The Obama boost…

Amazing news on two key Obama social policies on healthcare and the environment…

Environment

US court upholds EPA’s greenhouse gas rules

A US appeals court on Tuesday upheld the first-ever US-proposed rules governing heat-trapping greenhouse gases, clearing a path for sweeping regulations affecting vehicles, coal-burning power plants and other industrial facilities.

Handing a setback to industry and a victory to the Obama administration, the US court of appeals for the district of Columbia unanimously ruled theEnvironmental Protection Agency’s finding that carbon dioxide is a public danger and the decision to set limits for emissions from cars and light trucks were “neither arbitrary nor capricious.”

“These rulings clear the way for EPA to keep moving forward under the Clean Air Act to limit carbon pollution from motor vehicles, new power plants, and other big industrial sources,” said David Doniger, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

It’s truly amazing the level of industry sponsored political opposition to the environmental movement and a huge series of legal hoops needed to just set pollution limits. Pollution… bad for your health, surely not!

Health care

A significant ruling by the Supreme Court on health care.

The US supreme court has upheld Barack Obama‘s landmark healthcare reform law, delivering the president a major victory going into November’s election campaign but also setting up a fresh political battle over the legislation’s future.

In an historic, and in some quarters unexpected, ruling, the supreme court upheld the legislation on the grounds that its central provision – the requirement for almost all Americans to buy health insurance known as the individual mandate – is legal because the measure amounts to a tax.

Obama is counting on Americans growing to like the reforms as they kick in and people benefit from a law that extends insurance coverage to 50 million Americans who were priced out of the market and ending a slew of immoral practices that led to people losing their homes to pay medical bills after their insurance was cut off.

There must have been a huge debate about the reasoning to impose the need to buy health care insurance on every citizen, but the result will be the same as in the UK, where essentially all medical care is covered without the need for extra payments. This may even add up to the same amount of outgoings if the UK’s higher tax is taken into account.

Things seem to finally be going in the right direction and it feels good to be able to write a post about these things!

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Iran, ‘according to’ The New York Times…

I was considering doing a series of posts generally titled ‘according to…’ where i’ll scan a newspaper clipping of a prominent news story or interesting event. Instead of lots of waffle from yours truly, i’ll just give a very brief explanation of what I thought stood out of the featured article, maybe using the technique developed by the Achitects Journal where a highlighted section of text is used in place of traditional ‘quotes’.

But, this being me, my creative energy is greater than my implementing energy, meaning things just get left in ‘drafts’ or in notebooks, without the time or energy to finish them off or bring them to life! Claire calls me ‘half-job’! Charming. : )

So, here is the the first ‘according to’ post, without my opinions – Facing the Prospect of a Nuclear Iran, by David E. Sanger, writing in the New York Times.

A very well written article which neatly sums up many of the relevant issues. This is a story to watch and could shape the next generation of Middle East relations.

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A nudge in the right direction…?

Nudges in the right direction: the belief that human beings can be encouraged to make life-improving choices through incentives and social cues rather than through regulation and government legislation.

The human race is now less healthy than the previous generation, will die younger, with more life-style diseases than ever before. Leaving lifestyle choices up to the general public is not working. The free-market system is partly responsible here, but so are human’s in-built motivations to acquire possessions, power and high-calorie food.

Personal motivation is ranged against huge forces driving in the opposite direction, including massive advertising campaigns, a culture of technological dependence, genetics and cultural learning pushing us towards self-indulgence and laziness.

There are hundreds of small modern alterations to our everyday lives which detract from our health and our understanding of the world we live in. There are also hundreds which enhance us in many ways. In general though, the trend seems to be negative, with lifestyle diseases increasing, eating habits degenerating, fitness falling and (in seems) overall motivation and happiness sliding.

I’m always banging on about sustainability but it’s one of many examples where nudges just don’t work – the two ideas aren’t even on the same page. They aren’t even in the same book! When small changes made by a few people are not enough, there has to be something stronger than just incentives and social cues. This is where strong Government intervention comes in. Legislating for change is honestly the only way major issues get dealt with.

Take smoking as an example. Even with very clear and direct warnings all over a packet of fags, including images of the damage that will be caused by using the product, people still smoke. Everyone knows smoking causes various cancers, but roughly 20% of the adult population in the UK still smokes. These nudges aren’t enough.

Compare this approach with the ban on smoking indoors in public places, introduced in July 2007 in the UK. Research from Scotland (according to this BBC article) found a 17% reduction in heart attack admissions in the year following the ban. This is a positive trend found in many countries and states which have introduced such bans.

The single most important factor affecting people’s lifestyle choices is cost. Cost determines many of our daily choices, from the house we live in to the car we drive, to the type of food we eat and how much of it we eat. It determines everything we do, because generally, most of the things we are engaged in for most of our waking lives, costs money.

The price of petrol has risen dramatically over the last few years and has put many motorists off the road. In 2009, there was a 11.3% fall in registrations, with this trend continuing into this year.

“It is the impact of pump prices,” said an AA spokesman. “When we ask motorists what factors have influenced their choice of car, fuel economy comes second after reliability. Environmental concerns come some way down.”

So, less motorists has lowered the CO2 output of the transport sector, but environmental concerns were not the initiating factor, cost was.

I feel nudges will work very well on a very small section of the population, moderately well on a larger minority, but will fail to work on the vast majority. You really have to be quite self-motivated to stand back from the crowd and take a different direction. This is not an easy thing to do and sometimes it seems everything in our society is trying to keep people where they are.

“Politicians all have a split personality,” Julia Neuberger adds. “On one level, they engage their brains and they know perfectly well that things do take quite a long time to happen. On the other, they’ve got a very short time frame: they want to get re-elected, they need to make a mark. I think they found that (Nudge theory) very appealing because, broadly, they prefer the idea of using behavioural change interventions to legislating or using fiscal measures.”

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USDA food plate…

The Obama Administration and the US Department of Agriculture, have produced a new, all singing, all dancing representation of what people should be eating, and in what proportions.

You could say it’s an overly simplistic representation of what is a very important subject, but it seems very effective, and to be honest, people are in desperate need of the message about nutrition being effectively communicated.

One important area of the graphic is the term ‘protein’, rather than ‘meat’. This is a big step forward and may help to get people to look at nutrition in a different way, without automatically associating protein with meat.

The proportion of food groups is also important, with fruit and vegetables forming 50% of the plate. Grains are another 55%, meaning protein isn’t that dominant. Studies have shown that even a level of 20% protein in the diet, particularly animal-based, has a direct connection with the development of many types of cancer.

The food subsidy issue is also important to consider, with a massive 63% of US food subsidies going to the meat and dairy industry. Fruit and veg get 3%, but are meant to make up 50% of the total plate – does this seem fair?

http://pcrm.org/news/usda_food_plate_federal_subsidies_meat_dairy_110602.html

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US military aid and Israeli sanctions…?

I read a few articles a while ago about the continued building of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory and wanted to look a bit further into one of the main reasons why they are able to continually defy international law under full view of the international media and community.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11968304 (sanctions for illegal settlement building)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/10/former-eu-tougher-stance-israel (illegal settlement building)

Military funding and spending is part of most countries budgets but the Israeli case is different, in that the percentage of GDP spent on the military is roughly 7% of GDP which is far higher than most other countries. They also received a substantial fraction of their budget from the United States.

http://wrmea.org/component/content/article/245-2008-november/3845-congress-watch-a-conservative-estimate-of-total-direct-us-aid-to-israel-almost-114-billion.html (with figures tables)

The Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs carries information on a range of topics concerning that area of the planet. I’ve found some figures on the site which are interesting.

2000-2008 = more than $26 Billion in military aid from USA to Israel.

$4.8 Billion in 2008, half of which was military aid.

In 2009 – (US) $14.3 Billion in total Israeli military expenditure (which equals a massive 7% of total GDP! Most countries are between 1-3% of GDP, but the States also stands out as being high, at 4.3% of GDP)

2008 – (US) $2.3 Billion in military aid (according to the Wikipedia figures)

So, roughly 16% of their total military budget comes from the US Government.

The thing is, in comparison, USA military spending at more than $663 Billion, is equal to the combined total of the next 17 countries spending, down to Greece in the Wikipedia table!

There is little point in the USA on the one hand providing massive funding to the Israelis but with the other trying to resolve the disputes in a non-partisan manner. They lack credibility and are also providing the conditions which will sustain the terrible state of conflict in that region.

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Lib-Lab-Con…!

Wow. I’m actually excited about politics (today).

I just found out about Gordon resigning (at some point before the Labour Party Conference). This shifts the whole bartering process towards Labour, given Clegg wouldn’t have formed a coalition with Labour, with Gordon as leader.

Now the Lib Dems are going to talk ‘in detail’ to Labour (or their 4 negotiating peeps). I would say this is fair and the Lib Dems should get all the information before making a decision, or before they sell their soul to one of the ‘old parties’.

To be honest (yes, I hate that phrase too), Labour and the Lib Dems didn’t win the election. The Tories got more votes and more seats and it would be in the best interests of democracy (even in the weak state it is) for the Tories to form at least part of the new Government. Even with a Lib-Lab coalition, they would still be short of the magic majority number.

The situation right now seems to be…

If Lib Dems go with the Tories, they get a number of Cabinet seats and a referendum on the Preferential Voting (PV) system, but could annoy a large part of their members.

If they go with Labour, they get a guaranteed switch to PV and a referendum on Proportional Representation (PR) and a more natural (some would say) alliance.

But, Labour now have to go through a leadership contest and their leader would not have been elected as Prime Minister (again). This just isn’t feeling right for Labour. I hate to say it but, the Tories beat Labour by 47 Seats and over 2 Million votes (7% more than Labour).

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Election fever…

Well, let the fun begin! The dust certainly hasn’t settled yet, but i’m actually looking forward to experiencing what happens during a hung Parliament. Just a few thoughts and impressions of what’s happening right now.

Gloucester has officially turned Blue, from Red.

The Lib Dems are not doing that well at all (nationally), given their apparent popularity. They are doing well in terms of votes but not in terms of Seats. I just hope they can have some kind of influence on shifting towards the Proportional Representation system of voting.

So, a Hung Parliament with no ‘winning’ majority, even with a Lib-Lab coalition. I think this could be the end of Gordon as PM.

People cueing outside polling stations and not being allowed to vote! It seems that in some areas, there was a greater than expected surge of interest. I have to say that it is shocking that those people who were already at the Polling Station (in the cue) before 10 were shut out. ‘Democracy’ in action. It’s not their fault that there were a lot of people wanting to vote or that the process of voting inside the station was slow. You get 1 chance every 4 years and even this was taken away.

One area actually ran out of ballot papers! I can’t make up my mind which is worse.

There are some serious implications for project funding for a lot of people now. I’m not sure where any further funds will be coming from for Gloucester’s Lighting Strategy, as an example.

The Green Party now has its 1st Seat in Westminster – well done Caroline Lucas!

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Embargo…

In order to get around the embargo on discussing politics at work (given we work for the Council etc etc), i’m making most of the more sensitive posts about this subject ‘private’, until the 7th May. I think it might be obvious which way I went after that!

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1st past the post…

Just watched a very good summary of the PR v. 1st past the post voting systems.

Click here to get to the short video.

The bar charts are very illuminating. In terms of votes (based on the 2005 election), it’s something like 35% Labour, 32% Tory, with 22% Lib Dem. So, quite close. When this is translated into ‘seats’, Labour end up with a massive majority, with the Lib Dems fairing very badly and even the Tories much worse off.

I’m always looking for the overall principles which shape cities, or systems. This seems to be one of those principles. You can argue all day about details, but if the system you’re working in or with isn’t fair, the end result will always be unfair.

This isn’t a fair system and doesn’t represent the actual views of the British people. The MPs may be elected representatives, but Government as a whole doesn’t represent voters, in terms of the share of power. How democratic really is this system?

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Political debate…

I’m looking forward to the first ever British live debate between the leaders of the 3 main parties.

Yes, this will probably be very staged (obviously) and rehearsed, but it may provide Nick Clegg with a chance to shine, given he rarely gets much attention. I’ve heard that there are set topics to these things, so there won’t be a wide ranging debate, but still might be interesting.

It’s also interesting to watch the body language and reactions to answers. Humans are a very visually-focussed species (hence all the images on this blog) and I would much rather see and hear the live debate than just read about it or hear it – it’s a piece of modern theatre after all!

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