American Mom and Pops Want Climate Fixes

Poll: American small business owners favor climate action.

American small business owners. When it comes to politics, they’re portrayed as mythic heroes of the American economy, the salt-of-the-earth “mom and pops,” the real job creators, a constituency to be catered to, a force to be reckoned with. Like apple pie. And conventional wisdom would have it that this powerful, Republican-leaning slice of the electorate would fall in with the far-right when it comes to climate attitudes.

But a June 2014 survey of small business owners across the US conducted by the American Sustainable Business Council this month found that the nation’s local, bedrock employers support action on climate change.

And significantly, these views cut across party lines. A plurality of those surveyed (43 percent) self-identified as either Republican or Republican-leaning Independent. These scientific survey results counter the argument that the business community generally resists action on climate change. It found the opposite, with small business owners particularly concerned about climate change’s impact on their bottom line.

The national phone survey of 555 owners of small businesses (2 to 99 employees) found that clear majorities of small business owners are concerned about how climate change will affect their companies, including its impact on energy costs, health care costs and the infrastructure they depend on.

In fact, survey respondents voiced strong support for government action to address climate change, specifically, efforts to limit carbon pollution from power plants.

Read more »

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Back to the Future

Modernizing regulation, reimbursement, and care for our teens.
This post is 6 in the series: Teen Pregnancy: Going... Going...

More than 80 percent of teen pregnancies are accidents. A girl with other hopes and dreams—or maybe a girl who is floundering, who hasn’t even begun to explore her hopes and dreams—finds herself unexpectedly slated for either an abortion or 4,000 diapers. Given the shame and stigma surrounding abortion in many American subcultures, that can seem like a choice between the proverbial rock and hard place. The exciting news that launched this Sightline series is that teen pregnancy is in decline across the United States and across all major ethnic groups. Fewer and fewer young women are facing hard decisions after the fact.

All the same, America continues to have the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed country, and Canada looks stellar only when compared to the States. Even in Cascadia, which is better off than most regions, several thousand babies are born each year to girls between the ages of 15 and 17, and thousands more to young women aged 18 or 19 (e.g., Oregon 2012, Washington 2012, British Columbia 2010). Across the United States, almost 1,000 infants are born to teens each day. And approximately 30 to 50 percent of teen girls who give birth will experience a rapid repeat pregnancy within 24 months, which multiplies medical complications and the risk of lifelong poverty.

Economic Inequality

Early unplanned childbearing widens the gulf of income inequality. Pregnancy often compels girls to drop out of school, and fewer than 40 percent of those who give birth before graduating go on to complete high school by age 22. In a survey of high school dropouts aged 19–35, only 17 percent held full-time jobs, and half of those employed said they had no opportunity to advance beyond their current position. By age 25, even those who do work full time earn 30 percent less than their peers who completed high school and 60 percent less than college graduates. Their loss of productivity and income has been called a permanent recession.

Racial Justice

Early unplanned childbearing also widens racial disparities. Birthrates for black and Hispanic teens are more than double that of their white peers and quadruple the rate for Asian/Pacific Islanders. Since the birthrate is highest among Latinas, some people assume that early childbearing is simply a cultural norm. But a wide-ranging survey of US Hispanics found that Hispanic parents had other dreams for their daughters, and so did the girls who ended up pregnant. In the words of one advocate, Ruthie Flores, “There’s a big disconnect between pregnancy rates and what Latina families want and value.” Read more »

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Northwest Knows Best?

But Citizens United left us some nasty residue.
This post is 5 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like
gavel-and-flag-860w-istock

Research by Jane Harvey

Last time, I described Buckley v Valeo, the seminal Supreme Court ruling that teed up Citizens United and that forbids caps on political spending in the United States. In that case, Chief Justice Warren Burger dissented, writing, “What remains after today’s holding leaves no more than a shadow of what Congress contemplated. I question whether the residue leaves a workable program.”

This article documents the residue—the unworkable program that attempts to regulate money in politics—in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. What rules of disclosure, contribution limits, and public funding govern democracy in the Northwest states?

Disclosure

“Sunlight is . . . the best of disinfectants,” said early 20th Century Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and disclosure rules of varying stringency cover all of the Northwest. Yet loopholes puncture them, and obfuscation remains widespread. As bad, even when they work, disclosure rules mostly make public long lists of donor names and dollar amounts, leaving voters with little usable information about whom politicians listen to and why. In fact, regular media reports on fundraising totals amp up the fundraising pressure on candidates.

Federal candidates must report the contributions they receive, their expenditures, and other financial information to the Federal Election Commission seven times on specified dates during election years. Donors who give more than $200 must reveal their name, occupation, employer, and address to the campaign, which must report that information. Some independent expenditure campaigns must also disclose contributors and spending. Read more »

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Highest and Best Use…Or Not.

When NOT improving property is highly profitable.

­­With the sharp rise in Seattle real estate values over the last several years, you might assume that landowners have been champing at the bit to redevelop some of the low-value, dilapidated properties that they own in and around downtown.

Yet in many cases you’d be wrong. As it turns out, holding onto a crumbling building, and even letting it slowly deteriorate, can be a terrific business proposition. As the surrounding neighborhood develops, growing in value by attracting new residents and businesses, a rundown piece of property can skyrocket in price. Landowners themselves have done nothing to boost the value of the neighborhood; they’re just taking a free ride on the coattails of their neighbors.

The King County Department of Assessments appraises property with the express intent of reflecting property at its “highest and best use,” defined by the Assessment office as:

If improved: Based on neighborhood trends, both demographic and current development patterns, the existing buildings represent the highest and best use of most sites.

We find that the current improvements do add value to the property, in most cases, and are therefore the highest and best use of the property as improved. In those properties where the property is not at its highest and best use, a nominal value of $1,000 is assigned to the improvements.

So based on appraisal data, most assessors seem to assume that downtown properties are put to their “best” use. Yet you can find quite a few properties assigned the default value—a measly $1,000—indicating that the “improvements” on the property are virtually worthless, and would be better replaced with, well, practically anything else. At times, assessors even assign buildings a value of $0, certainly the strongest possible statement that the property is not being put to good economic use.

What does a Seattle property with improvements assessed at $1,000 look like? What about one assessed at $0? Walking through Seattle’s Central Business District, six specific sites stuck out to my eye.

1. United Parking Garage, 701 4th AVE; Lot area, 14,280 sq. ft.; Built in 1964

Taxable Improvement Value, 1999-2015, $1,000

Taxable Land Value, $1,785,000 (1999); $10,710,000 (2015)

2. Fourth and Columbia Valet, 719 4th Ave; Lot area, 14,280 sq. ft.; Built in 1919

Taxable Improvement Value, 1999-2015, $1,000

Taxable Land Value, $1,785,000 (1999); $10,710,000 (2015)

3. Budget Parking Garage, 807 4th Ave; Lot area, 13,320 sq. ft.; Built in 1923

Taxable Improvement Value, 1999-2015, $1,000

Taxable Land Value, $1,998,000 (1999); $9,990,000 (2015)

A charitable architectural critic might politely call these parking garages aging novelties. Someone far more blunt would call them eyesores. But what they lack in aesthetic value they make up for in location, location, location, as both City Hall and the Columbia Center, the second tallest building on the West Coast, are just seconds away. So even as the property owners have allowed these buildings to languish, with assessments showing that the structures are nearly worthless, the land values have soared, principally because of investments by neighbors and taxpayers to create a more vibrant downtown.

Holding these downtown properties off the market—rather than turning them into more valuable homes, offices, or stores—has fed sprawl, since it has forced developers to turn their gaze outward to find developable land. Together these three adjacent lots make up 41,880 square feet, with a total taxable value (land plus improvements) of $31,413,000. In comparison, the Columbia Center, sits on a lot sized at 59,266 square feet, only moderately larger than the three aforementioned lots. Total taxable value? An eye-catching $310,396,000. This is not to say that a junior-sized Columbia Center could be erected at these three lots, but it does suggest a considerable opportunity cost of having deteriorating parking structures in the heart of downtown Seattle.

4. Cherry Street Parking Garage, 213 Cherry Street; Lot area, 9,160 sq. ft.; Built in 1900

Taxable Improvement Value, $355,000 (1999); $1,228,400 (2004); $1,000 (2008-15)

Taxable Land Value, $1,145,000 (1999); $5,496,000 (2015)

Unlike the other examples listed, this aging parking structure has fluctuated in value over the years. From 1999 to 2004, the assessed value of the structure increased; potentially a sign that the owner had made some improvements on the property. But this figure proceeded to plummet, and has been stuck at $1,000 since 2008. Its Cherry Street location is a prime spot, sitting between the historic Pioneer Square and City Hall. In the future, the land value will only increase, as it is located next to the Civic Square development site, what should be the next towering addition to Seattle’s skyline. That is, of course, if construction ever gets a much-needed jump-start.

5. Surface Parking Lot, 1516 1st A; Lot area, 13,320 sq. ft.

Taxable Improvement Value, $1,000 (1999); $0 (2000-15)

Taxable Land Value, $1,332,000 (1999); $3,330,000 (2015)

This 13,320 square foot parking lot is owned by the Samis Foundation, the charitable body of the late Sam Israel, a former Seattle property tycoon best known for snapping up choice lots and allowing them to sit idle as they slowly fell into neglect and ruin. Directly across from Pike Place Market, Seattle’s top tourist attraction, and right next to Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue, one of the glitziest condo towers west of the Mississippi River, this surface parking lot could be one of the best addresses in the entire city. But in an unpleasant juxtaposition that’s all too common in the city, it’s just a patch of empty concrete bordered by a low-rise strip club.

6. Surface Parking Lot, 1101 Western Ave; Lot area, 35,233 sq. ft.

Taxable Improvement Value, $1,000 (1999); $0 (2000-15)

Taxable Land Value, $2,818,640 (1999); $9,689,000 (2015)

This Western Ave space is quite possibly the most infamous surface parking lot in Seattle, the subject of a 2013 showdown between the lot’s 103 year-old owner, Myrtle Woldson, and the Seattle City Council. The city, you see, hoped to use its powers of eminent domain to seize the property for the purpose of turning Woldson’s parking lot…into a parking lot. Located near Seattle’s soon-to-be renovated waterfront, the value of this land is set to rise even faster than it already has over the past 16 years, which may help explain why the city wanted the property in the first place. In the end, despite a Council vote granting a mandate for the acquisition of the parking lot, it remained with Woldson, who died recently at the age of 104.

Obviously, there’s no sight of illegal activity in any of these examples. Landowners are perfectly within their rights to hold on to crumbling parking garages and surface lots, profiteering from rising property values in a revitalized city. The problem is that our property tax system actually rewards this behavior. Leaving a valuable property underdeveloped is an effective method of keeping your tax bills low. At the same time, holding a lot of properties off the market is a great way to make land scarce, which also puts upward pressure on land prices. The tax system, as it’s designed, gives clear incentives for property owners to sit tight as city property values rise.

As mentioned in previous articles, one solution is simply to tax land speculation, by shifting the tax burden away from buildings and onto land. Land-Value Taxation, as it’s called, isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. In theory, it’s easy enough to tax buildings and land at different rates (often called “split-rate” taxation), a system used in a few other places in the US. Boosting the tax on land would simultaneously cut into land speculators’ profits, while making it more expensive to hold valuable but underutilized properties off the market. Those sorts of incentives could help spur infill development—a vitally important step towards boosting housing supply, decreasing the need for car ownership, and building a cleaner, more livable urban landscape.

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A Downtown School Just Dropped in Seattle’s Lap

For free (maybe). Will the school district take it on?
This post is 5 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities

Andrea Miller’s third-grader has never been to school on May Day. She stays home each year, rather than risk the chance that her school bus will become hopelessly mired in the occasionally violent protests that engulf downtown Seattle streets.

Theoretically, it’s only an 8-minute drive between the Millers’ downtown Seattle apartment and John Hay Elementary, the public elementary school near the top of Queen Anne Hill to which (until recently) most children living downtown were assigned. But the family doesn’t own a car.

If the school calls because her daughter is sick or hurt, it can take anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes for Miller and her two younger children to find a Zipcar or get there on a bus. Her eldest spends an hour and a half on a school bus each day. And that won’t improve much when she starts this fall at Lowell Elementary, the Capitol Hill school to which many downtown families were recently reassigned because of overcrowding at John Hay.

Those tortured logistics are at odds with the very reasons many families live downtown—to shorten commutes, have everyone and everything close by, and actually see more of each other. As Miller put it:

You throw in homework, and family time is pretty much gone Monday through Thursday. It’s also harder for us as parents to be involved in the school.  You can’t say you’ll go volunteer for an hour because you know one hour will be three. I don’t know a lot of the other parents because I’m never on the playground after school, and you just really miss having that sense of community.

That could all change, given an insanely rare opportunity for Seattle Public Schools (SPS) to acquire a 100,000 square foot building in downtown Seattle—for free. Read more »

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Weekend Reading 7/18/14

Readers make the best lovers, the 8-minute Comcast plea, and more.
This post is 163 in the series: Weekend Reading

Meaghan

Why readers, scientifically, are the best people to fall in love with.

Serena

The Gaza-Israel situation is beyond words. InFocus had a stunning set of photos of the conflict’s impact (warning to the weak of stomach: some are graphic) last week.

“Corrupt, f*****, and broken.” That, essentially, is what Millennials think of their political system. Alternatively (worse?), we are just completely confused. Argument #1,436 for why we need better civic education in this country.

Okay, we actually just need a better public education system and evaluation criteria in general. Here’s a fascinating story of what one Georgia school was reduced to in order to attempt to meet its test score goals.

And now for your Friday cry:

My daughter recently passed away after a long battle in the children’s hospital. Since she was in the hospital her whole life we never were able to get a photo without all her tubes. Can someone remove the tubes from this photo?

That was one Reddit user’s request—and the response was, well…

An interesting addition to the working moms conversation. Though I don’t have kids myself, I remember a number of long babysitting jobs—I know, I know, seriously not comparable to motherhood—that drove energetic, teenage me to a state of exhausted, speechless stupor:

Moms who worked full time reported significantly better physical and mental health than moms who worked part time, research involving more than 2,500 mothers found. And mothers who worked part time reported better health than moms who didn’t work at all.

Read more »

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A Move to Ban the Most Dangerous Oil Trains

Environmental law group petitions regulators to follow safety recommendations.
This post is 42 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

Yesterday, EarthJustice announced that it was filing a formal legal petition to compel the Secretary of the US Department of Transportation to issue an Emergency Order within thirty days to ban the use of unsafe legacy DOT-111 tank cars for transporting Bakken and other dangerous crude oils.

In what appears to be a case of “coincidental” timing, industry and federal regulators leaked news the evening before the EarthJustice announcement that they had sketched out an agreement for a three-year (or longer) phase-out of legacy DOT-111s.

The EarthJustice petition references extensive documentation from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) going back to the 1990s that identifies severe flaws in the DOT-111 design specifications. The weaknesses are so profound that they make it almost inevitable that the tank cars will spill their contents upon derailment, even at slow speeds. EarthJustice argues that there is an urgent need to ban the legacy tank cars from transporting explosive crude oil. In 2013 alone:

…more than 1.1 million gallons of crude oil spilled in the U.S., more in one year than the total amount spilled from 1975-2012. More than 4,000 people were evacuated from their homes due to crude-by-rail train explosions in 2013, dwarfing the total number evacuated due to pipeline and rail accidents from 2002-2012…

To which industry spokesperson Tom Simpson replied, “[Legacy DOT-111s]are not rolling time bombs. They are not Pintos on rails,” referring to the older model Ford cars known to catch fire in accidents.

In June, Sightline identified a federal Emergency Order as the mechanism most likely to pop the Bakken bubble.

What happens next? According to Earthjustice’s FAQ document, the Transportation Department is required to respond to the legal petition, either by issuing the requested Emergency Order, issuing some alternative order, or denying it. If the administration fails to take appropriate action promptly, EarthJustice promises to turn to the courts to force DOT to act.

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5 Elements of Good Stories—5 Deadly Sins

How to win (or lose) the "Story Wars" (Part I).
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards
Photo Credit: susivinh via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: susivinh via Compfight cc

Story Wars? That’s right. Sometimes today’s fast-paced, 24-hour, digital media landscape can indeed seem like a battlefield. Every time we lob a new message into the fray, we hope it’ll win hearts and minds, but we aren’t surprised when it “bombs.”

Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell—and live—the best stories will rule the future, says that either our stories inspire participation and evangelism by audiences or they wither.

Sachs makes the case that the storyteller who will “rule the future” must begin to see herself as a modern-day myth-maker—someone who sees gaps in the stories we’ve been telling ourselves and fills them, creating new meaning and rituals and encouraging her audiences on their path to fulfillment.

He knows what he’s talking about. He’s the brain behind some of the most popular, viral, for-good-not-just-profit messages of our time, including Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, The Meatrix, Grocery Store Wars and many others. He’s a co-founder and CEO of Free Range Studios.

The book came out in 2012 and I’ve been meaning to write about it every since. I’ll be issuing a series of Flashcards that sum up the key lessons. (I also recommend reading the book and checking out the resources at winningthestorywars.com)

Let’s start with the basics—five elements of winning stories and five pitfalls to avoid (Sachs calls them the Deadly Sins!).

5 Elements of Good Stories—5 Deadly Sins

Your story should be…1) Tangible—It’s like we can touch and see your ideas.
2) Relatable—
Good behavior is rewarded and bad is punished. Our values are reinforced.
3) Immersive—We can imagine ourselves in the story. 4) Memorable—Paint vivid “pictures in our minds.” 5) Emotional—Facts and data aren’t enough; you make us feel something.

Don’t default to…1) Vanity—It’s about you, not your audience. 2) Authority—Spewing facts without saying why it matters. 3) Puffery—Commands, not inspiration to act, join, or engage. 4) Insincerity—Telling us what we want to hear, not expanding our thinking.
5) Gimmickry—Going for quick laughs and missing meaningful connections.

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Stand by Me

How providers can better meet kids on their own turf.
This post is 5 in the series: Teen Pregnancy: Going... Going...

No one birth control method fits everyone, but today young women have better options than ever before. Across the United States, from New York to South Carolina to Texas to Oregon, health advocates and providers are scrambling to get the word out about long-acting yet easily reversible contraceptive methods that are now approved for use by teenagers and well liked by most who use them. (See this earlier Sightline series, Twenty Times Better Than the Pill.)

Some of the energy has gone into creating youth-friendly information sources online such as Bedsider, followed by SexEtc, SafeAndEffective, and StayTeen. Other energy is targeted at bringing age-appropriate sexual health information and services to teens wherever they may congregate and whenever they may have contact with the health care system.

The Family Doctor

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that any contact between a young person and a medical provider be treated as an opportunity to invite conversation about family planning and top-tier long-acting reversible contraceptive methods specifically. Sexually active young people face a high pregnancy risk but may be reluctant to seek out sexual health services, especially if this could involve a parent’s insurance company. They do see doctors for everything from sports physicals to acne to chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, however.

School-Based Clinics

One of the mechanisms for improving teen health broadly is a trend toward school-based health clinics that bring practitioners to kids rather than vice versa. Reproductive health and mental health make up a large portion of the service mix at most high school clinics. Multnomah County, home to Portland, created its first school-based health clinic 30 years ago with the goal of reducing teen pregnancy, which is the number one reason that girls drop out of high school. Today almost every public high school in the city has one, and students at Benson Polytechnic, a school with a high poverty rate, are lobbying for one of their own. Read more »

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Industry To Feds: We Will Keep Using Old Unsafe Tank Cars For Three More Years, or Longer If We Feel Like It

Ignoring safety reports, oil train industry tries to roll regulators.
This post is 41 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

This is the kind of oil industry-friendly approach to regulation that should make you want to bang your head on your desk. Bloomberg has the story:

The oil industry and the railroads that haul its crude have offered U.S. regulators a joint plan to phase out a type of older tank car tied to a spate of fiery accidents… The parties agreed to scrap a fleet of thousands of DOT-111s within three years if manufacturers agree they can replace or retrofit the tank cars in that period. [emphasis added]

What happened here is that the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of American Railroads met privately with federal regulators to offer this proposal in lieu of more stringent safety rules, such as those recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Keep in mind that the DOT-111 tank cars in question are notoriously and obviously unsafe. Four times in the last year they have derailed and unleashed towering infernos, killing 47 people in one case. Yet the industry wants to keep them rolling on a daily basis through the heart of big cities, past major league baseball games, schools, cruise ship terminals, you name it. Even though these shipments expose taxpayers to enormous liability risks because the industry is radically under-insured against catastrophic accidents.

And even though these shipments are so dangerous that the slow federal regulatory response earned the ire of the top US transportation safety official who called it, “a tombstone mentality” and said, “we don’t need a higher body count before they move forward.”

But big industry players—railroads and oil companies alike—oppose removing legacy DOT-111s from service because doing so might burst the Bakken shale oil bubble.

Worse yet, even the overlong three year plan the industry proposes is probably little more than a smokescreen because even that schedule contains a poisonous caveat that tank car manufacturers be able to produce enough tank cars. Yet there’s very good reason to think that they can’t. In fact, industry representatives have already warned “that the railway supply industry will have a hard time meeting the rising demand for new cars while retrofitting existing ones,” and shippers looking to buy rail cars are already facing a two-year backlog in some markets.

The details of the plan are troubling too. Among other elements, the industry favors tank cars with thinner steel shells than what the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended, apparently to reduce costs. If regulators at the US Transportation Department go along, the deal would represent an unscientific approach that compromises safety to gain industry approval.

It should be clear by now—after explosion followed by explosion—that the crude oil-by-rail industry thinks about safety regulations differently than most people do. Here they are in their own words:

Edward Hamberger, chief executive officer of the [American Association of Railroads], said “What is the need for commerce? What is the need for having a tank that actually has some capacity? You could make them a foot thick and then have them carry three gallons each. There will always be some risk.”

 

Update: Patrick Rucker with Reuters reports that the oil refining industry is balking at the agreement between the oil producers and railroads:

“Our members own or lease the lion’s share of rail tank cars used to transport crude oil,” said Rebecca Adler, a spokeswoman for the [American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers].

“AFPM members have not yet considered the API/AAR specification car and have not seen the data showing the costs and benefits.”

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