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06.28 Rational Talk About The Budget

Monday, June 28th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



If anything comes through loud and clear about Saturday's America Speaks National Town Meeting on the federal budget, it's this: the American people can still grapple with complicated, even daunting, issues, and come to solid conclusions.

After last year's rough-and-tumble town hall meetings on health care, some people may have doubted whether civil discussion of complicated issues is even possible anymore. Yet some 3,500 people from all walks of life took time out on a weekend to spend more than six hours talking about the federal budget. The topic's not easy, and neither are the solutions.

Forums in 19 cities around the country came together, discussed the problem in a civil manner, and wrestled with no less than 42 options for addressing our long-term budget problems. They came up with some fascinating conclusions, such as:

  • Raise the limit on taxable (Social Security) earnings so it covers 90% of total earnings.
  • Reduce spending on health care and non-defense discretionary spending by at least 5%
  • Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million
  • Raise the age for receiving full Social Security benefits to 69
  • Reduce defense spending by 10% – 15%
  • Create carbon and securities-transaction taxes

You can find out more about the national town meetings here. The event was organized by America Speaks, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. (The MacArthur Foundation is also funding Our Fiscal Future).

So civil discussion is possible – but it does have to be structured. The "open-mike night" atmosphere of many public forums can easily turn into just a way to express anger, without any discussion of solutions. In the public engagement approach used by Public Agenda, as well as the related strategies used by America Speaks and other groups, deliberative forums are designed to let people weigh the costs and tradeoffs behind each option, and make informed choices between them.

The National Town Meeting shows we can still have a productive discussion, even on the toughest issues – and that's what we're going to need, if we're going to solve our budget problems in a way that lets us both pay our bills and preserve our values.

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06.25 Getting From Magical To Practical

Friday, June 25th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



Americans are ready to change the nation's energy policy – but are they ready to do what it takes to get there?

Nearly all Americans think energy policy is broken, with nine in 10 who say it needs either "fundamental changes" or should be "completely rebuilt," according to a new CBS/New York Times survey. Clearly, there's a consensus that change is needed.

But what kind of change? In the same survey, 59 percent said it was at least "somewhat likely" that the United States will develop an alternative to oil within the next 25 years. But half (51 percent) said they would oppose raising gas taxes to pay for developing renewable energy, rising to 65 percent when a tax of $1 per gallon was mentioned.

The poll results are not that different from what Public Agenda found in our Energy Learning Curve™ public opinion research, which revealed a great deal of consensus on solutions, and at the same time, a strong sense that anything that increases the cost of driving is off the table for the public.

The challenge for leaders will be how to move the public from supporting change to backing practical steps to make it happen. Increasing the cost of driving isn't the only option for changing how we get energy, but all the options require choices on both technology and economics. The CBS/Times survey shows one bargain the public isn't willing to make. Now we have to find the bargains that will fly.

To learn more about the choices we face, check out Who Turned Out The Lights? Your Guided Tour To The Energy Crisis and join the discussion on Facebook and on @TheEnergyBook, our energy feed on Twitter.

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06.17 Real Change On Energy

Thursday, June 17th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



In his first Oval Office speech, President Obama tried to channel frustration over the Gulf oil spill into momentum for changing U.S. energy policy, calling for new action to promote clean energy and reduce dependence on foreign oil. The president compared changing the nation's energy use to the buildup for World War II, or the drive to put a man on the moon.

In a recent blog posting, I observed that in those cases the public may however have had a much firmer grasp of both the challenge and the choices facing the nation. The public has a "Learning Curve™" to climb on complicated issues, as people work through what they think and what they're willing to do. Americans can do this on energy as they have before on many other thorny issues, but before we do, there are a couple of challenges to get past.


Rescuing oiled pelicans in Barataria Bay, La. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class John Miller)

One is that significant numbers of Americans lack key information about how we use energy. Four in 10, we've found on our surveys, can't name a fossil fuel, and roughly half can't name a renewable energy source. Although most people are aware that it'll take a while for alternative energy to really take hold, most also overestimate how much renewable energy we use now.

In fact, the United States gets 80 percent of its energy from fossil fuels – and the government's own projections say we'll still get getting 80 percent of our energy from fossil fuels in 2030, unless we take steps to change.

The second challenge is helping the public grasp the choices we face. The Deepwater spill (USCG photo, above: rescuing oiled pelicans in Barataria Bay, La.) has made the risks and tradeoffs involved in offshore drilling abundantly clear. But the tradeoffs involved in moving away from oil are more complicated.

Do we want to continue putting something liquid in our tanks, like biofuels or natural gas? Do we want to move to electric cars? Are we willing to pay more to do either? Any of these alternatives require big changes – after all, there are 250 million motor vehicles in the U.S., and almost all of them run on oil.

These are choices that divide and even flummox the experts. But making choices doesn't have to be left to the experts – and on this issue, more than most, it's the public that has to choose. To learn more about the choices we face, check out Who Turned Out The Lights? Your Guide To The Energy Crisis and join the discussion on Facebook and on @TheEnergyBook, our energy feed on Twitter.

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06.17 The Higher Ed Balancing Act

Thursday, June 17th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



A new report on work and education underscores a key irony in higher education: too many students have trouble getting the degree they'll need for jobs in the future because they're too busy working at the job they have now.

Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce reported this week that the number of jobs requiring an associates' degree or more will grow faster than the pool of qualified people, to the tune of a three-million-worker shortfall by 2018. People who drop out, or even those with just a high school education, will increasingly find themselves left behind in the marketplace, the center said.

Yet Public Agenda's research has found one reason for the nation's dismal college completion rate is the difficult juggling act so many students have to perform between work, school and family responsibilities. In our survey of young adults, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, we found more than half of those who left higher ed before completing a degree say that the "need to work and make money" while attending classes is the major reason they left.

Balancing work and school was an even bigger barrier than finding money for tuition. In fact, those who dropped out are almost twice as likely to cite problems juggling work and school as their main problem as they are to blame tuition bills (54 percent to 31 percent).

And those who do drop out may not fully realize the impact that failing to get a degree will have on their future. As a group they are less likely to "strongly agree" that their parents always instilled in them the importance of college, that people who have a college degree make more money and that they would still go to college if they knew they could get a good job without a degree.

So what do these young people say would help? Making college more convenient to those on busy schedules, such as offering evening and weekend classes, and helping part-time students get financial aid. Find out more about the report, prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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06.10 Beyond Deepwater: Energy & The Environment

Thursday, June 10th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



Surveys are showing that the longer the Deepwater spill goes on, the less the public likes offshore drilling – but in that case, where does the energy debate go from here?

That's a key backdrop to the maneuvering around an energy bill, and a Senate vote today on whether the EPA should be allowed to regulate greenhouse gases like other pollutants. It's safe to say the public isn't focused on those questions: the spotlight is instead on the frustrating news out of the Gulf of Mexico.

It's perhaps no surprise that support for offshore drilling has fallen from 62 percent in 2008, after gas prices hit $4 per gallon, to only 40 percent now, according to a CBS News poll. An ABC/Washington Post survey found support for more drilling dropping from 64 percent last August to 52 percent now.

More surprising, however, is the change in how people see the broader tradeoff between energy and the environment. Since 2007, as energy prices rose, a Gallup poll found more people favoring energy production over environmental protection. It's also pretty typical for people to favor economic concerns in general over the environment during a recession. As recently as March, Gallup found 50 percent who said finding more energy should be a bigger priority, compared to 43 percent who said protecting the environment should be the priority. By May, that had changed to 55 percent who said the environment should be the priority, and 39 percent who favored production.

So what now? The fundamental energy challenge is that the United States, and the world, will need both more energy and cleaner energy. Surveys, including our own research, suggest there are strong areas of public consensus for a new energy policy. But will we grasp onto them? To join the discussion, check out Who Turned Out The Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis and our energy issues Facebook site and Twitter feed.

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05.27 The Budget: More Inside Baseball

Thursday, May 27th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



This has been a big week for the federal budget – if you can actually follow what they're talking about.

The news has been dominated by the jobs bill, a new twist on the line-item veto that is, not at all helpfully, called "rescission," and a Medicare "doc fix" that infuriates many in the policy world but is sure to fly under the radar for most people. There's an argument to be made that all of these are important, but it's "inside baseball," to say the least. In fact the ultimate in baseball-related confusion is actually easier to follow. And funnier.

Meanwhile, European countries are trying to control the debt crisis that started in Greece by imposing fiscal austerity measures – which at least raise the kind of values questions that people can engage with. Is it more important to stimulate the economy or control national debt? What should the priorities be in government?

That's why the Choosing Our Fiscal Future report focused on four paths to achieve a sustainable budget, ranging from a big-government, high-spending approach to a small-government, low-spending approach. Each path requires different choices and different priorities, and each path could work. Choices also lie at the heart of Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances budget initiative.

Setting priorities and finding common ground will be fundamental to the nonpartisan National Town Meeting planned for June 26. Our Fiscal Future is partnered with America Speaks: Our Budget, Our Economy, to bring thousands of Americans together to weigh in on the choices involved in getting the budget on track.

Find out how you can participate in the town meeting. Public Agenda is a partner in Our Fiscal Future, and you can follow us on Facebook and @Fiscal Future on Twitter.

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05.27 Stopping and Starting on Energy

Thursday, May 27th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



It's a day for stopping things on energy policy. Initial reports say BP's stream of mud has halted the disastrous Gulf oil spill (at left: the cleanup in Louisiana), but it's too soon to say if this fix will hold. President Obama meanwhile has announced a six-month halt to new drilling permits while a special panel examines the rig accident.


The oil spill cleanup, near Grand Isle, Louisiana.

But one thing that we've all learned in the past few weeks is that it's much easier to start an oil spill than to stop one – and much easier to stop an energy policy than to get one moving. Witness, for example, the prospects for energy and climate legislation, which have dimmed as the Gulf spill upsets the delicate web of political compromises built into the bill. At the same time, public support for drilling remains high, even as people follow news of the spill closely.

Yet there are opportunities as well, as shown by the administration's move to improve fuel-efficiency standards on cars, and extend them to heavy trucks as well. And there should be an opportunity for a better discussion on the broader energy issues we face. Deciding whether or not offshore drilling is too risky is just one piece of a very large puzzle.

Oil means transportation, and we import nearly 60 percent of what we need. And of course, oil produces greenhouse gases. There are alternatives to oil, and Nissan says already has 19,000 orders for its new Leaf electric car. That's a promising start, but there are 250 million motor vehicles on American roads. It's going to take a while for new options to take hold, which means that we're going to be using oil for a long time to come.

Part of the challenge is putting the options and the realities on the table. In the end, there aren't so many choices on energy, and the pros and cons of each are pretty clear. It's having the conversation that's the real problem. It's that opportunity – the chance to have the public weigh alternatives and move up the "learning curve" on this problem – that needs to be seized.

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05.20 The Anxiety Factor In Foreign Policy

Thursday, May 20th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



There's no shortage of reasons to feel tense about foreign affairs this week, especially on the Korean peninsula, where South Korea accused North Korea today of torpedoing one of its warships. Even before then, however, there was a grim milestone in Afghanistan, a push for new sanctions on Iran, and the continuing European debt crisis.

But will this move foreign policy up the public's priority list? It's possible, but context is everything in public opinion, and it's worth remembering what else is on the public's mind right now.

Surveys have consistently found that the economy is the public's primary concern, and has been since the financial crisis broke in 2008. In recent days, domestic issues like the Gulf oil spill have been the most-followed news stories for the public. Even in our Confidence in Foreign Policy Index, conducted in March, when we asked about the most important problem facing the United States in its relations with the rest of the world, one in four either volunteered answers that had to do with the United States economy or domestic issues rather than international ones.

That can always change, of course. But foreign policy is simply less pressing to much of the public than it was three or four years ago. That's one reason why our Foreign Policy Anxiety Indicator stands at 122, the lowest it's been since we started tracking it in 2006. And overall, the public generally gives leaders a lot of leeway on handling foreign affairs – unless the public feels things are seriously off track.

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05.20 The "Third Rail" Question on College?

Thursday, May 20th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



There's been a lot of debate this week over what one New York Times writer calls the "third rail" question of higher education: should everyone go to college?

For people who have been watching this debate nationally, a major Times story on the issue has spurred debate - even becoming an intramural affair at the Times (some bloggers say the critics could have a point, others argue that economics make the case for more education). Here's a roundup of comments on the issue.

A key point is the nation's college completion rate, with only four in 10 students graduating in four years. For some, that's an argument that fewer people should be going to college – that those who drop out lack the commitment and academic qualifications to complete a degree. When Public Agenda surveyed young people about why they did or didn't finish college, however, we found most who dropped out said the juggling act of work, school and family responsibilities became too much for them. Young people who dropped out were more likely to come from low-income families with over half coming from households earning less than $35,000 annually. Nearly six-in-ten of those who dropped said that they were not getting financial help from their parents with their school expenses. In contrast, only 37 percent of those who graduated said the same thing.

Arguably, it’s just a much easier task to complete college when you can go to school full-time and when your family is able to support you financially while you’re studying. Based on our study, many of the young people who drop out of college just don’t have that luxury.

Another question isn't whether all students should go to college, it's whether they can and whether they’ve been encouraged and prepared to do so. The attitudes of public school teachers who get students ready for college or work are critical here. In our Teaching For A Living survey, we found nearly three-quarters of teachers agree with the statement "I believe that all my students, given the right support, can go to college if they choose." But only four in 10 strongly agree, and the intensity of this belief seems to be a major factor in a teachers' attitudes about their work. The teachers we tagged as "idealists" – the most dedicated and motivated – are the most likely to believe this, with 54 percent who strongly agree.

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05.06 A Forced Choice On Offshore Oil?

Thursday, May 6th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



We talk a lot about making choices at Public Agenda, but frequently options are framed by disaster as much as by deliberate choice. That's certainly true for the debate on energy and offshore oil drilling, which looks like it's going to be fundamentally reshaped by the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The public is following news coverage of the spill closely, which could prove devastating to the environment and the economy. Both pro- and anti-drilling forces are mobilizing, and some observers are predicting that this could derail the energy and climate bill in the Senate, which includes more offshore drilling as a key compromise to gain votes.



At Wild Well Control station, May 5, 2010. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley

Whether we back away from offshore drilling or not, we need to keep a few key things in mind. One is that world energy demand is rising dramatically, as more people in the developing world start making enough money to afford cars and a Western lifestyle. The world needs more energy, even as it needs cleaner energy to cope with the danger of climate change.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has made the tradeoffs of offshore drilling vividly clear. But so is something else: making a choice on offshore drilling doesn't mean we've wrapped up the debate and can now sit back and relax.

Making this choice – whichever way we go – needs to be the precursor to a much broader look at the choices we face for making sure we have enough reliable, safe, and affordable energy for the future.

To learn more about energy, check out Who Turned Out The Lights? Your Guided Tour To The Energy Crisis, and join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.


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