Saturday, 28 March 2009

Number 3) Protecting Wildlife from Climate Change

I am hopeful that one of the things this Administration will prioritise is a substantial reduction in CO2 emissions to help us halt the onset of global climate change. BUT, the changing climate has already begun to have a serious impact on wildlife and plant species and sadly we now have no choice but to adapt to these changes.

The warming temperatures, for example, have caused caterpillars to be born weeks earlier in the year than previously. That may not sound so bad, but baby birds rely on them as their main source of food. Some bird species are starting to experience mass starvation of thier chicks, who are now being born weeks after the caterpillars on which have passed their peak.

In fact, birds generally appear to be in serious trouble:

The May, 2008, International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assessment concluded that “climate change—and even some attempts to tackle it—are pushing one in eight species of birds towards extinction.” In the past year alone, 26 of the 1,226 species on their “Red List” of threatened bird species became more endangered, while only 2 species improved in status...

In the United States bird populations have also shrunk, and nearly a third of the bird species living in the eastern Midwest and Great Lakes areas could be lost. (Emphasis mine)

The Department of the Interior has for decades been responsible for managing public lands and ensuring the preservation of wildlife. However, the methods they use for species conservation are likely to need a major overhaul in light of the changing patterns in nature. And you don't have to be an animal lover to be concerned about this - mass species extinction can lead to devastating consequences for human populations. For instance, without birds to contain them, insect populations can swell, leading to crop blight. Fish extinctions could destroy the fishing industry, and with it countless local economies that rely on it.

To prevent these potentially costly and devastating outcomes, we need to make a modest investment in rejigging our land management in line with visible and measurable impact that climate change is having on the landscape today (as well as preparing for the likely future). This budget increases the funding for such work by $140 Million, $40 Million of which will be shared with the states to support their local conservation efforts. It also grants $10 Million to North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) activities to acquire, restore, or protect wetlands used by migratory waterfowl and other birds

Money well spent.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Number 4) Home Nurses Visitation Program

Sometimes when we make policy decisions, we have to take our best guess about what types of programs work and what don't. For instance, a lot of people had very high hopes for abstinence education programs, and even those of us who were dubious about the idea couldn't be sure whether the programs would be effective until they had been tried and data had been gathered to determine if they would work. (The verdict is now in, though. They don't.)

However, this is not always the case. Sometimes we are blessed with the opportunity to support programs that have a long track record and have proven statistically effective in achieving valuable social goals. For example, the Home Nurses program, which sends nurses to the homes of low income mothers to be to offer instruction and support in infant care. Programs of this type have been running in trial versions since the late 1970's and have consistently shown real benefits.

But that description is too cold. What we are talking about here is children who would otherwise be abused are not being abused. Children who would otherwise receive poor nutrition are well fed. Children who would be born premature, are born healthy. Teenagers who benefited from the program as children are less likely to be arrested themselves or for their parents to be in jail

The Home Nurses programs work with the most underprivildged families in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. Here's a description pulled from a heartbreaking article on the nurses and mothers participating in the program in New Orleans. A home nurse, Luwana, is trying to help a mother called Alexis learn how to care for her 13 day old baby:

No matter how chaotic the scene - no matter that Alexis' sister has taken a break from hacking chicken parts by the kitchen sink to attend to the ex-inmate's sexual needs in the next room - Luwana's first task is to create an aura of momentousness around the new baby. As she moves through a household, giving advice about routine-building, breast-feeding, and storing the shotguns out of reach, she attempts to win over not just a young mother but a typically unwieldy cast of supporting players, from the baby's father to the great-grandmother getting high in a tent behind the house. What Luwana tells each family may seem, on the face of it, fiction: that in this infant enormous possibilities inhere. But such fictions can be strategic...

Obama's budget creates a national Nurse Home Visitation program to help turn this fiction into a reality for thousands of the neediest infants in America.

Money well spent.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Budget Top 10 Interlude: Why I'm Doing This...

Just a quick reminder: the reason I'm blogging my top ten budget goodies is simple. Republicans realise that the Presiden't Budget is a progressive and pragmatic proposal. They know that there's an awful lot in there that people are going to like. So they would rather spend their time distracting you from it.

And when the legislative battle gets started, despite the fact they are in the minority, despite the fact they are wildly unpopular, despite the fact Obama has made every effort to include them where appropriate (short of selling out the things he was elected to do) they are going to go for all out war.

They don't want to give up on their fundamental economic principle that low taxes + small government always = good. Here's Rep. Eric Cantor describing the Republican budget plan:
Cantor called the Republican budget “a responsible attempt to restrain the
growth in government, to return us back to a period of economic growth through
tax relief and fiscal prudence.

In other words, cut taxes for the rich and eliminate programs for the poor. Hmm.... where have I heard this before? It's incumbent on all of us to learn something about the President's budget so we can speak up for it against the Republican nonsense.

Update: And here's a new Organizing for America ad asking for your support on the budget:

Number 5) More FBI agents to target financial fraud

If you have been even vaguely sentient over the last few months, you must be aware that massive, multi-billion dollar fraud schemes have recently rocked the US economy. Federal investigators estimate that Bernard Madoff alone had accumulated more than $64.8 Billion through his Ponzi scheme - not a penny of which was legitimately invested. Allen Stanford is currently under investigation for what appears to be a fraudulent $8Billion dollar fund, and the scale of his Ponzi scheme may turn out to be much larger. He has also been accused of money laundering, and tax evasion.

Both of these individuals operated for years with little to no oversight, despite the fact that their massive businesses appeared to be nothing more than thin facades.

The damage that these men have done isn't just to wealthy investors - many charities, universities and foundations invested with these men. For instance, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Eli Wiesel had invested the entire $15.2 million of his charitable foundation with Madoff. Nothing is left. Those funds were earmarked to help Darfuri and Ethiopian refugees to rebuild their lives, amongst other things.

But Madoff and Stanford are just the tip of a very cold and ugly iceberg - with the rise of computer crime and the increasingly complicated nature of financial transactions, a wide range of financial crime is now threatening all of us. Identity theft is on the rise, as is phishing. Thousands of Americans are about to lose their homes due to fraudulent or illegal mortgage practices. And, of course, we may yet find that significant financial fraud was behind the current financial sector collapse - investigations are ongoing.

It seems to me that what we are experiencing right now is a massive crime wave sweeping the country - just the same as if thousands of masked muggers had suddenly taken to the streets. But at the moment we don't have anything like the resources we would need to fight it.

We need lots more law enforcement officials with specialist training in financial crime.

That's why Obama's budget now includes significant funds to add:

  • Additional FBI Agents with financial training
  • More federal prosecutors and civil litigators and
  • Bankrupcy attorneys

All of these will help to protect investors and will safeguard the American taxpayer. The disastrous decision to leave financial oversight in the hands of the SEC has proved unbearably costly. From now on, we need to invest more in strong federal oversight and prosecution, not only to brign these criminals to justice but, hopefully, to deter such crime in the first place. Money well spent.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Number 6) Supertrains!

Living in a country where the rail infrastructure is (far from perfect but) widely used and considered a necessary, normal part of daily life in the country, I'm always astonished by how far most Americans are from thinking this way. A few years ago I needed to travel from Spingfield, Massachusetts to Manhattan and I booked an Amtrack ticket to do so. This was a 4 hour journey, which would land me three blocks from where I needed to be. However, the family that I was visiting in the Springfield area were confused and disapproving - "why didn't you fly?" they kept asking me.

Well, leaving aside the fact that the train cost about the same, took about the same amount of time (when you factor in the need to travel out to the airport and into the city at each end) and that the train has more comfortable seats, and allows you to stretch your legs there is also the fact that rail travel is FAR less polluting than airplane travel. The CO2 released in air travel has 10 times the environmental impact as CO2 at ground level. And car travel, in addition to being more polluting than rail, is also significantly less safe - automobile fatalities are the 6th most common cause of deat in developed countries.

Still, though, Americans are far more likely to fly or drive on long journeys. Rightly or wrongly, rail travel is seen as creaky, slow, and inhibiting.

But supertrains - high speed trains serving major metropolitan areas, such as are common on continental Europe and Japan - are none of these things. Supertrains are clean, safe, cheap and fast. They are a great way to travel, and they can help to reinvigorate urban areas drawign business and consumers back into town centers.

So why is America so far behind the curve on this? We don't have a single high speed rail line in the country, despite being (allegedly) the wealthiest country on earth and having a number of major metropolitican areas that would be ideal to connect in this way.

For instance, the North East corridor would make it easy to create a high speed line connecting Boston, New York, Washington DC and Baltimore.

Or, how about connecting St Louis Missouri and Chicago? Of Seattle and Portland? Or LA and San Francisco? Harry Reid got attacked for a fictional LA to Las Vegas rail line, but creating one of these would actually be a really good idea.

I can't see any reason why America should always be the last developed country to adopt innovative and useful large-scale projects like this. Not only will supertrains create much needed jobs here and now, they will create the kind of robust transport infrastructure that makes ongoing growth easier - similar to how Eisenhower ensured an era of growth by investing in the Interstate Highway program. Plus: SUPERTRAINS! (Sorry, but I' just plain adore them.)

Money well spent.

Monday, 23 March 2009

The Power Of the Ask

I'm at a book launch event for this book and there are computers with signs saying "blog here". So I am. It's amazing what you can persuade people to do by asking them.

Number 7) Energy innovation for housing

The need to reduce energy consumption has become critical, not just a result of climate change (although that certainly makes it more urgent) but also in terms of reducing the increased cost of living and making the best use of our limited supplies of fossil fuels.

In the US, 21% of all energy consumption is household consumption. Most of that comes from space and water heating, as well as cooking and lighting. Relatively simple and cost effective adjustments to homes, including insulation and sealant on windows can make a big difference in home energy consumption. Unfortunately, the people who can least afford the type of up front investment in energy efficiency are also the people who could most benefit from the cost savings that would result.

That's why the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Energy are working together to propose a fund to retrofit older homes. Not only will this money help to stimulate the economy by directly contributing to the growth of the green jobs sector that represents one of our most promising areas for economic growth, but it will help many underpriviledged people to cut their monthly expenses at a time when belts are tighening around the country.

And the long term benefits of cleaner, more efficient houses will pay environmental dividends for years to come, even if the families that initially benefit eventually move on. This is really a win-win-win scenario: economic stimulation, help to the needy and a cleaner environment.

Money well spent.