To Make Progress, Participate! And Vote!

Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam is an astute observer of American life. Putnam is the author of many books, including Bowling Alone (2000) and Our Kids (2015) which draw on hard data and on people’s stories. Bowling Alone documents the decline of “social capital” in the United States; citizens “have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors and our democratic structures.” Americans attend fewer events with neighbors than in the past, and are less politically active and civic-minded. Our Kids shows that the American dream is increasingly out of reach for students from low-income families, and that policies that once supported young people no longer do. In public schools, for example, it can cost $1,600 per year for a student to play on the high school football team, whereas a generation ago it was free. For students from low-income families football is now out of reach.

As a student Putnam was influenced by President John F. Kennedy’s call to serve the nation (“Ask not what your nation can do for you …”), and he has since consulted for three American Presidents. Drawing on his experience teaching generations of undergraduates, Putnam compared his own perceptions as a student with attitudes today and said in a recent interview:

“[If I were a young person in college today] I hope I would have enough self-confidence and enough knowledge of history [to know I could use my talents to try to help the country]. This is not science fiction that I’m talking about; Americans have done these kind of things – not every day, we’re not perfect people – we have actually looked at problems and figured out how to fix them. And that sense is just so missing from our current dialogue today.”

Putnam was thinking of problems and solutions of many kinds, over more than a century, including creating and supporting public schools, developing boys’ and girls’ clubs, building the interstate highway system, implementing effective environmental regulations (e.g., taking lead out of gasoline, reducing acid rain), and going to the moon. Problem solving was done routinely by political parties, which often worked together, and also by government agencies and strong civic institutions.

Today many people have lost faith in institutions, creating a vicious cycle in which lack of trust erodes participation, which further erodes trust. An example is that voter turnout for congressional mid-term elections in 2014 was little more than a third of the eligible population (36.3%), the lowest in more than seven decades. Voting rates for young people ages 18-34 are especially low (under 25%), and have fallen substantially over the decades. The comedian Samantha Bee aired two segments on her television show Full Frontal (here and here) aimed at encouraging more young people to vote, including in mid-term elections.

In a democracy, the growing lack of participation in elections and of faith in political institutions reflects the fact that citizens no longer believe they collectively have the capacity to identify and solve problems. Climate change is only one example of a major problem without an appropriate and far-sighted solution. Growing income inequality is another; crumbling national infrastructure is a major problem; and there are more. Serious problems and a corresponding lack of solutions are a concern in many cities, states and localities, not only at the federal level. Voter participation in the U.S. is lower than in many other developed countries.

Do you want American society to change for the better? Then choose an issue—growing student debt, the minimum wage, potholes in local streets, or whatever may especially concern you—find a group, volunteer, do the hard work, participate, vote! Don’t always sit on the sidelines.

Many of my friends as well as members of my family are and have been active in politics and/or civic affairs, providing useful models of action throughout my life. As a child I thought that being civic-minded and politically active were things that responsible grown-ups naturally do.

Plenty of people are not so fortunate in having good role models, yet it still puzzles me to watch some of those I know avoid any significant involvement with civic or political affairs. These people act as if democracy were a kind of spectator sport, as if it were up to other people, but not them, to do the hard work that a democracy requires. Large numbers of people are disappointed or disgusted by the results, namely an increasing lack of timely, thoughtful, and effective action on a wide range of vital issues. Yet whether a growing number of people will connect the dots and link the problems American society faces to widespread disengagement from civic and political affairs, and to their own behavior, I cannot say.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section of this blog.)

The Perils of Pauline Meets the Three Stooges

In June I compared the fate of the energy bill in Massachusetts to the Perils of Pauline. As in the movies, the legislative drama lasted ‘til the final frame—in this case the night of the last day of the session, and beyond (because the Governor still has to sign the bill, scheduled for August 8). The legislature was in recess during the Republican and Democratic national conventions, so their work in the last two weeks of July was crammed into three weekend days (July 23, and July 30 – 31). Despite supposedly tight deadlines, clocks at the State House on July 31 showed different times, and the House Minority Leader said, “It’s sort of like ‘The Three Stooges.’” Indeed! According to the Boston Globe, there were only a few minutes to read over lengthy conference committee reports reconciling House and Senate versions of bills before they were hurried to a final vote. Some important bills that were years in the making did not beat the clock (which kept ticking beyond the midnight deadline), and therefore were not acted upon.

State Senator Ben Downing, one of the legislature’s experts on energy and climate, who is now retiring, said of the House, “I think [their] operating procedure is: Do as little as possible and still be able to say you did stuff. I just think that’s where [House Speaker Robert DeLeo] is at.” He also said that this method of doing business “happens to line up with the priorities of the governor and some of the special interests, business groups in particular.” But hey! We know that low energy prices are more important than saving the planet, right?

Nonetheless, the energy bill that passed did include several significant items. Perhaps most important is that electricity providers are required to enter into long-term contracts for 1,600 MW of offshore wind (less than the Senate bill included), which for the first time in history makes it likely the United States will create a viable offshore wind industry. Once that energy is available (the turbines need to be built), this clean electricity will power more than a half-million homes. The bill also requires new long-term contracts for 1,200 MW of electricity generated from hydro-power, probably originating in Canada, where plenty of hydro-power is available.

Another important feature of the bill is that it requires natural gas companies to identify and repair “environmentally significant” gas leaks. This provision is notable because so much gas in the state is lost to leaks—but customers pay for it, and methane is a significant contributor to global warming.

However, the bill could have been far better. The Senate version included a provision to double the annual increment of the Renewable Portfolio Standard, from 1% annually to 2%, but that language was dropped from the final bill. The RPS mandates that a growing fraction of electricity be generated from renewable sources, primarily wind and solar. Without doubling the RPS, the state is unlikely to meet its goals for greenhouse gas emissions, established by the Global Warming Solutions Act (2008).

And then … ah, democracy! The state Senate voted 39-0 to prohibit electricity providers from charging customers in advance to build new natural gas pipelines—pipelines that several respected studies show are not needed. In the House, 97 of the 160 Representatives signed a letter to the Speaker objecting to a new pipeline “tax.” Yet despite overwhelming support in the legislature and among the public the Senate prohibition was not included in the final bill. There is some hope that the state’s Supreme Judicial Court will soon rule the “tax” to be illegal, but should that not happen electricity ratepayers may be on the hook for $3 billion, like it or not.

There were other positive parts of the Senate’s version of the bill that did not make it into the final version, and negative items that did make it in. (See this account.) But at least the offshore wind and hydro-power provisions will eventually provide a major increase in the amount of “green” electricity in Massachusetts. It is not enough renewable energy to claim Massachusetts is doing its fair share to combat climate change, but it is better than nothing.

Perhaps in the next session of the legislature more progress can be made to combat climate change. However, that is hardly a sure bet. In any case, the Massachusetts energy bill will do some good.

In a democracy, progress on major issues like civil rights or environmental protection requires political activism by citizens. But documented declines in civic and political participation over time will be the topic of my next blog post.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section of this blog.)