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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries since August 2013

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Why Would James Woolsey Back Solar Energy?

August 9, 2013 ·

allanhenderson/Flickr“Distributed generation with solar looks better and better to me all the time.” -James Woolsey, former director of the CIA.

What is a man with Woolsey’s credentials doing issuing a powerful endorsement of home solar panels? National security and sustainability, at face value, certainly make for an unlikely overlap of interests.

In his talk—delivered to a crowd of several hundred people at the Johns Hopkins Institute for International Studies—Woolsey advocated distributed solar energy in the form of solar panels on businesses and homes as one viable solution to the security challenges faced by America’s electricity grid.

The grid—the network of power plants, electrical substations, and transmission lines that deliver electricity around the country—is only one of 18 critical infrastructures in the U.S. However, all depend on electricity to function, making the stability of the grid vital to the running of each of these infrastructures.

Cyber threats are a particular threat to the national grid, in part because the control systems for the grid are all available online. Electrical infrastructure can also be severely damaged or disabled by large electromagnetic pulses, such as those caused by spontaneous electromagnetic bursts from the sun or by a nuclear attack. Woolsey noted that the grid is also vulnerable to attacks from, for instance, heavy artillery or ordinary gunfire.

Woolsey's solutions to these threats are twofold. First, he suggested that individual shields should be constructed around every vital point on the energy grid to help protect these electrical hubs from attack—however, this would be undeniably resource-intensive and provide few benefits. Woolsey’s second—and more realistic—solution endorsed the idea of distributed generation and storage of renewable energy at the local level.

The logic behind the security argument for distributed solar is simple. When the energy needed to power each household and business is “coming from your roof... and being stored in the basement,” as Woolsey quipped, Americans are less vulnerable to disruptions in the production and transport system. The more energy produced locally on roofs and in yards, the less impact an extreme weather event or attack can have on the regular functioning of American society. Such resilience to external disruptions is key in an increasingly unpredictable energy, climate, and national security landscape.

There remain significant barriers to distributed solar energy, however. Although much of the technology for affordable distributed solar is “here or almost here,” according to Woolsey, funding for research and development is often uncertain. Further, it takes time for any new technology to be integrated into society. Attention must be given to state and national incentives for solar installation, integration with existing infrastructure, and other barriers to access if the market for distributed solar is to flourish across the United States.

Yet Woolsey's endorsement of distributed solar energy as a security investment suggests the potential for more promising, creative national defense solutions—solutions that create resilient, productive domestic systems while working towards a more sustainable, renewable future. 

This Week in OtherWords: August 7, 2013

August 7, 2013 ·

This week in OtherWords, Sanjay Jolly describes the promising opportunities that a new wave of low-power FM stations will soon create, Jill Stein explains why she gave Bradley Manning a "presidential pardon," and William A. Collins and I put the rash of newspaper purchases by billionaires into perspective.

Do you want to make sure you don't miss the latest from OtherWords? Then subscribe to our free weekly newsletter. Do you value our sharp analysis and bold ideas? Please consider making a tax-deductible donation today to keep this valuable service running.

  1. A Chance to Start Listening Locally / Sanjay Jolly
    Low-power FM radio levels the playing field of ideas and culture.
  2. Higher Education’s Complicity in the Trayvon Martin Tragedy / William B. Harvey
    Universities need to lead the way toward the national conversation on race we clearly need.
  3. Why I Granted Bradley Manning a Presidential Pardon / Jill Stein
    He was defending the highest principles of democracy by exposing U.S. war crimes and State Department deception.
  4. By George, You Don’t Get It / Donald Kaul
    Detroit was a one-industry company town run by executives who forgot how to make cars people wanted to buy.
  5. Blowing the Whistle on Philanthropy / Sam Pizzigati
    A scion of one of America's top fortunes has just exposed our "charitable-industrial complex."
  6. Coke’s Green Lipstick / Jill Richardson
    The only truly green thing about a new kind of Coke is the color of its label.
  7. The Border-Industrial Complex / Jim Hightower
    War profiteers have spied a new place they can militarize with their high-tech, high-cost weaponry.
  8. Unfit to Print / Emily Schwartz Greco and William A. Collins
    Suddenly, all self-respecting billionaires need to own at least one newspaper.
  9. Aiding the Enemy / Khalil Bendib cartoon

    Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords.org
     Aiding the Enemy, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib
Spending is Not Growth: The Case Against GDP

August 6, 2013 ·

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley meets with GPI representatives, by Tom Nappi at Annapolis, Maryland / FlickrGross Domestic Product (GDP) is a measure of final market value of goods/services produced by a country in a specific time period—nothing more, nothing less. It is easy, however, to fall under the misconception that GDP is a reliable indicator of economic growth or of a country’s well-being.

One of the core problems with GDP is that it only adds. That is, GDP calculates any kind of spending as improving the health of an economy—a limitation that is clearly problematic.

As an example, how does GDP account for an economic disaster? The oil spill British Petroleum (BP) caused in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 is a perfect example of the limitations of GDP. The transactions made to replace assets damaged or destroyed by such a disaster are not differentiated in final GDP scores, to the tune of about $20 billion in the 2010 oil spill.

Not to mention, an oil spill negatively affects the local economy in so many ways that GDP does not account for: for instance, fishermen losing their jobs and livelihood, restaurants temporarily closing or going out of business entirely, and tourism in the area rapidly declining. Moreover, the local ecosystem is completely thrown off balance and damaged, sometimes irreparably, for many years to come.

Hurricane Katrina provides another significant example of GDP’s limitations: With about $250 billion in cleanup costs, the hurricane’s effect on GDP certainly did not reflect the well-being of New Orleans citizens or economy in the years following the disaster. Thousands of former residents were permanently displaced, and the city is still struggling to approach pre-Katrina population figures. As of 2012, the city has reached only 80 percent of its former population.

Although Louisiana’s GDP initially dropped off after the disaster, as the cleanup effort began it quickly began to climb, approaching pre-disaster numbers within only five years. Yet while the state’s GDP was rapidly recovering, the city itself was not: Alyson Plyer, the chief demographer at the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, estimated in 2010 that the city was only “five years into a 10- to 20-year recovery project.” Going by GDP alone, however, the disaster seemed to be a hiccup rather than a monumentally disruptive catastrophe.

Economic disasters like the BP oil spill and Hurricane Katrina demonstrate the inherent limitations of GDP as a measurement of economic growth, health, or the well-being of citizens in an economy. GDP scores are simply not built to accommodate these negative externalities that affect people, wildlife, ecosystems, and communities.

However, alternative methods have been developed to more accurately account for these externalities. The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), developed by ecological economists in the 1980s and 90s, is much better equipped to measure activities that diminish financial and social well-being and negatively impact the environment. GPI, for instance, quantifies externalities such as ozone depletion or loss of wetlands as harmful costs—whereas GDP is not able to differentiate these harmful costs from positive economic activity so long as dollars are being spent.

Some states have already started to move away from GDP because of its inherent limitations: Despite early opposition, Maryland—in conjunction with the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Environmental Research—developed and implemented a GPI tool for policy-makers in early 2010. The tool, which measures how indicators of well-being interact with and affect each other, uses 26 different indicators from economic, environmental, and social categories to calculate GPI.

Maryland’s successful adoption of GPI will hopefully encourage other states to follow suit and develop similar measurements for a more sustainable economic future—one that values its citizens and the environment more highly than the dollar.

 

Michael Faul is an intern for the New Economy Working Group project.

The Living Need a Poem

August 6, 2013 ·

The Cold War is over
why aren't we having fun
I have destroyed my internal Timex
kicked an innocent dog
stiffed four ratty beggars
my team has triumphed over
the incarnation of wickedness
I etch acrid sarcasm
on a child's mind
can I pull a poem from shrapnel
fashion words of beauty
from shrill shrieks of falling bombs
submerge the laments of those
with investments
in times of need
the living need a poem

This poem originally featured in Split This Rock.

Waiting for Wendy's

August 6, 2013 ·

Don't eat at Wendy's this week.

Across the country, people are picketing restaurants, calling corporate offices, and signing petitions against the fast food chain through August 11.

What's this Week of Action against Wendy's about? For years, the company has bucked industry trends and refused to cooperate with the Coalition of Immokalee Fair Food Program.

Despite the restaurant chain's family-friendly branding, Wendy's is the last large fast food company refusing to participate. McDonald's, Burger King, Yum! Foods, and Subway all joined before 2009.

Grocery stores like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods have signed up already too.

StockMonkey.com/FlickrWendy's complaint about the Fair Food Program is the proposed wage hike for farm workers — a whopping one cent per pound increase — that participating buyers would pay.

By refusing the pay bump, Wendy's rejects a code of conduct that would dramatically improve labor conditions for Florida farmworkers. This code would prevent the neo-slavery conditions — forced labor without breaks, and without pay, in the hot sun — that dominate farms in the Sunshine State. The company's management is also rejecting the complaint registry system, where workers could call out supervisors for breaking that code.

Perhaps most importantly, by snubbing the Fair Food Program, Wendy's says no to the worker-to-worker education program. This program, which Wendy's apparently believes to be non-essential, would inform workers of their right to water on the job, to a lunch break in the shade, and to report the all too frequent cases of sexual assault at their workplace.

The Fair Food Program is absolutely necessary to prevent the abuse of farm workers in Florida, a real danger highlighted by the discovery earlier this summer of 275 men, women, and teenagers held as forced laborers in horrifying conditions at a tomato processing factory in Mexico.

The United States government formally abolished slavery in 1865. Wendy's should do its part to really end this terrible practice in our country.

Kathleen Robin Joyce is a student at Georgetown University and an OtherWords intern at the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords.org

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