A Few Changes…

girl and three boys on staircase
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This blog is a work in progress! Wanted to let everyone who has been following my blog know about a few changes:

  • Because some have confused “prospective democracy” with “progressive democracy”–which is a different kind of thing–I changed the name of the concept to Longview Democracy and the Internet address is now longview-democracy.blog. I hope that still implies a democracy that looks ahead and takes into consideration the interests of the next generation.
  • The essay that explained the concept–in maybe a little too much abstract detail–has been split and now reappears as 10 Questions About the World Our Children Will Inherit and Six Ways a Longview Democracy Would Be Different. Each is readable in about two or three minutes and, I hope, easily digestible.
  • In future notes, I will be posting a lot more about books, articles, and organizations that bring something interesting to the discussion about how to get our leaders to think about the next generation in their proposals.
  • Will also be putting out questions and opportunities for others to contribute to the blog so we get a diversity of voices on the topic.

That’s all for now. Hope to hear your comments and questions in the future.

 

 

What do Americans believe will be the key issues of 2050?

Every year, survey research organizations ask Americans what they believe are the key issues facing the country. This is valuable information for political leaders planning their election campaigns and platforms. To get elected, they always have to address short-term issues on voters’ minds. In a long-term democracy, leaders would also want to know what citizens believe are the key issues facing the country decades into the future.  By anticipating long-term issues, proactive leaders can make small, incremental changes to address them before they become crises.

The Pew Research Center recently completed a study of how Americans are looking at the nation’s future and published their results. They asked over 2,500 representative Americans about conditions they expected for America and what they believed would be the key issues facing the nation in the year 2050. This is a valuable and detailed study–worth the read.

The part I found the most useful were questions about what people believed would improve life for future generations of Americans:

Majorities say increased government spending on health care, education would improve life for future generations

These are the areas on which political leaders can build support because voters see their value for our children and grandchildren. Many of them are also contradictory, which calls out the highest political skill and creativity in our leaders to forge compromises and implement policies that slowly lead to positive change on multiple fronts.

Work on these issues also calls for bipartisanship because neither Republicans nor Democrats see the whole picture of what the nation needs. As other parts of the report make clear, Democrats are much better at recognizing the danger of climate change while Republicans are much better at recognizing the problem of undocumented immigrants. Won’t our grandchildren be better off if we tackle both the problems of super storms from climate change and depressed wages from undocumented immigrants taking jobs in an underground economy? Wouldn’t leaders in a long-term democracy listen to concerns on both sides of the partisan divide and value their perceptions? Some of the long-term members of Congress, secure in their seats, should be leading the way.

Pew’s data on issues is valuable, but I would recommend ignoring questions in which Pew asked people to predict the future in 2050: “Will the U.S. be more or less important in the world?” “Will the gap between the rich and poor grow or get smaller?” Nobody knows the answers to questions like these, but the authors use their survey results to spin a tale of Americans seeing the nation’s decline in many areas. Anyone who has been around for a few decades knows that the national mood swings and that prophesy is a fool’s errand for us poor mortals.

The picture at the top of this note is taken from the Pew article–is it sunrise or sunset in America? Rather than letting our mood swing with the rest, we accomplish more if we take the stance of a conditional optimist: America’s future will be great if we make it so. The issues are there before us, so let’s get to work and make a better world for our children and grandchildren.

Inward or Outward Looking? Our Grandchildren Really Have No Choice

toddler looking through clear glass window
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In the last two years, the U.S. has stepped away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran Nuclear agreement, and the Intermediate-Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. It’s fair to argue about the merits of any of these agreements. It’s fair to argue about whether other nations have been living up to their commitments. It would be hard to deny, though, that these actions represent anything but an inward-looking, go-it-alone approach for the U.S.

Can we continue stepping away from engagement with other nations and still pass on a stable, prosperous world to our kids and grandkids? Can we solve global-sized problems by ourselves?

  • We can’t solve the problem of pollution drifting in from other countries by changing U.S. laws.
  • We can’t have military security without exchanging intelligence with other friendly nations.
  • We can’t put a lid on foreign terrorism without going to its source.
  • We can’t calm the waves of refugees breaking on our shores unless we join with others to help them stabilize their home countries.
  • We can’t have international trade without rules of the game listed in international agreements.
  • Our ships can’t safely navigate the high seas without international maritime agreements about shipping lanes.
  • Our planes can’t fly safely without international agreements on airport security and air traffic control.
  • We can’t prevent collisions of satellites in space without international agreements allocating orbits.
  • We can’t protect patent holders from the theft of their intellectual property without international agreements.
  • We can’t have an operating Internet without agreeing to international technical standards.
  • We can’t shut down dangerous genetic engineering experiments without international agreements.
  • We can’t shut down international epidemics without international cooperation.
  • We can’t control international crime without the help of other nations.
  • We can’t solve the problem of greenhouse gases heating up the atmosphere by ourselves when 80% of the gases are generated in other nations.
  • We can’t stop nuclear weapons from spreading without arms control agreements.

What can we do? We can make sure the U.S. has people on the job, working on these issues with other nations.  Normally, you would expect the U.S. Department of State to be staffed up and working on them. Sadly, if you poke around its “Alphabetical List of Bureaus and Offices” to find out who is in charge of these areas, you will find many top positions with no names listed or with just “acting” employees. Somewhere between staff turnover, a lack of appointments, or a lack of Senate confirmations, we are not getting responsible, talented people in place to provide leadership.

The next generation will face many issues bigger than what one nation, or even what a small group of nations can handle. We are actors on the world stage whether we like it or not. If the U.S. has made some bad agreements in the past, or other nations have not fulfilled their obligations, it is not realistic to simply walk away and hope we can isolate ourselves. The answer is to become more effective at making agreements and holding other nations accountable to them. If we want to pass on a stable, prosperous world to the next generation, our generation has to put the right people in place and give them the resources to make it happen.

How Can We Curb the Accelerating Costs of America’s Natural Disasters?

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Revised: 3/1/19

On November 19, 2016, my hometown newspaper in Western North Carolina reported that wildfires were ripping through 46,000 acres of the Nantahala National Forest. Natural disasters leave wounds—physical and mental—death and financial loss. Many neighbors in Western North Carolina and Tennessee lost homes, businesses, and the lives of relatives in the fires of 2016. Some victims take years to recover, some never do.

We all hope for safe communities, but graphic images of wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters have become familiar in recent years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the scorekeeper for our nation’s natural disasters and they do it in billions of dollars. In 2018, we suffered 14 natural disasters in which physical damage and the interruption of businesses totaled $91 billion. Surprisingly, 2018 was only the fourth most expensive year for natural disasters.  The cost of natural disasters in 2017 was over $300 billion. That’s twice the $149 billion direct costs of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Year by year, the cost and frequency of natural disasters vary a lot, but the five year averages have shown crazy growth. Back in the 1990s, the five year average yearly cost of disasters was pretty stable at around $20 billion in the U.S. After 2001, the five year average cost more than doubled, fluctuating between $50 billion and $60 billion. Then around 2015, the five year average started climbing again to $100 billion. All of these figures are adjusted for inflation, so something real is going on here.

What will the annual figures, the suffering, and the loss of life be when the kids born this year become adults? We have already doubled the long-term average. Will it double again to $200 billion with spikes of $400 billion? What will it be like to live in a country that has the equivalent loss of a 9/11 attack–or two–every year?

As with most long-term issues, we can reverse this trend with innovation and political will if we act now. We do not have to continue rebuilding in floodplains, we can restore wetlands that protect us from flooding, we can enact building codes that require elevating homes in flood prone areas, harden them against hurricane force winds and earthquakes, make them more fire resistant in fire prone areas, and manage the brush that spreads wildfires. We can do better.

A recent study by the National Institute of Building Sciences concluded that $1 spent on these types of mitigation efforts, when targeted to the right areas, typically results in $4 to $6 of savings. Pretty good odds. Congress made a small down payment on prevention by passing the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, which allows diversion of some funds from disaster recovery to disaster prevention, but the amounts spent so far are too small to get the job done.

The federal government has allocated a little less than $1 billion per year to minimizing losses from disasters betwee­­­n 2007 and 2016, or about 1% of their annual cost. My analysis of what it would take in federal funding to seriously turn around the costs of natural disasters through mitigation efforts is an additional $2.5 to $5 billion per year. The low figure is based on the annual costs of natural disasters increasing by the same absolute amount as it has in the last 17 years–$4.7 billion per year–and the higher figure is based on the average cost of disasters growing by the same annual rate of 10%. The right figure is probably somewhere in between, but could be higher if global warming is truly driving the increasing costs of natural disasters.

In just a few years of consistent investment in mitigation, savings on disaster relief would more than pay the annual cost of mitigation. The future is always hidden in a cloud of “what ifs?” and nothing is more unpredictable than the annual costs of natural disasters–but the trend line is unmistakable. The federal government ends up paying out many billions of dollars each year responding to disasters. Would the initial expenditures for an effective mitigation program be too much of a burden to the current generation of taxpayers? The high estimate of what we need to spend is about the same as we spend on two days of Social Security payments or three days of what we spend on the Department of Defense Budget. Investing more in mitigation efforts rather than letting the costs of natural disasters run out of control is smart for the current generation of taxpayers and the responsible thing to do on behalf of the next generation.

Details of my analysis are available on request by emailing me at tfehsen1@jhu.edu.

Sources

Carter, Shan, and Amanda Cox. “One 9/11 Tally: $ 3.3 Trillion.” The New York Times, September 8 2011.

“Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018.” FEMA, https://www.fema.gov/disaster-recovery-reform-act-2018.

National Institute of Building Sciences Multihazard Mitigation Council. “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report.” Washington, DC: National Institute of Building Sciences, 2017.

Sack, Kevin, and John Schwartz. “As Storms Keep Coming, Fema Spends Billions in ‘Cycle’ of Damage and Repair.” The New York Times, October 8, 2018 2018.

Stauffer, Anne, Justin Theal, and Colin Foard. “Natural Disaster Mitigation Spending Not Comprehensively Tracked.” Pew, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2018/09/natural-disaster-mitigation-spending–not-comprehensively-tracked.

“U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters.” NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/.