538 Ways to Live, Work, and Play Like a Liberal

Join Boston Drinking Liberally for a book event with Justin Krebs, this Wednesday night!

What does it take to be a liberal? Do you need to read the New York Times every morning? Drink shade-grown, fair-trade, organic coffee at your local worker-owned coffee shop every afternoon? Follow a strictly vegan diet? Raise your children in a sex-positive, gender-neutral, non-authoritarian environment? If you've ever been a liberal, voted for a liberal, or hung around other liberals, chances are you've rubbed shoulders with one of these lifestyle choices, or their close cousins. Chances are, you've probably heard snide remarks about these kinds of things - whether from your conservative friends or self-deprecating liberals. In fact, it wasn't that long ago when being a liberal was a lonely hobby in many parts of the country.

That was why, in 2003, Justin Krebs and Matt O'Neill founded the first chapter of Drinking Liberally, a politically-themed drinking club that met once a week at Rudy's, a little neighborhood joint in Hell's Kitchen. Their humble goal was to encourage their pals, their neighbors, and anyone else who happened to stop by, to feel comfortable discussing politics in a social situation, and to get involved in politics. Seven years later, Drinking Liberally has grown far beyond its humble intentions. There are hundreds of Drinking Liberally groups across the country (and a few across the globe). There are Reading Liberally book clubs, Screening Liberally film clubs, and Eating Liberally cooking clubs.

Of course, there are many ways to live out your liberal values besides joining a Drinking Liberally or Reading Liberally group. In fact, there are at least 538 Ways to Live, Work, and Play Like a Liberal, according to Krebs. This book isn't just a laundry-list of tasks to complete on the road to becoming some sort of ideal liberal, though. Instead, it's a creative look at liberalism, a manual for community-oriented fun, and a great way to turn an abstract political ideology into a vibrant and enriching way of life.

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Beyond the Echo Chamber

If you're going to be in the Boston area next Wednesday, join Drinking Liberally and Women Action Media! for a book event with Tracy Van Slyke and Jessica Clark! RSVP here.

Beyond the Echo Chamber, by Tracy Van Slyke and Jessica Clark, is a groundbreaking new book for anyone who is concerned with the state of political media, journalism, or civic activism. It's also a useful handbook for progressives who want to be heard and make change, as well as a fascinating perspective on the changes in the world of professional media and journalism.

The book chronicles the rise of the new world of progressive media, circa 2004 - 2008. Having worked together at In These Times, the authors were deeply involved in the story they are telling. The Bush years were a boon to traditional progressive publications like In These Times, which saw their circulation numbers jump. They were also a time of energetic creativity and growth among progressive activists of all stripes, forming all sorts of new organizations that challenged traditional conventions in the media world. Van Slyke and Clark describe some of these organizations and the characters behind the screens, as well as the lessons learned along the way. They conclude with several important strategies that progressive media organizations should consider for their future work.

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Run on the public option

From the diaries, jerome.

In a way, the fact that a public option wasn't included in the health care reform law is a great opportunity for progressives. It would have been preferable to include the public option in the original law, without a doubt. And it would would certainly be nice to pass a public option during a second round of budget reconciliation in this session of Congress - but I'm not holding my breath. Nevertheless, defeat in this session may be a blessing in disguise, since progressive Democrats now have a clear and popular issue they can, and should, rally around for the mid-term elections.

The polling forecast for Democrats in the mid-term elections has been looking rather miserable for a while now, both in the House and in the Senate, and while there appears to be a health care bounce, it's too early to say whether that will be long-lived, or whether it will be enough to revive Democratic election prospects.

But whatever happens to Congressional Democrats, fighting for the public option in the mid-term elections is a good short-term strategy for progressives. What's more, it may yield significant long-term benefits as well. More in the extended entry.

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Learning how to lobby Congress

Tonight I attended an Organizing for America phonebank.  Together with other Massachusetts volunteers, I called voters in Maine to encourage them to call Senators Snowe and Collins and ask them to vote for a public option.

The event had all the trappings of a election-focused phonebank, except that our end goal was a bit different, and our failure rate (measured in refusals, and judging only from my own limited experience) was a bit higher.  As I dialed, it occurred to me that effectively, we were learning to do something that the progressive movement knows very little about - lobbying Congress via mass mobilization.  I thought I'd put down some notes about the lessons that I hope we'll learn from this effort, and my long-term view for this new style of governance.

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Next week in Cambridge - The Progressive Revolution

If you happen to live in the Boston area, be sure to check out this excellent book event next week!

Reading Liberally Cambridge and ActBlue are hosting an talk with Mike Lux.  Lux will speak about his new book, The Progressive Revolution, and will take questions from the audience.

March 11, 7 PM
The Democracy Center
45 Mt. Auburn St, Cambridge MA
More info and RSVP at http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=54 225604059

I hope to see you there!

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Decoupling gets a boost in the stimulus bill

Continuing with this weekend's close reading of the stimulus package, Katie Fehrenbacher at Earth2Tech made a great catch this week:

The text in the stimulus bill doesn't require decoupling per se in order to get funds, but requires the state governors to get certification from their respective commissions that the states in question will:
"...seek to implement...a general policy that ensures that utility financial incentives are aligned with helping their customers use energy more efficiently and that provide timely cost recovery and a timely earnings opportunity for utilities associated with cost-effective and verifiable efficiency savings, in a way that sustains or enhances utility customers' incentives to use energy more efficiently."

In short, the stimulus package asks the states which are accepting stimulus money to pretty-please think about decoupling.  Decoupling is a policy which allows state regulators to set the electricity rates for utilities with allowances for investments in energy efficiency and reasonable rates of return on those investments, thereby separating (or decoupling) the price of electricity from the demand.  Under a decoupling regime, utilities can make money while lowering electricity consumption; without it, utilities have a built-in incentive to encourage consumption, even to the point of overconsumption that leads to new power plant construction.

The text that made it into the law is weak - a watering-down of decoupling language inserted by Henry Waxman in late January - but it's something, and considering the federalist problem (utilities are typically regulated at the state or municipal level), it might be about as good as what we can expect, as Fehrenbacher explains.

Decoupling is a highly successful environmental responsibility policy, and its implementation in California over the past three decades has contributed to the slow-down in California energy usage - the average Californian now uses about 33% less electricity than the average American (PDF).  Energy innovators are very aware of the impact of California's decoupling policy, too - pretty much every energy startup presentation I've attended has a line along the lines of "we think we can get our kilowatt hour price down to here, which as you can see is impractical for most of the US market but is profitable in California...."  Particularly in the solar industry, the decoupling policy has been a tremendous incentive for clean energy.

We shouldn't be insensitive to the cost that decoupling might impose on low-income people, so decoupling should be paired with additional policies that allow low-income people to reduce their energy consumption along with everyone else - targeted tax credits and rebates to begin with, but also closer-to-home projects like the weatherization assistance program.  Congress will almost certainly revisit this issue in the midst of the budget debate and the next energy bill, and it should take the next step in promoting a decoupling policy that is friendly to low-income consumers.

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Smart grid opportunities opening up

One of the lower-profile sub-plots within the stimulus package debate was about the use of open standards in the smart grid.  The package sets aside $4.5 billion for the smart grid.  Although that's only a fraction of the total investment needed to build the smart grid - perhaps as little as 5 or 10% - it's still a big chunk of change, and the strings attached to that money by Congress will make a big difference in the evolution of the new grid.  So it's no surprise that smart meter builders tried to weigh in on open standards earlier this month.  An early version of the House bill required that utilities must use an Internet-based open protocol (meaning IP, almost certainly); a later version required "Internet-based or other open protocols and standards if available and appropriate."  A group of electricity meter providers sent the Senate a letter complaining about the IP-only language, saying that it would interfere with existing projects.  As far as I can tell, the final language is actually a bit weaker than the flexible "IP or something else" provision (from page 30 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act):

OPEN PROTOCOLS AND STANDARDS.--The Secretary shall require as a condition of receiving funding under this subsection that demonstration projects utilize open protocols and standards (including Internet-based protocols and standards) if available and appropriate.

Earlier this week, Secretary Chu said that he wants to start deploying smart grid standards, although his actual language left plenty of wiggle room on the question of IP versus other open standards.

Meanwhile, out in the field, the battle is already joined.  San Diego Gas and Electric announced earlier this month that it will start installing 2.3 million smart meters in its customers homes.  In a country with about 7 million smart meters in operation, that's a pretty hefty deployment.  The meters will be Itron OpenWay meters, built on the ZigBee standard (which is an alternative to IP); the rollout is expected in March of this year.  At around the same time, Google announced its PowerMeter project and eMeter announced a major new deal which will allow some Houston-area customers to better monitor their electricity consumption.

We are not far, I hope, from the point when smart grid technology becomes widely available - meaning not just that there are a lot of meters installed in a lot of homes, but also that the entry costs for small-scale entrepreneurs to build applications on top of the grid will be getting lower and lower.  As far as I can tell, there are no open source software projects for extracting data from smart meters, but smart meter start-up Tendril announced a new API for its products (which are, it appears, ZigBee-based) earlier this month.  Unfortunately, the API is currently only available to Tendril partners.  But I suspect that smart grid applications will open up significantly in the next year; I imagine that it won't be long before we see Facebook and iPhone applications for monitoring and calibrating residential electric consumption.

This is great news for the environment and the green economy, of course.  I also think it's great news for the progressive economy, because it means more opportunities for liberal entrepreneurs to profit from environmental protection, and more opportunities to cycle those profits through the progressive economy.

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Building the progressive economy

As the recession deepened over the last few months, one thing I've worried about (among plenty of other things) is the toll that it would take on the progressive movement.  It's no secret that the movement runs on a shoe-string; a single hacker attack is enough to take out a pretty significant chunk of the infrastructure running the progressive blogosphere.  It seems inevitable that a wallet-emptying recession will slowly drain the spending ability of progressives, and thereby drag down our nascent institutions.

The key weakness within the progressive movement's business plan (forgetting, for a moment, that the progressive movement isn't a single, cohesive organization, and that many organizations within the movement don't have anything like a business plan in any case), is that a large part of our revenue relies on donations.  In a recession, voluntary donations are the easiest things to cut from a household budget.  A further weakness is the massive amount of money that leaves the progressive ecosystem.  In five years, ActBlue has raised $88 million; some of that has gone to necessary expenses in progressive campaigns and is money well-spent, although no doubt a significant part of that money ends up in the pockets of anti-progressive political consultants.  And some of that money does return to the progressive ecosystem, in the form of advertisements in progressive blogs, for example.  But on the whole, the progressive blogosphere leaks donations like a sieve, meaning that even the flush years don't leave us with a lot left over for recessions.

Fortunately, I believe it is possible to address these weaknesses, and to help keep the lights on during the recession.  Conceptually, it's fairly simple: diversify our business plan beyond donations, and design mechanisms to keep recycle more money back through the progressive ecosystem.  The particulars are a bit more tricky, but below I'll outline a few possibilities for implementing these high-level solutions.  Other ideas are certainly welcome; feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Saving Energy, Growing Jobs

Saving Energy, Growing Jobs is David Goldstein's book about the economics and politics of environmental regulation.  Goldstein's argument is that environmental regulation does not inhibit economic growth, nor is it inconsistent with a market-based economy.  On the contrary, for a variety of structural reasons, environmental regulations promote economic growth through innovation and competition, and are consistent with the smooth operation of today's complex markets.  The Firedoglake Book Salon recently reviewed the book, and I encourage you to check out the discussion they had a few weeks ago.

What I found most interesting about this book was its fundamental structural critique of economic theory and the ongoing political debate between environmentalists and economic fundamentalists.  Perhaps more interesting are the unstated applications of this critique.  While Goldstein's critiques are discussed in terms of environmental regulation, many of these ideas could be equally well applied to a variety of contexts in which business behavior must be regulated, especially collective bargaining and labor relations.

The structural critique of economic theory is sound and extremely illuminating, particularly for someone (like myself) who has only a passing understanding of economic theory and an even shadier understanding of modern corporate management practice.  Unfortunately, Goldstein's critique of the political landscape that shapes the environmental regulation debate is not quite as sound, and ignores entirely the existence of the modern conservative movement.  There are still valuable ideas to be gleaned from this critique, but it is considerably weaker than the economic critique.

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Will the real Religious Left please stand up?

Over the past few weeks, there has been a quiet but significant battle raging between religious progressives and and a coalition of evangelicals and centrists over who represents the real religious progressive voice in American politics.  I don't want to delve too far into it, but I thought I'd do a brief blow-by-blow summary for anyone who's interested.  More across the flip!

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