Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dear Representative Kucinich,

I was proud to support you in 2004 and am appreciative of your good work for our country, but I have a few concerns this time that I would like to share. I was shaken when a colleague told me that on environmental issues, Edwards is offering a better platform. I have grown to expect you to be well ahead of the curve on these issues, as I still believe you are on other critical topics. MoveOn's embracing of Edwards on his excellent (though still insufficient) climate change plan was a wake-up call for me, as I hope it was for you.
I think all of this is pointing to what I see as a cleavage in the environmental community, what some call dark green and bright green. Dark green is traditional environmentalism, with an emphasis on pollution prevention and cleanup. This is where I started as an environmental activist, and I believe this is roughly where you are, based on your platform. Bright green is the next step, which people like Bill McDonough in Cradle to Cradle and Alex Steffen at are promoting. I see this philosophy as essential to our future success as individuals, as Americans, and as a species.
I understand that you're absurdly busy right now, but is there someone in the campaign I can speak with about updating your green platform? I think you'll agree that green democrats and independents are essential to your base, and if you spin it right, a new green platform could be a very positive media event.
Related: Your veganism. It comes up all the time, and it's very dark green. It says that you think that meat and dairy are bad. In the main, you're correct, but there are ethical alternatives: local, organic, humane. I was vegan too, I understand where you're coming from, but you'll win a lot more support by advocating best practices and local farming than by dismissing a massive industry and the majority of Americans. Also, local organic is much tastier, healthier, much greener, and more enjoyable in every way. I had the good fortune of studying this recently with Tim Beatley, reading Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, and meeting with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm. This is a fundamental issue, and it points to the difference between dark green and light green. Dark green says that to be sustainable, we need to make do with less. Sacrifice. Bright green says that to be sustainable, we need to live better. We have work to do.
I hope that you'll agree that you want to position yourself as a bright green, competitive candidate.
Thank you so much for your good work and the hope you have given me and many others. I hope you will take this message with an open heart.

Best Regards,

Lyle Solla-Yates
Planning Graduate Student '08
University of Virginia

P.S. I would love to see you start that blog you have on the site.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Public Health Bit

One major government priority, public health, has been giving me trouble. Seeing Sicko (excellent film) convinced me that publicly funded health care was potentially superior to the U.S.'s existing profit-maximizing system. I was convinced of the improved equity (an essential government priority), public health improvements, and economic efficiency of the systems employed in France, England, Canada, and Cuba.
So transitioning to publicly funded health care well would create a public benefit and create savings. Good, the policy makes sense, but how to pay for it?
One idea I had immediately was a Pigouvian tax on pollution. This would focus on major public health hazards like cigarettes, mercury, auto exhaust, lead, and trans fats. This health tax would not ban health hazards, but would price them at their true cost. This would cut pollution and pay for its effects on people, a double benefit.
Still, I didn't have a good sense of how to pay for the majority of health costs not directly attributable to pollution.
Katherine Mason, my girlfriend, gave me the solution. People could pay a flat amount for insurance, which would then come down based on positive steps they took for their own health. Instead of costing money, regular checkups and exams would save money off the insurance. Overweight people who lost weight in a healthy way or people who quit smoking would enjoy an insurance break. In this way, people would be rewarded for making the right decisions, and pay a fair (instead of devastating) economic price otherwise. People already making smart decisions like maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking would enjoy the same low rate, similar to some existing insurance programs. There would still be a nominal fee to discourage excessive visits, like a dollar or two.
I would be curious to see a mixed system where private insurers and hospitals would compete with and complement a publicly funded system. I suspect that there are places where private industry could introduce efficiencies into a system geared towards public health and safety over profit.
I suspect that a system like this might also cut down the cost of Medicare, though extended lifespans might eat up those efficiencies. Still, not a bad trade at all.
I should also point out that this system would offer a significant rise in overall lifespans, quality of life, productivity, and general wellbeing and happiness. It would also increase the productivity of land, causing a small boost in land prices to make up the difference. A land tax would capture that additional value and, if significant, it could be used to help cover the health system or go into general revenue.
After reading some Thomas Jefferson: Also, the baseline cost to premium holders would vary according to income level. Someone with little or no income but doing everything to maintain good health would pay very little, while others would pay up to market rate. Low income premium holders would be assisted with revenue from land taxes on value drawn from the program's improvements and profits from market rate premium holders.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Money Solution BETA
(at least for government, but maybe it will help you too)

Some interesting discussion over at Bacon's Rebellion got me thinking about a couple of new ideas, and I felt like reprinting my comments here.

(In response to criticism of the concept of infrastructure that pays for itself, instead of being subsidized by people who do not benefit from it equally or at all)

Is self-funding infrastructure possible? Absolutely, we're doing it every day. When government builds infrastructure, two kinds of benefits are created with two different revenue streams. The first is the actual service of the infrastructure, like better schools or fast transit. We can put a user fee on that and get some revenue, but collecting it is often expensive and with deadweight loss can actively erode the benefits sought by the project in the first place. Still, user fees like congestion pricing can create enormous value by regulating supply and demand for services, creating a double benefit.
The second source of value created by infrastructure is improved productivity of nearby land. A piece of farmland is a much better place to live after the school and transit station go up next door. That land becomes much more valuable, regardless of whether the owner or lessees actually use the services or not. We can put a user fee on that land and harness some of that increase in value. Just like other user fees, the land fee can create enormous value by regulating supply and demand for land, creating a double benefit. Affordable housing and a clear edge are part of that created value.
By putting smart fees on government services, we can pay our fair share for what we need, what we want, have some extra left over if we apply ROI, and don't need taxes, meaning no deadweight loss on consumption and employment.
How's that for self-funding infrastructure?"

I missed some points:
1. Government services can also create efficiencies. For example, free neighborhood medical care would encourage preventative treatment and catch illness early on, before health and economic risks grow. This creates efficiencies such as lower medical costs, fewer sick days, and longer lifespan. This is a critical part of why policies like brownfields redevelopment and energy efficiency make economic sense, by reducing costs.
Some programs, such as brownfields redevelopment, create all three types of value, by providing services (risk abatement), raising land value (safe land is more productive), and creating efficiencies (medical costs avoided). A Return on Investment (ROI) analysis can show the total benefit of a program like this or others, quantifying costs and projected revenue, allowing people to make the best decisions on what to do with their collective political power.

2. There is still room for Pigouvian tax ideas, where the cost of an activity is raised to meet its social cost. Carbon taxes and Virginia's recently enacted abuser fees for drivers are good examples. This strategy is an enormously effective use of police power to address market externalities, as well as a nice source of extra revenue, laying down a nice double benefit. There is not a triple benefit like government services offer, so ROI on these may be lower, but still excellent.

3. As citizens push government in this direction, revenues from services and Pigouvian taxes will replace all taxes and their deadweight costs on earnings and employment, jump starting the economy in a green direction. As efficiencies and productivity accelerate, revenues will outpace spending, creating the delightful problem of what to do with this largess. Alaska addressed this issue with its Permanent Fund. This is an investment fund fed by revenues from oil rights, a government service. The fund forms a cushion to help the state transition as the oil runs out, and in the meantime the interest is used to subsidize other government services and to share with the citizens of Alaska. Governments experiencing revenue beyond useful spending needs would do well with a similar approach, creating a cushion against risk and sharing with citizens.

4. As communities succeed in establishing truly green (profitable) governments, they will have to decide what to do with their individual surpluses. Personal investment (time with family, new businesses, education, stocks and bonds, capital acquisition) and cultural consumption (play, theater, music, film, television, other arts) will dominate over increased family size given high levels of female education (an excellent government service). In this way, the challenges of unsustainable population growth can be avoided, and we can have communities that, as architect Bill McDonough says, "love all children, of all species, for all time."

5. In case of absolute disaster, government can still (ick) put traditional taxes on consumption or (uck) even employment to meet its debt obligations. I note this only because it makes government debt enormously low risk compared with other investments.

Simple, right?