Bernie Sanders’ Campaign Kickoff

On Tuesday, May 26, Sen. Bernie Sanders gave his official campaign kickoff speech in Burlington, VT.  He spoke for about thirty-five minutes, first describing the problems of the United States and then outlining his agenda to fix them.  In the video clip below, he takes the stage at around 40:00.

One of the things that stood out to me was his perception of the American political process.  Early on he proposed, “Now is not the time for thinking small.  Now is not the time for the same old, same old establishment politics and stale-inside-the-beltway ideas.”  Given that many pundits and policymakers have argued either the U.S. is in decline or others are catching up, we need big, bold reforms.  The U.S. is no longer “Number 1″ in many areas (especially social indicators).

Even though the U.S. is stagnating, but Sen. Sanders has a plan to “revitalize American democracy.” The national voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections was around 36 percent- the lowest since the Second World War.  The Pew Research Center conducted a poll in the wake of the midterms, part of which looked at reasons why non-voters did not vote.  Here is what they found:

Why Some Didn't Vote (p.21)

Although he probably did not plan on it, Sen. Sanders addressed the “Didn’t like vote choices/didn’t care/didn’t know enough” crowd during yesterday’s speech.  He talked about the lack of confidence and feeling of cynicism pervading the American electorate and how he wanted to reach out to voters.  His campaign, he argued, “will not be driven by political gossip or reckless personal attacks.”  He went on to say that the problems facing the U.S. require “serious debates,” and the media must not turn the campaigns into game shows or soap operas.  This kind of talk (and subsequent action) should help decrease that 20 percent who didn’t care or know enough.

Among the issues that ail the U.S., Sen. Sanders focused on wealth and income inequality, poverty, the decline of the middle class, campaign finance, and climate change.  He proposed to increase the current minimum wage of $7.25 (a “starvation wage”) to $15 (a “living wage”) over the next few years and to introduce a progressive tax system.  One way to create good-paying jobs, he said, is to invest in infrastructure.  Additionally, Sanders discussed the idea of universal pre-K education and making public universities tuition-free.  He lashed out at conservative donors the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson for their role in distorting the democratic process and argued for public funding of elections.

Sen. Sanders introduced his agenda as a “simple, straightforward progressive agenda which speaks to the needs of the American people” which would bring about a “very different America.”  If people took the time to listen to Sanders and read about his ideas, I think they would realize that he is exactly what America needs right now.  No other candidate has such a clear vision and agenda.  It is indeed time for a political revolution.

Thanks for reading.

College For All

On May 19, Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the “College For All Act,” calling for the elimination of “tuition and related fees” at public universities in the United States.  In his speech he gave a number of reasons for his plan, including the fact that 40 million Americans have $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, and many European countries have eliminated their tuition and fees. In essence, he argued that a university education should be a right.

This last concept was introduced back in 1966 in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Article 13(2)(c) states, “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”  Since then, all but a handful of states have ratified the Covenant– Comoros, Cuba, Palau, Sao Tome and Principe, and the U.S.  In other words, the U.S. is not keeping up with international standards.  We are an exception in the global community.

Since I previously wrote a post comparing the U.S. and Scandinavia, I will not go in to what he said about other countries.  Suffice it to say, he is correct that those countries have eliminated tuition and fees.

Let’s get to the nitty gritty of it all- the cost of eliminating tuition and fees at public universities.  In his plan, the federal government pays for 67% of the total tuition and fees, while the states pick up the remaining 33%.  In order for the federal government to pay for their part, Sanders introduced a tax on Wall Street.  This means that taxpayers have to foot the bill for the state portion.  Being the curious person that I am, I wanted to figure out what that would be here in Wisconsin.

Most of the data I used came from the UW System Fact Book, 2013-2014.  I started by calculating the total number of undergraduates (Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors only) at each of the UW universities and colleges.  The Fact Book was kind enough to have already split those numbers up into resident and non-residents, although it did not break down non-residents into reciprocity students and non-reciprocity students.  This is important because the cost of tuition for the former is cheaper than for the latter group.  The Fact Book also has the tuition/fees for each institution, again making my life a bit easier.  Since it did not break down students by full time or part time and reciprocity or non-reciprocity, I made everybody full time and the reciprocity students into non-reciprocity students.  This means that my calculations will actually be at the maximum level.  As such, the total amount of undergraduate tuition/fees paid in 2013-2014 for all 26 UW universities and colleges would be $1,513,092,675.  Again, that is higher than actual because of my methodology (making everybody full time and charging all non-residents the out-of-state tuition/fees.)  Under Sen. Sanders’ plan, the federal government’s bill would be $1,013,772,092, leaving $499,320,583 for Wisconsin residents.

To figure out the amount for Wisconsin residents, I used the population numbers from 2013.  Since I could not find numbers for the amount of taxpayers that year, I divided the $499.3 million evenly among those employed in July 2013 (2,887,850).  The resulting amount would be $172.90 per employed person.  For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that rate stays the same for 45 years (putting your employment age from 15-60) and that the employment numbers stay the same.  If you paid $172.90 each year for 45 years, you would pay a total of $7,780.50; the weighted average of tuition/fees in 2013-14 was $7,232.  Over four years that average amounts to $28,928, but you only paid $7,780.50; in other words you pay for one year over your working lifetime and get three years of university education for free.  On top of that, the average debt of borrowers for the UW system as a whole in 2013-2014 was $29,219.  Eliminating tuition and fees just about wipes out that debt, giving students a chance to get on their feet after leaving the university.

While this is not exact, it does give us a ballpark figure.  It clearly shows that eliminating tuition/fees at public universities is actually a better deal than our current system.  As such, I hope that the public will give Sen. Sanders’ plan serious consideration.

Thanks for reading.

The United States and Scandinavia: A Comparison

During the May 3 edition of “This Week,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told George Stephanopoulos, “If we know that in countries in Scandinavia, like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, they are very democratic countries obviously; their voter turnout is a lot higher than it is in the United States.  In those countries, health care is a right of all people.  In those countries, college education, graduate school is free.  In those countries, retirement benefits, childcare are stronger than in the United States of America.  And in those countries by and large, government works for ordinary people in the middle class, rather than, as is the case right now in our country, for the billionaire class.”  Stephanopoulous responded, “I can hear the Republican attack ad right now; ‘he wants America to look more like Scandinavia’.”  Sanders was okay with that, arguing, “That’s right.  That’s right.  What’s wrong with that?  What’s wrong when you have more income and wealth equality.  What’s wrong when they have a stronger middle class in many ways than we do, a higher minimum wage than we do and they’re stronger on the environment than we are.”  Sanders went on to say that there is nothing wrong with learning to other countries.  The portion begins around 1:40 of the video clip–

It is in that spirit that I set out to compare the U.S. and Scandinavia on a number of topics, including some of those mentioned by Sen. Sanders.

GDP per capita (2013)
a) Denmark: $59,818.60; b) Norway: $100,898.40; c) Sweden: $60,380.90; d) United States: $53,042.00

Individual Income Tax Rate (2014)
a) Denmark: 55.41%; b) Norway: 47.2%; c) Sweden: 57%; d) United States: 39.6%

Unemployment Rate (2013)
a) Denmark: 7.0%; b) Norway: 3.5%; c) Sweden: 8.1%; d) United States: 7.4%

Income Inequality (Gini Coefficient- the closer to 1, the greater the inequality, 2011)
a) Denmark: .253; b) Norway: .250; c) Sweden: .273; d) United States: .389

Quality of Overall Transport Infrastructure (Rank out of 144; 2014)
a) Denmark: 15; b) Norway: 28; c) Sweden: 18; d) United States: 16

Public Investment on Infrastructure (% of GDP; 2014)
a) Denmark: 3.4%; b) Norway: 3.3%; c) Sweden: 4.5%; d) United States: 4.1%

Total Paid Leave for Mothers (in weeks; 2014)
a) Denmark: 50; b) Norway: 81; c) Sweden: 60; d) United States: 0

Paid Leave Reserved for Fathers (in weeks; 2014)
a) Denmark: 2; b) Norway: 14; c) Sweden: 10; d) United States: 0

Public Spending on Education- Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary (% of GDP, 2011)
a) Denmark: 7.0%; b) Norway: 6.2%; c) Sweden: 6.0%; d) United States: 4.9%

Public Expenditure for Childcare and Early Education (% of GDP; 2014)
a) Denmark: 2.0%; b) Norway: 1.2%; c) Sweden: 1.6%; d) United States: 0.4%

Cost of Childcare, Couples (% of average wage; 2014)
a) Denmark: 11.9%; b) Norway: 14.9%; c) Sweden: 5.8%; d) United States: 35.1%

Mean Score in PISA (2012)
a) Denmark: 500; b) Norway: 489; c) Sweden: 478; d) United States: 481

Poverty Rates for Children (2010)
a) Denmark: 3.7%; b) Norway: 5.1%; c) Sweden: 8.2%; d) United States: 21.2%

Voter Turnout (2013 or latest available year)
a) Denmark: 87.74%; b) Norway: 78.23%; c) Sweden: 84.63%; d) United States: 66.65%

Environmental Performance Index (Rank out of 178; 2014)
a) Denmark: 13; b) Norway: 10; c) Sweden: 9; d) United States: 33

Health Care Ranking (out of 11 countries, 2014)
a) Denmark: Not part of the study; b) Norway: 7; c) Sweden: 3; d) United States: 11

Life Expectancy (2014)
a) Denmark: 79.9 years; b) Norway: 81.4 years; c) Sweden: 81.9 years; d) United States: 78.7

Corruption Perceptions Index (Rank out of 175; 2014)
a) Denmark: 1; b) Norway: 5; c) Sweden: 4; d) United States: 17

Press Freedom Score (0 is the most free; 2015)
a) Denmark: 12; b) Norway: 10; c) Sweden: 10; d) United States: 22

Life Satisfaction (10 is most satisfied; 2014)
a) Denmark: 9.4; b) Norway: 9.7; c) Sweden: 8.9; d) United States: 7.5

Since Denmark, Norway, and Sweden do not have laws for a minimum wage, I did not include that data.

While the list of indicators is not exhaustive and does not give a complete picture of life in these countries, it would appear Sen. Sanders is on to something here.  The question now is- what can U.S. policymakers learn from these countries?

To learn more about the three Scandinavian countries in general, check out their embassy websites:

Thanks for reading.

Why You Should Care About US Infrastructure

Even before he announced his candidacy for President, Sen. Bernie Sanders touted a plan for America’s infrastructure.  His bill, the Rebuild America Act of 2015, would cost around $1 trillion and create and maintain 13 million jobs.  It seems like a hefty price tag, but given the fact that the infrastructure in the U.S. is crumbling, it is well worth it.

The Current State of America’s Infrastructure
Back in June 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations released “Road to Nowhere,” a progress report on US infrastructure.  While the report is short and informative, the infographic sums up the message nicely:

Infrastructure_Scorecard_5

 

When we compare the U.S. with our counterparts in the OECD, the results are not good for America; however, things have improved since the report.  According to the OECD’s “2015 Going for Growth,” U.S. spending as a percent of its GDP has increased to 4.1% (the OECD average is 3.5%).  Additionally, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index ranked the overall quality of U.S. infrastructure  at 16th (we were 24th in 2012).  While that is illustrative of improvement here, it is surely still not what one might expect from the world’s largest economy (based on GDP).

Perhaps one of the best places to look for information on all of this is the “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” from the American Society of Civil Engineers.  While the ASCE stands to benefit from building and maintaining our infrastructure, the U.S. report card and the Wisconsin state report card are still good gauges.  Here are just a few of the pieces of information I found that highlight the need for improvement:

  • In some places, pipes and mains for drinking water are more than 100 years old (p. 5)
  • “One in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient.” (p. 6)  This means that they are restricted to light vehicles, closed to traffic, or require rehabilitation.  In Wisconsin, 8.5% of the bridges fit this description.
  • Schools do not have the funding they need for construction and maintenance. In Wisconsin, schools had “$4.4 billion in infrastructure funding needs.”
  • Wisconsin has fifty-five sites on the National Priority List.  These are sites that “release or threaten the release of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants.” (p. 21)
  • “32% of America’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, costing U.S. motorists…$67 billion a year.” (p. 21)
  • “42% of America’s major urban highways remain congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually.” (p. 48)  The ASCE estimates the fuel lost at 1.9 billion gallons.
  • “45% of American households lack any access to transit.” (p. 51)
  • The U.S. electric grid has facilities dating back to the 1880s (p. 60, italics mine)

Funding
The main reason the U.S. has problems with its infrastructure is funding.  As noted above, spending has increased since 2012, but it is still not enough.  In their report on creating a national infrastructure bank, the Center for American Progress highlights four main problems with funding and investment:

  • Failure to provide sufficient public funds
  • Failure to attract private investment
  • Failure to coordinate investments
  • Failure to allocate funds efficiently (p. 4, NIB)

If the lack of funding is not addressed (and therefore infrastructure is not maintained), the ASCE estimates “by 2020, the economy is expected to lose almost $1 trillion in business sales, resulting in a loss of 3.5 million jobs.” (p. 5, “Failure to Act: The Impact of Current Infrastructure Investment on America’s Economic Future“)  They’ve even created a nice infographic on the topic:

Investing in Infrastructure

 

The U.S. government cannot keep putting off funding and investing in infrastructure.  At the current rate, the funding gap is projected to be just over $1 trillion by 2020 and almost $4.7 trillion by 2040. (p. 7, Failure to Act).

Economic Impact
If you’re still not convinced about the need for massive reform concerning U.S. infrastructure, maybe some figures on the economic impact will help.  It is important to remember that lack of funding and investment for infrastructure negatively affects “business productivity, GDP, employment, personal income, and international competitiveness.” (p. 4, Failure to Act)  In other words, crumbling infrastructure affects trade.  If trade is affected, then jobs are also affected.  If jobs are affected, personal income is affected.  Delays in shipping goods (whether on the surface, waterways, or in the air) to markets increases the cost of those goods.  If the cost of goods goes up, disposable income goes down.  At the current rate, U.S. households can expect “an average loss of more than $3,000 per year through 2020 in disposable income.” (p. 7, Failure to Act)

In 2010, 76% of U.S. exports and 70% of imports arrived via ports (p. 41, Report Card).  If the roads, rail system, and inland waterways to ports (as well as other modes of transportation) are not sufficient to handle the movement of goods, it could spell economic trouble.  Ports are an important part of the Wisconsin economy, as they handle approximately $2.4 billion in goods every year.

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 1.49.41 PM

Additionally, “deficient and deteriorating transit systems cost the U.S. economy $90 billion in 2010″ (p. 51, Report Card).  Improving and increasing transit systems would help those without access to automobiles get to places of employment or stores.  Additionally, passenger rail helps decrease wear and tear of roads, as well as reduce congestion of roads and highways.

Undertaking a massive plan to overhaul U.S. infrastructure not only helps businesses and trade, it also helps workers.  According to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, “every $1 billion in highway spending can directly and indirectly create up to 13,000 jobs a year.”  Additionally, many infrastructure jobs have low barriers to entry, which makes it easier for workers without a four-year college degree to find employment.  Since infrastructure workers do, however, need recruiting and training, this is an opportunity for technical colleges to offer more programs.

Time to Rebuild America
It should be clear that the U.S. has a lot of work to do to improve its infrastructure.  The ASCE Report Card argues that “America’s infrastructure needs bold leadership and a compelling vision at the national level” (p. 9).  Out of the major presidential candidates who have officially announced their candidacy, only Bernie Sanders has a plan- the Rebuild America Act.  His bill calls for funds to be allocated to the following areas:

  • The Highway Trust Fund (which is about to run out of money)
  • Intercity Passenger and High-Speed Rail
  • Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation
  • Airport Improvement
  • Next Generation Air Transportation System
  • National Infrastructure Investments
  • State Water Pollution Control Revolving Funds
  • State Drinking Water Treatment Revolving Loan Funds
  • Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation
  • Non-Federal Dams and Levees
  • Inland Waterways
  • Harbor Maintenance
  • Dams and Levees
  • The National Park Service
  • The Broadband Initiatives Program
  • The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program
  • The Electric Grid

The bill also called for a National Infrastructure Bank, which would help address the problems with funding and investment I mentioned above.  I look forward to the Senator expanding on his plan in the coming months.

What are your thoughts?  Should the U.S. be worried about its infrastructure, or are the ASCE and other organizations blowing things out of proportion?  Thanks for reading.

Letter in Opposition to AB 194

On May 4, Wisconsin state legislators introduced AB 194, a bill that will require students to take a civics test (based on the U.S. Citizenship Test) in order to receive their high school diploma.  I have read the bill, and I am against it.  What follows is the text of the letter I sent today to the sponsors, my representative, and the chair and co-chair of the Committee on State Affairs and Government Operations.  What do you think- should graduating high school seniors be required to take the civics test?

Thanks for reading.

Dear ,

I am writing to you in opposition to AB 194, which “requires a person to correctly answer at least 60 of 100 questions on a civics test, which is identical to the civics test required to be taken by persons seeking U.S. citizenship, as a prerequisite to obtaining a high school diploma or a high school equivalency diploma.” Requiring a civics test will not make a student more patriotic or more of a citizen, nor will it lead to a sound understanding of our government.

Tests such as the one that would be required by this bill require only rote learning. As a high school social studies teacher, I do not want my students to memorize random facts; I aim to have them perform tasks that require higher order thinking. By requiring purely memorization, this bill goes against sound pedagogical standards.

Instead of encouraging students to learn random facts about the United States, we should be encouraging them to be involved and to vote. We should have lengthy discussions on topics like campaign finance, the role of public opinion, and polarization in politics. We should teach them how to conduct research on policies and candidates so that they can make informed decisions at the polls. We should talk about the abysmal voter turnout in the 2014 midterms and why people did not vote. We should be discussing the problems of our current system and their ideas for addressing them. By requiring students to have only rudimentary knowledge of our political system, this bill will not lead to a more informed and engaged electorate.

I am not saying that students should not know the basics of our government. They should know who represents us in Congress, and they should understand the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. They should not, however, be required to take a test to showcase this knowledge. This test will do nothing to help students become active participants in the political process.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Jason Knoll