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My friend Ted Chambers, a Boston public school teacher, blogs often on the serious challenges to a truly equitable public education system from the often disingenuous arguments of the advocates for the charter school “movement.”  There are good charter schools and bad ones (in fact, my daughter attends one we are really happy with), just like there are good traditional public schools and bad ones.  The teaching staff at charter schools are teachers just like in the traditional public schools, and they care about their students.  However,  the corporate-sponsored advocates of charter schools have, in fact, waged a 20 year campaign to accomplish, not better educational outcomes, but two political objectives: (1) ending teacher unions and (2) privatizing public education.

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In the last week, there has been some more news that should focus our policy attention on climate change.  Some news is promising: Texas legislators coming together to invest in anti-drought projects and the news (out of the UK, of course - why can't the US media report on important issues?) that President Obama is considering hosting an international climate summit.  But...some news is depressing, if not downright scary: post-apocalyptic style air pollution in China and a national climate report that suggests we might have already run out of time to prevent climate change.

And all four things are getting less attention than they should from American media.  Perhaps the most interesting thing is that Texas legislators are taking an interest in the consequences of a severe drought in their state: lack of water.  This issue is likely to become a more widespread problem around the world due not only to climate change, but to population increase.

1. Beijing pollution beyond critical

The most distressing incident of the past week has to be the absolute crisis of air pollution in Beijing and other cities in China.  "Off the charts" is how many scientists have described the level of particulate in the air.  On a day when Beijing registered an air quality index of over 750, New York City's level was 19.  Anything over 50 is considered hazardous.  Until now, 500 was considered about as high as things could plausibly go.  But, one doesn't need to see the data to know there is a problem.  Just watch the coverage from Al Jazeera.  That's not dense fog; it's air pollution.  The entire city looks like the proverbial smoke-filled room, and it is just as dangerous to human health - only on a much larger scale.  Beijing is dealing with ever-increasing traffic (from fossil fueled vehicles) and intense factory production fueled by coal.

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There is a nice little piece by Nick Hanauer that has been making the rounds on social media for several weeks.  Hanauer makes the case that the rich are not “job creators.”  He attempts to debunk this right-wing messaging contortion that would have us believe that cutting taxes on the richest people will induce them to hire workers.  However, since the rich have enjoyed historically low taxation for the past ten years or so, it begs the question of why we have so much unemployment since we gave them so much incentive to hire people.  It’s a crock at best, and a nasty threat at worst (“give us your money and we’ll think about giving you a low-wage job”), and Hanauer mostly gets it right.

Hanauer’s main point, which is valid, is that putting money in the hands of rich people rather than working people is counter-productive because “capitalists without customers are out of business.”  What he fails to mention – perhaps because he understands the point I am about to make – is that the Republicans have a plan to deal with this.  It is the elimination of all labor standards.  While Hanauer makes the point that we must have a stable middle class that can afford to buy products, the Republican Plan is that we should have lower prices so that an increasing low-income class can afford to buy products.  The idea is that prices are high due to labor costs.  Lower labor costs as much as possible and prices come down.  Labor standards – including even child labor laws and prohibitions against indentured servitude  – appear to be on the cutting block for Republicans.  They have resurrected the fallacy that lowering the minimum wage increases employment.  In fact, the Republicans are so opposed to labor standards that they are trying to eviscerate the NLRB for merely upholding federal law, including a fairly trivial requirement that businesses hang a poster in the break room that informs workers of their rights under federal law.  Hanauer recognizes something Henry Ford did seventy years ago – if you pay your workers better they can buy your products.  (Ford, by the way, was no liberal.)  The Republican Plan operates in the opposite direction.  If you pay your workers less you can lower prices so your workers can buy your products.  The difference is that Ford’s plan actually worked and the Republican’s has been an abject failure.  And that is just the economics of it – never mind the values argument.

Originally published by this author at The Big Idea.

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A small part of the president's proposal announced in his September 8th speech was to bring to scale a job training program from Georgia that impacts very few unemployed people.  Since it has no real costs associated with it, proposing it was harmless.  But, this is one program that the Republicans - particularly Medicare-privatizer Rep. Paul Ryan -  really like.  Not because it has no costs, but apparently because they think that the unemployed should be forced to work in exchange for their benefits.  This is perhaps the inevitable result of proposing to scale up a program like Georgia Works during a proposal that is geared at creating jobs.  The president is serious about doing something to help unemployed workers - the Republicans just want use the opportunity to further transfer wealth from working people to the rich.  And free labor does make some people very rich.  Just not the people doing the work.

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A good friend of mine suggested that the outcome of the debt debate set the table for the president to push for a job creation agenda.  By getting the issue out of the way and compromising on the need for debt reduction, the president now can assert some moral authority to demand Congress act to address the most pressing need in many American families right now – jobs.  And there is polling to suggest that tax cuts for the rich and deregulation will not fly with a lot of independent voters as legitimate, good-faith proposals to create jobs.

So, the room has been made in American politics to debate a job creation agenda.  I assume most people, who aren’t already exasperated, would say, “It’s about time.”  Of course, that is a little unfair since there have been job creation proposals out there, but the tea party element has successfully captured the debate on shredding the safety net in favor of cutting taxes for the rich and deregulating occupational and consumer safety and health policies for their corporate patrons.  It is difficult to argue for new spending in such an environment, but as any sane economist will tell you that is what is needed to spark job creation in a depression like this one.

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I have to start by saying that I am not very optimistic about the speech the president is going to give next week – apparently whenever the minority party allows him to.  We have taken very minor steps to deal with the most serious economic crisis this country has faced since the 1930s, but yet the dominant political rhetoric seems to be that we did too much and that is why things are bad.  Too much?  Really?  The relatively small so-called stimulus bill of 2009 cost less than $800 billion.  About half of that went to tax cuts.  Considering the scope of the problem and the size of our economy, it was a small stimulus.  The best use of the money was in grants to states to fill their budget gaps and the safety net extensions, such as the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program.  Those latter things, however, are not stimulus.

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It seems to be conventional wisdom in American politics these days that the public sector should be cut in bad economic times.  And that more private sector employment is good, but more public sector employment is bad.  This is wrong.  Public sector employment is better for the economy than private sector employment in bad times.  Why?  In a nutshell it is because public sector jobs provide services to people who need them in a bad economy while also providing people with … jobs.

How exactly does laying-off public sector workers help the economy?  Republicans seem to equate public sector layoffs with private sector hires - that is, they are of equal economic value. (And, frankly, most Democrats do not challenge this assumption in any meaningful way.)  The focus is kept on the cost of public sector workers, as if they are on the dole.  But, public sector employees are workers and they have families to support.  On top of that, they provide essential public services to, among other things, private sector workers who have been laid off and need support.  Also, all workers are taxpayers, not just those in the private sector.  There is not one public sector worker that I am aware of who is exempt from local, state, and federal taxes.  (In fact, even those on unemployment insurance pay income taxes on the benefits and sales taxes on purchases made with the benefits.)

So, what do we get from laying off public sector workers?  

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Big UI Idea #1: Using the Unemployment Insurance System to Subsidize Employment and Create Jobs

One of the persistent complaints about Congress during the Great Recession was that it did not do enough to create jobs.  To be fair it was often the loudest complainers in the political realm who actually provided obstacles for government-sponsored job programs.  Because the political opposition argued that only tax cuts and deregulation were necessary to cut jobs – and that public workers should be fired and social programs cut – there appeared to be little political appetite to expand government programs for job creation (as opposed to expanding funding of existing programs, which is largely what the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 did – in addition to tax cuts).  One area that could – indeed, should – be retooled for the needs of our current political economy is the unemployment insurance (UI) system.  Rooted in a view of work and the economy from an industrial, mid-20th Century perspective, the UI system is still oriented as a system for temporary layoffs rather than permanent separations.

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In the past three years, there have been consistent claims that states were “cooking the books” with the monthly job estimates every time the news did not fit into someone’s particular narrative.  The problem is that – while there are non-trivial flaws with the job estimates – the states simply cannot make up job numbers to mute bad news.

The job estimates and the unemployment rate are derived from two different surveys which use different units of analysis.  Both surveys are conducted by the Census for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) during the week of the month that includes the 12th day.  The unemployment rate is a product of the Current Population Survey (CPS) which measures the number of persons who are in the labor force and how many of them are employed and unemployed.  There are 60,000 households surveyed nationally each month for the CPS.  The job estimates are a product of the Current Establishment Survey (CES) which measures the number of jobs by industry.  There are 140,000 establishments surveyed nationally for the CES each month.

The production of monthly job estimates is supervised and driven by the BLS.  States cannot release job estimates that are not approved by the BLS.  In the past, states were permitted to utilize analyst intervention to massage job estimates to better reflect the local knowledge officials had of their state and regional economies.  This ability has been increasingly curtailed over the past several years – to the point where it functionally has not existed for more than a year.

The response rate in the CES survey is typically poor, and the production of the job estimates are made by a probability model created by the BLS.  This model must take into account all of the myriad moving parts of the economy – such as breakdown of large firms versus small firms, the percentage of firms in different industries and sub-industries, the proper industry mix in a given state, etc.  All of these considerations – which are not inherent in the CPS household survey – creates a product that has a greater degree of error in it than any analyst would like.  Yet, it is the best we have.  Firms are not required to participate in the survey.  (Note that I am using “firm” and “establishment” to refer to the same thing in this blog – a specific business location that employs at least one person.)

In an nutshell, here’s how the production of the job estimates work from the states’ perspective:

1.  The states receive from the BLS the CES responses from establishments in their states.  Each state is given an estimate range that the state job estimate should be consistent with.  The estimates of the states MUST total to the national estimate.  This is another area that provides error since the national estimate is an estimate itself – not a total of estimates.

2.  State LMI staff input the responses into the probability model created by the BLS.

3.  State LMI staff check the responses to make sure that there aren’t obvious or potential mistakes or in the data.

4.  State LMI staff incorporates any corrections from data (but ability to do this has been curtailed over the past few years).

5.  The states transmit their estimates to BLS for approval.

6.  BLS transmits approved estimates to the states.  States MUST publish those estimates.  BLS will publish them regardless of what the states do.  This is a preliminary estimate – because responses continue to come in from establishments during this process.  Those straggler responses (and there are typically a lot of them) are then incorporated into the revised estimates that are published the following month (but get a lot less attention – even though they are more accurate than the preliminary estimates).

For those still not convinced that states are not cooking the books, the role states play in the production of the job estimates is essentially over now.  As of March 2011, the consolidation of authority for the job estimates at the national level (i.e., BLS) has been completed.  Here’s the announcement on the BLS website:

Production of State estimates will transition from State Workforce Agencies to BLS

With the production of preliminary estimates for March, 2011, responsibility for the production of State and metropolitan area (MSA) estimates will transition from individual State Workforce Agencies to the BLS. State agencies will continue to provide the BLS with information on local events that may affect the estimates, such as strikes or large layoffs at businesses not covered by the survey, and to disseminate and analyze the CES estimates for local data users. This change is designed to improve the cost efficiency of the CES program and to reduce the potential for statistical bias in state and area estimates. A portion of the cost savings generated by this change is slated to be directed towards raising survey response rates in future years, which will decrease the level of statistical error in the CES estimates.

Refinement of procedures for producing State and MSA estimates

Estimates produced by the BLS at the statewide industry super-sector level will continue to utilize an improved outlier identification procedure that has been in effect since the production of January 2010 preliminary state CES estimates. Beginning with March 2011 preliminary estimates, this procedure also will be used in the estimation of detailed industry statewide estimates and MSA estimates. In addition at that time, the BLS will implement an improved imputation procedure for major survey non-respondents and a procedure to correct for differential response rates within an industry sector. The use of these procedures will allow BLS to rely less on individual analyst judgment and more on the use of standard statistical methodology. Statewide and MSA series with smaller sample sizes will continue to be estimated using a small domain model. Introduction of the new estimation procedures may result in more month to month variability in the estimates, particularly in smaller MSAs. For further information on the estimators see www.bls.gov/opub/hom/homch2.htm.

Published by this author at The Big Idea.

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The arc of this (planned) four-part piece is about how we deal with the environmental impacts of urban development now that we have a clearer understanding of the relationship of greenhouse gasses (GHG) to climate change.  Part 1 attempted to set the stage by delivering some comments on the changing conception of what we consider to be environmental impacts for the purposes of environmental review in the urban development process.  It did not, however, contain a clear introduction to the argument and how the comments of Part 1 fit into it.  This appendix to the first part is my attempt to fix that defect.

The evolution of thinking about environmental impacts has been well documented from the preservation/conservation movement that gave us the national and state park systems to the anti-pollution movement that supported the regulation of the release of harmful matter into the air and water from toxic and industrial uses to the climate change movement that is focused on the release of greenhouse gasses by all manner of human activity.  NEPA, CEQA, and other state environmental policy acts (SEPAs) were forged in the anti-pollution and conservation mindsets and, consequently, policy and law developed to address the observable and tangible damage and no-growth philosophies inherent in each perspective.  As a result, some of the development decisions that were made in response to these kinds of understood environmental impacts may have unintentionally increased other impacts on climate change.

“Environmental review” is a factor in the urban development process that is designed to provide information to the public about how a particular project impacts the natural environment.  In the urban planning discipline it is a concept deeply rooted in the rational planning model – the perspective that more information makes better projects.  While primarily an informational tool, it can be a tool for slowing or stopping a project if the review is not done properly according to law.  In an anti-pollution context one will view the impacts of a particular project one way; in a climate change context one might view the impacts differently.  For example, we know that the more vehicle miles traveled, the more greenhouse gasses are released into the atmosphere.  Because sprawling urban development increases regional vehicle miles traveled while dense urban development reduces it, in general we would – from a climate change perspective – expect to see better impacts on the environment from dense urban development than from sprawling development.  However, from an anti-pollution perspective we might be concerned more about the other impacts from concentrated development.  The issue is not whether one should be discarded in favor of the other (to be sure, there is a lot of overlap between localized pollution and GHG release that impacts global conditions), but what standards we must apply to regional and urban development and the role environmental review should play in meeting those standards.

Environmental review can help frame the development envelope despite its essentially informational posture.  For this reason, re-crafting a law such as CEQA to better address the planning priorities associated with GHG reduction goals is certainly advisable.  This is what SB 375 attempts to do in creating new categories of exemptions to review for projects that meet criteria consistent with the carbon reduction goals and the regional sustainability plans that are also mandated by the new law.  To help environmental review to become a useful tool in creating and maintaining a GHG reduction development envelope, changes in scoping and analyzing projects under CEQA are also advisory.  This will be addressed in Parts 3 and 4.  In Part 2, we’ll turn from environmental review to explore another development institution that could play an even more important role in planning for climate change – the public tools of urban redevelopment.

Published by this author at The Big Idea.

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“Rethinking Environmental Impacts” is a four-part piece that examines the relationship between climate change, environmental review, and development politics in the California context.  Part 1 deals with the changing ways we are thinking about the use of environmental review.  Part 2 will deal with the use of redevelopment tools to implement greenhouse gas reduction goals.  Part 3 will examine the idea that environmental review should privilege positive environmental impacts such as public health goals.  Part 4 will consider the future for environmental review in California and the nation more generally.

Part 1 – The evolving thinking on the environmental impacts of urban development.

The way we think about how human activity impacts natural environment has evolved over the forty years since the first Earth Day.

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Last week, Suffolk University released its latest poll on the Senate race in Massachusetts. Not that there's a race at the moment. The only person running against Senator Scott Brown is Bob Massie, a nice guy who's political claim to fame is running for Lieutenant Governor on the Democrats' worst gubernatorial showing in the last 40 years (in 1996 against Weld). High profile candidates such as Governor Deval Patrick, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, and former U.S. Representative Joe Kennedy have all demurred on a run. Still, Suffolk decided to poll 500 registered voters on whether they (and a few other Democrats) could beat the incumbent. Kennedy came closest, losing 45-40. But, there is some reason to believe that he is actually running even with the incumbent - putting aside margin of error for the moment. The reason is rooted in a potential problem with the sample that was surveyed.

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