Weekly Roundup: #f**kyouwashington, new strategies to fight climate change and questioning what really qualifies as poor
The top American news this week: the debt ceiling. Mother Jones produced one of the best explainers I found, and the Huffington Post has a nice live-blog documenting the unfolding events. But in a nutshell: the U.S. government is out of money, Congress is at a stalemate, and if we default on our debt on August 2nd, it could have “catastrophic” effects on both the domestic and global economies.
Since this is a site about social change, we’re most interested in the ancillary activity in the citizen sector, characterized, with efficiency, by a single hashtag: #f**kyouwashington.
People began to vent their frustrations on Twitter on Saturday. Media pundit and CUNY J-school prof Jeff Jarvis tweeted, “Hey, Washington assholes, it’s our country, our economy, our money. Stop f**king with it.” Twitter pushed the tweet into a chant, which turned into the aforementioned hashtag (a way to organize topics on Twitter).
Some people in D.C. were a tad bothered that Jarvis’ tweet didn’t differentiate between Congress and their city. Others fixated on the eff bomb. But most tweeters used the opportunity to vent their frustrations on everything from the debt ceiling to the war to banks to total incompetence of a government that’s acting “like 3-year-olds.” In some ways, it was reminiscent of the beginnings of the Arab Spring.
It never trended on Twitter, and most wondered if the profanity caused the block. But as Jarvis noted in an interview with CBS, the word seemed appropriate for the situation – and ultimately, the hashtag wasn’t about his tweet. It was about public opinion. Many compared the situation to Howard Beale.
The anger has yet to take to the streets, but on Tuesday, phones started ringing off the hook on The Hill. The Coffee Party, a grassroots democracy movement that does not, contrary to their name, identify as a political party, is trying to organize a march on their Enough Is Enough! Facebook page. And today, the @BarackObama Twitter account began tweeting the names of Republicans in Congress, asking constituents to appeal to them to come to a compromise.
Some solutions have also bubbled up to change the actual political structure. Senate majority and minority leaders have proposed creating a “Super Congress” — a new legislative body comprised of six members from each party — to prevent future stalemates. Americans Elect, a political party vying for a third spot on the presidential ticket, is using the Internet to establish an “open-nomination” process.
Maybe it’s just me, but power structures seem to be shifting. The Atlantic’s new blog, the Foreign Policy Frontier (also launched this week), plans to explore this new arena, acknowledging that progress is no longer solely about government to government (or party to party) interactions, but must also address all groups of actors–corporations, foundations, NGOs, universities, think tanks, civic groups, politicians and social enterprises. The debt ceiling debacle seems like the perfect backdrop for its launch.
New Strategy For Fighting Climate Change
There was a lot of buzz in the environmental space this week, spearheaded by the release of a new report by the bipartisan Hartwell Group, called Climate Pragmatism.
Essentially, it asserts that our old way of fighting climate change–by telling people to, as Marc Gunther put it, “study climate science and make sacrifices”–isn’t working. Instead, it argues, we should shift our policy frame to focus on (cheap) energy innovation, curbing air pollution and adapting to extreme weather. In other words: measures that let people see immediate benefits.
Bryan Walsh expanded on the report with a nice article in TIME that explains exactly how a shift in policy priorities might work. Mayor Bloomberg, for example, donated $50 million last week to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign – not to save the environment, but because coal is bad for people’s health. Similarly, Walsh points out, the fact that 1.4 billion people don’t have access to electricity impedes public health and economic growth. “Try running a hospital without electricity,” he writes. “If we want developing nations to be better prepared to deal with the effects of climate change–or just about any other threat–we need to get them wired.”
Some immediate solutions popped up this week, too, as a new study claimed that over the next hundred years, four times more carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere if we switch from steel and concrete to sustainably harvested wood.
But Marc Gunther, director of a sustainability think tank, wondered whether or not the suggestions in Climate Pragmatism really are all that practical due to the realities of bipartisan disagreements. As we’ve seen this week, they run rampant–and it’s not restricted to the debt ceiling.
A bit of a scuffle took place this week between the European Union and airlines in the states, as the EU prepares to enact a carbon emissions fee on all planes flying into their airports that don’t meet regulation standards. While the EU stands firm behind its policy, claiming that it’s not fair for airlines in Europe to pay fees while the rest of the world pollutes, carriers outside of the EU are worried about higher fees, and higher ticket prices.
Meanwhile, as the debt crisis rages, Republicans have piled on more than 70 anti-environmental amendments to a new bill.
Heritage Foundation Claims America’s Poor Aren’t Poor.
This week, the Heritage Foundation released a new report, “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?” It questions America’s definition of poverty, noting that the poor actually have an array of amenities like refrigerators, air conditioning and microwaves.
Robert Rector, who authored the report, noted in this ABC News article that the government will spend about $900 billion on poverty assistance programs this year. He argued that we should cut funding for programs like Medicaid and food stamps, and though his report acknowledges poverty as a “serious social concern,” he demands that we fight the problem with “accurate information.”
Some outlets agreed with the Heritage Foundation’s assertion that Americans really don’t understand poverty. Compassion International’s Senior VP, Mark Hanlon, pointed out that America’s definition of poverty pales compared to the rest of the world. He noted that American families in poverty actually live amongst the top 20th percentile of global wealth, and urged people to view Compassion International’s WhoAreTheJones.org to see how their salary compares with that of a family in another country.
But others let the criticism fly. Commenters on Hanlon’s article pointed out that wealth is relative to the local consumer price index, and that the amenities cited in the Heritage Foundation Report — refrigerators, DVD players and microwaves — often have no resale value and can be found lying on sidewalks. ABC’s Bryan Wolf noted that income inequality in the United States is at its highest level since the Great Depression, and Sarah Bloom Rasking, a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, said that this disparity is undermining our economy’s ability for steady growth. For those who want a deeper understanding about poverty and the problem of inequality than the Heritage Foundation can offer, read the books Poor Economics or The Spirit Level.
Beck Pryor, who works for Community Enterprise Solutions, says that this report takes the wrong perspective. The real issue, she argues, is that people spend their money on Xboxes instead of healthy food. The follow-up question should be, “Why?” Not, “Does this really count as poverty?”
And Stephen Colbert absolutely slammed the report, slashing the idea that since federal assistance has lifted people out of poverty, we should therefore cut federal assistance. “These programs are like a dam we built back to hold the river of poverty,” he says. “So let’s tear down the dam! I’m sure the river will stay put.”
You can watch his full video here:
And watch his interview with Georgetown law prof Peter Edelman on whether or not we have actually won the war on poverty. (Spoiler: he points that for 6 million people in America, their only income is food stamps):
Random Weekend Readings
- The World Bank blog argues organizations shouldn’t just release their data; they need to verify it.
- The Guardian released a nice podcast on how to achieve success through failure.
- Mark Bittman argued in the New York Times that we should start to tax junk and subsidize healthy food, using revenues to build public health programs.
- Google released an amazing new Think Quarterly – insights from industry leaders on where they get their inspiration. This one is on innovation.
- Philanthropy had an excellent, extremely usable data visualization that lets you track the spending of big corporate donors
- Buzzfeed had a beautiful photo essay of newly-legal gay marriages in New York.
- And finally, social entrepreneurship is taking off in Brazil. Read about it here.