I’ve been obsessed with the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon this past week, in part because I’m personally exhilarated by the growing, populist call for change, and in even greater part because of all the lessons in messaging and organizing and mobilizing that this crazy, leaderless, chaotic movement holds for those of us who’ve been trying to stir up interest in policy change by more conventional means for way too long. I’m taking notes!
One of the best overviews of these lessons—and the opportunities they represent—is by communications expert John Nicols in The Nation. The time was certainly right—the stars were aligned just right so that taking to the streets became a no-brainer for many Americans from diverse backgrounds and for all kinds of different reasons. But Nicols also shows how the targets are right (“Occupy Wall Street has not gotten distracted by electoral politics; it has gone after the manipulator of both major parties—what the radicals of old referred to as ‘the money power.’”), the numbers are right (“The brilliance of Occupy Wall Street’s message, ‘We are the 99 percent,’ is that it invites just about everyone who isn’t a billionaire to recognize themselves as members of the class that has suffered what Thomas Jefferson once described as ‘a long train of abuses and usurpations.’”), and the demands—or lack thereof—are right on too (“the objection of the occupiers to a system of corporate domination and growing inequality, and their desire to change that system, makes a lot more sense to a lot more Americans than anything being said by politicians.”).
And, another awesome video on the economy from Robert Reich. Here he exposes seven “biggest economic whoppers and the facts in two minutes and 30 seconds.” He starts with “Tax breaks on the rich trickle down to the rest of us.” Wrong.
The Occupy movement is, it seems to me, an expression of collective indignation at the corrupting influence of money in politics—and the resulting economic inequality and governmental dysfunction. I’ve been reading about structural ways to fix North American democracies for months (and I wrote on the topic quite a bit last year). This week, I was particularly interested in this item, from Lawrence Lessig (who will speak in Seattle later this month, promoting a new book called Republic, Lost). He argues for a sweeping reform of the campaign financing rules for the US Congress. A friend then reminded me of this classic Lessig article from early 2010: “How to Get Our Democracy Back.” It’s worth (re-)reading twice!
Also well worth reading is this paper from the New America Foundation, coauthored by Nouriel Roubini, the NYU economist who correctly predicted the housing bubble collapse. (Or read this New York Times column, which summarizes the paper.) Roubini et al describe the economic trap that the world economy has fallen into—massive debt, massive overcapacity in most sectors, decimated demand, governing gridlock that makes politically impossible what is economically necessary—and describes why official responses to date have proved wholly inadequate.
Many important points emerge, but one is the strong likelihood of a very, very long period of a sputtering economy. All of us in Cascadia have lived most of our lives in relative boom times. Growth has been the norm. What if the new normal is not growth but stability or contraction? This recession is not just another cyclical downturn, the authors argue. It’s like Japan’s lost decade, but worse, because it covers much of the world. The authors call for a five-year program of massive infrastructure investment in the United States, a huge and radical round of debt forgiveness and restructuring in industrial countries, and a wholesale overhaul of global currency regimes. And still they think it’ll take five years or more to return to something like full employment in the United States. Given the poor chances of any of their prescriptions passing muster in a structurally broken and polarized Washington, DC, I’m pondering how Cascadia should proceed in an economic context unknown in any of our lifetimes. Are there opportunities along with the hardship?
In a down economy, younger women are postponing childbearing. That means a slight reprieve in “natural population increase” (i.e., births minus deaths). But it could also mean a baby boomlet down the road, if the economy turns around and would-be moms who delayed having kids decide they can finally afford them. The numbers make a post-recession boom seem a plausible scenario: childbearing is down most sharply among teens and 20-somethings—a demographic that’s hard-hit by the economic downturn, but who also have the luxury of postponing fertility without foreclosing it.
Cool chart: global population by latitude and longitude.
In Australia, a “save our suburbs” group has the relationship between urban density and greenhouse gases upside down.
For a whole variety of reasons I’m usually annoyed by writers comparing current events with historical ones. But I’m making an exception this week: I thought Floyd McKay’s comparison between the Occupy protests and FDR was genuinely enlightening.
Speaking of which, I got a laugh out of the Occupy Sesame Street Twitter feed. (“In a democracy, it’s your vote that counts. On Sesame Street, it’s your Count that votes.” Ha.)
I stumbled across this decade-old but perennially fascinating piece, “The Problem of Eyewitness Testimony.” The nickel version is that one shouldn’t necessarily trust eyewitness accounts or memories—not even your own. In fact, the research shows that:
Memory is affected by retelling, and we rarely tell a story in a neutral fashion. By tailoring our stories to our listeners, our bias distorts the very formation of memory—even without the introduction of misinformation by a third party.
Bias creeps into memory without our knowledge, without our awareness. While confidence and accuracy are generally correlated, when misleading information is given, witness confidence is often higher for the incorrect information than for the correct information.
The implication should extend into just about every human endeavor. Understanding how distorted even our first-person perceptions are should make us a lot more skeptical about claims that can’t be independently verified, and it should encourage a bit more epistemic humility in each of us.
It won’t, of course, but it should.
I enjoyed reading economist William Nordhaus’ “Energy: Friend or Enemy” in the New York Review of Books. Carbon pricing geeks will find the content elementary, but I thought his exposition was some of the clearest I’ve seen on the subject. It makes for a great primer on the hidden costs of energy. (That said, he doesn’t do a good enough job explaining how we are supposed to benefit if fossil fuels were priced to reflect their true social cost.)
On a somewhat more dour note, Kevin Drum penned the single crispest statement that I think I’ve seen on the difficulty of climate policy:
Climate change is the public policy problem from hell. If you were inventing a problem that would be virtually impossible to solve, you’d give it all the characteristics of climate change: it’s largely invisible, it’s slow moving, it’s expensive to fix, it requires global coordination, and its effects will be disproportionately borne by poor countries that nobody cares about.
Chain restaurants are providing healthier options on their menus, but are customers biting? Doesn’t look like it.
And while I share Eric de Place’s sentiments about the difficulties of solving climate change, here’s a wake-up call that may grab more people’s attention: our changing climate is threatening coffee and chocolate. How bad is it? Starbucks is looking into the juice market.