Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
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.
Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 | Francie Grace
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.
Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
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.
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
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: http://bit.ly/ariLRF), where you can follow our updates on the federal budget and national debt on @PublicAgenda, @FiscalFuture and @FacingUp.
Friday, February 12th, 2010 | Francie Grace
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
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.
Friday, February 12th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
Anticipation is certainly high for the summit. President Obama put the Democrats' proposals on the table earlier this week, and the Republicans are expected to arrive with their own plan. There's been a lot of argument, and fierce debate over whether the summit itself is a real opportunity or just political theatre.
One of the greatest challenges during the long debate over health care has been making the options understandable to the public. But in our view, all through this process there hasn't been enough effort by leaders to help people weigh alternatives and work through the tradeoffs inherent in any reform plan and that process of thinking about options is essential to real public engagement.
So with that in mind, we'd like to suggest a few useful tools as a viewer's guide to the summit. Our Citizen's Survival Kit on health care reform, prepared for the last election, sums up the key issues and lays out some of the basic choices. Essentially, the kit provides the big picture on an issue where it's really easy to get lost in the details.
To compare some of the current choices on the table now, have a look at the Kaiser Family Foundation's side-by-side summary of the proposals before Congress. It's just been updated to include President Obama's latest proposals.
Finally, it helps to have a glossary, and a sense of history, both in this case provided by the Prescriptions blog at The New York Times.
Thursday, February 11th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
The American public says more than half of every federal tax dollar, 53 cents, is wasted, according to an ABC/Washington Post survey released today. But what that survey suggests to us is what's really being wasted isn't money; it's trust.
The ABC/Post survey has been asking this question for 25 years now, and the number has been as high as 56 cents and as low as 43 cents. Budget experts would say that while there certainly is waste in government, it's nowhere near that high.
Based on Public Agenda's research, when people say half of every tax dollar is wasted, they're not analyzing bloated defense purchasing or Medicare fraud (although those stories have an impact). They're expressing an overall frustration with government and based on the same ABC/Post survey, frustrations are running high. Two-thirds of those surveyed say they're "dissatisfied" or "angry" with the government. According to the Post:
The opening is clear: Public dissatisfaction with how Washington operates is at its highest level in Post-ABC polling in more than a decade -- since the months after the Republican-led government shutdown in 1996 -- and negative ratings of the two major parties hover near record highs.
There are two lessons here, one very specific, and the other more general.
The specific point is about how these levels of distrust shape the debate over the federal deficit and the national debt. There are solutions to the government's grim long-term fiscal problems; the Choosing the Nation's Fiscal Future report is full of them. Public Agenda's research has shown, however, that one of the biggest barriers to solving the budget problem is the public's lack of trust in leaders. People simply aren't confident that the government will use their money wisely. They're worried that if they agree to spending cuts or tax increases, the government won't put that money to good use.
More broadly, this shows the public's distaste for gridlock and hyper-partisanship in Washington. And it also shows the opportunity for a different approach: real public engagement that allows citizens' voice to be heard and their concerns to play a role in decision making. Public engagement, properly executed, can break through gridlock and allow decisions to be firmly grounded in the public's values and priorities.
Surveys like this send a clear message that politics as usual isn't working for the American public. If we're going to solve our budget problems or any of our other problems, for that matter we need to get that trust back, and that means getting the public back into the process.
Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
Today's must-read budget story is in USA Today, which makes a point that often gets lost when we debate getting the federal budget under control: namely, that it's been done before, and not that long ago, either.
Balancing the budget in the late 1990s required sustained, bipartisan effort, and a combination of both spending controls and tax increases. But it also came at a political cost to a number of the politicians involved.
It's also worth remembering that those efforts in the Nineties to get rid of the year-to-year shortfall never translated into strategies to deal with the problems that are leading the federal budget into disaster in the long run: the rising health care costs and aging population that are going to send costs for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security soaring, and the national debt along with it.
Right now the nation's finances are getting more attention than they have in a long time. But bipartisanship is in short supply, unless, as some argue, you count a bipartisan unwillingness to look at real solutions, particularly any solutions that might affect their own home states. Others argue that this is no time to worry about the budget at all, given the Great Recession and the risks of long-term unemployment.
That's why the Committee on the Fiscal Future suggested that real efforts to deal with our long-term budget problems start next year, to give the government time to deal with the economic crisis, and time to build consensus on solutions. History shows this can be done. And in this case, if we learn from history, maybe we can repeat it.