Welcome to Corporate America

So I know I haven’t blogged in a long time and also said I wouldn’t be blogging until after I finished grad school in a few weeks, but yesterday’s proposed rule change from the FCC has me absolutely on edge.

Amid reports that America is actually more like an oligarchy than a democracy, that governors of some states are forbidding city governments within those states from establishing a minimum wage and banning paid sick leave, and that mining companies are now union-busting and undoing hundred year-old labor reforms, suddenly the FCC has completely reversed course on net neutrality, essentially ceding the internet to corporate entities.

Quickly, here’s what happened: internet access isn’t currently regulated as a “common carrier” like a railroad nor like a public utility like electrical service, and federal courts recently ruled that the way in which the FCC was regulating internet providers under the “open internet” guidelines set forth by the Obama administration was illegitimate. This left the FCC scrambling to find a way to continue to protect net neutrality. Instead, yesterday the chairman of the FCC came out saying the FCC would no longer attempt to defend net neutrality and would actually encourage a “fast lane” on the internet.

What does that mean? Basically, Comcast, Verizon, Cox, Time Warner, etc will not all provide the same connection to the same internet any longer. If you’re a company like Facebook or Netflix, you will have to pay those companies more to get “fast internet” while they feel free to slow down other internet service as they please. Not only does this stifle innovation by putting small companies that can’t afford this “fast lane” at a tremendous disadvantage, but you better believe companies like Netflix will not let these new fees eat into their margins and instead will pass costs onto the consumer in the form of higher prices. Your internet may become even slower and less reliable, your favorite services will cost more. While consumer advocates have been pushing for the federal government to regulate the internet as a public utility like electric power, drinking water, sewers, etc…, the FCC has announced its intention to go the complete opposite direction and hand over the internet wholesale to corporate interests. Not to mention that Comcast is still trying to merge with Time Warner to create a supergiant telecom that will dominate the world and swallow your children (I assume anyway, I haven’t read the corporate charter for the proposed new entity).

I mention this not only because I care about net neutrality, but because, coupled with those events I mentioned at the top of this blog, coupled with the recent McCutcheon Supreme Court decision and the constant battle of campaign finance and money in politics,  what we’re talking about is a continual and consistent landslide of this country, our politics, our policies, and the things we use and love to corporate interests. If you couldn’t tell, I have two feet now firmly planted atop my little soapbox here. Our country is being bought and sold right under our noses and our political and judicial systems are proving completely unable or unwilling to stem the tide. In the name of economic growth, in the name of increased profits, we are crushing labor rights, making private what once was public, and granting increasing access to the haves and increasing desperation and disenfranchisement to the have-nots. If we do not reclaim our political processes for the people rather than for the corporate interests that are currently dictating policy in our state and federal legislatures, we tacitly agree to drifting further and further afield from the values that saw this country in its greatest ever phase of economic expansion and improvement in general quality of life (WW2-1978ish).

These values: the necessary balance and cooperation between labor and capital, the pursuit by business of long term stability and growth over short-term profit, the idea of value maximization rather than profit maximization, and the central idea that a rising tide of economic growth should lift all boats, not lift the yachts while leaving the rest of us to play Life of Pi on our shitty metaphorical row boats – these values are being abandoned. Those who know have little to no voice or authority, those who might do something about it either don’t know or don’t care, and those fighting so vociferously for corporate welfare often don’t even realize what they’re fighting for. Take the poor former mine worker in West Virginia who depends on public assistance, lost his job because he had no union, suffers because of the poor environmental regulation on his water quality and the destruction of the natural resources around him, and can’t afford medical care or get a new job, yet goes to a Tea Party rally and shouts to keep the government out of corporate business because someone with a lot of money (Koch brothers) funded an emotional appeal to bend his fear until he is fighting like hell against his own interests.

My point is, the cancer here is not just in the monied interests which pursue more money at all costs, not just in our political system which has utterly collapsed under the weight of money, gerrymandering, and broken media, but in ourselves. We have stopped talking about class. We have stopped talking about public value. Our politics are about scandal, about fear, about cults of personality, and about ideology over humanism and communitarianism. We are selling away our interests and our country piece by piece because we don’t care, because we don’t know, because we don’t understand or we don’t feel like we can change it.

There is no boogeyman. You have your McCutcheons, your Koch’s, your Soros’s, etc…, and they undoubtedly wield huge influence, but here’s the truth as I see it: no one is running the show. There is no vast conspiracy. There is a system that rewards some behaviors and not others, and we have been content to let the rules of that system subtly shift until it has become something wholly unrecognizable. Yes, we can debate the relative merits of different welfare systems. We can debate drug laws, public vs. private schools, abortion vs. anti-abortion, gun rights, stand your ground laws, common core curriculum: we can debate all of it, and that’s politics, and whatever side of those debates you’re on, we can still be friends and have a spirited discussion over beers until we can’t speak in complete sentences any more, but when we talk about the fundamental promise of our country, what we’re talking about is the economic birthright of every person to some piece of the gigantic there’s-way-more-than-enough-for-everyone pie that is the American economy.

We’re not talking about 50/50 one side vs the other Republican Vs. Democrat: we’re talking about what benefits the vast majority of us (net neutrality, labor rights, companies that pursue stability and long term growth, economic development instead of GDP growth), vs what benefits vast companies which only distribute those gains in their boardrooms and not in their payroll.

I never thought I’d be this guy, standing here shouting (via blog, I guess) at the world to “wake up”, but we seriously, seriously have to wake right the fuck up. Whatever your pet issue, whatever your politics, I promise you they are petty bullshit next to this rising tide that destroys our communities, our environment, and increasingly, our chances at improving our lots in life.

I’m going to continue to take some time off from blogging here as I finish my degree program these last few weeks, but I am going to rededicate myself to more impartial blogging that is more purpose driven and proposes more answers than questions after I return.

Brazil Experiments Successfully with Basic Income (link)

Brazil’s Government Gives Money to Women from The Atlantic Cities

I’ve written before on this blog about the idea of universal basic income: that the government should simply give people money for being alive. The idea is rooted in the notion that as work continues to disappear, we will eventually live in a society where anything resembling full employment will be impossible because the low-skill jobs will simply not exist in our economy, and eventually many “skilled’ labor jobs will go away as well. Not to mention the meager investment that makes a huge difference in the lives of people at the bottom of the economic food chain, and the reduction in costs from eliminating some government bureaucracies which would no longer be necessary when administration of basic benefits is changed to a straight cash distribution plan. Check out the success they’ve been having in Brazil with only a modest basic income.

College Sports Unionize? (Link)

Northwestern University Football Team Unionizes from Grantland.Com

Normally this blog doesn’t deal with athletics, but the recent decision from the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board determining that Northwestern University football players are university employees and have a right to unionize is sending shockwaves through college sports fans and labor activists alike. Read a great breakdown of the whole situation at the link above.

Democracy to the Highest Bidder

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court voted in a 5-4 decision in favor of McCutcheon, a guy who just didn’t think the law should stop him from giving all of his money to political candidates. To make a somewhat complicated issue very simple, federal law says that you can only give so much to individual candidates, and that a person can only give so much money in total, effectively meaning that, if one had a lot of money, one could give the maximum amount to about 26 candidates before hitting the individual giving limit, but not 27 or more (or something in that neighborhood). This guy McCutcheon thought that impinged on his freedom and took it to court. All the way up to the Supreme Court it went, and the court ruled yesterday in McCutcheon’s favor, effectively eliminating that individual giving limit. Of course, these limits don’t even apply to the 501c(4) SuperPAC organizations of much controversy in the last few years, which can take in any amount of money they want and don’t have to reveal their donors. Basically, in combination with the landmark Citizens United ruling a few years ago, we’re seeing a John Robert’s Supreme Court on a mission to completely de-regulate the American electoral system, operating under the normative assumption that people should be able to do whatever they want with their money, including influence elections to the largest extent possible, as long as they avoid what Robert’s calls “quid pro quo corruption.”

In truth, the McCutcheon decision on its own isn’t too terribly impactful. A report from the New York Times 538 Election Blog estimates that fewer than 600 donors nationally are likely to be affected. Still, what is more troubling is the larger trend predicted by many regarding the mission of the Roberts court. The limits on giving to individual candidates were not at issue here and thus were not ruled on by the courts, but many analysts feel that the language in Roberts’ majority opinion indicates that should the issue of limits of donations to individual candidates and parties come before the court, the court would be more than happy to eliminate those too. The court’s logic here is that the constitution doesn’t provide for government attempting to “level the playing field” of federal elections, but simply to prevent corruption. By this reading, how individuals behave with their money in an election is none of the federal government’s business.

So what does this decision likely mean in terms of the political landscape? Well, first of all, with limits going away, we may see a resurgence in the power of political parties. Of late, both democrats and republicans have been operating with tarnished brand images in the public eye, and support for both parties is low. Coupled with that was the rise of the SuperPAC as an election funding model, what we saw in the last election was the emergence of the first serious threat to the American two-party system in many, many years. In the past, it didn’t matter if the democrats or republicans had less power or popularity because they were always the primary source of funding for candidates and hopefuls, giving the parties more power to corral their congresspeople and candidates. However, with the rise of “shadow” donations through the un-regulated SuperPAC structure, candidates and congresspeople didn’t have to rely so heavily on the party funding structure anymore, and when the parties lost popularity, many candidates (I’m talking about you, Tea Party), said “to hell with this” to the traditional republican funding structure and got their campaigns funded through other means.

This McCutcheon decision will allow donors to give more money directly to candidates and parties, but why would that change people going to other sources for funding? The truth is, even though the line between PACs and candidates is very thin (technically and legally they can’t “coordinate”, but they obviously, definitely do), there is still a line, and people with a lot of money usually prefer to give directly to candidates or parties, because people who give money have an agenda and want to gain political favor with their donation. Basically, if they can, people do prefer to give to candidates directly rather than to PACs, so this decision will increase the power of both the parties and the wealthy donors. All of this at a time when donors are pumping out record amounts for the upcoming midterm election. 

If you’re into democracy of, by, and for the people, this is bad news for you (unless you have a lot, lot, lot of money, in which case, stop reading this blog and send me a check please). Our political parties are failing us, producing puppet candidates, the amount of money in politics is at an all time high, yet we’re going to see now an increase in power for those parties and for wealthy donors, and if things go the way many analysts are predicting, the individual donation limit for candidates may soon be on the chopping block as well, which would really tip the scales of federal elections in favor of the wealthy.

But all is not lost! Battles are being fought in state legislatures across the country right now for campaign finance reform on a state level. I’ve hyped these efforts many times on this blog, so I do recommend you check out the links here and here to learn more about contributing to efforts in your state to get rid of all the money in politics. If the national system is too corrupted by big money, working at the state level to reform electoral systems where politicians are still more responsive to the people of their districts than to large donors (or at least still somewhat responsible to the people in their districts), we have a chance of making major reform in this country. A little side note if you’re looking to make a difference: get involved with an already existing group above, and also follow this little bit of advice I picked up online a few weeks ago from redditor /u/somekindofmutant (take his/her credibility as you will):

An email to your senator or representative may result in a form letter response and a phone call to the office may amount to a tally mark on an administrative assistant’s notepad. But, for any given policy concern, if you want to get their attention a letter to the editor in one of your state’s 5-10 biggest newspapers that mentions them specifically BY NAME is the way to go. If your message is directed to your representative, pick a newspaper that is popular in your district.

That is the crucial thing to know–the rest of this post is an explanation of why I know this is true.

I know this because, when I interned in the D.C. office of a senator one summer, one of the duties I shared was preparing a document that was distributed internally both online and in paper format. This document was made every day and comprised world news articles, national news, state news, and any letters to the editor in the 5-10 largest newspapers within the state that mentioned the senator by name. I was often the person who put that document on his desk, and it was the first thing he read every morning after arriving to the office.

I began to suspect that this was standard operating procedure because several other senators’ offices share the same printer in the basement of the Russell Senate Office building, and I saw other interns doing the exact same procedures that I was involved in.

Since the internship, I’ve conferred with other Senate and House employees past and present and determined that most–if not all–offices use essentially the same procedure.

TL;DR Bad News Bears.

A reading list about the McCutcheon decision and it’s impacts

Analysis from the New Yorker | Washington Insider Analysis from Politico | Data Breakdown from 538 Blog

Will The US Ever Have High Speed Intercity Rail?

At the beginning of the Obama administration, there was a lot of hype surrounding a proposed map of a high speed rail network in the U.S.. In January of 2010, the president announced $8 billion in federal funding for an inter-city high speed rail networkrail_map_d3 that would eventually look something like the one pictured here. However, due to political opposition from congress, the plan all but died in the water. Then, if you followed the news a few weeks ago, Japan offered the United States a loan for 50% of the cost of a brand new, super-high-speed mag-lev train that would run from Baltimore to DC in 15 minutes. Japan wanted to loan this money because infrastructure financing makes big money (see, now you wish you read that boring infrastructure finance blog) and because a Japanese company would be building the new rail line. This deal too, however, seems to have stalled.

We know that building a high speed rail network in the United States would be expensive, but it would also create jobs temporarily in construction (we’re talking thousands of jobs across the country for quite a few years), as well as thousands of jobs for people who run and maintain the rail system down the line. Still, this is a nation that spanned itself with interstate highways inside of a decade just because Eisenhower felt like it, so surely this sort of rail network can’t be out of our reach, can it? Of course not, but given the 2008 recession, a committed and very loud voice in opposition to government spending in congress and in the nation, and a strange sort of anti-rail sentiment that seems to exist in this country, it all seems pretty unlikely.

It’s that last point I want to address in today’s blog. I don’t make this point to score points in some political argument about the viability of high speed rail in the U.S., because I think that debate abandoned logic and fact for ideology a long time ago and no amount of logic or fact will bring it back. In fact, I make this point simply to illustrate just how based in ideology and politics, and just how divorced from reason, this debate has become. A steady and long-lasting wellspring of the anti-rail argument in the U.S. hasn’t been spending but rather feasibility. The United States is a geographically large country with a large population, and building a rail network that can span that area and accommodate that population is just untenable, or so the argument goes. But what if that argument, were, say, completely wrong?

A recent study of Chinese intercity highspeed rail has revealed that China, which has on the whole a much larger and poorer population than the U.S., and also a somewhat comparable geographic landmass, is experiencing a high speed rail boom. People are traveling within China in record numbers, and yet Chinese domestic airlines are reporting record losses across the board. Meanwhile, the Chinese intercity high speed rail network spans over 6,000 miles (with a plan to nearly double in size to 11,500 miles by 2015) and currently transports nearly 2 million passengers between Chinese cities every day, compared to the approximately 1 million now being carried daily by domestic airlines. In the U.S., we have about 1.7 million airline passengers per day and airlines are among the least liked companies in the country, ranking right up there with cable and cell phone providers. A high speed rail network would not only create jobs, use less fuel, be better for the environment, and be just pretty cool, but it also provides a lower cost alternative to airlines which forces them to do a better job competing for our travel business. Right now, when the choice is basically between flying or taking a long-haul bus, the choice is clear for many travelers, but if airlines had to compete, not only would they have a smaller customer base to serve, taking some of the load off and allowing them to consolidate and get leaner and better, but they would also have to work harder on customer service and providing a good experience in order to keep our business.

TL;DR My point is a simple one: high speed rail is feasible in the United States, and the only argument against it is an argument of economic/fiscal ideology. China has comparable landmass, a similar amount of domestic travelers, and on the whole its population has less money than the U.S., yet their high speed rail is incredibly popular. We can do this. We just won’t.

Deals with the Devil: How Public Infrastructure Gets Built

How do our roads, bridges, and highways actually get built? If we want a new prison, a new power plant, a new tunnel, or a new dam, how do those things actually happen? Well, the short version is that someone pays some money for some stuff and some workers and then the workers go build that stuff into other stuff, but because very few cities, states, or countries actually have the cash on hand to pay for incredibly expensive projects, what we don’t see when we see a new stretch of highway being built can actually tell us a lot about how the world works and the forces at work behind, well, everything.

The ironclad rule of all property development comes down to three little letters: OPM. Other people’s money. If you’re going to build something really big, get investors, help reduce the risk on yourself by risking a lot of their money too. The same is true when we talk about infrastructure spending, and the world of infrastructure financing is incredibly important.

To make all of this make more sense, let’s use a long complicated metaphor (this will go well) Think about when you buy a car: most people don’t have the cash on hand to just buy a car, so you make monthly payments – you finance the car. Now, let’s think about that car for a second. Someone built the car, meaning that someone had the get the raw materials, design the car, buy the machines and hire the workers to build the car, and do all of the safety tests and paperwork associated with selling a new car, and advertise the car so people know about it. That whole process obviously costs a lot of money. By the time you enter the process, a lot of money has changed hands already, and the dealership likely bought the car from the manufacturer to pay their costs, so now the dealership is ostensibly “out” the cost of buying that car from the manufacturer. Now, obviously if the dealership sells you a car, they’re going to make a profit, but if you are paying off that car a little bit at a time (say over 3 years), it will take the dealership a long time to actually make their profit on that car. In the meantime, they still are at a loss from buying the car from the manufacturer in the first place, so in the end, the dealership would spend a lot of time in debt. That’s where financing comes in. Basically, someone with a lot of money (a bank), doesn’t mind waiting for a long time for you to pay off your car, because the bank has a shitload of money already and doesn’t mind taking that slow payment for a big payoff (interest), whereas your car dealership has a lot of money too, but significantly less than the bank, so they’d much rather have the bank pay them right away, and then let the bank service your car loan and take a little bit off the top so they don’t have to wait for their money.

This, in a nutshell, is financing. Someone with enough money to be able to take the “slow” profit fronts the cash for someone else to buy/build something. When we’re talking about infrastructure projects the world over, we’re talking about vast, vast sums of money floating around out there. In fact, according to a recent article from The Economist, consulting company McKinsey estimates that simply to maintain the current infrastructure we have in the world through 2030 will cost approximate $57 trillion (yes, with a “t”), or about $3.7 trillion per year. Current world expenditures on infrastructure are at about $2.7 trillion per year (about 4% of all world economic output). In other words, we’re already not spending enough world wide to build the subways, power stations, bridges, and tunnels that we need, let alone to create a new, green, sustainable infrastructure we all dream of. Part of the problem is that many of the traditional financiers of these major projects are still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis or the austerity measures implemented since and don’t have the patience to make the long investments required for infrastructure projects (typically over 20 years before you get paid back on your billions of dollars). New sources of money other than banks, such as private equity firms, insurers, and sovereign wealth funds (basically, the reserve money that a country has) are beginning to invest in these projects. So the money is coming from somewhere: does it really matter? The Economist estimates that there is some $50 trillion of wealth out there in the world from sources like the ones I just mentioned that makes a lot of sense to match up with infrastructure projects, but simply isn’t at the moment, or is doing so slowly. This could be avenue for investment in the future, sure, but what difference does it make to you and me?

Infrastructure projects are important for a few reasons: first of all, having infrastructure that works lets us do everything else we want to do. If we have good power, roads, bridges, sewers, and fiber optic lines, we can start businesses and universities and day care centers and whatever else you can dream up. Secondly, infrastructure projects represent something important in this finance-based economy: a major investment in an actual, real asset. So many investments are so derivative these days, we essentially just have giant companies trading money for other money in the form of complicated financial instruments barely connected to any assets of real value. In infrastructure spending, we have investment into something real that actually exists.

So again: what’s the big problem and what impact does it have on you and me. Well, let’s think about how money is actually made in infrastructure spending and we’ll start to see what’s going on here. First, in general, when a bank or other large investor invests in an infrastructure project, they are giving up short term money for long term profit, but who is “making the payments” on those long term projects? Well, the governments that ordered up the projects of course, and where do those governments get money? They get it from your taxes. So, no matter who is financing infrastructure, you and are eventually paying the bill and paying it with interest over a very long period of time.

Second, with these new investors now interested in funding infrastructure projects, many are deviating from the course of banks in years past that simply invested the money, collected their payments, and then went away. Many of these new investors are interested in ownership and fee generation. Take the case of three prisons recently built in France which were financed by a private investment firm called Blackstone. Blackstone paid the money but can’t start collecting their payments until the prisons are up and running, so now there’s a lot of pressure on builders and governments to be on time and efficient, and to start getting prisoners into the prison. Are we starting to see the problem? The Economist praises this type of process because it brings private sector efficiency to public infrastructure building, but in cases like building new prisons, do we really want efficiency of getting people into jail to be the top priority?

Think of the implications here: we the taxpayers owe some giant company a shitload of money for building us something – let’s say a toll bridge. Okay, so we’ve got this toll bridge and we owe a bunch of money, so now the government knows that it needs people to use this toll bridge to generate the money to pay back the financier. Well, that’s all fine as long as we like people driving over the bridge, but what if what the people really want is a subway system, a green infrastructure and sustainable public transport system that doesn’t really use toll bridges? Now we’ve created something called moral hazard where the government knows it must drive traffic to the bridge to pay public debts, but also knows public demand is asking for a project that drives people away from the toll bridge. Multiply this by thousands of infrastructure projects the world over and we start to see the essential moral hazard of private sector involvement and financing in public infrastructure projects, especially when private sector firms don’t just want to get the money from your car loan, but also want to own a piece of the car so you suddenly have to get a job delivering pizzas instead of being a software engineer so your investment starts generating income for your financiers.

TL;DR Private sector financing of public infrastructure projects has long been the way of things and inherently can lead to moral hazard, but a shift in the types of funds investing in infrastructure actually has the potential to increase this effect. Money. Rules. Everything. Vomit.

Why we Know Finland is Better than Us at Education, but Can’t Seem to Teach Ourselves their System

I am no education scholar and I don’t know how to fix what’s broken in America’s schools. I am, however, a student of public policy and political economy, and also I can read, so when I came across a very interesting article in the New York Times shared by my friend Alex (who IS an education policy guy), I was very interested. I think you should read the article and you’ll likely get a lot out of it as I did, but I want to connect it here to a few things I regularly look at on this blog.

The article itself is focused on an idea we’re all more or less familiar with by now: the Finnish school system is better than the American one and is the marvel of the western world. We’ve all heard about how amazing schools are in Finland, but America as a hub of innovation surely, once it realized a superior model, could have taken and even improved upon the Finnish model by now, right? Not really. As pointed out by Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Ministry of Education’s Director of the Center for International Mobility – pretty much the guy in Finland in charge of telling other people how to imitate Finnish schools – Americans just seem to consistently miss the point of the Finnish model.

Again, I’m not an education policy expert here, but just as a quick run down on features of the Finnish education model:

  • Very few standardized tests
  • Teachers and administrators given a high degree of autonomy to make their own choices about their classrooms and schools, including no state defined metrics on how a principal decides if her teachers are effective or not
  • Educators being very well paid, pulled from only the top performing students, and granted a high degree of social prestige.
  • Lots of educational play and emphasis on school being a safe, fun, healthy environment
  • Emphasis on cooperation rather than competition
  • Emphasis on equality of education rather than on outcomes of “excellence”
  • No private schools

It is these last three points that I want to talk about and that Sahlberg says Americans typically completely ignore. I think what we’re seeing here is a fundamental disconnect between the values that drive American and Finnish education. No one that has witnessed the struggles of an American teacher or education administrator would tell you that these people don’t care about kids or want the absolute best for their students. Yet, our teachers and administrators are bound by two notions that keep us from ever adopting fully what has been so effective in Finland:

  • Emphasis on competition, excellence, and being the top performing student/school
  • Treating the education system as a market place

There are lots of things the free market is good at. It creates awesome cars that look cool and that you can talk to and tell them to play music for you. Planned economies don’t invent iPads. The market, as a vehicle for innovation and efficiency, cannot be beat. But markets offer mainly that: efficiency, and efficiency does not a better education system make. Every private school in America represents a transfer of resources and top performing kids from the local public school. Every standardized test reinforces an ideal that we are all being evaluated, that the metrics for being “smart” and “qualified” are clear, and well established, and that we must succeed at these things or risk being failures. Basically, in an effort to make our students better performers in our market-driven economy, we have ported our market principles over to our education system to increasingly disastrous results. Speaking in the aggregate, we have brilliant, committed people who want to teach, we have capable, caring administrators who want to run the system and we have smart kids and dedicated parents who want great outcomes, but we keep hitting this invisible wall that we cannot see because it exists within our own ethos about the way the world works. In this ethos, every one has an equal shot in a fair system where the measurements for success are clear and achievable if one dedicates oneself to excellence. From there, one simply must strive to be the best, work harder and smarter than the competition,  and one will succeed on their own merits.

Of course, we all believe this while knowing at the same time that it isn’t true at all. We don’t all have an equal shot or even know what an equal shot looks like given the different ways we learn. The system isn’t fair, and in fact is deeply unfair when we think about how resources are divided, how teachers are paid, how messages from the top are often mixed, unclear, or constantly shifting. Our measurements for success also constantly change, aren’t that great to begin with, and measure people’s ability to take long, arduous tests and to fit into a narrow mold rather than their ability to be creative, think critically, solve problems, and innovate.

And there isn’t a competition. We’re talking about a bunch of eager young kids getting ready to take their places in society in the wealthiest nation that has literally ever existed in the history of earth. This is not a zero-sum game. Your kid going to Ohio State or University of Florida instead of Harvard or Stanford may affect their starting salaries, but will not determine their happiness in life, the satisfaction they get from their work and families, or the dreams of their children. We know this, yet we are obsessed with competition and success. I know we’re obsessed because even the most progressive parents will think “Sure, that’s true, but MY kid should still go to Harvard”, and because we cover this decision in the guise of parental love,  we lose sight of what it truly is: fear that the inherent competitiveness of the system will swallow our children alive if we don’t give them every possible edge and focus on enhancing their ability to compete from the very beginning. When you think of it that way, it sounds kind of gross, doesn’t it? Especially given the alternative of a Finnish model where a bunch of parents who want the best for the kids send them into a cooperative system of publicly funded schools which consistently produce intelligent, creative, adaptable, happy young adults (well, as happy as one can be in a country where it’s cold and dark a lot of the year, but you get the point).

TL;DR The U.S. doesn’t fail to adopt the Finnish system because we don’t understand it or because our countries are to dissimilar in terms of economic and demographic makeup (compare Finland to U.S. states and it isn’t so different), we fail to adopt that system because we have a fundamentally different attitude towards education: one that I would argue is unhealthy and based on parental fear rather than clear thinking about how best to educate all of our youth.

Democrats and Republicans Put Election up for Sale

Let’s start with a seemingly useless fact: Karl Marx first published his great life’s work Das Kapital, an analysis of capitalism and its future, in 1867.

Okay, let’s leave that where it is for a second and get to the news of the day; The billionaire guy who founded Home Depot equated populist anger against “the 1%” to the type of fervor Hitler was stirring up in 1933. This is clearly ridiculous and incendiary, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, I think it’s clear that if we got all in a tizzy every time something was inappropriately compared to the Nazi’s, we would spend all of our lives in a state of permanent tizzy-dom. What’s really interesting here is how the political landscape in the United States has been shifting and what it tells us about the true influence of money in politics.

For quite a long time now, class-based political dialog has been threatening to break out of the “far-left” car trunk it was bound, gagged, and shoved in to back in the late 70′s and early 80′s. Common, every day, mostly apolitical people have been using the language of class to talk about politics more and more. The 1% vs. the 99%, Wall Street vs. Main Street, Joe the Plummer, cries for jail time for those financial players responsible for the collapse of 2008: all of these phrases and symbols are ideas about class. Like any widely shared idea, this has consequences for politicians. Populists on the right (Rand Paul, Ted Cruz) and left (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders) have been riding the wave of class-conscious political dialog, while on the other side, big donors and the people who traditionally rely on their money for elections have been nervous. Certainly democrats have had an easier time jumping on the class-conscious bandwagon, but like President Obama, most on the left and right have found that when the rubber meets the road, they’d still feel plenty comfortable in the pockets of wealthy donors.

Case in point: Politico is reporting that while they were in an utter panic in January, the nation’s elite are now growing more comfortable with the political climate in the U.S. not turning against them. The democrats lost in Florida with their populist messaging and now worry that in the mid-terms, appeals for a raise in minimum wage and extended unemployment insurance won’t be strong enough to overcome the waning popularity of the president. Fearing a big defeat, Politico reports, top democrats are turning back to wealthy donors again, urging their base to the viewpoint that, as democrat and former treasury secretary Larry Summers put it: “Reducing inequality is good, but it’s 50 times better to do it by lifting those up who are low than by tearing those down who are high”. Wealthy donors, rest at ease. Policy proposals to cut tax loopholes for the wealthiest have not been heartily supported by either party, and seem to be given only lip service from Obama and establishment democrats.

In fact, Slate reports that when Obama spoke to the DNC about mid-term strategy last week, despite having said that he was going to make income inequality the central focus of the remainder of his term, he didn’t use the term “inequality” once, and danced around the issue quite deftly. Political analysts see this as an attempt to signal to wealthy donors that the Democrats are not interested in cutting them out of the political equation.

Let’s get back to 1863. In Das Kapital, Marx wrote that capitalism would be so successful, states (governments) would eventually lose their ability to really regulate it, and that capital (corporations, big business) would become so powerful that it would enter and begin to control the political sphere as well, until the two were basically indistinguishable. Is this what has happened? Despite the rising tide of class-conscious dialog not present in decades in this country, America’s mainstream political left has begun to drift back to wealthy donors as an election approaches. On the right, the libertarian populist movement – which shares with the populists on the left the idea that government and corporations have become too close of bedfellows – has also been marginalized as elections approach.

What we’re seeing here isn’t too hard to understand. As the saying goes in Washington, “you can’t save the world if you can’t save your seat”, and increasingly, with campaign funding soaring with every new election, grassroots campaigns like the one Obama ran leading up to the 2008 election are not enough to sustain individual candidates. Quite frankly, both the Republicans and Democrats have decided they literally cannot afford to be a populist party in the upcoming election. Admittedly this causes much more cognitive dissonance for Democrats who are happy to talk about inequality until they need that big check, but it’s a problem more for the people than it is for political parties. If our politicians claim to be on the side of the people, but turn to the vaunted “1%” and soften their rhetoric and abandon their political ideologies when they need to win an election, what chance do we have of avoiding the fait that Marx predicted?

The mid-terms are still a long way off in political time, but I’d urge you to consider two things:

  • Support the efforts of organizations like United Republic and Wolf-Pac and their individual state subsidiary organizations in your state to get money out of politics. These organizations are operating in your state right now and winning the small battles makes it so much easier to win the big battles.
  • Consider voting for a different party if a 3rd party is running a viable candidate in your state or district. I know, I know – no one wants to split the vote and risk letting the “bad guys” win because the “good guys” couldn’t agree, but those kind of politics aren’t getting us anywhere. My personal, editorial opinion has me interested in the Green Party who are well-funded, support campaign finance reform, support basic income, and obviously support environmentally sustainable policy. Pick your poison based on your own politics, but consider an alternative to the D’s and R’s this mid-term, because they both clearly are content to live in deep pockets.

TL;DR Politicians talk a good game, but when it comes down to it, all but a few good eggs have gone right back to the well of big corporate donations for support.

Link: St. Patty’s Science Research

Given that St. Patricks Day is traditionally the day where Americans gather around the Blarney Laptop and read blogs about the social effects of government funding decisions, I thought I’d continue in that great tradition. Actually, what I’d really like to talk about is science, so if you’re not all the way drunk yet and have a light buzz enough to read something really interesting, let’s do this thing. To make it fun, you have to take a shot every time you read the word “philanthropic” and chug a green beer every time you read the phrase “systemic collapse of traditional common pool resource investments vis a vis ideological commitment to eroding public sector funds coupled with a particularly 21st century brand of politicized science and anti-intellectualism among large swaths of the public.”

So the public and private sectors have always had a sort of balancing act when it comes to the funding of science. During peace time, the federal government has funneled millions through both its agencies and through universities to fund basic research as well as “big science” with projects requiring huge investment. The private sector, in turn, has funded a lot of applied research, taking the basic science the government has developed like “the internet” and turning it into usable consumer products like “Facebook” and “Google”.  In recent years, however, federal science money has begun to dry up and that balance has shifted. As the New York Times reports in a detailed piece from Sunday, no one knows exactly how this funding landscape has shifted, and the National Science Foundation has set up a committee to study this phenomenon. I highly suggest you read the NYT article, but since I know you guys tend not to click links and the whole point of this blog is to share info without making anyone take a deep dive into stuff, here’s the breakdown:

  • Science is really expensive and has become a target of philanthropy for some of the country’s wealthiest people.
  • In theory, any money to science is a good thing, but this has many in the scientific community worried because more funding is concentrated on the “sexier” research topics like environmental science and space exploration. Meanwhile, basic research that has lead to creation of some of the largest innovations in science (not to mention the creation of entire industries”.
  • No one has yet studied just how much the funding landscape for science has changed, but the National Science Foundation has commissioned a study to look into just this.
  • In the meantime, the public sector is still the majority funder for scientific research. Case in point, the publicly funded (about 70% NASA, 25% Smitsonian Institute) Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is getting ready to announce a major new discovery today at noon!

Anyway, the concerns of privatization are pretty familiar if you keep up with this blog at all. More money to good causes is always a good thing, but if the direction of science is dictated by a few rich individuals rather than by a democratically controlled public institution, we don’t necessarily get the basic research science that has long pushed the boundaries of human knowledge.

So, in all honesty I meant to write  a longer blog today, but I have to admit, my roommate watching a Girls marathon in the next room is seriously throwing off my concentration. The privatization of science research is a really important topic, but I’ve also never seen this show before. Why isn’t this show called “awkward situations happen to horrible, self-involved people?” Either way, it’s intriguing. I hate Hannah, yet I am curious about her adventures.

TL;DR this NYT article is really the highlight here. I just got back from vacation and I’m distracted by the show Girls because I’ve never seen it before and my roommate has been binge watching it for days.

Economy and the Environment: They’re the Same, and I feel Really Dumb for Just Figuring it Out Recently

I’ve always wanted to care about the environment. It doesn’t help that I’ve been an “indoor kid” for a lot of my life, nor that I am not particularly well-versed in environmental science. Like  a lot of people, I just have a hard time getting super excited or passionate about a problem that seems to big and so hard to change as the actual planet around us. I recycle, I try not to drive very much, and try to take public transportation whenever I can. These things are good, but they do not an environmentalist make. I think like a lot of people, I care about the environment in the abstract but don’t find myself with the urge to join the environmentalists in protest, hug trees, or do any of the things that environmental activists tend to do. It just all seems like too much, and without any real type of knowledge, I feel like an angry 13-year-old screaming at the sky about how “life’s not fair” without too much inclination as to what I’m supposed to be doing about it. As someone who likes to consider himself a believer in science and the pragmatic realities of the world we live in, this is obviously troubling to me: clearly the planet is in danger, clearly bad things are happening as a result of human behavior, but here I am just not really doing anything about it.

If you follow this blog with any regularity, you know that increasingly my topics have shifted from public policy and urban issues to political economy of our cities and of our country. Basically, I’ve been looking at the same topics, but have begun to view things through a more economic and democratic lens, and believe it or not, that change in viewpoint actually gave me an in to caring about and understanding the environment. Here’s the argument:

An economy based on growth, like the one we currently have, relies entirely on the continued use of resources for economic gain. We try to improve efficiency as much as we can, but at the end of the day our economy runs on real things, and it takes more real things to make real things. If we continue to say “well, we need economic growth”, that’s another way of saying we need to continue to acquire and produce more things for less cost. If we follow this logic to its reasonable conclusion, eventually we use up all the things, and then we have a real bummer of a planet. So, step 1, a growth economy relies on continued consumption of resources for economic gain. (there are a couple conditions in which this would not occur, but I won’t waste your time here. Check out this link)

One alternative to a growth economy is the idea of sustainability, autarky, and the steady-state economy. All of these ideas basically boil down to the idea that because the economy is fundamentally linked to the resources it uses and the people who use, trade, and modify those resources, our primary goal as a society must not be to continually exploit those resources for greater and greater gain, but to achieve a state where a few conditions are true:

  • People live in relative comfort across the board. Poverty creates inefficient consumption (think poor people buying cheap, non-sustainable good that are bad for them and bad for the planet), and great amounts of wealth generated by financial markets that are too large leverage too many financial resources on real ecological resources, creating a pressure to consume more. Basically, if we have too much money riding on investment and growth, we’ll keep destroying and consuming to get the growth we wanted.
  • We replace resources at the same rate we use them. This requires investment in green technology, increased population density in our cities, and more public transport. Basically, all of the same economic factors that help us build community, reduce pollution, and give us an incentive to reduce crime, and reduce inequality are also good for the environment. If we’re all living together, it’s generally better if there aren’t poor, desperate people running around out there, and that our water and air aren’t dirty and gross.

In short, what we know is that our current economic system drastically undervalues our ecological and human resources, despite those resources being the main source upon which our economy is built. If we stay on the path we’re on, we’re simply going to keep eating away at the planet. But don’t despair! The solutions to inequality and poverty and the solutions to our global warming and pollution crisis are often the same! An economic system that relies on growth and drastically uneven distribution of resources creates pressure to destroy the planet at the top, and inefficient uses that destroy the planet on the bottom. Increasing community, equality, education, and democracy while investing in green technology and thinking about a steady state economy instead of a growth economy helps us solve both our economic and environmental problems.

(apologies for the hasty rush to the conclusion but I just realized I’m really running late for work!) I’ll leave you with this video as today’s TL;DR

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/49953262″>”Externalities”</a&gt; from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/thesustainableman”>Sustainable Man</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>