Glancing Out

Travels and musings about life, government, climate change, and more.
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“Everytime I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” -H.G. Wells

Environment:

Wind surpasses Nuclear in China - Grist - This was a shocker for me to read but serves as another wake up call for the United States to get their act together and compete with China. You can bet they do not have intentions to lose this “green” race.
China to introduce carbon tax - China Daily - Not sure how far we should take this?
Germany may ban fracking over environmental concerns - RT - Yet another country winning in the “green” race over the U.S. Germany would join a handful of countries that have banned the practice. Meanwhile, it is drill baby drill attitude stateside.
Bhutan first country to go 100% organic - NationofChange - Brings up a good point that “organic” food vs. “normal” food doesn’t make sense. “Organic” was the ONLY food for most of human history, but today it is “special.”
King corn mowed down 2 million acres of grassland in 5 years flat - Mother Jones - Much of the acres mowed down is low quality and highly prone to desertification. The reason for the risk taking is the exuberant profits, regulated by the government, that companies can make from producing corn.
Stick a fork in in: The American meat industry is ripe for a restart - Grist
Halve meat consumption, scientists urge rich world - The Guardian - The message is getting pretty clear. WE are overgrazing our land and a large reason is our excessive consumption of meat. I urge you to eat less meat as these scientists suggest. I even recommend giving it up entirely :)
Should you be worried about your meat’s phosphorus footprint? - NPR - Yet another reason….
The case for civil disobedience on climate - Treehugger
Carbon negative strategies emerging as global warming solution - Clean Technica
Chevron gets boost as Poland ease shale rules - Oil Price
Electric vehicles good for environment, save money - Clean Technica


Others:

The geography of happiness according to 10 million tweets - Atlantic - States that are more in touch with nature seem to be up on this list, am I wrong?
A company that runs prisons will have its name on a stadium - NYTimes - This is absolutely ridiculous.
Alcohol causes 20,000 cancer-related deaths in the U.S. each year - Think Progress
Why the bipartisan push for an online sales tax is the right move - Think Progress
This is how you healthcare: American death in London - Not Safe for Work Corporation

Thought of the day:

Many major civilizations throughout history have died out due to the overgrazing of land.

"The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just." - Abraham Lincoln (I know…two days in a row…but it fit so well)

Environment:

Grisly trend: Green Activists Are Facing Deadly Dangers - Yale Environment 360
Climate change is not an all or nothing proposition - Science Daily - This is potentially very important. One reason why Americans may not be doing anything about climate change is that they believe it to be an all or nothing type of phenomenon. We need to view it as a range of possibilities to feel that we have a power to change the course of the future. The researcher compares the concept to a two pack a day smoker; cutting back on a few cigarettes won’t matter at all, so the feeling is that we are basically screwed and there’s no point.
Why keystone matters. It’s not just a pipeline - Treehugger - It is principle. If we are ever going to stop destroying the planet, when are we going to begin?
Next Generation Lithium Ion Battery Designed, Should Hit Market Within 2-3 Years - Clean Technica
Fracking the countryside - MacroBusiness - There is a fantastic map that does a great job at visualizing the entire fracking process. Very informative.
Is there any room for varied approaches to energy and climate progress - NYTimes
Solar power cheaper than nuclear in cloudy old England - Clean Technica
Education for (environmental) liberation - We Are Power Shift - We need ideas in action like this.
Climate change’s costly wild weather consequences - Science Daily
Scientists explore new technologies that remove atmospheric carbon dioxide - Science Daily


Other:

The Educational Charities That Do PR for the Rightwing Ultra-rich - The Guardian - This is a must read piece.
It’s Official: The reds will run most of the obamacare exchanges - Washington Post - Pretty disappointing to see how politics are simply going to delay this…
Supreme Court To Hear Campaign Finance Donation Limit Challenge - Huffington Post - Looks to get EVEN WORSE.
North Korea Threatens South With Final Destruction - Reuters - Always a good laugh.
The astonishing growth of government spending on the poor - Atlantic - The key point here is that almost all of the spending can be attributed to healthcare costs.


Thought of the day:

What can society learn from baseball statistics? See my latest article here to find out!

While I was reading a column written by a widely read baseball author, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, I got this strange idea. What I have concluded, is that some stats used in baseball (specifically wins above replacement player) are doing a much better job at their intended purpose than MAINSTREAM statistics used to evaluate the economy (mainly gross domestic product). Wins above replacement player (WAR) is an all encompassing stat, while gross domestic product (GDP) is very limited. As you will see, I believe GDP can be more disastrous for us than you’d expect. First, let me give you a brief introduction.

Fangraphs is a trendy baseball site that features a wide array of statistics with the purpose of providing the best arsenal of analytical tools to tackle the game of baseball. The main concern with everyone involved with baseball; from the fans, the front offices, the managers and the players, is “value.” There is an entire “sabermetric” community on the web of fans, staticians, and former front office foes that are developing and improving methods to analyze this all important concept of “value.” There are hundreds of stats that have been developed over the past decade. If you are a true baseball fan, you know exactly what I am talking about. If you are not, then you may have been introduced to this phenomenon in the movie “Moneyball,” which dramatized the experience of one of the first teams to fully embrace these new stats. There is one stat in particular that has really gained mainstream awareness. As you can guess from the beginning of this article, that statistic is WAR. Here is what Fangraphs has to say about it,

“Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. You should always use more than one metric at a time when evaluating players, but WAR is pretty darn all-inclusive and provides a handy reference point. WAR basically looks at a player and asks the question, “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a minor leaguer or someone from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?” This value is expressed in a wins format, so we could say that Player X is worth +6.3 wins to their team while Player Y is only worth +3.5 wins.”

As it says, this stat attempts to be all inclusive. The formula consists of various different metrics that express base-running skills, offensive output, defensive value, positional adjustment, park factors, and etc. It truly is a well thought out and carefully crafted statistic.

Now that we have discussed a bit of the background of this new world of baseball analysis, let me get back to my story. In his article, Cameron was analyzing WAR. His main point was that people are starting to put TOO MUCH weight into the all inclusiveness of the stat. He emphasized that there are always more things to consider when formulating value. My thought immediately was, “Wow! Here is this incredible stat that really does a good job at putting everything together under a single digit, yet it is still not good enough!” Cameron also writes that there are too many instances where “WAR was used to end a discussion rather than promote one.”

So, how does this all relate to the economy and the content on this blog? Well, as any reader of my website thus far knows, I’ve been putting an awful lot of time into the environment and climate change. In fact, I believe it to be the most important issue of our generation. So, like I often do, I began thinking about it while reading this totally unrelated article. My thoughts centered on the economics profession and how our mainstream analysis of the economy is acting as an inhibitor towards real understanding of the world, the economy, the environment, and how they all interact with each other. Let me tell you why.

As you read above, Cameron points to some dissatisfaction with the fact that WAR is being used to end all discussion on player value. Now, if there is a stat that is doing this for the understanding of baseball, then there DEFINITELY is a stat that does this for the evaluation of the economy. The stat I’m speaking of now is GDP. The big difference between the two in this regard, is that WAR is already a wayyyyy better statistic than GDP.

In some ways, there is possibly not a more destructive number than GDP. We read it all the time, see it all the time, and use it all the time to compare nations and performance. If there is an end all conversation number in regards to the economy, this is it. Recessions begin and end by the reporting of this little digit. It is simply the main evaluation tool we use for the performance of a country (and the global economy). Yet why is it that in the United States, for example, GDP has risen three fold; while wages have been stagnant, the quality of life arguably has decreased, and inequality is at record levels? Not to mention maybe the most important fact, that it doesn’t account for all the environmental destruction our economies are causing the Earth, our home, to suffer through. There has to be some value in that, right?

The answer to these questions lie in the limitations of the stat itself. Where WAR is all encompassing, GDP is the opposite. GDP is essentially the total market value of all the goods consumed and produced in a given country. GDP per capita (primary stat used to show standard of living) is the total GDP divided by the number of people in the country. This fails to factor in the very important indicators described above. It fails to account for and value the environment, air, and the pollution that we pump into it. It doesn’t take into account economic inequality (which has been shown by research to correlate with many societal problems including life expectancy, environmental degradation, and crime). It doesn’t even factor in the health of the citizens inhabiting a given country. There are statistics that have been developed to account for these factors, but it is rarely reported in the mainstream.

It is always dangerous to look too far into one number, as Cameron points out about WAR, but at least WAR attempts to account for many different indications of value. GDP does not. Using GDP as the main indicator of value is like using the total number of runs a player scores as the main indicator of a players value. It wouldn’t make sense by any standard to do this. We need to do a better job at analyzing our economy. Furthermore, the entire scope of economics needs to be expanded on in the light of climate change, and the huge influence human production (GDP) has on it.

I am not a trained economist and do not have all the answers to all these questions. Also, I don’t mean to attack the entire economics profession, as I know that there are many economists that share this view I am presenting now. I think much needs to be done, however, and we need to do a better job at getting this out into the mainstream. There are some good numbers out there like the Human Development Index (HDI), a composite of life expectancy, income, and education indicators. This is a good statistic and one that should be cited more. However, it still isn’t good enough. We need a number like WAR that tries to account for these different factors of value. Somehow, we need something that connects our economy with environmental indicators. If we do this, we could more accurately gauge and evaluate human progress in an environmentally friendly, SUSTAINABLE manner. After all, without the environment in which we inhabit, there is no value.

We can’t continue to use GDP as the end all conversation figure. GDP can’t continue to grow forever. Doing something about climate change and maintaining our current form of economic growth (measured by GDP) is a zero sum game. GDP is going to have to suffer for there to be meaningful progress on climate change, and this doesn’t mean that the quality of life has to decrease or that the world needs to suffer a massive recession. Finally, once we arrive at a better statistic that encompasses these other indicators, we cannot fall in love with it, just as the baseball world cannot fully fall in love with WAR. Just as we need to use all the tools at our disposal when evaluating player value, we need to do the same with economic performance.

“Things may come to those who wait…but only the things left by those who hustle.” Abraham Lincoln

Environment and Climate:

Why is Gaia Angry With Me? - NYtimes - Study reveals that baby boomers have the most money AND the largest carbon footprints.
This Sounds Environmentally Friendly: Powering Whaling Ships on Whale Oil - Treehugger - The content is from the Guardian but the commentary here makes it much better.
Analysis of Greenland Ice Cores May Provide Glimpse Into Climate’s Future - Skeptical Science
Macquarie Group: Rooftop Solar Is Unstoppable - CleanTechnica
Greens push for 100% Renewables Plan for Western Australia - Reneweconomy - Gee I wish there was a Green Party with a voice where I’m from….
Fewer Bees in US a Threat to the World’s Almond Supply - Yahoo - I eat almonds everyday!
Guns for Bikes Exchange in Uruguay - Clean Technica
The Surprisingly Low-tech Solution to Big cities’ Climate Woes: Triple-pane Windows - Grist - In line with what I preach here at Glancing Out. We need to cut our daily consumption of energy. Insulation and more efficient heating is a step. We need to conserve!
The Tesla vs. News York Times Battle Obscures EV Affordability Issue - Clean Technica
Is Europe Next for a Shale Natural Gas Boom? - Oil Price - The article talks about how much this could add to “GDP” in the future for the global economy. See my piece here about why that is a very simplistic assessment of the impact this would have.

Others:

Equal opportunity, Our National Myth - Joseph Stiglitz - NYTimes Opinionator - Always a must read anything from Stiglitz
Genetically Modified Crops are Overregulated, food science expert says - Science Daily
Weekend Viewing: Shakespeare, For all Time - Jesse’s Cafe Americain


Question of the day:

Who is the worst president of all time?





The downward spiral of Congressional approval ratings reflects a general dissatisfaction with ‘politics as usual’ in Washington (has ranged from about 10-14% over the past few years). On a related note, the number of individuals identifying as ‘independents’ has increased from about 33% in 1980, to 40% currently. To be clear, when asked if they ‘lean’ towards a party, the number of ‘true’ independents plummets to about 10%. The important finding here is that almost half of voters prefer not to label themselves as either a Republican or a Democrat. Attempting to explain this dissatisfaction is an arduous task, as respondents, despite the low ratings of Congress as a whole, still generally are satisfied with their representative, as over 90% of incumbents typically win reelection (explanations for this range from parochialism, gerrymandering, to fundraising advantages). The point of this essay is not necessarily to explain the dissatisfaction with the two major parties in the American political system, but rather, examine the systematic impediments to expanding the number of options voters could have at their disposal when casting their vote. If 40% of the electorate prefers not to formally associate themselves with one of the two major parties, why are about 99% of elected officials in the US either a Republican or a Democrat? Why don’t more voters support 3rd or 4th party candidates? 

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Members of the research community have tackled this perplexing question from a variety of angles. The most obvious explanation centers on an institutional explanation, known as Duverger’s Law (Although Maurice Duverger often receives credit for coming up with the theory, it was first put forward in the late 19th century by Henry Droop, who analyzed electoral systems and their impact on the number of parties). Essentially, the Law explains that single-member district (SMD), plurality systems (as the US employs), tend to produce two parties as a result of mechanical and psychological effects. Third parties, even ones with relatively popular platforms, often fail to win a plurality of the vote in any district, leaving them with zero seats, despite having as much as 20% voter support (this is a common occurrence in the UK with the Liberal-Democratic Party). Realizing this, voters tend to ‘weed out’ smaller parties in favor of an ‘acceptable’ larger party with the hopes of preventing their least preferred party from winning the seat (the fear of ‘wasting’ your vote on an improbable candidate).

For instance, let’s say you are a Libertarian living in a moderately conservative district and three candidates are running for a congressional seat. Candidate A is a moderate Democrat, candidate B is a moderate Republican, and candidate C is a Libertarian (a pretty close description of what happened in the 2012 Montana Senate race). So the order of your preference is: C > B > A. However, you realize that by casting a vote for your preferred candidate, C, who is only polling at about 15%, you are increasing the likelihood of your least preferred candidate, A, of winning the seat, even though he is only polling at 40%. Realizing this development, you opt for candidate B, polling at 35%, with the intention of pushing him past candidate A (your least preferred candidate). This is essentially how mass parties, such as the Republicans and Democrats, have established themselves as ‘umbrellas’ in the US – they represent various causes and ideologies, all finding each other tolerable enough to coalesce under one party label. Although third parties have gained legitimacy in the US in the past, they have typically taken advantage of the inability of one of the existing parties to adequately address a pressing issue of the day, ultimately displacing it as one of the two major parties (as the Republicans did to the Whigs in the mid-19th century).

In the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader supporters faced this dilemma. Although Nader was the preferred candidate of about 16% of the electorate, he only received about 2.5% of popular vote that year. Many of his supporters voted strategically, realizing that they would prefer to vote for the ‘2nd choice’, Al Gore, rather than increase the likelihood that their least preferred candidate, George W. Bush, would be elected. Ross Perot voters were not quite as ‘strategic’ in their behavior, as he received an impressive 19% of the popular vote, while failing to tally a single electoral vote (he failed to win a plurality in any of the states, coming closest in Maine with a 38-30% loss to Clinton). In fact, in June of 1992, Perot led all candidates, polling at 39% in the general public, compared with 31% for George H.W. Bush and 25% for the eventual winner, Bill Clinton (that data regarding Perot’s supporters’ second choice is disputable however, as they were evenly divided when asked this question). 

So what are other countries doing that enables the proliferation of 3, 4, 5, or in some cases, dozens of parties? Well, the second half of Durverger’s Law explains that proportional representation systems (PR) enable multiple parties to emerge as a result of the lower threshold of support necessary to earn a seat in their respective legislatures. Rather than awarding only one member per district, as our system in the US does, PR systems delineate multiple seats in each district based on the percentage of popular votes received. Depending on the country, a party may need anywhere from 2-5% of the vote in order to qualify for representation, encouraging voters to support their first preference, regardless of the probability of gaining a plurality (there may still be some strategic voting in play if they are unsure if their preferred party can achieve the minimum threshold of support). Most countries employ some kind of PR, or mixed member proportional (MMP)– a hybrid of the two that retains SMD for the one chamber, yet employs PR for the lower house.

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Most democracies formed since the mid-19th century have opted for some kind of PR system, as the only remaining SMD countries are the UK and their former colonies (the US, Canada, Australia, India, and a handful of others - New Zealand switched from SMD to PR in the mid-1990s). When faced with the choice while determining the characteristics of their democracy, nations began to realize the many advantages PR provides over SMD. First, PR systems better reflect the ideological will of the people. The number of seats awarded to a party is generally dependent on the popular vote share achieved during the election (some bonus seats are often awarded to the top vote getters, but the effect is negligible). On the other hand, SMD systems typically overstate the support of the majority party, and consequently, understate the support of potential 3rd or 4th parties. For instance, in the 2005 election in the UK (SMD system), the Labor party received only 35% of the votes, yet was awarded 53% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Liberal-Democrats, on the other hand, received 22% of the popular vote, but only 9.5% of the seats in the legislature (predictably, they have been leading the electoral reform movement in the UK).

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Similarly, albeit less severe, in the 2012 House elections in the US, Republicans received about 48% of the popular vote, yet gained 54% of the total seats, while Democrats received 49% of the popular vote and only 46% of the seats (much of this can be attributed to gerrymandering, which would be ineffective in a PR system). 

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The contrast regarding the relationship between popular vote share and seat allocation between SMD and PR/MMP systems is stark. In Sweden, the Social Democratic Party received 30% of the votes and was awarded 32% of the seats (bonus seats from parties that failed to reach the 4% threshold). However, the rest of the parties are all within a half of a percentage point of their popular vote and seat allocation. The results are similar in Germany (MMP) and the Netherlands (lower threshold PR), where seats are often awarded to parties if they fail to adequately reflect popular vote share.

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A second advantage that PR systems provide is increasing the salience of issues citizens care deeply about - having multiple parties expedites progress in society by allowing certain issues to enter the national consciousness. The aforementioned Republican Party of the mid-19th century initially gained prominence when they officially became the anti-slavery party, among other progressive reforms. The allocation of seats to the Green Party in PR systems ensures that climate change will remain on the agenda of the national legislature. Here in the US, no issue is perhaps more symbolic of the need for a third party than the use of drone strikes. Regardless of one’s opinion on the policy, it is difficult to argue that the two candidates distinguished themselves from each other on the issue, as Mitt Romney finally found something he agreed with Obama on, “I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that policy.” If you were diligent enough (or just a political junkie), you may have tuned into Democracy Now’s minor parties’ debate, aired simultaneously to the major party debate to see all four of the candidates from the Green, Libertarian, Constitutionalist, and Justice Parties criticize the use of drone attacks as an instrument of foreign policy (and condemn the unpopular drug war). The point is, there are issues that Americans care deeply about that get little attention from lawmakers and the media in the US. Opening the door to minority parties would facilitate the expansion of the conversation on a number issues important to the Left and Right. 

Finally, rather than resorting to supporting the ‘lesser of two evils’, a PR system facilitates true ideological representation by aligning voters with like-minded candidates. This increases the level of efficacy felt by voters – they actually feel good about the person they cast a vote for, rather than being forced to calculate the odds of victory for their most preferred candidate, and strategically basing their vote on this probability. As a product of this efficacy, voter turnout is substantially higher in PR systems than in SMD. The US is around 50-60% during presidential years (about 35-40% during midterm elections), while Sweden and Germany have typically been in the 75-80% range. On a related note, PR systems have been observed to elect more minority and female candidates than SMD, as a result of the lower threshold required to elect someone to office. This makes the legislature as a whole more demographically similar of the electorate it aims represent. For a more lengthy discussion regarding the advantages of a PR system, here’s a pretty exhaustive analysis. 

Those who cling to the virtue of the SMD system typically rely on arguments centered on simplicity, moderation, and stability. They argue that adopting a PR or MMP system is too complicated, as voters are often forced to vote twice, possibly for a party instead of a candidate, or even a candidate from a long list created by the party leaders (kind of insulting that other countries’ citizens can figure it out, but not your own). Although the elections would emphasize party platforms over candidate characteristics, the normative implications of this are mixed at best. Is it not more ideal for a democracy to base one’s vote on the policy stances a candidate will adhere to once in office, rather than superficial qualities (charisma, speaking ability, attractiveness) that dominate American elections?

Proponents of SMD systems further argue that PR systems produce candidates who are too extreme, providing undue influence to hate-mongering parties in Europe. While it is true that parties like the Netherlands’ xenophobic ‘Party for Freedom’ managed to gain nine seats in the 2006 election (5th most), their influence on policy, however, is limited. Although I previously argued that allowing minor parties a platform as a positive feature, increasing the salience of an issue should not be confused with having the ability to actually formulate policy that has a chance of passage. A party’s platform still must pass some kind of ‘reasonability threshold’ in order for the governing party or coalition to consider proposing it. Furthermore, the US is regarded as one of the most ‘pure’ two party systems, yet recent trends in the Republican Party can hardly be characterized as a move towards moderation. While the election of more extreme members may not be a systematic feature of SMD, this development in the US demonstrates that it is neither a safeguard against such candidates from winning elections (yes, I’m referring to you Michelle Bachmann and Allen West). 

Finally, many argue that SMD systems provide a greater degree of stability, accountability, and decisiveness compared to PR systems. While it seems intuitive that a government ruled by a single party would be more decisive and accountable, and thus more stable, the academic findings in this regard are inconclusive. Stability in a country is largely dependent on specific characteristics of the PR ultimately employed, but not necessarily PR in itself. Furthermore, coalitions have plenty of incentive to remain decisive and effective at governing, as a breach of this agreement would likely leave all of the coalition partners out of power. Major discrepancies in decisiveness and accountability are more likely to be attributed to separation of powers vis`-a-vis´ parliamentary systems. In the US, with its separation of powers system, it is often difficult for voters to adequately attribute blame for the current state of affairs when the President and Congress are different parties (there seems to be considerable disagreement regarding Obama’s divisiveness and Republican obstructionism – who you believe is largely a reflection of your ideology, but not necessarily reality). Moreover, providing the minority party institutional mechanisms (filibuster) to prevent the majority party from enacting policy, stalemate, rather than compromise, often ensues. These last two issues, however, are not inherently either the PR or SMD systems (neither the UK nor Canada have these gridlock problems because they have parliamentary systems, as opposed to the separation of powers we seem so proud of in the US). 

So, now that we’ve established the superiority of PR systems over the current SMD system in the US, what exactly would a PR or MMP system look like in the US? Well, based on the limitations of the Constitution, it may be difficult to employ a full-PR system. However, some kind of MMP system in which the election of senators remains largely unchanged, while altering the nature of House elections is certainly plausible. There are dozens of possibilities; I’ll outline what I believe to be a reasonable option: 

We have a completely nationally elected House of Representatives. This means that the number of seats would remain unchanged (435 total), but the allocation would not depend on who won individual districts, but rather which party received the highest percentage of votes nationally (as long as they achieve, say 4% of the national popular vote). For example, let’s say that 16% of people vote for the Green Party - they would be awarded about 69 seats (16% of 435, rounded down). Next, if the Libertarians receive 20% of the popular vote nationally, they would be awarded 87 seats. It’s possible the Democrats still receive about 35% of the vote (152 seats), and Republicans receive 26% of the vote (113 seats). This leaves about 3% of seats unaccounted for (small parties that failed to reach the 4% threshold), and those seats would be awarded to the party receiving the highest vote share, in this case the Democrats (which gives them 14 additional seats, bringing their total to 166). The Democrats would then likely form some sort of coalition with the Green Party in order to give them a majority of the seats (166 + 69 = 235. 218 seats are needed for a majority - 51% of 435). 

It’s important to keep in mind that this is a hypothetical situation, and it’s difficult to speculate exactly how many parties would be able to clear the 4% threshold. In some countries (Netherlands) where the threshold is 1%, dozens of parties earn representation. A 4-5% threshold, however (Sweden, Germany), may yield anywhere from 5-8 parties, depending on pre-existing social cleavages that are pronounced enough to facilitate the creation of a formal political party. In time, it’s highly probable that more than the four parties I discussed would end up receiving representation; I merely took the primary faction from the Republican and Democratic Party and turned it into a formal party in order to demonstrate how seat allocation would work. 

The disadvantages to this plan: citizens would no longer receive geographical representation from their member of congress (which they would still receive from their Senators); you have less say in the specific candidate(s) you elect to congress (although it would provide some kind of list system in which voters are involved in determining the order in which candidates are chosen to represent their party – Sweden does this and it works quite well).

The advantages to this plan: congress is much more representative of the people they are creating policy for - in many respects ideological representation is much more desirable than geographical representation (what do I care if my representative fights for my ‘district’s interest’ if I disagree with his entire outlook on the world?); it essentially rids of the system of the ‘orphan voter’ problem (Democrats in conservative districts and Republicans in liberal districts who have never once voted for the winning candidate in their district). 

You may be asking yourself, is this system essentially what we have now – the progressive faction of the Democratic Party coalescing with the moderates and the Tea Party caucus making their presence felt among the Republican establishment? In many respects, yes, coalitional systems, in a practical sense, work similarly to ‘factions’ cooperating in two-party systems. As outlined previously, however, representing these views with formal parties enables relevant issues see the light of day. For advocates of progressive policy, ending the drug war or instituting single-payer healthcare have become lost causes because the Democratic establishment has failed to make it a priority (or passed a rather disappointing healthcare reform law). If they were forced to form a coalition with the Green Party, these issues would remain on the agenda. The same could be said for those on the Right who hopelessly cling to the Republican Party, despite the fact that they prefer more of a Libertarian-minded isolationist position regarding foreign policy matters, and would like to see and end to corporate bailouts. 

So, where do we go from here? Why has nobody attempted to reform the political system in the past? 

Various reforms have been attempted in American history, albeit mostly at the local level and not nearly as drastic as the one outlined here. During the ‘Progressive Era’ of the early 20th century, for example, efforts were made to ‘diversify’ the party structures of various cities that were dominated by single-party and often corrupt ‘political machines’. A relatively unknown organization, the Proportional Representation League, had modest success at the city level, eventually passing PR reform in about two dozen cities across the US, including New York in 1936. Various researchers have examined the effects of the reforms, and found that it produced fairer and more proportional representation of political ideologies in relation to the electorate, while eliminating the tendency of SMD systems to exaggerate the seats allocated to the largest party (and underrepresenting minor parties). The research further indicates that levels of corruption decreased, as independently-minded candidates were less beholden to party bosses once in office. Despite the relative success of the PR reforms, almost all of them were eventually reversed due to racist fear tactics and Cold War Communist witch hunts. Here’s a little taste of Kolesar’s 1997 study that explains PR’s demise: 

Although deriving from the Progressive era of electoral reform, with the political realignment of the New Deal, and continuing through and immediately after World War II, there was a surge of interest in the use of PR. By the early 1960s, however, PR had been repealed in almost all the jurisdictions which used it (only Cambridge, Massachusetts, retained it beyond then). In the Cold War period opponents of PR successfully stigmatized PR as “un-American.” They frankly argued that PR—”this Stalin Frankenstein” as Tammany Hall called it—should be abolished in order to prevent the election of Communists. Furthermore, as African-American political candidates increasingly seemed to benefit from PR, charges that PR fostered racial bloc voting became increasingly important. As a result, by the 1960s PR had been eliminated as an electoral system within the United States, except as a curiosity. 

So there you have it. PR was defeated in the US due to its ‘Un-Americanness’. Does that argument ever get old? Anyway, any revival of the movement will probably have to come at the local level, just as it did nearly 100 years ago. Some cities are tinkering with the idea again, and only time will tell if the idea catches on nationally. The collective willingness of Democrats and Republicans to blockade third party efforts certainly doesn’t help matters (unreasonably high threshold requirements for ballot access, not allowing minor party candidates to participate in debates). Apparently, preventing genuine minor parties from forming is the one issue Republicans and Democrats can agree on – well that and the virtue of drone attacks. 

Even if PR seems unattainable for House elections, adopting some kind of single transferrable vote (STV) system for the presidential election would be enormously beneficial in providing a voice for minority parties and their causes. This would eliminate the ‘strategic voter’ dilemma faced by Green and Libertarian Party supporters, as they could vote for their first preference free from fear that they are enabling the victory of their least preferred candidate. While it may fail to alter the who ends up winning the election in the end, it would provide a voice to issues that lack adequate attention during the election cycle (and force the media to actually cover them). There’s a reason electoral reform receives little attention from the media. They are beholden to the institutionalization of the two-party system – they prefer to keep things simple for their viewers, and framing the election as a two-candidate ‘horse race’, in their view, is the best way to keep ratings up. However, for the sake of democracy, we need to stop treating political ideology as a simplistic, dichotomous choice between two parties who continue to perpetuate harmful status-quo policies, while preventing voters from expressing their views more effectively. Adopting a PR electoral system may not cure all of society’s ills, but it sure would be a good start.  


"I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone." Bill Crosby (and my message to the president)

Climate and Environment:

Obama’s Threat to Act Unilaterally on Climate Change? Looking Empty - Grist. This is a very discouraging assessment, but one that I also predicted was the case before I even saw the State of the Union.
A Glimpse at Our Possible Future Climate, Best to Worst Case Scenerio - Skeptical Science - A very informing, must read piece!
Flood Research Shows Human Habits Die Hard: Few Make Plans to Cut Vulnerability - Science Daily - This is totally relevant to climate change. I agree that habits are hard to change, but once over the initial breaking point, new habits are easy to form.
‘Drill, Baby, Drill’ Fails: Why Gasoline Prices Remain High Despite Oil Boom - Think Progress - And the Keystone XL pipeline will do nothing to help prices, either.
A War Without End, With Earth’s Carbon Cycle Held in the Balance - Science Daily
Doubling U.S. Energy Productivity Could Boost Job Creation, the Economy, Health and the Environment - Clean Technica
This Valentine’s Day, Buy Slave Free Chocolate - Treehugger - And it’s way more delicious.
Matt Damon Boycott’s Toilet’s - Treehugger - This is kind of funny.
Study Questions Eco-benefit of Vegetarian Diet; We Question Study - Grist - I really enjoy this site. Well written, witty, and has the right agenda. This article in particular points out one of the main reasons to be a vegetarian.

Other Links:

Close Approach Asteroid Worth $200 Billion - Science Daily
Where the US Top 5% Live - Global Society Blog
You Should Be Outraged By What is Being Done to Our Postal System - See the Forest
Why It should Be Just as Hard to Get a Gun as it is to Get Cold Medicine - Think Progress
U.S. Banks Attack Europe’s Tobin Tax - Telegraph - Of course they do! Because it would harm Wall Street and help everything else.
Early Facebook, LinkedIn Backer Bets Big on Nextdoor with $15M - Bloomberg - Why didn’t I think of this? Potentially a very useful social network.
Obama DOJ again refuses to Tell a Court Whether CIA Drone Program Even Exists - Genn Greenwald - This is getting laughable.

Thought of the day:

I always feel pressed for time. Sitting back in the shadows while the climate changes is becoming a heavier weight by the day.

I’m upset by recent comments from the U.S. Drug Czar. As many of you know, Washington and Colorado recently voted in measures to legalize marijuana in both states. This was a large step in the direction to ending some of the most destructive policies our nation has embarked upon in the past century. It was a large step for the effort to end drug crime and related violence in America. It was even a large step in taking power away from the Mexican drug cartels that have wreaked havoc upon the nation (over 50,000 murders in 5 years), while spreading some of that violence throughout the American south. This large step had to take yet another step backwards when we learned that the federal government will “continue to see enforcement against distributors and large-scale growers as the Justice Department has outlined” in those two states.

We at Glancing Out strongly support the end to the ‘war on drugs.’ This war has cost us billions upon billions of dollars, has led to the greatest prison population this world has ever seen, and is causing tremendous sorts of human suffering. Many of the problems with drugs that we face today are not from the drugs themselves, but from the drug policies. One example includes the rampant poverty and petty criminals that run the streets. Many of these criminals are drug addicts with nowhere to go to cure their sickness other than the criminal drug dealers (I’m not referring to marijuana here, as we will see that shouldn’t even be mentioned in this so called war). Drug dealers are the last people we need addicts to turn to when they need mental support. The addicts pay extremely high prices for drugs that they feel they need. These prices are inflated by the flourishing black market. Addicts cannot supply their habit with any kind of salary due to these prices (unless you work on Wall Street), so they turn to crime. This is the life of the street running drug addict. Now, we don’t need to have this situation. We could be taking a more treatment based approach, while decriminalizing or legalizing some or all of the drugs. A treatment based approach would allow addicts and problem users to seek out real help, help that they currently avoid out of fear of going to prison. Prison isn’t helping them either. Once in prison, you have a greater chance of BECOMING a drug addict yourself rather than being helped.

We will get to more of that in the future, but for the sake of this post, any such change in our drug policies has to begin with vast changes to marijuana laws. Two states have made the effort, supported by the will of the people, and they must be allowed to continue what they are doing. As I said, marijuana shouldn’t even be placed in the same sentence with other illegal drugs. It has no addictive properties, has been shown to be beneficial for health, and has been shown that it could even replace many of the dangerous, addictive prescription medications. It is much less of a problem than alcohol is, both in terms of health and behavior. Alcohol is disastrous for human health if abused, and problem users tend to become more violent. Marijuana has been shown to have an opposite effect in both instances. Given this, I don’t see any reason that marijuana should not be regulated in the same light as alcohol. If anything, alcohol should have HEAVIER regulations placed on it than marijuana.

The best thing that the Obama administration and the Drug Czar could do at this point is what the majority of Americans also believe, leave the states alone!!  America is built upon experimentation in the states. Nothing could go wrong with allowing these two states to test out this idea. I’m convinced that the experiment would prove successful, and many states will follow. The ONLY people that benefit from our current drug policies are the government agencies (increased funding to drug enforcement) and the criminals (who make insane profits through the black market). A change in drug policy can solve more than one problem. We can cut into the deficit by reducing spending on prisons and law enforcement, and it would of course greatly improve crime. As they said in “The Wire,” police can get back to doing real police work.

Many pundits applauded the President’s State of the Union Address as a liberal call to action on a number of issues. I disagree – it was much too timid of a response to Republican obstructionism during his first term. President Obama spent his entire first term trying to make friends with people who had no interest being his friend. He should spend his second term aggressively pursuing an agenda that the majority of voters elected him to do. A brief encapsulation of what I would suggest his SOTU should have sounded like:

"Look, we understand how to solve a lot of the problems we are facing today, from unemployment, environment, education, and human rights. You guys out there - no not you in the Chamber here tonight - Americans out there, made it pretty clear whose solutions you prefer to solve these problems. I was elected with a healthy 4% margin - and I’ve got a job to do. Boehner and his Republican friends in the House may think their majority reflects the will of the people. That’s nonsense, and they know it. Democrats received over a million more votes than Republicans in the House, yet the Tea Party caucus continues their strategy of obstruction, preventing the will of the people from becoming actual policy. Guess what guys? This is my second term - I’m not going anywhere. If you guys want to continue to oppose everything I support, fine, but it will be to the detriment of the future of the Republican party. You guys invented Cap and Trade, first proposed the healthcare mandate, hell, the Dream Act was co-sponsored originally by Orin Hatch in 2001. When I throw my support behind these ideas, you guys run for the hills. Look, according to the Economic Policy Institute, if my Job’s Bill would have been passed into law it would have created 1.9 million new jobs, lowering unemployment by a full percentage point, while increasing the GDP by 2%. I realize it’s in your interest to see me fail, even if that means the economy fails, but enough is enough. My second term is going to be different. We’re moving forward, with or without you guys on climate change, bank regulation, gun control, and most importantly, tax reform. I’m looking forward to starting fresh with negotiations this spring. – I’m out." (drops microphone and walks out of a silent House Chamber without even looking at anyone as he leaves the room).

It’s a little more adversarial than his actual speech, and I think pundits’ heads would explode from his directness. It would set the tone for his second term in a much more effective way than his ‘post-partisan’ speeches typically do. Liberals would rejoice, while conservatives would at least respect his honesty. They haven’t embraced ‘nice Obama’; it’s time for him to introduce them to ‘getting shit down Obama’. 

"We must do more to combat climate change." - Barack Obama


I’ll begin with the President’s State of the Union Address that happened last night. A lot of environmentalists around the web seem to be quite pleased with the president’s speech. He did, in fact, spend a good amount of time talking about climate change, even mentioning it a whole three times! He made a direct threat to congress that “If congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” Joe Romm has the key climate segment of the speech outlined on Think Progress for you to take a look at.

So, there were some good aspects to it. With that being said, it still fell well short of what we need. Understanding where we came from (no action at all), it is a huge step. However, given the grave implications of this problem, we can never be satisfied. There is truly not a more pressing problem. We need a national policy centered completely around climate change. We need a massive infrastructure endeavor greater than or equal to the war effort that brought us out of the great depression. We need way more ambitious goals than just a 17% cut in carbon emissions by 2020. We need high speed rail, scores of homes with solar panels, and offshore wind power generation. We need this issue to be the climax and focal point of State of the Union Addresses (not to take anything away from the segment on gun control). We need climate change to be mentioned 30 times, not 3 times. We need to link our job creation goals with our climate goals.

Finally, we need to say goodbye to the fossil fuel industry. This must start with Obama saying no to the Keystone XL pipeline. They cannot dictate policy anymore. In fact, the future is not bright for traditional energy and fossil fuel companies. A future for both planet Earth and heavy polluters does not exist. So, if we desire the former, we might as well stop allowing these rich, old white men to extract every last penny out of the Earth as they can. They have enough. This must start with Obama saying no to the Keystone XL pipeline.

Keeping it positive, Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer plan to introduce a climate bill to the Senate that includes a carbon tax. This is what we want!
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Now to a reason why I feel this way with some new scientific research. Currently there is thousands of years worth of permafrost carbon stored under the arctic. If the ice melts down to the level of the stored permafrost, then it will be released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. That, of course, is the invisible gas responsible for that phenomenon we keep talking about called climate change. Scientists have been debating how big of an effect the release of this permafrost gas would have on the warming of the planet. A new study from the University of Michigan points to some worrying signs. You can read the rest here, but I’ll include a quote to give you an idea of the potential seriousness of this new finding.

Tremendous stores of organic carbon have been frozen in Arctic permafrost soils for thousands of years. If thawed and released as carbon dioxide gas, this vast carbon repository has the potential to double the amount of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas in the atmosphere on a timescale similar to humanity’s inputs of carbon dioxide due to the burning of fossil fuels.”

That must be the worst case scenario, but I’m not sure the world could sustain that. The problem is that there are multitudes of “worst case scenarios.”  So it might be smart to do something about this, don’t you think?
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My goal with Glancing Out is to both speak it how it is, and be persuasive at the same time. Some may not be ready for the lifestyle changes that I propose, but I hope that by modeling my own life around them and writing as much as possible, I can show everyone that it is possible to make the changes that are necessary for the future. This next thought is one of those things that people may not be ready to hear. Frankly, we have to get smaller and I’m not just talking about our body sizes, I’m talking about our home sizes. They have been too big for a long time and they are currently getting even larger. So much bigger, in fact, that size increases have counteracted all advances in home efficiency. I don’t quite know how the country is going to downsize as there are SO many over-sized, unsustainable homes, but it is a serious problem, and one that needs to be addressed.

Others Links:

6 Game Changing Ideas in the State of the Union - Think Progress
Kids Teach Parents to Respect the Environment - Science Daily
Obama Can’t Change Polarization on Climate Change - Grist
China’s Smog is Becoming an International Issue - Oil Price
New Solar Technology Could Revolutionize the Industry - Oil Price
North Dakota’s Red-Hot, Frack-Fueled Economy Is Starting to Slow Down - Grist
Will Bold Steps Be Needed to Save the Beleaguered Polar Bears - Yale Environment 360
Food Crisis Update: Main Drivers of Price Volatility Still Not Addressed - Triple Crisis
Your ‘Sustainable’ Fish May Actually Not Be Sustainable, Like, At All - Grist
Super-Sized Americans Need the Choice of Fewer Fries - Bloomberg
China Overtakes U.S. in World Trade - The Guardian

Thought of the day:

We need to do something about food.

Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” - Thomas Jefferson

I hope everyone had a fantastic Lunar New Year. I know that many out West hardly notice this holiday come and go, but back East, it is kind of a big deal. In Korea, it is one of the biggest holidays of the year. I spent my time off reading and drinking lots of coffee but took a break from writing. Anyways, here’s what was happening to the environment over the holiday and into the morning.
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President Obama recently said in an interview that we “need some big technological breakthrough” to tackle climate change. Amory Lovins, writing at the Huffington Post, pretty much destroys that assessment. We have the ability to meet most (if not all) of our energy demand through renewable energy sources. We have shown that renewable energy is ALREADY cheaper than coal and gas (see here and here). One of the problems is that governments continue to subsidize the oil and gas industries. Companies are raking in hundreds of billions of dollars in profits, yet we continue to provide massive subsidies to them (U.S. provides between 4-5 billion dollars annually in subsidies).

Another reason (in the U.S.) is that there is a giant bureaucratic hurdle in place that treats a simple solar panel installation as if it is the construction of a giant power plant. This has resulted in administrative costs that are literally tens of times higher than they are in Germany (you can see a price chart comparison provided by Clean Technica here, as well as other lessons that we can learn from Germany). The point is that there is a lot of little things that we can be doing to make this work rather easily. It will not require a giant technological breakthrough as the technology has been around for a very long time. It is time for some action from our leaders. Obama has said a lot of things and we know he concerned about his legacy and what people will think of him, but he should take some advice from Thomas Jefferson above. He can start by standing up to the Keystone XL pipeline.
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Global wind capacity grew 20% worldwide in 2012 and nearly double in the past two years. The chart shown here by the Guardian shows a very promising trend. We can only hope that this keeps speeding up. A lot of this capacity comes from Europe. The difference in what news I find coming out of the U.S. and coming out of Europe is substantial. America needs to be doing a much better job (and Canada too for that matter).

Others:

How Does Fracking Differ From Conventional Oil Recovery - Oil Price
The Scary Truth About How Much Climate Change is Costing You - National Journal
My 1,700 Mile Hike Across the XL Pipeline - Salon
How Do You Explain Drone Killings? With Post-Orwellian “Newspeak” - Salon
Horsemeat Found in British Supermarkets ‘May Be Donkey’ - The Independent
Indian Soybean Farmer Sees Monsanto Lawsuit Reach Supreme Court - Guardian
Unchecked Antibiotic Use in Animals May Affect Global Human Health - Science Daily
Study Confirms Tea Party Was Created by Big Tobacco and Pollutocrat Kochs - Think Progress
Kids Concentrate Better When They Bike to School - Grist
The Housing Bubble Should Not Have Been Hard to See - CEPR
Dogs May Understand Human Point of View - Science Daily
It’s Fast Food Fish — and No, It’s Not Sustainable - Grist
Apple Granted Patent for New Solar Powered iPhone - Oil Price

Thought of the Day:

Reporter Greg Palast asks a very simple question. Why are we building a pipeline from Canada all the way down to Texas, the state where most of America’s oil comes from?