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06.27 Better Collaboration Needed Among Nurses and Physicians

Thursday, June 27th, 2013 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D. and DAVID SCHLEIFER, PH.D.

The United States faces a looming physician shortage that threatens to deepen once the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented. This is a well-documented issue worried over in policy circles, around the dinner table and within the medical community, and discussed in a recent New York Times Sunday Dialogue. Yet it may be that the physician shortage is just one part of the problem when it comes to the supply of medical professionals in this country.

Nurse-practitioners can provide many medical services, especially in primary care and women’s health, and could therefore help fill the doctor shortage gap. Moreover, as provisions of the Affordable Care Act move forward, nurses will be increasingly called upon to improve care coordination, help reduce medical errors and avoidable rehospitalizations, and improve transitions and handoffs.

However, some research suggests that an existing nurse shortage will grow more acute, both because nursing education programs do not have sufficient capacity and because many nurses are reaching retirement. And relying on nurses to deliver care for less money assumes that nurses should be paid less than doctors.

Furthermore, in the 2010 National Survey of Registered Nurses, only one in ten nurses reported having an excellent relationship with a physician (link opens PDF). In fact, since the survey began in 2002, that figure has never been higher than 11%.

During recent deliberative focus groups with members of the public around the country, we heard many participants talk about their experiences with a lack of coordination among doctors, nurses and pharmacists. Such experiences, they felt, had put their health or their families’ health at risk and cost them money. The groups strongly supported helping medical professionals coordinate care.

The task therefore becomes not only to increase the number of doctors and nurses, but also to empower nurses to work effectively and collaboratively alongside other medical professionals. Such an approach can not only help address the need for more medical professionals but also seems relatively acceptable to members of the public.

Want to learn more about public views toward measures to make health care more cost-effective? Keep an eye on this space, or contact Megan at and we will email you the findings of our research when they are available.


06.21 Civic Leaders: Inspiring Engagement and Empowering Communities

Friday, June 21st, 2013 | Christopher DiStasi

"Once the light goes on about civic engagement – once you understand what your power is – it never goes out, and that is what we're counting on."

Often, people do not believe that they can make a difference when it comes to the decisions that shape their communities. But, when they are shown otherwise, many are ready to jump on the chance to get involved.

This is what we heard from the heads of twenty California nonprofits that organize and advocate in traditionally disenfranchised communities – immigrant, poor, and minority. We spoke to these civic leaders about their efforts to improve the public’s voice in government for our recent project on civic engagement in California.

Community members often don’t consider that they can solve the problems they see around them by organizing and engaging with government.

"They definitely are aware that, for instance, they don’t have a park in their neighborhood. … What they’re not aware of is the systemic change that’s possible. They might think, 'Oh, well, I could drive across town to the park.' That’s how they might think of solving the problem on an individual basis. Because they haven’t had the involvement and the training in thinking systematically."

Civic leaders tell us that immigrant communities often have preconceived notions about what they cannot do or change based on political cultures in their home countries, along with trepidation about engaging with a foreign system. Meanwhile, native-born individuals often assume that efforts to address local problems through government just don’t go anywhere, and that time is better spent on other pursuits.

These “myths and taboos” must be confronted to “demystify” engagement before nonprofits can begin teaching community members about the practical side of engaging with government, civic leaders told us.

Some civic leaders' organizations host small group discussions with locals concerned about a particular issue. Others told us that sharing “small victories” often does the trick.

"[We] create the space for them to experience change and experience a win. Oftentimes inviting that person … to a community forum with the decision-maker, where the decision-maker agrees to something, or inviting them to a … ribbon-cutting ceremony of a wellness center that we just won at a school in their neighborhood will help move that individual who doesn’t believe that people are willing to listen and that their voice doesn’t matter."

“Once the Light Goes On” – Generating Leadership Through Engagement

In engaging people who often assume they are not factored into government decision-making, civic leaders and their organizations bring voices to the table that were not previously there. These voices have valuable perspectives and – perhaps most importantly – are often the only ones who know about or understand the particular problems facing their neighborhoods, towns, cities and communities.

Perhaps the most common benefit of awakening the civic impulse, a number of leaders told us, is its potential to produce new, dedicated civic and community leaders, and even public officials.

"[Our organization] has put out literally hundreds of leaders, and they are on city councils. They are on boards and commissions. … We trained them on the importance of civic engagement, on the importance of economic policy and on healthcare policy … and how they could get along with their colleagues and how they work with the city."

Civic leaders are counting on the power of positive experiences with civic engagement to keep community members involved– and to show them, especially those inspired to lead, that neighborhoods, towns and cities are made better by greater public involvement in government.

Read more from our interviews with the heads of nonprofits working with traditionally disenfranchised communities, and from our statewide survey of over five hundred civic leaders, in our new report, “Beyond Business As Usual: Leaders of California's Civic Organizations Seek New Ways to Engage the Public in Local Governance.” Also, take a look at our other report on the state of civic engagement in California, “Testing the Waters: California's Local Officials Experiment with New Ways to Engage the Public.” Book of Ra is a great way to experience what fun slot games can be!

Quotes were recorded from in-depth interviews with leaders of organizations that engage traditionally disenfranchised communities. Read more on the Methodology here.


06.20 Parents need help, not shame, in school involvement

Thursday, June 20th, 2013 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D. and Carolin Hagelskamp, Ph.D.

Reprinted from Chicago Tribune, on June 18, 2013

The Tribune's editorial board was right to note the importance of parent involvement in education, but it missed the mark by oversimplifying the issue ("Parents have to be involved in their kids education," Editorials, June 13).

Initiatives to boost parent involvement will fall short if education leaders do not recognize a key fact: It's not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Parents have different priorities and needs - similar to students. Efforts to support their involvement must take this basic truth into account in order to be effective.

It will require much more than simply sending home report cards and publishing data. Public Agenda, a nonprofit researching public policy, found that 19 percent of parents don't feel ready or able to commit more time to their children's education. At the same time, these parents are concerned for their kids' learning and looking for guidance on how to help them succeed.

Instead of calling parents neglectful when they aren't present in school, leaders should focus on more constructive solutions. Put aside assumptions, examine parents' needs and provide flexible approaches to encourage involvement.


05.22 From Sea to Shining Sea, Who's Using the Most Fossil Fuels?

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON

Reprinted from The Great Energy Challenge - May 20, 2013

A lot of the debate over energy and climate change has focused on changing how people live. But in a lot of ways, where someone lives is as important as how they live.

Not all parts of the United States are the same when it comes to how much and what kind of energy is used. That makes a huge difference in how to attack our energy problems.

There’s evidence for this in the latest federal statistics on carbon emissions by state and per capita. Some regions are just pumping a lot more greenhouse gases into the atomosphere than others. Consider this chart from the Energy Information Administration of carbon emissions per state, per capita.

A pretty big spread, isn’t it? And there are several reasons why some places pump out more carbon per person than others:

Economics: Some states have economies that produce more carbon than others. The top five per-capita states (Wyoming, North Dakota, Alaska, West Virginia and Louisiana) are all big fossil-fuel producers, and you can’t produce fossil fuels without also using fossil fuels to extract and process them. By contrast, New York and Washington D.C. are dominated by office work: finance, government, media and so on. People sitting in offices use fossil fuels, but not as much as people in industry. Plus, these are places with large numbers of people who use public transit as opposed to driving, thus producing less carbon.

Climate: Some of these differences can be explained by geography. Wyoming and Alaska are cold, whereas Hawaii is, well, Hawaiian. So the heating and cooling demands in Hawaii are much less.

Then again, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine are cold, too, and yet they’re near the bottom of the scale on carbon emissions. Which leads us to the third and biggest factor:

Energy choices: Vermont hardly produces any carbon emissions at all from producing electricity, and the answer is pretty straightforward: the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant supplies almost all the state’s needs. The other states with low per capita carbon profiles, like Oregon, Idaho, and New York, also get large shares of their electricity from nuclear plants or hydroelectric dams, which don’t produce any greenhouse gases.

This can be a trick question, however, depending on whether a state produces most of its own electricity or ends up buying it from other states. Wyoming and West Virginia not only produce their own electricity using coal, but they also export it to other states. So they produce a lot of greenhouse gases, even if the electricity itself is used elsewhere. In addition to its own hydropower, Idaho imports about half of its electricity, so the state’s carbon profile is low. The same goes for California, which consistently imports a lot of the electricity it needs.

All this means that the impact of energy policy varies significantly by state. Huge amounts of effort have been spent on “think global, act local” initiatives, but the impact of those efforts is going to vary. It’s useful when someone in Vermont or Idaho swaps out swap out light bulbs and buys energy-efficient appliances, but the energy saved was probably not produced using fossil fuels. Those same changes will have a much bigger per capita impact in places that get most of their power from coal, like West Virginia or Indiana.

By contrast, carbon emissions in California and Vermont most come from petroleum, so changes in the way people drive would have the biggest payoff there.

The fact is that most people around the nation don’t know where their electricity comes from, and don’t have that much say about it, at least on a day-to-day basis. If you live in the Pacific Northwest or New England, you probably get your electricity from hydropower or nuclear plants. If you live in the Midwest or South, you’re probably getting more of your energy from coal or natural gas.

Those are the decisions where the public needs more of a voice. Nationally, the trend is to replace coal with natural gas, which is cleaner than coal but still a fosil fuel (and controversial because of the technique of fracking).

But too many citizens don’t pay enough attention to the pivotal choices being made in their own cities and states. So the next time you glance at a headlines in the local paper about the plans for a new power plant or ideas for increasing solar and wind power locally, or changes that would reduce commuting in your area and make it easier to telecommute, remember these decisions are really where the action is in curbing fossil fuel use. Making your voice heard here could be just as good for the planet as ditching your old incandescent light bulbs—maybe more so.


05.22 Can Parents Save American Education?

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013 | JEAN JOHNSON

Reprinted from Huffington Post - May 22, 2013

Research suggests that students whose parents are involved in their schooling make better grades and are more likely to go to college, and some states -- with California leading the way of course -- are passing parent trigger laws that give parents much more power to intervene when local schools are failing. President Obama has weighed in as well. He is one of many leaders calling on parents to step up to the plate when it comes to education. "We all know that we can have the best schools and the most dedicated teachers in the world," Obama said in a public service announcement taped in 2010. "But it won't be enough unless we fill our responsibilities as parents."

Most American parents readily agree with the premise that parents are a crucial ingredient in a child's educational success. A few years ago, when the Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa survey asked parents which is more important in helping a child learn -- parents or the school -- the results weren't even close: 78 percent of parents said "the student's parents" and only 21 percent said "the school." And an analysis of opinion research conducted by my organization, Public Agenda, and the Kettering Foundation shows that most parents view participating in their child's education as a fundamental responsibility and see stronger parent and community involvement as a critical factor in improving neighborhood schools. As a DC dad in one of our focus groups put it: " I think [good schools] depend on the parent participation... Some schools have a lot of parents... in the PTA. They come to the school. They advocate for the school regularly."

But what exactly do we mean by "parental involvement"? Are we talking about traditional parental roles -- the moms and dads who check on homework and report cards and support the schools from time to time by helping out with clubs, sports, and bake sales? Or are we talking about parents as change agents -- citizens who push school reform forward by voting for candidates who share their views on education and challenging local officials to make sure their schools have world-class standards, top-notch principals and teachers, and sufficient funding to do the job?

It's rapidly becoming clear that "parental involvement" actually means very different things to different people. Based on a recent Public Agenda study for the Kauffman Foundation, parents themselves seem to differ in their view of what kind of parent involvement is most effective and in their comfort levels in taking on various roles. Although the study focused on parents in the Kansas City area, it may well have implications for parental involvement initiatives around the country. It identified three distinctive groups of parents:

  • Nearly a third of the parents surveyed could be considered "potential transformers." Parents in this group say they would be very comfortable playing a more significant role in deciding how schools operate. Meeting with district administrators, sitting on committees to decide school policies, and talking to the media about their education concerns and priorities are some of the areas where these parents seem ready to act.
  • "School helpers" made up about a quarter of the sample. These are parents who say they could do more to help out at the schools their children attend, but they strongly prefer traditional involvement activities -- volunteering and coaching, for example -- to advocacy roles. Only about 1 in 3 of these parents say they would feel comfortable meeting with district administrators to push for improvements in local schools.
  • About 1 in 5 of the parents were in a third group we called the "help seekers," and this is the group that may prove to be public education's biggest challenge. These parents are concerned about their own children's learning, yet admit that they either aren't very comfortable or don't have time to become more involved at their children's schools or as education advocates. These parents are often more critical of their schools, even as they seem to be looking for more guidance from those schools on how to work with their children at home to help them succeed.
  • Some parents didn't fall neatly into any one of the specific groups, and overall, the Kansas City area parents were divided on what form of involvement is most important for improving education. About half (52 percent say) said it was improving the quality of parental involvement at home, versus 42 percent who said it is getting parents more directly involved in running schools. The main take-away from the Kansas City work is that increasing parental involvement isn't really a "one size fits all" endeavor. Parents and families come to the schools with different priorities and different entry points.

    Parent surveys also raise questions about the degree to which more parental activism will unleash broad school improvement.Nationwide, only 28 percent of parents say they know a lot about the qualifications of their child's school principal, and only half know a lot about how their child's school ranks academically compared to others in the area.

    Do we want parents and communities significantly more involved in local schools? It almost goes without saying. Do we need more explicit, well-thought-out plans to bring parents and other citizens into the schools to bolster education and insure that all children have the opportunity to learn and flourish? You bet we do.


    05.20 Improving Public Engagement in Local Government

    Monday, May 20th, 2013 | Public Agenda

    Want to print this infographic? Click here.

    While it's no secret that Americans tend to hold federal policymakers in disregard, they are much more likely to trust their local city or county officials. Local officials are close to home, and local government is often only so far as the next public hearing or city council meeting.

    Local officials recognize this connection between their constituents’ trust and government’s proximity to the people. New research in California by Public Agenda suggests that, in communities across America’s most populous state, local officials are interested in engaging citizens in more thoughtful, robust and inclusive ways.

    The research includes a survey, interviews and focus groups with local, elected and nonelected public officials throughout California, as well as with leaders of community-based and civic organizations. What these leaders and officials have to say offers important considerations for public engagement in communities around the country.

    Nearly 8 in ten California public officials say they're interested in learning about public engagement practices that have worked elsewhere, and 85 percent report that their views toward public engagement have changed since their careers began. Many say they have come to understand and value public engagement more over time.

    Yet both local officials and civic leaders see hurdles to improving their efforts to engage residents in public decisions. Sometimes officials and civic leaders-- potential partners in engagement-- disagree about the root of the problems they face.

    Regardless, local officials and civic leaders share concern for a disconnect between the public and local decision makers, and desire greater public participation and stronger collaboration. The research suggests some avenues for improvement.

    Click to read more | Comment (1)

    05.09 How to Break the Cycle of Millennial Discontent in Politics

    Thursday, May 9th, 2013 | Megan Rose Donovan

    Young America’s current view of government does not bode well for the future of our democracy. According to a new Harvard poll of 18-29 year-olds, these so-called millennials are becoming more polarized, more distrustful and more cynical about politics than in previous years.

    The difference between the way young Democrats and Republicans view the President has never been more dramatic than in the last six months, the poll release said. The President’s approval rating among young Democrats is 85 percent, versus 11 percent among young Republicans. This divide has been growing in recent years, with the gap widening by 11 percentage points since last year.

    Millennials also consistently rated the country’s institutions poorly. Only 22 percent would trust the federal government (as a whole) to do the right thing, and just 18 percent would trust Congress. The president and Supreme Court garnered a bit more trust (39 percent and 40 percent, respectively), with the military rated most trustworthy (54 percent said they would trust them to do the right thing).

    Cynicism for the political process as a whole has increased at a rapid pace. The poll found that nearly half of millennials (48 percent) don’t believe their votes will make a real difference, up from 29 percent just a year ago.

    While this study does raise myriad reasons for concern and action, the picture is more complicated and less gloomy than it suggests. Millenials have high rates of volunteerism and political activism, and they are arguably masters at networking and collaboration. Some say that this combination may actually break down the partisan divide.

    Still, Harvard's survey does merit a genuine discussion of ways we can keep division, distrust and cynicism from taking hold.

    So how could we counteract it? Perhaps by first examining the causes we can identify some solutions and find a more favorable prognosis.

    Possible Causes for Division and Discontent Among Millennials

    One potential source for growing cynicism among the young may be the lack of progress when it comes to our lagging economy. The consequences of our current weak economy have been felt acutely by the young, who also face the ballooning cost of higher education, often staggering student loan debt, the reality that a degree or credential is increasingly required for employment in any field, and the ill fortune of belonging to a generation that will not be better off than their parents. While college graduates seem to have weathered the recession well, they are often underemployed or working jobs below their skill level. For young people without a college degree, the unemployment rate is much higher.

    Meanwhile, these underemployed and unemployed youth watch as policymakers avoid making the important decisions necessary to setting this country on a viable economic path. No wonder this group is so frustrated by the current political system.

    In general, this generation hasn’t seen progress on most major reform movements in their lifetime. People’s political attitudes often coalesce at the beginning of their adulthood, when they enter the political process, said Trey Grayson, Harvard’s director of the Institute of Politics, which means that millennials could already be conditioned to doubt and distrust.

    Shortfalls in the civic education that young people received (or failed to receive) in secondary school may be a contributing factor as well. Civic education can foster pride in the democratic process, encourage active citizenship and build a constituency of inspired leaders for tomorrow. However, signs indicate that students' civic mastery is faltering, and, nationally, our education system's emphasis on civic education has dwindled.

    Outside of formal schooling, young people have few opportunities to develop civic skills. In fact, we can likely attribute millennial polarization in part to the political isolation they experience socially. Only 12 percent of millennials surveyed said that their most recent significant other had different political beliefs from their own, and 72 percent reported that all or most of their friends share their politics, according to the Harvard Crimson. Birds of a feather tend to flock together, sure, but homogenization of social groups doesn’t typically encourage the types of critical discussions that have to happen in order to come to terms with tough issues.

    It may be the case that the Internet and other digital tools can help improve civic engagement and encourage political activities that bring people of differing politics together. As of yet, however, such technology has failed to broaden the reach of engagement beyond those who are already civically active. Furthermore, research indicates that online commenting tends to negatively affect civil discourse and reduce objectivity.

    Improving the Outlook for Millennials and our Political Future

    Whatever the myriad for the younger generation’s increasingly polarized, distrustful and cynical attitudes toward public life, there are no clear and simple solutions. Here are some principles previously discussed in our work that we believe are likely to help:

    We've also seen many instances where community leaders help citizens engage in thoughtful, civil dialogue with people diverse views. Such conversations often have a marked effect on participants, who come away understanding why others have views counter to their own, accepting that there are no easy answers, and seeing their political opponents as people instead of caricatures. Can such a model be used in the higher education classroom to instill a respect for civil dialogue in our nation's college students?

    These ideas are certainly not exhaustive. Do you have any others?

    Concentrating on ways to shift the political perspective of our future leaders will be a continuous process. Yet not doing so may let them succumb to deep, lifelong polarization and will be detrimental to the health of our society. Let’s get a jump on them while they're young.


    05.06 Failure to Compromise: Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

    Monday, May 6th, 2013 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

    Reprinted from The Huffington Post - April 5, 2013

    The Super Committee. The debt ceiling. Multiple fiscal cliffs. The sequester. We've added a lot of new vocabulary to the cultural lexicon for what boils down to this: Our nation's leaders routinely and repeatedly fail to work together and compromise to solve problems.

    Not only do we have to watch our economy and international reputation suffer the consequences of the continuing stalemate, we also have to listen to a bipartisan litany of excuses from our nation's leaders.

    Does this sound familiar?

    "I am only doing what the people who voted me into office expect of me. It's not Congress that's divided, it's the American people."

    Sure, there are some primary and caucus stalwarts who don't want the people they support to give an inch, but that's not the view of most Americans. Research shows that most citizens want the two sides to come together to make a deal. According to Gallup, nearly 7 in 10 Americans want Republicans and Democrats to compromise equally.

    And lawmakers' intransigent ways aren't winning them any popularity contests. The American people's confidence in Congress in particular and regard for beltway politics in general is at a record low.

    Moreover, the resounding imagery of a deeply-polarized, red and blue, not-very-United States is highly questionable. A few political theorists like Alan Abramowitz suggest that the general public is becoming more ideological and polarized, but other research contradicts this idea. Morris Fiorina, an expert in elections and public opinion, calls the polarized public a myth.

    I lean toward the view that most people tend to be pragmatic and conciliatory, rather than ideological and rigid. I base this view on my experience having facilitated hundreds of focus groups and community forums across America and worked on scores of rigorous opinion studies on a host of issues.

    Yes, surveys now pick up more polarization than in the past, but my experience is that most of it is extremely thin. The "my way or the highway" attitude tends to fall away quickly once citizens get past their initial reactions and start to engage on an issue in any depth. Given a chance to talk to their neighbors, most people approach issues with a common sense, give-a-little, get-a-little attitude. That's the case whether the topic is educating kids more effectively or facing up to the national debt.

    Or how about this excuse, taking the opposite tack?

    "People voted for me to lead, not to follow. My duty is to take a principled stand and not worry about the latest public opinion poll."

    From this perspective, compromise is a dirty word, and absolute principle is pure and righteous. Compromise, however, is one of the grand traditions of our democracy, and a foundation upon which this nation was built.

    It would be foolish to argue that leaders should respond in lock-step with every public opinion poll that comes out, but that's hardly an excuse for ignoring the public's call for progress and for politicians to act more like statesmen than zealots.

    Public opinion is a critical backbone of our democracy. When designed and executed well, public opinion research can arm political leaders with important information about the sorts of reform their constituents would be willing to accept, the compromises they'd agree to, and any changes that they'd push back on. When politicians are aware of the public attitudes that may facilitate or prevent policy reform, the resulting reform is often stronger and more sustainable. Policymakers will be less likely to have to head back to the drawing board.

    At the same time, it is true that innovative change often comes from outside-of-the-box thinking, and polls often query those ideas that we've heard many times before. There's certainly an art to balancing strong and visionary leadership with responsiveness to those whom leaders serve and represent. This art is too often lacking among the corridors of power today.

    And what about this one?

    "I'd like to be reasonable, but the other side (pick your favorite other side) would just take advantage. If they'd be reasonable, then I could be, too."

    It's tempting to dismiss this line of attack as basically the time-honored kindergarten tactic: "he hit me first!" But this is a real and challenging dynamic that game theorists and others have long studied. Fortunately, leaders can break through this mindset and behavior pattern -- if they have the will to take the risk and the skill to do so dexterously.

    It's fair to acknowledge that those forging a compromise take on short-term risks that their opponents will take advantage. But political leaders can withstand and navigate that risk as they recognize the broad public demand for Washington to get past gridlock and make progress, even imperfect progress.

    There is hope in today's public mood. We are in a political moment when compromise, far from being wishy-washy, is a bold thing to do, worthy of respect and admiration. Those who compromise on the behalf of attainable progress are likely to reap the benefits of a public grateful for forward movement, rather than the dead-in-the-water doldrums we have become accustomed to but not satisfied with.

    Smart leaders will harness this political moment, set aside their bipartisan litany of excuses and begin to address the tough problems we face. Only by doing so can we build a future fit for our children, rather than leaving them with sorry excuses, dwindling hopes, and the dregs of our dysfunction.

    Follow Will Friedman, Ph.D on Twitter: @wkfriedman


    04.29 Is Growth the Best Measure of a Good Economy?

    Monday, April 29th, 2013 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON

    Reprinted from The Huffington Post - April 23, 2013

    For the past week, the economics world has been consumed by the revelation that an influential study suggesting that economic growth slows when a country's debt levels reach 90 percent of GDP contains what Bloomberg's Clive Cook calls a "cringe-making error." Economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart have admitted to their mistake -- it was an Excel coding error -- and anyone who works with mountains of data has to have some sympathy. There must be a support group somewhere for smart people who let a mistake slip by and end up being ridiculed for it and haunted by it for years.

    In this case, though, there's more to be worried about than a couple of academic reputations. The Rogoff-Reinhart study was a powerful argument for austerity as the way to respond to the ballooning U.S. debt. If debt itself can slow growth, then we need to get it under control as quickly as we can.

    In the better-late-than-never category, there's now a more subtle debate among economists about whether it's debt that tamps down economic growth or whether it's the slow growth that pushes up the debt. That's an important question, but it actually hides what may be an even more crucial one. Is growth in GDP really the best way to judge how the economy is doing? What does GDP actually tell us, and what does it leave out? Can an economy be growing and still be on its way off the rails?

    For politicians, pundits and many economists, GDP and jobs are often coupled together like love and marriage (which go together like a horse and carriage, according to the old Frank Sinatra song). But in Gross Domestic Problem: The Politics Behind the World's Most Powerful Number, political scientist Lorenzo Fioramonti asks why we have latched onto economic growth as the number one indicator of whether a country's economy is healthy and probes its limitations. The progressive think tank Demos has a study out juxtaposing U.S. economic growth with other measures of progress and human well-being.

    But isn't growth the only way to create jobs and a rising standard of living? A shrinking economy is certainly no good to anyone; it's the definition of a recession. But using growth as the sole measure of how we're doing can also hide other problems:

    Growth can mask the gap between rich and poor. Economic growth measures the increase in the gross domestic product, and they call it the gross domestic product for a reason. It's an overall estimate of the value of all the goods and services in an entire economy. In some countries, a healthy portion of these economic benefits go to a robust middle class. In others, the lion's share goes to people at the top. According to World Bank assessments, Namibia has the world's largest income gap, while Sweden has the smallest. The United States is in the middle, with the incomes of the wealthiest Americans rising dramatically over the last 30 years. Economic growth only shows how much more wealth the country as a whole has -- not how well we're doing creating an equitable society.

    Growth doesn't seem to spur job creation the way it did in the past. In the four recessions before 1990, unemployment started falling four to five months after the economy started growing again. In the 1990-91 and 2001 recessions, it took a year for unemployment to begin easing. Now we're in an "jobless recovery" that's been dragging out even more painfully. Job creation has been listless, and new jobs are often in low-paying fields like customer service, food service, and home health care. The economy is growing, but so far, the American work force isn't really feeling the love.

    Growth doesn't measure what we're doing to the planet. Another problem is that the focus on growth doesn't take into account the degree to which we're using up the Earth's assets -- its land, water, minerals, its capacity to support human life -- in our pursuit of economic progress. Greenpeace uses the image of a hamster that repeatedly doubles in size to illustrate the problem. After about a year, you have a 9-billion-ton hamster which can eat up all the corn produced worldwide every day, and the once-cute, now enormous creature is still hungry.

    Of course, the hamster analogy is a little simplistic. If productivity is also rising and the economy is becoming more efficient, you can produce the same amount of stuff without using more resources (or at least not using them up as quickly). Or if you're using renewable resources, you can also feed the hamster without running out. And if a resource is running short, the world usually finds a substitute, eventually. Still, all of those factors can be overlooked if you just focus on whether GDP is growing or not.

    It's significant that while some economists question whether growth is all it's cracked up to be, hardly anyone is arguing that a recession is better. We need growth to help stabilize our debt and get the job creation engine going again, but we also need a much more vigorous and critical discussion about what growth can do, what it can't, and whether it's a strategy that simply has to be reassessed as the Earth's population has now topped even billion.

    We're projected to hit nine billion people in another 30 years, and all the world's people need food, shelter, energy, and a planet that hasn't been ravaged. Without growth, we can't feed, employ and sustain those two billion additional people, but unless we're more thoughtful about growth, we could end up growing and still failing to provide for them and protect the planet. Then, it will be clear that we've been looking at the wrong number -- or perhaps, the right number in the wrong way.


    04.29 Can "Race to the Top" Work for Energy Innovation?

    Monday, April 29th, 2013 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON

    Reprinted from The Energy Collective - April 27, 2013

    by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

    Improving the nation's power grid is a huge task. Is "Race to the Top" the right model?

    Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. But is duplicating “Race to the Top” the way to get a new energy grid up and running?

    If you don’t keep track of education policy, Race to the Top is the Obama administration’s signature schools initiative, with $4 billion in federal grant money awarded to states in a competition for the best education reform plans. In effect, the plan offers a carrot rather than a stick to states that implement broadly-backed reforms such as “common core standards,” new data systems for measuring progress, and overhauls in how teachers and principals are judged.

    Since the Obama administration views Race to the Top as a successful approach, it’s no surprise that the president proposed budget includes $200 million for a similar program to improve the nation’s power grid. Overall, the nation’s electricity grid is aging, and without significant improvements it won’t be able to keep up with current demand, much less make full use of renewable and other new technologies.

    So the goal is worthy – but so far the plan is short on specifics. Here, in fact, is everything the president’s budget says on the subject:

    Challenges States to Cut Energy Waste and Support Energy Efficiency and Modernize the Grid. Modeled after a successful Administration approach in education reform designed to promote forward-leaning policies at the State level, the Budget includes $200 million in one-time funding for Race to the Top performance based awards to support State governments that implement effective policies to cut energy waste and modernize the grid. Key opportunities for States include: modernizing utility regulations to encourage cost-effective investments in efficiency, including combined heat and power and demand response resources, and in clean distributed generation; enhancing customer access to data; investments that improve the reliability, security and resilience of the grid; and enhancing the sharing of information regarding grid conditions.

    Even putting the bureaucratic prose aside, this is obviously going to need to be fleshed out quite a lot before anyone can judge how effective it will be. But here are a few questions based on the education world’s Race to the Top that are worth considering:

    Do the states have enough skin in this game? There’s no question that education is a state government responsibility. State and local governments put up the lion’s share of the money for public schools, set the standards, hire the teachers, and face the voters when things go wrong.

    The electricity grid, by contrast, isn’t something state governments run directly. It’s something states regulate, with most of the money and the management handled by private utility companies. And it’s more questionable whether voters hold states accountable for the grid. Race to the Top could directly affect decisions made in schools. With the power grid, state policy is one step removed from those actually doing the work. The impact may play out differently.

    Is there enough of a consensus on what needs to be done? While Race to the Top could be controversial, generally speaking it promoted ideas that many governors and educators already accepted. States had to implement certain policies even to participate – for example, states couldn’t have any laws preventing them from using test scores to evaluate teachers. Even so, some states, like Texas and Virginia, passed on the federal competition in order to implement their own school plans. And of course, the debate over the state role in health care reform, where many states resisted participating in different elements of “Obamacare,” shows what can happen if states don’t buy into a federal program.

    There are certainly models to follow here – the Energy Department’s Strategic Plan for Grid Modernization presents a compelling example. But have governors bought into these plans on what can and should be done about the grid?

    Is this enough money to make a difference? In education, Race to the Top dangled a tasty enough carrot in front of state governments to make it worth their while to change policies and develop plans to participate. New York state alone got $700 million in federal money. But $200 million in energy grants spread out over multiple states isn’t going to go very far. The task before us is massive. Some 30 percent of the grid is 40 to 50 years old, in a network that connects more than 15,000 power plants, 220,000 miles of high voltage lines, and another 5 million miles of distribution. Private utilities spend about $5 billion a year on upgrades, and it isn’t enough. New Jersey’s PSE&G alone has proposed spending $3.9 billion over 10 years to strengthen its system after Hurricane Sandy. Overall, the Electric Power Research Institute estimated we need up to $476 billion to modernize the grid nationwide.

    Maybe the $200 million could be effective if focused on crucial sticking points in state government policies. But we still need to leverage those changes to encourage the necessary private investment in the grid.

    The idea of a “race to the top” for the energy grid is certainly appealing. There’s no question we need new and compelling methods to get states and utilities to the starting line. But it still isn’t clear whether the federal government is envisioning a dash or a marathon – or whether states will want to run the race at all.


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