Friday, January 23, 2015

Reinvigorating Democracy - The Next Idea

This was originally written for Michigan Radio's "The Next Idea" which included an interview with Zoe Clark that aired yesterday on their program "Stateside" and that can be listened to here. (scroll to the bottom of the page to see the audio link)


The Next Idea
In the recent elections last November, Michigan had the lowest turnout, percentage-wise, since 1990. Recent national polls show more citizens lack trust in elected officials to serve the public good over private interests than ever before. Elections across the country are now more driven by the excessive wealth of a few, mostly white males, who also help shape the issues discussed, and when they are discussed. What’s happening here?

One might deduce from these discouraging facts that the majority of Michigan voters, like those across the country, have given up on our democracy. I would go one step further and ask:
Are we truly aware of what it’s like to even live in a “real" democracy?
Participatory budgeting could improve public trust in our government and offer ways to engage more directly with the political process, says Terry Link.
(Credit Flickr/CityGypsy11)
Participatory budgeting could improve public trust in our government and offer ways to engage more directly with the political process, says Terry Link.
That’s exactly the question posed by Canadian scholars James Cairns and Allan Sears in their eye-opening 2012 book The Democratic Imagination. They are not simply satisfied with the conception of democracy only as a form of government like the versions practiced in the U.S., Canada, and other nation-states, which they refer to as “official democracy.” They push us to imagine the democratic ideal, one they describe as “democracy from below.” What might that look like for us? What might possibly get citizens engaged with directly governing ourselves again?

Official Democracy

When I became a Clinton County commissioner in 2006, I found that our budget-setting process was set in stone. Once the county administrator compiled the draft budget and gave it to the Board of Commissioners for discussion and adjustments, there was a public meeting held at the county courthouse to share the revised budget plan with citizens and answer any questions. Never did I see more than a handful show up, and rarer still were there questions posed. The board then voted to approve the budget, having done the minimum to get citizen input. I suggested the following year that we take the budget on the road to get feedback from citizens closer to their backyards. My colleagues were not quite ready for this democratic innovation. The system had been working fine for years the way it was.

Yet I believed then, and still do, that bringing more people into the budgeting process could have a profoundly positive impact on our democratic system in Michigan.Given the growing frustration and distrust of partisan politics in Michigan, perhaps we're approaching the very crisis that could provide the opportunity to build a better democratic governing system for the citizens of Michigan. 

In 2011, the American Political Science Association Task Force on Democracy, Economic Security and Social Justice in a Volatile World produced a report entitled, Democratic Imperatives: Innovations in Rights, Participation, and Economic Citizenship. It examined the decline of democratic engagement, economic security, and social justice, and offered a number potential pathways out of this malaise.
In the introduction to their report, the authors note: 
“Crises are moments of great intellectual opportunity: They unsettle conventional wisdom, disrupt political complacency, offer unexpected insights and pose difficult and uncomfortable questions in urgent ways. The present crisis provides an opening for scholars, activists, practitioners, and citizens to question and challenge some of the dominant narratives that have shaped the recent thinking and debate about politics.”
Given the growing frustration and distrust of partisan politics in Michigan, perhaps we’re approaching the very crisis that could provide the opportunity to build a better democratic governing system for the citizens of Michigan.

So what’s the Next Idea?

One of the innovative ideas that emerged from the report was the concept of participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting allows citizens to set priorities and deliberate over the allocation of the budget for their community. This is a much closer version of what Cairns and Sears call “democracy from below.” The origin of the concept is credited to Porto Alegre, Brazil, where, since 1989, up to 50,000 residents have turned out each year to decide how to spend as much as 20% of the city’s annual budget.

When I was teaching at Michigan State University, I would invite our campus budget officer to come in to discuss the university’s budget. He would lay out the revenue streams and expenditures and then used visual software that allowed students to see how the numbers would play out if you adjusted tuition up or down a percent, or increased financial aid, or cut energy use by 10%. Students consistently remarked on how eye-opening this was. For someone teaching concepts of sustainability, it offered me a way to help students see the relationships between two seemingly unrelated items. More importantly, perhaps, it demonstrated how the decisions made to allocate resources affect both what we do and what we don’t do.

The Participatory Budgeting Project notes that there are 1,500 communities and institutions, including states, counties, school systems, colleges, and public agencies around the world that have instituted some level of participatory budgeting. There are many approaches that can be used for implementation, but most follow a similar process:
  1. Residents brainstorm spending ideas.
  2. Volunteer budget delegates develop proposals based on these ideas.
  3. Residents then vote on these proposals.
  4. The government implements the top projects.
For example, if community members identify alternative transportation as a priority, their delegates might develop a proposal, say, for more bicycle lanes or a bicycle-borrowing system. The residents would then vote on this and other proposals, and if they are approved, the city pays to see them completed.

Participatory budgeting has multiple benefits. As citizens become more engaged in the budget process, they see more clearly the complexities that budget officers and elected representatives wrestle with in figuring out how to expend taxpayers’ money. This can add trust -- or at least some measure of respect -- towards the bureaucracy. The city or other budgeting entity also receives fresh ideas and a new mix of possibilities they may otherwise have missed out on. Finally, when the community votes on the budget, there is more buy-in to the outcome, because the process has been more open and democratic.

This change will not repair all that is broken in our democracy, but it will shift the tone in the right direction. Given our state’s recent financial hardships and the many efforts to diversify the economy and rethink the way we do things here in Michigan, we have a window of opportunity to disrupt our growing political complacency. That window, however, won’t remain open forever.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Changes in Climate - Not What You Think

One of the most senior figures in the UK’s environmental movement of recent decades, Jonathon Porritt, recently made the statement that it is now impossible for the large fossil fuel companies of today to adapt in “a timely and intelligent way to the imperative of radical decarbonization.”

 CleanTechnica logo
So begins a recent article in Clean Technica which calls itself  the #1 clean-tech website in the world. After many years of building relationships with leading corporations in the UK towards sustainable development,
Porritt, a leading figure globally in transitioning business towards triple bottom line outcomes has thrown in the towel with BP and Shell. Forum for the Future, the organization he founded in 1996 and has led since that time, with side adventures as Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission between 2000 and 2009 and he became Chancellor of Keele University in 2012.

In an article in last week's Guardian newspaper, Porritt  discusses his valiant efforts to work with the big oil firms for almost two decades, but concludes with.

"This has been quite a painful journey for me personally. I so badly wanted to believe that the combination of reason, rigorous science and good people would enable elegant transition strategies to emerge in those companies. But we learn as we go. And go those companies surely will, if not in the near future."

The tension has been mounting between the fossil fuel companies and environmentalists as the science continues to show the multiple deleterious effects of the industry. For a clear example, the CleanTechnica article above, which builds on Porritt's Guardian piece, notes the report in Science last week that shows 4 of 9 boundaries for life on the planet have been compromised.

We also learned last week that 2014 was the warmest year on record. Porritt's decision to thrown in the towel with the oil giants is not for having tried. But he found their wanton disregard for the community of life impossible to rationalize.

"And these are companies whose senior managers know, as an irrefutable fact, that their current business model threatens both the stability of the global economy and the longer-term prospects of humankind as a whole. Once knowledge of that kind has been internalised, for any individual, however well-meaning and ‘sincere’ they may be, it must get harder and harder to look oneself in the mirror every morning and feel anything other than moral regret".

Maybe with this knowledge more broadly understood folks will understand the importance of the divestment in fossil fuels. 

February 13 and 14 have been called Global Divestment Day . It's not too late to get involved. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Curbing the Athletic Arms Race

The New York Times covered the NCAA convention this past week discussing some of the turbulence around the organization and the big business of college sports. In Friday's article by Ben Strauss, one of the suggestions thrown out by Prof. Andrew Zimbalist, economics professor at Smith College, was "to cap head coaches' salaries at $500,000... and help curb the athletic arms race around the country, while ensuring that the money better serves that academic mission." While I've been calling for similar caps on outrageous salaries for years, it's good to see this leak into a story in the back of the sports section. Something tells me, this won't be reported in the hometown sports sections of towns where the mighty athletic college powerhouses are located.

These salaries, not to mention the other embellishments often added to contracts for the big names in many sectors are outrageous. This is even more so when we look at public sector positions like public universities. In our backyard, today's paper tells the story of the recent firing of the CEO of the locally owned public utility, the Lansing Board of Water and Light.

BWL Logo

The story reveals, what in my experience, is all too common with organizations and their boards - namely that new board members are often brought on because of their public name recognition or connections with other elites; that they frequently have limited knowledge (and sometimes interest) of the organization; and thus they defer to those who have been around the table in the elite club they have joined, rather than question the direction or the decisions of those leading the organization. In the LBWL case, the CEO's contract was given  very little scrutiny by board members when it was drafted and agreed to, as some openly admitted in the article. Now the battle begins about the payout to a fired employee, who managed to negotiate not only a wonderful salary but perks and a nice golden parachute to boot.

 University of Michigan offers Jim Harbaugh $49M six year deal.

One wonders how the University of Michigan Board recently and so swiftly okayed a $40+ million contract with their new football coach, and what kind of buyouts and other perks have been penciled in. Prof. Zimbalist's suggested $500,000 limit is, I believe, quite generous - ten times what the median household income is in the country. This means a football coach, like UM's Jim Harbaugh, who is already a multi-millionaire, would make more in one year, than millions of households would make in ten (and many of those households have two earners)!!!

But for UM and Harbaugh, that's not enough. Instead he will make somewhat more than 120 times what 50 percent of all US households make. The common argument offered in defense of this ludicrous practice is that the market demands it. Or, the another nostrum that conjure up is that they bring in so much money to the institution, as if that is the litmus test for assessing the value of higher education. Higher education has become overrun with neo-liberal economic directives for decades which continue to fuel the arms race that Prof. Zimbalist addresses. Is it any wonder that so many students see a college education as simply a way to maximize their income. Does this mean that philosophy, literature, languages, art or music teachers should be paid by the amount of money they bring to campus? In practice, the answer is yes, as one can see by looking at  most universities' salaries across disciplines. But then shouldn't this defense support the paying of the players????

And of course the ticket prices go up, as do the construction of plush private boxes for the those in the elite clubs that rub shoulders with the board, and don't forget the bumps to the cost of tuition. And educated people think this escalator of madness makes sense?

It doesn't say much for a higher education does it, that the vast majority of those making these decisions are themselves graduates of higher education institutions. The issue is clearly larger than just coaches outrageous salaries. For a more nuanced and insightful analysis see Frank Fear's essay in the LA Progressive  "Game Plan for College Sports Reform", or his other compelling analysis of sports in his blog at The Sports Column.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Commencement, Honor vs. Greed

$47,500 to speak at a commencement address. And I thought that the invitation to give a commencement address was an honor in itself. But not for Michigan State University (MSU) and George Will. It will be interesting to see if the market for commencement speakers will be driven higher.

There was a similar hubbub in 2011when New Jersey state legislators proposed a ban on commencement speaker fees after Rutgers offered Toni Morrison $30,000 and Musician John Legend received $25,000 for serenading graduates at Keane University's 2011 graduation ceremony. An Inside Higher Education article from the same spring commencement season noted that the figures have gone much higher. Katie Couric, the $15 million a year newscaster, received $110,000 from University of Oklahoma in 2006 and Rudy Giuliani received $75,000 and now regularly requires $100,000 plus a private jet according to the article.The real irony of this greed game, is that the people receiving these funds are generally very well off and don't need the exorbitant payoffs.

I remember the catharsis I suffered from years ago as I invited speakers to campus.,trying to assess with very small budgets how much to pay folks adequately for their service while trying to responsibly manage a budget. As a rookie at this, I often succumbed to the demand of the speaker, assuming it was within my ability to cover the costs. (Additional costs for speakers typically include travel, lodging, and meals). What started to shift my thinking was a response I received from an invited speaker to my question about how much they needed to receive to make the trip. It came as I was developing a weekly speakers series over 12 weeks. And the response was from a senior woman scholar in her field. She said, "Beyond travel costs, I don't care as long as it is equal to any male you are paying." My immediate reaction was, wow, why didn't I think of that egalitarian approach. And of course, I did make sure she received at least as much as any male we invited that semester.

But of course this whole paying for speakers is much more complicated calculus. Like the commencement addresses, all the speaking events I organized were free and open to the public. So there was no cost recovery option one might use like charging an admission fee. How long will they be visiting? Is the speech their only required activity while visiting? Or will they be visiting classes, meeting with others? How long does the travel back and forth take and thus how much of their time is tied up in visiting with us? These factors all play a part. Likewise, many speakers use their speaking funds to raise money for organizations they lead, especially the case with non-profits.

One of the reasons price escalate for popular speakers is that the demand for their time goes up, and one way to  suppress a demand that they can't meet, is to raise prices for their services. Towards the end of my tenure as one responsible for bringing speakers to campus I developed what I thought was a fair bottom line approach.. Beyond travel expenses I decided that an offer of $1,500 a day for each day of speaking was an adequate wage based upon the following logic.If one just did speaking and received $1,500 a day and spoke five times a week  for 50 weeks they would pull in $375,000 year. Not a bad salary. Enough to put them in our lofty one percent elite, not to mention being well-fed. But heck, even if they only gave one speech a week they'd tally $75,000 a year, 50% higher than the median HOUSEHOLD income.

But back to commencement speakers' fees. Being asked to give a commencement address, whether at a high school, college or university is an honor. And often the honor is added to by the receipt of an honorary degree. Other than travel costs, there should be no honorarium, as it taints the whole idea of  honor by its purchase. I'd suggest that those who are invited to give commencement addresses should feel honored whether they receive an honorary degree or not. And those who seek to be compensated for expenses beyond their travel costs should not be given a podium. There won't be any shortage of available thoughtful commencement speakers. Michel Moore who gave one of the other commencement addresses the same weekend at MSU received and sought nothing. His behavior is not an uncommon one. Let's hope that MSU and other public educational institutions end this greedy practice. If private institutions want to pay outlandish fees for a 15 minute speech, it's their money.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Is Bigger Better

Michigan State University(MSU) has been on a growth spurt in recent years topping 50,000 students for the first time this past fall. The growth of the student body isn’t the only sign of expansion at MSU. MSU has  been operating under the planning assumption that they will continue to grow into the foreseeable future (MSU 2020 Vision). Based on a past growth rate that added one million square feet of building space per decade, the Master Plan still assumes that growth rate into the future, and that doesn’t include expansion to off-site campuses in Grand Rapids or the recently announced Flint campus. We do live in a culture where ‘bigger’ is often construed as ‘better’.  But is this the true measure of whether a university is a ‘great’ university nurturing the public good?

 Walter Adams 1.jpg

Former MSU President and economics professor, Walter Adams wrote a highly-regarded book in the mid-80s in which he and his co-author, James Brock challenged the myth that bigger was better and more efficient.

Front Cover

 The Bigness Complex, the publisher's site (Stanford University Press) tells us

     "demonstrates how bigness undermines our economic productivity and progress, endangers our democratic freedoms, and exacerbates our economic problems and challenges."

Their concerns in the mid 80s predate our growing understanding of climate change, which should heighten those concerns about growth. The laws of physics tell us you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. 

But MSU's continued growth seems to ignore these concerns raised by Adams, Brock and now climate scientists. Expanding our built infrastructure has significant current and future costs that are being passed on to current and future generations i.e., student debt, climate change. Besides the initial huge capital outlay to add those million square feet, the costs to light, heat, cool, and maintain those spaces is considerable. While under the dominant myth of neoliberal economics we need only worry about the economic costs (especially short term ones) the conveniently ignored environmental and social costs may be many times higher.

A reasonable person might support additional space if it was to be powered with carbon neutral sources, but effectively little of it is. To continue to add additional built space that is powered by carbon based energy in light of all the warnings regarding climate change seems to reflect an air of aloofness, not simply towards the community of life we share this magical planet with, but of the second law of thermodynamics. 

If MSU truly wants to “Be Spartan Green” it might begin with a building moratorium. Continued growth on a finite planet cannot go on forever. Higher education, especially in the developed world, is not exempt from that basic physical law. This is brought to the surface most recently with the report of the new hook-up of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) with the MSU Power Plant.

 Camera Image
Bob Ellerhorst, director of utilities noted in a WKAR “Current State” interview that he anticipates that when the FRIB is running it will, by itself, use 30 percent as much electricity as the entire campus. Maybe MSU officials are not concerned about paying for those bills in hopes the Feds and/or user fees will cover the costs. But even so they should be held responsible for how that power is generated and the greenhouse gases that are released as a result.

When MSU began its push to be selected as the site for the FRIB a decade ago, this issue was raised. From all I can tell, those concerns fell on deaf ears. If someone else is paying for it, why should it be of concern to us? Because carbon emissions continue to increase and the impacts are shared with the entire human family and long into the future. MSU cannot exempt itself from its responsibility to cut carbon emissions, let alone increase them.

While the FRIB is a one of a kind research facility and will likely be used by physicists throughout the world regularly, some other recent campus additions fail that uniqueness test. Most notably the recent addition to Spartan Stadium.
In June 2013, the Michigan State Board of Trustees approved a $24.5 million project to the north end of Spartan Stadium that opened in August 2014. The new structure features a two-story, 50,000-square-foot addition as well as an entrance plaza, renovated gates, and additional restrooms and concessions. The building includes new locker rooms for teams, coaches and officials, including a 4,500-square-foot home locker room and a 700-square-foot home training room, in addition to a 3,600-square-foot media center and a 4,000-square-foot engagement center for all varsity sports.
... Photo Album of the North Endzone of Spartan Stadium Expansion Project

MSU plays seven home games a year. Mostly this structure will remain vacant and underused most of the year. I don’t have any figures on the amount of carbon based energy it will use during the year, but the embodied energy alone that went into its construction with excavation and the huge amounts of concrete could have been more productively utilized.

What’s at play here I think, as Adams and Brock more eloquently and thoroughly demonstrated is the mistaken belief that bigger is better. Somehow our administrators convinced the Board of Trustees that if we just have a 4,500 square foot home locker room a player can sit in seven times a year we will be a better university. With a former coach and player on the board, perhaps this isn’t so surprising. But is this what leaders of public universities believe makes them worthy of the public trust and support, especially in a world of rising student debt and accelerating climate change?

That $24.5 million could have provided water filters for almost every family in Burkina Faso with a whole lot less carbon released into the atmosphere. Water, that thanks to the climate change these actions help accelerate, will be, as the climate models seem to predict in ever shorter supply.

The competition for biggest is killing us. Not making us or the community of life we share better. And don't even get me started on the University of Michigan's $40+ million contract for a new football coach -  a campus that boasts the BIGGEST football stadium of any or university.

Michigan Stadium 2011.jpg It just might be time for the equivalent of a Ghostbusters approach to address unrelenting growth on our college campuses. Ooops, looks like someone beat me to the punch - checkout GrowthBusters.