early on that we need a high turnout for the success of progressive and Democrat ideas, and it didn’t happen. Lastly, the mainstream media — well, media in general — is not giving us the whole story and in fact may not know it. They were caught just as unaware by Trump’s election as the Democrats were. With an attempt and non-denigration and blame, I want to spend a little time talking about these and looking at what we can do in the future.

Anger & fear

Like we’ve been trying to do with institutional racism, it’s time to acknowledge the economic and gender disparities in the United States. A certain population of white males are feeling threatened (see the rise of Alt-Right groups meeting in the open, for example) by the idea that black’s and women’s lives matter. Women still get less pay than men. People living in poverty and out of work feel left behind by the “good news” conversations about our economy, and the concerns of the Occupy Wall Street movement have not ever been fully addressed. Multiple deaths at the hands of police, rise in paranoia among NRA supporters, and a fervent adherence to guns. All of these things have contributed in their own way to a pervasive and infections sense of anger that drives fear that feeds more anger. Trump tapped into this and used it as a lever to get elected. We can no longer deny these feelings in our country, nor should we.

Instead, we need to spend time as a nation understanding the sources of this fear and anger. Give honor to people’s feelings by recognizing them as real. We may not agree with the reasons for the feelings, but we cannot deny that they are being felt. Problems have never been solved by hiding them, nor have feelings ever been overcome by burying them. If we want to avoid more emotionally-triggered elections like this one, we need to understand where the triggers are and how to address them. For example, I may not agree with the Alt-Right, or be able to fully empathize with the Black Lives Matter movement, but I can work to understand the sources of their fear and anger (respectively) and see what I can do about addressing them. We may not find the right solution, but we can’t just ignore the problems.

Vote your voice & Voter turnout

This issue combines the rights of voters to vote their way without interference with the likelihood of voters to do that. I’ve been studying voter turnout trends for a few years, and since about 1964, we’ve elected a president and members of congress with around 40% of registered voters, or about 30% of the eligible voting population (some people don’t ever register to vote). What this means in shorthand, is that about 16% of the eligible voting population chose Trump. It looks like a large number when we look at the popular vote number, but the United States is a country with just over 330 million people. Trump and the Republicans will call this a mandate, but the reality is that it’s not more of a mandate than any other election. What his success truly represents is a very vocal minority brought him to power.

In truth, it is always a very vocal minority who participates in elections. Mostly because of lack of interest or lack of choices. This year was no different. About six to seven percent of the voters exercised their rights to vote for a candidate other than Clinton or Trump (full disclosure: I wrote in Bernie Sanders). You may not like it, but it’s completely understandable. Both candidates were more disliked than any other candidate in the history of the United States. The most liked candidate (Sanders) was left behind by the Democrats (or so it feels). People are frustrated (see “Anger & Fear” above) with the status quo, with what they feel is a rigged system, and the success of Trump along with the “inevitability” of Clinton led these voters to express themselves by choosing others as their candidates. We can’t avoid this happening if we truly want to live in a democratic society and the people who chose to do this are right to make that choice.

Neither of these issues can be solved through anger towards voters. The system we have in place that includes private organizations creating rules for who can be a candidate (political parties), the amount of money required to run for office, the reduction of polling places in certain areas, gerrymandering, the unraveling of the Voting Rights Act, the distribution of population, the size of our country, and the general feelings of the electorate all fed into turnout numbers and people’s decisions at the polls. We don’t correct those by blaming people. We correct those by looking at the triggers of human behavior and seeing if we can fix them. We can make it easier to vote. We can create public funds for campaigns. We can increase the number of political parties and change the rules for being included in debates. In short, if we want to experience an election where there are higher turnouts of people who are excited to vote, we need to make sure they are voting for things that make sense to them and can do it as easily as possible.

The media

It’s a standard truth of civics that a democracy (i.e., a society where government is chosen through a voting populace) requires an informed electorate. It is to this task that journalism — a portion of “the media” — is supposed to be bent. Journalism at its root should be informing the public about the activities of government, the goings-on of police, the happenings in their community. It should supply educated and opinion and perspective on those events, as well. Because of the importance of it, Thomas Jefferson once called newspaper “the fourth estate” of society, meaning that it should serve as a watchdog of the government, the merchants, and the people themselves. It is because of this importance that the First Amendment exists. Journalists must be allowed to speak freely in order to provide the fullest possible picture to their public. We all know, however, that this has not been true for some years.

News is big business and is handled by a handful of corporations who in some cases also own the means of distribution (Comcast, AT&T, ClearChannel). This narrowed ownership of distribution by big business creates a system that is about profit more more than it ever has been. While profit has always been required to ensure the existence of news, it’s a relatively recent endeavor to use the news to drive profit up (maybe in the last 75 years or so). The upshot of this is that the news covers only those things that a) ensure viewership/readership, b) do not anger corporate partners, and c) do not run afoul of advertising interests/investment partners.

Given these constraints, it is inevitable that journalism will begin to soften its reporting of controversial issues and increase coverage of things that “sell” their content. It’s generally known that people don’t like to be forced into thinking as much as they like seeing explosions, bad guys getting arrested, gossipy opinions, and the like. This kind of action moves the news industry away from the watchdog role envisioned by Jefferson, to a kind of entertainment that actually serves to dull the capacity of the electorate to understand what their government is doing and why.

So what can we do? Well, we could stop watching/reading/listening to the corporate owned news, for one. There are alternative options that did a pretty good job of reporting on controversy over the last two years or so. We can also avoid getting news from forums like DailyKOS, Reddit, or Facebook unless we understand the difference between fact and opinion (i.e. those sites provide user-generated content about events, so are always spun from a personal point of view). Also, we can report on news on our own through YouTube, Vimeo, TwitchTV, Periscope, WordPress, and other streaming and viewing sources. There are lots of resources online on how to do journalism (here’s a start), and there are groups available that provide the kind of legal protection afforded journalists. I’m a member of Investigative Reports and Editors (IRE) and their resources are pretty good. Just remember that journalism is not gossip, libel, or innuendo. It requires multiple points of view and research.

Wrap-up

In short, then, Trump’s election should not be a surprise to anyone. We are a country of anger and fear manipulated by stories told to us by a profit-driven media so that we either vote the way we’re “supposed to” or don’t vote at all. In this system, there is no room to blame the people or ourselves. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own actions, of course, but it is the system that generates the problems, and the problems will only go away if we change the system. Once we do that, once we can see the system for what it is, we can start to be more informed about the decisions we make.

Some final advice taken from, like, a ton of stuff I’ve written over the years:

  1. Focus locally. Hold your local politicians accountable for everything they do and say. If they falter, tell them. If they falter too much, vote them out.
  2. Think critically about what you read and what you are told. If it doesn’t make sense, or if you just want a second opinion, look somewhere else for the same story. Ask family or friends what they think.
  3. Never vote how you’re told. Vote the way you feel is best.
  4. Most importantly, never let anger or fear drive your decisions. Feeling anger and being afraid are normal emotions, but they also make it difficult for us to think and change our perspective on the world. Do fear or anger drive your decisions? If so, try to ask yourself why and take a pause

That’s it for now. Let’s see what we can salvage and where we can go from here. Don’t lose heart.

 

Political Speech and the Nature of Truth

Language is important. It is the medium through which humans engage with the universe, world, society, and each other. Without language, it has been argued, there would be no thought and therefore humanity as we know it would not be possible. The ability to use language is arguably the most important advantage humans have over other animals, and has contributed more directly than any other technology to our evolution and success/rampant rise as a species. Language is so necessary to our survival, in fact, that any person, entity, or agency responsible for using it in order to document events, or share news and information as they happen should be held to a much higher standard than it seems they currently are. This becomes especially important during key moments in the unfolding of history. Like right now.

The 2016 presidential elections are supremely important for many reasons, and because of that importance, the information necessary for voters to make informed decisions must be communicated clearly and without impediment. Unfortunately this year is no different than every other documented year on record since the beginning of human history as far as the manipulation of language goes.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post published an article by Glenn Kessler claiming that Bernie Sanders was wrong in saying that Hillary Clinton called him unqualified to be president. NBC News under the authorship of Chuck Todd went so far as to paint Sanders as a liar. It all started with an interview between Clinton and Joe Scarborough. He asked if Clinton thought Sanders was unqualified, and she responded in a way that clearly implied her answer was yes, but without actually saying yes (emphasis mine).

SCARBOROUGH: But do you think he is qualified? And do you think he is able to deliver on the things he is promising to all these Democratic voters?
CLINTON: Well, let me put it this way, Joe. I think that what he has been saying about the core issue in his whole campaign doesn’t seem to be rooted in an understanding of either the law or the practical ways you get something done. And I will leave it to voters to decide who of us can do the job that the country needs, who can do all aspects of the job, both on the economic domestic issues and on national security and foreign policy.

So, what did Clinton say here? Well, knowing that the job of president is to understand and execute laws, and she said that Sanders doesn’t have that understanding, it seems that she said he’s not qualified. For example, if one was told after a job interview to be a chef, that “I think that what you’ve been saying about food isn’t rooted in an understanding on how to get meals made,” it would be clear that the interviewer felt you were unqualified. Being a chef requires an understanding of food in the same way being president requires an understanding of law and the execution of it. Clinton did what party line politicians have always done which is rather than use language to clearly address a question, she used it to protect herself and obfuscate her meaning. Since she never said the word “unqualified” she can claim innocence, when of course it’s clear what she means if it’s given a little thought.

Another note here is that all journalists are trained to understand the difference between saying and meaning. One of the core functions of a journalist is to extract meaning from statements in which it has been obfuscated. Kessler, Scarborough, Todd, and all of the other journalists who jumped on this bandwagon are culpable in the obfuscation of meaning by not calling it out and revealing the meaning behind what Clinton said. Sanders in fact was telling the truth when he claimed in Philedelphia that Clinton said he was unqualified. She did say it, because “saying” is the act of “utter[ing] words so as to convey information, an opinion, a feeling or intention”.

Of course, this kind of obfuscation is not new. This year is the 70th anniversary of one of George Orwell’s most enduring and relevant essays: Politics and the English Language. Within it, he analyzes and deconstructs political writing as a bastardization of language. Unfortunately, what he says is still wildly relevant (which he predicted).

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

It is the job, then, of politicians and their cohorts to allude to truth without revealing it, to imply meaning without implicating themselves, and to obfuscate reality to benefit themselves and their goals. This was true for Orwell in 1946, and it’s true for us in 2016. And just as Orwell felt compelled to comment on the use of languge in his time, we need journalists and analysts now with the courage to comment on its use in ours. The use of language in this way masks truth and suppresses the search for real meaning. However, this pattern of language use can also be used to reveal those who are speaking the truth. Orwell again (emphasis mine):

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech.

In other words, when that person appears among the political class who speaks clearly, who does not adhere to party lines, who is considered unorthodox and perhaps dangerous to the status quo, who is vivid with words and speech, it is a moment in which we should listen. It is a moment to recognize the differences and judge for ourselves whether what this outsider is saying is worthy of merit. This is the core of the process for seeking truth and meaning, and in the failure of the Fourth Estate to assist with this cause, we must do it on our own.

Seventy years following the publication of Orwell’s essay, we are being presented with an example of each of the kinds of political speakers he mentions. The one that adheres to party lines, orthodoxy, and an imitative style; who hides behind words in order to mask meaning. And the other who seems a rebel, but says what people feel is true; a vivid speaker and public figure who uses words to reveal meaning and values truth over political expediency and the language that goes with it.

After New Hampshire

Over the last week, there has been a lot of press generated about Bernie Sanders as an outcome of his win in New Hampshire. A good deal of that press has been positive. Which, of course, I really like. But I also don’t mind stand-up critiques of his policies. What I’ve been disturbed about is the kind of meta-conversation that’s been happening that attempts to describe the ways in which Sanders should be discussed or viewed.

“Hey Bernie, here are the issues this presidency is about. Anything else is off-message.” In the latest debate, Clinton worked to paint him as a single-issue candidate, which hearkens back to the message from the main stream media when Sanders first announced, calling him an inexperienced protest candidate. In New Hampshire last week, Rachel Maddow essentially dismissed that view as inaccurate.

Sanders, of course, is not a single-issue candidate. Racism, healthcare, environmental issues, reproductive rights, and human rights all have connective tissue in the idea that oppression is a tool used by the powerful on the disenfranchised. While he has policy ideas in place that address the issues of the day, he also understands that a complex system like our country is not just a list of single-focus-issues. Sanders understands that and is trying to help us understand it. In turn, we are reaching out to share his message.

As we do so, Sanders’ voice becomes larger and more expansive, and as that happens, we are being instructed on how to share the message.

“Hey, women, supporting Bernie is a betrayal to your gender.”

“Hey, men, you’re a sexist asshole if you support Bernie.”

“Hey, whites, by talking to black folks about why he’s a good candidate, you’re being racist.”

While most of the above examples have been redacted or spun back, or the utterers of them have apologized in the last week or so, the damage is done. Speech and the freedom to use it as we see fit has been harmed. By criticizing and calling out the conversations themselves rather than discussing the content of them, the ability to have conversation is diminished. By reducing the words available for viable conversation and by diminishing the value of those who use them, we reduce the potential for new thought and honest communication and practice the kind of oppression that his campaign is against.

No, this campaign season is not about a single issue, nor is Sanders a single-issue candidate, but this campaign season is necessarily aware of the vast inequities in this country and the power that this gives certain groups over others. The over-arching narrative of 2016 is going to be about  whether we finally begin to recognize the interconnectedness of everything that plagues the oppressed and marginalized people of the United States or continue to view the world through a myopic lens and reach for solving one symptom at a time without really understanding its impact or source.

 

 

More than charity is needed to fix hunger

During our second year of marriage in 1997, my wife and I were often hungry. We lived in a one-room apartment in the back of a garage in the middle of nowhere. We had no money. Our car was reposessed in the winter. Just before that, I lost a job doing in-home teaching because we didn’t have gas money. I was working about 25 hours a week at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, and we were relying on our local food shelf to provide us with the bulk of our meals. Any money we did have went towards what bills we could pay, but more often towards some quick-fix happiness like fast food or books or music: anything to distract us from our seemingly interminable reality. We didn’t know any drug dealers, or we might have spent money on that.

We survived that 18 months or so without ever becoming truly homeless, though I think we still owe some rent. We were lost and confused. Cold even in the summer. Abandoned by the world. Angry, depressed, and scared. We did live clean, and we did work hard, but all of that would have been for nought if we hadn’t been lucky enough to live in Vermont, and have family close by who could provide shelter and food when we needed it.

We did not have a Thanksgiving meal that year. I think we ate bearclaws or something from Dunkin’. But the thing is, we were also unable to have supper the night before or the night after. We ate what was available at the food shelf or the day-old pastries I brought home from work. The only reason we remember our absense of food on that particular Thursday in that particular November was because it was a holiday. In truth, it was no different for us than any other day that week. Had we been the recipients of a food basket or something on that day, it would have made us happy, but it would not have solved our problem. Charity is not enough to solve the problem of hunger.

During the holidays, we all become especially sensitive to the needs of others. We focus more deeply — if for an infintesimally brief amount of time — on the homeless, the marginalized, the hungry, the poor. We give money at our local grocery stores or buy the gift bags in $10 increments. Celebrities drive truckloads of food to their old stomping grounds. Some of us might volunteer at homeless shelters, food shelves, or work with the local Kiwanis putting together food baskets. Whatever the activity, we do it because it feels good, because it provides a moment of happiness in somebody’s life, and we do it because it’s the right thing to do. We do it because it becomes more clear during our own moments of abundance that there are far too many people who go without.

According to Feeding America, in 2014 48.1 million people in the United States lived in food insecure households. That number includes 15.3 million children. If you’re keeping track of the math, that means that 14% of Americans can’t guarantee that they or their family can eat today, and a third of those affected are children. Shockingly, this number is higher than it was a decade ago, according to the USDA.

Also according to the USDA, 31% of post-harvest food went uneaten in 2010. And just two years ago, the United States ranked second worst regarding child poverty in a survey of 35 of developed nations. Meanwhile, the international statistics for hunger and poverty are increasing. Food development and nutrition are improving on a global scale. In spite of this good news, however, there are many countries where hunger is getting worse, and the United States seems to be one of them.

Clearly, there is a problem with hunger in the United States. Even if you don’t want to look at the numbers, logic should make it clear: charity continues to be needed in spite of it having been tackling hunger for decades. The truth is that charity continues to be needed because hunger is not something we can solve by giving people food. Hunger is a systemic, symptomatic issue of a more deeply entrenched problem. People don’t need to be given food. People need to be given the means to access food. The same methods that are used in developing nations that allow people to conquer hunger should also be used here. We don’t do it, though, because we are blind to the problem, and we believe that hard work and persistence can solve any problem.

This is not about self-sufficiency or lack of a work ethic. I think we’ve reached the point in history where we can begin to say that hard work does not guarantee success. Someone working two minimum wage jobs for a total of 50 hours a week does not lack a work ethic. Let’s be honest, here. In our current system, success is only possible for those born into a position where it can be achieved. My wife and I are examples of this. In reality, luck, geography, and salary play far larger roles in our success than hard work does, and the same goes for access to food.

The cost, availability, and quality of food is based entirely on where one lives in the United States. In Mississippi, the food insecurity rate is 22%. Two-tenths of the population of Mississippi isn’t sure where their next meal is going to come from. Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio, Alabama, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Maine, Oregon, and Kansas round out the list of the 14 states that are more food insecure than the national average. Additionally, there is absolutely no county in the U.S. where the minimum wage is the same or greater than a required living wage. Just last month, the average cost of food for a family of four was approximately $1,070.00 (USDA). That’s about two weeks worth of work for someone being paid an average of $9 – $10 an hour. Once you start factoring in housing, transportation, health insurance, clothing, utilities, and entertainment, the struggle becomes clear: food is expensive.

Access to food for most people in the United States is dependent on being able to afford it. We have long since stopped being an agrarian society, and most Americans depend on some means of distribution for their food, and that’s where the problem is. If there is so much food that 31% of it is being thrown out, but there are still people in the country who are hungry, then there are at least two ways of fixing the problem. First, minimum wage must be fixed to a rising cost of living. If a family of four needs $22 an hour to live, then that family has to earn $22 an hour. As the cost of living increases, the wages should increase. If the cost of living goes down, wages should stay static. Second, we need broader access to food beyond what top-down economics or charity can provide. I believe we have to focus on this in order to create long-term, sustainable solutions to hunger.

We must begin looking at ways of ensuring people will always have food. We should support and nurture neighborhood gardens and co-ops. We should allow people to grow food and have a few animals in the suburbs. Some communities have enacted local currencies and barter systems. We need to de-industrialize farming and be more diverse with the crops we grow. We need to spend money on infrastructure and moving towards more sustainable transportation methods, the costs of food distribution will go down. We need to bring food selling back to the centers of communities and away from the big box stores. We need to get violence out of our communities. And while we do this, we need to continue to be charitable.

Food is not a commodity. It is a necessity. Perhaps the most necessary one. If we can work with other countries to help devise systems of food growth and management, then surely we can do the same here. Access to food should no longer be dependent on whether someone was lucky enough to be born in a particular location at a certain time. Access to food should be an implicit right of being born, period.

What I’m saying is that during this holiday season — this one right now — let’s stop thinking about just giving $1, $5, or $10 at the grocery store and start thinking about what we can change to ensure that those donations are no longer necessary. Again, this is not about people lifting themselves up by their bootstraps, or self-sufficiency, or spending more on social safety nets. This is about changing the very nature of a system that causes the problem so that bootstraps and safety nets become obsolete and nobody will need to live hungry again.

Thinking my way through a carbon tax

A few months ago, I posted here about sustainability. That is, the economic and environmental idea that one should attempt to maintain a level of living without relying on growth metrics. Sustainability is a key metric in understanding whether a socio-economic or environmental decision is likely to lead society to ruin, or give it a chance to breathe a little longer. Humans are in a position where we need to begin taking very seriously the signals we are receiving from nature and act accordingly. I think that the recent drive by Energy Independent Vermont towards a statewide carbon tax is a result of them taking the signals seriously. That’s the right thing for them to do, and I agree with their intent. The question I’m left with is whether it’s the right place to start.

What I’m concerned about is whether the carbon tax system being worked out in the state is the right way to go about moving Vermont towards a more sustainable relationship with fuel and energy. Certainly, I believe that something has to be done. According to Limits to Growth, published in 2004, economically viable oil and natural gas reserves will be mostly depleted by the middle of this century. Even if you happen to be a climate change denier (which you really shouldn’t be), reserves of fossil fuels are what they are. Somewhere between 35 and 50 years from now, we could be looking at a situation where there is a real shortage of oil as opposed to one driven by economic politics. When that happens, we are going to need to be ready to transition to some kind of alternative.

To me, there are two categories of energy needs we will need to account for. The first is for buildings. The second is for travel. For buildings, we need to supply the means to heat and cool them, which is fairly straightforward. It also happens to be where most of our energy goes: generally speaking, buildings use more energy than vehicles because of the constant regulation of temperature. For vehicles, we need to find a way to make them run without incurring an insurmountable expense to their operators and without relying on fossil fuels. I want to look at buildings first, because it’s the most straightforward.

There are industrial, commercial, and residential buildings. Each are perhaps constructed differently, but all need to be able to regulate the environment within them to make sure the people who are inside are safe and happy. This requires energy. For these buildings, there need to be efforts to make them energy efficient and eliminate fossil fuels from their heating and cooling methods. There are currently incentives in place for the energy efficiency, but with a two-year waitlist for homes, more needs to be done. As far as the elimination of fossil fuels, the only two reliable alternatives at this point (for Vermont) are electric heating/cooling systems or wood-based heat (either pellets or cord wood). From a carbon perspective, electrical systems powered by renewably-generated electricity would be the best: no carbon released into the air at the building, and fossil fuels are not required for the generation or maintenance of electricity. Pellets and cord wood are probably going to be more common in homes until weatherization can be completed. So for buildings, we have a path of migration away from fossil fuels and towards relatively sustainable alternatives. Vehicles are a little more difficult.

In order to make the shift away from something, there has to be something available to shift towards. In the case of vehicles, the only currently practical option for commuters in rural communities would be electric vehicles: either personal or mass transportation. Electric vehicles are getting better, but their range leaves much to be desired. If the only affordable model gets around 80 miles per charge, then rural communities need to look at methods by which the charge can be maintained. The range of electric vehicles will improve over time, but it may not be until we are already out of fossil fuels. Right now, however, shifting to an electric vehicle might be sustainable from an environmental perspective, but not from a personal economic one. The good ones are expensive, though the relative price — related to gasoline-powered vehicles — is going down. Still, in the near term, the entrance cost of an electric vehicle is larger than the perceived benefits of shifting away from fossil fuels, and my in fact be prohibitive to certain demographics.

Remember, the goal is to not only find away to migrate away from fossil fuels, but to do so in a proactive way that is socio-economically sustainable as well as environmentally sound. Certainly, a statewide tax on the consumption of fossil fuels will create a market-based incentive to shift away from them, but only in the structure segment is there something viable to shift towards. In terms of travel and farming and logging and landscaping, the carbon tax simply increases the cost of doing business and makes things more difficult for homeowners, commuters, and those who rely on fossil fuels for work. Yes, there is a money back component, but there is such a delay between the carbon tax cost and the refund that it doesn’t help in the day-to-day, and if a balance isn’t found it could lead to the collapse of a home, a farm, or even a rural community. Granted, that is likely to happen when fossil fuels are depleted anyhow.

While this is all just a thought exercise, I believe that there is a gap between the carbon tax and the shift away from fossil fuels that needs to be looked at. Market-based economic incentives work because there are alternatives already on the market place. In the case of fossil fuels, the alternatives are not mature enough to be equivalent and are likely to cause near-term sustainability problems as consumers work to incorporate higher cost travel and maintenance figures into their living budgets. Additionally, people who have chosen to live remotely in more rural areas may be beyond the range of the available vehicles.

Possible remedies to this include the following:

  1. Ensure people have access to public transportation options that fit their employment needs and are cost-effective: provide funding for mass transit (rail, bus) on regular schedules to and from major employment centers
  2. Ensure the costs of more carbon-friendly vehicles/transport options are not prohibitive: tax breaks, refunds, deductions for purchasing vehicles; statutory pricing models; subsidized trade-in deals;
  3. Provide additional kick-backs or wage increases (above just income-based) to people whose employment relies on fuel and who have no other option (loggers, truck drivers, rural commuters, etc)
  4. Invest in infrastructure (fiber optic, roads, bridges) and economic incentives to ensure that there are jobs were people live; companies who allow people to work from home get more back from the carbon tax, perhaps; free Internet access for all VT citizens; remote office centers for larger employers (the state, insurance companies, etc)

Whatever we end up doing, we have to find a way to transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources for our buildings and our travel needs. It’s just a necessity at this point and there’s no arguing it. The method we choose to attempt that transition is what will make this successful or not, what will allow us to be ahead of the fossil depletion or fall victim to it. What we choose for a method should be able to meet our needs for the next decade, but also still be viable through the next 30 years.

System thinking series: What is sustainability?

I had an encounter on Twitter the other day that woke me up to my use of words in conversation that some would consider jargon. I’m new to doing the tweets, and the 140 character limit strangles me somewhat. In this case, he was talking about the austerity in Greece. I commented that his solution for the problem in Greece — e.g. trickle-down economics spawned through tax breaks to lure the wealthy back to the country — was not sustainable. I talked about economic cycles and I talked about feedback loops and oscillations and he called me a clown, essentially, and muted me.

While I feel very strongly that my opinion of his solution is correct, I do feel kind of bad that I got jargony with him without ever taking the chance to explain what I meant by “sustainable,” and “feedback loops,” and “oscillations.” So, to rectify that, I’m going to take a few chunks of vertical pixel space to define these terms as I use them, because — let’s face it — I’m going to use them again.

To that end, today’s entry will be about sustainability.

Sustainability

It’s a simple word, to be honest, for which most people understand the meaning, but it’s the way in which it is used in reference to economics when it becomes new or unfamiliar. It does not show up in the lexicon of typical economic discussions regarding minimum wage, inflation, free-market, etc. Where it does show up is when systems-thinkers talk about the economy. Systems-thinking gives a perspective that takes into account not just cause and effect to, but that looks at causal loops, accounts for mitigating issues, and models a system to try and determine where to best apply a solution — e.g. find “Leverage” — that has the best possible outcome.

This definition of a sustainable society is the one I’m thinking of when I speak of sustainability: “A sustainable society is one that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'” (2012, Meadows). In other words, if a decision we make about the economy compromises future generations’ needs, it’s not a sustainable decision. If building more factories requires more resources that will deplete those same resources for the future, should we build? If drilling for oil in the arctic could further deplete oil reserves and cause pollution, should we drill?

System thinking says that the questions of whether to build or whether to drill are not adequately answered by looking at immediate needs, but by looking at the impact of the decisions on the future. This is the idea that you think seven generations ahead when you make decisions like this. In this way, economics from a systems perspective looks different than from a more standard perspective.

Most pointedly, standard economics systems all deal with a central issue of prosperity. Either prosperity for the individual, or prosperity for the state. Prosperity is either achieved through unlimited growth and earnings potential (capitalism, et al) or security of needs provided by the state (communism et al). None of those systems asks the necessary questions about what will happen in the future. If we spend resources now on a quest for unlimited growth and earnings, what will be left in 100 years, 200 years? If we spend resources now to ensure all members of society are taken care of now, will we have enough to take care of future members of society? These are questions about sustainability.

In 2002, Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers revisited their 1972 book Limits to Growth to see if any progress had been made. The results were, as you may have guessed, disappointing. However, in the penultimate chapter, the authors present a scenario that they ran through their computer model (WORLD3) that achieves sustainability. What it calls for will not be easy to come by.

The scenario requires an effort to curb population growth through birth control and greater equality in rights among men and women of all nations, an increase in land yield, and the protection of agricultural land from industrialization and over-farming. This scenario caps the world population at a steady 8 billion with sustainability achieved on or about the year 2020.

LtG_scenario-9
2002, Meadows et al. Output of a chart generated by the WORLD3 computer model showing sustainability achieved by the year 2020.

While this was encouraging news in 2002, we have probably already missed our deadline and now must work hard to achieve an economic plan that we can maintain in perpetuity, one that will leave resources available for future generations while also meeting our current humanitarian needs in this generation.

On a global scale, we must adopt a way of thinking that leaves behind the need for growth, competition, and unlimited prosperity and replace that thinking with ideas that lead to sustainability, equitability, and stability.

 

References

  1. Meadows, Donella H. (2012). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. The Long Now Foundation (http://longnow.org)
  3. The Next Systems Project (http://thenextsystem.org)
  4. Donella Meadows Institute (http://www.donellameadows.org)

Why I’m voting for Bernie Sanders (and maybe you should, too)

I want to take this space to be clear about why I’m voting for and defending Bernie Sanders. After reviewing his voting record and speeches, after knowing him for more than 20 years as a statesman from my home state of Vermont, I’m very confident that — while these are my interpretations — they are spot on.

People are not the means to profit

Bear with me, I’m going to start off sounding a bit Marxist, but then I’ll get to where I want to be. In a free-market, capitalist system, the people are the means to generate profit for those in power. If they happen to make a living at doing it, or if they are lucky enough to be in a position to claw their way to the top, that’s fine with the system, but it’s not necessary for the system to be happy.

For example, the idea of a minimum wage was created so that workers could make enough to stay healthy, but not quite enough to rise up from their station. This increases their profitability (a healthy worker is a profitable worker). A capitalist system requires at least three tiers of people: those at the bottom, those in the middle, those at the top. The free-market capitalism creates an illusion that anyone who is at the bottom could end up at the top, but it’s essentially a ponzi scheme where those who start in control gain more control through the efforts of those beneath them. The bottom line (or top line, if you will) is that this kind of system is designed to create profit, but profit that not everyone can partake in.

A government designed to protect this kind of system will necessarily pass laws that ensure the highest profitability for those at the top, while making sure that those at the bottom are passably cared for, but only to ensure prosperity for others. This is the government the United States currently has in place. It feels like a democracy, but it’s not really. It is, as Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Former President Jimmy Carter have said, an oligarchy.

If, however, the system takes the point of view that people are not simply profit centers, you start changing the problems that we need to solve. Instead of asking “What should minimum wage be?” you ask “What wage is required to ensure people can live?” Instead of asking “How do we ensure all people buy health insurance?” you ask “How do we ensure our citizens stay healthy?” Instead of asking “How do we secure constant economic growth?” we ask “How do we ensure all citizens are able to prosper?”

The system that Bernie advocates, the questions that he asks, the solutions he puts forward: these all point to the fact that he does not see people as sources of profit, but the raison-d’etre of government itself.

The government should be in service to the people

This is a sort of standard, bread-and-butter position that all United States politicians should have. It is, after all, a primary tenet of our founding documents. Most of them will say things that imply they believe that the government is “for the people and by the people,” but their actions speak otherwise.

If a politician gives more concessions to your lobbyists than your constituents, he does not believe the government is in service to the people. If a politician dismisses claims of racism or police brutality as one-off problems rather than systemic, she does not believe the government is in service to the people. If a politician refuses to admit the impact of humans on the environment, he does not believe the government is in service to the people. If a politician accepts money from corporations, panders to Super PACs, votes to protect her donors, and is out of touch with reality, she does not believe the government is in service to the people.

It is the people, 300 million very real, non-abstract entities — and not the ideal that politicians claim to follow — that government is meant to protect. If the mantra is only spoken, but the actions denote otherwise, the government is broken.

Sanders is a politician who has never wavered from his belief that by and for the people is more than a nice story to tell in school. His actions first as mayor of Burlington, VT, then as representative for the State of Vermont, then as Senator, and now as candidate for president show us that he is on our side. Free education, equitable taxes, universal health care (not just a rule forcing people to buy insurance from a third party), and accountability for those in power are all present in Sanders’ issues and talking points on the campaign trail.

Government should ensure justice, well-being, and freedom for all its citizens

Another very basic tenet of government, and another one that — theoretically — the United States is based on. There isn’t a politician currently in Washington who will tell you that the U.S. is not just and free and healthy. That is, no one other than Bernie.

Bernie knows that the systemic racism on display throughout the country, the poor access to health care, the over proliferation of non-whites in prison on trumped up charges, and the dwindling economic possibilities are evidence that the U.S. does not live up to its own rhetoric. He knows this so well, in fact, that his entire platform is built around these core beliefs.

Economic, criminal, and social justice, Sanders says, are on parallel paths. He understands that economics are one of the means by which oppression is enacted and that corruption in the criminal and social justice systems are another. He is looking to transform all three from weapons of the entrenched to vehicles for the disenfranchised.

He is for a single-payer health system so that people will no longer be forced to buy health insurance, but will have it covered with their taxes. He is for an extensive overhaul to family medical leave so families can be physically and emotionally healthy without need to worry about their jobs. He is pushing for vast criminal justice reform that removes racism from policing and puts an emphasis on community building instead of for-profit imprisonment. He is for free tuition for all public colleges and universities. He is against gerrymandering: — long used to divide and conquer minority neighborhoods — the process that ensures districts are populated with the constituents a politician wants and can easily pander to.

Oppression is unconscionable

I come to my culminating point, and the reason why I support Bernie Sanders for president. Bernie is a man who has shown that he will stand in the way of oppression, no matter the form. He has voted against war, but also voted to improve the care of veterans who go to war. He stands against armed violence while still supporting the spirit of the second amendment. He has stood up for the disenfranchised, the outcasts, the ostracized, the stepped-on, and the poor for all of his political life. There is no reason to believe he won’t continue to do so.

The issues he faces as president will sound different than the ones he’s stood against, but in reality they are shockingly similar. While this is evidence that our system is truly rigged to support oppression in all of its forms, it is a situation which which Bernie is not unfamiliar. Whether it’s the right for black, latino, and Native Americans to be truly free in their persons; the right for women to have control over their own bodies; the right for the workers to have control over their own lives; the right for students to have control over their own education: Bernie will stand on the correct side of each of those battles. He will unwaveringly defend and shout down the naysayers. He will be successful.

Why? Because history has shown us all that Bernie has always been right in his thinking. The more people get to know him, and the more his record is revealed, the more it will become clear to us, to the politicians, to the corporations, to the world that Bernie Sanders has always had this figured out.

Urge Patrick Leahy to support Bernie Sanders

Please sign my petition to get Senator Patrick Leahy to support Bernie Sanders

Just a quick plug for my survey over at change.org.

Senator Leahy currently supports Secretary Hillary Clinton for president based on a verbal agreement made to her seven years ago. I believe that given the voting records of Senators Leahy and Sanders, and Clinton, Leahy and Sanders are more closely aligned than Leahy believes. Additionally, I believe that Leahy owes it to the state of Vermont and its citizens to support their adopted son, Sanders, in his bid for president.

Thoughts on Ferguson

I wrote this a year ago, and unfortunately it is still as relevant now as it was then. The racism I encounter every day is mind boggling. It has to end. Enough is enough.

I’ve never seen such a sense of common purpose. Such an outpouring of personal opinion and passionate pleas. If I had known before today what the people I know are capable of, I would have given them more credit than I have on their ability to share a common goal, a common opinion. Unfortunately, that common opinion is ignorant at best, socially harmful and destructive at worst. These people have united in reprimanding those protesting the Grand Jury decision in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

First of all, I want to be perfectly clear about something. I am only able to partially empathize with those in Ferguson who are suffering, because I don’t know their pain directly. I’m a white male living in Northern Vermont. In any demographically sectioned study, I fall into a fairly safe and secure group. That said, however, I can recognize a broken system. We have those up here, too. And it is this system that has failed a large group of citizens, Ferguson being the most recent example.

A successful system is not one that allows a trained police officer to use his gun as a primary mode of defense. Failing a proper training in unarmed self-defense, It is not one that allows that officer to fire five or six lethal shots into an unarmed man when one disabling shot to a shoulder or knee would have done the job. A successful system is not one that assumes a young black man is guilty of anything without probable cause. A successful system does not expect those who are made war against to sit back and calmly take it.

It is obvious to anyone paying attention that our system is broken. The people in Ferguson are reacting in the only way the system has allowed them, by protesting. Rioting. Breaking free of the systemic damage, working outside the system itself, and forcing a change. This is what happens to all systems that fail, and it’s going to get worse if something doesn’t change soon.

If the desire for peace is borne from the same space as a desire for true equality, then the system can be fixed. If, however, the desire for peace is borne from a place that wants to see groups of people take a kick to the face while lying down, the system must be replaced.

Photo details: “Ferguson Day 6, Picture 13” by Loavesofbread – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ferguson_Day_6,_Picture_13.png#/media/File:Ferguson_Day_6,_Picture_13.png