Weekend Reading 5/22/15

How poverty impairs your mind, exposing Port secrets, a Duwamish River rap, and more.
This post is 204 in the series: Weekend Reading


As if we needed more evidence that poverty is really, really bad: it impairs your mind. Great. Now you can’t pay your bills or put food on the table and you are dumber, to boot. Hey, I have a good idea: let’s give everyone in the richest country on earth a basic income, which will save money on all the band-aids we currently use to plaster over the simple problem that we don’t distribute wealth very efficiently, will raise many people’s IQs by 14 points, and then free people up to do meaningful, innovative work that they want to do, instead of enforced drudgery. Wouldn’t that be cool?!

Big banks train their employees to cheat. The author of a recent study concludes: “the apples are good, but the barrel is bad.” Next time we get the chance to make a better barrel, let’s not waste it.

Slightly depressing: men want their wives to be “attractive” and “sweet.” But encouraging: they want their daughters to be strong and smart. And wanting that for their daughters opens them up to all kinds of great things:

Judges who’ve fathered girls may be more sympathetic to gender issues. Having daughters makes legislators more likely to be more supportive of reproductive rights. Parents of daughters were more likely to support policies that address gender equity.

And a dose of outrageous optimism, from my hero, Mr. Money Mustache!


Coverage of the gruesome biker shootout in Waco is getting some well-earned critique—in short, gang violence sounds a lot different when the perpetrators are white. Read more »

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How Climate Denial Derails Scientists

Scientists downplay findings to avoid "alarmist" stereotype. Rebuttals can reinforce deniers' claims.
This post is part of the research project: Word on the Street

Mostly, I recommend bypassing the climate “debate” altogether. There’s no actual debate so even debunking it gives it undeserved credence. But that’s just it: doubt and denial are more than just states of mind; their perpetuation is strategic. An eye dropper of doubt has proven more potent in stalling action on climate change than an ocean of scientific warnings.

Sometimes it’s good to call attention to this kind of strategy in order to undercut its power. Because we do wind up wasting lots of time and energy on denial.

In my line of work, there’s even an obsession with measuring it. I’m talking about polling voters’ “belief” in climate change. John Oliver described this practice best:

“It doesn’t matter! You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking if 15 is bigger than 5, or ‘do owls exist?’, or ‘are there hats?’…The only accurate way to report that 1 in 4 Americans are skeptical of global warming is to say that a poll finds that 1 in 4 Americans are wrong about something.”

But we’re all vulnerable to the drumbeat. Now, a new study shows that climate change denial is taking a toll on scientists—and science. Here are at least three ways denial derails scientists:

Read more »

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No Taxation Without (Proportional) Representation!

Explained with the aid of some tasty fruits and veggies.
This post is 26 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

If you put your money in a vending machine and punched in the number for trail mix, but it instead gave you a pack of gum, would you use that vending machine again? Unfortunately, voting in North America is often not so different from this vending machine. In the United States, most voters vote Democrat, yet the Republicans control Congress. Voters ask for trail mix but keep getting gum. In Canada, about 35,000 Conservative voters can elect a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) to represent them, but it takes more than ten times as many—over half a million—Green voters to elect a single Green MP.

This is not how it’s supposed to work. Second US President John Adams believed the legislature “should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them. … [E]qual interest among the people should have equal interest in it.” In other words, the legislature should proportionally represent the people.

“Winner-take-all elections give the biggest block of voters 100 percent of the representation, and all the other voters get none.”

Here’s what an “exact portrait,” proportional representation, would look like: imagine people of different ideological stripes are different fruits and vegetables on a spectrum from orange to green. In Foodtown, 17 percent of voters are oranges, 20 percent peaches, 20 percent apples, 20 percent cucumbers, and 23 percent broccoli. If Foodtown elects a five-member legislature that is “an exact portrait of the people,” it would be one orange, one peach, one apple, one cucumber, and one broccoli.

Unfortunately, in Canada and the United States, winner-take-all elections give the biggest block of voters 100 percent of the representation, and all the other voters get none. In winner-take-all, also known as “first-past-the-post” or “plurality” voting, the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of how many votes he or she gets. In an election with only two candidates, the winner will need a majority—half plus one—of the votes to win. With three candidates, the winner only needs a plurality of votes to win: one-third of the votes plus one; with four candidates, one-fourth of the votes plus one; etc.

If Foodtown was split into five single-member districts with winner-take-all voting, the biggest voting blocks would win all the seats, so Foodtown might elect five broccolis. Or, likely, Foodtown would get four peaches and one broccoli. In Oregon, 55 percent of voters are Democrats, yet Democrats hold 4 out of 5 Congressional House seats. In 2012, Americans voted for Democratic candidates by a 52-48 margin, yet gerrymandered single-member districts resulted in Republicans winning 57 percent of the House seats. Read more »


How the Big Apple Boosted Small Donors

And how Seattle’s Honest Elections initiative could do it even better.
This post is 25 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

In the Northwest, as across the United States, political giving is an elite affair, heavily concentrated among one percenters and residents of affluent, white neighborhoods. Even in Seattle, which has more campaign participation than most places, only 1.7 percent of adults made a contribution to any local candidate in the last municipal election, in 2013. Half of those people made contributions, to all candidates combined, of $100 or less.

“Vouchers could be a huge boost for participatory democracy.”Tweet this

Honest Elections Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program could change all that, though, multiplying the number of residents who give to campaigns and expanding the geography of contributors to the whole city. Vouchers could be a huge boost for participatory democracy. Another day, I’ll lay out the specific case of Seattle, complete with maps and statistics. Today, I describe how public funding has transformed campaign giving in New York City.

In the Big Apple, candidates for state assembly and city council run in districts of similar size and in similarly competitive races. Candidates for state assembly raise money the old-fashioned way: dialing for dollars. Candidates for city council, in contrast, raise money through a system of public-matching funds for small-dollar contributions. The first $175 of any resident’s gift is matched six-to-one with public funds. This one difference makes New York a fascinating natural experiment in how public campaign funds change politics. Read more »


How Shell Manipulates Washington State Politics

The Polar Pioneer isn’t the company’s only disruptive presence.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports
Shell's Polar Pioneer oil rig, incoming to Seattle Port's Terminal 5.

Shell's Polar Pioneer oil rig, incoming to Seattle Port's Terminal 5. (Photo by a friend of Sightline, used with permission.)

Yesterday afternoon, Shell Oil’s titanic drilling rig made its way into the Port of Seattle, where it will undergo repairs before heading north to drill in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s north coast this summer. After local company Foss Maritime inked a secretive lease with the Port to repair two of Shell’s skyscraper-sized oil drilling rigs, the region has been embroiled in a raging controversy over the wisdom of allowing the second largest company in the world to use Seattle as a staging ground for Arctic oil drilling. Shell’s last run at Arctic oil, when the company’s flagship Kulluk drilling rig ran aground near Alaska’s Kodiak Island, was a signal failure, but Shell plans to return to the precarious Arctic seas this summer for another try at tapping the oil reserves.

And in Skagit County, Shell has plans to build a large oil train facility at its Anacortes Refinery. After the county hearing examiner recently determined that the company should conduct a full environmental review of the project, Shell sued the county. The case will be heard this month.

Shell’s schemes have the region in an uproar, so now is a good time to explore the oil company’s well documented record of interfering in Washington’s politics. Read more »

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Weekend Reading 5/15/15

NW oil plans can be stopped, a new rideshare app, empathetic rats, and more.
This post is 203 in the series: Weekend Reading


A ray of hope for the Northwest: oil company Tesoro’s plans can be stopped. The company recently shelved its proposed Uinta Express Pipeline in Utah. Although executives cited “market conditions” as the driving factor, the project had also been staunchly opposed by residents and environmental groups.

Closer to home, Tesoro CEO Greg Goff called the permitting progress on its giant planned oil-by-rail facility “painfully slow” on a recent earnings conference call. (Don’t worry, Greg. It will get much slower.)

At The Tyee, Andrew Nikiforuk casts a critical eye at Alberta’s premier, Jim Prentice.

In Minnesota, state legislators are demanding that BNSF Railway, a major carrier of crude oil trains through that state, provide proof of catastrophic insurance coverage. That call should give you some sense about where we are in the this debate. Despite a string of fireballs, the public still does not know for sure how much insurance backs up the oil trains, and the industry won’t tell. They don’t have to.


What happened to America’s black farmers? If you missed this Grist article last month, be sure to check it out. It’s an important and telling piece of American agricultural history.

A few weeks ago, I cooed over some cockroaches outfitted with backpacks. This time, it’s rats that feel empathy, turning down chocolate (chocolate!) to help a drowning fellow rat, and helping that rat even if they’ve had a traumatizing water event themselves. Methinks these little guys may have more emotional capacity than many humans.


The mobile web keeps birthing new transportation options. This week, I learned about Bridj, a smart-phone jitney.

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We Can’t Fix Anything Until We Fix Democracy

Getting to the root of the problem.
This post is 24 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

Grab the issue you care most about—climate change, sustainable cities, a fair economy, or something else—sit it down, look it in the eye, and tell it there will be no Christmas this year. Or next year, or the next—we cannot fix important problems until we fix democracy.

“Remove #corruption from elections, and #democracy will become responsive to citizens.”Tweet this

Climate change should be imminently solvable. We know which policies work. We have clean technologies, and people want to fix it. But none of that matters if government doesn’t represent the people. If government is implementing policies and propping up industries because they are lucrative for a small group of plutocrats, then no amount of public demand or technology solutions will help us solve climate change. Or any other issue that we care about.

We need a government that represents the people.

Professor Larry Lessig eloquently explains that the root of the problem, the fundamental corruption of US democracy, is elected officials’ dependence on the tiny number of wealthy funders who control elections. Remove corruption from elections, and democracy will become responsive to citizens.

But there is more than one root. Read more »


A Sea Change for Weathercasters

Trusted messengers on climate and weather move from the denier camp.
Photo Credit: gingerbeardman via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: gingerbeardman via Compfight cc

Since the last time I wrote about the folks on TV who report the weather, a lot has changed.

Five years ago, just over half of weathercasters (54 percent) said global warming is happening. A whopping 25 percent said it isn’t, and, perhaps more surprisingly, 21 percent said they didn’t know. Today, 9 in 10 TV weathercasters say climate change is happening. That’s based on the latest survey of TV weather forecasters and meteorologists by the Yale/George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication (they did the one in 2010, too, and have revised the methodology a bit).

Read more »


Event: Oil Trains in Anacortes

Discussing the facts on oil trains in Skagit County.
This post is 68 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails
Lynchburg, VA, Derailment by Michael Cover

Lynchburg, VA, Derailment by Michael Cover (All rights reserved, used with permission.)

In the past several months alone, North America has seen five major oil train derailments and explosions. Communities across the country, including along the West Coast, are scrambling to cope with the threats these “bomb trains” pose—from their radically under-insured collision and damage risks to the delays they cause for local traffic to, of course, their potential to violently explode along tracks running past schools, downtowns, homes, and local businesses.

Early next month, I’ll be speaking on the costs and consequences of increased oil train traffic for the city of Anacortes, Washington, home to the Tesoro and Shell refineries, where millions of gallons of volatile crude oil arrive daily by train. I’ll also be exploring the larger regional picture of the Northwest grappling with an unprecedented influx of coal, oil, and gas export schemes. As  community and local leaders contemplate the possibility of a massively larger fossil fuel sector, they deserve the facts on what this industry means. Read more »


Honest Elections Seattle Is Legal

Citizens United and all.
This post is 23 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

I’ve explained how Honest Elections Seattle works (for voters, candidates, and election officials) and that it’s fraud-repellent and cheap. This time, I just want to assure you that it’s legal, SCOTUS notwithstanding.

People question me, all the time, about the constitutionality of limiting big money in US politics, because since Citizens United, everyone on the continent seems to know that the Supreme Court has declared money a protected form of free speech. Almost everyone—left, right, and center—hates this idea and with it, the way private interests have corrupted Washington, DC: 96 percent of Americans believe that US democracy is far too influenced by big money. Unfortunately, 91 percent of Americans also think there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

That’s where people are mistaken.

We can do a lot about it, and the Supreme Court itself has drawn a path. SCOTUS says “thou shalt not ban private money” except in narrowly defined circumstances (basically, to prevent cash-for-votes corruption), but diluting private money with public money? That’s allowed. Read more »