A Brighter Tomorrow
With the country facing enormous challenges and few solutions in sight, we convened a Diablo Think Tank to ask some of the brightest minds in the East Bay a not-so-simple question: How do we fix it? Here’s what they said.
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Expert on Renewable Energy
Professor, UC Berkeley
If you want an authority on the future of energy policy, Dan Kammen is your man. He is the director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab at UC Berkeley, and he served as the first director of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency for the World Bank Group.
Given your expertise in energy, what do you believe our priorities should be moving forward?
As a physicist, my answer reflects what I see as the key long-term issues we must face and also my experience [at] the World Bank Group. … Too much of our economic system is based on taking away from what we do want—innovation and economic growth—and rewarding what we do not or should not want—profits without actually producing anything of value.
Today, we reward companies for wasting energy and other resources, and we inhibit them from investing in worker training and new capacity building. This equation retards not only economic growth, but also keeps our workforce from innovating and improving itself.
Can you explain further how this dynamic works in energy and economic policy?
We are taxing companies that add staff and that work to train them, and crazily we reward companies, through subsidies for fossil fuel and in some cases water use, that use precious resources wastefully. Innovation and investment in a cleaner energy mix need to be rewarded.
We also need to send price signals that make explicit the social and environmental damages from the use of energy products that negatively impact our health, well-being, and the environment.
What sort of policy counters do you recommend?
I would start with a price on greenhouse gas emissions, as California will launch in January 2012, and which the U.S. Northeast, British Columbia, and Europe have to some degree, and which Australia and parts of China are now launching.
Second, we need to reward economic activity that produces more jobs and often better jobs, which is what we have shown, in my laboratory, that investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency do.
Overall, we are mortgaging our future by not investing in research into the technologies, social mechanisms, and the broader cultural understanding that we will need in the future.
“We are mortgaging our future by not investing in research.”
Expert on Job Creation
George Miller is the U.S. representative for California’s seventh congressional district. He is the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce; we asked him about both subjects.
As a longtime Congressman, what do you think the government needs to do to get America going in the right direction?
We’ve got to develop a plan that helps start-up businesses, that helps small businesses. These are the people that over and over again re-create the American dream.
It can be a mom-and-pop business, or it can be a high-tech start-up or a biotech start-up, but that’s the entrepreneurial spirit, and that’s got to be reignited.
But we’ve also got to then make sure that that spirit is renewed because we have a first-class education system. We really need a policy of reinvesting. I would pick education as one of the cornerstones of that reinvestment. I would pick a modern energy policy as another cornerstone. And clearly, infrastructure.
Given the state of the economy, given the state of world competition, America has to do all of these at the same time.
Where does the investment money come from?
The money’s going to come from public and private partnerships. People now believe there should be an infrastructure bank with public money and private money picking those big projects that this country needs.
But that will have to include money from increased taxes.
You’re going to have to raise revenues. The revenue level in the United States is the lowest since 1950. You’re going to have to raise revenues; you’re going to have to make reductions in government spending. In the meantime, you have to put people to work.
Over the next 10 years, you’re going to have to take $2 or $3 trillion out of the deficit, but if you do that today, you’re going to put people out of work.
The number one complaint of small businesses is they don’t have enough customers because the economy is so bad. That’s why the government’s going to have to spend some money, along with the private sector, to make these investments to put people to work.
“We’ve got to develop a plan that helps start-up businesses, that helps small businesses.”
Expert on Politics
Professor, Mills College
Carol Chetkovich is the director of the Public Policy Program at Mills College. She is an expert on social movements—we talked shortly after she visited Occupy Oakland’s general strike—and has been involved in experiments in deliberative government.
You’ve seen firsthand how disenchanted people are with the system. How do we get it to reflect what people want?
We can’t fix the economic problems until we fix the political system. What I would do is bring people together in face-to-face dialogues about what we want our society to look like and how we’re going to get there.
In those dialogues, it would be very important that we talk with people who don’t look like us—people who come from different backgrounds and have different viewpoints. We would get good information on the critical issues that we’re facing and the policy options that are available, and the dialogue would be structured in such a way that we would confront different choices, and not act as if it’s possible to have it all.
Then, we would publicize the outcomes of those dialogues so that politicians could know the will of the people and be held accountable for representing it.
How would this look?
Quite a lot of cities have engaged in participatory budgeting. And it tends to happen in exactly these circumstances, when you’ve got far too little money to be able to do the things that you want to do.
Locally, an example where this was done was Menlo Park. They didn’t have enough money to cover all the services that they were committed to offering. And they decided that it didn’t make sense for the city council, in the absence of really thoughtful input by the citizens, to keep trying to make these decisions. So, they engaged in a very carefully structured process that included providing structured choices about the budget.
They were given options like, this is how much we would save if we closed the libraries for this period of time, and if we cut down the number of cops on the street by this amount. Or you could raise taxes: This is what that would look like. They had people brought together in discussions, and then they did some kind of survey to get people’s thoughts on what should happen with the budget.
And what they found was, people actually wanted a mix of higher taxes and lower services in some areas.
This idea seems more likely to work on a local level than a national one.
At the local level, when it comes to a lot of spending, people are more willing to say, “Yes, I’m willing to pay for this,” if they can actually see the results. And if you arrange some of these services so that people could actually track where the money was going, then you’d be more inclined to get people out of this mode of thinking they’re going to get something for nothing.
I think that trying to make this happen at the local level would start to get people more engaged.