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03.12 Your Taxes at Work

Friday, March 12th, 2010 | Francie Grace

Kudos to USA Today for an amazing chart on where our federal taxes go. This one is interactive and tells you exactly what's happening to the federal taxes someone with your income level pays, broken down by the amount that you personally pay for budget items from national defense and health care on down to agriculture and international affairs. It also serves up comparisons to previous years, going all the way back to 1940.


03.12 Deficit Tops the Public's Long-Term Worries, But Are They Ready to Act?

Friday, March 12th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Jobs are still the top problem facing the country today, according to the latest Gallup survey, but for the first time ever, people say the federal deficit will be the biggest problem 25 years from now.

It's no surprise that jobs and the economy top current worries, as they have for the past couple of years. The question about the most important problem in 25 years provides an interesting window into what the public sees as troubling trends for the future. Besides the deficit, the list includes the economy, environment, health care and energy, and certainly you can make a case for any of them as a disturbing trend for the future. But the deficit has seen a big jump, from under 5 percent to 14 percent in the survey.

The most interesting thing is that difference in urgency. Right now the deficit is No. 5 on the Gallup list of most important current problems, at 8 percent, which is significant but still pretty far back compared to 31 percent for unemployment, 24 percent for the economy overall, 20 percent for health care and 10 percent for general "dissatisfaction with government." Yet it leads the list of long-term problems.

And in this case, the experts would mostly agree. The Committee on the Fiscal Future report warns that action needs to be taken to control the long-term budget problem – but also said the government should hold off another year in order to deal with the current economic crisis. Most budget experts would argue that the current federal deficits, huge as they are, aren't as scary as the long-term projections that show the U.S. public debt becoming larger than our entire economy in a little more than 10 years.

Projections, of course, are a lot like the Ghost of Christmas Future in Dickens' A Christmas Carol: visions of what might be, not guarantees of what will be. The nation's fiscal problems are completely solvable, and there are a lot of alternatives for solving them. But it will probably require sacrifices, and the sooner we start, the easier it will be.

So the question that the Gallup poll can't answer is what's needed to help Americans make difficult decisions now in order to avoid the problem they worry about most 25 years from now.


03.01 The Second Awkward Age: Life At 55 And Beyond

Monday, March 1st, 2010 | Francie Grace

Public Agenda president Ruth Wooden is the moderator of this event Thursday, March 4, at the Urban Institute, co-sponsored by Public Agenda, on evolving roles for older adults, many of whom are approaching or are at what has been considered to be retirement age but, for a variety of reasons, may not be ready to leave the workforce.

Be part of the discussion – in Washington, through our webcast, and online on Twitter (hashtag is #Boomer 3.0) - as distinguished experts explore the labor force, economic, health, and identity issues facing Americans approaching retirement. We’ll look at the diversity of this population and developmental factors affecting older Americans, successful aging, the special circumstances of older minority men and women, policy prescriptions that could improve older Americans’ economic security, and lessons from other nations.

The panelists for this event are: Scott Bass, provost, American University, and founding director of the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts–Boston; Dalmer Hoskins, senior adviser to the Social Security Administration and former secretary general of the International Social Security Association; Richard Johnson, senior fellow, Income and Benefits Policy Center, Urban Institute; and Sandra Nathan, vice president, workforce development, National Council on Aging.

Click here for details on attending this event. For further information, please contact Simona Combi at the Urban Institute ((202) 261-5709) or Melissa Feldsher at Public Agenda (212-686-6610, extension 50).

The Twitter hashtag for this event is: #Boomer3.0

Live webcast (also available as a recording after the event) at:


02.24 Load 16 (Clean?) Tons And What Do You Get…

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

The federal government this week announced plans to push biofuels and "clean coal" technology, in an effort to move forward on energy options even while a more complicated "cap-and-trade" plan stays stalled in Congress. Developing new technology is important to solving our energy problems, but what is really at stake here and what choices do we have?

Americans get half of our electricity from coal, and the pros and cons of it are actually pretty simple. Coal is inexpensive, we have lots of domestic supply, and some 80,000 people work in the industry. On the other hand, coal puts out more greenhouse gases and pollutants than our other options, even other fossil fuels like natural gas and oil. (See our handy chart from Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis to compare different energy sources).

So coming up with ways to use coal without producing greenhouse gases could be a breakthrough. But it's not exactly around the corner -- the Obama administration's plan would create five to 10 commercial demonstration projects by 2016, and if they succeed, widespread adoption would be even further off.

That's why it's important for policymakers to focus the energy debate on the fundamental choices we face. Too often we end up arguing over the complexities of a cap-and-trade plan, or the emissions targets needed to control climate change. But to engage the public, the key questions are more basic: what kind of power plants do we need? How should we fuel our cars? These are questions Americans can and should grapple with – and in a world that needs more energy at the same time it needs cleaner energy, the public needs to be part of this debate.


02.24 The Deficit Commission Is Born: Now What?

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 | Francie Grace

It's official: President Obama today created the bipartisan fiscal commission he proposed in his State of the Union message. Of course, the commission itself is just a step toward a plan – but what are our options for that plan?

The Choosing the Nation's Fiscal Future report has lots of options, and there's additional commentary from the report's authors on what needs to be done at the Our Fiscal Future web site, including from Public Agenda president Ruth Wooden.

The leaders of the new deficit commission are: Democrat Erskine Bowles, a North Carolina banker and former White House chief of staff, and Republican Alan Simpson, the former senator from Wyoming.

The panel, which is to deliver its recommendations by Dec. 1, will have less authority than would that in the recent Conrad-Gregg proposal that failed to win Congressional approval. Announcing the commission, the president emphasized that the accumulated weight of the deficit could hobble the economy and said "everything's on the table." At the same time, Obama pledged that in the short term, taking steps to encourage businesses to create jobs will continue to be top priority.

A sampling of react and related stories from around the web: thoughts from the economics blog Capital Gains and Games and The Wall Street Journal on the naming of the GOP members of the commission; Catherine Rampell of the New York Times, putting the panel in context, with a look at other entities bent on fiscal prudence; Time Magazine, on stimulus spending and deficit danger; and rumblings from Kathleen Sebelius that the Democrats will come together and post a single health care reform proposal by Monday, in advance of Obama's Feb. 25 bipartisan health care summit.


02.24 An Opening To Comment On Open Goverment

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

The world of public engagement and e-democracy has been watching the Obama administration's Open Government Directive closely, debating whether it will really bring more "transparency, participation, and collaboration" to the federal government. Now you have your chance to weigh in.

Government agencies are accepting public comments until March 19 on their plans to comply with the directive (you can find a full list of agencies and links here). Each agency has its own plan, from Agriculture to Veterans Affairs, so whether you're interested in the field in general or in how a specific department deals with the public, it's worth a look.

Our Center for Advances in Public Engagement has done a lot of thinking about the best ways to get the public more involved in decision making. Check out our papers on Promising Practices in Online Engagement, Reframing Framing, and Democracy, Growing Up.


02.16 A Wobbly Three-Legged Stool: Science, Politics, And The Public

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010 | Francie Grace

With science more and more an issue in public policy, and the public unsure about many scientific subjects, what should policymakers do to involve the public more in this kind of policymaking, given the fact that big changes in a democracy don't happen easily or smoothly without public participation in the choices that we face?

Social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich, chairman and a founder of three organizations including Public Agenda, and Jean Johnson, Public Agenda executive vice president and co-author of public policy books including "Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis?", spoke on this subject Feb. 19 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Our Energy Learning Curve™ research on what the public knows and believes on energy issues and climate change was be a part of the discussion. Yankelovich's presentation will examine "Redefining What "An Informed Public" Means On Science & Technology Issues" and Johnson will speak on "How to Advance the Public's Energy Learning Curve."

The theme of this year's AAAS convention, in San Diego, is Bridging Science and Society: a call for every scientist and engineer to make their work both beneficial and understandable. AAAS president Dr. Peter Agre, in setting the tone for the meeting, points to this quote from President Obama, in a speech to scientists:

"Science, technology, and innovation proceed more rapidly and more cost-effectively when insights, costs, and risks are shared; and so many of the challenges that science and technology will help us meet are global in character. This is true of our dependence on oil, the consequences of climate change, the threat of epidemic disease, and the spread of nuclear weapons."

The challenge we all face then, is involving citizens in public choices – even in cases where the underlying science may be complicated. That's a mission close to the bone here at Public Agenda, where our research and public engagement both focus on closing gaps between experts, policymakers and the public, empowering democracy as citizens make informed choices as part of the policymaking process.

In addition to being on the panel for the Feb. 19 AAAS panel discussion, Johnson was able to take part in two other events: the AAAS' Promoting Climate Literacy Conference panel discussion on "Public Knowledge & Attitudes" on Feb. 17 and a National Academy of Sciences Feb. 18 panel discussion in Irvine, Ca., on "Challenges to Public Trust in Science: Lessons from the University of East Anglia/"Climategate" Incident.

We've posted the Yankelovich and Johnson PowerPoint presentations online for the benefit of the Public Agenda community. You can find out more about the AAAS meeting on its web site and on Facebook.

Editor's Note: this blog posting was updated after the AAAS meeting.


02.12 Sound Financial Advice

Friday, February 12th, 2010 | Francie Grace

In the season when many Americans' minds turn to thoughts of getting some financial advice to help with their taxes, the Senate is following suit, on another serious matter that affects all of our bottom lines.

Rudolph Penner, a former Congressional Budget Office director who co-chaired the Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States that wrote the report Choosing Our Fiscal Future, was the source Thursday for some advice for members of Congress.

Testifying before the Senate Budget Committee, Penner emphasized the unsustainability of the federal budget deficit, with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid accounting for 40 percent of all government spending other than interest in a normal year - and all growing faster than the economy and revenue.

As the deficit increases, said Penner, the national debt will grow ever more rapidly, until interest on the debt becomes a budget problem in itself, with debt expected to pass 100 percent of GDP in less than twenty years.

And that's more than just a ratio. Penner observes that it's highly unlikely that world capital markets would tolerate those sorts of numbers for very long. If no changes are made, it is projected that the market for U.S. debt would collapse long before 2040.

That grim scenario, based on facts and the two-year long work of the committee, was used as a scene-setter. Penner did go to Capitol Hill armed with recommendations on a way forward.

"Our committee," Penner told the panel, "believes that Congress should set a target for the debt‐GDP ratio and not exceed it. Given an explicit target, the American people could judge how well the Congress and administration are doing in their pursuit of fiscal responsibility."

"We believe further that a prudent target would hold the debt to 60 percent of GDP," Penner continued. "That ratio should be achieved by 2022 and we should begin implementing the necessary policies by 2012. If the nation experiences good fortune while holding the debt to this level, it would be wise to lower the target further."

Click here to check out Penner's complete remarks (and here's a shortened link to spread the word on Twitter:, where you can follow our updates on the federal budget and national debt on @PublicAgenda, @FiscalFuture and @FacingUp.


02.12 Shout-Out For College Stories

Friday, February 12th, 2010 | Francie Grace

What's life really like for today's college students? How can we help more of them succeed? If we don't really know what it's like, the solutions are unlikely to be effective. These questions, and that principle, are at the heart of a lot of what we do here at Public Agenda – in the With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them series of reports, and as a partner in the Achieving the Dream initiative to boost success for community college students.

We'd like to lend our support to a project with a similar mission: Take America To College, which has set up a web site and YouTube channel to encourage non-traditional currently enrolled college students, age 20 to 30, to tell their stories – either in words, or in short video form. By non-traditional, we mean students whose path through college hasn't been one of straight to college from high school, followed by four years and a diploma. Many instead had their education interrupted to work full-time, serve in the military, or address family responsibilities.

If that sounds like you, or someone you know, Take America To College would love to hear the story: the college experience, the challenges and triumphs of staying and trying to stay in school. Students who participate in Take America To College will be considered to be one of five people who will be featured in a documentary video series that will air on a major news site. Each of the five will also be awarded $500 plus a video camera and a trip to Washington to meet with policymakers.

The last day to submit entries is February 19.


02.12 The Importance Of Play

Friday, February 12th, 2010 | Francie Grace

Turns out the old axiom about all work and no play may be right (and, heading into a holiday weekend, this may be the right time to make this observation). But being dull isn't the only risk of not spending enough time at play: a lack of time at play can also make you less flexible and less knowledgeable about the world, as well as less trustful and by extension, less able to cooperate with others in working towards solutions. So for both children and adults, it has implications for society and civic life.

Those are some of the theories explored by Alison Kadlec, director of our Center for Advances in Public Engagement, in "Play and Public Life," published in the current edition of the National Civic Review. She interviews Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, and author of "Play: How It Shapes The Brain, Opens Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul." Brown argues that for both animals and humans, "playful interaction allows a penalty-free rehearsal of the normal give and take necessary in social groups." Trust, he says, "is the core process that evokes and allows enough safety for play to take place."

Trust is also a foundation of the public engagement process, in which groups with disparate interests agree to explore trade-offs and solutions. Brown points to some real-world examples, such as George Mitchell's crediting the successes he had brokering peace in Northern Ireland to having spent time telling jokes at the dinner table.

We can think of some other believers in this art, evidenced by President Obama's fondness for basketball and bipartisan invites to Super Bowl parties, and GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch's song composed for Ted Kennedy when the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts returned to Capitol Hill in 2008.

Click here for more about Alison's article on this interesting aspect of both child development and public life.


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