The deteriorating state of America’s physical infrastructure has the potential to substantially harm the U.S economy. The American Society of Civil Engineer estimates that without an additional $157 billion dollars of annual investment by 2020, the US economy could lose $3.1 trillion in GDP due to declining productivity.
A mechanism for raising investment that has been gaining momentum since its original proposal in 2007 is the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank (NIB). A NIB would be a government owned bank responsible for merit based distribution of cheap, long term loan guarantees for large scale infrastructure projects. The NIB would require an initial input of public funds (proposals range between 10 and 70 billion dollars over several years) but would raise the majority of its capital through private investment.
A recent report by the Brooking Institute argues that the NIB’s proposed structure would make it especially adept at attracting private investment. The report argues that the infrastructure specific expertise of the professional staff would far exceed that of the bond ratings agencies, meaning investors would be more likely to view NIB projects as a good investment. Additionally, rather than simply choosing financing options for a given project, the bank would have the ability to independently identify opportunities to make existing projects more profitable, increasing potential benefits of investment.
The creation of an NIB may be the most politically viable solution to America’s infrastructure problem. While the government would need to pay for the initial infusion of capital, private sector funding will be the bank’s primary source of revenue. This should, in theory, alleviate some of the concerns over additional government spending. While house leadership remains unwilling to consider the measure, a number of conservatives in both the house and senate have co-sponsored legislation meant to establish the NIB, indicating the possibility for compromise.
In the 2013 legislative session the legislature passed a $156 million bonding bill. This, however, was a pared down version of the $800 million bonding bill proposed by the House. Lost in the clamor over the tradition of bonding typically coming in even numbered years is that excellent projects that would have helped communities across the state went unfunded.
One such project is Red Wing’s River Renaissance Project. The $1.583 million proposal would invest in substantial improvements to Levee Road serving the local grain export terminal, Riverwalk Trail, and small boat harbor. The result would be meaningful gains in the regional economic growth, environmental sustainability, and public safety.
Updates to Levee Road include reconstructing damaged surfaces, raising the low point to reduce flood risk, and improving storm water management and underground utilities. The grain export terminal levee road services is the only export on the Mississippi between St. Paul and Winona, and these improvements will lead directly to more efficient farm commodity distribution. Not only does this project help business in Red Wing, but it also generates improvements for the rest of Minnesota’s economy.
Improved lighting and trail design, along with access updates will increase public safety in the community. Water quality and storm water runoff will be better controlled, and flooding will be avoided, increasing the environmental impact of the project.
This project also had the necessary outside funds to be completed, meaning there was nothing standing in the way of this project except votes in the legislature. Red Wing’s River Renaissance Project is exactly the type of project we should be assisting in the state, and now it has to wait another year. That’s another year without strong safety precautions for pedestrians, another year without exceptional environmental protections, and another year with slower economic growth.
This isn’t an isolated incident. There were an additional $650 million worth of projects that were ready to be completed that would have improved Minnesota, and conservatives balked because of tradition, using the incomplete budget as a tool for obstruction. That’s not how government should operate. We can, and must, do better.
Photo credit: JPeligen, creative commons
A lot of buzz has been made about the Oregon health exchange’s comparison of prices causing insurers to revise and lower premiums. While an excellent example of the power of the ACA exchanges broadly, the specific story isn’t something we’re likely to see in Minnesota for a few months.
First, what happened in Oregon wasn’t a product of any particular policy mechanism. The two insurers, seeing other premiums being offered, simply asked prior to state government review to re-file their initial offerings. There wasn’t any formal revision period in Oregon, nor is there one here. In Minnesota, we’ve passed the May 24th submission deadline and the review process is already underway, meaning the chance for revisions to 2014 exchange plans has since passed.
Second, Minnesota is different from Oregon in that all Department of Commerce filings regarding insurance are classified as “nonpublic” until plans become effective. In the context of MNsure, those direct price comparisons won’t be available until October 1st this year, the start of the exchange’s open-enrollment period.
The filings are nonpublic in the interest of effective competition. If two insurers are competing and have access to filings, one insurer could simply wait for the other to file and then just barely undercut them. Nonpublic filing status means insurers, knowing a thriving market exists while unsure of what competitors are offering, must make initial proposals reflecting their honest valuation of the worth of a spot on the MNsure exchange, as opposed to waiting and marginally undercutting their competition. Vigorous competition is facilitated from the get-go.
There has been speculation about an exception where Commerce could disclose premium rates provided the specific insurers associated with those premiums aren’t revealed. However, the Department of Commerce nor the Dayton administration have expressed interest in doing so.
The state still has the potential for outcomes like Oregon, we’re just likely to see the process play out over an extended period of time. The MNsure Board of Directors selects exchange plans on an annual basis, meaning plans offered on the exchange in 2015 will be chosen by February 1st, 2014. It’s between October and then, after rates are publicly available, when competition will really kick in. Mix that with the ability for MNsure to place stricter requirements on exchange plans starting 2015, and the state has a real opportunity to make substantive improvements in both the quality and cost of health insurance.
Congress recently introduced three proposed revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB, enacted in 2001, has been up for renewal since 2007, but there's been little promise of an actual replacement for this flawed approach to education policy since then.
Iowa progressive Tom Harkin was one of the first to introduce a revised education bill this last week. The 1150-page bill is not perfect by any means, but it does contain important changes to NCLB. For example, the bill moves away from the hated “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) aspect of NCLB, which many say has lead to a climate of fear and punishment in our nation’s public schools. It does, unfortunately, retain the standardized testing for students in grades 3-8 that helped create the AYP mess in the first place.
Still, while Harkin’s bill keeps the current heavy emphasis on standardized testing, it also lessens the impact these test results will have on teacher, principal, and school evaluations. Under Harkin’s bill, schools would also be allowed to evaluate students using portfolios of their work.
This aspect of the bill is an important step forward, and it should be taken seriously. In my career as a college English teacher, I have come to really appreciate using a portfolio model of assessment with students. First, it requires students to put together a folder of their own work, and then comment on it. Second, students must, if they are to do well, reflect on their own work and provide feedback on it, as well as on the class as a whole. This method of evaluation is far removed from the world of standardized testing, where the illusion of objectivity is used to reward students who do well on such tests.
I have also seen the portfolio model work well in public schools that practice a progressive approach to education. These schools, such as Barton Open in Minneapolis, show that it is possible to give even kindergarteners a hand in assessing and presenting their own work, making them important partners in their own education. This approach to assessment encourages creativity in students and teachers, which is a hallmark of the American education system and something we would do well to emphasize.
Harkin’s bill will most likely not go anywhere. Conservatives Senator Lamar Alexander and Minnesota Congressman John Kline both introduced their own bills right after Harkin, which further push the federal government out of education. There is division among conservatives over this approach, and this, along with the competing Harkin bill, means that any true, national progress in education policy will most likely not take place any time soon.
More information on the three proposed bills can be found here.
As policymakers focus more on the state and national education system "catching up," they're increasing emphasis on STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The idea behind this is that that students currently are unprepared for the workforce, and must adapt to the changing market for science and math related job openings. Technology in particular certainly is a booming industry, and it is hard to argue that teaching the “hard sciences” does have real value.
However, as 2020’s Alex Christiansen has pointed out, these job vacancies do not come close to telling the whole story on unemployment. Currently, Minnesota only leaves 2.3% of jobs unfilled, and of those vacancies, only 42% require post-secondary education. That means if the right education was what matters, especially past high school, unemployment should be a lot closer to .966% than the current 5.4. Our problem is not generally a shortage of qualified workers, but rather too much competition in a job market that is too small, and that is not a problem that focused education is going to solve.
So if specialized higher education is not the key to solving unemployment, why is it that schools keep emphasizing college and other post-secondary education? That answer lies in the fact that of the job vacancies in Minnesota, 53% are part time or temporary. If we assume that close to all jobs requiring post-secondary education, not just accepting it, are full time and permanent, that means that only about 5% of vacancies offer a real chance at a living wage for those with only a high school education, all of approximately 2400 openings. It should come as little surprise then that 11% of Minnesotans live below the poverty line, and over 10,000 find themselves homeless on a given night.
There are real issues to be addressed in how we are educating our children, but to say that content of education is the driving factor behind wage gaps and poverty misses the point. As education gets more and more competitive, more people find themselves losing, unable to keep up with increasing academic demands. These people cannot be left to fend for themselves in a market that does not value their work, or even give them the opportunity to work at all. As recent movements show, far too many people doing necessary and hard work are being left out of the wage gap conversation, and specialized education will not rectify that.
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In modern political discourse, “sustainability” is a buzzword associated strongly with the left. Liberal politicians are assumed to espouse environmental stewardship as an automatic add-on. And in light of ever-urgent climate change, we’ve begun to drop terms like environmentalism and instead employ the broad umbrella of “sustainability.”
If you ask those at the forefront of the sustainability movement, though, environmental issues comprise only part of the equation. True sustainability is all-inclusive, encompassing social justice, health and wellness of both humans and ecological systems, and security and resilience in the economy.
This definition is characterized by ethical and thoughtful attention to all interactions between nature and society and can be approached from political, economic, social, and biocentric angles. Institutions routinely benefit from implementing systems that integrate sustainability measures into their everyday operations, and these benefits manifest in areas that matter to everyone, not just green radicals.
An easy place to start is with purchasing. In our consumer culture where virtually everything requires some sort of material supplies, often there are more sustainable alternatives to the status quo. The Responsible Purchasing Network provides guidelines and resources for establishing a sustainable procurement policy in businesses and institutions, offering simple steps to designate products that carry less environmental baggage and offer financial savings, especially long-term.
Some coalitions supporting sustainability are tailored to different business needs and structures. The Green Restaurants Association is one example. AASHE, The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, outlines frameworks, resources and opportunities for sustainability in the context of a university campus. LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, has transformed the architectural community so that new construction projects that integrate environmental, economic, and social benefits are more attainable and more common.
Even local governments have jumped on the bandwagon. The U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement is a coalition of mayors who pledge to reduce carbon emissions in their cities along the lines of the Kyoto Protocol. ICLEI, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, has created guidelines for urban sustainability with categories like resilient, biodiverse, low-carbon, resource-efficient and so on.
Not just environmental nonprofits and liberal arts colleges like Macalester, the one I attend, have the capacity for and will accrue benefits from adopting sustainability measures. I’ll delve more deeply into various options in later posts. But it’s important to remember this: sustainability is a strategy to consume resources our wisely so as not to inhibit the prosperity of future generations. In this way, sustainability is, at its core, a pragmatic stance that should appeal to individuals, institutions, businesses and policymakers.
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This post will probably get me slammed for having low expectations, but the content needs to be seen. For quick background, even high estimates [PDF] figure 36% of Minnesota's workforce will need a bachelor's degree or higher by 2018; the other 64% will need community college coursework or be fine with a high school diploma. A new study [PDF] by the National Center on Education and the Economy examined what skills community college students in popular fields like nursing and computer programming needed. Here are a few things going wrong with math:
Placement Tests Don't Measure What's Needed
We hear a lot about how many college students get put in remedial courses – in Minnesota, estimates go as high as 40% – and being put in such courses is a strong predictor of whether students leave college with a degree or just with debt.
However, the tests that put students in those courses aren't aligned with the actual math needed for their coursework. As the report puts it, “[M]any students are being denied entry to credit-bearing courses at our community colleges who are in fact prepared to do mathematics that will be required of them in their applied programs.”
High School Aims at the Wrong Target
So what is required of students? High school pushes everyone through at least Algebra II. However, the report finds students don't need more than “Algebra 1.25.” They are, however, missing key skills in areas like statistics and real-world applications that go untaught or undertaught.
Many Students Can't Do the Middle School Math They Do Need
Consider these three statements from the report:
- “[T]he mathematics needed by first year students in these courses is almost exclusively middle school mathematics.”
- “Whatever students did to pass mathematics courses in middle school, it does not appear to require learning the concepts in any durable way.”
- “It makes no sense to rush through the middle school mathematics curriculum in order to get to advanced algebra as rapidly as possible.”
In other words, we've created a system of math education that's forcing too many students through an ever-accelerating sequence of skills they don't need at the expense of the deeper learning and true understanding of math they do need. Some students absolutely should be building towards and through calculus while in high school. Most shouldn't, and we need to talk more about what they should be doing instead.
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In a move that could shrink their revenues, Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota and UnitedHealthcare are offering 700 free children's bicycle helmets and reflectors this afternoon on a a first-come-first-served basis at five Twin Cities Boys and Girls Club locations and three Minneapolis parks.
The freebies mark Children's recent designation as Minnesota's only Level I dedicated pediatric trauma center, "which means we have met the highest standards of expertise and level of preparation to care for injured children," said spokesperson Erin Keifenheim.
More helmeted kids on bikes, however, should mean less demand for trauma treatment. Volunteers will offer safety tips along with helmet fitting.
"We know that kids 5 to 14 are seen in emergency departments related to biking more than any other sport," Kristi Moline, Children's chief of injury prevention, told MPR News. "And now that we're entering summer season and kids are out of school, we will see an increase in bicycle-related injuries."
Each stop on the giveaway tour will last about a half-hour. The sessions at Boys and Girls Clubs are open to club day campers only. The schedule:
- 1:30 p.m. Southside Village Boys and Girls Club, 701 E. 39th St., Minneapolis.
- 1:30 p.m. Jerry Gamble Boys and Girls Club, 2410 Irving Av. N., Minneapolis.
- 1:50 p.m. East Side Boys and Girls Club, 1620 E. Ames Av., St. Paul.
- 1:50 p.m. Mount Airy Boys and Girls Club, 91 E. Arch St., St. Paul.
- 2:20 p.m. Lake Nokomis Park, Minneapolis.
- 2:30 p.m. Lake Harriet bankshell, Minneapolis.
- 2:40 p.m. West Side Boys and Girls Club, 291 Belvidere St. E., St. Paul.
- 2:45 p.m. Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis.
Bravo to health institutions that take extra steps to stop injuries before they happen. If you know a child who bikes without head protection, get him or her to one of these locations.
More than 500,000 acres of permanent grassland habitat in Minnesota's pheasant range lie along roadsides, a little known and often despoiled resource for wildlife proliferation and environmental preservation.
"Grassy roadsides can be for the birds!" according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "Researchers have found them to be highly productive nesting sites for more than 40 kinds of birds and animals that nest on the ground or in low vegetation."
And that ain't all. In Florida, the transportation department is studying how to help feral bees thrive along highways in hopes of restoring declining pollinator populations that are vital to the state's farm yields. Researchers at Iowa State University have identified a dozen native plants that attract pollinators and urged their planting in the narrow strips not devoted to cash crops in these days of high corn and soybean prices.
Roadsides are "the last refuge, the last vestige of hope" for ground-nesting birds such as quail, pheasants, meadowlarks and bobolinks as well as many butterflies (such as Minnesota's endangered state butterfly, the Monarch) and other insects, Rebecca Kauten, manager of the integrated roadside vegetation management program at the University of Northern Iowa, told conservation writer Richard Conniff for a Yale Environment 360 blog.
Conniff explores various efforts in the United States and Europe to manage roadsides as wildlife habitat, but the most effective may be the simplest: "Many thousands of nest and nest sites are destroyed annually in southern and western Minnesota because of disturbance to our roadsides during spring and summer," says the Minnesota DNR.
Most of the disturbance is caused by hay mowing. The DNR says rural landowners and local road authorities should wait until August to mow roadsides, and, starting in September, leave at least 10 inches of growth (clipped "high") to nurture the next year's early nesters. The Minnesota Department of Transportation also encourages and subsidizes planting of roadside "living snow fences" that offer improved habitat as well as better highway safety. I addressed this topic a while back.
Auto travel has polluted our water and air, contributed to climate change and produced horrific levels of roadkill, both animal and human. Using our nation's millions of miles of roadsides for environmental restoration seems like the least we can do to reverse the damage.
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In recent years, we have become more aware of the problems we face with obesity and nutritional deficiency. These problems can be especially hard to deal with in situations of lower income. Due to rising cost and access to food (transportation and local store selection), it becomes even harder for lower income individuals to purchase fresh, nutrient rich food.
In efforts to mitigate healthier food access problems, the Federal Food Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) began an experimental program to allow participants to use their money at farmers markets. In 2011, The Minnesota Department of Agriculture introduced an electronic reader at farmers markets around Minnesota. At the time there were 14 farmers markets that accepted the program in the state.
As of this March, 39 farmers markets now accept the program. This large increase in a relatively short period of time shows the potential for positive changes in Minnesota’s healthy food accessibility problems. MN2020 Undergraduate Research Fellow Zack Avre published a USDA map highlighting Minnesota food desserts (areas that lack access to affordable, fresh, healthy foods). Hopefully, this expanding SNAP-farmers market partnership will help take some steps to alleviating the food desert issue in our state.
Along with working to help install electronic readers to increase access for low income individuals and families, The Minnesota Department of Agriculture's partnership with local growers, called Minnesota Grown, works to expand access and awareness to the public at large of local food opportunities in Minnesota. It features a free directory and information about in season produce. You've probably seen their commercials featuring Minnesota native and former Olympian Carrie Tollefson. A growing farmers market and local food scene in Minnesota and SNAP acceptance at farmers markets are important steps to helping overcome the food access and nutritional problems.
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