Reflections on the US Exit from the Paris Agreement

I am not a scientist or an expert on international relations.  I have done some research and taken a look at the work of experts in both fields.  On May 31st when it was announced that the world would be pulling out of the Paris Climate Change Accords I was shocked and worried.  I spent some time and looked into the effects of this deal and found a handful of interesting insights.  The first is that the methods for removing the United States from the agreement will take a long time.  According to the New York Times and other sources, the timeframe for removing the US from the Paris agreement will take about 4 years and will not occur until after the 2020 election.  This means that all we’ve done is begin a process that won’t show a single dividend until after the next president is elected.

The next big concern is that the United States will fall behind the world and contribute to climate change in a greater way than planned.  This is unlikely to occur because it does not make economic sense.  Business Insider gives a mixed view but agrees with other experts that the current economic situation will not be affected by the United States exiting the Paris agreement.  The US economy has been transitioning to developing, manufacturing, and marketing renewables for years as the prices of fossil fuels have cratered.  There is also the need to create products that can be sold worldwide and that will impose restrictions on manufacturing that will keep many businesses in line with the Paris agreement.

Will the United States exit from the Paris agreement benefit the US economy? Yes, and no.  There is a booming industry that has grown up around providing solutions to global warming problems.  That area of the economy will continue to grow.  There may be a boost to industries that are being heavily regulated but many of those industries are being phased out by changes in demand for products and services.  Solomon Hsiang, of the University of California at Berkeley, stated: “Putting national resources further into coal while China takes the lead in solar is like investing in building a better horse-drawn carriage back when Henry Ford was investing in mass producing cars.”  We may be putting some people back to work but the costs will be greater than the gains.  If you combine the economies of California and Texas, two of the states leading the way in climate change reform, their combined economies would be the 4th largest in the world just behind Japan.  California produced $2.48 trillion GDP and Texas’ $1.63 trillion GDP would provide a nice $4.11 trillion GDP.  These two states are technology hubs and contribute just over 20% of the US GDP.  They are likely to continue developing technology that will be driven by the need to reduce the environmental impact of people.

The environment may be impacted by the choice of the United States to exit the Paris agreement, but not by much.  The counter point is that it does not take much impact to create catastrophic consequences for the environment.  Many states, businesses, people, and institutions will continue to adhere to and surpass the goals of the Paris agreement.  The impact of the United States withdrawing is likely to be detrimental to the environment but not as dramatic as people fear.  The 190 countries remaining in the agreement have pledged to continue improving the world’s conditions even if the US backslides like a country that has suffered a terrible disaster.  There are many possible outcomes for how the world will react to The United States withdrawing from the Paris agreement.  Most seem to the long-term rise in temperature being limited to only a few degrees.  A few degrees are a serious threat to the long-term viability of the planet.  Any reduction in the rising temperature will help the planet and us in return.  There will be a cost for the few degrees of change as the instance of natural disasters, the rising cost of adapting to change, and the growing need to compete with other nations for resources becomes a drain on the US taxpayers and Treasury.

The impact of the United States exiting the Paris agreement will be costly politically.  During the 20th century, the United States became a world leader in politics and economics through global leadership and economic development.  The isolationist choice to leave the Paris agreement will cost the United States in both areas.  China has been courting US allies for decades by showing strong economic growth and by providing international support.  Countries that have been staunch US allies, like Australia and  Germany are finding markets and support from China to be enticing them away from relationships with the United States.  The leaders of many other countries have spoken out against the United States’ exit from the Paris agreement.  This condemnation is one example of many showing the dwindling role that the United States will play internationally over the coming years.  The leadership of the world is up for grabs and it looks like China has been preparing for this eventuality and will seize the title.

The conclusion of all of these factors seems to be that the attitude of isolationism and populism expressed by the President of the United States will have long-term negative consequences for the United States while allowing for the world to shift the leadership role to a country that has been preparing for the 21st century and is ready to lead the world into the future.  The environment will be affected by the choice but the impact may not be as severe as some people predict.  All changes to the environment will have serious and far-reaching implications for people.  Our changing world will be one of the biggest challenges in the next 100 years and beyond.  The United States itself may begin to fraction as business civic leaders make gains that benefit their sectors in spite of the choices of the Federal Government.  This may further erode the average American’s faith in the national government and cause the balance of power to shift to states or private businesses.  In all, this appears to be a historical milestone that will be cited as the beginning of the decline of the United States.

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Thoughts on Congressional Term Limits and Pensions

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By: Michael Espinos
14 August 2016

I have been seeing a lot of people posting easy fixes to solve the problems with Congress.  What bothers me about this is that we should know that our government is too complex for an easy fix to just swoop in and solve our problems.  You may respond that the complexity needs to be simplified to make our government better and that is also simplistic.  Our government is like a complex biome; you can’t just drastically change it and expect the biome to remain functional.  If we continue to think that easy fixes will solve all of our problems then we are not facing a government but an education problem.  Most adults know that anything that sounds too good to be true usually is but there are entire industries predicated on convincing people to buy something they don’t need and doesn’t work because it will be an easy solution to their problem.  I’ve fallen for it a few times and I’d call anyone who says they haven’t a liar.  That is the problem, we know better yet we fall for it.  When it comes to a complex organization like the Federal Government we as citizens should know that there cannot be an easy fix but we all want it so badly.  Let me address the current easy fixes; afterward I’ll suggest two ideas that may help change the biome of the government enough to make positive changes.

Term Limits

Term limits sound like a great fix and just under one-third of states have some sort term limit for politicians that serve at state level positions.  People argue that it infuses the position with new blood and makes the person in office focus less on holding the office and more on getting the job done.  All of these reasons sound great but there are some downsides that this overlooks.  The first and most important thing that is overlooked is the choice of the voters.  As a voter, I would like to keep an effective politician in office because I know that he has my interests in mind.  If I want to keep someone I have voted into office why should I not be able to keep voting for him?  That is how democracy should work.  The voter’s power is to put whom they want into office.

You may balk at that and say that I don’t know what my legislator is doing in office.  How do I know he has my interests in mind?  I watch what they do.  We live in a digital age and I have apps like Countable and sites like Govtrack that allow me to follow what is going on.  I also know that as informed as I am, I don’t understand a fraction of what goes on in Washington.  That may sound like a reason to attack incumbents but the fact is that it is their job to know how to get bills passed not mine.  That leads me to my second concern about term limits; how will anything get passed if we have a revolving door of legislators?  Many legislators have said that it takes most of their first term to learn the ropes of how congress works.  With term limits, we are kicking them out as soon as they finally learn how to get work done.  That cannot be effective.  Many people point to the power of lobbyists and special interests.  They say that the power of these groups over legislators is ruining our country.  That may be true but when a legislator needs votes they can lean on these contacts to make sure that their membership and money goes to making something happen.  This is the greatest strength of the NRA; they have a small membership and yet they are effective at pushing their agenda more than any other group.  Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver nailed it in the two parts of his piece on the Dickey Amendment. (Part 1, Part 2 )  If we cannot mobilize voters to turn out for issues that matter then we will continue to be dominated by those who can.  I am a union member and we talk about the power as a block of voters but the union leadership doesn’t address communication issues.  This is all to say that just because you don’t trust outside interests in politics doesn’t mean that they don’t serve a purpose.  Additionally, imagine those special interests with access to a flock of new and inexperienced legislators regularly that they can mold into what they want without having to give anything up.

The next major concern I have with term limits is that the turnover will weaken the legislative process.  No one will develop long term goals and in many cases, entire committees that are vital to the nation will be filled with inexperienced members.  Would you rather have someone with over a decade of experience deciding if the National Defense Committee should recommend that Congress authorize a war or someone who has only been in office for 3 months and hasn’t learned how to navigate the building yet let alone become caught up on the intricacies of National Defense and the impact of what their decision could cast the world?  Can you tell me what S. 683: Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act of 2015 is about?  That is one of 10,916 pieces of legislation that the 114th Congress has to consider as of this writing.  If a legislator is invested long term in their job they will be invested in making sure that they know the important issues being discussed; they’ll be able to sift the wheat from the chaff.  They will be able to understand why S. 683 has a predicted chance of passing that is zero percent.  They will know what the generic title that is an acronym that is close to the word career.  Is this a jobs bill? If you can’t answer that question and don’t know how to find out then you may want to reconsider term limits.

Legislation1Source

The final concern I have is that this will discourage highly qualified people from seeking office because it is temporary and they will not be able to make a career out of it.  The best choices for the job are not going to run.  It is not as glamorous as it sounds.  There is a lot of work involved being a legislator and it will not be worth the work only to walk away from what you build in just a few short years.  You may get more new blood into Congress but the quality will be diluted by the frequent turnover.  Another aspect that is being ignored is that legislators depend heavily on their staff.  Congressional staffers have a major impact on how the government works and will make careers out of working for a few members of Congress.  Term limits would effectively ruin this network and would further hamper the already inefficient system.

Limited Pensions

Congress has the lowest approval rating ever.  That does not engender goodwill from the electorate toward paying the members of Congress.  It is easy to want to take away that pay.  Since the financial crash of 2008 many voters have faced dire economic straits.  When someone says that members of Congress receive their paycheck for life it will enrage the voter who has had to decide if they should sell their house or take a third job to try and save it.  We have all heard how members of Congress get paid for life and it doesn’t sound fair.  It sounded like a sweet deal to me and I wished I could get in on an easy meal ticket like that.  Too bad it isn’t true.  Congress has a retirement plan that is similar to what many government employees receive.  There is even a relatively easy to understand report that pops up first when you run an internet search for “Congressional Retirement Plan”  If you are elected in November you will need to hold onto your seat for 5 years before you’re eligible for CSRS.  If you are in the Senate this should not be too hard but if you are in the House it becomes a bit more complex.  You may be saying that 5 years is not that long and after that, the money just rains down forever.  That is also not quite true.

Members of Congress are eligible for a pension at the age of 62 if they have completed at least five years of service. Members are eligible for a pension at age 50 if they have completed 20 years of service, or at any age after completing 25 years of service. The amount of the pension depends on years of service and the average of the highest three years of salary. By law, the starting amount of a Member’s retirement annuity may not exceed 80% of his or her final salary. source: page 4

That is still not a bad deal you say?  I agree but it isn’t easy to get and I feel that it is important to reward those who serve our country.  You may not like legislators as much as veterans but they do the work of our nation and take a surprisingly similar oath.  This may all seem like an apology for members of a dysfunctional system but it is not.  Legislators know that they will be financially provided for if they do their job.  They only need to worry about being re-elected.  The election cycle is a problem but as we know there is no such thing as a quick fix.  Now imagine you have a legislator who will only be around for a two terms at most.  What is their focus?  They aren’t focused on the voters because after they are re-elected they are no longer held accountable for what they do and that can have serious consequences in its self.  If you have legislators that are only around for a short amount of time they are focused on where their next paycheck will come from.  You tried to remove money from the equation and that is a great idea but someone else will have money and they will be able to buy a 2nd term legislator much cheaper than before.

Furthermore, removing the financial incentive means that you will again push away qualified candidates.  If your years of work will not be counted toward your pension then why should you do it?  This opens the door even wider for corruption and outside influence.  You will not have dedicated lawmakers that know how to play within the system; instead, you will have opportunists that see a short time commitment in a job that no one wants with a potential for a big payday when they are done.  I cannot imagine how that would be in the nation’s best interests.

Alternatives

There has been a quick fix bandied about that is a situational fix that has some merit but needs refinement.  The idea is that legislators should be under the penalty of No Budget, No Pay.  (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3) This sounds like a great idea but it has a similar, albeit lesser, flaw as limiting pensions.  Special interests will find a crack to worm their way into this and supplement the lack of pay to encourage the legislators to further agenda.  There should be penalties for the lack of progress made by Congress but I feel that there should also be financial incentives for getting work done.  It may sound crazy but people work harder when they are rewarded and the Congress costs just over 4 billion depending on which funding bill you read.  That is 4 billion out of an estimated budget of just over 27 trillion for 2017.  That means that the cost of Congress is 0.0147% of the total budget. (House, Senate)  I’m sure you’ll hear at least one story this year about far more than that being wasted on some doomed project.  We can afford to incentivize legislators to be productive.

Budget1Chart values in Billion $ units.  Source

This leads to my final concern.  We shouldn’t have to incentivize them to be productive because we, as citizens, should be involved in the running of our government.  When was the last time you called your representative? When did you write a letter, send a tweet, visit or in any way interact with your elected representatives?  If you have not or cannot remember then you have no one to blame for the running of this country other than yourself.  Your vote gets them into office but it is your responsibility to make sure that the elected officials in office know what you want.  Your job does not stop when you cast your vote.  If you wonder why politicians pander to the party extremes it is because those people feel so passionately about their beliefs that they maintain contact with their representatives and they vote in all elections, not just the presidential ones.  You need to stay informed, stay involved, and stay in contact.  Be a citizen, not just a voter.

 

Additional source:
Legislative Term Limits: A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come and Gone. BURDETT A. LOOMIS, University of Kansas

Solve for X when X=Impossible

 

We, as teachers are often asked to do the impossible.  It is not because our administration or the stakeholders keep raising their expectations based on previous success; it is because doing the impossible is part of our job.  There are too many situations to count that have started out as a routine task in teaching and have turned into a task that would make the labors of Hercules seem like a better choice.

I know it is hyperbole but any teacher can tell you that there has been that one little, tiny, minor task that, when added to everything else, is most certainly the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The heaviest of these little straws is the expectations of others.  We are expected to educationally keep up with the Joneses.  There are new philosophies and best practices coming at a rapid rate fueled by the spread of educational technology (EdTech) and Personal Learning Networks (PLN).  There is so much that it is impossible to judge what is right for our students and how to make it work in the classroom while still keeping to the curriculum that may or may not be updated.  These expectations have put a huge burden on teachers and often end with teachers being asked to do the impossible.

I always tell my students, “Nothing is impossible; we just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.”  Teachers need to believe this as well.  I want to do all the amazing things I see pop up in my news feed but I need to figure it out first.  We often rush to bring new ideas to the students without considering how we will implement them.  I am guilty of this more often than I would like to admit.  What I do to reduce the impact of my mistakes is follow the principals of science; treat new ideas like a new medication about to go to market or a new study being submitted to a journal.

  1. Define the idea: There are so many great new things I want to add to my classroom but I need to take the time to pick the right one. I need to hypothesize what will have the greatest impact on my students.  Effective instruction is far more impressive than being cutting edge.
  2. Evaluate your resources: What are you willing to put into this great new idea? How much of your time, budget and other limited resources are you willing to give? This is important because we often stretch ourselves too thin and it causes many teachers to lose hope and feel inadequate.
  3. Test your idea: I know we hate the dreaded T-word; in this case you need to do small tests of your new idea. Start with a situation where this new idea would work best and then gradually take it out in other, less ideal, situations. When we jump into new ideas, curriculum, and methods without testing them out in small doses and getting results it can have a major impact on students.  Would you try a new medication someone on the internet said worked for them? Not without finding out more about it first I hope.
  4. Share your results: If you try something out and it is working for you that is amazing! Share what you have done and how you did it with others and see if they get similar results.  This may seem obvious but this is how a good idea becomes a best practice.  When something works in one class that may just be a perfect storm of success but when it can be shared and used then it becomes a movement.

 

The moral of the story is that we teachers need to slow down and evaluate all these great ideas flooding in.  There will be many people around you who want you to jump face first into new pedagogies and there will be pressure to join the crowd with each new trend but no one knows your classroom, kids and style like you do.  I am not saying that you should never change but I ask that all professionals go slowly into changes and make sure that a change really is for the best before just tossing all in.  You only get one shot at teaching the material so rise up to the challenge.

 

A Work In Progress

I will be using this blog to publish my work on an un-named book I have been working on. I will publish chapters as they are written and I will publish edits as they happen. I am open to suggestions. All of this will be open to all and I hope to compile it into a book one day. All work on this page is copyright 2015 by Michael Espinos All rights reserved.