Weekend Reading 8/29/14

"Extreme" walking; it's time for a four-day workweek; and more.
This post is 169 in the series: Weekend Reading

Pam

Walking on the ferry to Bainbridge the other night, I was reminded of how much more I see when I’m on my feet instead of on my bike or in a motor vehicle. It’s easier to stop to pick blackberries, to admire some public art, to watch the rush of water under the dock as the ferry lands. Walking’s also a great digestive aid for that huge plate of sweet potato fries from the pub. If you missed it in Sightline Daily on Thursday, check out this profile of an “extreme” walker who travels on foot more than 50 miles a week. There’s also a map that shows the percentage of walk commuters in the Seattle area.

And then, stop walking to work so much, because “It’s Time for a Four-Day Workweek.”

Serena

If you weren’t already convinced that background checks on gun buyers was a good idea, consider these numbers from a new report: federal background checks have prevented gun sales to 24,000 felons and over 6,000 domestic abusers since 1998 in Washington State. Oh, and Bill Gates thinks it’s a good idea, too.

Think you can solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Yeah, me neither. But this new game gives you a shot at it. Er… maybe avoid shots, though.

I was surprised to see the 9-to-5 more intact than I expected. From NPR, a graph of workdays across major US industries.

Alan

Time to change the flag. Seriously.

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Is a Land-Value Tax Illegal in Seattle?

Analyzing the Washington State constitution.
This post is 5 in the series: Love for Land-Value Taxes

As we’ve discussed before, land-value taxation is a smart tool for revitalizing cities. By raising the cost of land speculation, a land-value tax (LVT) would create clear financial incentives to develop underutilized properties near the urban core—helping to create new homes and businesses in the very places where demand is greatest.

The basic idea of LVT is to tax land at a higher rate than buildings. But there’s a significant obstacle to implementing LVT in Washington. Article VII of the Washington State constitution, which covers revenue and taxation, states:

The power of taxation shall never be suspended, surrendered or contracted away. All taxes shall be uniform upon the same class of property…

Would this requirement for “uniform” taxation make a split-rate LVT, in which land and improvements are taxed at different rates, unconstitutional?

Maybe. But I’m convinced that a glimmer of hope exists for proponents of LVT, which includes both old fans of 19th century political economist Henry George and converts from this new Sightline series.

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Measures of Money

The corruption of citizen initiatives.
This post is 6 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

Six hundred dollars.

That’s how much money residents of Washington State donated to the “No” campaign in the 2013 initiative concerning genetic engineering. The vote was not about banning the use of gene splicing techniques, nor about regulating them. It was not about warning consumers away from genetically modified products. It wasn’t even about studying the practice. All it proposed to do was require food products to indicate on their packaging whether they contained genetically altered ingredients. Not, you would think, the stuff of all-out war. In fact, it’s a rather milquetoast policy change.

Yet Big Ag treated the measure like Pearl Harbor; it sought to make an example of Washington’s I-522. The NO committee buried the proposition in $22 million of campaign cash. The biggest checks came from the Grocery Manufacturers (which collected it from Coke, Pepsi, and other junk food brands), Monsanto, and the agricultural arms of Dow, DuPont, and Bayer.

That’s more money than any initiative campaign, pro or con, had ever spent in the Northwest. It’s more than Jay Inslee or Rob McKenna spent running for governor. In fact, it’s not far off from what those two men spent together. It’s substantially more than the collective campaign budgets of every single candidate for the state house in 2012. And every one of those $22 million went to decide whether Coke bottles, for example, might have to say somewhere on them, “Partially produced with genetic engineering.”

This story neatly encapsulates the state of initiative politics in the Northwest nowadays. In the words of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Joel Connelly, dean of Cascadian political reporters, “Citizens have a right to put something on the ballot, and special interests have the right to spend a fortune beating up on it, which usually works.” Read more »

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2014 Update: Grading Economics Textbooks on Climate Change

Solid progress in economics textbooks' climate discussions.

With a new school year approaching, this is a good time to update our review of the treatment of climate change in economics textbooks. As in our 2010 and 2012 reviews, some books hit the mark while others are wildly misleading. But we’re happy to say that there’s plenty of good news, especially at the top and the bottom of the grade distribution: the good books have gotten better (including the first-ever A+ grade!) and even the worst ones have made improvements (the lowest grade is now a D-, not a F!).

Some books, of course, suffered some backsliding. Out of 18 books reviewed, four still make the “Not Recommended” list, with the biggest loser being Gwartney, Stroup, Sobel, and Macpherson’s Economics: Private and Public Choice (15th ed.), hereby dubbed the recipient of the undesired 2014 Ruffin and Gregory Award for the Worst Treatment of Climate Change in an Economics Textbook (so named for a comically bad treatment of climate change in a textbook now thankfully out of print).

Without further ado, here is the full report, as well as our summary report card:

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

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Weekend Reading 8/22/14

Style coup, top coal reads, donuts for bears, and more.
This post is 168 in the series: Weekend Reading

Eric

My top recommendation this week is Lummi elder Jewell James’ article in the Bellingham Herald:

In August we make our journey from South Dakota to the Salish Sea and north to Alberta, Canada, stopping with many of the tribal and local communities whose lives unwillingly intersect with the paths of coal exports and tar sands. We will carry with us a 19-foot-tall totem that brings to mind our shared responsibility for the lands, the waters and the peoples who face environmental and cultural devastation from fossil fuel megaprojects. We travel in honor of late elder, and leader, and guiding light Billy Frank, Jr., who would remind us that we are stewards placed here to live with respect for our shared, sacred obligation to the creation, the plants and animals, the peoples and all our relations.

There’s plenty of other coal reading this week too.

The tireless folks over at DeSmogBlog bring news that environmental groups are suing a major coal exporter on the lower Mississippi. The photographic evidence they present is completely consistent with my observations when I visited the site a few months back—a horrifying look at how callous and destructive coal terminal operators are.

A new video critique of coal export plans is out on Vimeo. Check out: Coal Road to China.

Rail workers try to put the brakes on coal and oil shipper BNSF Railway’s scheme to have just a single person on some freight trains.

Finally, I think it’s obvious to everyone that we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about the Roman Empire. So it’s a relief to see Vox publish 40 maps that explain it.

Serena

I am a big fan of donuts. Apparently, so are bears. And some are smart enough to figure out how to get some for themselves. (Alternative possibility: I shape-shifted this past weekend.)

As an alum of a Catholic high school with a uniform code that relegated all us girls to boxy polo shirts and “Dockers-style” khaki pants or to-the-knee skirts, I can’t imagine having been half as self-possessed or thoughtful about our dress policy as this young woman out of Seattle’s Ballard High School. Along with some friends, Annie Vizenor is staging a “style coup” to confront the victim-blaming-inspired dress code policy her school enforces, complete with some DIY shirts with statements like, “My bra straps are not the problem…YOU are the problem.” Get it, girl. Read more »

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Ambre Energy’s Troubled History: Greatest Hits Edition!

The "thin green line" of the PNW puts Ambre in its place.
This post is 25 in the series: Coal Exports: Caveat Investor
No coal trains sign, at a home in Bow, WA. Photo by Pam MacRae.

No coal trains sign, at a home in Bow, WA. by Pam MacRae (Used with permission.)

In case you missed the news on Monday, the Oregon Department of State Lands denied a crucial permit for Ambre Energy’s plans to build a coal export terminal along the Columbia River capable of shipping 8.8 million tons per year.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this ruling. It’s the first major regulatory decision on any coal terminal permit in the Northwest states. It was an unambiguous victory for opponents of coal export terminals, particularly the tribes that have been so vocally opposed to coal export facilities on the Columbia. And it foreshadows the likely outcomes for the much larger, more complex, and higher-impact projects that are still in the early stages of the permitting process.

Though the company may appeal the decision, the odds are stacked against Ambre: the path forward is unclear and likely lengthy; the company is struggling to raise sufficient additional financing; international coal prices are low; and recent developments in Asia show uncertain demand for US exports.

Of course, none of this is news to Sightline readers. You’ve been reading about Ambre’s shaky finances since late 2012, and the news has only gotten worse. It’s been a long road, but with this happy event, we can’t help but take a fond look back (and yes, feel free to crank up some victory tunes) at some of the research that helped get us here: Read more »

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EVENTS: Coal & Oil Trains in Bellingham, Everett

Two public panel discussions on Northwest fossil fuel exports.
This post is 47 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails
Everett Coal & Oil Trains Panel Discussion, 2014_0822

I’ll be participating in two panel talks on coal and oil trains, one this Friday and one next week. Both promise to be interesting.

Everett

This Friday, come ask your toughest questions at a free, public panel discussion on coal and oil trains. I’ll be joining Ross Macfarlane of Climate Solutions, Sean Ardussi of Puget Sound Regional Council, Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling, BNSF Consultant Terry Finn, and Joe Ritzman of SSA Marine to talk about everything from public safety concerns to local traffic delays to climate and regional economic impacts. Snohomish County Councilmember Dave Somers will moderate.

  • When: Friday, August 22, 2014, 10 am to noon.
  • Where: Snohomish County Administration East Building, first floor public meeting rooms, 3000 Rockefeller Ave, Everett, WA 98201 (detailed map)
  • Cost: Free

Bellingham

Then, next Wednesday, Bellingham City Club has invited me to talk on the same subject alongside Shannon Wright, executive director of Communitywise Bellingham. The event is not free, but it is discounted for members and includes lunch.

  • When: Wednesday, August 27: Doors at 11:30 a.m., Lunch at 11:50, Program from 12:20 to 1:30 pm.
  • Where: Northwood Hall, 3240 Northwest Avenue, Bellingham, WA (map)
  • Cost: $13 member / $18 guest / $5 young adult if purchased in advance here. A limited number of tickets may be available at the door at the cost of $15 member / $20 guest.
  • More information available on Bellingham City Club’s website.

Hope to see you at one of these events!

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(Pay To) Park and Ride?

How user fees will produce parking sanity.

In July 2013, board members of the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, better known as Sound Transit, unanimously approved a pilot program to test several efficiency-boosting strategies for a woefully oversubscribed parking system. The pilot scheme was budgeted at $495,000 and set for a 2014 roll out, with three key measures:

  • Parking permits;
  • Real-time information on parking availability;
  • Rideshare collaboration.

Unsurprisingly, the introduction of parking permits became the most controversial part of this new program. Following the announcement, Internet news forums were ablaze with furious commenters who questioned the logic of charging for what has always been a “free” good. Here’s a collection of the statements, ranging from frustrated, to angry, to apoplectic, and ending with a calmer voice:

And the war on cars continues.

Great, so now only the rich can afford to take the bus too?

Forcing people to pay for a park-n-ride slot will backfire. These people are true idiots.

…idiotic idea. I’d actually do the unthinkable and vote for an Eyman initiative to stop Sound Transit if there was one.

Want ridership? Make the system easy to use. That means building parking lots. If you don’t want ridership, charge the users to park. Simple.

Some people think that free parking is mentioned in the Bill of Rights, right after cheap gasoline.

As alluded to in the final user comment, Hell hath no fury like a motorist deprived of free parking. The permit scheme ended on July 31st, and the early data supplied by Sound Transit suggests that the program was successful, raising the possibility that more fees may be coming to a transit center near you. Undoubtedly, the broader effect will be to alter long-held notions of the real cost of parking.

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Weekend Reading 8/15/14

Photos: Living off the grid; #IfTheyGunnedMeDown; and more.
This post is 167 in the series: Weekend Reading
Original illustration by Nina Montenegro of ghosttide.com.

Serena

Heads up to a great event happening next Saturday, August 23: the 9th Annual Duwamish River Fest! It’s a completely free afternoon of food, art, boat and kayak rides, kids’ activities, live music, and more. I’ll be there and volunteering (still a few more spots to fill!), so come out with the fam for some local river fun.

Wow, this is powerful. After the controversial shooting of black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last weekend, this hashtag collected the commentary of black youth across the country wondering about mass media’s selective portrayal of gun victims of color: #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Here’s a sobering “Hands up, don’t shoot” photo collection from Vox, and historically black Howard University’s own contribution to the conversation.

In more local related news, this past weekend, a guard at Seattle’s Westlake Mall pepper-sprayed a bystanding young black man, Raymond Wilford, instead of the white agitator who was heckling a pro-Gaza demonstration. From the article:

“I’ve been treated like that all my life, so it kinda brushes off,” Wilford, who has two kids, says. “I’m from the South, I’m from New Orleans. I’ve seen the worst of it.” He lost everything in Hurricane Katrina and came to Seattle a decade ago “to try to redo my life,” he says.

“People here seem to be more secretive about their not liking black people, or their racism,” he says. “I’m so used to it I don’t know what’s wrong and what’s right half the time.”

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The Holy Grail of Parenting

A photoessay on urban spaces that work equally for parents AND kids. (Please send us yours!)
This post is 8 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities
Friends

Image by Grace Hobson

On a recent vacation, I had a perfect moment, one that so rarely occurs since I had a kid nearly six years ago. I was sitting on a deck, drinking a gin and tonic, and having civilized conversations with my husband’s oldest friends. Almost entirely uninterrupted.

That’s because sandwiched between our restaurant and another across the way was a grassy field full of roving kid gangs. They were far enough away that their entropic energy didn’t bother anyone, but close enough that you could still keep half an eye on them.

Our daughter befriended a local girl, cadged a piece of her birthday cake, and joined and lost interest in countless soccer scrimmages, dance parties, frisbee games, and sibling chases.The important point is that she was having a great time doing kid things, and we were having great time doing adult things. In the same place.

In my life, this doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like. Possibly because of byzantine liquor laws, the fact that urban land is pretty expensive to let kids run wild on it, and all the perfectly good reasons that not everyone wants our child around as much as we do.

Happening upon those urban spaces that serve children and adults equally well is like the Holy Grail of parenting. Read more »

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