Weekend Reading 9/5/14

Share wars, the Great Kale Shortage, and more.
This post is 170 in the series: Weekend Reading
Original illustration by Nina Montenegro of ghosttide.com.


This folk-rock video opposing a new apartment building in the town center of Lake Oswego, Oregon, is apparently not intended as a parody of NIMBYism, which may be why it is such an effective parody of NIMBYism. (Hat tip to Patrick Barber.)

A year of changing seasons in a 40-second video.


Ever heard of the Share Wars?  Check out this article from the Urban Land Institute magazine on access versus ownership in the sharing economy.

And for a little dystopian food humor, you might enjoy the Great Kale Shortage.


According to researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan, the fuel efficiency of new vehicles sold in the US just reached a record high; it’s now 25.8 mpg, up from 20.8 in 2008. In some ways hitting a new high comes as no surprise: new vehicle fuel economy has been rising steadily for years. It’s mostly good news… yet with the most efficient new cars easily topping 50 mpg, it also shows how far the country has to go… Read more »

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Full Disclosure

What we can do about money in initiative campaigns.
This post is 8 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like

Can’t the Northwest states just ban Big Money in citizens’ initiatives?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.

The US Supreme Court has forbidden limits on money for ballot measures, a lamentable state of affairs that may take a decade or more to reverse through favorable judicial appointments and new jurisprudence. That’s a long-term undertaking, but it’s an achievable one. The New York-based Brennan Center for Justice and others are already engaged in building the new legal philosophies and establishing precedents. (Unfortunately, current legal trends are moving in the opposite direction.) In the meantime, the Northwest can protect and strengthen its best-in-class rules for full disclosure of initiative funders. It can also join Iowa in making corporate boards or shareholders vote to authorize initiative spending.

SCOTUS on Initiatives

The timeline of federal court rulings is disheartening. Read more »


Initiative Inflation

More money, more problems.
This post is 7 in the series: What Democracy Looks Like
Alvimann, morguefile.com

Alvimann, morguefile.com

We northwesterners tend to be proud of our direct democracy. We are the birthplace of the citizens’ initiative and pioneer of trend-setting ballot measures on everything from direct election of Senators to women’s suffrage, from death with dignity to marriage equality.

But behind this civic mythology lies a reality that is decidedly more mixed and worrisome. Initiatives do create a channel to circumvent sometimes-hapless or lobbyist-bound state houses, and they do allow breakthroughs on issues sometimes.

On the other hand, they also create tremendous opportunities for political mischief by playing on the public’s misperceptions. Just consider the many ill-conceived initiatives peddled by Tim Eyman in Washington or Bill Sizemore in Oregon. More generally, initiatives cost a fortune, are dominated by corporations and the 1 percent, and are now often played out as proxy battles in national policy wars that have little to do with the Northwest. They also leave the door open to unintended consequences.

Don’t get me wrong! For all their flaws, initiatives have sometimes yielded welcome changes. My father had greater peace of mind in his final months thanks to the death-with-dignity option approved by Washington voters in 2008; and I get to look forward to the possibility of attending weddings for all three of my children someday, thanks to marriage equality. (For the record, though, marriage equality was passed by the Washington legislature and affirmed by voters on a referendum forced by equality’s opponents. British Columbia and Oregon got marriage equality through the courts. So citizens’ initiatives were not key to marriage equality in Cascadia.)

“There’s no contradiction in cheering loudly for your team and still criticizing the rules of the game.” 

Repeat: I am not disparaging initiatives; far from it. My argument is with the process, not all the outcomes. There’s no contradiction in cheering loudly for your team and still criticizing the rules of the game. Read more »


Do Coal Investors Really Care About Exports?

A coal stock sell-off suggests that coal investors ignore export news.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal Exports

Powder River Basin coal mining firm Cloud Peak suffered through a stock sell-off today after the company announced that it would be shipping a bit less coal this year than it had expected to. Previously, the company had said that it would sell between 85 and 89 million tons through the end of the year. But because of poor performance by rail companies—particularly BNSF, which has clogged its rail lines with dangerous oil trains—Cloud Peak can only hope to deliver between 83 and 86 million tons in 2014.

Cloud Peak’s announcement sent investors heading for the exits, with the company’s stock price declining by 8 percent in an hour. To me, that seemed like an outsized reaction, given that the problems with BNSF rail congestion were well understood, and would cut Cloud Peak’s annual production by only about 3 percent.

But the quick downturn shows just how little it takes these days to shake investors’ confidence in the coal industry.

Read more »


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


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.”


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.


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.

Read more »


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 »


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.


Weekend Reading 8/22/14

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


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.


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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