Oregon’s Chance to Fix the Electoral College

Oregon can join Washington in a clever Constitutional hack.
This post is 19 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

Thomas Jefferson believed that “[e]very constitution… naturally expires at the end of 19 years.” As “new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed… institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.” But Jefferson did not manage to insert a 20 year reset button into the US Constitution; instead, the nation ended up with the most difficult to amend or update Constitution in the entire world. The United States is number one!

The US Electoral College is a poster child for Jefferson’s fear that a constitution may linger beyond its natural life. When the Founding Fathers conceived of the Electoral College as “a small number” of “men most capable of analyzing” the “complicated” question of who should be president, there were fewer eligible voters in the whole country than there are now in just the city of Portland (there were only 2.5 million people in the whole country, and only a tiny fraction of those—white, wealthy, Protestant men—were allowed to vote). The Electoral College has always been a rubber stamp rather than the deliberative body the Founding Fathers imagined. Read more »

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Weekend Reading 4/24/15

A pesky division problem, how phones fight homelessness, and "bomb trains" at the Mariners game.
This post is 200 in the series: Weekend Reading


Joe Cortright asks exactly the right question: why can’t The Atlantic and Bloomberg do long division? The same goes for the Boston Globe and a host of other outlets that I won’t bother to link to. They all repeated a claim made by J.D. Power, a marketing firm, that “Gen Y” is buying more cars than “Gen X”—writing stories suggesting that the allegedly car-averse Millennials are actually surpassing the 40-somethings in their love of the auto. But there’s that pesky division problem: by the Powers definition, Gen Y includes 78 million people, while Gen X has just 45 million. And once you adjust for population, GenY’s car purchases trails GenX by 36%.

But even that misses the point. The right question to ask is: how does GenY compare with GenX, back when GenXers were the same age as today’s GenY?  J.D. Power undoubtedly has the answers in its research files. But it doesn’t seem to be sharing them. You have to wonder why.  Maybe because it doesn’t make headlines?


From weather updates and maps navigation to job searching on Craigslist and networking with fellow travelers, mobile phones have been a game-changer for people experiencing homelessness, especially among the younger generation. Read more »

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More Headwinds for Coal Exports

Coal markets are looking less hospitable to US exports.
This post is 34 in the series: Coal Exports: Caveat Investor

It’s been a fast and furious few months on the Northwest coal export front—and almost all of the news has been bad for the coal industry’s hopes to ship coal from the Northwest to Asia:

  • International coal prices remain near multi-year lows. After a slight uptick earlier in the year, benchmark thermal coal prices have fallen back to where they were in the depths of the global recession. Adjusted for inflation, they’re the lowest they’ve been since early 2007. And the future market holds out little hope for a rebound: prices for the Pacific Rim key coal market benchmark remain below $60 per ton through 2021.
  • Chinese coal demand continues to shrink. Five years ago, market analysts believed that China’s boundless coal demand would buoy coal prices for decades. But Chinese policymakers, increasingly concerned about air pollution and industrial overproduction, have enacted a variety of policies to curb coal consumption—from coal import tariffs to provincial coal reduction targets to a nascent cap-and-trade system. Those policies appear to be working: total coal consumption in China fell nearly 3 percent in 2014 compared with the prior year, and first quarter results from 2015 suggest a year-over-year sales decline of nearly 5 percent. Coal consumption in electric power plants fell 10 percent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2015, even as Beijing announced that it would be closing all of its major coal-fired power plants by the end of 2016.
    “90% of US #coal production is uneconomical at today’s prices”Tweet this
  • Chinese coal imports are plummeting. A large share of the decline in China’s coal consumption comes from falling imports: total coal imports into the country fell 41.5 percent, year-over-year, in the first quarter of 2015. That’s roughly equal to all of South Korea’s coal demand simply disappearing from the Asian seaborne coal market.
  • A strong dollar hurts US exporters, but bolsters competitors. Long-term declines in the Indonesian rupiah, the Australian dollar, and the Russian ruble have bolstered the competitive financial position of key US coal export competitors.
  • Key US coal exporters are losing money on exports. Coal exporter Cloud Peak Energy—the Powder River Basin producer best situated to benefit from the coal trade—recently announced that it expected its export division to suffer $35 million in export losses in 2015. Last year, the company’s CEO said that it needs to see Newcastle prices in the $80-90/ton range to break even on exports. The combination of weak demand, oversupply, unfavorable policies, and a strong dollar have made it virtually impossible for US thermal coal producers to compete in Asian markets.
  • North American coal exporters are feeling the heat. Teck coal—a major metallurgical and thermal coal exporter operating in BC and Alberta—announced that it had missed earnings targets and is now trimming dividends to conserve cash. China’s sagging coal demand weighed heavily on Teck’s disappointing earnings. Meanwhile Arch Coal, co-owner of the Millennium Bulk Terminals export project in Longview, Washington, posted a $113 million loss for the first quarter, again weighed down by poor international prices—news that sent its shares tumbling.

Read more »

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Seattle Candidates, Meet Democracy Vouchers

How Seattle’s new public campaign funding system helps you run for office.
This post is 18 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

Would you run for office, if you didn’t have to raise big money from one percenters to do it? The Honest Elections Seattle Initiative is a pioneering local initiative that would provide a whole new path to office, a path through dozens of house parties and grassroots outreach, not posh downtown offices and hours of dialing for dollars. If it works in Seattle, it may spread to other places.

Last time, I described how the law’s innovative Democracy Vouchers work for you if you’re a voter. This time, I take a candidate’s eye view.

If you’re a Democracy Voucher candidate, here is what you do: Read more »


Weekend Reading 4/17/15

Rewilding our language of landscape, the cost of gun violence, a podcast for the foodie, and more.
This post is 199 in the series: Weekend Reading


“We increasingly make do with an impoverished language for landscape. A place literacy is leaving us,” writes Robert Macfarlane in a sumptuous essay in the Guardian on the multitudinous words he’s gathered from across the United Kingdom for features of nature. His project is writerly, of course, but it’s also subversive. By fastening words to visible nature, he hopes to re-particularize our perceptions of landscapes and, from that, know them, love them, and protect them better. My favorite word is “ammil”: the glittering lacquer of ice that coats every twig and blade of grass when a freeze follows a thaw. Just knowing the word for it refills me with wonder for the few times I’ve witnessed it.

In Unlocking Home, I spilled a lot of ink over the discriminatory, exclusionary nature of occupancy limits in housing: they are, pure and simple, a way to keep out people short on money. Well, the impulse is as strong as ever in Bellevue, Washington, where neo-rooming houses are being legislated out of existence in single-family neighborhoods close to a major college. CityLab explains.

Read more »

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Three Things to Know About CarbonWA’s Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax

Washington’s relief pitcher is ready to put a revenue-neutral carbon tax on the 2016 ballot.
This post is 41 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Washington House Democrats recently threw a ball by failing to include badly needed carbon revenue in their proposed budget. There may still be time to get carbon revenue back on the table, but a relief pitcher is warming up, just in case. In March, CarbonWA, a grassroots group, filed ballot language with the Secretary of State, and now supporters are out gathering signatures and raising money to put it on the 2016 ballot.

CarbonWA’s Initiative 732 is modeled after British Columbia’s successful carbon tax: it would tax pollution and use all the revenue to cut other state taxes. The CarbonWA tax would start at $15 per ton, rise to $25 per ton in year two, and then slowly and steadily increase by inflation plus 3.5 percent each year. The roughly $1.7 billion in annual revenue would:

  • Reduce the state sales tax from 6.5 percent to 5.5 percent.
  • Eliminate the business and occupation (B&O) tax for manufacturers.
  • Fund the Working Families Rebate to provide up to $1,500 a year for 400,000 low-income working households.

Read more »


Listen In: Oregon’s Proposed Polluters-Pay Bills

Two radio interviews on Oregon’s proposed carbon pricing bills sum up the facts.
This post is 40 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

No time to sit down and read our Cashing In Our Carbon series? That’s okay! I recently gave some radio interviews to help make sense of the carbon pricing bills wending their way through the Oregon legislature. So if you’re curious, maybe you can squeeze in a listen.

The recent Oregon legislative hearing about carbon pricing sparked interest in the possibilities. I spoke with Jefferson Smith on XRAy.fm with Oregon Climate’s Executive Director Camila Thorndike last week about a proposed polluters-pay-plus-dividend bill. (I wrote about the bill here).

Then on April 10, KBOO’s Jenka Soderberg asked me about the Climate Stability and Justice Act—start at 3:55—another bill that would create a framework for Oregon to meet its climate goals. (I wrote about it here).

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Seattle Voters, Meet Democracy Vouchers

How Seattle’s public campaign funding program will work.
This post is 17 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

Last time, I described the Honest Elections Seattle Initiative’s tough new rules for preventing corruption and giving ordinary voters a louder voice in local elections. This time, I begin to detail how Democracy Vouchers, the most innovative part of the initiative, work by explaining them from a voter’s perspective. Next time, I’ll do the same from a candidate’s perspective.

Democracy Vouchers are simplicity itself for voters. In January of a municipal election year, if you’re registered to vote in Seattle, you’ll get an envelope in the mail from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC). It may look like the ballot envelopes you’re used to getting from King County Elections. Inside will be an instruction sheet and four $25 Democracy Vouchers with your name on them. Read more »

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Coal, Oil, and Gas Spent $2 Million on Oregon Politics in 2014

A look at the fossil fuel industry's methods of buying influence.
This post is 65 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

The last few months have been a wild ride in Oregon politics. Governor Kitzhaber, the state’s only Governor to serve four terms, resigned amid allegations of ethical violations. Then, over vociferous opposition from the oil industry, the state legislature almost immediately lifted a sunset provision on the state’s first clean fuels standard, one of the first bills signed by newly inaugurated Governor Kate Brown.

Many observers now believe that Oregon’s lopsided Democratic majority is positioned to ramp up renewable electricity standards and perhaps even enact a price on carbon emissions in the next legislative session. These are meaningful changes to law that would have a tremendous impact on the state’s pollution levels for decades to come by reducing fossil fuel consumption.

Needless to say, these reforms are not well liked by the coal, oil, and gas industries that benefit from business as usual. In an attempt to tip the scales in their favor, they injected nearly $2 million—$1,972,783, to be precise—into Oregon’s political system in the most recent election cycle. This money came from the usual oil suspects like Shell, Tesoro, and Chevron as well as related organizations like the Western States Petroleum Association. A hefty portion also came from major movers of fossil fuels, including railroads like BNSF and Union Pacific, and Global Partners, which owns of the oil terminal at Port Westward. Read more »


Myths and Facts about Capping Climate Change Pollution

You’ve heard some unsubstantiated rumors. Here are the facts.
This post is 39 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Author’s note: Some folks in the Oregon legislature have been fretting about falsehoods lately. I wrote this up to help inform a hearing on climate bills in Salem on April 14th.

Oregonians are already paying for climate change, through damaged shellfish, lost snowpack, and increased wildfires. Climate models predict that, without urgent action, the Oregon drought could morph into something like the California mega-drought. It’s time to act. Don’t let false rumors—often circulated by entrenched fossil fuel interests tying to protect their profits—trip Oregon up on the path to clean energy. Get the facts.

MYTH: “Making polluters pay will wreck the economy.”

FACT: Portland State University’s modeling shows that holding polluters accountable and reinvesting the money in schools and roads will grow jobs and wages, particularly in rural Oregon.

It isn’t just economic modeling; years of real real-world experience show that economies survive and thrive when polluters pay. Nine northeast states, British Columbia, California, and Quebec have all been making polluters pay for years, and their economies have kept pace with other parts of the United States and Canada where polluters still spew for free. California has been growing jobs faster than other states. Europe has cut pollution for ten years while growing GDP. Here’s the evidence: Read more »

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