Tom’s Blogs

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/.

 

Is “Multi-Solving” the Key to Solving Long Term Issues?

brain color colorful cube
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“How can you get politicians to enact policies that solve long-term issues when they can’t even pass an annual budget?”

“How can you get voters to care if they are focused on the latest tweet-storms out of Washington?”

Friends asked me questions like these when I started my blog–I would shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know yet, but I am going to try and find out.”

Beth Sawin of the Climate Interactive company may have provided a partial answer to these questions. She has been struggling with them in relation to climate change. After an unsuccessful climate conference in Copenhagen, she realized that all feasible political action is limited by the need of leaders to win the next election. They cannot win if they enact policies in which all costs are carried by current voters and the benefits will only be gained by future voters. Her solution is “multi-solving.”

Multi-solving involves breaking through the walls we build around our problems to find interconnections with other people’s problems. It means that we have to talk to people in different disciplines, departments or lines of work and ask, “How can solving my problem help solve yours?”

Her application of multi-solving was connecting solutions for climate change to other fields, primarily problems of public health and economics. She found tremendous, quantifiable health and economic benefits from measures that would also limit global warming.

Multi-solving sounds like a strategy that could have broad application for creating policies that would please voters and still make progress on our long-term issues. It is probably an approach that seasoned politicians use intuitively if they want to create a long-term legacy. I recommend spending 17 minutes to watch Beth Sawin’s presentation.

Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues

Pew Research has done it again. If we want to take the views of the next generation of voters into consideration as we are making policy, their survey data on the attitudes of teenagers indicates “Generation Z” is looking for a more activist, problem-solving government. One that is more tolerant of gender and ethnic differences. An interesting sidelight is that young people identifying as Republicans are much closer to Democratic positions on these issues than older generations. Does that foretell some moderation of views?

You can read a summary of the research here.

America’s Crime Problem Is Not What Most People Think It Is

Public perception of crime rate at odds with data

The Pew Research Center just released a note about “5 facts about crime in the U.S.” Their polling data shows that most people believe crime rates are going up in the U.S. while they are actually on a dramatic long term decline. Actual rates of violent crime are only about one quarter what they were in 1993.

Digging a bit deeper into their data reveals a genuine problem for the next generation of voters, however. Only 45% of crimes were reported to the police in 2017. Once reported, only 46% of violent crimes and 18% of property crimes were solved. So, only a disappointing 21% of violent crimes actually result in convictions (45% X 46%), and only 8% of property crimes (45% X 18%).

There are many reasons why people would not report crimes to the police and many reasons why witnesses would not come forward to help the police solve them, but a lack of trust between the public and the police must be right up there.

To trust, people have to believe the police will take them seriously, that their crime reports will be handled efficiently and courteously, and that the police will follow up with energy and competence. To help the police solve crimes, witnesses have to believe the time they spend will be well spent and that they will not be put in danger.

How can we build higher levels of trust between the public and the police so our children and grandchildren can inherit a safe, law-abiding society?

 

$5 Billion for a Border Wall? Who Cares?

aerial photography of great wall of china
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Federal budget deficits are set to increase rapidly this year and over the next four years….      

Congressional Budget Office

The partial government shutdown over border wall funding is just one more distraction from the real issues that will worry the next generation of American voters. After the 2017 tax cuts and spending increases, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the 2019 budget deficit will be $981 billion–$5 billion for the wall is only 0.5% of the deficit and only 0.1% of the total budget.

CBO estimates that if we do nothing different with taxes and expenditures, federal debt will balloon from $21 trillion today to $34 trillion by 2028. At their projected 3.4% interest rate, U.S. tax payers will have to come up with $1.2 trillion in interest each year–money that might better be spent on education or infrastructure. That is the real issue we should be worried about.

Issues like the wall dominate our attention like a barking dog at the door while the house is burning down. If we really cared about the long-term health of the country, Democrats might say, “Sure we’ll give you $5 billion for the wall in exchange for tax and budget legislation that gets our deficits under control.” Having a Congress split between Republicans and Democrats is the best time to get the right balance between spending cuts and tax increases.

What Do 21 Federal Government Shut Downs Mean For the Next Generation?

Image result for shut down

We are suffering through the 21st federal government shut down since the administration of Gerald Ford.*  Key agencies of our federal government are shut down for any but essential services. Need a passport? Sorry. Need a permit? Sorry. Need some information? Sorry. Need the trash picked up at a national park? Sorry. And, for essential services, federal workers are being forced to work without pay. How is that not involuntary servitude?

Are there some lessons from these test of wills between presidents and Congress? Commentators focus on short term issues: Who gets the blame? What compromise will reopen these agencies? Will President Trump get something he can call wall funding? Will his supporters be satisfied? If he does, what will the Democrats get in return?

How would these questions change if we focused on the next generation, especially those old enough to follow the news? We might ask: Does shutting down the government over a policy argument strengthen or weaken the institutions we will be passing on to the next generation? Does it strengthen or weaken the next generation’s faith in democracy? Does it discourage them from choosing a career in public service?

Many kids follow in the footsteps of their parents—I doubt the children of furloughed park rangers are hearing what a great career they could make in the park system.

Taking a next generation view changes the issues and the questions in any political discussion. Could it help settle stubborn disputes before they escalate to a crisis? Maybe. Most of our political leaders are parents and grandparents. Some may tone down their demands and rhetoric if we remind them the kids are listening and taking this all in. Second, when parties seem irreconcilable, a well-known negotiation tactic is to bring additional issues to the table. Bringing the interests of the next generation into the discussion automatically does that. Suddenly, there are more things to bargain about and trade off.

The next time we are headed for a shut down, let’s ask everyone, “Have you thought about the next generation?”

 

*All 21 Government Shutdowns in U.S. History