Wednesday, July 27, 2011

New study with lessons for Boehner et al.: Talking about our disagreements makes for better politics

A week before the 2010 midterm elections, House majority leader John Boehner announced that "this is not a time for compromise." And during the recent budget crisis, House Republicans have been following Boehner's doctrine almost religiously.  They have walked out on budget discussions, given separate televised statements and avoided talking to Democrats face-to-face whenever possible.

In some respects, Republicans are simply mirroring the broader political culture in this country.  Our politics seem to get more polarized, but as findings show, we're reluctant to talk to those who disagree with us in order to sort out our differences.  And a new study we just published in Mass Communication & Society suggests that this may be a huge missed opportunity.

Our national survey data show a significantly stronger positive link between hearing different views and being willing to participate in political processes for people who were willing to speak out in these encounters. In other words, disagreement in discussions about politics can be a good thing.  But it does depend on citizens' willingness to actively participate in these discussions and actually talk about their disagreements.

I wrote up a few paragraphs about what this may mean for our political system more broadly for a report that the Foley Institute at Washington State University is preparing on a conference on "Civility & Democracy in America" they held out in Spokane earlier this year.
"Political discussions ... may be a little bit like sports.  The payoff from sitting passively in our recliners, holding a can of beer and watching March Madness is probably minimal. Watching sports on TV does not get us in shape.  In fact, it may make us slightly obese and even more apathetic.  But actively participating in a team sport is a different story.  Going out on the basketball court and playing against another team may leave us bruised and sore the next morning, but – in the long run – it is what keeps us in shape.
The parallels between sports and civil or uncivil exchanges among citizens go even further than that.  Similar to watching a basketball game on TV, passive, armchair disagreement does not strengthen our "democratic" muscle. In fact, some research suggests that it may have negative effects, and that exposure to uncivil discourse in talk shows can have detrimental effects on people’s trust in various aspects of the political system.
The positive effects of disagreement and maybe even incivility may therefore come from entering the fray and actively participating in the game, to stay in the basketball analogy. This would certainly be consistent with the significantly stronger positive link between exposure to heterogeneous views and political participation we found for active participants in political discussions than for those who spoke up.
Like many commentators, I continue to be unconvinced that the political climate in the U.S. is characterized or even threatened by an increasingly uncivil discourse.  More importantly, even if there is a trend toward less civility, the tone of public discourse in itself may not be a problem.  Instead, many of the studies outlined in this essay point to a slightly more complex diagnosis.
In particular, the U.S. may have reached a point where our discourse is both uncivil and non-participatory. And it is really the combination of both of these characteristics that is the problem, not the lack of civility by itself.  Spirited discussions among politically active citizens, even if they are not perfectly civil at times, are a prerequisite of any functioning democracy.  A political environment in which chronically apathetic voters see themselves as disconnected observers of hyperpartisan and often uncivil exchanges among pundits and politicians, on the other hand, is equally unhealthy for individual citizens and for the political system, more broadly."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Renewable energy and economic growth ... abroad: The economic lessons that U.S. lawmakers still don't understand

Ironically, two of the more important headlines earlier this month referred to events that are unlikely to happen. Various ratings agencies announced that they might lower their credit ratings for the U.S. to the level of Zambia if the government does not manage to raise the debt ceiling.  And House Republicans launched a number of unsuccessful bids to repeal parts of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act that require light bulbs to be more energy efficient.  The two news items seem unrelated at first.  But at second glance, they are linked in ways that may teach us a valuable lesson about economic recovery in the U.S. and around the world.

And we are in desperate need of new ideas and, if things do not turn around soon, the U.S. could permanently fall from the ranks of the world's leading economies.  Of course, the U.S. were not the only country targeted by ratings agencies this week.  Financial markets in Italy are in trouble, Greece has just managed to secure another E.U. bailout, and Ireland and Portugal have seen their credit ratings lowered to junk status by Moody's.

But at least two countries seem to be somewhat unaffected by the recent financial crisis.  One is China, which is the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury debt and now owns well over a trillion dollars of our country's debt.  The other is Germany which has financed much of the bailout efforts for struggling EU partners.

The two countries owe their unusual success in this difficult global economy to very different sets of political and societal circumstances.  But they have one thing in common: According to a United Nations report on renewable energy investments released this month, both Germany and China handily outspent the U.S. on renewable energies last year.  Investments on technologies, such as wind farms and solar panels, totaled over $90 billion combined in China and Germany in 2010, compared to about $29 billion in the U.S.

China's predominance is not too surprising, given the sheer size of the country.  Germany out-investing the U.S. by almost 40 percent with a population that is about a fourth of that of the U.S., however, warrants a second look.  According to the 2011 U.N. report, Germany had higher growth rates than any other country for small-scale capacity building in areas, such as solar photovoltaic devices.  In other words, the German federal government managed to promote grassroots investment in renewable energies, such as solar panels on private residences, through a mix of regulations and incentives provided to ordinary citizens.  Every new residential home that is currently being built in Germany, for example, is required by law to satisfy a certain portion of its energy needs from on-site renewable energy sources.

And the economic trickle-up effects of these policies are being felt by most citizens as Germany has created more energy independence, spurred innovation, and shielded itself from the shrinking or stagnating economies that have plagued countries around the world.  As a result, there has been widespread political buy-in among the German electorate for the government’s legislative management of these investments.  And as the U.N report concluded, policy-makers support solar and other renewable energies since they create manufacturing and installation jobs, and voters like the idea of reducing their monthly energy bill and making a profit on their very own power plant.  And that does not even take into account the environmental benefits of these measures. 

The idea of promoting innovation and economic growth through environmental regulations and incentives, of course, is not new.  In the U.S., we have heard similar proposals from commentators at various ends of the political spectrum, including columnist Tom Friedman and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.  But given the severity of the economic situation in the U.S., it is surprising how little political consensus we have managed to achieve on similar political proposals.  So while the recent efforts to kill Bush era requirements for more energy-efficient light bulbs may just be political posturing, they are also indicative of blind spots for the economic potential of sustainable technologies in the U.S. that our economic competitors in Europe and Asia are rapidly capitalizing on.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

U.S., Germany and Japan top list of countries most likely to translate nano funding into economic impacts

Cientifica just released their 2011 report on global nanotechnology funding and impact.  The report includes a ranking of countries based on an Emerging Technology Exploitation Factor, measuring the likelihood of translating technology funding into economic impacts.  When ranked based on the Emerging Technology Exploitation Factor, the list is led by the U.S. followed by Germany, Taiwan, and Japan.  South Korea rounds out the Top-5.

As the report explains, however, the Emerging Technology Exploitation Factor "takes no account of the level of nanotechnology funding which varies widely across different countries. When we factor in PPP corrected funding levels the picture changes dramatically. 

Rebasing the Nanotech Impact Factor on the US (=100) gives a clearer picture of where we expect the technology to have the greatest impact. Of course in the US the nanotechnology is in fierce competition with any number of other technologies, from synthetic biology to social networking, while in Russia it is a very high level stand alone project."

The adjusted Nanotech Impact Factor shuffles around things quite a bit with only the U.S., Germany and Japan staying in the Top-5: