The Politics of the NCAA Sweet Sixteen

by David Morris | March 25, 2015 10:48 am

When television cameras zoomed in on Kansas Governor Sam Brownback in the middle of the Kansas-Wichita State NCAA basketball game a thunderous chorus of boos broke out. Viewers gained a rare glimpse of the politics behind March Madness. The announcers pointedly ignored the boos.

Viewers might have been better served if the announcers had offered some context for the crowd’s hostility. Both the University of Kansas and Wichita State are public universities. Brownback and the Republican dominated legislature have savaged state university budgets, resulting in rising tuition and more burdensome student debt.

In fact, twelve of the Sweet Sixteen teams are state universities. (Three are Catholic schools. Duke is the only non-religious private school.) Eleven play in states totally controlled by Republicans. (UCLA is the only team in a totally blue state.) In virtually all of these state spending on state universities has been slashed. Between 2008 and 2014 per capita state spending for state universities, adjusted for inflation, has shrunk[1] by more than 40 percent in Arizona, almost 30 percent in Michigan, about 25 percent in Utah and Wisconsin. And in 2015, even though their state economies have significantly improved, many red states are seeking to further punish their state universities. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for example, has just proposed[2] a budget that would decrease spending on public universities by $300 million over the next two years, the steepest reduction in state history.

The largely student crowds at NCAA games may also be upset that their states justify cutting spending on state universities in order to reduce state deficits when the deficits have been caused almost entirely by tax reductions that overwhelmingly favor the wealthy. Since taking office in 2011, Walker has steered[3] over $2 billion in tax cuts through the Republican-dominated Wisconsin legislature. By one estimate[4] the state of Kansas lost $803 million in 2014 because of 2012 tax cuts and the cumulative revenue loss will exceed $5 billion by 2019.

While the vast majority of NCAA teams in the Sweet Sixteen play in red states, almost all play in blue cities: Chapel Hill, Durham, Lexington, Louisville, Madison, Tucson, Lansing, Wichita, South Bend, Norman. And many of them are blue in large part because of how their students and recent graduates vote. Responding to the needs of their constituents, blue city councils have tried to lift their income, sometimes by increasing the local minimum wage. But when they try, red state legislatures often step in and strip them of their authority to do so.

In 2007, when Madison, home to the University of Wisconsin raised the local minimum wage, the legislature passed a bill to preempt its right to do so but the effort failed when Democratic Governor Jim Doyle vetoed the bill. In 2011, however, Republican Governor Walker signed a bill abolishing any Wisconsin city from enacting a local minimum wage higher than the state’s. That bill became a template used by more than a dozen other red states, most recently Oklahoma, to enact their own preemption statutes.

For the next week, we can concentrate on basketball and marvel at the remarkable athletes playing their hearts out and set politics aside. But perhaps, maybe during the commercials, we can reflect on the fact that the vast majority of these games are being played by teams from public universities in states whose governments are hostile to public universities and whose policies increase the already considerable financial burden on the students at these universities.









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Walmart Is Quietly Going on a Massive Building Spree

by Walter Wuthmann | March 23, 2015 4:47 pm

This piece was written by ILSR’s Walter Wuthmann, and first published by[1] Grist[2].

In January of last year, residents in Slidell, La., a suburb of New Orleans on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, were shocked to discover that a wooded stretch of land tucked into the middle of their neighborhood was slated to be cleared for a Walmart Neighborhood Market. It not only seemed an unlikely place to put such a store, but just weeks earlier Walmart had announced plans to build a Neighborhood Market less than four miles south on Pontchartrain Drive. Furthermore, Slidell already had two Walmart Supercenters. Developing the wooded lot on Roberts Drive would be the fourth Walmart in a town of fewer than 30,000 people.

“We are beside ourselves,” said Caroline Poupart, who lived directly behind the site of the proposed Walmart. “That green space has been here since the inception of time,” she told The Times-Picayune[3].

Yet there was little residents could do to stop Walmart. Like most U.S. cities, Slidell has permissive zoning when it comes to commercial development. This particular wooded lot is zoned for “neighborhood commercial,” under which Walmart’s Neighborhood Market store, which is essentially a large supermarket fronted by a few acres of parking, qualified as an acceptable use.

Today, the forested lot in north Slidell is gone, and the small town is saddled with four Walmart stores.

The situation in Slidell is a microcosm of a strategy Walmart is pushing hard across the southern U.S., and will soon advance northward. Having used its supercenters to capture one-quarter of U.S. grocery sales, the chain is building a new wave of smaller stores that are poised to clean up the market share its supercenters don’t already control. In the New Orleans metro area, Walmart accounted for 40 percent of the $2.1 billion people spent on food in 2012, according to data from Chain Store Guide. Its new stores in Slidell and other suburbs will inch that figure closer to 50 percent.


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New Maps Show Alarming Pace of Walmart’s Continued Growth

by Stacy Mitchell | March 23, 2015 10:16 am

Map: Walmart Square Footage per person, 2000.[1]

Many people assume that there’s no point in having a public debate about the consequences of Walmart’s dominance of the U.S. economy, because the company is already a widespread fact of life.  We must reckon with that reality, the thinking goes, and try to figure out how to make Walmart a better company.

While that’s certainly true in one respect, this view risks overlooking a crucial, and terrifying, fact: Walmart is expanding, rapidly.  There is a critical debate to be had right now about whether a company that already captures one-quarter of U.S. grocery sales should be allowed to grow to control one-third, or even half, of our food supply.

With that very aim in mind, Walmart is now embarking on its third historic wave of store construction, with plans to build 440 to 460  “Neighborhood Market” stores over a two year period[2],  presumably with many hundreds more to follow.  Neighborhood Market stores are large supermarkets, about the size of an NFL football field, fronted by a few acres of parking.  Walmart has been quietly testing them in a few states and is now launching a full-scale rollout.  The idea is to build these new stores in the gaps between its giant supercenters, so as to vacuum up more and more food sales.  Already, Walmart captures over half of grocery sales in 40 metro areas, according to Metro Market Studies.

To help illustrate the alarming trajectory of Walmart’s expansion, ILSR produced these two maps.  The first shows how much store space per person Walmart had in each state in 2000.  The second shows how much space the company now has.

Map: Walmart square footage per person, 2014.[3]

Nationally, Walmart has doubled its footprint since 2000 to a roomy 2.74 square feet of retail store space for every American.  In Arkansas, Walmart has 5.54 square feet per person — a figure that suggests that the company, which is building about 90 supercenters a year along with its new Neighborhood Market stores, could easily chart a path to tripling its presence in states like California and New York, where it now has less than 1 square foot of store space per person.

The big question is, should we sit back and let it?  Or is it time that Americans get serious about resurrecting anti-monopoly policies?

  1. [Image]:
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Can an Old Utility (dog) Learn New Tricks?

by John Farrell | March 16, 2015 10:29 am

Arnie Arnesen interviewed ILSR’s Director of Democratic Energy John Farrell[1] on WNHN’s The Attitude last week, seeking an answer to this question: can we expect electric utilities to embrace the energy sources of the future, like solar?

Electric Utilities Play by the (Old) Rules

Arnie and John discussed the hesitance of utilities to embrace innovation and new, clean technology. In many states, utilities are fighting back against clean, local energy[2] by fighting rules like net metering and proposing taxes and fees on solar producers.

As Arnie says, “Whenever you talk solar, for some reason you find John Farrell”


John suggested that we can’t expect better if the rules of the system remain mired in the 20th century.

Utilities have been given monopolies and the charge of delivering reliable, affordable power. They’ve done that job effectively, to the exclusion of anything else, and the decades of inertia make it hard for utilities to change.

John shared an anecdote from his recent trip to Tucson, where a utility employee noted that their conservative institution doesn’t innovate, doesn’t do “beta tests.” The utility in question gets 80% of its electricity from coal, despite being in the sunniest climate in the United States.

The utilities are reluctant to change because the old rules meant they made money from the old habits: selling more energy and building more (dirty) power plants. But what many utilities don’t realize is that change isn’t optional, because the old way can’t be profitable anymore.

What’s the New System?

Electric utilities are used to having centralized control over the grid system, but it’s a monopoly that no longer makes sense[4]. We no longer need to concentrate capital to build power plants because they can be built on rooftops and parking lots and open fields wherever there’s sun and wind. But we do need a facilitator to make sure that the grid infrastructure—the valuable network connecting all of these energy producers—can allow electric customers to transact with each other (instead of the utility).

It’s sometimes called “energy democracy[5].”

How do we Change the Rules?

Utilities will have to operate under new rules to move from centralized utility control to energy democracy. These rules will get them out of the business of selling electricity or building power plants and into the business of operating a public network for electricity system participants to transact with each other: a market.

Several states are already piloting these concepts, from Maine to California to New York. The basic premise is that the utility monopoly must be broken up, but primarily its monopoly over the distribution system—the network of poles and wires serving our neighborhoods. It’s on this network that innovation will be unleashed by customers with rooftop solar, electric vehicles, energy efficiency, and energy storage. But only if the electric utility is out of the way.

This article originally posted at[6]. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter[7] or get the Democratic Energy weekly[8] update.

  1. Arnie Arnesen interviewed ILSR’s Director of Democratic Energy John Farrell:
  2. utilities are fighting back against clean, local energy:
  4. it’s a monopoly that no longer makes sense:
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Key Passages and Arguments From The FCC Decision to Remove Barriers to Municipal Networks in TN and NC

by Rebecca Toews | March 13, 2015 3:16 pm


CONTACT: Rebecca Toews,[1],



Key Passages and Arguments From The FCC Decision to Remove Barriers to Municipal Networks in TN and NC

The Federal Communications Commission has released the order that allows Chattanooga and Wilson, as well as many other cities in North Carolina and Tennessee, to build, expand, and partner for improved Internet access.

This decision is not the end of the fight. We expect appeals and petitions from other cities to be filed, which follow Chattanooga and Wilson’s lead. Because of this, we isolated some of the key arguments and passages in a tip sheet below.

While the ruling extends only to communities in Tennessee and North Carolina, it stands to benefit communities all over the nation that want to reap the benefits of high-quality Internet connections at lower costs by overturning laws that create barriers to Internet networks. In fact, the order offers many clues as to how this precedent may impact restrictions in other states.

“The FCC’s order is a tremendous step forward to enabling better Internet access in North Carolina, Tennessee, and ultimately the whole country,” said Chris Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “As an organization that cares deeply about a proper balance of power, we believe this decision represents an appropriate tradeoff between local, state, and federal authority.”


Summarizing the Decision

The FCC has found that it has the authority to remove aspects of Tennessee and North Carolina law that limit local authority to build or expand Internet networks. In short, states retain the authority to restrict municipalities from offering service at all. However, if states allow local governments to offer services, then the FCC has the power to determine whether any limitations on how they do it are a barrier to the deployment of advanced telecommunications services per its authority in section 706 of the Telecommunications Act.

The FCC has removed a restriction in Tennessee law that prevented municipalities with fiber networks from expanding to serve their neighbors, per a petition from Chattanooga.

In North Carolina, the FCC has removed multiple aspects of a 2011 law, HB 129, that effectively outlawed municipal networks by presenting local governments with a thicket of red tape, including territorial restrictions on existing networks. The city of Wilson had petitioned the FCC for this intervention.


Key Points in the FCC Decision to Remove Barriers to Local Choice (each bullet starts with the paragraph number from the order):

Read Full FCC Decision Here[2]


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Can a Single Union Save the Post Office?

by David Morris | March 12, 2015 3:50 pm

Let’s begin with the bad news. The U.S. Post Office, the oldest, most respected and ubiquitous of all public institutions is fast disappearing. In recent years management has shuttered half the nation’s mail processing plants and put 10 percent of all local post offices up for sale. A third of all post offices, most of them in rural areas, have had their hours slashed. Hundreds of full time, highly experienced postmasters knowledgeable about the people and the communities they serve have been dumped unceremoniously, often replaced by part timers. Ever larger portions of traditional post office operations— trucking, mail processing and mail handling– have been privatized. Close to 200,000 middle class jobs have disappeared.

Since 2012 the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has lowered service standards three times, most recently in January when in preparation for closing an additional 82 mail processing plants it announced the end of one day delivery of local first class mail and an additional 1-2 days for all mail. Subscribers to Netflix’s DVD delivery service may soon discover the cost effectiveness of a monthly subscription has been cut in half because the number of DVD’s they receive in a month has been cut in half.

The Postal Service, we are told, has fallen so deeply into debt (more on this in a moment) that it has exhausted its borrowing capacity. There’s no cash left. It’s been challenging to invest in capital projects. Post offices are in disrepair. Trucks are out of date.

Now for the good news. On November 12, 2013 a slate of insurgents won seven of nine national offices at the American Postal Workers Union (APWU). What? Can the election of new officers in a single union, even one with over 200,000 members possibly save the post office? Certainly not if they try to do it singlehandedly but there’s a chance, just a chance they could turn the tide if they build an effective national movement. And that’s what they’re trying to do.

The APWU Strategy

The APWU’s new officers are unusually experienced and talented organizers. After leading the Greater Greensboro Area Local for 12 years and co-founding the Greensboro Chapter of Jobs with Justice, President Mark Dimondstein was appointed APWU’s National Lead Field Organizer in 2000 in a new campaign to organize workers in privatized mail trucking and processing operations. That afforded him important experience in the rough and tumble world of the private sector where workers have the legal right to strike (post office workers can’t) and corporations have the legal right to do almost anything they want to thwart union organizers. The campaign had many susccesses but prolonged strikes against several companies eventually exhausted the union’s strike fund and its national leadership refused repeated requests by Dimondstein and others to replenish it,

Other new officers include Political Director John Marcotte who organized a local coalition that stopped the consolidation of his Michigan plant and Executive Vice President Debby Szeredy who led her Mid-Hudson local in fighting their plant closure. Both she and the new Clerk Craft Director Clint Burelson also participated in a hunger strike in 2012.

The activist stance of these new leaders is evident in the tactics they embrace. Dimondstein insists[1], “We’re not afraid of the streets. We’re not in the streets enough. We need to picket, march, sit-in–not leave it to lobbying or one-on-one negotiations.” He often pointedly praises the actions of postal workers who 55 years ago this March took their future into their own hands by defying union leaders and staging an illegal strike against low pay and benefits and poor working conditions. (more…)[2]

  1. insists:,12,3200,--The-American-Postal-Workers-Union-Elects-a-New-Leadership-.htm
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Model Recycling Communities: Lane County, OR, Pop. 350,000

by Neil Seldman | March 9, 2015 4:22 pm

There is no one best way for communities to recycle. San Francisco has a highly successful program under an exclusive franchise system. Across the Bay, Berkeley has an equally successful program under a highly decentralized system based on for-profit, non-profit and government agency operations. One of the main reason why recycling grew so fast from the 1970s on, was that cities and counties learned from each other as they implemented their own unique systems. So today we have a wide variety of local recycling models.

Lane County, OR, is an interesting model for a number of reasons. Lane County is one of the only counties in Oregon that does not franchise, license or otherwise regulate garbage collection. Yet the community reached an impressive recovery rate of 61.5% in 2012. The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) confirms that recycling and composting achieved 55.5% recovery, while the County’s backyard compost-at-home, repair and reuse and source reduction programs each earned 2% toward the total recovery rate. The rate declined to 56.9% in 2013 (see note below); recycling and composting achieved 50.9% and Lane County’s backyard composting, repair and reuse and waste prevention programs each earned 2% more as a DEQ credit toward the total recovery rate.

Residents and businesses in the County may choose among one or more private haulers each of which must provide recycling services only inside the urban growth boundaries of any city of over 4,000 and additional services in cities over 10,000. The system is overseen by city and county governments per state statutes and rules.  The Lane County Department of Public Works, Division of Waste Management operates 16 rural transfer stations to fill in the gaps in lieu of a franchise, license or other regulatory program. Lane County’s comprehensive education and outreach includes a Master Recycler Program (much like popular Master Gardener programs). This as well as their website,[1] presents a very rich and layered approach directing residents and businesses to reuse and repair shops to self-haul and transfer station recycling, with many stops in between.

The information can help cities and counties that are early in their recycling program development as well as experienced recycling jurisdictions looking for novel approaches to common challenges and opportunities.

Here are key websites for more about Lane County, OR’s broad range of programs: [2][1]

For additional information contact: Sarah Grimm, Lane County Recycling Coordinator at (541) 682-4339.

NOTE:  There is no clear reason for the decline from 2012 to 2013. Most likely factors are: continued market insecurities due to China’s Green Fence, fewer buyers of wood waste (low cost and low emissions of natural gas causing the market to fall out), voluntary reporting by scrap metal industry, accounting for contamination in co-mingled collections, and adjustment of local data to state-wide data.

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March 11th Waste to Wealth Event: Bringing Recycling and Composting Jobs to Baltimore

by Neil Seldman | March 6, 2015 5:26 am

The Waste to Wealth = Green Jobs event (free to attend) is being held to present the potential for developing small minority-owned companies in the reuse, recycling and composting sectors in the Baltimore area. ILSR is co-sponsoring this event.

Wed, March 11, 2015; 7pm–9pm
Baltimore City Community College
2901 Liberty Heights Ave, Baltimore, MD 21215 (map[1])

Expert Panel Includes:

* Adrienne Houel – Executive Director, Park City Green, operator of a mattress recycling plant in Bridgeport, CT
* Shabaaz Jackson – Principal, Greenway, composting designer and operator, Poughkeepsie, NY
* Mark Foster – Director, Second Chance, building deconstruction, resale, Baltimore, MD
* Sidney Wilson, Jr. – President, DoxicomGlobal, recycling hard to recycle materials, Jackson, TN
* Justen Garrity, Founder, Veteran Compost, Aberdeen, MD

The Waste to Wealth event is being held to present residents and city leaders to the potential for developing small minority-owned companies in the reuse, recycling and composting sectors. Businesses such as these are popping up all over the U.S., including many owned and operated by minority business people and community development companies.

Some of these businesses are already operating in and around Baltimore. Others would like to create joint ventures with local community development corporations and social service agencies.

Other mid-sized manufacturing firms want to locate in Baltimore, taking advantage of acres of idle industrially zoned land. One such company is Greys Paper Company of Edmonton, Canada. This company produces 100% recycled high grade paper stationery, copy paper, envelopes on a five acre site that needs 120 workers. The company has asked the Institute for Local Self-Reliance to suggest sites for several plants to be built in the U.S. in the next few years. Baltimore is an ideal site given the availability of land and location near Washington, DC – the high grade paper capital of the world. City officials in charge of economic development should attend this event to find out more.

The combination of small companies and mid-sized manufacturing based on materials and used products that can be recovered from the Baltimore waste stream can lead to over 1,000 new jobs in the city, each paying a minimum of $14/hour, some with health insurance benefits.

Information about these companies will be presented by their operators and representatives at this Baltimore Zero Waste panel and networking event.

For more information, contact Robin at 301-836-1405 or email[2].

More info here:[3]

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Missouri Senate Committee Hears Anti-Muni Bill; Private Companies and Groups Ask For No Vote

by Lisa Gonzalez | March 5, 2015 11:05 am

As the Senate version of Missouri’s latest anti-muni bill, SB 266 [PDF][1], moved forward recently, a group of private sector companies and interested organizations appealed to state lawmakers [PDF][2] urging them to stop it in its tracks.

In January we reported on HB 437[3], introduced by House Member Rocky Miller. Its Senate companion, which establishes an identical slash and burn strategy to discourage municipal broadband investment, appears to be gathering interest.

The Senate Jobs, Economic Development and Local Government Committee heard the bill on February 18th but chose not to vote on it, reports the Columbia Tribune[4]. Members of the committee received a copy of the correspondence.

Readers will recall that Columbia is one of the many communities that have been actively investigating[5] the possibility of municipal open access[6] network investment. Last fall, Columbia received the results of a feasibility study that recommended the town make better use of its existing fiber assets for economic development purposes.

The letter, sent to Senator Eric Schmitt, Chairman of the Missouri Senate Committee on Jobs, Economic Development, and Local Government, stressed the importance of public private partnerships in the modern economy. SB 266 and HB 437, with their onerous barriers, would certainly discourage private investment in Missouri. From the letter:

In particular, these bills will hurt the private sector by derailing or unnecessarily complicating and delaying public-partnerships, by interfering with the ability of private companies to make timely sales of equipment and services to public broadband providers, by denying private companies timely access to advanced networks over which they can offer business and residential customers an endless array of modern products and services, and by impairing economic and educational opportunities that contribute to a skilled workforce from which businesses across the state will benefit.

As the letter suggests, restrictions such as those placed on local communities by these bills, do nothing but limit competition. The companies and organizations signing on to this letter understand that when local communities have the ability to make their own choices, consumers and businesses benefit:

Communities in Missouri and across America are eager to work with willing established carriers, enter into public-private partnerships with new entrants, develop their own networks, if necessary, or create other innovative means of acquiring affordable access to advanced communications capabilities. These are fundamentally local decisions that should be made by the communities themselves, through the processes that their duly elected and accountable local officials ordinarily use for making comparable decisions.

Signing the letter:

Schaefer, who has collected generous contributions[7] from CentutyLink and others in the telecom industry, tried to describe the bill as a tool to reign in local government. Nevertheless, his backers from CenturyLink sent their lobbyist to bemoan municipal networks a “unfair competition.” As usual, the lobbyist simultaneously tried to convince lawmakers that CenturyLink was there purely in the public’s interest, to protect the tax payers from one of the “many dismal municipal failures” (head shake, eye roll).

Thankfully, the voice of reason had sent at least a few people to the hearing to debunk the typical misinformation. From the Tribune article:

In Missouri, [Ewell] Lawson, [of the Missouri Association of Municipal Utilities] said, 17 cities are offering Internet infrastructure or direct services. “There are no examples of failure in Missouri,” Lawson said. “A vote often politicizes the situation when it is not necessary.”

If you live in Missouri and hope to one day see more competition in the Internet industry, we encourage you to call your state elected officials[8] and express your distaste for HB 437 and SB 266. Let them know that you consider these bills hostile toward meaningful competition and consider them economic development killers.

We also encourage you to arm yourself with our economic development fact sheet[9], that can help you provide some examples to help you prove your point.

Remember, the political process is only yours if you own it.

  1. SB 266 [PDF]:
  2. appealed to state lawmakers [PDF]:
  3. we reported on HB 437:
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  9. economic development fact sheet:

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The Other FCC Decision

by David Morris | March 5, 2015 10:05 am

On February 26th the Federal Communications Commission issued two decisions. One concerned net neutrality, the other municipal broadband. The first garnered by far the most attention, as it should. Net neutrality affects everyone and locks down a fundamental principle for Internet access.

But as another presidential campaign looms the FCC decision on municipally owned broadband may offer more fertile ground for a vigorous political debate on the role of government and the scale of governance.

The decision arose from a petition to the FCC by Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina asking it to overturn state laws that prevent them from extending their highly successful publicly owned networks to surrounding communities eager to connect. The FCC’s decision affects just those two states’ laws but will undoubtedly become a precedent to evaluate most of the other 17 states’ restrictions on municipal broadband.

Republicans grumbled at the net neutrality decision but they positively shrieked their dismay when the FCC ruled in favor of local authority. Within hours of the vote Republicans introduced a bill stripping the FCC of its authority to do so. A year ago Republicans tacked on an amendment to another bill that would have prevented the FCC from even taking up the issue. That amendment passed the House. Republicans voted[1] 221-4 in favor. It died in the Senate.

The Economic Argument: Protecting Shareholders and Taxpayers

Republicans marshal both economic and political arguments in their case against public networks. The economic argument is simply put: By pre-empting local authority Republicans are protecting shareholders from unfair competition and taxpayers from unwise investments by local governments.

That municipal telecommunications networks have unfair advantages is a well-worn trope of telecom giants and Republicans. On the face of it, the proposition is preposterous. Does anyone truly believe that Salisbury, North Carolina whose public network at the time North Carolina passed its law had only 1,000 customers and whose municipal budget was only $34 million could have a competitive advantage over Time Warner, with 14 million customers and annual revenues of $18 billion?  The compensation Time Warner paid[2] its CEO Jeffrey Bewkes for 2013 exceeded the cost[3] of Salisbury building its entire network.


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At U.S. Supreme Court, an Invitation to Reconsider Internet Sales Tax Ruling

by Olivia LaVecchia | March 4, 2015 6:02 pm

After years[1] of[2] fighting[3] for a federal fix for the online sales tax loophole, this week, advocates for e-fairness gained a new ally: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a question over which court—state or federal—has the jurisdiction to hear a case about Colorado’s[4] internet sales tax law. The issue was minor, and without weighing in on the legal challenge to the law, the Court decided it unanimously.

At the same time, it signaled a readiness to review a much more important case about how we tax internet sales.

In 1992, the Court ruled[5], in Quill Corporation v. North Dakota, that unless Congress passed legislation granting them the authority to do so, states could not require out-of-state companies (e.g., mail order and online retailers) to collect sales taxes. In the 22 years since, internet commerce has boomed, and states have had to bend over backwards[6] to try to create a more fair tax system on their own.

On Tuesday, in a solo concurrence to the court’s opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote that the Quill decision inflicts “extreme harm,” and is long past due for review.

“It is unwise to delay any longer a reconsideration of the court’s holding in Quill,” Kennedy wrote. “A case questionable even when decided, Quill now harms states to a degree far greater than could have been anticipated earlier.”

“When the court decided Quill, mail-order sales in the United States totaled $180 billion,” Kennedy continued. “But in 1992, the Internet was in its infancy. By 2008, e-commerce sales alone totaled $3.16 trillion per year in the United States.”

“The result,” Kennedy wrote, “has been a startling revenue shortfall in many states, with concomitant unfairness to local retailers and their customers who do pay taxes at the register.”


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Blackburn and Tillis Introduce Bill Aimed to Undo FCC Decision to Restore Local Authority

by Lisa Gonzalez | March 2, 2015 10:53 am

Last week, the FCC made history[1] when it chose to restore local telecommunications authority by nullifying state barriers in Tennessee and North Carolina. Waiting in the wings were Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Senator Thom Tillis from Tennessee and North Carolina respectively, with their legislation to cut off the FCC at the knees. [A PDF of the draft legislation[2] is available online.]

Readers will remember Blackburn from last year[3]. She introduced a similar measure in the form of an amendment to an appropriations bill. Blackburn has repeatedly attributed her attempts to block local authority to her mission to preserve the rights of states. A Broadcasting and Cable article quoted her[4]:



“The FCC’s decision to grant the petitions of Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina is a troubling power grab,” Blackburn said. “States are sovereign entities that have Constitutional rights, which should be respected rather than trampled upon. They know best how to manage their limited taxpayer dollars and financial ventures.”

Thom Tillis, the other half of this Dystopian Duo, released a statement[5] just hours after the FCC decision:

“Representative Blackburn and I recognize the need for Congress to step in and take action to keep unelected bureaucrats from acting contrary to the expressed will of the American people through their state legislatures.”

Considering that networks in Chattanooga and Wilson are incredibly popular [6]and an increasing number of communities across the country are approving municipal network initatives through the ballot[7], it is obvious that Tillis is rather confused about the expressed will of the American people. He needs to sign up for our once weekly newsletter![8]

No doubt the decision will be tied up in court proceedings for some time to come as state lawmakers attempt to control what municipalities do with their own connectivity decisions.

In keeping with the drama of the recent days, I have to say, The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” If Blackburn and Tillis are so convinced the FCC is overstepping, why not let the matter be decided in the courts? They know the law is not on their side, that’s why.

We encourage you to contact your elected officials[9], and let them know that you think about the Blackburn/Tillis bill: “that dog won’t hunt,” in the words of Chairman Wheeler[10]. The victory of February 26th was a significant first step in a long road to ensuring fast, affordable, reliable Internet for every one. Let’s keep the momentum rolling.

Jim Baller is the Senior Principal of Baller Herbst Stokes & Lide, the lead counsel to Wilson and the Chattanooga EPB. You can read Jim’s full statement at the firm’s website[11]:

“This is an important moment for communities in North Carolina, Tennessee, and other states that have barriers to local investments in advanced communications networks,” said Jim Baller, senior principal of Baller Herbst Stokes & Lide. “Not only has the Commission confirmed that it has authority to remove such barriers, but it has also compiled a massive record documenting the critical role that local Internet choice can play in fostering strong, vibrant communities and in ensuring that the United States will remain a leading nation in the emerging knowledge-based global economy.”

  1. FCC made history:
  2. PDF of the draft legislation:
  3. Blackburn from last year:
  4. Broadcasting and Cable article quoted her:
  5. released a statement:
  6. incredibly popular :
  7. through the ballot:
  8. once weekly newsletter!:
  9. contact your elected officials:
  10. “that dog won’t hunt,” in the words of Chairman Wheeler:
  11. full statement at the firm’s website:

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Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Advanced Composter Training Course

by Brenda Platt | February 27, 2015 5:30 pm

The Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders training program is a community composter training program with a community service component. This program was developed by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and ECO City Farms[1].

Dates and Times: April 24th-26th and May 8th-10th, from 9am-6pm on Fridays and Saturdays (with a 1-hour break for lunch), and 1pm-5pm on Sundays.

Location: ECO City Farms at Bladensburg at 6100 Emerson Street, Bladensburg, MD 20710.

Cost: The fee for this course is $200. However, a sliding scale is available to those in need. A space for requesting financial assistance is provided in the online application[2].

To Apply: To apply for our spring 2015 training in DC-MD (April 24th-26th, May 8th-10th), fill out the online application[2] by Wednesday, April 1st. Upon review, qualified applicants will be contacted to arrange a phone interview.

As one goal of this program is to provide trained composting operators to community, school and educational gardens in the DC-MD area, applicants working in these environments will be given preference. Preference will also be given to pairs of applicants from the same community – Find a friend, colleague, or neighbor to take the course with you!

Application Deadline: The deadline for applications is the end of the day on Wednesday, April 1st.

Course Description: The Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders’ Advanced Composter course provides an integrated experiential learning environment: half in the classroom and half doing hands-on training. The course also includes a compost site tour and a compost bin build day.

This course covers the following topics:

o the small-scale composting process
o vermicomposting (worm composting)
o how to use finished compost
o how to design and build on-site compost systems
o techniques for teaching others about composting
o techniques for engaging community participation

Course Requirements: The Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders’ Advanced Composter course has three main requirements: attendance of all classes; implementation of a capstone project; and the completion of 30 hours of supported community composting service. Participants will have six months from the last class to complete the capstone project and community service components.

For the capstone project component, participants will initiate or support a community composting project based on their interests and the needs of the community they are serving. Potential projects might include building and managing compost bins at community gardens, schools, churches, or working at compost demonstration sites. In addition, participants will provide NSR staff with brief monthly progress updates throughout the six-month, post-class period.

For the community service component, participants will be expected to log 30 hours of community composting service. Half of these hours will be spent providing composting-related support to a community in need – this is the minimum amount of time we expect you to dedicate to your capstone project. The other half of these hours are required to be spent composting with one of our approved composter mentors.

Upon successful completion of the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders’ Advanced Composter course requirements, participants will be eligible for receipt of a certificate and will be qualified to apply to the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Master Composter train-the-trainer apprenticeship.

Questions? Contact:[3]


  1. ECO City Farms:
  2. online application:

Source URL:

Who Decides?

by David Morris | February 26, 2015 4:38 pm

Who decides? Conservative Republicans in Texas are split on the issue. Darren Hodges, a Tea Party councilman in the West Texas city of Fort Stockton, fiercely defends his town’s recent decision to ban plastic bags. City officials have a “God-given right” to make that decision he tells[1] the New York Times.

James Quintero of the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation disagrees, “What we’re arguing is that liberty, not local control, is the overriding principle that state and local policy makers should be using.” He apparently would strip communities of the right of local control, at least to regulate commercial behavior. Quintero is Director of TPPF’s Center for Local Governance. Perhaps they should change the “for” to “against.”

The new Republican Governor of Texas Greg Abbott stands with Quintero. In a speech last month to the TPPF he condemned how democracy run amok threatens Texas with becoming “California-ized.” “Large cities that represent about 75 percent of the population in this state are doing this to us,” he declared. Huh? Who does Abbott think are “us?” Might not 75 percent of the population more accurately be described as “we the people?”

Despite the Governor’s comments the debate about local authority in Texas appears vigorous.   The demise of local democracy is by no means foreordained. About a dozen Texas cities already banned plastic bags before Fort Stockton. The Times reports that many Texas cities restrict texting while driving. Twenty Texas cities approved identical ordinances that curb the interest payday lenders can charge.

In other Republican states the debate has been far less robust and public. In state after state a clear pattern has emerged. Cities legislatively address a local problem. Big business complains. State legislatures clamp down. And as Republicans become more conservative and gain control of more state governments the pace and intensity of those clamp downs have increased.

Nineteen states currently preempt[2] local minimum wage laws: Half of these laws were enacted in the last 5 years. Nineteen states restrict or abolish the right of communities to build municipally owned broadband networks. At least five states have preempted local regulation of e-cigarettes.

These efforts to circumscribe local authority often have been led and coordinated by the non-profit conservative organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC insists it does no lobbying but if it walks like a duck…

Consider ALEC’s role[3] in fostering state preemptions of municipal ordinances demanding that private businesses offer employees sick leave. A few months after Scott Walker shepherded a bill through the Wisconsin legislature in 2011 repealing a Milwaukee sick leave law approved by a 2008 ballot initiative supported by 69 percent of the voters, ALEC passed out copies of the bill at its Annual Meeting. Legislators were handed a target list and map of state and local paid sick leave policies[4]. In the next three years 10 more states had replicated the Wisconsin law. (In the next few weeks Missouri may become the 11th.) (more…)[5]

  1. tells:
  2. preempt:
  3. role:
  4. map of state and local paid sick leave policies:
  5. (more…):

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Cable Companies Lose Big at FCC, Barriers to Community Broadband Struck Down

by Rebecca Toews | February 26, 2015 11:24 am

Two southern cities today persuaded the Federal Communications Commission to recognize their right to build their own publicly owned Internet networks where existing providers had refused to invest in modern connections. The 3-2 FCC vote removes barriers for municipal networks in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina, to extend their high-quality Internet service to nearby areas.

The FCC decision sets an historic precedent for towns working to offer municipal broadband networks in twenty states that have enacted limits or bans on local governments building, owning, or even partnering to give local businesses and residents a choice in high speed Internet access. Three-quarters of Americans[1] currently have either no broadband or no choice of their Internet provider.


Said Christopher Mitchell, Director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance:


“Cable companies lost their bet that millions spent on lobbying[2] to stifle competition was a wiser investment than extending high-quality Internet to our nation’s entrepreneurs, students and rural families.


“Preventing big Internet Service Providers from unfairly discriminating against content online is a victory, but allowing communities to be the owners and stewards of their own broadband networks is a watershed moment that will serve as a check against the worst abuses of the cable monopoly for decades to come.”


Christopher Mitchell, the Director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has traveled to over 20 states and spoken with over 100 community groups looking to provide high-quality Internet for their residents. He has also advised members of the FCC on related telecommunications issues in the lead-up to the decision.

For interviews around the FCC decision, please contact Rebecca Toews at 612-808-0689 or, or Christina DiPasquale at 202.716.1953 or at[3]. To view a map tracking local government investments in wired telecommunications networks and state laws that discourage such approaches, please visit:[4].


  1. Three-quarters of Americans:
  2. millions spent on lobbying:
  5. (more…):

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The Do-It-Yourselves Downtown

by Olivia LaVecchia | February 23, 2015 3:55 pm

A new investment co-op model lets communities own and develop their commercial spaces. Though new, this model holds potential for the many neighborhoods whose business districts are decaying, controlled by distant landlords or faraway retail chains.

This article was co-published with Yes! Magazine[1].

The intersection of Central and Lowry Avenues in northeast Minneapolis is bustling. On the northwest corner is a trifecta of local businesses: A bike shop, a cooperative brewery, and a bakery, in buildings with eye-catching exteriors of rough-hewn wood and silvery porcelain bricks. The neighborhood grocery coop is one block up the street.

This commercial stretch didn’t always look like this. In 2011, where these three businesses sit, there were two vacant buildings. The empty space was not uncommon along Central Avenue, a long corridor that was created to be the Main Street of the neighborhood, but that had suffered from decades of disinvestment. While a few businesses dotted the avenue, many other storefronts were neglected.

“A lot of people looked at it as too big to tackle,” explains Leslie Watson, who lives nearby.

In 2011, a group of dedicated neighbors came together to change that. In November of that year, five of them, including Watson, became the founding board of the Northeast Investment Cooperative[2], a first-of-its-kind in the U.S. cooperative engaged in buying and developing real estate. NEIC created a structure where any Minnesota resident could join the coop for $1,000, and invest more through the purchase of different classes of non-voting stock. The group began spreading the word to prospective members, and started looking for a building to buy.

One year later, NEIC had enough members to buy the two buildings on Central Avenue for cash. The coop quickly sold one of the buildings to project partner Recovery Bike Shop, and after a gut renovation, which it funded with a 2 percent loan from the city and a loan from local Northeast Bank, it leased the other building to two young businesses that had struggled to find workable space elsewhere, Fair State Brewing Cooperative and Aki’s BreadHaus. Today, NEIC’s impact spreads beyond the intersection of Central and Lowry. It’s catalyzed the creation of new jobs, engaged its more than 200 members in reimagining their neighborhood, and given residents a way to put their capital to work in their local economy.

“Collectively, that wealth will stay in our community,” says Watson. “If you want to take the long view, that’s the goal.”

While NEIC is unique in the U.S., similar investment cooperatives are sprouting up in Canada, where they’re aided by programs designed to help them grow, as well as favorable policies. Though the model is new, and small, it holds outsize potential for the many communities struggling with northeast Minneapolis’s familiar set of problems, from business districts languishing half-vacant, to essential commercial spaces being controlled by far-away landlords or big retail chains with no regard for neighborhood needs. In the vacuum left by both traditional economic development and Wall Street’s approach to finance[3], community real estate investment cooperatives offer a glimpse of a better way to channel capital, with benefits that include new jobs in the neighborhood, strong incentives for people to shop locally, local sources for key goods, closer ties with neighbors[4], and a return on investment.

And it represents a way for these communities to do it themselves. (more…)[5]

  1. Yes! Magazine:
  2. Northeast Investment Cooperative:
  3. Wall Street’s approach to finance:
  4. closer ties with neighbors:
  5. (more…):

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Zero Waste Community Enterprises in Atlanta

by Neil Seldman | February 18, 2015 1:58 pm

In 2009 Atlanta declared four neighborhoods within the city as zero waste zones. The effort’s goals include helping local businesses find ways to reduce trash, create jobs, save money and educate others about the advantages of zero waste.

In addition to reducing consumption, raising recycling rates, and establishing new resources for composting, Atlanta businesses and individuals must focus heavily on increasing reuse to meet their ambitious goals. They are lucky to have four growing reuse organizations that are assisting with this effort by diverting items from landfills and changing public opinion about waste. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which provides resources and information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development; and the Cascade Alliance, which helps nonprofits across the country turn discarded goods into stable revenue streams and high-quality jobs, are assisting this process.

Lifecycle Building Center

Lifecycle Building Center is one of a handful of Atlanta nonprofits recovering valuable building materials from the waste stream. Adam Deck, a longtime employee at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Raleigh, NC, wrote Lifecycle Building Center’s original business plan because he wanted to bring a building materials reuse organization to his hometown of Atlanta. Architect Shannon Goodman, who serves as the organization’s executive director, joined him after struggling to find a home for high-quality goods coming out of a demolition project she was involved in.

“It was really obvious that there was a huge opportunity to reuse commercial building materials,” she says. “There was so much great material but there was not an effective system in place to make it available to people.” Together, she and Deck set up Lifecycle Building Center and started accepting donations from private businesses, government entities, educational institutions and individual homeowners. Goods go into a 70,000-square-foot warehouse, where they are sold to the general public or donated to local nonprofits.

“Our higher goal is to engage with homeowners and provide them access to resources to help make their homes function more efficiently,” Goodman says. Most low- to moderate-income homeowners can’t afford to pay for assessments that identify energy efficiency upgrades. Even if they can, they can’t pay a contractor to make the changes. Lifecycle Building Center offers classes that teach people about the basics of home performance and provide tips for solving common problems. For example, she says, in the first class they discuss how to examine ductwork to make sure it’s properly sealed and how to fix it if it’s not. If the homeowner needs supplies to make those repairs, they can likely find them at the center.

In three short years Lifecycle Building Center has diverted 760,000 pounds of material from the waste stream, donated goods to about 35 nonprofits and schools, and created eight jobs. They recently set some aggressive goals to do even more. One major part of their future work plan is moving into the field of deconstruction. Trained professionals would go into buildings and take them apart piece by piece. This process leads to much higher rates of salvage than typical demolition projects and would yield more donations for the program.

Goodman admits that “it’s been hard to get people to understand how important it is to address these issues around waste. If it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.”    Still, she says, there is much cause for optimism. “It’s been so obvious there are people in this city who have been doing reuse on their own before we ever existed. There’s this whole network of people who have just been waiting for this. All we really are is the manifestation of that desire to do what makes sense. Because in the end that’s all we’re doing: preventing people from throwing away reusable materials.”

Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta

Founded in 1988, the Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta started with a mission of getting furniture to families in need. For years they’ve operated a pick-up service to collect donated household goods from local residents. Those items were then distributed to families who couldn’t afford to purchase them. Right now the Furniture Bank serves about 1,300 households every year.

The need for more staff, as well as an expanded view of how they could meet their mission, is leading the Furniture Bank down a path toward doing more with reuse and recycling. Investing in waste-based business will allow the organization to earn more of its own revenue and provide job-training opportunities for low-income residents.

Reed Irvine, facilities and logistics manager for the Furniture Bank, says they started their foray into social enterprise by up cycling headboards and footboards into stylish benches. They plan to start taking appliances for the scrap metal value, and are now recycling non-reusable plastic and wood products rather than throwing them away.

Irvine is also planning to start a mattress recycling program. Following the model of other successful nonprofit mattress recyclers around the country, the Furniture Bank would gather mattresses and assess them for reuse or recycling. Some of the mattresses would be good enough to share with the low-income families they serve. Others could be rebuilt using a sanitary process. The rest would be deconstructed by hand. Commodities such as steel and polyurethane foam would be recycled.

Right now, Irvine says, the Furniture Bank receives about 15,000 mattresses annually. The goal is to get to 40,000 mattresses during the first year of the recycling program. That would represent a big increase in the 1,500 tons of furniture they divert from the waste stream every year.

“There are unbelievable benefits to recycling mattresses and keeping them out of the landfill,” Irvine says. “No one can deny that it’s a healthy choice to make, and on top of that it’s creating jobs and helping communities. The health of the community is directly integrated with people who are jobless and relying on services. By giving jobs to difficult-to-place individuals we’re taking the strain off local governments.”

Support for the mattress recycling program and many of the Furniture Bank’s other initiatives comes from the Cascade Alliance, a new organization that helps nonprofits start successfully waste-based businesses. The Alliance is led by St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, which has over 50 years of experience turning second-hand goods into jobs and profits to support its charitable mission. The Furniture Bank is one of ten organizations receiving free consulting, sample business plans, best practices in reuse and recycling, and networking opportunities with similar social enterprises nationwide.

“The Cascade Alliance has been an amazing resource for us,” Irvine says. “It makes stepping into this oasis a little bit easier for our board and the executive director because it seems like a scary world. It’s not what we’ve been doing. We have to evolve with the time, though, and the way the government is reducing funding for agencies like ours. It’s important for us to find ways to create capital on our own.”

The Furniture Bank employs six people, but Irvine envisions growing that number to between 15 and 20 in the coming years. Many of those employees would come from the low-income south Atlanta neighborhood where the Furniture Bank is located. Other potential staffers could come from the Veteran Employment Program, a United Way-sponsored program that provides job training to veterans. The Furniture Bank currently has about a dozen veterans on their site at any given time. During the eight to 12 week program, these temporary employees help organize the warehouse, pick up donations, build the up cycled benches, and do other tasks. They receive job skills such as driving a forklift, and the agency gets help serving people in the community.

Irvine has high hopes Atlanta’s zero waste effort will prove successful. “I think the southeast is a very wasteful region of the country, but Atlanta is a progressive hub. It’s really important for our future, our children’s future, the future of the world to be aware of the consequences of how much we waste and how much we throw away. Atlanta adopting zero waste will be a good influence on the region. I think we can influence some laws and some practices that can hopefully trickle down into the other states around us.”

City of Refuge

IMG_3429 The City of Refuge (COR) was founded in 1970 to provide hope and assistance to residents of challenged neighborhoods in the middle of Atlanta. COR serves over 10,000 people annually from its eight-acre campus, including short-term transitional housing for up to 320 women and children. COR also hosts a 6th to 12th grade academy for students from at-risk communities, day care, library, sports and recreation activities and kitchen facilities. In cooperation with Mercy Care Services, COR offers a full complement of medical, dental and mental health services.

In 2012 COR and Bioponica, a local aquaponic design-build company, worked together to install onsite a first-of-its-kind sustainable farming system. The grow unit was funded by Kaiser Health Foundation of Georgia, is a 20’ x 36’ square foot greenhouse, with two to three grow beds and fish tanks to raise organic vegetables simultaneously, utilizing “bioponics” a process of nutrient cycling that Bioponica have pioneered. David Epstein, D.O. and Kenneth Lowell, P.E. founded Biponica in 2010 with the goal “to make farming, gardening and the harvest of organic food, simple and sustainable.” The system became operational in June 2013.
Bioponica installed its first operating units at the Atlanta City Park Outdoor Activity Center (Department of Parks and Recreation) in July of 2011, as demonstration. Bioponica has refined their process of recycling nutrients to create fertilizer and fish with no cost and little labor, while recycling loads of pre-consumer food discards and lawn clippings.

TIMG_3814he COR-Bioponica project of waste recycling to support organic plants and fish gives COR great flexibility in achieving self-reliance in high quality and cost effective food production while residents can be trained in greenhouse management and horticulture. In addition to supplementing food imports to prepare 20,000 meals per month, the produce, including herbs, tilapia, crawfish and a garden variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, reaches the surrounding community via COR’s food truck service.

The greenhouse and Biogarden grow beds are owned by City of Refuge and operated by Bioponica. Bioponica provides ongoing technical assistance, service and upgrade technology and management and worker training.

Charitable Connections/Reclaim It Atlanta

Charitable Connections, which runs the new building materials, reuse organization Reclaim It Atlanta, got into the business by accident. Charitable Connections is a community foundation that focuses on leadership development. They were working on a neighborhood revitalization project and started receiving a lot of donated construction materials they couldn’t use in the homes they were remodeling, explains Reclaim It Atlanta co-founder Michelle Uchiyama. Employees and friends stored the items, but eventually they had far more than they could keep in people’s basements and garages. They were able to secure some donated warehouse space, and someone suggested they post the materials they couldn’t use on Craigslist to raise money.

“People started overwhelming us with interest in what we were doing,” Uchiyama says. In partnership with the Fuller Center for Housing of Greater Atlanta, Charitable Connections decided to open the warehouse to the public a couple days a week so people could come and shop. Within 18 months they had formalized the program as Reclaim It Atlanta and moved to a 14,000 square feet warehouse. They also started opening the resale shop every day of the week.

Opportunities to offer more services in Atlanta continue to present themselves. In January 2014 Reclaim It Atlanta deconstructed 280 hotel rooms that were being turned into apartments. The process took six weeks and yielded tons of good quality building materials, carpet, furniture, even curtains. “We blessed about 40 different homeless organizations with materials they wouldn’t have been able to buy,” Uchiyama says.
That experience “started us on a whole different track of doing deconstruction.” Reclaim It Atlanta believes it’s important to create jobs for people rather than using volunteers, so they hire contract labor to do the deconstruction. Up to 20 people are employed when they have work available. They join a shoestring permanent staff of three part-time employees.

The staff may be small, but it’s mighty. They’ve diverted over 100 truckloads of material in the last year. “We began to do some home shows and trade shows to raise awareness with consumers about the importance of recycling when remodeling,” Uchiyama says. “We’ve built really strong relationships with people who are interested in recycling but didn’t know how to recycle building materials.”

The program doesn’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon. Their most recent venture is the Elf Shop, with the motto: “Find the elf in yourself: Where Christmas is all year-round.” The store will provide reusable goods to local artists. “We believe the market for up cycled art materials is greater than the need for building materials right now,” Uchiyama says. It also compliments the work of a new program called the Green Shape Foundation, which provides a combination of art therapy and wraparound services for residents living in local subsidized housing complexes. In addition to helping people make nice things for their homes, the program aims to inspire people to make products for resale and earn money for their families.

Uchiyama is a two-time cancer survivor, and she sees strong links between environmental issues and health. “There are a lot of bad things in the environment that cause health problems. There’s also a lot of environmental disparity in the city. We need to change policies to decrease pollution in low-income areas. If we don’t implement zero waste philosophies in what we do every day, people will keep getting sick. Medical expenses will continue to be high, and we won’t be better off in terms of quality of life. The more people that take on the zero waste concept, the more awareness and movement we can make toward getting there.”


This article was written by Sophia McDonald Bennett for ILSR’s Waste to Wealth Initiative.  Ms. Bennett is an environmental writer based in Eugene, OR. She is a reuse expert and worked for many years at one of the nation’s premier reuse enterprise development agency, St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County.  ILSR prepared a Zero Waste Plan for the City of Atlanta, Office of Sustainability in 2010-11.

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Open Letter to Carroll County Citizens – from Neil Seldman

by Neil Seldman | February 18, 2015 1:45 pm

Dear Neighbors,

Carroll County citizens now join tens of thousands of their peers across the nation who have stood up to the silly and dangerous plans to build incinerators. Since the 1970s over 300 such efforts have succeeded. In 2014 alone 14 planned garbage incinerators were defeated by coalitions of organized citizens, small businesspeople and progressive officials. In January 2015 the first victory for these coalitions has been on the Big Island in Hawaii. In February, a plasma arc garbage facility in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada was cancelled, as the investment community deemed the financing too risky.

Like the many others before it, a combination of local citizens and national technical assistance organizations, that serve the grass roots, proved to be the undoing of a proposal for Carroll (and Frederick) County that had no social, environmental or economic redeeming qualities. In the process local citizens became experts in their own right, and are now helping other communities fight off their garbage incineration deals.

Further, Carroll County citizens by preparing their own alternatives report led to the formation of a formal County Citizens Solid Waste Advisory Council to continue research and advise Carroll County officials on solid waste and recycling matters. The chairman of the Council is Don West, a leading activist against the proposed incinerator. This pattern follows exactly the pattern of citizens defeating a bad idea and interposing the right idea such as in Los Angeles, Austin, King County, WA, and Alachua County, FL, among other locales.

Finally, your efforts prove once again that garbage incineration and recycling alternatives are neither a liberal nor conservative position. In Carroll County, for example, the folks involved in stopping the planned incinerator, are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Tea Party and independent minded voters. The anti incineration movement and pro recycling movement is, if anything, an anti incumbent movement focusing its attention on officials in office who refuse to listen to environmental and economic reason.

So, a big thank you to the folks who made this happen in Carroll County and spill over to Frederick County as well. You made your elected officials see the light that helps all of us. The wind makes neighbors of us all.


Neil Seldman
Institute for Local Self-Reliance
Washington, DC

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Baltimore’s Curtis Bay Community Says No to “Clean” Incinerator Electricity

by Neil Seldman | February 18, 2015 1:39 pm

Curtis Bay is an industrial area located at the southern tip of Baltimore, MD. Residents have been subject to heavy doses of industrial pollution for decades. When a 4,000-ton per day garbage incinerator was proposed, students and alumni of Benjamin Franklin High School reacted with a sophisticated organizing campaign to stop the plant that has been supported by the city’s establishment. The student organization Free Your Voice, with support from the Environmental Integrity Project and United Workers-Baltimore, lead a city wide community organizing campaign featuring a home made video of student and resident concerns for reducing, not adding to the community’s pollution, and for environmentally sound jobs. Energy Justice Network and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance have supported these efforts.

Last week the effort had a breakthrough. The Baltimore and Annapolis school systems, downtown Baltimore museums and other local institution had agreed to purchase “clean electricity” from the proposed incinerator. These institutions became a target for anti incineration organizing by Free Your Voice.

Last week the Baltimore Regional Cooperative Purchasing Committee (BRCPC), announced that its members would not purchase electricity from the garbage incinerator. Greg Sawtell, United Workers, stated that the planned incinerator “lost a major portion of their energy buyers while already struggling to secure financing” to proceed with the plant’s construction. At the same time the community is seeking a positive outcome from their efforts; solar energy farm and an eco-industrial park to host recycling, reuse and composting companies.

See Baltimore City Paper[1], February 16, 2015

Here are additional comments from Curtis Bay:

“Fighting this incinerator had me, personally, thinking into what are the basic human rights. I realized that with my experience with asthma and growing up close to Curtis Bay, that the people living there don’t deserve an incinerator. There’s already a lot of pollution and Curtis Bay has been treated like a dumping ground for far too long. Breathing clean air is a basic human right. This milestone shows that public entities are acknowledging that this incinerator isn’t a good idea and that there are humans whose lives could be affected if it were to be built. The residents of Curtis Bay are human just like the people running these big polluting businesses.”

-Joshua Acevedo (Free Your Voice)

Just stopping the incinerator isn’t enough. We understand that the population of Baltimore needs electricity; we understand that the incinerator was to create jobs and stimulate the local economy. However, we believe there are other alternatives to the proposed incinerator, alternatives that will not involve poisoning the already-toxic environment within and around the Curtis Bay community. One of those alternatives gaining popular community support is a solar facility, a solar farm, on the tract of land currently owned by FMC Corporation.

-Amanda Maminski Curtis Bay Resident

More Media Coverage

City Paper story[2]
Baltimore Sun story[3]
  1. See Baltimore City Paper:,0,4850918.story
  2. City Paper story:,0,4850918.story
  3. Baltimore Sun story:

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Answering Questions About Title II and Munis – Community Broadband Bits Episode 138

by Rebecca Toews | February 18, 2015 11:36 am

As we near the FCC open meeting at the end of next week, when it will decide on both the Chattanooga and Wilson petitions regarding their wish to expand as well as a proposal to reclassify Internet access a Title II service in order to ensure it can maintain the same open Internet we have long loved.

We have mostly focused on the muni petitions, but after hearing some concerns from some munis regarding Title II, we realize we have to delve into the Title II reclassification more deeply.

Enter Chris Lewis, VP of Government of Affairs for Public Knowledge[1]. We’ve always enjoyed talking with Lewis on various issues around telecom policy and we asked him to come on and answer some of the questions we have heard.

We talk about the prospects of rate regulation, unbundling, transparency requirements, and the process for filing complaints until Title II. Overall, our conclusion is that the rules as we understand them, are quite reasonable and should not pose a problem to munis that are already committed to providing a high quality service.


Listen to the Podcast[2]


You can read a Fact Sheet about the proposed rules here[3].

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show – please e-mail us[4] or leave a comment below.

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed[5].

Listen to previous episodes here[6]. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here[7].

Thanks to Persson[8] for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is “Blues walk.”

  1. Public Knowledge:
  2. Listen to the Podcast:
  3. Fact Sheet about the proposed rules here:
  4. e-mail us:
  5. this feed:
  6. previous episodes here:
  7. download this Mp3 file directly from here:
  8. Persson:

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Remembering David Carr, and His Writing on Monopoly Power

by Stacy Mitchell | February 18, 2015 10:51 am

What will we do without David Carr, the brilliant media columnist at the New York Times who died last week[1]?  At ILSR, we will especially miss his writing on monopoly power in the book and media industries, including his smart pieces on Amazon, Comcast, and other giants. Below we’ve excerpted and linked to a few of his best recent pieces on those subjects.

  1. died last week:
  2. (more…):

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Heads Up from Zero Wasters in Wales, and the Zero Waste International Trust, Plasnewydd, Wales, UK

by Neil Seldman | February 11, 2015 11:07 am

Mal Williams, director of the Zero Waste International Trust, alerts us to some good news from the UK by forwarding the recent government report on just how much potential there is in the Zero Waste world for wealth creation and sustainable jobs, “Resource Management: A Catalyst for Growth and Productivity[1],” UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. February 2015.

Does this mean that the wave of enthusiasm for garbage incinerators in the UK is over? Mal says, “The slumbering giant that is our Westminster government is waking up to our messages.” Maybe, Mal muses, it’s because now it is their idea.

Mary Lou Van Deventer, Urban Ore, reminds us of another government report that moved Zero Waste and total recycling forward.

Once upon a time, when Dan Knapp and I were talking about total recycling and being scorned for it even among some recyclers, Dan went to Canberra, Australia, and came back to the US with a government-stamped report called “No Waste By 2010.”  It was a draft at the time but was later adopted by Parliament in 1996.  Since it had a governmental stamp, it was credible.  The Zero Waste concept swept across the continent like a wildfire, and total recycling was no longer to be scorned.  Bill Sheehan, Grass Roots Recycling Network (GRRN), put the report on the internet and worked with a Georgia legislator, who proposed the first Zero Waste state-level legislation.

Today the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government in Canberra still retains the name “No Waste” for its agency and garbage trucks, although it failed to implement the ideas.  It even shut down the then-successful Australian reuse group Revolve, which came up with the ideas the ACT developed and adopted.  Gerry Gillespie worked for the ACT government when the idea emerged, then sat on the board of Revolve.  He was at the heart of the resistance for agonizing years as the government changed its direction and killed off the organization that once inspired it.

But the idea, once revealed in public, cannot be shut down everywhere.  Not only won’t this genie go back into the bottle, it will work a lot of magic when it is given a chance.

  1. Resource Management: A Catalyst for Growth and Productivity:

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The Labor and Small Business Alliance Behind San Francisco’s Landmark Retail Workers Bill of Rights

by Stacy Mitchell | February 5, 2015 10:44 am

by Stacy Mitchell and Walter Wuthmann

As San Francisco labor groups campaigned late last year for a landmark law that protects workers at retail and restaurant chains from the tyrannies of computerized scheduling systems, they were backed by a rather unusual ally.  The San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Alliance (SFLOMA), which represents hundreds of independent retailers, came out in support of the bill, testifying at hearings and contacting members of the city’s Board of Supervisors.

“A couple of [the supervisors] were really surprised to have heard from me and surprised at our stance on this,” said Rick Karp, a board member of SFLOMA and second-generation owner of Cole Hardware, a local, independent chain of five hardware stores.

The political interests of labor and small business are often seen as pitted against each other — a perception corporate lobbyists work hard to perpetuate[1]. But the two groups actually share broad common cause these days.  Both stand to gain from building a more humane economy in which ruthless efficiency does not trump all else.  “If you are an independent business and you feel like your business is part of the community and you want your employees to last, you are doing all of this stuff for your employees already,” Karp explained.  “It’s reprehensible for Target and Walmart to have these scheduling systems that rip apart peoples’ lives.”

If you worked at a retail or restaurant chain ten years ago, or if you work at almost any small, locally owned business today, a real person put together the work schedule and posted it in advance.  Because repeating the previous schedule was the simplest approach, your shifts tended not to move much week-to-week, and last-minute scheduling changes were as much a hassle to management as to workers.

Then, in 2007, Walmart pioneered a new way to cut costs by subjecting the daily lives of its workers to the same kinds of computer algorithms it was using to precisely predict the inventory needs of each of its stores.  Now ubiquitous among large retail and service sector companies, “just-in-time” scheduling software alters workers’ hours, often on the day of a scheduled shift, based on real-time weather, sales, and store traffic data.  While these scheduling systems save companies money, they do so only at great cost to workers and their communities.  According to a University of Chicago study[2]  unpredictable scheduling, which impacts about one-quarter of the U.S. workforce, destroys workers’ ability to “arrange caregiving, pursue education, secure a second job, and earn an adequate income.”  Rather than truly eliminating costs, these scheduling systems simply externalize them.

San Francisco’s Retail Workers Bill of Rights was designed to change that.  Enacted by a unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors in December, the bill will help an estimated 40,000 workers by requiring chains (defined as businesses with 20 or more outlets and 20 or more employees in the city) to post schedules with at least two weeks notice.  If a store changes an employee’s hours within one week of a scheduled shift, the employer must compensate the employee by paying them for one to four hours’ worth of work, depending on the shift and how late the change was made.  The law also protects part-time workers by requiring employers to offer them additional hours before hiring more part-timers.

Unanimous votes are rare at the Board of Supervisors.  This one may be owed to the coalition that Jobs With Justice San Francisco (JwJSF), which spearheaded the bill, put together to pass it.  (more…)[3]

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ILSR Joins Independent Business Groups in Pushing for Disclosure of Corporate Subsidies

by Stacy Mitchell | February 4, 2015 10:24 am

ILSR joined other members of the Advocates for Independent Business[1] coalition in submitting a joint public comment letter [2]in support of an important proposal to change the accounting rules that local and state governments follow. The change would require governments to disclose the tax breaks and incentives they provide companies for economic development purposes.

The proposed rule change[3] comes from the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB), a professional association that establishes standards of accounting and financial reporting for state and local governments. (Although GASB has no legal authority, the vast majority of states and localities follow its rules, in part because doing so is necessary in order to sell bonds.)

Local and state governments spend an estimated $70 billion a year providing subsidies to companies in the name of job creation and economic development. Most of this spending is in the form of foregone revenue (i.e., tax breaks) rather than direct outlays.  Under current GASB rules, governments are not required to disclose these expenditures in their financial reporting, as they must for spending on things like roads and schools.  This lack of transparancy makes it difficult for citizens to monitor, evaluate, and challenge these corporate giveaways.

In its letter, the coalition, which is coordinated by ILSR and includes 14 national organizations representing about 150,000 independent businesses, noted that the vast majority of tax incentives go to large companies, including retailers like Walmart and Amazon, that compete with locally owned businesses and often do not produce an increase in jobs:

We have a deep interest in this proposed policy, because the tax expenditures that local and state governments make for economic development directly affect the competitive landscape in which our members operate.

Many cities, for example, have provided tax abatements to new big-box retail projects that compete directly with the Main Street businesses that we represent, sometimes leading to business closures and job losses. There is evidence that the public may not be getting their money’s worth from some of these expenditures. For example, a 2011 study produced for the East-West Gateway Council of Governments found that cities and counties in the St. Louis metro area had diverted more than $5.8 billion in public tax dollars to finance private development, with more than 80 percent of these funds supporting retail projects. Yet the region saw virtually no economic growth. “The number of retail jobs has increased only slightly and, in real dollars, retail sales per capita have not increased,” the study found. According to the study, more than 600 small retailers closed in the St. Louis metro area during the period, producing job losses that apparently offset the new jobs created by the subsidized development.

While expressing strong support for the disclosure required by the rule, AIB urged the board to modify two aspects of its draft. It asked GASB to ensure that its definition of “tax abatement” covered tax increment financing, a common way cities subsidize chain retail development.

It also urged the board to specify that state and local governments must not only report the total value of tax incentives, but also disclose details on each individual tax break, including the name of the company that received the subsidy. “This information is essential if citizens and policymakers are to be able to evaluate the costs and benefits of these expenditures, which vary widely from deal to deal. In retailing, for example, this information would reveal whether a new abatement recipient is a known competitor of existing employers,” the coalition wrote.

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Another Contraction in the Garbage Incineration Industry

by Neil Seldman | January 26, 2015 8:17 am

The Big Island of Hawaii has just pulled back from a garbage incinerator planned for the town of Hilo. The Hawaii County mayor withdrew a Request for Proposal (RFP) in response to widespread and intense organizing against the proposal. “We had an educated public and no way were we going to be steamrolled into a 25-year contract,” stated Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, a leading opponent of the incinerator. See story inWest Hawaii Today[1], January 24, 2015.

No Burn Hawaii[2], among other groups, will now work for a county/island-wide incineration ban or a local air pollution law that restricts incineration.

The announcement marks the first garbage incinerator defeated in 2015. According to Energy Justice Network, 14 incinerators were cancelled in 2014. In addition, in December 2014 an existing plant in Broward County, FL, announced it will shut down because it could not get enough garbage after it lost its 20-year monopoly control over the waste stream. See more on that story here[3].

In 2009, ILSR worked with Richard Anthony Associates and Recycle Hawai’i under contract with the County Department of the Environment. We prepared a zero waste plan for the Big Island’s Department.

Download the report:  Zero Waste Implementation Plan for County of Hawai’i[4].

  1. See story inWest Hawaii Today:
  2. No Burn Hawaii:
  3. See more on that story here:
  4. Zero Waste Implementation Plan for County of Hawai’i:

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Trash Incinerators: Don’t Call it a Comeback

by Neil Seldman | January 22, 2015 5:37 pm

Mike Ewall, director of Energy Justice Network (EJN), Washington, DC, responded to the recent article in The New York Times on garbage incineration. ILSR works closely with EJN assisting grassroots organizations to stop planned garbage incineration and move their communities to recycling, local economic development and zero waste.
Here is the link to his Letter to the Editor.[1]
  1. Here is the link to his Letter to the Editor.:

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National Press Follows President Obama to Cedar Falls, Iowa

by Lisa Gonzalez | January 15, 2015 7:02 pm

On January 14th, President Obama visited Cedar Falls, Iowa[1], to share his strategy to expand high-speed connectivity to more Americans, encourage competition, and galvanize economic development. Obama’s plan centers around community networks and he announced that the next step will be eliminating barriers in 19 states that usurp local authority to invest in publicly owned infrastructure.

From his remarks [C-SPAN Video below]:

Today, I’m making my administration’s position clear on community broadband. I’m saying I’m on the side of competition. And I’m on the side of small business owners… I’m on the side of students and schools. I believe that a community has the right to make its own choice and to provide its own broadband if it wants to. Nobody is going to force you to do it, but if you want to do it, if the community decides this is something that we want to do to give ourselves a competitive edge and to help our young people and our businesses, they should be able to do it.

The Obama Administration, through the Department of Commerce, recently sent a letter [PDF][2] to Chairman Wheeler to request the FCC use its authority to end state barriers that block local public investment. The Hill[3] noted the letter and the President’s speech together put gentle pressure on the FCC to take steps to restore local authority. The Hill also gave space to the cable industry, naturally opposed to restoring local authority after millions of lobbying dollars invested in passing anti-competitive legislation.

InfoWorld[4] also pointed out cable industry opposition to the Obama proposal, noting that they were ready to mount a strong offense and will likely join Congressional Republicans to fight any roll-back of state barriers. A decision from the FCC on whether or not to change state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee is expected in February[5].

As for the incumbents, there was no love lost between the President and the big players, asMultichannel News reported[6]:

He said in many places big companies are “doing everything they can to keep out new competitors.”

…they were at the whim of whatever Internet service provider happened to be around, and and when they had problems they got stuck on hold watching a spinning icon, waiting and waiting and waiting and wondering why rates keep getting “jacked up.” Ouch.

Other national outlets that covered the speech included the New York Times[7], the Washington Post[8],Ars Technica[9], Fierce Telecom[10], and NexGov[11]. We came across so many stories we stopped counting.

Local coverage included stories from the Sioux City Journal[12], the Quad City Times[13], the Gazette[14], and the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier[15]. Mayor Jon Crews told the Courier:

“This is good for attracting companies that have higher wages for technical positions,” Crews said. “Obviously to be recognized by Google and the president of the United States in two months time is pretty awesome.”

As the President noted in his speech, Google named Cedar Falls the best city in Iowa for e-commerce due to its municipal fiber optic network.

Marc Reifenrath, local business owner of a web design, development and digital strategy agency called Spinutech[16] introduced the President:

In our early years it would have been easy to move our headquarters to another city, really anywhere. Thanks in part to its high speed internet, Cedar Falls has always made it easy for us to grow our business. Today, Spinutech has clients in all 50 states and eight countries. In talking with these clients, time and again it is proven just how fortunate we are.

Whether or not local authority is restored in the 19 states in question, it is important that local communities remember the role of vision, which the President pointed out in his speech:

Now, in Cedar Falls, things are different. About 20 years ago, in a visionary move ahead of its time, this city voted to add another option to the market and invest in a community broadband network. Really smart thing you guys did. It was a really smart thing you guys did. And you’ve managed it right here at Cedar Falls Utilities. And then a few years ago, you realized that customers were demanding more and more speed. All the movies, all the increased data, Instagram — all this stuff suddenly is just being loaded up, and basically, you guys were like the captain in Jaws, where he said, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”


A Transcript of the script is available at the C-SPAN video page[17] in the transcript box below the video window.

  1. President Obama visited Cedar Falls, Iowa:
  2. sent a letter [PDF]:
  3. The Hill:
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  6. Multichannel News reported:
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What Might Have Been

by David Morris | January 12, 2015 2:38 pm

Since its passage in 2009, ferocious opposition to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare)  had proven a devastatingly effective electoral strategy for Republicans. In 2010, they gained a net 63 seats and control of the House of Representatives. They gained control of 11 additional state governments, bringing their total to 25. When the ACA went into effect virtually all 25 were refusing to expand Medicaid, a decision they were permitted to make by a June 2012 Supreme Court ruling[1] overturning the mandatory expansion provision in the law.

In October 2013, in the midst of a Republican-led government shutdown designed to stop the implementation of the ACA, I invited[2] President Obama to embrace a bold strategy: Let the red states secede from Obamacare, under three conditions.

First, states must withdraw from all benefits. (e.g. children being able to be on parents insurance up to age 26, insurance companies no longer being allowed to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions, etc.) They couldn’t pick and choose.

Second, Congress must move forward the date states would be given great latitude in designing their own system from 2017 to 2014, thus allowing blue states to experiment with insurance systems like single payer.

Third, and most importantly for the future of the ACA and the Democratic Party, state legislatures must ask their citizens to vote directly on Obamacare.

I argued then that the downside of letting the red states secede would be modest. The red states had already decided not to expand Medicaid, dramatically restricting the ACA’s direct benefits. In Kentucky, for example, a state often viewed as a model for aggressive and competent ACA implementation[3], 400,000 people, 9 percent of the entire population signed up under Medicaid expansion; only 80,000 signed up for health plans through Kynect, the state exchange.

A single issue election would have allowed an engaged and focused discussion impossible in a general election. Which would have allowed a considered response to some of the Republicans most effective 20-second sound bites. For example, their insistence that the ACA established government panels that will make life and death decisions. When Republicans called them “death panels” Democrats quickly scuttled the provision, lending credence to the Republican claim that that’s what they were. Indeed, according to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, some 41 percent of Americans continue to believe this.

In 2014 in Kentucky, as elsewhere, Obamacare was a key issue. The New York times reports[4] that Kentuckian Amanda Mayhew enrolled in Medicaid and had been to the dentist five times to begin salvaging her neglected teeth, had visited a dermatologist to remove a mole and had received medication for her depression, all free. “I am very, very thankful that Medicaid does cover what I need done right now,” Ms. Mayhew said but pointedly added, “I don’t love Obamacare….There are things in it that scare me and that I don’t agree with…would I gladly give up my insurance today if it meant that some of the things that are in the law were not in place? Yes, I would.” She was referring to death panels.

A single-issue election would have given Democrats the opportunity to go from defense to offense. They could have explained that the provision Republicans vigorously opposed actually offered money to doctors so they could spend time with terminally ill patients discussing end of life issues. And Democrats could have used the opportunity to educate the public about the widespread need for such discussions, and their value.

In his new book[5], Being Mortal, physician Atul Gawande describes the results of one large-scale study about the impact of such conversations.

Two thirds of the terminal cancer patients…reported having had no discussion with their doctors about their goals for end-of-life care, despite being, on average, just four months from death. But the third who did have discussions were far less likely to undergo cardiopulmonary resuscitation or be put on a ventilator or end up in an intensive care unit…They suffered less, were physically more capable, and were better able, for a longer period, to interact with others. In addition, six months after these patients died, their family members were markedly less likely to experience persistent major depression.   In other words, people who had substantive discussions with their doctors about their end-of–life preferences were far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation and to spare their family anguish.

In a single-issue referendum Democrats could have engaged the Republican claim that the wave of cancellations of individual health policies in 2013 was a result of Obamacare. In October 2013 the Associated Press estimated[6] 4.8 million persons with individual coverage had their policies cancelled because of the ACA. The estimate was widely quoted. But any referendum on the ACA would have been held in mid to late 2014 by which time more realistic estimates had dramatically reduced the number of persons affected to 1.6-1.9 million persons. More importantly, they could have explained that in pre-Obamacare America most individual health policies were for one year and the normal churn rate is remarkably high. One study found that only 27 percent continued to have individual coverage after two years.

Democrats could also have responded to the almost weekly horror story issued by Republicans about dramatic price hikes in premiums under Obamacare (most of which proved untrue) by noting that health insurance companies had been hiking[7] premiums and deductibles for a long time. Insurance premiums rose by 50 percent between 2003 and 2010 and the average deductible had soared by 145 percent. In 2013 average insurance premiums represented 20 percent of median income in 37 states, up from 2 in 2003.

Democrats could have responded to the Republican’s horror stories about price hikes with their own far more numerous and heartrending stories about the bankruptcies, deaths, and sicknesses caused by insurance companies denying or rescinding coverage. Rather than Democrats having to defend Obamacare, Republicans would have had the unenviable task of defending giant health insurance companies’ treatment of often-helpless individuals.

Obama ignored my advice. And in the 2014 election most Democrats refused to defend Obamacare. In Kentucky for much of the campaign Alison Grimes ran neck and neck with Mitch McConnell but when the issue of Obamacare came up she ran for the hills. As did virtually all Kentucky Democrats. According[8] to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, Republicans ran more than 10,000 broadcast television spots attacking the ACA in that state from January 2013 to November 2014. Kantar found only one positive television ad, from a Congressional Democratic candidate. Nationwide Senate Republican candidates ran[9] 36,000 anti-Obamacare ads just from October 6-26.

In November 2014 Republicans gained control of the U.S. Senate. The number of Republican governors swelled to 31. The Republican Party won control of 67 state chambers, five more than their previous record in the modern era. In 24 states they gained total control, winning both the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature (Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is technically nonpartisan, but in practice Republicans control the chamber by a wide margin).

Would the 2014 election outcome have been different if the red states had held health care referenda? No one can tell. Certainly the election demonstrated that when given the opportunity to vote on issues rather than candidates Americans are often quite liberal. For example, voters approved every initiative to raise the minimum wage, including in red states (Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota).

Democrats would still have had to overcome the cognitive dissonance of people like Robin Evans, a warehouse worker earning $9 an hour who after signing up for Medicaid is being treated for high blood pressure and Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder, after years of being uninsured and rarely seeing doctors. “I’m tickled to death with it,” she told[10] the New York Times. “It’s helped me out a bunch.” But the Times adds, “Ms. Evans scowled at the mention of President Obama — ‘Nobody don’t care for nobody no more, and I think he’s got a lot to do with that,’ she explained — and said she would vote this fall for Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, who is fond of saying the health care law should be “pulled out root and branch.”   To summarize: The Democrats helped Mr. Evans “a bunch”. But under the Democrats nobody cares for nobody. So he will vote for Republicans who have railed against Democrat sponsored measures that would help him.

OK, it would have been a challenge. But it would have presented a wonderful opportunity as well.

And then there is the distinct possibility that Republicans would have rejected an offer by President Obama to secede if they had to ask their voters to approve. They might have realized that a genuine public debate on the Affordable Care Act could make Americans wonder what else they were lying about.


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“The Secret Side of Global Trade” – David Morris, International Forum on Globalization

by Rebecca Toews | January 8, 2015 12:00 pm

David Morris spoke at Riverside Church for the International Forum on Globalization in 1995 about local self-reliance and global trade. His words still ring true today. You can listen to the audio from the speech below, download it in your podcast player, or watch it on our YouTube channel[1].

David Morris[2] is co-founder of the Institute and Director of the Defending the Public Good initiative. We encourage you to send us your feedback, suggest topics, and offer ideas. Contact us at


Self-Reliance Podcast Episode 2

Click to subscribe to the podcast via iTunes[7].


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  2. David Morris:
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Democratic Energy Media Roundup – January 5, 2015

by Rebecca Toews | January 7, 2015 10:47 am

This week in democratic energy, community solar projects are predicted to rule 2015 and net metering policies are opening the market for a brighter future.

Jeff St. John started us off [1]with why he thinks 2014 could be dubbed the year of the “smart grid.”

From building on the prior wave of investment in AMI networks [advanced metering infrastructure] and grid intelligence, to bridging the gaps between utilities and their customers, and laying the groundwork for a marriage of distributed energy and utility operations, 2014 saw some key developments that help indicate where the industry must go from here, if it’s to grow.

We’re with him, and would like to see it go much farther than “2.0.” Check our our Democratic Energy Report for the dawning of Utility 3.0![2]

The Motley Fool’s Justin Loiseau[3] made an interesting connection between NY Governor Cuomo’s move to ban fracking and his $1 billion solar commitment.

“The state made its decision based on public health threats outlined in a seminal 184-page Department of Health report, but it did so at the expense of around 141 trillion cubic feet of untapped natural gas — equivalent to 128 times the state’s current annual consumption.

New York has bid farewell to fracking, and its support for solar will shape its energy future for decades to come.”

CNBC’s Brad Quick [4]reports that New York City is embracing solar investments, and other New York communities are getting on board as well. Heather Leibowitz and Kevin Parker praised a public library solar installation[5] in Brentwood, and William Kremble with the Freeman Online reports that Woodstock’s town board and Kingston, nearby are both looking at solar energy options– Woodstock could start a municipal initiative[6] to buy solar panels, Kingston is looking at installing panels on the school roof[7].

Tonya Maxwell with Greenville News[8] in South Carolina reported this week on the double whammy that residential solar owners are seeing. They get to be environmentally conscious, but also they are saving about 80% on their power bill.

“It was the tree hugger in us that looked into solar. It was the economics that had us looking at what best ways would could recoup our costs,” said the mother of two. “It was a financial decision that made sense.”

Not to be outdone, Massachusetts is making a name for itself in the solar arena. Ann O’Connor thought of a nice way to visualize the solar boom[9]:

For every seat in Fenway Park, there are 47 solar panels in Massachusetts. There are also 346 solar companies employing 8,400 people throughout the state, doing everything from making parts to installing systems… Those shiny panels on rooftops are becoming commonplace.

And Stephanie Shor’s report on Kake, Alaska’s alternative energy investment[10] shows how a cooperative model can work for some communities:

Adam Davis, community and economic development specialist for the Organized Village of Kake, said the system on the government building has produced 11,985 kilowatts so far, with an estimated fuel savings of $7,550…

He [also] said the school had an $110,000 surplus in its budget last year, and he has plans to propose switching the school to LED lights. This would reduce the building’s electricity usage by 60 percent, and the savings would pay for another full-time teaching position.”

Back in the Midwest, another cooperative energized its newest solar project. LaReesa Sandretsky with the Lake County News Chronicle [11]covered the story:

“We are happy to have this solar project installed in our service territory,” said Steve Wattnem, CEO of Cooperative Light & Power. “Our members will benefit from the solar output as we, along with Great River Energy, learn about the performance of solar with this local project.”

In addition to the Two Harbor’s solar site, Great River Energy is working with 18 other member cooperatives throughout the state to construct similar solar arrays.

Still, some states are lagging behind in solar energy because of restrictive policies, and residents are taking notice. Nick Hylla kicked off 2015 with a plea to Wisconsin lawmakers, and others should take note as well: Stop Pushing Wisconsin’s Energy Policy Backward! [12]

“The public is frustrated with the coordinated, special-interest efforts to slow public and private investments in clean energy. The rate cases in Wisconsin demonstrate an especially alarming trend: the alignment of the manufacturing lobby behind the monopoly utilities’ rate “fairness” campaign.

The investors in these industries stand to garner significant returns as “pay for use” electricity markets are transformed into “pay for access” (like paying more to park in front of the gas pump than for the fuel itself). With increasing meter fees and decreasing use rates, utilities fix their profits and build financial incentives for increased energy use. Large energy users benefit as costs shift to the many meters attached to homes, businesses and municipalities.

The losers in this new regime are the thousands of homes and businesses that have made efficiency investments, taken conservation measures, and/or installed their own renewable energy system (not to mention all of the businesses that serve them). The new utility strategy will also cause significant collateral damage to those in low and fixed income households who simply can’t afford large increases in fixed energy costs.”

In Michigan, a torn-down coal plant may make way for green energy. Stephen Kloosterman with MichiganLive[13] highlighted the historic changes ahead[14] for utility companies and energy customers.

Three Mississippi Counties will be testing out the power of solar. Jeff Ayres with the Clarion-Ledger [15]reported this week that the state’s Public Service Commission is piloting a $4.3 million study to determine if solar is a viable option for electricity production.

Some Hawaii lawmakers are getting nervous about who bought their state’s largest utility. Florida Power & Light recently purchased Hawaiian Electric Industries.  Doreen Hemlock with the Sun Sentinal:

“Florida is not known for rooftop solar. It’s known for utility-scale projects,” Leslie Cole-Brooks, executive director of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association, told a Hawaii TV station. “And here in Hawaii, the Hawaii Solar Energy Association is all for maximizing all of our resources.”

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, has said she hopes FPL’s parent comes to her state with a “different attitude” on rooftop solar, adding that the purchase “deserves careful scrutiny.”

Ivan Penn with the Tampa Bay Times echoed that concern[16], and noted the difficulties Florida residents often have when trying to change energy policy.

As it stands, rooftop solar threatens the traditional utility business model. Homes and businesses would use less power from the utilities, decreasing their revenue — something the industry fears.

At a time when the utilities are expressing concern about the impact of solar, state regulators voted in November to gut energy-efficiency goals and to end solar rebates administered by the utilities, saying they are not “cost-effective.”

From the “for-once-and-for-all-can-this-debate-finally-be-resolved”[17] file: John Moore with Sustainable FERC Project in Chicago writes:

Despite years of successful experience, dozens of studies, and increasing utility support for clean energy, urban myth holds that electricity from renewable energy is unreliable. Yet over 75,000 megawatts (MW) of wind and solar power have been integrated, reliably, into the nation’s electric grid to date. That’s enough electricity to supply 17.9 million homes.

Maybe this video will help? Even on the shortest day of the year, solar can power our cars and homes:

Happy 2014!

  1. Jeff St. John started us off :
  2. Democratic Energy Report for the dawning of Utility 3.0!:
  3. Motley Fool’s Justin Loiseau:
  4. CNBC’s Brad Quick :
  5. public library solar installation:
  6. Woodstock could start a municipal initiative:
  7. Kingston is looking at installing panels on the school roof:
  8. Tonya Maxwell with Greenville News:
  9. Ann O’Connor thought of a nice way to visualize the solar boom:
  10. Stephanie Shor’s report on Kake, Alaska’s alternative energy investment:
  11. LaReesa Sandretsky with the Lake County News Chronicle :
  12. Stop Pushing Wisconsin’s Energy Policy Backward! :
  13. Stephen Kloosterman with MichiganLive:
  14. historic changes ahead:
  15. Jeff Ayres with the Clarion-Ledger :
  16. Ivan Penn with the Tampa Bay Times echoed that concern:
  17. “for-once-and-for-all-can-this-debate-finally-be-resolved”:

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The Three Biggest Solar Charts of 2014

by John Farrell | January 6, 2015 12:35 pm

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  6. flashpoint in state policy battles between electric companies and their customers:
  7. the future business model of the electricity system:
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Building Community, Strengthening Economies: ILSR’s 2014 Annual Report

by ILSR Admin | December 29, 2014 10:29 am


Image: Donate Button[2]As we confront the daunting challenges of a severely compromised climate, crippling inequality, and a failing federal government, ILSR’s forward-thinking, bottom-up solutions have never been more needed. 

We need your support today. Help us fight against the concentration of corporate power, the loss of control of our local economies and government, and the growing threats to our environment.

Please help us expand our impact in 2015 by making an online tax-deductible donation[3] to ILSR,


Image: ILSR 2014 Annual ReportILSR was founded 40 years ago out of a conviction that solving even our most complex problems begins with people exercising collective authority at the local level.  Since then, we have been at the forefront of helping communities take charge of their local resources and build an equitable, environmentally viable, and democratic future.

This year, working alongside a diverse range of allies, we made significant progress in realizing this vision.  We are thrilled to share the stories of change in our 2014 Annual Report: Building Community, Strengthening Economies.

As you’ll see when you read the report, this year we produced critical research and developed new tools and policies that have helped communities:

Transforming our economy entails not only building new enterprises and systems, but fighting the forces that stand in the way.  In the report, you can read about the leading role we played this year in a Minneapolis clean energy initiative that is a model for how citizens can leverage their authority over corporate utilities; see how we helped defeat a Walmart-led ballot initiative in North Dakota that would have overturned a state law that mandates that all pharmacies be locally owned; and learn more about our successful campaign in Kansas to kill a cable industry-inspired bill that would have blocked cities from building their own public broadband networks.

Image: Donate Button[2]As we confront the daunting challenges of a severely compromised climate, crippling inequality, and a failing federal government, ILSR’s forward-thinking, bottom-up solutions have never been more needed. 

We need your support today. Help us fight against the concentration of corporate power, the loss of control of our local economies and government, and the growing threats to our environment.

Please help us expand our impact in 2015 by making an online tax-deductible donation[3] to ILSR, or donating by mail or phone[4].

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Distributed Solar a Substantial Portion of 2014 Power Plant Capacity

by John Farrell | December 18, 2014 3:29 pm

placeholder[1]Renewable energy continues to grow substantially in the U.S. and in 2014 it remains a large portion of new power plant capacity – 30% or more through the first three quarters. Often overlooked, distributed solar on residential and commercial property is making up a substantial share of new electrical generating capacity.  The following chart illustrates the share of new power generation from solar and other sources in each quarter of 2014, with distributed solar contributing 14% or more in each quarter!

us power plant capacity additions 2014 thru Q3 ILSR v2[2]

This article originally posted at[3]. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter[4] or get the Democratic Energy weekly[5] update.

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Failure of the Wilmington Compost Facility Underscores Need for a Locally Based and Diverse Composting Infrastructure

by Neil Seldman | December 18, 2014 9:32 am

The rapid increase in community-scale composting in the Mid-Atlantic is sorely needed. The recent closing of the Wilmington Organics Recycling Center[1] in Delaware, due to the loss of its operating permit, has pushed the need for a distributed and diverse composting infrastructure to the fore. Source separated food discard programs from New York City to Washington, DC, are now scrambling to find alternative sites to tip their loads.

The Wilmington Organics Recycling Center was at the center of expanded food discard collections in the Mid-Atlantic region. Developed, sited, permitted, financed and built by The Peninsula Compost Group (TPCG), the facility was designed to receive 600 tons per day of source separated organic materials from government institutions, grocery chains, schools, food processors, sports venues, restaurants, and other large food waste generators. A separate company, named the Peninsula Compost Company (PCC), was set up to own the plant. Its original members included the EDiS Company and Greenhull Compost LLC (both of Wilmington, Delaware), as well as the developers, TPCG. The facility commenced operations in late 2009 composting around 200 tons per day. For the first two years, TPCG was the managing and operations partner. During that time there were no verified odor complaints or Notices of Violation from the State of Delaware and the compost produced met every Federal and State standard for unrestricted use. (more…)[2]

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The Comic Book that Started a Movement: The Lone Recycler

by Neil Seldman | December 16, 2014 10:16 am

Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear, when the Lone Recycler, lead citizens in the SF Bay Area against the cruel intentions of the garbage incineration industry; which lead to a national movement that continues to this day.

From 1980 through 1982, five planned garbage incinerators in the SF Bay Area were defeated. In rapid succession the defeat of incinerators in the SF Bay Area resulted in the cancelation of 30 planned incinerators in California.

From 1980 through 1997 over 300 planned garbage incinerators were defeated by spontaneous action by organized citizens, small businesses and progressive officials.

Introduction – by Mary Lou Van Deventer, Urban Ore, Berkeley, CA

A new wave of approximately 100-150 garbage incinerators have been proposed since the mid 2000s. To date one has been built. A look back at the history of anti garbage incineration is well in order.

In the early 1980s the conventional wisdom was that recycling could recover only 35% of discards, and even some recyclers called incineration “resource recovery.”  But the recyclers in Berkeley, California, led by Dan Knapp and including Mary Lou Van Deventer and Mark and Nancy Gorrell, had a bigger dream of recycling everything.  The city council voted unanimously to begin the procurement process for a garbage incinerator.

The recyclers tried to convince the council that burning the resources would foreclose the recycling options and cause pollution.  At first the council members wouldn’t even meet with recyclers, and when they finally did, they wouldn’t change their plan.  The frustrated recyclers decided direct democracy was their only recourse, so they gathered signatures for a citizens’ initiative, and they put a five-year moratorium on incineration on the November 1982 ballot.  Their campaign slogan was “Give Recycling a Chance.”  They won more than 60% of the votes!  Afterward Dan and Mary Lou helped citizens in several other San Francisco Bay Area cities defeat incinerators too.  Seven incinerators were planned; none was built.  One joint powers authority even dissolved itself.

In 1984 Dan and Mary Lou swapped a lot of dinners, beer, and wine with their friends architect Mark Gorrell and illustrator Nancy Gorrell, and they laughed a lot as they wrote the saga of The Lone Recycler to envision a Zero Waste future.  Step by step Nancy took the developing bones of the story into her studio and fleshed out the group’s characters, wrote dialogue, invented incidental characters and games, and illustrated everything.  The San Francisco grass roots recycling group Richmond Environmental Action, provided funds for the publication.

The intention was to promote citizen activism and sustainable resource management instead of centralized control of waste and destruction.  In the end they transformed Slobberg into Wonderberg and even recycled the bad guys.

CAUTION TO PARENTS: Children tend to take this comic into a corner and spend a long time reading.  If you prefer that they play more with their electronics, don’t give them this comic.

Download the full issue of The Lone Recycler[1]

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Will Pope Francis Put His Institution Where His Values Are?

by David Morris | December 16, 2014 10:09 am

On December 10th the Vatican released the text of still another vigorous message[1] by Pope Francis in support of oppressed workers. “(M)illions of people today – children, women and men of all ages – are deprived of freedom and are forced to live in conditions akin to slavery,” he asserts. “I think of the many men and women laborers, including minors, subjugated in different sectors, whether formally or informally, in domestic or agricultural workplaces, or in the manufacturing or mining industry; whether in countries where labor regulations fail to comply with international norms and minimum standards, or, equally illegally, in countries which lack legal protection for workers’ rights.”

The Pope’s statement is not a call to reflection but to action, “Every person ought to have the awareness that ‘purchasing is always a moral – and not simply an economic – act’.” Francis wants us to buy as if someone else’s life depended on it. And he wants us to act not only as individuals but collectively. “We ought to recognize that we are facing a global phenomenon which exceeds the competence of any one community or country. In order to eliminate it, we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself.”

When he personally delivers his message on January 1st I trust the Pope will point out that there is no other institution more capable of generating a “mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself” than the one he himself leads.

The statistics[2] are very impressive. In 2014 there were over 220,000 Catholic parishes serving 1.23 billion Catholics worldwide. The Church directly employs 414,000 priests, 53,000 religious brothers and 705,000 religious sisters. There are 140,000 elementary and secondary Catholic schools. The Church has some 18,000 clinics, 16,000 homes for the elderly and those with special needs, and 5,500 hospitals. The Church’s Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers has estimated[3] the Catholic Church manages more than a quarter of the world’s health care facilities.

In 2012 the Economist concluded[4] the Catholic Church spent about $170 billion a year making it one of the world’s largest purchasers of goods and services. Catholic organizations already exist that aggregate the purchasing power of parishes and dioceses. The Catholic Purchasing Services, for example claims[5] to “consolidate the buying power of over 40,000 Catholic institutions in the purchase of a wide variety of equipment, furniture, supplies, and services.”   Currently CPS does so to obtain the highest quality at the lowest price. The Pope could order them to take into account the human dimensions of their purchases.

I say “order” not “suggest” because the Pope is the CEO, President and Chairman of the Board of the Catholic Church all rolled into one. He and the Vatican have never been reticent about telling Catholic institutions what to do. The clearest example is in the health area. Catholic hospitals are prohibited from buying or prescribing contraceptives or engaging in a number of procedures, such as sterilization or abortion. Those who want to make their own end of life decisions should avoid Catholic hospitals which are directed to ignore an individual’s advanced health directives.

If the Pope were to order his institution to heed his message he would find a ready network of government agencies and non-profit organizations that have already done the spadework. The Department of Labor regularly releases[6] a list of products made with forced labor.   The list is long and contains many products the Catholic Church would regularly purchase, including carpets, garments, cotton, rubber, coffee, rice, rubber.

Many non-profit organizations try to monitor factories suspected of treating their workers poorly. But their resources are small and their network thin. The track record of businesses monitoring their own contractors is very spotty[7]. The Catholic Church’s worldwide network of parishes and parishioners could become the eyes and ears on the ground to ensure these workers are treated decently.

The Pope demands action on a global scale to protect tens of millions of ill-treated workers. Will he order his own institution to take the lead?



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Working Partner Update: Recycling Advances in Delaware

by Neil Seldman | December 16, 2014 9:40 am

Rick Anthony recalls a conversation he had in 2007 with officials from the Delaware Chamber of Commerce about recycling. An official stated that the only way to require recycling in Delaware was to show a considerable economic payoff. Anthony and Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, under contract with the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), provided just that information in a report that laid out a plan for implementing comprehensive recycling and economic development.

The report identified $50 million market value that was then flowing to three state operated landfills annually in the form of recyclable and reusable materials. Further, the report found that this lode would support over 2000 new good jobs in the state.

See Resource Management in the State of Delaware[1], May, 2007.

In 2010 the state required source separation for homes, apartment houses, businesses and restaurants; all haulers must provide services for source separated materials. Other recycling incentives were introduced as well.

Last week Gov. Markell announced that the state reached a 42% recycling rate.  Since 2006 the state’s 900,000 people have doubled the recycling rate. Since recycling measurement began in 2006 the Delaware Solid Waste Authority (DSWA), which manages the state’s landfills, reports that over 500,000 tons of single stream materials have been diverted from disposal.

See “Governor Highlights Progress in Recycling[2],” DNREC, November 30, 2014.

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Training The Zero Waste Workforce

by Neil Seldman | December 15, 2014 10:10 am

Community Environmental Services, part of Portland State University, trains and employs students to offer zero waste management services to companies, institutions and public agencies. CES works in the private sector with clients such as supermarkets to establish a baseline for material flow and then deliver specific recommendations for reducing waste.

The movement for zero waste in the U.S. has literally exploded in the last few years in both theory and practice. Scores of communities have resolved to start on the pathway to zero — defined as reducing waste generated by 90 percent or more. Cities taking strong steps to achieve this goal within the next decade include Austin (Texas), San Francisco and Los Angeles. Elsewhere, Alachua County, Florida, Portland, Oregon and Seattle have implemented zero waste (ZW) programs without formally announcing a ZW goal. The learning curve for cities and counties that may follow has been made easier by new resources such as the Zero Waste Business Plan adopted by the Resource Recovery Department in Austin, and the statements on Extended Producer Responsibility issued by the Global Recycling Council of the California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) and the Zero Waste International Association. Paul Connett’s recently published book, The Zero Waste Solution, is the newest asset now available for zero waste planners and advocates.

Read the full article on CES[1] by ILSR’s Neil Seldman, appeared in the November 2014 issue of Biocycle.

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The New Rules for Retail Workers

by David Morris | December 14, 2014 9:19 am

Every month the federal government issues a new jobs report. The stock market gyrates, pundits pundify, politicians politic. Whether employment expands slowly or fast one central fact remains. The fastest growing occupations all pay low wages: retail salespersons, cashiers, food preparation and food service workers such as waiters and waitresses.

Since February 2010 industries whose jobs pay between $9.48 and $13.33 an hour have accounted[1] for 44 percent of job growth. The salary of many full time workers in these industries keeps them in poverty. And even this miserable situation is getting worse. The average retail worker earns about 12 percent less, adjusted for inflation, than a similar worker in 1979, according[2] to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

It gets worse. An increasing number of retail jobs are part time. “Over the past two decades, many major retailers went from a quotient of 70 to 80 percent full-time to at least 70 percent part-time across the industry,” Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of the Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm told[3] the New York Times. Their hourly wages are almost 35 percent lower[4] than those of full-time employees. They often do not receive health benefits and are scheduled too few hours to earn a living.

Part-time jobs are no longer the domain of the young. Many are adults in their prime working years—25 to 54. Part ti employment used to be voluntary. Today involuntary part timers total 7.5 million, up from 4.4 million in 2007.

Retail employment, especially for part timers, is an uncertain situation. A University of Chicago study found[5] part time schedules fluctuated between 17 and 28 hours per week. Many employers schedule shifts as short as 2-3 hours. Some 47 percent of part timers received advance notice of only a week or less on their work schedules. Many are on call, finding out just hours ahead of time if they have to go for work.

From an employer’s perspective this is efficient. Computer algorithms successfully used to pare the need for inventory by matching the supply of products and parts to the demand are now used to allocate work hours. But as Marianne Levine at Politico writes[6], “Trouble is, getting moved around at the click of a mouse is more disruptive to human beings than it is to refrigerators and automobiles”.

The human cost in disrupted lives is enormous. Uncertain schedules undermine workers’ efforts to fulfill their caregiving responsibilities or maintain stable childcare or pursue education or training or juggle a second part time job.

The unfettered market brought us below poverty level wages, uncertain part time employment, and the disruption of tens of millions of lives. Clearly the market needs a little help. Congressional Republicans will have none of it, stalling several federal bills that would alleviate the hardship. So state and local Democrats and Republicans and Independents have stepped in.

After November’s elections in which four red states—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota—passed minimum wage increases in 2015 a majority of states will have minimum wages higher than the federal rate.

In 2006 San Francisco was the first city to enact a paid sick leave requirement. Today 15 other cities and 3 states have such laws.

On November 26th San Francisco again led the way by passing a bill that will require retail stores with more than 20 locations globally to treat their workers more decently. Employers must give employees at least 2 weeks advance notice of work schedules changes. If notice is less than a week they must pay up to 4 hours at the worker’s regular hourly rate. If an employee is required to be on call and is not called the employer must provide 2-4 hours of pay. Employers must offer any extra work hours to current part timers before hiring new workers or subcontractors. Employers must provide equal treatment for part timers compared to full timers, including starting hourly wage, access to time off and eligibility for promotions. If the business is sold, the successor employer must retain for at least 90 days all employees who had worked there at least six months.

The San Francisco law will apply to 12 percent of all retailers that employ almost half of all retail workers in the city.

Retail laws do not apply to much beleaguered retail managers. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act did help supervisors by limiting the percentage of the day he or she could spend on non-managerial duties and still be exempt from overtime. Until 2004 that was understood to be no more than 50 percent. That year President Bush’s Department of Labor changed the threshold under which supervisors qualified for time and a half overtime pay. According to EPI[7], in 1975 65 percent of all salaried workers fell under the threshold and were thus entitled to overtime. By 2013, just 11 percent of salaried workers were automatically due overtime pay. Adding insult to injury, under the new rules people could be defined as managers exempt from overtime, for example, while doing grunt work and supervisory work simultaneously.

Overworked store managers often are evaluated based on whether they meet monthly (or weekly) targets for payroll as a percentage of sales. Managers don’t have much control over sales but they do control payroll. So when sales decrease, they immediately reduce staffing levels.

The Chamber of Commerce railed against the SF law as many business associations across the country have railed against municipal and state minimum wage or mandatory paid sick leave laws. They argue that retail is cut throat competitive with small margins and customers who demand the lowest price. But the evidence reveals that good management can make a business competitive and profitable even while treating workers humanely.

Treating workers poorly has its costs: lower morale, higher absenteeism and tardiness and turnover. Studies have found that hiring and training a replacement employee costs between $3300 and $6000. Untrained or poorly trained employees are less productive and make more errors. On-site management becomes even more difficult.

Zeynep Ton, associate professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management describes[8] a study she and Ananth Raman of the Harvard Business School conducted for Borders, a major bookstore chain. Analyzing data from 1999 through 2002 from more than 250 Borders stores, “We found that there was a huge variation in operational performance among stores that used the same information technology and offered the same incentives to employees. The performance of the best store was a whopping 43 times better than that of the worst store.”

Ton’s book, The Good Jobs Strategy[9] offers many examples of highly successful retail chains—such as Quik­Trip convenience stores, Trader Joe’s supermarkets, and Costco wholesale clubs—that complement higher investment in store employees with investments in operational practices. The combination makes work more efficient and more fulfilling while it lowers costs, boosts sale and profits and improves customer satisfaction.

Costco employees earn 40 percent more than those working at Sam’s Club and sales per employee are almost double those at Sam’s Club. Full-time employees at Trader Joe’s earn more than twice what competitors offer and sales per labor hour are more than 40 percent higher while sales per square foot are three times higher than those of an average U.S. supermarket. And turnover among full-time employees is less than 10 percent. QuikTrip’s wages and benefits are far higher than those of other comparable stores but its sales per labor hour are 50 percent higher. Its 13 percent turnover rate among full-time employees is remarkably lower than the 59 percent average rate in the top quartile of the convenience store industry.

Local and state government intervention is helping tens of millions of workers while forcing retail corporations to up their game. Those who continue to operate inefficiently will go out of business. Those who treat their workers (and customers) with respect will increase sales, reduce operating costs and increase profits. That’s a private public partnership I fully endorse.



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New Report: Beyond Utility 2.0 to Energy Democracy

by Rebecca Toews | December 9, 2014 4:30 pm

placeholder[1][2]Exciting changes are on the horizon for our century-old utility structure as solar power, energy storage, and electric vehicles open new avenues for utility customers to produce their own power and control their energy use. Utilities are scrambling to remain relevant in this technological firestorm, and energy wonks are envisioning a new business model – Utility 2.0 – that keeps utilities afloat as their customers “cut the cord.”

This report suggests we seize this transformational moment – and the $364 billion in annual electricity revenue – to push for energy democracy.

VIDEO: Preview the Report[3]


New and old policies can combine to move beyond a utility centered energy future, turning the technological transformation of electricity into an equitable economic engine.

 Download the Report[4]


Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff[5]

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Alaska’s Enlightened Approach to Drugs and Privacy

by David Morris | December 4, 2014 10:11 am

Politicians left and right often use pet phrases to justify their positions:  states rights, individual liberty, personal responsibility.  Rarely are these consistently applied.  Even more rarely do politicians or political parties offer a coherent framework for deciding when a higher level of government should preempt a lower level of government or when individual liberty trumps state regulation.  Which makes what has happened in Alaska so refreshing and instructive.  The issue addressed was the right of individuals to use drugs when the state outlaws their use.

In August 1972, a little more than 13 years after Alaska became a state, its citizens voted overwhelmingly (86-14%) to add a two-sentence amendment to their state Constitution. “The right of the people to privacy is recognized and shall not be infringed. The legislature shall implement this section.”

In 1972 being caught in possession of marijuana got you the equivalent of a traffic ticket in Alaska. When attorney Irwin Ravin refused to sign his traffic ticket he was arrested.  The case went to the Alaska Supreme Court.  In 1975 the Court held that Alaska’s new Constitutional right to privacy protected an adult’s right to use marijuana in the home.

The Constitutional provision led the Court to set a high burden of proof for the state to justify its invasion of Ravin’s privacy. “Where there is a significant encroachment upon personal liberty, the State may prevail only upon showing a subordinating interest which is compelling.” The Court opined that the law must be shown “necessary, and not merely rationally related, to the accomplishment of a permissible state policy.”

The Court found the state had not met that standard.  It had not proven that the health and safety benefits to the community outweighed the right of individual privacy when it came to using marijuana. After extensively reviewing the evidence the Court determined, “the use of marijuana, as it is presently used in the United States today, does not constitute a public health problem of any significant dimensions. It is, for instance, far more innocuous in terms of physiological and social damage than alcohol or tobacco.”

Later, when Alaskans became infected with the same reefer madness as the rest of the country and imposed stiffer penalties the Alaska Supreme Court continued to rule that using marijuana in one’s home was Constitutionally protected.

In 1978 the Court again examined the balance between state authority to protect the health and safety and the right to personal use of drugs.  This time the drug involved was cocaine.  The Court again examined the evidence but this time found cocaine a far more dangerous drug than marijuana. For example, cocaine, unlike marijuana, can cause death. In its 1978 decision the Court reaffirmed the 1972 framework that would guide its decision making, declaring “the balance [of the individual’s interest in privacy and the government’s interest in health and safety] requires a heavier burden on the state to sustain the legislation in light of the (privacy) right involved.” But in this case it came down on the side of the state, finding a “sufficiently close and substantial relationship” between the prohibition and the legislative purpose of protecting the general health and welfare.

In 1984 the Court again explored the tension between the state’s right to protect the health and safety of its citizens and the right of the individual to be left alone.  This time the drug involved was alcohol.  In 1979 the Alaskan legislature had given communities the “local option” of the importation and sale of alcohol, although it they could not ban its use within the home. Hugh Harrison was convicted of importing alcohol into the village of the dry community of St. Mary’s. He challenged the constitutionality of the local option law, arguing, among other things that it violated his Constitutional right of privacy.  The Court disagreed, finding that alcohol was more like cocaine than marijuana, “The evidence presented at the omnibus hearing unmistakably established a correlation between alcohol consumption and poor health, death, family violence, child abuse, and crime…. Given this evidence, we conclude that the state has met its burden of justifying the local option law as a health and welfare measure.”

In 1986 the local option law was amended to allow communities to ban possession of alcohol.

In November 2014, Alaskan voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana, making the 1975 Court decision moot. But a number of Alaskan communities have asked the legislature to extend their local option to include marijuana as well as alcohol.  The legislature may well delegate to them the authority to ban the import, sale and public use of marijuana within their borders.  But the Court decision will prohibit communities from banning the possession or personal use of marijuana in one’s home.

One might disagree with the Court’s reasoning in any one of its decisions.  But I trust we can all support its transparent and accessible decision making framework and its reliance on scientific evidence to determine the balance between the right of the state to protect its citizens with the right of its citizens to be left alone.  The U.S. Congress and Supreme Court have much to learn from the next to last state to join the Union.






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Maryland Counties Scrap Waste-to-Energy Project

by Neil Seldman | November 21, 2014 9:56 am

Organized citizens and small business owners in Carroll and Frederick Counties, MD just completed a 10-year battle to stop the implementation of a 1,500 ton per day mass burn garbage incinerator facility. The effort brought out the best in local activism: careful analysis of the contract and its financial implications, sophisticated use  of media, many small meetings with civic groups, public demonstrations, confronting elected officials and state authority on conflict of interest as well as failure to understand the contracts before them, and, above all, perseverance in pursuit of sound recycling and economic alternatives. The rest of the US will benefit from this outcome as several citizens who became involved in the local battle are now national experts and are helping other communities face similar challenges.

ILSR has been part of this effort since being invited to intervene at the request of a small business woman in 2004. The Frederick-Carroll incinerator was one of three that ILSR helped defeat in the last year. ILSR remains engaged in the effort to stop a planned 4,000 ton per day garbage incinerator in south Baltimore.

Read the story here[1] from the Frederick News Post, November 21, 2014

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New Report: Walmart’s Dirty Energy Secret

by Stacy Mitchell | November 20, 2014 12:00 pm

placeholder[1]WalmartDirtyEnergyCoverImageWalmart talks a lot of talk about its renewable energy initiatives, but a new ILSR report finds that all that hype is just slick greenwashing hiding the company’s massive coal consumption.

In this first-of-its-kind analysis, ILSR calculated that Walmart is one of the nation’s largest users of coal-fired electricity.  Despite pledging nearly a decade ago to shift to 100 percent renewable energy, Walmart today derives only 3 percent of its U.S. electricity from its renewable energy projects — far less than many small businesses and competing chains.

Several national environmental leaders — including Michael Brune of Sierra Club[2], Bill McKibben of[3], and Jeremy Hays of Green For All[4] — joined ILSR in releasing the study and calling for change.

Read:  Executive Summary[5] | Press Release[6] | Full Report

How much climate pollution does Walmart generate by consuming coal in your state?  See the appendix of the report to find out!

Also see our Grist post, Walmart is a Huge Consumer of Dirty Coal Energy[7].

Executive Summary

In October, at an event broadcast live from Walmart’s Arkansas headquarters, the company’s top executives took the stage to extol its environmental leadership. The announcements they made that day would be covered widely by the press, including the Boston Globe, Guardian, and New York Times. The event opened with a video listing Walmart’s achievements over the preceding months: “We signed our largest multi-state solar power purchase agreement,” the narrator says, over a shot of workers installing new, glossy solar panels. “We were recognized by President Obama for announcing that we will double the number of on-site solar energy projects.” Then Walmart’s CEO, Doug McMillon, and its vice president of sustainability, Manuel Gomez, addressed the crowd. “You get one point for launching a goal,” said Gomez, “and nine points for execution… and what you saw in the video is exactly what we’re doing: executing against these goals.”

But off the stage and out in the real world, Walmart’s sustainability initiatives are heavy on admiration- inducing goals and astonishingly light on execution. Nearly a decade ago, the company pledged to shift to 100 percent renewable energy and acknowledged its responsibility to reduce its climate emissions as quickly as possible. Today, however, Walmart remains as deeply committed as ever to the dirtiest fuels, especially coal. It derives only 3 percent of its U.S. electricity from its renewable energy projects, down from 4 percent two years ago.

In this first-of-its-kind analysis, ILSR provides new information about Walmart’s energy mix and environmental footprint. We calculate the total electricity use, coal-fired power consumption, and resulting carbon emissions of every Walmart store and distribution center in the country in 2013. We also evaluate the company’s renewable energy projects, finding that they are too small and located in the wrong places to have much of an impact on Walmart’s coal use and climate emissions.

Our analysis finds that Walmart’s electricity consumption entails burning a staggering amount of coal: 4.2 million tons a year. That’s enough to give every kid in America a stocking filled with 126 pounds of the sooty stuff as a holiday present. Or, to measure it another way: If you dumped coal on a football field, you’d have to pile it 35 feet high, from end-zone to end-zone, just to power Walmart’s U.S. stores for one week. Walmart sources more of its electricity from coal (40 percent) than the U.S. as a whole (39 percent) — a remarkable fact for a company that has touted its environmental responsibility for years. Indeed, we find that Walmart alone consumes 0.5 percent of all the electricity produced from coal in U.S., a stunning figure given the size of the entire national economy and population. Walmart’s use of coal-fired electricity in the U.S. accounts for 37 percent of its total reported global greenhouse gas emissions, and 74 percent of its U.S. emissions from electricity. (more…)[8]

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The History and Hope for a First-in-the-Nation City-Utility Clean Energy Partnership

by John Farrell | November 17, 2014 11:05 am

In the past month, the city of Minneapolis and its two investor-owned utilities adopted the nation’s first clean energy partnership[1], with a wide range of goals including meeting the city’s ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. How did it happen and what can it accomplish? The following 8-minute video[2] from one of the “lead rabble rousers” on the Minneapolis Energy Options campaign, John Farrell, explains what got things started and where the partnership may lead.

Full video transcript[3]

The Beginning

One of the primary motivators of the Minneapolis Energy Options campaign was to say, “How much money do we spend collectively as a city on these energy services, and how much of that is actually leaving the city of Minneapolis.” The answer is $450 million each year, for electricity and gas services, with most of the profits leaving town. “A lot of it is money that can be recaptured within the local economy, especially…when you’re talking about a transformation taking place in the technology in the electricity sector allowing you to generate energy much closer to home than we ever have before.”

Organizers of the Minneapolis Energy Options campaign started around a conference table asking how this notion of the local energy dollar could be addressed, and immediately thought of the municipalization fight in Boulder, CO[4]. But “it seemed sort of silly to be saying, “let’s go out and form our own utility” [when] we haven’t even really talked to the ones that we’ve got about what we could do with working with them.” On the other hand, the city needed leverage in its negotiations with utilities since most of the power in utility regulation is at the state and federal level. So the campaign was meant to elevate the notion of the city’s energy options, up to and including the formation of a city-owned utility.

The campaign was hottest during municipal elections in 2013: “we had a lot of candidates talking about it, the mayoral candidates talking about it, city council candidates talking about the campaign. We had the specter of a ballot initiative around municipalization.”

The result of the campaign was that the utilities came to the table to negotiate.

A Novel Partnership

As of October 2014, “we have a first-in-the-nation partnership between a city and its utilities to explore not only the two-thirds of climate emissions that are the result of electricity and gas consumption that the city really didn’t have any opportunity to influence before. But also that 450 million dollars that’s being spent in the local economy and how that can be kept more local.”

As one testifier at city council said, ‘Our job now is to figure out how this doesn’t become the quarterly coffee clatch for the city folks and the utilities, and how do we make sure we actually have real substantive conversations about it.'”

“What are the possibilities?”

Three Big Opportunities

“There are three key things at stake. The first one is, what ideas can we generate that are innovative and ambitious and measurable and achievable within a short time frame? Because we’ve established for ourselves that this partnership can go on as long as ten years. We’ve got a check-in point of about five years. Which means we really have to start having stuff happen within two to three years if we want to know whether or not this is working.” All of the parties – Minneapolis Energy Options (Community Power), the city, and the utilities are going to come with great ideas.  “What can this city put on the table with its regulatory authority over local property? What can utilities bring to bear with the data that they have about our local grid and the knowledge that they have about installing local solar?”

“Number two is, can we…set ourselves real benchmarks for accomplishing these things? Can we say two years from now that we are going to make meaningful and substantial progress on energy efficiency by retro-fitting a certain number of homes? Can we do it in a way that focuses on communities that have been traditionally disadvantaged, where folks pay a disproportionate share of their monthly income on energy?  What can we accomplish with community solar over the next couple of years in Minneapolis? What are going to be the opportunities to get synergies between energy savings programs for electricity and gas?

Number three is, “how do we then let this be part of the bigger national conversation about how do we structure a utility business model (see forthcoming ILSR report, to be released 12/2/14) that serves the principles and goals not only of the city of Minneapolis, but – writ-large – all of the utility customers who care about things like clean energy?”

This article originally posted at[5]. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter[6] or get the Democratic Energy weekly[7] update.

Photo credit: Matthew Paulson[8]

  1. the nation’s first clean energy partnership:
  2. 8-minute video:
  3. Full video transcript:
  4. municipalization fight in Boulder, CO:
  6. Twitter:
  7. Democratic Energy weekly:
  8. Matthew Paulson:

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Get the Facts on Shopping Local for the Holidays with this Infographic

by ILSR Admin | November 14, 2014 1:47 pm

placeholder[1]Independent businesses are poised to draw more people this holiday season.  To illustrate the ways that local businesses are growing in popularity, delivering stronger economic returns, and expanding in numbers, the Advocates for Independent Business[2], a coalition of 14 groups coordinated by ILSR, put together this infographic.


  1. [Image]:
  2. Advocates for Independent Business:
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ILSR Presenting on Food Waste Composting to Philadelphia City Council – Nov. 12th

by Brenda Platt | November 6, 2014 2:26 pm

ILSR’s Brenda Platt will be presenting on the benefits of food waste composting before the The Joint Committees on Streets and Services & The Environment of the Council of the City of Philadelphia on November 12th.   The public hearing will cover the feasibility of and benefits to the City of residential food waste recycling including its impact on environmental quality, hunger prevention, economic savings and job creation.

Local recycling advocates RecycleNow Philadelphia[1] are urging the public to turn out a strong presence at this first hearing to demonstrate that a citywide food waste recycling program is a priority for the residents of Philadelphia and to give residents an opportunity to be active participants in the discussion from start to finish.  More on their effort here[2].

Date: Wednesday, November 12, 2014, at 2:00 PM,
Location: Room 400, City Hall, Philadelphia, PA (more…)[3]

  1. RecycleNow Philadelphia:
  2. More on their effort here:
  3. (more…):

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Democrat Candidates Lost. Democrat Issues Won

by David Morris | November 5, 2014 2:40 pm

On Tuesday Democrats lost big when they ran a candidate but won big when they ran an issue.

In 42 states about 150 initiatives were on the ballot. The vast majority did not address issues dividing the two parties (e.g. raising the mandatory retirement age for judges, salary increases for state legislators, bond issues supporting a range of projects). But scores of initiatives did involve hot button issues. And on these American voters proved astonishingly liberal.

Voters approved every initiative to legalize or significantly reduce the penalties for marijuana possession (Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington, Washington, D.C.) It is true that a Florida measure to legalize medical marijuana lost but 57 percent voted in favor (60 percent was required.)

Voters approved every initiative to raise the minimum wage (Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota). Voters in San Francisco and Oakland approved initiatives to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018. The good citizens of Oakland and Massachusetts overwhelmingly approved more generous paid sick leave.

Both Colorado and North Dakota voters rejected measures that would have given the fertilized egg personhood under their criminal codes.

Washington state voters approved background checks for all gun sales and transfers, including private transactions.

By a wide margin Missourians rejected a constitutional amendment to require teachers to be evaluated based on test results and fired or demoted virtually at will.

By a 59-41 margin North Dakotans voted to keep their unique statute outlawing absentee owned pharmacies despite Walmart outspending independent pharmacist supporters at least ten to one.

The vote in Colorado offers a good example of the disparity between how Americans vote on candidates and how we vote on issues. A few years ago the Colorado legislature stripped cities and counties of the right to build their own telecommunications networks but it allowed them to reclaim that authority if they put it to a vote of their citizens. On Tuesday 8 cities and counties did just that. Residents in every community voted by a very wide margin to permit government owned networks even while they were voting by an equally wide margin for Republican candidates who vigorously oppose government ownership of anything.

Republicans did gain a number of important victories. Most of these dealt with taxes. For example, Georgia voters by a wide margin supported a constitutional amendment prohibiting the state legislature from raising the maximum state income tax rate. Massachusetts’ voters narrowly voted to overturn a law indexing the state gasoline tax to the consumer price increase.

What did Tuesday tell us? When given the choice between a Republican and a Democrat candidate the majority of voters chose the Republican. When given a choice between a Republican and a Democrat position on an issue they chose the Democrat. I’ll leave it up to others to debate the reasons behind this apparent contradiction. My own opinion is that ballot initiatives more accurately take the ideological pulse of the people because debates over issues must focus on issues, not personality, temperament or looks. Those on both sides of the issue can exaggerate, distort and just plain lie but they must do so in reference to the question on the ballot. No ballot initiative ever lost because one of its main backers attended a strip club 16 years earlier.




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In Big Win for Local Ownership, North Dakota Votes to Keep State’s Pharmacy Law

by Olivia LaVecchia | November 5, 2014 2:23 pm

At North Dakota polls on Tuesday, local ownership was the winner.

The state voted overwhelmingly to keep its forward-thinking Pharmacy Ownership Law, defeating Measure 7, the Walmart-funded effort to overturn it. Final returns came in with 59 percent of the vote in favor of the law, the Fargo Forum reports[1].

As Governing magazine notes[2], “It wasn’t even close.”

North Dakota’s Pharmacy Ownership Law ensures that the state’s pharmacies are run by pharmacists, not by corporate chains.

In October, ILSR released a report[3] that provided new data and analysis of the law’s impact, and made a compelling case for keeping it.  The report found that, thanks to the state’s local ownership policy, North Dakotans receive pharmacy care that outperforms care in other states on every key measure, from cost to access to quality.  The findings were covered by both newspaper and radio outlets in North Dakota.

The opposition campaign, called North Dakotans for Lower Pharmacy Prices, was fueled by misinformation, and funded exclusively by Walmart, which sank more than $3 million into the group. That’s more money per North Dakota resident than either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney each spent during the 2012 presidential race.

Measure 7 marks the fourth time in the past five years that North Dakota has fielded off corporate-funded attempts to overturn the law. Now, it has survived challenges in court, in the state legislature, and at the polls.

As we wrote[4] earlier this week, “It’s more important than ever to ensure that everyone has convenient access to a high quality pharmacy, where decisions are made by local people whose first allegiance is to health care, not to the profits of a distant chain.”

In Tuesday’s vote, North Dakota again showed that it agrees.

For the full rundown on how North Dakota’s Pharmacy Ownership Law delivers superior care, read our report[5]. For more information on Pharmacy Ownership Laws as a policy tool in other places, check out our Rules Library[6].

Photo courtesy of Andrew Filer[7].

  1. the Fargo Forum reports:
  2. notes:
  3. report:
  4. we wrote:
  5. our report:
  6. Rules Library:
  7. Andrew Filer:

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Why North Dakotans Should Vote to Keep the State’s Unique Pharmacy Law this Election Day

by Olivia LaVecchia | November 3, 2014 12:23 pm

This Tuesday, North Dakota voters will decide the fate of the state’s Pharmacy Ownership Law. Those working against the law—namely Walmart, which has sunk more than $3 million into a front group called North Dakotans for Lower Pharmacy Prices—contend that abandoning the long-standing policy would lead to an increase in the number of pharmacies serving North Dakota.

Our research suggests just the opposite. In a report released last week[1], we reviewed data from state pharmacy boards and the U.S. Census and found that without the Pharmacy Ownership Law, North Dakotans, particularly those in small towns, would have fewer pharmacies than they have today, forcing many to drive long distances or rely more heavily on mail order firms, which study after study find provide inferior care.

For an idea of what’s at stake for North Dakota with Measure 7, we can look across the border to South Dakota, where the pharmacy landscape is very different. In South Dakota, there are fewer pharmacies per person than there are in North Dakota. Those pharmacies that do exist are clustered around urban areas, leaving rural areas and small towns without this basic service. In fact, we found that North Dakota not only beats South Dakota, but has 20 percent more pharmacies per person than Minnesota, and 30 percent more than the national average.

The difference between North Dakota and South Dakota is even more striking when you look at rural areas and small towns. About one-third of the population of each state lives in these places, but North Dakota’s rural areas are 51 percent more likely to contain a pharmacy than similarly-populated areas of South Dakota. Even in urban areas, there’s much more pharmacy competition in North Dakota than in South Dakota. Residents of North Dakota’s two largest cities, Fargo and Bismarck, have 38 percent more competing pharmacies to choose from than residents of Sioux Falls and Rapid City do, because many of the pharmacies in these South Dakota cities are owned by the same chains.

This heightened competition may explain why, over the past five years, North Dakota has ranked 13th on average in lowest prescription prices among the states, beating both South Dakota and Minnesota, according to leading prescription price data from Symphony Health. (more…)[2]

  1. report released last week:
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Job Opening: Director of Development

by ILSR Admin | October 30, 2014 4:34 pm

placeholder[1]The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) is a 40-year-old national nonprofit organization that challenges concentrated corporate power and provides research and policy models to enable communities to take charge of their local economies and build a more equitable and environmentally sound future.  ILSR has a staff of 12 with offices in Minneapolis, MN; Portland, Maine; and Washington, DC.

ILSR is seeking a Director of Development, based in any of our three offices.

Reporting to ILSR’s Co-Directors, the Director of Development will be responsible for leading ILSR’s fund development strategy, setting and achieving fundraising benchmarks, engaging supporters, and establishing new relationships with prospective funders. The Director of Development will collaborate closely with ILSR’s Initiative (Program) Directors to jointly develop proposals and execute fundraising strategies.

Core Responsibilities:



Key Qualifications & Skills:


ILSR provides a competitive salary and compensation package including health insurance, paid vacation, and a retirement plan.

How to Apply: 

Please send a cover letter, résumé, and two writing samples reflecting your original work to[2].  The subject line should read “Director of Development Application.”  No phone calls, please.

  1. [Image]:

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Second National Cultivating Community Composting Forum – October 25th

by Brenda Platt | October 13, 2014 5:18 pm

ILSR is pleased to announce — along with co-organizers BioCycle and Civic Works — the second national Cultivating Community Composting[1], a day-long forum (10:00 AM-4:30 PM) on October 25th, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Like the first forum (held in Columbus, Ohio), this event will bring together composters to network, share best practices, and build support for community scale composting systems and enterprises.

The second national Cultivating Community Composting Forum is being held at the Rita Church Community Center in Baltimore, Maryland’s Clifton Park, where Civic Works’ Real Food Farm[2] is located.

The forum will address a range of topics, including composting methods, permitting and financing, training, bike-powered collection, integrating composting into food production, and community engagement.

The fee to participate is $35 and includes lunch and a tour of the Real Food Farm’s on-site composting and farm.

More information and Online Registration.[3]

Community composting programs range from urban to rural and include demonstration/training sites, schools, universities, pedal-powered collection systems, worker-owned cooperatives, community gardens, and farms employing multiple composting techniques. Many but not all are non-profit mission driven enterprises.  Their distinguishing feature is keeping the process and product as local as possible while engaging the community through participation and education.

Click for more information on ILSR’s community composting work[4]

  1. Cultivating Community Composting:
  2. Real Food Farm:
  3. More information and Online Registration.:
  4. Click for more information on ILSR’s community composting work:

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Scotland and Catalonia: Fraternal but not Twins

by David Morris | October 10, 2014 11:12 am

Scotland and Catalonia are brothers in arms. Independence movement leaders communicate regularly.  On September 18, when Scotland voted on uncoupling from the United Kingdom Catalans were there.  When Catalonia votes on independence, a vote originally scheduled for November 9th but delayed pending a court decision, Scots will certainly be in attendance.

Scotland and Catalonia have much in common: similar populations (Scotland 5.5 million, Catalonia 7.5 million), a similar fraction of their Mother Country’s population (Scotland 8.4 percent, Catalonia 16 percent), a similar historical moment when they lost their sovereignty (Scotland 1707, Catalonia 1714), a similar historical discrimination against their native languages (Gaelic and Catalan).

But in key ways the two are quite different. All of Scotland was never militarily conquered by England.   It voluntarily entered into what became the United Kingdom and retained many of its institutions, although not its Parliament. Catalonia, on the other hand, fell to the Bourbon King Felipe V after a brutal two-year siege of Barcelona.  In the aftermath Catalan institutions were wiped out and the use of the Catalan language severely constrained.  In the 1930s Catalonia was the center of resistance to Franco and fascism and when Franco, with the aid of Germany, won he deepened its cultural annihilation to the point where even reading in Catalan made one subject to arrest.

In Catalonia language is an essential point of dispute.  In Scotland it is not.  While both countries revived education in their ancient languages in the 1980s, Catalonia was much more aggressive.  Catalan is Catalonia’s official language.  Schools teach Spanish only as a foreign language.  Today less than 2 percent of Scotland speaks Gaelic while more than 45 percent of Catalonia speak Catalan.

One of the major factors spurring Scots to vote for independence is their opposition to what many Scots view as the mean spirited policies embraced by Whitehall.  When Scotland has the authority to make decisions, theirs are quite different than the Tories. Unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom, the costs of a university education, and care services for the elderly are free in Scotland. There are many other policy differences. Scots are much more favorable to continued membership in the European Union. Scotland wants to eliminate nuclear weapons.  In contrast, policy differences, except with regard to language and fiscal flows, do not appear to be a major factor in the drive for Catalonia’s independence.

If Scotland were to go independent, it would almost certainly endure fiscal hardship.  Catalonia, on the other hand, would handsomely benefit.

Scotland accounts for 8.4 percent of the UK population and 8.3 percent of the UK’s total output.  Under the current spending formula Scotland receives about £31000 ($5000) more per capita than England.  By one calculation[1] even if Scotland were to receive 90 percent of the North Sea oil revenue, something the UK would never allow, the subsidy would simply drop to £2100 ($3400).

Most of the people voting for Scottish independence seemed to understand this.  Economic betterment wasn’t a persuasive factor for the Yes voter.  Only 20 percent were guided[2] by the belief that “on balance, Scotland’s future looked brighter as an independent country.”  Some 70 percent embraced “the principle that all decisions about Scotland should be taken in Scotland.”

Catalonia has 16 percent of the Spanish population while comprising 20 percent of Spain’s economy. Although most wealthier regions of Spain and other European countries run fiscal deficits (they generate more tax revenue than they receive back) Catalonia’s deficit is comparatively[3] much greater. For example, southeast England is 17 percent wealthier than other English regions and has a fiscal deficit of a little over 6 percent.  Paris is 51 percent richer than other parts of France and runs a fiscal deceit of a little over 4 percent.  Catalonia is 22 percent richer than the average Spanish region but runs a fiscal deficit of 7-10 percent.  By one estimate Catalonian annual subsidies to the rest of Spain may be as much as £2600 ($4200) per capita.  Catalonia argues that the fiscal deficit is one of the reasons that its economic growth in recent years has been slower than other regions. (more…)[4]

  1. calculation:
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  3. comparatively:
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Waste as a Boon for Economic Development with Neil Seldman – October 22nd

by Neil Seldman | October 8, 2014 12:35 pm

How can we create jobs from our recycling program? What are other communities and regions doing to reduce waste while supporting economic development? What type of impact can community composting programs have on job creation?

On October 22nd, from 10am-12 noon, the Town of DeWitt Sustainability Committee, the CNY Recycling Jobs Task Force, NYS Assemblyman Sam Roberts, and County Legislators Linda Ervin and Dave Knapp, in cooperation with other local partners will host Neil Seldman, ILSR, at DeWitt Town Hall (Onondaga County, NY) to address local elected official, local businesses and the public regarding potential benefits of recycling and related jobs.

Mr. Seldman will discuss programs like pay as you throw, deconstruction and resale of building materials, household food recovery programs, zero waste planning, municipal purchasing, and other initiative from communities throughout North America that have been successful in supporting the growth and development of local economies.

More information[1]

  1. More information:

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A Localist Agenda: Policy and Politics for Building a Community-Scaled Economy (Video)

by Stacy Mitchell | October 1, 2014 12:51 pm


Chief among the barriers we face in trying to transform our economic system is a web of local, state, and federal policies that concentrate economic power, undermine community-scaled enterprises and systems, and strip citizens of their capacity and authority to determine their own economic future.

In this panel at the New Economy Coalition’s 2014 conference, ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell, together with Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation[2] and Aaron Bartley of PUSH Buffalo[3], talk about crafting a countervailing political narrative and shared policy framework for devolving economic power and building a community-scaled economy.

Lynn speaks first, reflecting on the anti-monopoly thinking that guided America’s political economy from the country’s founding until the 1980s and how it might be resurrected in today’s context.  Mitchell then presents an emerging policy agenda that outlines concrete municipal, state, and federal proposals for countering corporate power and rebuilding community-scaled enterprises.  Finally, Bartley discusses organizing strategies and how PUSH is building power in Buffalo.  The session is moderated by Lew Daly of Demos[4].


  1. [Image]:
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New Report Details Local Government Efforts to Improve Minnesota Connectivity

by Lisa Gonzalez | September 30, 2014 11:00 am

In our latest report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access[1], we analyze how local governments in 12 Minnesota communities are expanding 21st century Internet access to their citizens.

In 2010, the Minnesota legislature set a goal for 2015 – universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state. Even though we have the technology to make that vision a reality, large swaths of the state will not meet that goal. Nevertheless, local folks who have chosen to take control of their connectivity are finding a way to exceed expectations, surpassing the choices in many metropolitan regions.

Some of the communities we cover include:

We delved into networks in Anoka, Carver, Cook, Lake, and Scott Counties. The report also shares developments in the municipalities of Chaska, Buffalo, and Monticello. We tell the story of RS Fiber, located in Sibley and part of Renville County. These communities provide examples of municipal networks, a variety of public private partnerships, and “dig once” policies.

This week in Minnesota, the governor’s office began accepting applications for the state’s new $20 million initiative Border-to-Border program[5]. We hope this new report will serve as a resource for potential applicants and other community leaders across the U.S. interested in taking charge of their broadband destinies.

Read and download the full report [PDF].[6]

  1. All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access:
  2. Windom:
  3. Dakota County:
  4. Lac qui Parle County:
  5. Border-to-Border program:
  6. Read and download the full report [PDF].:

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All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access

by Christopher | September 30, 2014 1:01 am

Minneapolis, MN —In 2010 the Minnesota legislature set a goal: universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state by 2015. As 2015 approaches we know that large parts of Greater Minnesota will not achieve that goal, even as technological advances make the original benchmarks increasingly obsolete.

But some Minnesota communities are significantly exceeding those goals. Why? The activism of local governments.

A new report by ILSR, widely recognized as one of the most knowledgeable organizations on municipal broadband networks, details the many ways Minnesota’s local governments have stepped up. “All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access”[1] includes case studies of 12 Minnesota cities and counties striving to bring their citizens 21st century telecommunications.

“When national cable and telephone companies have refused to modernize their communications systems, local governments have stepped up. And in the process saved money, attracted new businesses, and made it more likely that their youth will stick around,” says Chris Mitchell, Director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s (ILSR) Community Broadband Networks Initiative.

ILSR’s report is particularly timely because this week, the governor’s office began accepting applications for the state’s new $20 million initiative Border-to-Border program[2].  “We hope that before communities submit their applications they read this report to learn what others have done,” says Mitchell.


Cover All Hands Hifijpg[3]Click here to read and download the full report.[4]

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance presents this in-depth case study co-authored by Lisa Gonzalez and Christopher Mitchell.

Read ongoing stories about these networks at ILSR’s site devoted to Community Broadband Networks[5].  You can also subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks[6].


ABOUT Community Broadband Networks ([7]):

At, we provide resources for those joining the movement to build broadband networks that are directly accountable to the communities they serve.

As more community leaders realize the economic benefits of faster, more reliable Internet services, they are pursuing local control of connectivity through public ownership, cooperative models, and other nonprofit approaches.

The vast majority of community broadband networks, particularly fiber-to-the-home networks, have lowered prices and spurred job growth in their communities. We find out what works, and help other communities replicate these results. is a trusted voice for community networks, our team advises high-ranking broadband decision-makers, and speaks on radio and television programs in markets across the United States.



We believe we make better and more informed policies when those who design those policies are those who feel their impact.

ILSR works with citizens, activists, policymakers and entrepreneurs to provide them with innovative strategies and working models that support environmentally sound and equitable economic policies and community development. Since 1974, ILSR has championed local self-reliance, a strategy that underscores the need for humanly scaled institutions and economies and the widest possible distribution of ownership. 

  1. “All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access”:
  2. Border-to-Border program:
  3. [Image]:
  4. Click here to read and download the full report.:
  5. Community Broadband Networks:
  6. subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks:

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Demos and ILSR Co-Host a Convening on Building a Policy Movement for New Economy Transformation

by Stacy Mitchell | September 29, 2014 2:37 pm

Image: Convening Cover[1]In September, ILSR partnered with Dēmos[2] to co-host a convening on New Economy Transformation: Building a Policy Movement[3]. The event, held in New York City, brought together about 30 leading thinkers and organizers to begin forging a new phase of policy development and campaigning with the aim of fundamentally reorganizing economic power to be rooted in and serve communities.

ILSR and Dēmos collaborated with the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies[4] and its Local Economy Fellowship Program in designing meeting.  The fellows helped orient the discussion, in part, around the potentially significant role of local business leaders in achieving an equitable and sustainable future.

Over the course of two days, participants developed a shared vision for a new economy; discussed substantive challenges for growing this movement, particularly around worker justice, racial equity, and job creation at scale; assessed and prioritized high-impact policy ideas; and began identifying strategies for coordinated policy campaigns in multiple states and cities.

We hope and anticipate that the conversation begun at this convening will be the starting point for building a long-term movement to transform public policy.  Stay tuned for more details from the convening and next steps.

  1. [Image]:
  2. Dēmos:
  3. New Economy Transformation: Building a Policy Movement:
  4. Business Alliance for Local Living Economies:

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Review: Zero Waste: “Nil to Landfill” Is Now a Practical Goal

by Neil Seldman | September 18, 2014 2:41 pm

A Review of a March 2014 social impact report from the Wharton School of Business, Philadelphia, PA, by Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, DC

Changes in solid waste management have indeed made a great social impact in the past few years. However, the Wharton School’s Social Impact March 2014 report, Zero Waste: “Nil to Landfill” Is Now a Practical Goal[1], gives only a glimpse of how new expectations have shifted attitudes, technologies and practices about what recycling can do for a local economy in the near future. Another flaw in the review is its lack of precision when using the terms “zero waste,” and “Extended Producer Responsibility” or “EPR.” As a result, while the report introduces interesting and innovative information on businesses and projects, it leaves the reader behind when it comes to appreciating the current state of the art.

The “nil to landfill” claim is a new approach by companies trying to win customer support for their green works. The reality is that, while claiming “zero waste to landfill,” these companies send their wastes to incinerators. All incinerators need landfills for ash and bypass wastes; these byproducts make up about 20% of the waste stream by volume. For decades, the counties in southern Florida counties have reached the “zero waste to landfill” goal. So when Florida declared a 75% goal to diversion, these counties were already covered. Alachua County has a goal of 75% without incineration. The current flirtation with garbage incineration in all its forms is, in fact, a repetition of 1980s and ’90s efforts to build more than 300 facilities. Only a few of those ended up being built. Today’s wave—an estimated 100 garbage incineration proposals—is meeting a similar demise at the hands of citizen and environmental activists and small businesses. Most recently, there has been a big shift in strategy. The industry is moving away from building new incinerators: rather, companies like WMI will focus on prepared or processed fuels from mixed garbage to be burned in relatively small facilities that are below the EPA threshold for pollution controls, with no community opposition.

Wharton’s report presents good information on real zero waste developments: for example, it includes a description of Paul Connett’s new book, The Zero Waste Solution (Chelsea Green, 2013). This book is the best source of up-to-date information from around the world. The report also cites achievements in Italy—in Capannori, for example—that  Connett documents in his book. There is a growing European movement against incineration: officials are backing away from the practice in favor of recycling and composting.

At the same time, European countries are moving away from the EPR system that gave industry a monopoly over recycling. This program is being demonopolized as recycling costs have soared without competition. As new companies are allowed to enter the sector, officials are seeing a 50% reduction in the costs of recycling. The report does not cover the dramatic changes in US EPR policies, which are eschewing brand-name corporation control of EPR in favor of individual company EPR that supports the local recycling industry instead of replacing it. Corporate control over EPR and recycling has been proposed by leading environmental and industry groups such as Recycle Reinvented and NRDC.

There has been strong recycling industry push back against the corporate dominated model. The city of Berkeley, Calif. originally adopted a corporate EPR ‘Framework’ espoused by the Product Packaging Institute, renamed Upstream. The Citizens Zero Waste Commission proposed an alternative approach to EPR that establishes local agency control, subject to citizen discussion and debate. The City Council approved the new EPR policy.  In British Columbia, monopolization, nexus with incineration, confusion and business resistance followed the introduction of the unpopular EPR System. These events reinforced the negative posture to this concentrated form of EPR. Sims, Inc., the largest metals recycling company in the world, closed its facilities in Ontario and British Columbia as a result of their EPR policies. The retrenchment from corporate EPR was a grassroots effort on the part of recycling practitioners and activists acting to protect a robust industry that has been nurtured for the past 40 years, and that has achieved one million jobs, 65,000 companies, and 10,000 local government programs. It regularly delivers 100 million tons of raw materials to US agriculture and industry.

The discussion of EPR also must distinguish between discarded materials that are not wanted in the community—e.g. toxic materials—and what materials are wanted in the community, e.g., materials and products to which you can add value through manufacturing and processing jobs and tax base. EPR works well on the former, not on the latter.

The report mentions the achievements of San Francisco’s recycling and composting systems, but overlooks perhaps a more interesting situation across the Bay. In Berkeley, the recycling rate is equal to that of San Francisco, but a community-based ecology of commerce has flourished. Six agencies—nonprofits, for-profits and city departments—accomplish what in San Francisco requires a unique city charter monopoly.

Alas, the report does not focus at all on composting, which is expanding rapidly to over 200 municipal collection programs and hundreds of new companies and community-based eco-farms. A new generation of equipment has been introduced to meet the needs of this new sector of the recycling industry. Similarly, the report fails to mention reuse enterprises, which are also expanding rapidly. These companies focus on the 5% of the waste stream that is repairable and reusable, and can add value that is equivalent to 50% of all other recovered recycled materials.

It is  true that the economy is on the path to zero waste, but not because of the factors enumerated in the Wharton Report. Rather, as has always been the case, the prime movers in recycling, reuse and composting are organized citizens and small businesses, focused at the local level of government. This is where decisions on recycling and waste are made. Yes, individual companies do at times introduce better products and packaging, but the engine of reform and change has come, and continues to come, from the ground up.

  1. Zero Waste: “Nil to Landfill” Is Now a Practical Goal:

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Scotland, Sovereignty and Corporations

by David Morris | September 12, 2014 8:14 am

Since 1945 the number of nations has soared from about 60 to more than 180.  The first wave of new sovereign states came with the decolonization movement of the 1960s and 1970s; the second in the early 1990s with the break-up of the Soviet Union. Scotland’s independence movement is part of a third wave. Dozens of would-be nations are waiting in the wings:  Wales, Catalonia, Flanders, Brittany, the list is long.

In 1957 in his classic book The Breakdown of Nations economist and political scientist Leopold Kohr persuasively and rigorously argued that small nations are the natural order having been throughout history the engines for enlightenment, innovation, mutual aid and the arts.  The large nation state, he argued is not a reflection of improved efficiency but of superior force.

It is the great powers which lack the real basis of existence and are without autochthonous, self-sustaining sources of strength. It is they that are the artificial structures, holding together a medley of more or less unwilling little tribes. There is no Great British’ nation in Great Britain. What we find are the English, Scots, Irish, Cornish, Welsh, and the islanders of Man. In Italy, we find the Lombards, Tyroleans, Venetians, Sicilians, or Romans. In Germany we find Bavarians, Saxons, Hessians, Rhinelanders, or Brandenburgers. And in France, we find Normans, Catalans, Alsatians, Basques, or Burgundians. These little nations came into existence by themselves, while the great powers had to be created by force and a series of bloodily unifying wars. Not a single component part joined them voluntarily. They all had to be forced into them, and could be retained by them only by means of their division into counties, Gaue, or departments. . . .”

With a population of 5.2 million, a sovereign Scotland would rank just below the median size of the world’s nations.  It could rest assured that nations of its size can thrive.  Think Finland, Costa Rica, Ireland, Norway.  Small nations are easier to administer, more nimble in policy and their governments are more accountable to and reflective of their communities. Indeed, it is the divergence between the values of the Scottish culture and those of the Conservative government in Whitehall that has been a major impetus for independence.   That divergence is reflected in the fact that today only one Tory holds a seat from Scotland in the British Parliament.

Prime Minister Cameron’s Conservatives advocate welfare cuts, austerity and privatization.  They enthusiastically embrace what the Scots would call the mean values of the Conservatives heroine Maggie Thatcher who summed up her thinking with the famous phrase,  “There is no such thing as society.”

The Scots most definitely believe there is a thing called society. The Scottish National Party, which controls the Scottish government and supports independence, wants to get rid of nuclear weapons, raise the minimum wage in line with inflation and begin a sweeping extension of child care. It is also more favorable toward immigration and the European Union than the British government.

“There is more of a communitarian viewpoint in Scotland that sees the value of coming together to provide public services, to acknowledge the strength of community in Scotland,” Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister told[1] the New York Times.

But if Scotland does become sovereign it will quickly discover that that sovereignty has been severely restricted by new global rules promoted by increasingly dominant global corporations.   Nations may be getting smaller, but corporations are getting larger. Of the 100 largest economies in the world, more than half are global corporations. The Top 200 corporations’ combined sales represent over one quarter of the world’s GDP. (more…)[2]

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Webinar September 16, 2014 – Community Composting: Lessons from NYC

by Brenda Platt | September 10, 2014 9:21 am

ILSR’s Brenda Platt presented at a free webinar, “Community Composting:  Lessons from New York City & Beyond,” on September 16, 2014.

Community composting presents a scalable food diversion option that is applicable in virtually any community, whether urban, suburban, or rural. Community compost programs can be established at community (neighborhood, urban, or tribal) gardens, farms, schools, or other locations. They can be operated by not-for-profit organizations, governments, private sector, schools, housing associations, cooperatives, or through other arrangements.

Operations can serve as demonstration or training sites and/or serve as an effective solution for initiating food scrap processing. Food scrap drop-off collection can take place at community compost sites, farmers markets, transit stations, or other locations. An essential role that community composting can play in the evolution of food scrap diversion is to educate and involve residents in learning about food scrap diversion, the benefits of composting, the uses for compost products, and how the resulting compost products can benefit the community.

New York City’s Compost Project is a community-scale composting network that works to increase capacity and participation in composting in NYC. The city has developed partnerships to provide collection and processing of residential food scraps through its community composting network, along with pilot food scrap collections at multi- family units and schools. In NYC, an estimated 200,000 people participate in the community food scrap collection.

Presenters and Topics

Community Composting—a Model for any Community – Brenda Platt, Co-Director, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Director, Composting Makes $en$e Project, & lead author of the new report Growing Local Fertility: Guide to Community Composting

Growing Organics Collections in NYC: The Evolution of the GrowNYC Food Scrap Collection Program & More – David Hurd, Director, Office of Recycling Outreach & Education, GrowNYC

Community Composting in Action – Christine Datz-Romero, Executive Director, Lower East Side Ecology Center

Sponsored by the Northeast Recycling Council • Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) • New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

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Debating the Role of Government in Somerset Kentucky

by David Morris | September 10, 2014 9:08 am

When two politicians debate the role of government, it is almost always Democrat vs. Republican.  Which is why it was so refreshing and instructive to read of the debate taking place among Republicans in a small city in southeastern Kentucky.

On July 19, after years of complaints about local gasoline prices being higher than those in surrounding communities, the City of Somerset decided to take matters into its own hands and began selling gasoline directly to the public.  Two term State Senator Chris Girdler immediately declared[1], “socialism is alive and well in Somerset.”  Two term Mayor Eddie Girdler, a distant cousin responded[2], “If government doesn’t do it to protect the public, then who does it?”

In an interview State Senator Girdler, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum insisted,  “the government is not the answer – government’s the problem.”    Regrettably the interviewer did not remind the readers that government laid the very foundation of Somerset’s economy.  In 1950 the Army Corps of Engineers completed construction of one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. A little over 100 miles in length with an average depth of 85 feet, Lake Cumberland “transformed[3] Somerset from a sleepy rural community into one of the largest recreation centers in Kentucky, drawing more than 1.7 million visitors annually.”   It would have been instructive to discover whether Senator Girdler would describe Lake Cumberland as a “socialist enterprise.”

Girdler wants to protect us from big government. Senator Girdler approvingly cites[4] Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum, “You can’t be for big government, big taxes and big bureaucracy and still be for the little guy.” Mayor Girdler wants to protect us from the predations big giant corporation and he views government as a proper vehicle for doing so. “It’s the role of government to protect us from big business,” he maintains[5].

Somerset’s foray into retail gasoline sales is not the first time it has used its collective authority on behalf of the little guy. In 1951 the city established a municipally owned natural gas company. In the mid 1970s, regular natural gas shortages spurred this city of 11,000 to borrow $4.5 million from Farmers Home Administration to build a natural gas pipeline to previously landlocked producers in eastern Kentucky as well as a pipeline westward to a Texas Eastern Transmission terminal. Today Somerset owns and operates 155 miles of pipelines that connect to three major national natural gas transmission companies.  It purchases natural gas directly from more than a dozen producers while also transporting producers’ gas to more distant markets.

In 2011 Somerset opened a natural gas stripping plant to upgrade the quality and monetary value of the natural gas.  In 2012 it began converting its public vehicle fleets to compressed natural gas, a conversion that by now is almost complete and became the first in Kentucky to sell natural gas to privately owned vehicles.

In 2010 storage capacity for 100,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel became available at a bargain price. Entrepreneurial Somerset quickly snapped it up, gaining the ability to control costs by purchasing gasoline when prices are low.  Mayor Girdler estimates the city recouped its investment within two years and has been sharing the savings with 11 other public entities as well as Somerset’s independent schools.

The retail gasoline station comes after years of resident complaints about the high price of gasoline in Somerset compared to the surrounding area.  In 2011 the city extended an open invitation from city to local gasoline state business owners to explain why that is so.  All declined to attend.

In June, after two years of public debate, the city council voted 10-0 to authorize the city to sell gasoline. “We couldn’t get anywhere, and we decided that hey, we might as well take a stand in a small way of saying that we’re tired of it…and it is working”, says[6] Mayor Girdler.

Somerset’s new public gasoline fuel center is consciously designed not to drive local gas stations out of business.  It sells only regular gasoline, has no convenience store and doesn’t advertise.  Its goal from day one has been to make the local price of gasoline competitive with the regional price. In fact, the price of gasoline at the Somerset Fuel Center is set at the average regional gasoline price. So far the venture appears to be accomplishing its objective. The day the public gas station opened prices in Somerset dropped to or below those in surrounding communities.

Ultimately, Somerset is not targeting local gas stations but rather global Marathon Oil.  As Mayor Girdler explains[7], “We are one community that decided we’ve got backbone and we’re not going to allow the oil companies to dictate to us what we can and cannot do.”

Marathon’s acquisition of Ashland Oil in 1998 virtually eliminated the competitive gasoline market in much of Kentucky.  After an investigation of price gouging the Kentucky Attorney General’s office noted[8],  “It doesn’t matter if you’re at Chevron. It doesn’t matter if you’re at Thornton’s or Shell or Speedway. It is all Marathon Oil.”  Marathon sets the wholesale price and varies the price depending on how much it can get from the local market.

For decades Marathon had a wee bit of competition in the Somerset market from a small local refinery. But the Somerset Refinery declared bankruptcy in 2008.  In 2009 it reopened under new ownership.  The new owners should have found a ready supply of crude oil from local small oil producers eager to save $5-6 per barrel by transporting to Somerset rather than to Marathon’s more remote refinery. But Marathon began offering handsome incentives to trucker brokers who would go 172 miles northeast of Somerset to deliver to its refinery in Catlettsburg.

On December 15, 2009 the CEO of Somerset Energy Refining wrote[9] an open letter to Marathon pleading with its CEO to cease this anti-competitive practice.  Marathon refused. In early 2010 Somerset Refinery’s biggest supplier diverted to Marathon.  The company declared bankruptcy.  “We simply weren’t able to buy enough crude oil to process to keep our doors open,” said Ed Phelps, spokesman for the company.

In 2011 the local refinery reopened once again under new management, this time with a new name, Continental Refining Company (CRC).  CRC’s refinery is 2 percent the size of Marathon’s but the new owners have long experience in the oil and gasoline business and deeper pockets than the previous owners.  So far it seems to be faring well and has played a key role in allowing Somerset to set up a competing gas station.

Mayor Girdler is up for reelection this November.  Whatever happens, a tip of the hat to Somerset, Kentucky for making concrete the sometimes abstract and always ideological debate about the role of government and the value of collective action.


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Ultimate Solar Calculator “App” Helps You Choose: To Own or Lease?

by John Farrell | September 4, 2014 12:10 pm

A few weeks ago I wrote about the comeback of solar ownership[1] relative to leasing, as the cost of rooftop solar PV continues to fall and new financing options make ownership easier than ever.

Is owning a solar panel right for you? Find out now!

The calculator below lets you compare (leasing) apples to (ownership) apples, and the chart below the calculator shows the value of your solar investment over 15, 25, and 30 years.

The default inputs are good estimates based on ILSR’s research, but you can customize the comparison extensively. The key elements in the ownership v. leasing comparison are in orange, but other options (like nearest city) will make the actual numbers accurate to your location.

Scroll below the calculator for explanations of the inputs[2].

Keep in mind that solar panels typically carry a 20-year warranty, but most panels are expected to continue producing electricity for 30 years or more.

The Ultimate Solar Calculator from ILSR

Embed this calculator on your website[3]

Calculator Terms

Solar project size, cost, and electricity production

Economic Assumptions

Financing Terms

Leasing Terms

Embed Code:
<iframe width="762" height="897" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" src=""></iframe>
Photo credit:  Derek Gavey[5]

  1. the comeback of solar ownership:
  2. explanations of the inputs: #glossary
  3. Embed this calculator on your website: #embed
  4. some solar loans now include a maintenance-free contract:
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UK Rail Privatization 20 years Later

by David Morris | September 2, 2014 4:26 pm

The United Kingdom privatized its national rail system in 1993. Some 20 years later the unsurprising consequences of transforming a public monopoly into a private monopoly are clear. Higher prices. Worse service. Even more public subsidies. Read the article[1].



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This November We Can Regain Local Authority Over the Internet

by David Morris | September 2, 2014 3:53 pm

In July the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stirred up a hornets’ nest by announcing it might overturn state prohibitions on municipally owned broadband networks. Republicans protested that Washington should keep its grubby hands off state authority. Giant cable and phone companies contended that local governments are incapable of managing telecommunications networks and the resulting failure will burden taxpayers.

The national debate is both welcome and timely.  Welcome because it is grounded while addressing some of the most fundamental issues of our time: What is the role of government?  What is the value of competition?  What is the meaning of democracy?  Timely because we are entering the home stretch of an election year where most state legislators are up for re-election.  And because we confront the prospect of mergers between giants Comcast and Time Warner and AT&T and DIRECTTV that may operate under new rules that allow them greater ability to discriminate against other providers.

Some background to the FCC’s decision may be in order.  In the early 2000s, exasperated by poor service, high prices and the condescending refusal of cable and phone companies to upgrade their networks, cities began to build their own.   Today 150 cities have laid fiber or cable to every address in town. Another 250 offer Internet access to either businesses or residents. About 1,000 have created school or library networks. See map[1].

The vast majority of these networks have proven wildly successful.  The borough of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, for example, saved an estimated $2 million in just the first few years after constructing one of the nation’s first fiber networks, a result of lower rates by the muni network and price reductions by the incumbent cable company in response to competitive pressure. Bristol Virginia estimates its network has saved residents and businesses over $10 million. Lafayette, Louisiana estimates savings of over $90 million.  (The benefits of muni networks have been amply catalogued by the Community Broadband Initiative[2].

Competition by public networks has spurred cable and phone companies to upgrade. After Monticello, Minnesota moved ahead with its citywide fiber network TDS, its incumbent telco, began building its own despite having maintained for years that no additional investments were needed. After Lafayette began building its network, incumbent cable company Cox, having previously dismissed customer demands for better service as pure conjecture scrambled to upgrade.

It’s true that some public networks have had significant financial losses, although it is usually bondholders, not taxpayers who feel the pain.  But compared to the track record of private telecoms, public sector management looks like a paragon of financial probity.

In 2002, after disclosing $2.3 billion in off balance sheet debt and the indictment of five corporate officials for financial shenanigans Adelphia declared bankruptcy.  In 2009 Charter collapsed resulting in an $8 billion loss after four executives were indicted for improper financial reporting. In 2009 FairPoint Communications declared bankruptcy, resulting in a loss of more than $1 billion. WorldCom, TNCI, Cordia Communications, AstroTel, Norvergence.  The list of private telecommunications companies that have been mismanaged to the point of collapse is long.

We should bear in mind that investors will deduct the losses from their taxes.  Thus the cost to taxpayers of private corporate mismanagement arguably has been far greater than that caused by losses in public networks.

In any event, as FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told[3] a House Communications Subcommittee in May, “I understand that the experience with community broadband is mixed, that there have been both successes and failures. But if municipal governments want to pursue it, they shouldn’t be inhibited by state laws that have been adopted at the behest of incumbent providers looking to limit competition.”

If forced to, private companies will compete, but they much prefer to spend tens of millions of dollars buying the votes of state legislators to enact laws that forestall competition rather than spend hundreds of millions to improve their networks.

Today 4 states have outright bans.  Fifteen others impose severe restrictions.  In Utah, for example, if a public network wants to offer retail services, a far more profitable endeavor than providing wholesale services, it must demonstrate that each service provided will have a positive cash flow the first year!

After five North Carolina cities proved that muni networks could be hugely successful, Time Warner lobbied the state legislature to prohibit any imitators. Dan Ballister, Time Warner’s Director of Communications insisted[4], “We’re all for competition, as long as people are on a level playing field.”

Level playing field? Time Warner has annual revenues of $18 billion, more than 500 times greater than Salisbury, North Carolina’s $34 million budget. It has 14 million customers while Salisbury’s Fibrant network has about 2500.

Level playing field? Incumbent telephone and cable companies long ago amortized the costs of building their network. When a new competitor enters the market, it must build an entirely new network, passing the costs onto subscribers or investors in the form of higher prices or reduced margins. Large incumbents have far more leverage when negotiating cable channel contracts. A new network serving a single community might pay 25- 50 percent more for its channels.

The law Time Warner wrote and persuaded the North Carolina legislature to pass slants the playing field even more in favor of the giant telecoms. Time Warner can build networks anywhere in North Carolina but the public sector is limited to its municipal boundaries.  A public network must price its communication services based on the cost of capital available to private providers even if it can access capital more cheaply.

The North Carolina law, as with many such state laws, prohibits public networks from using surpluses from one part of the city to finance the telecommunications system. But the law doesn’t prohibit private networks from doing so. Time Warner can tap into profits from its vast customer base (largely in uncompetitive areas) to subsidize predatory pricing against muni competition. When Scottsboro, Alabama built a city wide cable network Charter used profits from other markets to offer Scottsboro customers a video package with 150 channels for less than $20 per month, even while Charter was charging customers in nearby communities over $70 for the same package. In a proceeding at the FCC, experts estimated[5] Charter was losing at least $100-$200 year on these deals and even more when factoring in the cost of six major door-to-door marketing campaigns.

Existing North Carolina law already required a referendum before a city can issue bonds to finance a public network. The new law specifically exempts cities from having to obtain voter approval “prior to the sale or discontinuance of the city’s communications network”.

Terry Huval, Director of Lafayette’s LUS Fiber describes[6] still other ways state laws favor incumbents.  “While Cox Communications can make rate decisions in a private conference room several states away, Lafayette conducts its business in an open forum, as it should. While Cox can make repeated and periodic requests for documents under the Public Records Law, it is not subject to a corresponding… Louisiana law limits the ability of a governmental enterprise to advertise, but nothing prevents the incumbent providers from spending millions of dollars in advertising campaigns.”

The FCC’s current proceeding came in response to petitions from two cities: Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina.  Both have very successful world-class muni networks.  Surrounding communities are clamoring to interconnect.  The Chattanooga Times Free Press[7] recently described the frustration and anger of people living tantalizingly close to these public networks.


“When Joyce Coltrin looks outside the front door of her wholesale plant business, her gaze stops at a spot less than a half mile away.

All she can do is stare in disbelief at the spot in rural Bradley County where access to EPB’s fiber-optic service abruptly halts, as mandated under a Tennessee law that has frozen the expansion of the fastest Internet in the Western Hemisphere…the small business owner has no access to wired Internet of any type, despite years of pleas to the private companies that provide broadband in her community.

‘The way I see it, Comcast and Charter and AT&T have had 15 years to figure out how to get Internet to us, and they’ve decided it’s not cost-effective,’ Coltrin said. ‘We have not been able to get anything because of these state laws, and through no fault of our own, we are treated as second-class citizens. They’ve just sort of held us hostage.’”

On July 16, House Republicans voted 221-4 to freeze FCC funding if it attempts to overturn state prohibitions.  Sixty Republican House members sent a letter to Wheeler declaring, “Without any doubt, state governments across the country understand and are more attentive to the needs of the American people than unelected federal bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.”  Eleven Republican Senators agreed, “States are much closer to their citizens and can meet their needs better than an unelected bureaucracy in Washington, D.C… State political leaders are accountable to the voters who elect them…”

But if state legislatures are closer to and more accountable to the people than the FCC or Congress surely city councils and county commissions are even closer and more accountable.

Ultimately then, this is a fight about democracy. Corporations prefer to fight in 50 remote state capitols rather than 30,000 local communities. But genuine democracy depends on allowing, to the greatest extent possible, those who feel the impact of decisions to be a significant part in the decision making process. Harold DePriest, head of Chattanooga’s municipally owned broadband network (and electricity company) poses[8] the fundamental question this way, “(D)oes our community control our own fate, or does someone else control it?” Decisions about caps and rates and access, about the digital divide and net neutrality can be debated and made at the local level, not in some distant boardroom or having to rely on federal agencies to act and federal courts to support their actions.

If the FCC decides in favor of Chattanooga and Wilson the issue will be tied up in courts for years. But we shouldn’t need the federal government to come to our rescue. The elections this fall will revolve around many issues.  But given the centrality of high speed, affordable, reliable broadband and the looming prospect of even more corporate consolidation citizens this issue should be front and center. In 90 days, in 19 states that restrict municipal broadband, voters will be given the chance to overturn that decision by throwing out those who said no to local democracy.


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David Brancaccio Lets Us Down

by David Morris | September 2, 2014 3:39 pm

David Brancaccio is a solid reporter.  Perhaps the cognitive dissonance of talking about public ownership on a program called Marketplace caused him to go astray.  Nevertheless a few days ago he did his listeners a disservice when he commented[1] on the city of Somerset, Kentucky’s new venture: Selling gasoline directly to city residents.

Somerset’s entrepreneurialism got him to explore other municipal enterprises,   “I looked around for some precedents and they are interesting.”

So far so good.  Tens of thousands of precedents exist public ownership and they are indeed interesting.  But a listener to Brancaccio could not be faulted for coming away with the impression that public enterprises are few and far between.

Brancaccio began by observing, “Some cities have long had municipal public utilities. The power company in San Francisco is owned by the city and county, for instance.”

That’s an oddly understated way to talk about municipal electric companies.  Yes San Francisco owns a power company.  But the Hetch Hetchy’s series of dams were built primarily to provide water and the electricity they generated is delivered only to the public sector.  No sales are made to residences or businesses.  That’s the province of an investor owned utility, PG&E.

Much more instructive would have been the revelation that more than 2000 cities boast full fledged electric power companies, including big cities like Los Angeles, San Antonio, Austin and Seattle.   Better yet, Brancaccio might have described one or two of the many titanic struggles between plundering private, unresponsive corporations and the people that preceded the creation of these government enterprises.

Despite abundant evidence to the contrary Brancaccio insists that public enterprises are the exception.  “More typically however, the response to high prices or other perceived market failures has not been ownership of the retail outlet by a municipality. Instead, the solution is more often local citizens banding together. Heating fuel co-ops are common, in which locals pool resources to get a better price on oil by buying in bulk.”

Actually heating fuel coops are not at all common.  Only a few dozen exist and many of them are buying clubs, not genuine cooperatives.  On the other hand, more than 100 cities own their own natural gas companies, including Somerset, Kentucky where sales of compressed natural gas for vehicles anticipated the sale of gasoline.

Brancaccio might have educated his listeners about the latest wave of public enterprises– municipal broadband networks. In the last decade over 150 cities laid fiber or cable to every address in town. Another 250 offer Internet access to either businesses or residents. About 1,000 created school or library networks.

These municipal networks offer some of the fastest speeds and lowest prices in the country.  And their service is incomparably better than that offered by Comcast and Time Warner, although admittedly that is a very low bar.

Brancaccio is correct that often citizens band together to create cooperatives when the private sector fails them. But rather than talk about heating fuel coops he could instead have told his listeners about the great resurgence of the nation’s credit unions–7200 with 100 million members, up by 10 million in just the last six years, and $1 trillion in assets.

As I said, perhaps Brancaccio felt inhibited in talking about the virtues of public and cooperative ownership under the auspices of the Marketplace. When Marketplace reporters talk about business listeners can almost always be assured they are referring to private business not public enterprise.  Nevertheless, I hope Brancaccio revisits the issue in future broadcasts and lets people know that cooperative and government enterprises are not on the periphery of the economy but are a successful and growing component of it.

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Stafford Incinerator in Virginia Not “Financially Beneficial”

by Neil Seldman | August 22, 2014 11:46 am

The Regional Solid Waste Management Board that oversees the County and City of Fredericksburg landfill will not pursue a garbage and industrial waste incineration-gasification facility. The County received no bid that it considered financially beneficial to the County and City and dropped the project.

Citizens who have been opposed to the project for several years were pleased with the decision and are now pressing the County to implement expanded recycling and composting. Despite having decades left of landfill capacity, the regional authority wanted an incinerator. Now Bill Johnson,[1] activist, wants to unite the government, business and citizens to plan and implement recycling and enterprises expansion under a zero waste policy initiative. The county and city have decades of landfill capacity available; a key reason, why there was no need to rush into an incinerator-based solution. “Now, is the time to expand recycling and composting so that the landfill will serve households and businesses for generations to come”, said Johnson.

Mike Ewall, director of Energy Justice Network[5], has been the prime source of technical assistance observes that this is the second politically and fiscally conservative county in the Mid Atlantic region to reject garbage incineration as an acceptable solid waste management approach. Carroll County, MD paid $1 million this year to get out of a contract for garbage incineration. In June, Energy Justice Network helped citizens in Lorton, VA get their Fairfax County, VA to reject a 50 year expansion of a construction and demolition landfill due to close in 2016.

ILSR and Urban Ore, Berkeley, CA supported the citizens in Stafford County and Lorton through workshops and guest articles in the local media.

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Federal Study Confirms “Too Big To Fail” Gives Megabanks a Hidden Funding Advantage

by Olivia LaVecchia | August 20, 2014 6:25 pm

When the country’s giant banks were teetering on the verge of collapse during 2008’s financial crisis, the U.S. government stepped in to bail them out. The banks were, in a phrase that has since become infamous, “Too Big To Fail.”

Would the government do it again? And does the expectation that it would step in give megabanks an unfair competitive advantage over local community banks?

Those are the questions at the heart of an eagerly awaited report[1] released at the end of July by the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan federal department. In a conclusion that highlights the need for more regulatory action to reduce concentration in the banking system, the G.A.O. found that the answers to both questions are “yes.”

Six years after the bailout, the country’s biggest banks have only grown bigger. Just four megabanks, each with more than $1.5 trillion in assets, control 45 percent of the country’s banking industry, up from 37 percent in 2007, according to FDIC data. The consequences for the economy — higher consumer fees, fewer small business loans, and more risky speculative trading — are substantial.

To Senators David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, and Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, these are among the signs that “Too Big To Fail” works as a kind of implicit insurance — and as such, a subsidy — for the megabanks. Because creditors and investors believe taxpayers will rescue the banks if anything goes awry, they are willing to finance big banks at much lower interest rates than they offer smaller institutions.

The Senators have introduced a bill, the “Terminating Bailouts for Taxpayer Fairness Act,” that aims to end this implicit government subsidy, and create a fairer playing field for community banks.

The Senators are also the ones who called for the G.A.O. report, in order to get a better sense of just how big the megabanks’ advantage is.

In the report, the G.A.O. looked at one particular benefit that the taxpayers’ guarantee nets the megabanks: whether they’re able to borrow money – issue debt – more cheaply than smaller financial institutions. Using 42 models, the G.A.O. found that though the benefit has tapered off in recent years, during the heart of the financial crisis, in 2008 and 2009, megabanks were able to borrow at significantly lower rates. (more…)[2]

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Why Aren’t Rural Electric Cooperatives Champions of Local Clean Power?

by John Farrell | August 18, 2014 2:20 pm

When it comes to ownership, there are few better structures for keeping a community’s wealth local than a cooperative. So why is it that America’s rural electric cooperatives are tethered to dirty, old coal-fired power plants instead of local-wealth generating renewable power?

There are a lot of answers to this question, but it might start with this: electric cooperatives aren’t quite like other cooperatives.

The Seven Slipping Cooperative Principles

Cooperatives around the world adhere to the “Seven Cooperative Principles[1],” but electric cooperatives (at least in the United States) fail on several of these principles.

  1. Voluntary and open membership. Nope. If you want electric service in cooperative territory, you sign with the cooperative. While it’s no different than rules for other types of utilities in the 30 states that grant utilities a monopoly service territory, it violates the principles of cooperatives.
  2. Democratic control (one member, one vote). Not always. Some electric cooperatives award one vote per meter, and some customers (e.g. farmers, industry) have more than one meter. Furthermore, many cooperatives filter potential board candidates with “nominating committees.” And look, here’s a board election with no opposition[2]!There’s also a big gap between cooperative member support for (paying more for) renewable energy and cooperative behavior. This 2013 survey in Minnesota[3], for example, shows little separation between urban and rural areas (where cooperatives are dominant) in support for renewable energy, yet cooperatives opposed every bill[4] favoring clean energy in the 2013 legislative session.
  3. Members control the capital of the cooperative.
  4. Cooperatives maintain their autonomy and independence even if they enter into agreements with other entities. Questionable. Many cooperatives sign 40- or even 50-year purchase contracts with power suppliers to supply 95% of their entire sales, mostly from coal-fired power plants. Standard and Poor’s explains this in an evaluation of a Seminole Electric in Florida[5], a generation & transmission cooperative that sells to rural cooperatives. In their words, one of the utility’s credit strengths is, “A captive retail market and the ability to set rates through take-and-pay, all-requirements wholesale power agreements with nine of 10 members through 2045.”
  5. Cooperatives provide educational opportunities to their members and the public on the benefits of cooperatives. Questionable. If you read rural electric cooperative newsletters, you’ll hear a lot about climate change but you’ll often find the phrase in[6] quotes[7]
  6. Cooperatives work best when cooperating with other cooperatives. Questionable, refer to #4. Some of these power suppliers are “co-ops of co-ops,” but these long-term contracts have tethered the economic fortunes of cooperative members to the vagaries of the coal market (see below). More than any other type of utility (public or investor-owned), rural electric cooperatives are reliant on coal[8] for their electricity fuel. The average U.S. utility is 38% coal-fired power.rural electric cooperatives reliant on coal - public citizen[9]coal prices 2000-11.001[10]
  7. Cooperatives work for sustainable development of their community. Not enough. Most cooperatives rely heavily on imported power purchased on long-term contracts with the goal of cheap power, but that ironically leave them at the mercy of unfettered price increases. They also have missed an enormous economic development opportunity from renewable energy. For example:Renewable energy provides significant economic impacts ($1 million per megawatt of wind, $250,000 per megawatt for solar) with multipliers for local (i.e. cooperative) ownership[11] (up to 3.5 times more local economic impact, and twice as many jobs). Wind and solar provide more jobs per megawatt of power capacity, as well.RE-fossil-jobs-per-MW[12]Finally, rural electric cooperatives have organized a 1 million comment campaign against EPA regulations[13] of carbon pollution from power plants. Hardly a commitment to “sustainable development.”

How Can Cooperatives Change?

Restoring their 7 principles could do a lot. Improving their structure so that the cooperative directors reflect member opinion on renewable energy would restore the principle of democratic control. Avoiding ridiculously long power purchase contracts would provide local cooperatives with real autonomy and control of their energy costs and options. Broadening their focus on economic development beyond cheap power to include renewable energy would make “sustainable development” much more realistic.

Can it happen? It already has, in Iowa and on[14] Kaua’i[15], and there are more tools that ever[16] at their disposal. But as with electrification, no one will do it unless they do it themselves.

  1. Seven Cooperative Principles:
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The Birth of Community Broadband – Video

by Christopher | August 15, 2014 9:11 am

ILSR is excited to announce a new short video examining an impressive municipal broadband network, Glasgow Kentucky. Glasgow was the first municipal broadband network and indeed, seems to have been the first citywide broadband system in the United States.

We partnered with the Media Working Group[1] to produce this short documentary and we have the material to do much more, thanks to the hard work of Fred Johnson at MWG and the cooperation of many in Glasgow, particularly Billy Ray.

People who only recently became aware of the idea of community owned networks may not be familiar with Billy Ray, but it was he and Jim Baller throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s that paved the way for all the investment and excitement we see today. 

I’m excited to be helping to tell part of this story and look forward to being able to tell more of it.


  1. Media Working Group:

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FCC Releases Notice of Inquiry on Broadband Progress

by Rebecca Toews | August 14, 2014 3:39 pm


Section 702 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act requires the FCC to report annually on whether “advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” The FCC kicked off its tenth such report on Tuesday by releasing a “Notice of Inquiry[1],” (NOI) in effect asking individuals and groups around the country to offer relevant data and comments.

This process amounts to a kind of crowdsourced “State of the Union” on broadband issues. In addition to determining how many people in what areas have broadband access, this NOI also asks the critical question of how exactly the FCC should define broadband. The current definition of 4mbps download[2] capacity and 1mbps upload[3] may have been sufficient in the past, but isn’t adequate for even recreational household use by many Americans today, let alone the demands of running a business and conducting commerce online.

This NOI also asks some arcane but important questions about other aspects of broadband definitions, including latency[4] (the speed of data moving within a network, a different measure than bandwidth[5]) and the widespread use of data caps and other policies in the telecom industry.

Obviously the answers to all these questions have significant implications for municipal networks. Inadequate or overly-loose definitions of broadband allow incumbents to claim that they are providing excellent service to just about everyone in a given area, when that is often far from the truth. Many restrictive state laws limiting municipal networks, as well as federal grant programs that may support such networks, are based on whether an area is defined as already served or underserved, which may be dependent on FCC benchmarks. As is often the case in regulatory issues, the devil is in the details.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler introduced the NOI[6] with the following statement:

Congress has instructed us that all Americans should have access to robust broadband services, no matter where they live. Because consumers demand increasing levels of bandwidth capacity to support the applications they want to use online, we are asking if it is time to update the benchmark broadband speed. And as more people adopt faster broadband speeds, we are asking if all consumers, even in the most rural regions, should have greater access to better broadband.

We here at ILSR believe the answer to both questions is a resounding “YES.” The due date for initial comments is September 4th, and ILSR intends to make its voice heard.

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A Solar Ownership Comeback? John Farrell Talks with Arnie Arnesen on WNHN

by John Farrell | August 13, 2014 3:16 pm

A month ago I wrote about the potential for a comeback for solar ownership[1] (instead of leasing) as the economics and options for ownership continue to improve. Yesterday I discussed this trend in depth on “The Attitude” with Arnie Arnesen on WNHN. Subscribe to the podcast here[2], or listen by clicking the player below:

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Working Partner Update: Community Purchasing Alliance, Washington DC

by Neil Seldman | August 4, 2014 3:57 pm

Based in Washington, DC, the Community Purchasing Alliance (CPA) leverages the buying power of its member community organizations to lower operating costs while supporting vendors committed to a greater social purpose. CPA is owned entirely by its members, which include religious institutions, charter schools, and other nonprofits. Together, CPA helps these organizations realize that by working together they can advance their commitments to social and environmental values while also improving their bottom lines.

CPA started as an electricity-buying group in 2011. It has since grown to more than 100 organizations and helps its members save around 15% on their electricity bills by purchasing at fixed group rates that include 100% renewable energy and a rebates. The fixed rates help members with greater budget predictability and the clean energy component aligns with their sustainability principles. CPA expects 30 to 40 new religious congregations to join this program in the fall. They hope to soon help members more closely track their utility usage to determine additional ways to save money.

Members expanded their cooperative purchasing to waste and recycling pick-up, because of the significant cost savings potential in this area. CPA signed contracts that will save 25%, or $96,000 in the upcoming year, for the 45 participants in this program. Information was collected on the current practices of dozens of members to inform the Request for Proposal (RFP) process. They found members were being significantly over-charged to have their trash collected and on top of that had little recourse in their service agreements. For example, one church was paying $2,300/month for the same level of service that is now being provided for $490/month. CPA created its own service contract within the RFP but allowed respondents to propose changes. The RFP offered additional points for local, minority-owned companies that paid its workers living wages and used transfer stations and materials recycling facilities that share these values. This year, CPA selected two local companies that together employee 250 local residents as the winning vendors.

Other cooperative purchasing programs include installation of solar panels, copier leasing, office supply purchasing and payroll services. CPA also has a discount program with nine ACE Hardware stores in which members receive 10% off any item and 25% off bulk purchases. CPA estimates that, on average, members save $6,000/year by participating in the electric, trash and recycling, and supplies purchasing programs. This savings stays local and enables the nonprofit members to continue serving the community while staying committed to their social and environmental values. CPA believes the model will become self-sustaining once it reaches 180 members in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Once the concept is proven, CPA aims to work with partners to replicate the model in cities across the country.

Contact Information: Web page[1]; contact person Felipe Witchger,

This article authored by Megan Loeb and Neil Seldman


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Chattanooga and Wilson Comment Period Open; Tell the FCC You Support Local Authority

by Lisa Gonzalez | July 29, 2014 4:45 pm

Last week, the communities of Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina, filed petitions with the FCC[1]. Both communities requested that the agency remove state barriers preventing expansion beyond their current service areas. On July 28, the FCC established a public comment calendar[2] for the request. It is imperative that all those with an interest in better access take a few moments to express their support for these two communities.

Opening Comments are due August 29, 2014; Reply Comments will be due September 29, 2014. That means you need to submit comments by the end of this month. If you want to reply to any comments, you can do that in September.

This is a pivotal moment in telecommunications policy. For months municipal network advocates have been following Chairman Wheeler’s stated intentions[3] to remove state barriers to local authority. Within the past few weeks, federal legislators – many that rely on campaign contributions from large providers – pushed back through Rep Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Blackburn introduced an amendment[4] to a House appropriations bill preventing FCC preemption if the amendment becomes law.

ILSR and encourage individuals, organizations, and entities to file comments supporting the people of Wilson[5] and Chattanooga[6]. These two communities exemplify the potential success of local Internet choice. We have documented their many victories on and through case studies on Wilson [PDF][7] and Chattanooga [PDF][8].

Now is the time to share your support for local decision-making. This is not about whether any given community should build its own network so much as it is about whether every community can decide for itself how to best expand and improve Internet access, whether by investing in itself or working with a trusted partner.

ILSR will be filing comments in support of Wilson’s and Chattanooga’s petitions. As a service to those who plan to express their support for local authority, we will continue to provide information, guidance, and resources throughout the comment period. In the near future, there should be a guide to help you submit comments. But if you are really enthusiastic or already know the process, here are some links.

File comments electronically for Wilson’s petition at Proceeding 14-115[9]; Chattanooga’s petition is Proceeding 14-116[10]. Petitions and exhibits are available at the filings pages or at the links below.

  1. filed petitions with the FCC:
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Republicans Again Violate Their Own Principles

by David Morris | July 25, 2014 4:22 pm

By the time you read this, Congressional Republicans will have overwhelmingly voted to violate one of their most cherished guiding principles: A service should be paid for by those who use the service. If we don’t fully pay for services, Republicans usually insist, markets can’t work effectively.  We undervalue and overuse services, resulting in wasteful overspending.

All of which makes the debate about renewing and replenishing the months-long federal highway trust fund so revealing. This spring Republicans made clear their position:  No new taxes.  Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), speaking for himself and his party declared[1], “I do not support, and the House will not support, billions of dollars in higher taxes to pay for more spending” on transportation.

Camp’s position might be reasonable if he and his fellow Republicans were at the same time willing to abide by another of their basic principles: Live within your budget.  If you don’t have the money, don’t spend it.  In this instance, if drivers are unwilling to pay the road budget then cut federal highway spending by 28 percent[2], which would reduce overall national road spending by about 7 percent.

But Republicans don’t want to cut road expenditures.  They just don’t want drivers to pay.  The result has been months devising strategies to divert money from other sources.  In May, in a memo to rank and file House Speaker John Beohner (R-OH), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) insisted[3] they had come up with a perfect “way to ensure continued funding of highway projects in a fiscally responsible manner.” They would make up the highway-financing gap by eliminating Saturday postal delivery!   To ensure that the roads are adequate for delivering the mail they will no longer deliver the mail.

Eventually Republicans decided that sacrificing the post office to ensure that drivers could use the roads more cheaply was politically unworkable.

By now I know many readers are asking, “What about Democrats?”  After all, the House proposal was passed by a bipartisan vote of 367-55.  True. But Democrats swear no fealty to the proposition that all services should, whenever possible, be fully paid by users.   They believe I should pay for the public library even if I don’t use it.  I should pay for the public park even if I don’t use it. They believe these are public goods available always to all.  Republicans, or at least Republicans circa 2014 don’t seem to believe there are public goods.

Certainly some aspects of roads may be considered public goods. Even those who don’t drive may need them to deliver fire or police protection or ambulance services.  Which would argue that some part of the road budget could justifiably come from the general public purse.

But the Republicans don’t make that argument.  And if they did they would have to confront the fact that there are public costs as well as public benefits to roads.  The environmental damages caused by driving, for example, far outweigh the taxes paid at the pump.  To redress these damages some propose raising the gas tax by $1 or $2 per gallon or more. Republicans refuse to even entertain the notion.  If they are so ideologically hidebound that they won’t even require drivers to pay for their roads, how could they possibly ask them to pay for the actual damages caused by their driving?

Republican have not always been willing to so quickly violate basic conservative economic principles.  Prior to l956 highways were financed directly from the federal Treasury.  Then in 1956, at the insistence of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower the Highway Trust Fund was established with revenue generated from a dedicated fuel tax.  The original tax was 3 cents per gallon.  Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush each[4] raised the tax by 5 cents per gallon. In 1993 President Clinton raised it by a little over 4 cents.  And there, at 18.4 cents per gallon, it has remained for the last 21 years.

In 2008 the highway trust fund experienced a shortfall, a result of reduced driving due to sky-high oil prices.  Congress made up the shortfall with $8 billion from general funds.  In 2009 and 2010 Congress again supplied general funds.

The hope was that eventually Congress would develop a long term funding plan that would include a gas tax increase.   In 2013 none other than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported such a move.  The Republicans would have none of it.

Washington Republicans are not the only ones violating the user pays principle.  The Tax Foundation estimates[5] that overall state and local governments finance only 32 percent out of user fees.  Federal funding brings this total up to 50 percent.  The rest comes out of general funds.  In the case of cities the majority comes from property taxes.

Recently states, Republican as well as Democrat have begun raising gas taxes.  Eighteen states currently impose a gasoline sales tax whose revenue rises with gas prices or pegs the tax to the rate of inflation.  But 16 states have not raised[6] their gas taxes for two decades or more.  Recently Wyoming raised its gas tax for the first time in 16 years. New Hampshire hiked its gas tax for the first time in 23 years.  But states and cities have a long way to go before they could consider their transportation funding mechanisms self-sustaining.

By the time you read this, Congress may have jimmy rigged a temporary solution to the highway funding shortfall.  Which means we get to have the same debate again next year.  Perhaps Republicans will propose slashing food stamps or Medicare or Pell grants.  Anything to avoid having to require those who use the roads to pay for the roads.



Image:  Dan Reed, Creative Commons[7]





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Will Labor Solidarity Save the Post Office?

by David Morris | July 23, 2014 3:31 pm

The United States Postal Service (USPS) management just ran into a possible game-changing obstacle to its shameful pursuit of a fully privatized post office:  labor solidarity.

Here’s the background. For a decade the USPS has been aggressively shrinking, consolidating, and outsourcing the nation’s postal system.  In July 2011 management upped the ante by announcing[1] the rapid closure of 3600 local post offices, a step toward the eventual closing of as many as 15,000, half of all post offices in the nation.

A groundswell of opposition erupted.  Citizens in hundreds of towns mobilized to save a treasured institution that plays a key and sometimes defining role in their communities.  In December 2011, after Congress appeared ready to impose a six-month moratorium on closures USPS management voluntarily adopted a freeze of the same length.

In May 2012, the moratorium ended but management, possibly concerned about reviving a national backlash, embraced an ingenious stealth strategy. Rather than closures, management moved to slash hours at 13,000 post offices.   That could be accomplished quickly.  Reduction in hours, unlike outright closures, requires little justification.  Appeals are limited. Moreover a reduction in hours doesn’t generate the same level of outrage as a closure. The building remains open even though its value to the community is dramatically diminished.

By the end of this year management may achieve its goal.  Already 9,000 post offices have had their hours cut[2] drastically.  Part time inexperienced non-career employees have replaced full time experienced career postmasters. Management duly held meetings in every affected community but refused to heed or even respond to the counsel of local residents and businesses or provide them the data used to justify its decision

Postal clerks and letter carriers are the personal face of the most ubiquitous, trusted and respected of all public institutions.  By gradually replacing to-the-door service with delivery to more remote cluster mailboxes management has already reduced our personal interaction with letter carriers.

Last fall USPS management proceeded with the second phase in its campaign to sever our personal links to the postal clerks by quietly launching a pilot project in 82 Staples stores.  After the news became public management ingenuously announced that nothing had changed. “Staples joins with more than 65,000 retailers . . . who currently provide expanded access to postal products and services.”  Management conveniently forgot to mention that these 65,000 locations just sell stamps or flat boxes. None hosts a postal counter staffed by a retail employee that sells services.

The arrangement with Staples is different.  As management conceded, Staples “is the first retailer to take part in a USPS pilot program dubbed the Retail Partner Expansion Program.” The Retail Partner Expansion Program creates mini post offices into big box stores.

If the pilot proves successful the USPS expects to expand it to all 1,500 Staples. And then to all big box retail outlets.  Steve Hutkins, creator of the inestimable runs the numbers. We can now buy stamps at 7,450 Walgreens; 3,830 Wal-Marts; 1,632 Staples; 1,200 Office Depots; 847 Safeways; 609 Sam’s Clubs; and 426 Costcos. That adds up to over 14,000 locations.  “If all of those arrangements were converted from selling stamps on consignment to setting up postal counters, the Postal Service would have an instant infrastructure of “mini post offices” to replace real post offices…”

A bill introduced by Rep. Darrell’s Issa (R-CA) would make this replacement much easier.  According to Section 103 of the Postal Reform Act of 2013[3] the right to appeal a post office closing to the Postal Regulatory Commission “shall not apply to a determination of the Postal Service to close a post office if there is located, within 2 miles of such post office, a qualified contract postal unit.”  There are 1,200 post offices within two miles of just the Staples retail network.

For management replacing a real post office with a fake post office is a good deal. USPS average pay[4] is about $25 an hour.  Staples retail clerks earn[5] about $8.50 an hour.

For the customer this is a bad deal.  Staples’ employees receive[6] just four hours of “classroom” training for postal retail duties. Postal retail clerks receive 32 hours of intense classroom training, followed by 40 hours of on-the-job training alongside experienced window clerks. Postal workers must pass a test before they are considered qualified to work the window. Given the turnover at Staples it’s unlikely the employee at the postal counter is going to be around long enough to acquire the experience or expertise of a career postal worker.

For the community this is an awful deal. A cherished local institution created to serve the public interest would be replaced by a counter in a business created to serve distant shareholders and management. If its economic self-interest dictated Staples could decide to close the store.  To underline the reality of this threat in March Staples announced[7] it will shutter up to 225 stores. That would leave the community without any postal services at all.

Labor Solidarity to the Rescue

The American Postal Workers Union  (APWU) responded to management’s hostile action by organizing protests around the country. On April 24th a Day of Action resulted in hundreds of pickets, marches and rallies in more than 50 cities across 27 states under the rallying cry, “Stop Staples: The U.S. Mail is Not for Sale”.

In late May Staples Vice Chairman Joe Doody nervously acknowledged the USPS deal “could become a problem if more unions backed the postal workers.” He told[8] the Boston Globe, “The retailer will continue to evaluate the situation to determine whether the negative backlash is worth the benefits of the partnership,” Staples had signed the deal because it was desperate to gain more traffic through its stores.  If the deal actually reduces traffic and sales, Staples would reconsider.

State labor unions and national federations began to endorse the ‘Don’t Buy Staples’ campaign. On May 30, when the AFL-CIO, comprised of 56 unions representing 12.5 million members came out in support of the boycott.  In mid June California’s Service Employees International Union 32BJ, representing 145,000 union members in 11 states and the District of Columbia, voted for a boycott. In a letter to the Staples CEO SEUI 32BJ President Héctor Figueroa observed, “The Postal Service is the largest single civilian employer of union middle-class jobs for African Americans, and Veterans (including disabled veterans), and is the largest single civilian union employer. We need more of these types of jobs to strengthen our economy and the middle class, and we will not accept your efforts to undermine them through low-wage privation.”

After July 4th more unions formally joined the boycott. Perhaps they were inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s enduring comment at the signing of the Declaration of Independence,  “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

In July the International Association of Firefighters representing more than 300,000 backed the boycott. AFSCME union, representing 1.6 million public-sector workers, followed suit.  Then on July 12th the 1.5 million member American Federation of Teachers (AFT) delivered the coup de grace when it signed on. APWU President Mark Dimondstein made[9] the case for solidarity to the convention, “We too are in the public sector, we too are meeting the needs of people. We’re facing some of the same problems you are—I call it divert, defund, demoralize, demonize and dismantle.”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten responded. “Who does Staples really want and need to come into its stores every single day? Teachers. The best way we can help is if we say to Staples: ‘You do this to the postal workers, and we aren’t buying supplies in your stores.’”

School supplies are a key market for Staples, accounting[10] for up to one-third of its sales. Last year teachers spent[11] about $1.6 billion of their own money on school supplies. Back-to-school supply-buying gets going in earnest in late July.

On July 14th Staples announced it had withdrawn from the Retail Partner Expansion Program.

The celebrations have been muted. Management hasn’t thrown in the towel.  It’s simply changed the name of the program. As one USPS spokesperson explained[12], “We look forward to continuing the partnership whether it’s called Retail Partner Expansion or approved shipper.”  The USPS wants to establish a beachhead in thousands of retail stores.  Once a postal counter staffed by low paid non union non postal service employees begins to sell services it will be easy to expand the kinds of services it offers.

But Staples announcement and USPS’ obfuscation demonstrates that retail stores are vulnerable to boycotts, especially those organized by people in the communities they serve.  Teachers, firefighters, government workers, service employees live in significant numbers in every community.  They can form the backbone of an effort that puts big box retailers and USPS management on notice.  Hands off our post office!

And who knows?  Hands off our post office could evolve into Give us back our post office. A successful boycott to stop the further privatization of the post office could then move demand that the post office be restored to its former glory and effectiveness by reopening processing centers, extending local post office hours and rehiring experienced staff.   Benjamin Franklin, the first Postmaster General of the United States, would be pleased.


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Composting Key to Soil Health and Climate Protection, According to Two New Reports

by Rebecca Toews | July 14, 2014 4:39 am

Washington, DC — Composting reduces waste and builds healthy soil to support local food production and protect against the impacts of extreme weather, from droughts to heavy rainfall. That’s the message of two new reports from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR): State of Composting in the U.S.: What, Why, Where & How [1]and Growing Local Fertility: A Guide to Community Composting[2].


CONTACT: Rebecca Toews

PHONE: 612-808-0689


Download both reports:[4]

Compost is the dark, crumbly, earthy-smelling material produced by the managed decomposition of organic materials such as yard trimmings and food scraps. Compost is valued for its ability to enhance soil structure and quality. It adds organic matter to soil, improves plant growth and water retention, cuts chemical fertilizer use, and stems stormwater run-off and soil erosion. In the U.S., 99 million acres (28% of all cropland) are eroding above soil tolerance rates, meaning the long-term productivity of the soil to support plant growth cannot be maintained.

“Applying a meager half-inch of compost to the 99 million acres of severely eroded cropland would require about 3 billion tons of compost,” says Brenda Platt, the lead author of both reports and director of ILSR’s Composting Makes $en$e Project. “There is not enough compost to meet that need.  No organic scrap should be wasted.”

Compost also protects the climate:  it sequesters carbon in soil and it reduces methane emissions from landfills by cutting the amount of biodegradable materials disposed. (Methane is a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 72 times more potent than CO2 in the short-term.) A growing body of evidence demonstrates the effectiveness of compost to store carbon in soil for a wide range of soil types and land uses.

Yard trimmings composting programs are fairly well developed in the U.S. Of the 4,914 composting operations identified in the U.S. for State of Composting in the U.S., about 71% compost only yard trimmings (based on 44 states reporting). Food scrap recovery is slowly growing. More than 180 US cities and counties are now collecting residential food scraps for composting, up from only a handful a few years ago.

“There is more demand for composting, especially from businesses and institutions that want to source separate food scraps and not throw them in the landfill,” says Nora Goldstein, Editor of BioCycle, which conducted the state-by-state assessment of composting infrastructure and policies, “We not only need more infrastructure to compost these materials, we need more infrastructure to manufacture high quality compost that our soils — and climate — desperately need.” (more…)[5]

  1. State of Composting in the U.S.: What, Why, Where & How :
  2. Growing Local Fertility: A Guide to Community Composting:
  5. (more…):

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Size Matters! New Report Shows The Value of Small-Scale, Community-Based Composting

by Brenda Platt | July 14, 2014 4:30 am

Composting can take place at many levels – backyard, block, neighborhood, schoolyard, community, on-farm, and regional – and in urban, suburban, and rural areas.  Composting at the local level circulates dollars in the community, promotes social inclusion and empowerment, greens neighborhoods, builds healthy soils, supports local food production and food security, embeds a culture of composting know-how in the community, sustains local jobs, and strengthens the skills of the local workforce.  When materials are collected and transported out of the community for processing, few if any of these benefits are realized at the local level.

Community composting is thriving but needs support to grow further.  ILSR’s report, Growing Local Fertility: A Guide to Community Composting, describes successful initiatives, their benefits, tips for replication, key start-up steps, and the need for private, public, and nonprofit sector support. Produced in collaboration with the Highfields Center for Composting[1] in Hardwick, Vermont, Growing Local Fertility profiles 31 model programs in 14 states and the District of Columbia. Programs range from urban to rural and include demonstration/training sites, schools, universities, pedal-powered collection systems, worker-owned cooperatives, community gardens, and farms employing multiple composting techniques. Many but not all are non-profit mission driven enterprises.  Their distinguishing feature is keeping the process and product as local as possible while engaging the community through participation and education.


Growing Local Fertility: A Guide to Community Composting – FULL REPORT

ILSR’s Survey Results of Community Composters – October 2013

Growing Local Fertility: A Guide to Community Composting is based upon work supported under a grant by the Utilities Programs, United States Department of Agriculture and was produced by ILSR’s Composting Makes $en$e Project[2] and the Highfields Center for Composting[1].

We welcome feedback on this guide and invite community composters to share their lessons learned and tips for replication.

Contact us at[3]

  1. Highfields Center for Composting:
  2. ILSR’s Composting Makes $en$e Project:

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State of Composting in the U.S.: What, Why, Where & How

by Brenda Platt | July 14, 2014 4:30 am

Composting is a proven approach to reduce waste and build soil health and fertility. Amending soil with compost improves its quality and structure and thus its ability to withstand the impacts of extreme weather, from severe droughts to heavy rainfall. When added to soil, compost enhances water retention, controls erosion, and stems sedimentation and stormwater run-off.  It also protects the climate:  it sequesters carbon in soil while reducing methane emissions from landfills by cutting the amount of biodegradable materials disposed. Given that 28% of all U.S. cropland (99 million acres) is eroding so fast that the long-term productivity of the soil cannot be maintained, adding organic matter via compost to soil is critical. Erosion reduces the ability of soil to store water and support plant growth.  These are among the findings of State of Composting in the U.S.: What, Why, Where & How[1], a new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, funded under a grant from the 11th Hour Project.

The 131-page report reviews composting basics, provides national and state-by-state statistics and job generation data, summarizes model programs, technologies and systems, and concludes with recommendations on how to grow composting in the U.S.


State of Composting in the U.S.: What, Why, Where & How – Full Report

State of Composting in the U.S.: What, Why, Where & How – Executive Summary

Press Release, July 14, 2014[2]

“State of Composting in US” cover article, July 2014 issue of BioCycle[3]:
– read online[4]
– download pdf[5]

Co-authored by Nora Goldstein (BioCycle Magazine[6]), Craig Coker (Coker Composting & Consulting[7]), and Sally Brown (University of Washington[8]), State of Composting in the U.S. calls for new rules and initiatives to advance composting: streamlined permitting for facilities, training programs, technical and financial assistance, strong recycling and composting goals, disposal bans, compost procurement policies, and more.  It also recommends that communities embrace development of a diverse composting infrastructure.

Large-scale centralized facilities can serve wide geographic areas and divert significant quantifies of materials from disposal. Composting locally at the neighborhood and community-scale level has other benefits:  improved local soils, more local jobs, greener spaces, enhanced food security and fewer food deserts, less truck traffic hauling garbage, and increased community composting know-how and skills.

State of Composting in the U.S.: What, Why, Where & How[1] has four main sections:

See ILSR’s companion report, Growing Local Fertility: A Guide to Community Composting[9], for detailed information on how to strengthen expansion of community-scale composting. This guide describes successful initiatives, their benefits, how these initiatives can be replicated, key start-up steps, and the need for private, public, and non-profit sector support.

  1. State of Composting in the U.S.: What, Why, Where & How:
  2. Press Release, July 14, 2014:
  3. July 2014 issue of BioCycle:
  4. read online:
  5. download pdf:
  6. BioCycle Magazine:
  7. Coker Composting & Consulting:
  8. University of Washington:
  9. Growing Local Fertility: A Guide to Community Composting:

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Working Partner Update: Austin Gets $1 Million Grant for Eco-Industrial Park

by Neil Seldman | July 9, 2014 12:28 pm

ILSR and the City of Austin, Texas, have been working partners since the late 1980s, when a coalition of environmental groups, small businesses and progressive City Councilors rejected a garbage incinerator already under construction. The City Council closed down the project and initiated a path toward recycling, composting and use of low cost landfill which would save the $120 million over the planned life of the incinerator. (more…)[1]

  1. (more…):

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Celebrate Independence with 3 Steps Toward Energy Self-Reliance

by John Farrell | July 2, 2014 5:25 am

Being from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m often asked, “You want everyone off-grid and independent with their own solar array and a battery, right?”

In a word, no.

But our mission of economic and energy self-reliance has several similarities to the kind of (economic[1]) independence being sought by England’s American colonists in the 1770s and celebrated this week. And in the spirit of that overlap, I’d like to offer three ways Americans can celebrate their independence by increasing their energy and economic self-reliance.

Step 1: Do What You Can, Recruit Your Friends

The citizen “meter watchers” of SOUL Wisconsin find that modest changes can cut electricity consumption by 13% or more[2], saving $140 per year. They find that with some pretty low energy tasks like swapping out inefficient light bulbs, using power saving power strips and inexpensive light timers, or putting off-the-shelf foam insulation on hot water pipes, households can get high energy savings. Their energy tracking tool shows kilowatt-hours and dollars saved, and also greenhouse gas emissions avoided, from your energy conservation efforts.

If you like energy saving and reducing carbon emissions, chances are your friends will, too.  Expand the impact (and savings) by recruiting your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues.

Step 2: Generate Your Own Energy

Even the best conservation practices can only do so much, and chances are you’re still sending a sizable sum to your utility company every month.  If you’re one of the lucky 1 in 4 residents that owns a sunny rooftop, you can invest in solar power to reduce or eliminate your solar bill.  Join your neighbors in a bulk purchase[3] or finance a system with a crowd-funded loan[4].

Maybe you lack a sunny rooftop, but you’re in one of the few states with policy supporting community-based renewable energy[5]. That local grocery store would be just the place for a solar array owned by you and your neighbors.

Step 3: Organize to Change the Rules

Unfortunately, somewhere between steps 1 and 2 most Americans will find that generating their own power often requires an exercise in political power. Your utility company may erect significant barriers, charge high fees, or pay pennies for energy from your own solar array. It may not allow community-based energy projects at all. It’s because they’re reluctant to see the inevitable, monumental shift in power generation – from large-scale fossil fuel power plants to decentralized renewable energy systems – result in a similarly monumental shift in ownership of the energy system, from them to you.

Some utilities will hide behind the spurious[6] “technical limitations” of the electricity system or the purportedly[7] low cost[8] of their existing, dirty power plants.  They’ll fight good policy like community solar[9], feed-in tariffs[10], incentives for clean energy[11], and net metering[12].*

And that’s why there’s something to be learned from the English colonists nearly 250 years ago.  When your (East India) company is giving you a bad deal, it’s time to dump them.


Photo Credit: Deval Patrick[13]

*Some utilities embrace the notion of self-reliance[14].


  1. economic:
  2. modest changes can cut electricity consumption by 13% or more:
  3. bulk purchase:
  4. finance a system with a crowd-funded loan:
  5. community-based renewable energy:
  6. spurious:
  7. purportedly:
  8. low cost:
  9. community solar:
  10. feed-in tariffs:
  11. incentives for clean energy:
  12. net metering:
  13. Deval Patrick:
  14. Some utilities embrace the notion of self-reliance:

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ILSR’s Brenda Platt Delivers Keynote for US Zero Waste Business Conference 2014

by Rebecca Toews | June 18, 2014 1:44 pm

ILSR co-Director, Brenda Platt attended this year’s USZBC conference, hosted in Atlanta, Georgia at the beginning of May. Elemental Impact’s online magazine highlighted Platt’s keynote presentation in their blog[1]:

For the 2014 USZWBC Conference[2] – Creating Value Through Zero Waste, the superb program topics substantiated the zero waste industry’s continued evolution. Hosted in Atlanta, GA – a city entrenched with zero waste roots via the 2009 Zero Waste Zones[3] launch – the conference sessions addressed the far-reaching impacts of zero waste practices.


  1. their blog:
  2. 2014 USZWBC Conference:
  3. Zero Waste Zones:
  4. (more…):

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Brenda Platt Presenting At Maryland Recycling Network – June 19, 2014

by Brenda Platt | June 17, 2014 2:34 pm

ILSR co-Director, Brenda Platt, is speaking on a zero waste panel on June 19, 2014, at the Maryland Recycling Network’s annual conference[1].   Her presentation, “The State of Composting in the U.S.,” will highlight cutting edge composting programs around the country.  Management and reduction of organics in our waste streams is a hot topic for many communities and represents a key step in meeting future zero waste goals.

The Maryland Recycling Network and SWANA Mid-Atlantic Chapter have put together a two day event at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum, MD where you’ll find:

mdrecyclingnetworkRegistration Information here.[2]


  1. Maryland Recycling Network’s annual conference:
  2. Registration Information here.:

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Same Price, More Renewables. San Diego’s Fight for Community Choice – Episode 23 of Local Energy Rules

by John Farrell | June 5, 2014 4:47 pm

“San Diego and its community choice energy district would be able to offer a diverse energy mix with all of the solar, biodiesel, biogas, and energy storage resources that we have in San Diego.  A product that is price competitive and yet at the same time would strive for and achieve a higher level of renewable content.”

See how this southern California city is striving for more clean energy and more local control in this interview with Lane Sharman, co-founder and chair of the San Diego Energy District Foundation. This podcast was recorded via Skype on May 21, 2014.

A Fight Against ‘Solar Taxes’

The rise of the San Diego Energy District Foundation was in response to fees proposed on solar customers by San Diego Gas and Electric in October 2011[5].  Thanks to the efforts of Lane, Bill Powers, and others in and outside of the foundation, the solar-crushing “Network Usage Fees” were not adopted[6]. It was a particularly important win, because the fees would have applied to those customers who had already installed solar, with the expectation that they wouldn’t pay extra for going solar.

Pursuing More Local Energy Control

The Energy District Foundation wasn’t satisfied with stopping their monopoly utility from implementing bad policy, it wanted to create an energy system that put the community in charge of implementing policy that was positive for the economy and the environment. In 2012, members of the Foundation worked with Protect Our Communities, a nonprofit organization focused on using California’s community choice aggregation law, to create a local entity in charge of greening up the city’s energy supply with local power. They hope to follow in the footsteps of Marin County[7] and Sonoma County in prioritizing local control of a cleaner energy system, at competitive prices.

Why Public Power?

The interest in local control over energy purchases is rooted in the inherent conflict of interest between ratepayers and their existing for-profit utility. Utilities in California make money by investing in hardware (power plants, power lines, and the like) and not finding the cleanest, lowest cost power for their ratepayers. In part, this is because taxpayers pick up the tab for pollution from fossil fuels.  A public entity is more likely to incorporate those externalities. Water, sewage, and education all provide examples of where the public sector provides excellent local service.

How Renewable Can San Diego Be?

A 2010 study called the San Diego Regional Plan for 100% Renewable Energy outlines the technical potential for clean energy in the region. But it’s the market prices for clean power than are most encouraging.  Open bids for new energy in Texas, for example, had solar bidding in at 5¢ per kilowatt-hour compared to retail energy prices of 15¢ or more. The county has approved (in 2013) a comprehensive energy plan[8] that will include an investigation of a local energy aggregation.

A ‘Monopoly Protection Act’

Incumbent utilities don’t much like the San Diego Energy District Foundation and its plan for local control of the energy system. The big three corporate monopoly utilities in California are behind a new bill (AB 2145[9]) that would completely undermine community choice aggregation by changing a key provision of implementation.  Currently, when a local government establishes a local aggregation to purchase power on behalf of its residents and small businesses, these individuals may opt out. If AB 2145 passes, all potential participants would have to opt in. It effectively shields the monopoly utilities from competition, requiring a yet-to-be-operational local utility to spend thousands of dollars to attract customers before it sells a single kilowatt-hour. Furthermore, it would make energy procurement nearly impossible for the local utility, which would be unable to effectively plan and purchase power without a reasonable estimate of their market share.

For more information on community choice aggregation, Lane recommends the San Diego Sierra Club[10], the local[11], the Local Energy Aggregation Network[12], and the San Diego Energy District Foundation [13]

This is the 23rd edition of Local Energy Rules[14], an ILSR podcast with Senior Researcher John Farrell that shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion. Other than his immediate family, the audience is primarily researchers, grassroots organizers, and grasstops policy wonks who want vivid examples of how local renewable energy can power local economies. It is published twice monthly, on 1st and 3rd Thursday. Click to subscribe to the podcast: iTunes[15] or RSS/XML[16]

Sign up for new podcast notifications[17] and weekly email updates from ILSR’s energy program[18]!

Thanks to ILSR intern Jake Rounds for his audio editing of this podcast.

Photo credit: Rick Naystatt[19]
  2. Play in new window:
  3. Download:
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  5. fees proposed on solar customers by San Diego Gas and Electric in October 2011:
  6. “Network Usage Fees” were not adopted:
  7. Marin County:
  8. The county has approved (in 2013) a comprehensive energy plan:
  9. AB 2145:
  10. San Diego Sierra Club:
  11. local
  12. Local Energy Aggregation Network:
  13. San Diego Energy District Foundation :
  14. Local Energy Rules:
  15. iTunes:
  16. RSS/XML:
  17. new podcast notifications:
  18. weekly email updates from ILSR’s energy program:
  19. Rick Naystatt:,_Old_Town.jpg#filelinks

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International Conversation on Zero Waste, May 2014

by Neil Seldman | May 5, 2014 7:17 pm

During a recent e-mail interchange, Mal Williams of Zero Waste Wales, Plasnewydd, Cardiff, reported on disappearing waste in that country. In order to maximize efficiency, add value to collected recyclables and reduce available materials for incineration, co-mingled recycling (single stream), is being phased out.

Nancy Gorrell, Berkeley, CA commented:
Hooray for Wales! Here in Berkeley, we are having to restructure rate fees, because recycling has replaced garbage.

Mary Lou Van Deventer, Urban Ore, Berkeley, CA, commented:
Quite so. Berkeley’s rates are based on garbage, which is dwindling, and therefore income is falling, leading to higher rates to pay for everything.  Garbage income finances recycling, so as garbage falls and recycling increases, recycling is doing more work but there’s less money to cover it.  Moreover, City Hall actually refuses to restructure the rates because they are convinced the people want to think recycling is free.  And they won’t tell.  (Recyclers want to get paid – shh.) (more…)[1]

  1. (more…):

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Amazon’s Big Assist from Government

by Stacy Mitchell | May 1, 2014 11:24 am

Amazon’s sales have fallen in states where it is now required to collect sales taxes, according to a new study[1] by three economists at Ohio State University. The study offers striking evidence of how much Amazon’s dominance of the retail marketplace is owed to nearly 20 years of favorable tax treatment.

The economists examined credit and debit card data for 246,000 households, focusing on five states that recently enacted laws requiring Amazon to collect sales tax: California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia. They analyzed household spending at Amazon three months before and after the law took effect, and then compared the findings to spending patterns in states that did not adopt an online sales tax law.

Households cut their spending at Amazon by about 10 percent when the company begins collecting sales tax, the economists found. The effect is even greater for larger purchases. Spending falls 16 percent for purchases larger than $150 and 24 percent for those over $300.

That sales tax still matters this much to Amazon’s fortunes is quite remarkable. One might imagine that the company’s size and efficiency, its vast online marketplace and formidable distribution logistics, would be more than enough to outrun its competitors. But in fact, not having to collect sales tax in most states still provides a significant competitive edge, even at this late date.

We can only imagine how different the retail landscape might be today had Congress passed an internet sales tax bill a decade ago, when Amazon was big — it had revenue of $7 billion in 2004 — but not yet in possession of the level of market power it now has. Amazon posted $73 billion in sales last year. The retailer, which owns dozens of internet brands, including Zappos and, now accounts for a staggering one-third of all the items Americans buy online.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has long downplayed the importance of sales tax, as have the company’s supporters. Writing in the Daily Beast last year, columnist Megan McArdle declared[2], “Amazon’s competitive advantage no longer derives from its tax-free status.”

But this study reveals what Jeff Bezos has undoubtedly known for years: Amazon’s success, its track record of shuttering local businesses, is as much a product of government favoritism as it is of its own ingenuity. Indeed, Amazon’s actions from its founding in 1995 provide ample evidence that having a sales tax advantage has always been pivotal to its strategy:

  1. study:
  2. declared:
  3. unguarded interview:
  4. (more…):

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Webinar: The Power of Community Composting

by Brenda Platt | April 30, 2014 11:15 am

Across the nation, grassroots action to capture and recycle organic resources from communities by communities are expanding. The solutions are as diverse as the places and people where these efforts originate, yet the commonalities show a clear trend of an emerging movement. To kick off International Compost Awareness Week, ILSR and Highfields Center for Composting held a “The Power of Community Composting” webinar on May 5th at 4 pm. Brenda Platt, ILSR Co-Director and Director of the Composting Makes $en$e project, presented. To get more information on the International Compost Awareness Week and the Highfields Center for Composting, see here[1]



  1. here:

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To Save the Internet We Need To Own The Means Of Distribution

by David Morris | April 28, 2014 10:20 am

map-stories[1]With the announcement by the FCC that cable and telephone companies will be allowed to prioritize access to their customers only one option remains that can guarantee an open internet:  owning the means of distribution.

Thankfully an agency exists for this. Local government.  Owning the means of distribution is a traditional function of local government.  We call our roads and bridges and water and sewer pipe networks public infrastructure for a reason.

In the 19th century local and state governments concluded that the transportation of people and goods was so essential to a modern economy that the key distribution system must be publicly owned.  In the 21st century the transportation of information is equally essential.

When communities own their roads they can and have established the rules of the road.  The most fundamental and ubiquitous is what might be called road neutrality. Everyone has equal access regardless whether they drive a Ford or a Chevy, a jeep or a moped.

About 20 years ago, exasperated by high prices, poor service and a callous disregard by cable and phone companies for the future communications needs of their host communities, American cities began building their own networks.  Initially these were based on cable and later on fiber.

Today almost 90 communities have citywide fiber networks.  Another 74 have citywide cable networks.  Scores more have partial fiber networks that serve public institutions—local government, libraries, schools, networks—and could easily be extended.  See here[2] for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s comprehensive map of muni networks in the United States.

More than 3 million people currently live in communities with a publicly owned communications network.

Unlike the FCC, cities that own their telecommunications networks can, and undoubtedly will respond to the will of their citizens by embracing the principle of net neutrality.

Many of today’s muni networks are in cities that a century ago built their own electricity networks after private companies proved unwilling to provide universal, affordable, reliable power. Today over 2000 cities still own the electric means of distribution.   Their price and reliability is comparable or better than those of investor owned utilities and they are, unsurprisingly, far superior in responding to the needs of their communities.

Publicly owned telecommunications networks offer lower prices and higher speeds than Comcast and AT&T and Time Warner.  It is instructive that the first gigabit network was built not by a private company but by Chattanooga, a muni network. Today 40 cities in 13 states have locally owned gigabit networks.

Cities that have built their own networks have found them a singularly successful economic development investment, especially for retaining and attracting the growing numbers of businesses that require high speed, high capacity networks. (more…)[3]

  1. [Image]:
  2. here:
  3. (more…):

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Understanding the Small Business Credit Crunch

by Stacy Mitchell | April 16, 2014 12:59 pm

Even as their big competitors are awash in capital, many locally owned businesses are struggling to secure the financing they need to grow.  A new ILSR analysis[1] has found that, since 2000, bank lending to large businesses is up 36 percent, while small business loan volume has fallen 14 percent and  “micro” business loans — those under $100,000 — have plummeted 33 percent.

(The largest corporations do not even need to rely on bank loans, of course, but can finance their growth through the soaring stock and corporate bond markets.)

The problem is not a lack of demand.  In our 2014 Independent Business Survey[2], 42 percent of business owners that needed a loan in the previous two years reported being unable to obtain one.  Startups, businesses with fewer than 20 employees, and enterprises owned by minorities and women are having an especially difficult time.  Even with the same business characteristics and credit profiles, small businesses owned by African-Americans and Latinos are less likely to be approved for loans, according to one recent study[3].

One consequence of this credit shortage is that many small businesses are either not adequately capitalized or have been forced to rely on high-cost alternatives, such as credit cards.  Both scenarios make them more vulnerable to failing.

The broader consequences for our economy are significant.  Studies show locally owned businesses are a primary source of net new job creation, contribute to higher median household incomes, and increase social capital.  Yet independent businesses in many sectors are losing market share, while the number of new startups has steadily fallen over the last two decades.  Insufficient capital is a key culprit driving these trends.

To shed light on this problem and help inform policy discussions,  ILSR has published an overview of the small business lending landscape[4]. Among the key takeaways:


  1. ILSR analysis:
  2. 2014 Independent Business Survey:
  3. one recent study:
  4. overview of the small business lending landscape:
  5. (more…):

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Two Big-Box Decisions Show How Smart Planning Policies Protect Good Jobs

by Stacy Mitchell | April 1, 2014 10:30 am

Although few cities take full advantage of them, planning and zoning powers are among the most potent tools communities have for shaping their economies. Two recent decisions, in Massachusetts and Wisconsin, underscore why land use planning matters and how smart policies can strengthen the local economy and protect good jobs.

The first was a decision by the Cape Cod Commission to deny Lowe’s a permit to build a store in the town of Dennis. As I wrote in a piece last year (“Here’s One Smart Way to Handle Big-Box Stores[1]“), Cape Cod is one of the few places in the country that embeds economic criteria in its planning policies and requires that large projects (commercial development over 10,000 square feet) win approval from both the host town and a regional planning body, the Cape Cod Commission, which is made up of representatives from each of the Cape’s 15 towns.

Guided by Cape Cod’s Regional Planning Policy[2], the commission does not limit its review to conventional zoning issues, such as the number of parking spaces or the distance the building is set back from the street. Instead it focuses on how the development would affect Cape Cod’s economy and environment.

After looking closely at the Lowe’s proposal, the Cape Cod Commission concluded[3] that “the probable benefit of the proposed development is not greater than the probable detriment.”

A pivotal issue was the store’s projected impact on jobs and wages. One of the region’s primary planning goals is to increase household income. Lowe’s would have the opposite effect, the commission concluded. In a region already saturated with building supply stores, Lowe’s arrival would cause many existing local businesses to downsize or close. The result would be a net decline of 48 jobs after Lowe’s opened.

Moreover, the new jobs at Lowe’s would pay $9,000 less on average than the jobs lost at local stores, resulting in a total income loss of over $3 million for the region’s residents.

Armed with this kind of analysis, the Cape Cod Commission has approved relatively few big-box stores in its 24-year history. Walmart has only one store in the region. It’s less than half the size of a typical supercenter and located in a building that used to house another department store. Not surprisingly, Cape Cod has significantly more independent businesses per capita than the national average.

Another example of the value of smart planning policy was last month’s unanimous decision by the Green Bay (Wisconsin) City Council to deny Walmart’s petition to build a 154,000-square-foot store in a historic industrial area adjacent to the downtown.

Green Bay has been looking to redevelop this area. In a similar situation, many cities might leap on a 15-acre Walmart store on the theory than anything is better than nothing. But Walmart’s suburban-style store did not fit the vision that residents and city officials had developed through a series of planning exercises. (more…)[4]

  1. Here’s One Smart Way to Handle Big-Box Stores:
  2. Regional Planning Policy:
  3. concluded:
  4. (more…):

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Lifecycle Building Center, Atlanta, GA, Established in December 2011

by Neil Seldman | April 1, 2014 9:32 am

ILSR prepared a zero waste plan for the Atlanta Office of Sustainability in 2011-12. During site visits ILSR and Saint Vincent De Paul provided assistance to several community based reuse enterprises. In turn these new community businesses became working partners in ILSR’s and Saint Vincent De Pauls’ national networks. Neil Seldman serves as an advisor to the Lifecycle Building Center.

The Lifecycle Building Center (LBC) was co-founded by Adam Deck, a former store manager for Raleigh’s Habitat ReStore and a professional deconstruction expert, and Shannon Goodman, an architect formerly with Perkins+Will. (P+W) (more…)[1]

  1. (more…):

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Energy Storage: The Next Charge for Distributed Energy

by John Farrell | March 26, 2014 6:00 am

Update 5/2/14: titles for Fig. 2 and 3 in the report were mistakenly switched and are now corrected.  

Energy storage promises to change the electricity system during the next decade, as fundamentally as distributed renewable energy has in the last decade. A new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Energy Storage: The Next Charge for Distributed Energy[1], forecasts where the battleground is shaping up. The report also details promising examples of local renewable energy utilizing energy storage — from Laurel, MD to San Diego, CA to Kaua’i Island, Hawaii — illustrating how the powerful combination can allow for more thorough adoption of renewable energy, support greater local control, and increase reliability of the energy system.

Download the full report here.[2]

The new report reviews the many ways energy storage systems enhance distributed renewable energy including innovative uses for electric vehicles (EVs), community solar, island power grids, and microgrids. The report also looks at ways in which communities utilized energy storage to help managed supply and demand and ancillary electricity services, while reinforcing infrastructure, and supporting renewables.

Energy storage stands to change the political dynamic of local renewable energy development, while also impacting economics and policy prescriptions. The new ILSR report can provoke conversation and new thinking around the coming technologies.


  1. Energy Storage: The Next Charge for Distributed Energy:
  2. Download the full report here.:

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Distributed Renewable Energy Under Fire

by John Farrell | March 19, 2014 2:46 pm

placeholder[1]I developed this map as a side project while I was working on explaining the value of solar[2] and its potential role in addressing conflicts between utilities and customers over distributed renewable energy like solar. I’ve received several updates since it was originally published[3], so here’s the updated map.

freedom to generate under fire ILSR 2015-0325[4]

For some context on the contention about the costs and benefits of distributed renewable energy, see this compilation report[5] from the Rocky Mountain Institute.


Sources (mostly the excellent, thorough folks at IREC[6]):

Arizona – net metering fees added[7] (2013)

California – cost/benefit study of net metering in progress[8] (2013)

Colorado – net metering preserved after utility suggested DG producers need grid more than expected[9] (2014)

Georgia – PSC staff recommend against proposed net metering fee[10] (2013)

Hawaii – Utilities claim distribution circuits are too full for more solar[11] (2014)

Idaho – Idaho Power proposals to weaken net metering voided[12] (2013)

Iowa – Iowa district court overturns utility opposition to solar power purchase agreements[13], but utility not backing down (2013)

Kansas – net metering significantly curtailed[14] in compromise to avoid complete loss (2014), fixed charges proposed[15] (2015)

Louisiana – proposed net metering fees struck down[16] (2013), but PUC selects unfriendly consultant[17] to evaluate solar costs/benefits (2015)

Minnesota – utilities fight accurate environmental, fuel cost, and other values of solar in stakeholder proceedings[18] (2013)

Missouri – utilities wanting to raise fixed charges, [19]despite evidence net metering saves all customers money[20] (2015)

New Mexico – PNM proposes fees on solar producers[21] (2015)

New York – state senate bill S.6357-c includes ALEC-written language for study on costs/benefits of net metering (2014)

Nevada – net metering study reveals that utility was wrong, solar is a cost saver for NV Energy[22] (2014)

North Carolina – Duke Energy wants to pay wholesale, not retail rates[23] (2014)

Oklahoma – The world’s dumbest idea: Taxing solar energy[24] (2014)

Oregon – PUC workshop on solar incentive rates[25] (2014)

Texas – CPS Energy makes revisions to solar-energy fees[26] (2014)

Utah – Rocky Mountain Power proposes additional net metering fees[27] (2014)

Virginia – After adding standby fees to net metered projects in 2011, Dominion Power blocks multi-family net metering bill[28] (2014)

Washington – utilities want to double monthly fixed charge[29] (2013)

West Virginia – net metering cap added[30], instructs PUC to avoid cross subsidies (2015)

Wisconsin – a Wisconsin utility changes net metering from retail to wholesale rates[31] (2013)

  1. [Image]:
  2. explaining the value of solar:
  3. originally published:
  4. [Image]:
  5. compilation report:
  6. IREC:
  7. net metering fees added:
  8. cost/benefit study of net metering in progress:
  9. net metering preserved after utility suggested DG producers need grid more than expected:
  10. PSC staff recommend against proposed net metering fee:
  11. Utilities claim distribution circuits are too full for more solar:
  12. Idaho Power proposals to weaken net metering voided:
  13. Iowa district court overturns utility opposition to solar power purchase agreements:
  14. net metering significantly curtailed:
  15. fixed charges proposed:
  16. proposed net metering fees struck down:
  17. PUC selects unfriendly consultant:
  18. utilities fight accurate environmental, fuel cost, and other values of solar in stakeholder proceedings:
  19. raise fixed charges, :
  20. net metering saves all customers money:
  21. fees on solar producers:
  22. solar is a cost saver for NV Energy:
  23. Duke Energy wants to pay wholesale, not retail rates:
  24. The world’s dumbest idea: Taxing solar energy:
  25. PUC workshop on solar incentive rates:
  26. CPS Energy makes revisions to solar-energy fees:
  27. Rocky Mountain Power proposes additional net metering fees:
  28. Dominion Power blocks multi-family net metering bill:
  29. double monthly fixed charge:
  30. net metering cap added:
  31. a Wisconsin utility changes net metering from retail to wholesale rates:

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Could Minnesota’s “Value of Solar” Make Everyone a Winner?

by John Farrell | March 13, 2014 4:27 pm

placeholder[1]On Wednesday, Minnesota became the first state to allow utilities a new method of contracting with distributed solar producers, called the market-based “value of solar.” If adopted by utilities, it will fundamentally change the relationship between solar-producing customers and their electric utility.

Following Minnesota’s Value of Solar Process? Here are a few resources:

Until now, producing on-site energy from a solar panel has been treated much like any other activity reducing electricity use. Energy produced from solar is subtracted from the amount of energy used each month, and the customer pays for the net amount of energy consumed.  This “net metering[14]” policy has guided the growth of distributed solar power in the United States to an astonishing 13 gigawatts GW by the end of 2013.

But net metering has been the focal point for the utility war on the democratization of the grid, a phenomenon made possible by enormous reductions in the cost of on-site power generation from solar. The following map illustrates the many states where utilities have sought to undermine policies and/or incentives supporting distributed renewable energy generation.

battlegrounds over net metering and distributed generation[15]

The transformation of the grid has utilities crying foul (or fowl[16]) because lots of customers using net metering reduces their balance sheet revenue. However, increasing evidence suggests that the overall economic benefits to the utility’s electric grid may outweigh the loss of revenue.

Value of solar creates a market price for distributed solar energy in an effort to answer the utility’s cry. And Minnesota’s rigorous formula suggests that in crying “foul,” utilities may have been crying “wolf.” That’s because the initial estimates of the market value of solar peg it at more than the retail electricity price.  In other words, utilities have been getting a sweet deal on solar power.

Will Value of Solar Work?

Will the value of solar market price be sufficient to maintain growth in distributed solar generation?

Yes, according to preliminary calculations.

Xcel Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, shared estimations for the value of solar in its comments (to reduce the value) to the Public Utilities Commission in mid-February. Their calculations follow:

Minnesota value of solar calculation Xcel Energy [17]

The solar market price includes eight separate factors, but the largest four account for the lion’s share of the value: 25 years of avoided natural gas purchases, avoided new power plant purchases, avoided transmission capacity, and avoided environmental costs.

The value of avoided fuel cost recognizes that utilities cannot buy natural gas on long-term contracts the way they can buy fixed-price solar energy, and it internalizes the risk of fuel variability that utilities have previously laid on ratepayers.

The avoided power plant generation capacity value recognizes that sufficient solar capacity allows utilities to defer peak energy investments (like Xcel’s recently requested 3 natural gas peaking power plants that an administrative law judge discarded in favor of distributed solar).

Avoided transmission capacity costs rewards solar for on-site energy production, saving on the cost of infrastructure and energy losses associated with long-range imports.

The environmental value may be the most precedent setting, because it means that when buying solar power under Minnesota’s value of solar tariff, a utility is for the first time paying for the environmental harm it had previously been socializing onto everyone else. This value is based on the federal “social cost of carbon” as well as non-carbon externality values adopted by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

All told, the preliminary market value of solar estimate by Xcel Energy (14.5¢ per kilowatt-hour) for Minnesota comes fairly close to the levelized cost of energy from solar projects in Minnesota using the federal 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC). Residential projects installed at $4/Watt will cost 17.2¢ per kWh over 25 years (and be eligible for state incentives). Commercial projects installed at $3/Watt will cost 12.9¢ per kWh over 25 years.

Market Value of Solar v. Levelized Solar Cost[18]

Will Utilities Adopt Value of Solar?

The crucial remaining issue is whether Minnesota utilities will adopt value of solar in place of net metering. The adopted methodology may require utilities to (in the short run) pay more for solar electricity than they do under net metering. The following chart shows that a representative residential customer with a 5 kW solar array would net an extra $200 bill credit this year with the value of solar than they would using net metering.

Market Value of Solar v Net Metering[19]

Within five years, however – based on recent utility rate inflation of 4-5% per year – the premium falls to just $12.  And over the life of the value of solar contract – 25 years – the net present value (5% discount rate) of utility payments for solar production is $3,000 less under value of solar than under net metering.

Not only that, utilities lock in the market value of solar when the signed a 25-year contract, not bad for a business rocked by volatile fuel prices.

Who Wins?

In theory, everyone is a winner if utilities adopt Minnesota’s market value of solar. In the near term, solar energy producers will get a better price than they have under net metering. In the long term, the cost of solar will fall (perhaps significantly) below the market value (accelerating the development of solar energy), and the 25-year, fixed price contract will help small-scale producers secure financing.

Utilities should also come out ahead. Over the 25-year life of solar projects, they will pay less for solar energy than under net metering. Furthermore, greater amounts of solar on the grid will (over time) erode the market price for solar energy since much of its value is based on low (zero) fuel costs and environmental advantage over fossil fuel generation.

The market value of solar should also be a victory for ratepayers. First, it’s transparent and without subsidy. In fact, it removes hidden subsidies for polluting fossil fuel generation. Ratepayers also get to purchase this renewable resource based on its value to the grid and not an awkward and obscure retail price proxy.

Is the market value of solar the best thing to come out of Minnesota in 2014? If nothing else, it beats the polar vortex[20].

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Crimea, Anschluss and the Enduring Quest for Autonomy

by David Morris | March 11, 2014 4:24 pm

The upcoming Crimea referendum is both ordinary and extraordinary. Ordinary because more than 100 times since World War II geographically concentrated ethnic or linguistic groups have voted on the question of independence.  Extraordinary because never before have a people encountered a ballot allowing them to choose only between continuing subservience within their existing nation or subservience to another nation.

The quest for autonomy is ubiquitous.  When given the choice most regions choose statehood. Since World War II the number of nations has mushroomed from 51 to 193.

Sometimes the desire for autonomy results in devolution rather than independence as nations concede authority in order to maintain territorial integrity.  That was the outcome of Quebec’s political awakening in the late 1970s.  In the wake of Franco’s death in 1975 Spain constitutionally evolved into what is now sometimes called a “State of autonomies”.  In 1998 Scotland won the right to elect its own parliament.  In 2005 South Sudan gained autonomy within Sudan.

Devolution whets but often does not quench the thirst for full independence. This fall Scotland will vote on nationhood.  The Parti Quebecois, expected to handily win provincial elections in April, likely will revive the issue of separation. After Spain rejected their recent demands for near full sovereignty the autonomous Basque Country and Catalan began to take steps toward nationhood. Indeed, Spain’s recent promise to veto Scotland’s entry into the European Union if Scots voted for independence was clearly borne of a fear for its own dissolution.

Uncoupling has sometimes occurred peacefully as happened with Norway and Sweden a century ago and the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.  More often it has involved considerable violence. The 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia into 7 nations and one autonomous province took 10 often-bloody years. In late 1975 East Timor declared independence but an invasion and occupation by Indonesia delayed actual independence until 2002. South Sudan’s independence in 2011 followed two civil wars; violence continues to wrack the new nation.

In 1991 Crimea itself voted for autonomy within the Soviet Union.  After the USSR’s breakup the continuing separatist movement from Ukraine led many observers to view Crimea as the next international flashpoint.  In 1993 the Economist warned[1] of a ‘long-running, acrimonious, possibly bloody and conceivably nuclear, dispute over Crimea’.  The dispute was peacefully but uneasily resolved when the ‘Autonomous Republic of Crimea’ was embedded in the 1996 Ukrainian constitution and the 1998 Crimean constitution.  But Crimea’s political authority remained weak.

The overthrow of a Ukrainian government that found its strongest backing among Russian speakers coupled with its new parliament’s passage of a bill eliminating the use of Russian as an official language (later withdrawn under heavy international pressure) spurred the initial Crimean crisis.

If history were the norm, we might expect Crimeans to vote on whether they preferred more autonomy or full independence.  Tragically that choice has never been offered.  The original referendum offered by Ukraine and set for May 25 (later pulled forward to March 30) allowed Crimeans to vote only on greater autonomy.

The options offered in the March 16th referendum are even worse. Crimeans will have the opportunity to choose between subservience to Ukraine or Russia. Such a ballot appears to be unprecedented.  The closest we came to such a vote was in 1938 when the Austrian government proposed a plebiscite on the annexation of Austria by Germany.  Fearing he would lose such a vote, Hitler invaded Austria under the guise of quelling alleged violence against Germans.  Hitler not only swallowed up Austria but to this day he continues to win the language battle.  We use the term Anschluss to describe the takeover of Austria, a German word meaning unification rather than using the German word for annexation.

Ukraine and the West insist that Crimeans do not have the right to vote on independence. Russian agrees.  This tragic meeting of minds moves us toward a potentially tumultuous showdown.






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Faulty Study Ignores Small Business Benefits

by Stacy Mitchell | March 5, 2014 12:07 pm

Photo by Cale Bruckner[1].  This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian[2].

Last month, San Francisco’s Office of Economic Analysis waded into the debate over whether the city should beef up its policy restricting the spread of chain stores[3]. In a new study[4], the OEA concludes that the city’s regulations are harming the local economy and that adding additional restrictions would only do more damage. But this sweeping conclusion, hailed by proponents of formula retail, rests on a deeply flawed analysis. The study is riddled with data problems so significant as to nullify its conclusions.

San Francisco is the only city of any significant size where “formula” businesses, defined as retail stores or restaurants that have 10 or more outlets, must obtain a special permit to locate in a neighborhood business district. The law’s impact, in one sense at least, is readily apparent: Independent businesses account for about two-thirds of the retail square footage and market share in San Francisco, compared to only about one-quarter nationally. Although chains have been gaining ground in San Francisco, the city far outstrips[5] New York, Chicago, and other major cities in the sheer numbers of homegrown grocers, bookstores, hardware stores, and other unique businesses that line its streets.

San Francisco’s policy has gaps, however, which have prompted a slew of recent proposals to amend the law. Members of the Board of Supervisors have proposed a variety of changes, such as extending the policy to cover more commercial districts (it only applies in neighborhood business districts) and broadening the definition of what counts as a formula business.

The OEA presents its study as an injection of hard economic data into this policy debate. There are three pieces to its analysis. Let’s take each in turn.

First, the OEA reports that chains provide more jobs than independent retailers do. It presents U.S. Census data showing that retailers with fewer than 10 outlets employ 3.2 workers per $1 million in sales, while chains (10 or more outlets) employ 4.3 people.

One major problem with this statistic is that the OEA includes car dealerships. Retail studies generally exclude the auto sector, because car dealers differ in fundamental ways from other retailers and car sales account for such a large chunk of consumer spending that they can skew one’s results. The OEA’s analysis is a classic example of this. Because the vast majority of car dealerships are independently owned and employ relatively few people per $1 million in sales, by including them, the OEA drags down the employment figure for local retailers overall.

If you take out car dealers, which are not subject to San Francisco’s formula business policy anyway, and also remove “non-store” retailers, a category that includes enterprises like heating oil dealers and mail order houses, a different picture emerges. Retailers with fewer than 10 outlets employ 5.3 people per $1 million in sales, compared to only 4.5 for those with 10 or more locations.

The actual difference is even a bit more than this, because chains handle their own distribution, employing people to work in warehouses, while independents typically rely on other businesses for this. And, of course, a portion of the jobs chain stores create are not local jobs; they are housed back at corporate headquarters. The OEA fails to mention either of these fairly obvious caveats.


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Santa Monica City Net: An Incremental Approach to Building a Fiber Optic Network

by Lisa Gonzalez | March 5, 2014 8:51 am

Santa Monica has built a fiber network called City Net that has lowered its own costs for telecommunications, helped to retain businesses, and attracted new businesses to the community. Built incrementally without debt, it offers a roadmap any community can draw lessons from.

Unlike the majority of municipal fiber networks, Santa Monica does not have a municipal power provider – City Net is run out of the Information Systems Department. The vision for the network and its expansion was created in the Telecommunications Master Plan in 1998, standardizing the procedure that we now call “dig once.” Careful mapping and clever foresight laid the foundation for growth.

The first goal of the network was to save public dollars by eliminating leased lines from private providers. The first $530,000 investment in fiber infrastructure ultimately resulted in an ongoing savings of $700,000 per year. As part of their long term strategy, the City reinvested those savings in expanding the network. Over the past ten years, the network has expanded to offer dark fiber and services of 100 Mbps to 10 Gbps to area businesses as well as free Wi-Fi to the public in many areas.

Money that could have been spent on leasing slower, less reliable connections from existing providers has instead been used to expand public infrastructure and other public amenities. Free Wi-Fi, public safety video cameras, and realtime parking info are just a few niceties that enhance the quality of life in Santa Monica.

Learn more about Santa Monica’s journey from idea to reality. Download Santa Monica City Net: An Incremental Approach to Building a Fiber Optic Network[1].

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance presents this in-depth case study co-authored by Eric Lampland and Christopher Mitchell.

Read ongoing stories about these networks at ILSR’s site devoted to Community Broadband Networks[2].  You can also subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks[3].

About ILSR: Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) proposes a set of new rules that builds community by supporting humanly scaled politics and economics. The Telecommunications as Commons Initiative believes that telecommunications networks are essential infrastructure and should be accountable to residents and local businesses.[4]

About Lookout Point Communications: Lookout Point Communications was established in 1997 to offer consulting in various aspects of communications technology. The company has assisted individuals, companies, schools and governments to understand choices in communication networks and implement positive[5]

  1. Santa Monica City Net: An Incremental Approach to Building a Fiber Optic Network:
  2. Community Broadband Networks:
  3. subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks:

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Zero Waste Symposium – Comments By Neil Seldman

by John Bailey | February 24, 2014 5:13 pm

Comments (edited version) by Neil Seldman at the Zero Waste Symposium[1] – held February 4, 2014

Sponsored by Zero Waste San Diego and the California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA)

February 4, 2014

Thank you very much, Rick. It’s always a pleasure to come back to California – certainly San Diego. Many of you know that I learned my recycling in California many years ago. And, my first assignments were helping to replace planned incinerators in LA and San Diego with recycling. And here are two of the people here who taught me – Jon Michael Huls and Rick Anthony; Kathy Evans, is still an active recycler in Berkeley; Cliff Humphrey is working in Kansas City. Mike Anderson and Bernie Meyerson have retired. (more…)[2]

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When It Comes to Public Services, Government Knows Best

by David Morris | February 20, 2014 8:29 pm

Minneapolis will soon vote to shift nearly 180 privately owned bus shelters to public ownership following numerous complaints about the lack of maintenance and upkeep.  When it does it will join the burgeoning ranks of cities who have discovered that when it comes to public services government knows best.

In the post-Ronald Reagan era Americans take as indisputable that the private sector is more nimble and more innovative and the profit motive commands efficiency.  But a mountain of evidence points in the other direction. The government is highly competitive.  Indeed privatized services often come at a higher price and lower quality.

The examples are legion.  Medicare boasts a tiny overhead cost compared to that of private insurance companies.  Federal unsubsidized student loans are cheaper and more flexible than private bank student loans. Private contractors cost Washington almost twice as much as federal employees for the same tasks.

Evidence of government excellence is equally abundant at the state and local level.   In a growing number of jurisdictions governments are reassessing the value of privatizing services.

In the Public Interest[1] reports that in 2010 the Hernando County, Florida sheriff’s office took over management of its jail from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) after the CCA failed to adequately maintain the facility and engaged in practices that compromised safety and increased the chance of escapes and incidents of violence.  The sheriff increased annual salaries of corrections officers by more than $7,000 to attract the highly qualified, significantly improved the quality of the facility and saved $1 million the first year of public operation to boot.

In 2011 Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett considered outsourcing many city services, including the maintenance of fleets, facilities and streets but had the good sense to open the bidding process to public workers. The public proposal was chosen over local and national firms for its significant taxpayer savings.

In 2012, San Diego sought to sell its landfill to a private corporation. Several companies submitted bids.  Once again the city had the foresight to allow public service workers to submit a bid.  The review board concluded the city would save money and get better service by keeping the operation of the landfill in-house.

In 2012, Illinois awarded the Maximus one of country’s largest private social service providers a $77 million contract to review Medicaid eligibility. A 2013 independent investigation found errors in almost 50 percent of the cases.  Illinois terminated[2] the $77 million contract last December. One analysis found that state employees would save Illinois more than $18 million annually while replacing unqualified call center hires with trained caseworkers.

Every year, the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) eight districts solicit bids m private contractors as well as MnDOT’s own striping division to paint lane stripes n every highway in Minnesota. Without fail, MnDOT’s public striping crew beats the private competitors by a large margin.

Outsourcing not only tends to cost more and provide lower quality services; it also has unquantifiable but very real other costs.  After Minneapolis outsourced its information management system to Unisys about 10 years ago it found it had lost much needed in-house expertise, including the ability to properly oversee the Unisys contract.

Last fall the Jonesboro Sun asked the CEO of Tiger Correctional Services, a company that contracts for jail commissary services with the Craighead County Arkansas Sheriff’s Department for financial information that was public when the services were operated by that department.  Tiger’s attorneys asserted that because it is a private company none of the company’s records were subject to public open records laws.

With regard to private military contractors, Major Kevin P. Stiens and Lt. Col. (Ret.) Susan L. Turley observed[3] with regard to private military contractors, “Not only did the cost savings fail to materialize, outsourcing caused other tangible losses. The government lost personnel experience and continuity, along with operational control, by moving to contractors.” Air Force Colonel Steven Zamperelli added,  “Private employees have distinctly different motivations, responsibilities and loyalties than those in the public military.”

One city shifting 180 bus shelters back into public hands is a minor development with a one-day news life. But it reflects a much larger story, the growing reevaluation by governments of the efficacy of privatizing public services.





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Webcast: ILSR & Allies Respond to Walmart’s Environmental Claims

by Stacy Mitchell | February 19, 2014 2:16 am

placeholder[1]On Feb. 17th, during a 90-minute event[2] broadcast live from Walmart’s Arkansas headquarters, the company’s top brass, including its new CEO Doug McMillon, presented what they claimed was remarkable progress to green Walmart’s operations and protect the planet.

ILSR, together with our allies at Environmental Action[3] and OUR Walmart[4], organized a live webcast response attended by hundreds of environmental activists.

Click below to watch this 45-minute event, which includes analysis of Walmart’s environmental impact and greenwashing by ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell; perspective from Dominic Jamal Ware, a Walmart worker and leader with OUR Walmart who connects the dots between the company’s environmental harms and its destructive labor practices; and details on Environmental Action’s growing grassroots campaign on Walmart.  (Get involved in that campaign by sharing this event[5] and signing the petition[6].)

For more background, see our report, Walmart’s Assault on the Climate: The Truth Behind One of the Biggest Climate Polluters and Slickest Greenwashers in America[7]. 

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Independent Business Owners Report Growing Public Support, Call for Policies to Level the Playing Field

by Stacy Mitchell | February 6, 2014 9:37 am

Image: 2014 Independent Business Survey Cover

A national survey of independent business owners conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance[1] in partnership with the Advocates for Independent Business[2] coalition has found that Local First initiatives are boosting customer traffic and improving the outlook on Main Street, but policymakers need to do more to create a level playing field and ensure that small local businesses have an equal opportunity to compete.

The survey gathered data from 2,602 independent businesses across the country.

Among the survey’s key findings:

Sales Growth — Independent businesses reported revenue growth of 5.3% on average in 2013. The retailers surveyed experienced a 1.4% increase in same-store holiday sales, comparable to many competing chains.

Buy Local — Over 75% of businesses located in cities with active Local First campaigns reported increased customer traffic or other benefits from these initiatives. They also reported sales growth of 7.0% on average in 2013, compared to 2.3% for independent businesses in places without such an initiative.

Challenges — Competition from large internet companies was rated as the biggest challenge facing independent businesses, followed by supplier pricing that favors their big competitors, high costs for health insurance, and escalating commercial rents.

Graph12[3]Policy Priorities — Among independent retailers, the top policy priorities are extending the requirement to collect sales tax to large online retailers, eliminating public subsidies and tax breaks for big companies, and regulating the swipe fees that Visa and Mastercard charge.

Internet Sales Tax — More than three-quarters of independent retailers said that the fact that many online companies are not required to collect sales tax had negatively impacted their sales, with 41% describing the level of impact on their sales as “significant.”

Access to Credit — Of those businesses that applied for a bank loan in the last two years, 42% either failed to obtain a loan or received a loan for less than the amount they needed.

“This comprehensive survey makes clear the unparalleled role that local businesses play in the health and vitality of communities,” said Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association[5] and Co-Chair of Advocates for Independent Business[2]. “And it highlights, too, the challenges that these businesses are facing regarding equitable governmental policy and a level competitive playing field. However, the widespread acceptance of the localism movement — which shows the potential of small business advocacy — is a clear sign for optimism.”


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Show Me Solar: Parity, Value, and Opportunity for Solar Power

by John Farrell | February 4, 2014 5:16 pm

placeholder[1]What can solar power do for a single state? How about 21% of its energy, $14 billion in economic activity, and over 150,000 jobs. At a discount to existing electricity costs. Without subsidies.

ILSR’s Director of Democratic Energy, John Farrell, shared this message with the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association on Feb. 1, 2014 in Kansas City. Click below to view or download the presentation, or read the short report on Solar Jobs for Missouri.


Show Me Solar: Clean, Local Power for Missouri’s Economy[2] from John Farrell[3]
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Bill to Limit Internet Investment Introduced in Kansas

by Lisa Gonzalez | January 30, 2014 1:00 pm

Kansas is the latest legislative battle ground in the fight to preserve local self-reliance. The Kansas Legislature is taking up SB 304[1] to limit local municipalities’ authority to invest in publicly owned networks.

While the language of the bill states the purpose is to “encourage widespread use of technological advances” for video and broadband at competitive rates, it actually discourages investment and competition.

The bill provides an obligatory exemption but our analysis[2] finds:

The bill contains what will appear to the untrained eye to be an exemption for unserved areas. However, the language is hollow and will have no effect in protecting those who have no access from the impact of this bill.

The first problem is the definition of unserved. A proper definition of unserved would involve whether the identified area has access to a connection meeting the FCC’s minimum broadband definition delivered by DSL, cable, fiber-optic, fixed wireless or the like. These technologies are all capable of delivering such access.

However the bill also includes mobile wireless and, incredibly, satellite access. As we have noted on many occasions, the technical limits of satellite technology render it unfit to be called broadband, even if it can deliver a specific amount of Mbps. Satellite just does not allow the rapid two-way transmitting of information common to modern Internet applications. Mobile wireless comes with high costs, prohibitively low monthly caps, and often only works in some areas of a rural property. This is not a proper measure of having access to the Internet.

The second problem with the fake unserved exemption is the challenge of demonstrating an area meets it. If one suspected that a territory with over 90% of the residents did not meet the overly broad definition, one would have to engage in an expensive survey to prove it at the census block level. Data is not ordinarilly collected at that granular level – and even when it is, it is often based on unverified claims by existing carriers.

Even if anywhere in Kansas qualified as unserved under this definition, the cost of proving it would only add to the extremely high cost of building to such a low density population, breaking any business plan that could attempt it.

Every legislative session we contend with at least one state bill like SB 304 (Georgia faced similar legislation in 2013[3]). Barriers to municipal network investment exist in nineteen states[4], preventing local communities from serving their own needs as  powerful incumbents turn away. Those incumbents’ business model dictates they consider shareholder interests above all else but municipal networks first serve and provide accountability to the community. Even though billion dollar incumbents refuse to invest in places like Chanute[5] or Ottawa[6],  they use political connections to restrict local communities from making the investment on their own.

From our story on

These types of bills make a mockery of our political system. Whether to invest in essential infrastructure (or how to) is a decision that should be made at the local level, where people know how their unique mix of assets and challenges relate to ensuring everyone has fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. There is no need for the state or federal authority to overrule local decision-making. The only reason we see it popping up in state after state (most recently Georgia) is because powerful cable and telephone companies want to ensure they face no competition – even in the most rural areas of the country.


Stay current on this and other stories by subscribing to [7]our once a week newsletter.

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Can Cities Tackle Inequality?

by David Morris | January 30, 2014 12:00 pm

After Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York City on a promise to narrow the gap between rich and poor, former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer (D) lectured[1] him on the facts of local government life. “The point is, you’re a mayor, buster, you’ve got to make sure the snow gets plowed. You’ve got to make sure the garbage gets picked up. You’ve got to make sure the bad guys get locked up. Mayors have to run cities. Governors have to balance budgets. Washington, D.C., they get to talk about inequality.”

Perhaps Mr. Schweitzer can be forgiven his cramped view of local authority because his home state does keep its cities on a very tight leash.  But many states do not, and a growing number of cities are moving into the power vacuum left by a dysfunctional Washington and too cautious state governments to tackle inequality.  So far theirs has been a three-pronged strategy.

1. Taking on Corporations:  Demanding a Living Wage

The longest locally focused effort to lift family income began twenty years ago when Baltimore required businesses paid with tax dollars to pay a living wage.  Today over 140 cities and counties have[2] living wage ordinances and at least 20 percent of the country’s population lives somewhere that has such a law on its books.

The first living wage ordinances focused on businesses that received municipal contracts but later these were soon broadened to include companies who receive subsidies such as tax abatements or low-interest loans and firms that operate on city property (for example, in convention centers, parks, or on golf courses). A Los Angeles ordinance covers[3] airlines operating at LAX, a city owned airport. San Francisco ‘s law covers homecare workers funded through state Medicaid money.

San Jose boasts[4] the nation’s highest living wage.  Covered employers must pay at least $17.03 if they do not offer health benefits and $15.78 if they do.  De Blasio is proposing[5] an $11.75 living wage including cash and benefits.

However, living wage laws still cover a small fraction of the local labor force.  Beginning a decade ago, cities began to apply the principle of a just wage more broadly by enacting citywide minimum wage laws.


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Self-Reliance Podcast Episode 1: Local Self-Reliance in the Modern Economy

by Lisa Gonzalez | January 30, 2014 11:19 am

What is the role of local self-reliance in the modern economy?

As world travel, global commerce, and communications across the oceans bring us closer together, the role of localism changes. In our inaugural podcast episode, we bring together three ILSR veterans to look at the issue.

Christopher Mitchell[1], Director of the Telecommunications as Commons initiative at ILSR interviews Stacy Mitchell[2], the Director of ILSR’s Community-Scaled Economies initiative and David Morris[3], co-founder of the Institute and Director of the Defending the Public Good initiative come together to tackle the question. With expertise from a broad range of policy areas and decades of working with local communities, the conversation is sure to ignite some neurons in your grey matter.

Self-Reliance Podcast Episode 1[4]

Click to subscribe to the podcast via iTunes[9].

As we develop this series, we encourage you to send us your feedback, suggest topics, and offer ideas for new guests. Contact us at


We want to thank Fit and the Conniptions for their song Many Many[10], licensed through Creative Commons.

For Creative Commons License Info: (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US[11]).


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  9. Click to subscribe to the podcast via iTunes:
  10. Many Many:
  11. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US:

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Update on the Proposed Frederick County and Carroll County, MD Garbage Incinerator

by Neil Seldman | January 29, 2014 1:05 pm

Organized citizens and small business people of Carroll and Frederick Counties, MD have been fighting a proposed garbage incinerator for 8 years. Most recently the news has been filled with suggestions that the deal may be dissolving. (more…)[1]

  1. (more…):

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A Zero Waste Paradigm for Denmark

by Neil Seldman | January 29, 2014 12:34 pm

Transitioning from incineration to recycling and composting in Denmark — A detailed article on this important policy  turn around is helpful in the debates on garbage incineration in the US, where incineration proponents point to the “success” of this technology in Northern Europe.

Click here to read the full article[1] on the Zero Waste Europe web site.

  1. Click here to read the full article:

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Republican Rhetoric Changes Depending On Whether They Are Dealing With Labor Or Capital

by David Morris | January 21, 2014 8:14 pm

Are Republicans inconsistent when they sometimes support using offsets and indexing and sometimes don’t?  Not at all.  They’re actually very consistent.  When capital comes asking for gifts Republicans act like Santa Claus.  When labor is the supplicant they conduct themselves more like Scrooge.

Consider the Republicans’ different approach to the estate tax, the minimum wage, and jobless benefits.

When George Bush came to office the federal government taxed the value of estates over $675,000.  Congress immediately raised the exemption to $1 million and in 2009 to $3.5 million.  In 2010 Congress boosted it again to $5 million and in 2012 indexed the exemption to inflation.  This year an individual will pay taxes only for the value of an estate over $5.25 million.  A couple will receive an exemption of $10.5 million.

In sum, over 13 years Congress increased the estate tax exemption almost 800 percent and then indexed it to inflation.  During that time the cost of living rose by 32 percent.

From 1997 to 2007 Congress refused to raise the minimum wage a penny.  Then in 2007 it reluctantly raised it by $2.10 over three years.  Since 2009 Congress has again refused to revisit the issue.  Today and for the foreseeable future any proposal to index the federal minimum wage is dead on arrival.

In sum, over 16 years full time workers earning the federal minimum wage have seen their income rise by 40 percent, to $15,000.  During that time the cost of living rose by 45 percent.

Ten states do automatically increase the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation. But last year Congress all but erased the impact of those increases when it refused to extend the 2 percent payroll tax reduction.   The increased dollars subtracted from workers paychecks almost completely offset the dollars added to paychecks from the indexing of the minimum.

Congress takes the same mean spirited and miserly approach to the long term unemployed. In 2009, as part of its stimulus package, Congress extended jobless benefits to as much as 99 weeks.   In 2012 it slashed the maximum to 73 weeks and for all but a dozen of the highest unemployment states, to 63 weeks. This was done even though unemployment remained at the highest levels in a generation and about 43 percent of the nearly 13 million unemployed were out of work for more than 6 months, double the rate of any other economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The average unemployment benefit is $300 per week.

In 2014 Republicans insist they won’t support an extension of jobless benefits without comparable reductions in spending.  GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) insists[1], “There is no excuse to pass unemployment insurance legislation—without also trying to find the money to pay for it so we’re not adding to a completely unsustainable debt.”

Republicans do not apply the offset principle to deficits created by reducing taxes.  “You do need to offset the cost of increased spending and that’s what Republicans object to”, asserts[2] Senator Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AR).   “But you should never have to offset cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans.”

At the end of 2012 corporate tax breaks that cost the Treasury upwards of $50 billion a year expired.  Congress is expected, as it has done many times in the past, to extend the tax breaks and to do so retroactively.   No one is talking about the need for offsets.

But even here Republicans demonstrate their consistency.  At the end of 2011 the payroll tax reduction expired.  Republicans flatly refused to extend it through 2012 without offsetting the loss of revenue.  After a protracted battle they reluctantly abandoned their principled effort. As Brian Beutler wrote[3] in TPM the “development represents a dramatic reversal for GOP leaders, who nearly allowed the payroll tax cut to lapse in December in part because of their insistence that the package be financially offset.”

No principle is involved here unless the eagerness to engage in class warfare is a principle.  Support for the working class must be offset because it increases the deficit but tax cuts for billionaires, which increase the deficit just as much if not more, do not.  The minimum wage should be raised at most every decade and god forbid it should rise automatically with inflation but the estate tax exemption should be raised every year and indexed.







  1. insists:
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  3. wrote:

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New Help for Cities Auditing Private Trash and Recycling Contractors

by Neil Seldman | January 21, 2014 10:41 am

New Help for Municipal Officials: Forensic Audits of Private Trash and Recycling Contractors, and Efficiency Analysis of Municipal Trash and Recycling Programs

ILSR and Sustainable Environmental Management Company (SEMCO) have joined to make state-of-the-art analytical tools available to city and county agencies overseeing solid waste and recycling programs. ILSR president Neil Seldman, and SEMCO president Jon Michael Huls will direct this new outreach effort. Seldman and Huls have been working partners for over 30 years in the field of resource management.

ILSR is partnering with SEMCO because of its unique understanding and longstanding involvement with nonprofit organizations and agencies, to help local governments get the most recycling for the least cost.  ILSR helps local governments maximize recycling and composting, and SEMCO will be a critical asset for communities to do this.

SEMCO pioneered the field of forensic analysis of municipal refuse management firms, focusing on the efficiency and effectiveness of solid waste programming and financial management.  ILSR is now working with SEMCO to help local governments improve their waste management and recycling systems and to recover revenues where appropriate.

What is a forensic audit and why should a community consider an audit to address several important challenges facing city and county agencies.

Forensic waste auditing is an investigative practice used to identify and quantify service and fee anomalies and inconsistencies in municipal waste and recycling collection, processing and disposal systems. “Forensic” means “suitable for use in a court of law.”  It is to this standard and potential outcome that forensic waste auditors generally have to work.  Forensic waste audits can be used to resolve actual or anticipated disputes or litigation; provide for financial recovery in communities from contractors’ fraudulent or inappropriate activities; and can be very helpful in negotiation processes for municipal related contract and franchise services.

How successful have forensic waste audits been?

In the past few years the forensic waste audit process as proposed by ILSR and SEMCO has resulted in the following:

ILSR was established in 1974 to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development. ILSR’s program areas include recycling and economic development, broadband communications, small-scale energy production, and retail and finance.

SEMCO was established in 1995 to serve local government in all aspects of integrated environmental management. SEMCO is particularly adept at designing, implementing, and funding innovative and sustainable refuse and recycling programs.

Contact Neil Seldman at[1]

Contact Jon Michael Huls at[2].


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Circuit Court to FCC: You Can Restore Local Authority to Build Community Networks

by Lisa Gonzalez | January 16, 2014 1:00 pm

This article originally ran January 15 on[1], our site dedicated to broadband and community networks. Our analysis zeros in on the Court’s take on local authority, an issue near and dear to our mission at ILSR. 

As we noted yesterday[2], the DC Circuit of Appeals has decided that the FCC does not have authority to implement its Open Internet (network neutrality) rules as proposed several years ago.

But the court nonetheless found that the FCC does have some authority to regulate in the public interest, particularly when it comes to something we have long highlighted: state barriers to community owned networks. For example, see North Carolina[3] and recent efforts in Georgia[4].

States have been lobbied heavily by powerful cable and telephone companies to create barriers that discourage community owned networks. Nineteen states have such barriers (see our map with the states shown in red[5]), largely because communities have nowhere near the lobbying power of massive cable and telephone companies, not because the arguments against municipal networks are compelling.

For those who remember a certain Supreme Court decision called Nixon v Missouri, the Court has once weighed in the matter of state barriers to community networks. In the ’96 Telecom Act, Section 253 declares “No State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service.”

However, the Supreme Court decided in 2004 that Congress was insufficiently clear in its intent to preempt state authority – that “any” did not mean “any” but rather meant something else. In making this decision, it ignored a legislative history with plenty of evidence (see Trent Lott for instance[6]) that suggested Congress meant “any” to mean “any.”


ANYway, we lost that one. States were found to have the right to limit the authority of communities to build their own networks. But we have long felt that a different grant of authority gave the FCC the power to overrule state limits of local authority to build networks, Section 706.

And this is where yesterday’s decision comes in. Circuit Judge Silberman concurred in part and dissented in part – but more importantly for us, he explained Section 706. Read along with your own copy from here [pdf][8].

The statute directs the Commission to “encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans . . . by utilizing . . . price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.”

As I said, we have long felt the FCC had the power to remove state barriers that limit local authority to build fiber networks under its section 706 authority but we did not know whether the courts would read it in the same way. In describing the difference between its authority to promote competition vs. its power to remove barriers to infrastructure investment, he notes:

An example of a paradigmatic barrier to infrastructure investment would be state laws that prohibit municipalities from creating their own broadband infrastructure to compete against private companies.

The footnotes cites this Wired article[9] for further information. It’s “kind of a big deal.”

We now have a clear roadmap: Section 706 gives the FCC the authority to remove barriers to infrastructure investment and to promote competition. Restoring local authority to build networks achieves both. The Nixon v. Missouri decision is irrelevant, based on a different section of law. And we have plenty of evidence that when allowed to build their own networks, communities can do a wonderful job… that is what we have been documenting for years.

We encourage you to subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks[10]. Stay current on developments in community network news.

Image of the Meade and Prettyman Courthouse By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0[11] or GFDL[12], via Wikimedia Commons[13]


  2. noted yesterday:
  3. North Carolina:
  4. recent efforts in Georgia:
  5. see our map with the states shown in red:
  6. Trent Lott for instance:
  7. [Image]:
  8. Read along with your own copy from here [pdf]:$file/11-1355-1474943.pdf
  9. this Wired article:
  10. subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks:
  11. CC-BY-SA-3.0:
  12. GFDL:
  13. via Wikimedia Commons:

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A David and Goliath Fight to Tap World Class Solar – Episode 14 of Local Energy Rules

by John Farrell | January 16, 2014 12:54 pm

“It’s the most inspirational work that I’m doing…this is an inspirational and aspirational effort…at the heart of it is love of place and energy democracy.”

Citizens of Santa Fe, NM, are exploring the economic and environmental benefits of more local and locally-controlled energy production.  Is their city ready to take the lead?

Find out in this interview with Executive Director Mariel Nanasi of New Energy Economy[1], recorded via Skype on November 22, 2013.


A Failure to Take Advantage

The incumbent electric monopoly serving Santa Fe, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), gets just 1% of its energy from solar in a state that some call the “Saudi Arabia of solar.” The result is a citizen-driven movement to explore a city-owned utility, and to make the most of the local renewable resource.

Mariel says, “I look at my kids in their eyes.  I don’t say ‘you have so much potential’ and leave it at that.  I want them to maximize their potential….We have abundant solar and wind resources in New Mexico.  The incumbent monopoly has failed to take advantage.”

New Energy Economy commissioned a study to see what would happen if the city, becoming the electric utility, did take advantage of its local resource.  The results are remarkable.

Doubling Efficiency, Doubling Renewables, Cutting Costs

In a study released in December 2012 and benignly titled “Preliminary Economic Feasibility Assessment of a Publicly-Owned Electric Utility for the City of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County[6],” the city learned that an energy switch to public power could be momentous:

As Mariel says, the study says Santa Fe has “the potential to create leading edge innovations in energy efficiency and renewable energy and related economic development.”

Lessons from Las Cruces: A David and Goliath Fight

Santa Fe has two local examples that will inform their quest for cleaner, more local, public power.

The first is the local water utility, which “highlights our ability to put our values to work.”  The city purchased the water utility from a private monopoly 10 years ago and it is now “one of the most respected water utilities in the country” for its efforts on conservation and furthermore, “It is profitable for the city of Santa Fe.”

The second is a failed attempt to municipalize the electric utility in nearby Las Cruces.  After a 10 year effort, the bid to take over the electric system from El Paso Electric failed by a single vote in the 1990s, after the incumbent corporate utility helped finance the successful campaign of a city council candidate who voted against the last $30 million appropriation necessary to complete the deal.

The lesson from Las Cruces, according to the lawyer that represented the city, is that the question of municipalization is not about which entity is better – that’s self-evident (see the study[7]) – but ‘is there sufficient political will to fight the incumbent monopoly?’

“PNM will do shady things…will do everything in their power…will ask their friends at Edison Electric…create phony nonprofits…try to pay off people…to quash public power,” notes Mariel.  There’s even a corporate utility-written handbook[8] for defeating public power efforts.  (There’s a response, too, from the American Public Power Association called Straight Answers to False Charges Against Public Power[9]).

Already, PNM is already talking to mayoral candidates in Santa Fe in preparation for the political battle.  It is, Mariel says, “Part of the David and Goliath fight.”

What’s Next

New Energy Economy and its partners in Santa Fe are going to spend 2014 “doing our due diligence.”  Their research will focus on the lessons learned from the city’s recent purchase of the water utility, as well as best practices from leading utilities like Austin, TX.

Ultimately, they intend to push their city council and county commissioners to vote on the issue of a public electric utility in 2014.


This is the 14th edition of Local Energy Rules[10], an ILSR podcast with Senior Researcher John Farrell that shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion. Other than his immediate family, the audience is primarily researchers, grassroots organizers, and grasstops policy wonks who want vivid examples of how local renewable energy can power local economies.

It is published twice monthly, on 1st and 3rd Thursday.  Click to subscribe to the podcast: iTunes[11] or RSS/XML[12]

Sign up for new podcast notifications[13] and weekly email updates from the energy program[14]!
Photo credit: gholmes[15]
Thanks to ILSR intern Jake Rounds for his audio editing of this podcast.
  1. New Energy Economy:
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  6. Preliminary Economic Feasibility Assessment of a Publicly-Owned Electric Utility for the City of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County:
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  9. Straight Answers to False Charges Against Public Power:
  10. Local Energy Rules:
  11. iTunes:
  12. RSS/XML:
  13. new podcast notifications:
  14. weekly email updates from the energy program:
  15. gholmes:

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Ten Ways to Strengthen DC’s Proposed Ban on Polystyrene

by Brenda Platt | January 15, 2014 12:20 pm

Last week the DC City Council held a public hearing on Mayor Vincent Gray’s Sustainable DC Omnibus Act of 2013[1] (Bill 20-573), which aims to improve the quality of life and economic opportunity for District residents.  Brenda Platt, director of ILSR’s Sustainable Plastics and Composting Makes $en$e projects, testified in support of the bill’s ban on expanded polystyrene foodservice products (Subtitle A, Title IV, “Protecting the District’s Waterways through Pollution Prevention”) and outlined 10 ten ways to strengthen passage of the bill and its impact. Brenda also emphasized the potential public health hazard of using polystyrene (resin code #6), and urged the City Council not to allow a polystyrene recycling loophole as New York City recently did.  She presented sample legislative language from existing cities around the country that could be a model for DC and elsewhere.

Health Implications of Polystyrene[2]

Ten Ways to Strengthen DC’s Proposed Ban on Polystyrene

Reasons to Restrict Polystyrene for Foodservice Ware[3]

Sample Legislative Language from Select Cities[4]

To download full copy of ILSR Testimony, click here[5].




  1. Sustainable DC Omnibus Act of 2013:
  2. Health Implications of Polystyrene:
  3. Reasons to Restrict Polystyrene for Foodservice Ware:
  4. Sample Legislative Language from Select Cities:
  5. here:

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Republican Principles Change Depending On Whether A Bill Favors Labor Or Capital

by David Morris | January 14, 2014 10:02 am

Are Republicans inconsistent when they sometimes support using offsets and indexing and sometimes don’t?  Not at all.  They’re actually very consistent.  When capital comes asking for gifts Republicans act like Santa Claus.  When labor is the supplicant they conduct themselves more like Scrooge.

Consider the Republicans’ different approach to the estate tax, the minimum wage, and jobless benefits.

When George Bush came to office the federal government taxed the value of estates over $675,000.  Congress immediately raised the exemption to $1 million and in 2009 to $3.5 million.  In 2010 Congress boosted it again to $5 million and in 2012 indexed the exemption to inflation.  This year an individual will pay taxes only for the value of an estate over $5.25 million.  A couple will receive an exemption of $10.5 million.

In sum, over 13 years Congress increased the estate tax exemption almost 800 percent and then indexed it to inflation.  During that time the cost of living rose by 32 percent.

From 1997 to 2007 Congress refused to raise the minimum wage a penny.  Then in 2007 it reluctantly raised it by $2.10 over three years.  Since 2009 Congress has again refused to revisit the issue.  Today and for the foreseeable future any proposal to index the federal minimum wage is dead on arrival.

In sum, over 16 years full time workers earning the federal minimum wage have seen their income rise by 40 percent, to $15,000.  During that time the cost of living rose by 45 percent.

Ten states do automatically increase the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation. But last year Congress all but erased the impact of those increases when it refused to extend the 2 percent payroll tax reduction.   The increased dollars subtracted from workers paychecks almost completely offset the dollars added to paychecks from the indexing of the minimum.

Congress takes the same mean spirited and miserly approach to the long term unemployed. In 2009, as part of its stimulus package, Congress extended jobless benefits to as much as 99 weeks.   In 2012 it slashed the maximum to 73 weeks and for all but a dozen of the highest unemployment states, to 63 weeks. This was done even though unemployment remained at the highest levels in a generation and about 43 percent of the nearly 13 million unemployed were out of work for more than 6 months, double the rate of any other economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The average unemployment benefit is $300 per week.

In 2014 Republicans insist they won’t support an extension of jobless benefits without comparable reductions in spending.  GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) insists[1], “There is no excuse to pass unemployment insurance legislation—without also trying to find the money to pay for it so we’re not adding to a completely unsustainable debt.”

Republicans do not apply the offset principle to deficits created by reducing taxes.  “You do need to offset the cost of increased spending and that’s what Republicans object to”, asserts[2] Senator Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AR).   “But you should never have to offset cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans.”

At the end of 2012 corporate tax breaks that cost the Treasury upwards of $50 billion a year expired.  Congress is expected, as it has done many times in the past, to extend the tax breaks and to do so retroactively.   No one is talking about the need for offsets.

But even here Republicans demonstrate their consistency.  At the end of 2011 the payroll tax reduction expired.  Republicans flatly refused to extend it through 2012 without offsetting the loss of revenue.  After a protracted battle they reluctantly abandoned their principled effort. As Brian Beutler wrote[3] in TPM the “development represents a dramatic reversal for GOP leaders, who nearly allowed the payroll tax cut to lapse in December in part because of their insistence that the package be financially offset.”

No principle is involved here unless the eagerness to engage in class warfare is a principle.  Support for the working class must be offset because it increases the deficit but tax cuts for billionaires, which increase the deficit just as much if not more, do not.  The minimum wage should be raised at most every decade and god forbid it should rise automatically with inflation but the estate tax exemption should be raised every year and indexed.







  1. insists:
  2. asserts:
  3. wrote:

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The End Of Personal Space

by David Morris | January 14, 2014 9:39 am

The natural tendency of the private sector, when unrestrained, is to strip us of our personal physical and psychic space.  Just look at what has happened in the airline and broadcasting industries.

When it comes to air travel, private companies’ profits depend on maximizing revenue per cubic inch of space inside a plane.

Fifty years ago, when regulated airlines competed primarily on service rather than price expanding personal space was part of their strategy for attracting customers.  As the Wall Street Journal reports[1] seats on the first Boeing 707 were 17-inches wide, a dimension based on the width of a US Air Force pilot’s hips.  In the 1970s and 1980s seat width increased to 18 inches and in the early 2000s, seats on the new Boeing 777 and Airbus 380 were widened still further to 18.5 inches.

But the increased concentration resulting from airline deregulation reversed this dynamic.  Today just 4 airlines control[2] 85 percent of the national market.  In many major airports, a single company may account for 80 percent of the flights.  Their near monopoly power has allowed airline companies to boost revenue by adding a seat in every row and in some cases adding rows too.  This is achieved by shrinking seat width and pitch and narrowing aisles.

The WSJ notes that new Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliners may have 17-inch-wide seats.  Seats on a new Airbus A330 can be as narrow as 16.7 inches.

Airlines not only squeeze our waists and shoulders, they cramp our legs as well. Independent Traveler reports[3] that over the last two decades the space between your seat and the one in front of you has been reduced from 34 inches to as little as 30 inches.  Some airlines shoehorn passengers into 28 inches.

While the private sector shrinks our personal physical space, our need for space has grown. In the last 4 decades the average American man and woman’s waistline has increased[4] by 2.5 inches and their weight by over 20 pounds.  Their height has increased[5] by more than an inch.    The result is air travel that for a growing number of people feels like persecution.

When it comes to broadcasting, private companies’ profits depend on maximizing revenue per minute of air time and cubic inch of screen.  They accomplish this by delivering less product per hour and making it more difficult for us to effectively watch the product delivered.

In the 1960s a typical hour-long show would run 51 minutes excluding advertisements.  Today[6] it is down to 42 minutes. Every ten minutes or so commercials interrupt programs and their story lines and their dramatic rhythm. (more…)[7]

  1. reports:
  2. control:
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  6. Today:
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It’s Been A Very Bad Month For the Private Sector

by David Morris | January 13, 2014 11:44 am

The private sector has had a very bad month.   Its most widely publicized failure occurred when UPS and FedEx fumbled their Christmas deliveries while the U.S. Postal Service scored a touchdown.   

“An unlikely Star of the Holiday Shipping Season:  The U.S. Postal Service” is how Business Week described[1] the clear victory of the public over the private. “The government-run competitor was swamped with parcels just like UPS and FedEx were, with holiday package volume 19 percent higher than the same period late year. But there were no widespread complaints about tardy deliveries by USPS. The postal service attributes its success to meticulous planning.”

Less publicized but even more damning has been the growing public evidence regarding the epidemic of incompetence and lofty costs of private contractors. A recent Op Ed in the New York Times by David A. Super, Professor of Law at Georgetown University offered[2] a litany of private contractor failings, including a flawed Colorado Benefits Management System that took four years to fix.  When first implemented it reportedly refused food stamps to anyone who did not have a driver’s license from Guam! Last October a contractor’s glitch made food stamps inaccessible to recipients in 17 states.

Then there was what the Times deemed the “disastrous rollout” of a privately created and managed system to oversee unemployment benefits in Florida by Deloitte Consulting.  In December Florida penalized[3] the contractor $6 million and begin fining it $15,000 a day until the problems are fixed. Privately managed systems from Massachusetts to California have experienced dramatic delays and enormous cost overruns.

In mid December Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton fired[4] off a 5 page letter to the CEO of IBM demanding the company “immediately deploy whatever people or resources are needed to correct the defects in your product that are preventing Minnesotans from obtaining health insurance through MNsure.”  Dayton noted that when IBM had responded to the state’s request for bids it had promised the software was “90 percent complete and ready out-of-the-box.”  “We now know that the product is still not 90 percent complete in December of 2013”, Dayton wrote, “and that your product has significant defects, which have seriously harmed Minnesota consumers.”

IBM is a subcontractor on the $46 million Minnesota contract.  The primary contractor, Maximus, has its own record of shoddy service.   In 2012 Illinois awarded Maximus a $77 million contract to review Medicaid eligibility. A 2013 investigation concluded[5] that its recommendation to change benefit levels were found in error 50 percent of the time

In December Illinois terminated the $77 million contract after an arbitrator found it guilty of violating a collective bargaining agreement.  One analysis found that allowing state employees to do the job would save the state more than $18 million annually while replacing unqualified call center hires with trained caseworkers.

Washington now spends about $500 billion on private contractors, more than double what it spent in 2000 even though a thorough investigation by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) found[6] that Washington pays private contractors almost twice as much as federal employees.  In 33 of 35 occupational classifications, federal employees were less expensive.

Last March Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri told a Senate hearing that federal contractors charged overhead of 50 percent or more, even when federal space was provided free. In 2012, contractors were allowed[7] to charge the government as much as $693,000 per worker.

The inability of the private to compete with the public seems to matter little who’ve drunk the private-sector-is-always-better Kool-Aid.  We might recall it was Bill Clinton who first aggressively pursued the privatization of the federal workforce.  It allowed him to brag about his reduction of federal employees while conveniently ignoring the commensurate rise in the number of private employees, meticulously documented by Paul Light, Professor of Public Service at NYU in his book The True Size of Government and the multi hundred billion dollar cost to taxpayers.

It may be time to take a page from the Ronald Reagan playbook and adapt one of his most famous lines to the new reality.  “The 10 (now 11) most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the private sector and I’m here to help you.”






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The High Cost of the Solar Middleman

by John Farrell | January 9, 2014 5:17 pm

If there’s no such thing as a free lunch, then how can Americans get solar on their roof with “zero money down” and lower their electric bill?  Solar leasing, as it’s often called, is a clever market solution to poor federal and state policy design that otherwise requires Americans to do financial acrobatics to power their home or business with solar.

But solar leasing adds significantly to the cost of solar energy.

New data from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources published last year[1] suggests that state taxpayers that will pay (a lot) more to make solar easy to install for individuals and businesses, and to make solar energy lucrative for solar leasing companies.

The report estimates the necessary production based incentive (in dollars per megawatt-hour[2] of electricity produced) to support the development of solar. Specifically, the researchers priced a “10-year levelized incentive…that allows system owners to achieve their target economic rate of return.” The analysis notably focused on ownership structures, either 3rd party ownership (solar leasing) or host ownership (owned by the home or business owner).  The following chart shows the difference in state incentives necessary to support a small-scale (15 kW or less) solar array that is either owned by a 3rd party or the actual electric customer.

host v 3rd party ownership solar incentive mass[3]

The bottom line is that leased solar arrays require more than double the incentive needed to support customer-owned solar arrays.  Not only do leasing companies require more revenue, but customers of leasing companies get less than solar owners, because they presumably sign contracts for electricity that are less than the net metering they would receive in owning a solar array.

Why does solar leasing cost more?

In the words of the report authors, “These transactions often require attracting additional tax-motivated parties to the project financing, and at considerable expense for transaction and capital.”  How much more expensive?  A host-owned solar array is expected to get financing at 4% interest and have a return on equity expectation of 4%.  A solar leasing company is expected to pay 6% interest on shorter-term debt and to require 15% return on equity.

It might seem convenient to blame solar leasing companies for this problem, but they’re merely opportunists in a poor policy environment.  Making your money back on solar in America is complicated.  It requires a combination of tax savvy, skilled navigation of state bureaucracies, persistence at a local permitting office and limited options for low-cost financing. Compared to Germany, with a simple, non-nonsense long-term contract that permits low financing costs and broad participation, America’s solar market is a joke (and the installed cost of solar is much higher[4] as a result).

Furthermore, big banks have also played a role in inflating solar leasing costs[5] to taxpayers, using a legal loophole to collect tax incentives based on (higher) estimated costs of solar installations instead of actual costs.  Leasing company SolarCity was notable targeted by the Treasury Department for its participation[6] in the practice.

In other words, we pay twice for bad solar policy in America.  Complicated tax incentive, interconnection, and contract policy makes solar cost more to install than in mature markets like Germany. Solar leasing middlemen simplify the complications, but at a price premium to (complicated) individual ownership.

Even though sunshine is free, no kind of solar power is a free lunch.

  1. published last year:
  2. megawatt-hour: http://megawatt-hour
  3. [Image]:
  4. the installed cost of solar is much higher:
  5. big banks have also played a role in inflating solar leasing costs:
  6. SolarCity was notable targeted by the Treasury Department for its participation:

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Democratic Energy’s Top 5 of 2013

by John Farrell | January 2, 2014 5:02 am

commercial-grid-parity-FB-images.004-1-320x239[1]Rooftop Revolution

A combination resource of our two reports on residential and commercial solar grid parity, including a slideshow, infographic, and an amazing interactive map (#5 on this list by itself).




1360282556772.jpg.CROP_.article568-large-320x246[2]Germany Has More Solar Power Because Everyone Wins

It got press because someone at Fox News thought Germany was sunnier than America (the reverse is true), but the real revelation is that the renewable energy revolution in Germany is largely people powered.




gchart-share-of-germany-renewable-energy-market-2011[3]Half of Germany’s 53,000 Megawatts of Renewable Energy is Locally Owned

Actually, it’s up to 63,000 MW[4], and it’s the average German who is powering the transition to a renewable energy future.



greenhousesolar1[5]Community Solar Power: Obstacles and Opportunities

It’s no surprise that this report[6] still catches the eye three years after its publication.  Over 3 in 4 Americans want to go solar affordably, but only 1 in 4 have a suitable roof for solar.  Community power is the answer, but it’s not yet easy.



solar-grid-parity-interactive-map-screenshot-150x150[7]Mapping Solar Grid Parity

Want to know when solar beats grid prices – without subsidies?  This is your interactive map, covering every utility in every state for the next decade.

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The Single Best Article on the End of the Social Contract in the U.S.

by David Morris | December 19, 2013 12:37 pm

In the recent issue of the American Prospect [1]editor-at-large Harold Meyerson has written what may be the single best piece on the reasons behind the decline and fall of the American worker since the 1960s and the rise of the age of anxiety.

The disparity between then and now is stark.

In the 25 years before 1974, U.S. productivity increased by 97 percent and median wages rose by an almost equivalent 95 percent. In the 1950s GM and later other companies contractually agreed to guarantee their workers a cost of living increase plus additional raises based on increases in national productivity.

Labor’s share of the national income was 50 percent. The three largest employers in 1960 were high wage, unionized companies: AT&T, GM and Ford.

Almost one third of the labor force was unionized. It was a period of robust give and take between labor and capital. In the 1950s the number of annual major strikes, on average, was 300. Labor won concessions but also seemed to have changed many a CEO’s mindset. In the early 1980s the Conference Board surveyed CEOs and found 56 percent agreed that “employees who are loyal to the company and further its business goals deserve an assurance of continued employment.”

That was then. This is now.

In the 37 years since 1974, productivity grew by 80 percent while median wage compensation l0 percent. Since 2000 productivity has grown 23% while real wages have stagnated.

Today the three largest employers are low wage, retail companies: Wal Mart, YUM!, and McDonalds.

Today only 6.6 percent of the private sector is unionized. The number of annual major strikes has plunged to below 20. Genuine collective bargaining has virtually ceased. The share of national income going to labor has dropped to 43 percent, a shift of about $1.2 trillion from labor to capital. In the late 1990s, the Conference Board found that only 6 percent of CEOs agreed that loyal, productive employees deserved any reciprocal loyalty from their companies.

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How Solar Saves on Grid Costs – Episode 13 of Local Energy Rules

by John Farrell | December 19, 2013 6:13 am

“We can avoid that $100 million investment in transmission lines, distribution lines, in capital infrastructure…”

How can a utility like Long Island Power Authority avoid all that new capital expenditure?  Find out in this interview with Vice President of Environmental Affairs Michael Deering, recorded via Skype on November 25, 2013.

Customer-Powered Utility

The first question we asked Michael was why one of the largest municipal utilities in the country was looking to its customers for power generation.  The answer was simple: 1) for the environmental value of solar energy but more importantly, 2) for the economy.  To generate jobs and economic development on Long Island.

Solar Programs Helping Meet Peak Demand

The Long Island Power Authority isn’t new to customer-owned solar.  They launched their first solar rebate program in 2001, and now have solar on over 7300 homes and businesses on Long Island.  They’ve added another ~50 megawatts (MW) with a few utility-scale projects, and then launched the feed-in tariff program in 2012.  In total, the utility will have 170 MW of solar installed by the end of 2014, sufficient to meet about 3% of its peak demand.

Limited Line Capacity Means High Value for Local Solar

LIPA isn’t a typical municipal utility.  It’s literally at the “end of the line,” and that limited import capacity puts a premium on locally generated energy.  The new iteration of the feed-in tariff program, launched in 2013, asks for 40 of the 100 MW to be developed on the south fork of Long Island (Montauk).  If they can attract the investment, the utility will pay an additional 7¢ per kilowatt-hour for energy from those solar projects because the energy will help defer big investments in transmission and power plants to serve growing peak demand.

What’s Next?

LIPA has plans to procure more large-scale renewable energy through a 280 MW request for proposal (RFP) in 2014 as well as a third wave feed-in tariff program, focused on non-solar renewable energy technologies, with a total capacity of 20 MW.

You can learn more about feed-in tariff programs from our 2012 report[5] or about the way utilities are valuing solar power from our series on Minnesota’s value of solar law[6].


This is the 13th edition of Local Energy Rules[7], an ILSR podcast with Senior Researcher John Farrell that shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion. Other than his immediate family, the audience is primarily researchers, grassroots organizers, and grasstops policy wonks who want vivid examples of how local renewable energy can power local economies.

It is published twice monthly, on 1st and 3rd Thursday.  Click to subscribe to the podcast: iTunes[8] or RSS/XML[9]

Sign up for new podcast notifications[10] and weekly email updates from the energy program[11]!
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Airline Deregulation: A Triumph of Ideology Over Evidence

by David Morris | December 6, 2013 11:43 am

In November, in what history may judge the ultimate triumph of ideology over evidence, the U.S. Department of Justice dropped its lawsuit against the merger of American Airlines and United Airways.

It is altogether fitting that the green light for allowing just 4 airlines to control 85 percent of the domestic market was given by a Democratic administration.  For airline deregulation, the precursor for all things deregulatory, was a liberal cause.  In 1978 Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. Teddy Kennedy, Chair of the Senate Judicial Committee was deregulation’s principal architect. Ralph Nader was one of its most passionate advocates.

The argument they made would not be out of place at a Tea Party meeting today.  Industry had captured the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), the airlines regulatory agency.  As a result fares were much higher than necessary. (more…)[1]

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Building a Better Economy: ILSR’s 2013 Annual Report

by ILSR Admin | December 4, 2013 2:53 pm

placeholder[1]2013 Annual Report cover screen shot[2]2013 was a big year for ILSR.  We successfully countered attempts by big corporations like Walmart, Xcel Energy, and Time Warner Cable to expand their market power and override local decision-making authority.  And we worked with communities and policymakers across the country to advance new models and policies that build strong, sustainable, locally owned economies.

ILSR’s 2013 Annual Report highlights how our analysis and strategic partnerships are shifting the public debate about our economic future and securing policy change at the federal, state, and local level.

Download our report[3] to read more about our progress in 2013, which included:

Download the Institute for Local Self-Reliance 2013 Annual Report[4].

We can’t do our work without YOU!
Please contribute today!


We need your support today.[6] Help us continue the fight against the concentration of corporate power, the loss of control of our local economies and government, and the growing threats to our environment.

Join us by making a one-time or recurring donation[7] to help communities take control of their economies and their futures by:

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What Is Good for Microsoft Turns Out To Be Bad For the Public Schools–And Microsoft

by David Morris | November 26, 2013 2:41 pm

Schools have a lot to learn from business about how to improve performance Bill Gates declared[1] in an Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2011.  He pointed to his own company as a worthy model for public schools.

“At Microsoft, we believed in giving our employees the best chance to succeed, and then we insisted on success. We measured excellence, rewarded those who achieved it and were candid with those who did not.”

Adopting the Microsoft model means public schools grading teachers, rewarding the best and being “candid”, that is, firing those who are deemed ineffective.  “If you do that,” Gates promised[2] Oprah Winfrey,  “then we go from being basically at the bottom of the rich countries to being back at the top.”

The Microsoft model, called “stacked ranking” forced every work unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.

Using hundred of millions of dollars in philanthropic largesse Bill Gates persuaded state and federal policymakers that what was good for Microsoft would be good for the public schools system (to be sure, he was pushing against an open door).  To be eligible for large grants from President Obama’s Race to the Top program, for example, states had to adopt Gates’ Darwinian approach to improving public education.   Today more than 36 states have altered their teacher evaluations systems with the aim of weeding out the worst and rewarding the best.

Some states grade on a curve.  Others do not.  But all embrace the principle that teachers continuing employment will depend on improvement in student test scores and teachers who are graded “ineffective” two or three years in a row face termination.

Needless to say, the whole process of what has come to be called “high stakes testing” of both students and teachers has proven devastatingly dispiriting.  According[3] to the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, over half of public school teachers say they experience great stress several days a week and are so demoralized that their level of satisfaction has plummeted from 62 percent to 39 percent since 2008.

And now, just as public school systems have widely adopted the Microsoft model in order to win the Race to the Top, it turns out that Microsoft now realizes that its model has led that once highly competitive company in a Race to the Bottom.

In a widely circulated 2012 article[4] in Vanity Fair two-time George Polk Award winner Kurt Eichenwald concluded[5] that stacked ranking “effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “  He writes, “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees.  It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

This month Microsoft abandoned the hated system.

On November 12 all Microsoft employees received a memo from Lisa Brummel, Executive Vice President for Human Resources announcing[6] the company will be adopting “a fundamentally new approach to performance and development designed to promote new levels of teamwork and agility for breakthrough business impact.”

Ms. Brummel listed four key elements in the company’s new policy.

•More emphasis on teamwork and collaboration.

•More emphasis on employee growth and development.

•No more use of a Bell curve for evaluating employees.

•No more ratings of employees.

Sue Altman at EduShyster[7] vividly sums up the frustration of a nation of educators at this new development. “So let me get this straight. The big business method of evaluation that now rules our schools is no longer the big business method of evaluation? And collaboration and teamwork, which have been abandoned by our schools in favor of the big business method of evaluation, is in?”

Big business can turn on a dime when the CEO orders it to do so.  But changing policies embraced and internalized by dozens of states and thousands of public school districts will take far, far longer.  Which means the legacy of Bill Gates will continue to handicap millions of students and hundreds of thousands of teachers even as the company Gates founded along with many[8] other businesses, have thrown his pernicious performance model in the dustbin of history.






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Foreign Aid At Its Best

by David Morris | November 20, 2013 3:35 pm

Sierra Leone map[1]I support foreign aid because it reflects a willingness of rich nations to share resources with those less fortunate.  I criticize foreign aid because it tends to go from government to government, often encouraging corruption and wastefulness.  Or is driven primarily by self-interest, often undermining rather than nurturing a country’s independence (e.g. U.S. food aid that has to be spent importing US food and ends up driving local farmers off the land).

Which makes this short video[2] from UpWorthy[3] so inspiring.   The focus is on Kelvin Doe, an ingenious 15 year old from Sierra Leone.  The foreign aid in this case resulted a 3-week guest residency at MIT for Kelvin, the result of yeoman efforts by MIT’s Media Lab’s David Sengeh who is also from Sierra Leone.

Sengeh is on a mission.  He firmly believes that countries like his own will not progress until they identify and nurture tens of thousands of rooted and committed young people who view problems as challenges and opportunities and possess the ingenuity and persistence to make the most of the opportunities.

Kelvin is one of those young people.  Even in this brief video we are witness to an unusual combination of talent and humility and an abiding love of family and community.

Kelvin taught himself electronics and when he discovered the lights in his village sometimes come on only once a week he scrounged used materials and parts to build a battery.  To give youth a voice and the community a vehicle for participating in decisions he built a radio transmitter and generator.

His visit to MIT expanded his horizons but didn’t diminish his devotion to family and community.  Whatever I’ve learned here I will go back and share and do it as a team he calmly and assuredly says.  “I want to help my family,” he notes, and the pictures indicate a very large family indeed.  And a tear runs down his cheek.





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Yes to Amazon. No to the Rest of Us.
Welcome to the New Post Office

by David Morris | November 18, 2013 5:07 pm

The announcement that the US Postal Service will deliver packages for Amazon on Sundays came just a few days after a federal judge halted USPS’ sale of Stamford’s historic downtown post office.  The juxtaposition of the two events throws into stark relief the new Janus-like philosophy of the postal service:  a big hug to big business, the back of the hand to the public.

For its first 175 years the US Post Office also served business.  But protecting[1] the public took precedence. When private carriers began to siphon away the most profitable parts of the mail delivery system, raising the cost and lowering the quality of services the Post Office could provide the general public Congress created an effective post office monopoly.  Which enabled a sharp reduction in the price of a stamp and mail delivery to the doors of urban, and later rural residents and businesses.  When private packaging companies mistreated their customers, the Post Office established Parcel Post.  When shaky banks didn’t pay their depositors the post office established the Postal Bank.

In 1971 Congress transformed the cabinet level Post Office Department to the quasi-public United States Postal Service.  Nevertheless the Postal Reorganization Act explicitly noted its public purpose, “The United States Post Office shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by Act of Congress, and supported by the people.”  Or, to paraphrase Lincoln’s immortal phrase, the postal service was to be, as the Post Office had been, an institution “of the people, by the people, for the people”.

But the actions of USPS management mock those words.  The USPS not only gives business access; it gives them handsome subsidies. Companies that preprocess their mail qualify for a discount.  By law discounts cannot exceed the avoided costs of USPS doing the work, but the Public Regulatory Commission, an independent agency, estimated[2] in 2012 that businesses were given $1.5 billion annually in excess discounts.  Indeed, as William Burrus, former President of the American Postal Workers Union notes[3] that as the cost of USPS handling a letter dropped discounts actually increased.

The agreement with Amazon should be viewed in this pro-business light. The Washington Post reports[4], “For years Amazon wanted to deliver seven days a week but was stymied by the cost of getting packages from distribution centers to doorsteps.”  Normally a business would have to pay a premium to have the post office deliver on a Sunday.  Under the new deal Amazon will not be charged a premium.  Why?  According to the USPS they will be served by part time, low paid employees, a growing part of a USPS workforce that has been reduced by over half a million career employees since 2000.

While the Postal Service bends over backwards to help big business it often takes an in-your-face attitude towards the general public.  Casual readers of USPS’ proposal earlier this year to end Saturday delivery might have missed the fact that it would apply only to first class mail not to junk mail. (more…)[5]

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New Report Reveals Walmart’s Climate Impact

by Stacy Mitchell | November 13, 2013 10:50 am

placeholder[1]Cover Image: Walmart Climate Report[2]Today, ILSR issued a report on Walmart’s rapidly expanding climate pollution and joined with leading environmental organizations in calling for change.

The new report, Walmart’s Assault on the Climate: The Truth Behind One of the Biggest Climate Polluters and Slickest Greenwashers in America, finds:

“A closer examination of what Walmart is actually doing behind all of its climate announcements shows the company continues to externalize its costs on people and the environment,” said Stacy Mitchell, ILSR Senior Researcher and author of the report.

The report comes as leading environmental organizations call for change.  In an open letter to the company[3], several organizations, including Sierra Club[4], Rainforest Action Network[5], Friends of the Earth[6], and Energy Action Coalition[7], call on Walmart to implement a publicly verifiable, accurate tracking of all of their climate change emissions, make an overall 20 percent reduction in emissions, and stop funding the campaigns of those who oppose legislation to address the climate crisis.

Download:  Report  |  Press Release[8]   |  Open Letter[9]

The Sierra Club made the following statement, which was delivered by Michael Marx, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil Campaign:

“Walmart is failing on climate exactly like it is failing on worker’s rights. The company’s carbon pollution is up 14 percent while it pours millions of dollars into a misleading PR campaign around sustainability and anti-environmental public officials who obstruct solutions to climate disruption. If Walmart wants us to live better it can start by treating its workers with the dignity and respect they deserve and taking real steps to cut carbon pollution.”

Philip D. Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA, said:

“As the nation’s largest employer, and the largest company in the world, Walmart has an obligation to match its clean energy commitments with a greater commitment to reducing its global warming pollution and improve how it treats its employees.”

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Brenda Platt Talks Bioplastics on Toxic Free Radio

by Brenda Platt | November 9, 2013 3:14 pm

On November 6, 2013, Debra Lynn Dadd’s Toxic Free Talk Radio Show had ILSR’s Brenda Platt as a guest representing the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative and talking about bioplastics. Brenda is Director of the Sustainable Plastics Initiative, Co-Chair of the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative ([1]), and co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, based in Washington, DC. She has worked 26 years on waste reduction, recycling and composting issues.

The show focused on compostable bioplastics, made from renewable resources instead of fossil fuels. Brenda is working as part of several coalitions to spur the use of biobased products that are sustainable from cradle to cradle. The Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative has developed environmentally sustainability criteria for biobased plastics, and recently released purchasing specs for biobased compostable food service ware.

Listen to the Toxic Free Radio Show[2]

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Five Steps To Save The Incredible Shrinking Post Office

by David Morris | November 4, 2013 1:50 pm

In July 2011 the United States Postal Service (USPS) management announced it would rapidly close 3600 local post offices and eventually as many as 15,000.  And shutter half the nation’s mail processing centers.

A frenzy of grassroots activity erupted as citizens in hundreds of towns mobilized to save a treasured institution that plays a key and sometimes a defining role in their communities.  Only when Congress appeared ready to impose a six month moratorium on closures and consolidations that December did USPS management agree to a voluntarily moratorium of the same length.

That moratorium ended in May 2012.  Rather than proceed with closings, management embraced a devilishly clever new strategy.  Instead of closing 3600 it would slash the hours of 13,000 post offices.   That could be accomplished very quickly because reduction in hours, unlike outright closures, requires little if any justification while appeals are very limited.

Germany circa 1940 would have envied the efficiency of the USPS’s blitzkrieg against itself and America’s rural communities.  By November 2013, almost 8,000 post offices already have seen hours whacked.

As required USPS held community meetings but they went not to listen but to dictate.  As the web site Save The Post Office, the go to source of information about the ongoing assault on the post office observes[1], “The decision to reduce the hours was made almost a year ago and what the new hours will be comes as an announcement, not a matter for discussion.  There’s no need for a lot of talk about the options because there aren’t any.”

When communities ask the postal service management for the data upon which it made the decision they are invariably rebuffed.  Postal management considers it none of their business.

A reduction in hours doesn’t generate the same level of outrage as a closure but its impact on a community may, even in the short run, be almost as negative.  The building remains open but its value to the community is dramatically diminished.   Hours may be cut in half.  A part time inexperienced non-career employee replaces a full time experienced career postmaster.

At a meeting in Great Capacon, West Virginia small business owners talked[2] about how the abundant knowledge of the current postmaster, Rick Dunn, helped them cut costs and improve service.  One resident offered another measure of Dunn’s value, relating how he had called in a wellness check on a senior he hadn’t seen in a few days.  It turned out the man needed medical attention. Dunn may have saved his life.

A reduction in hours may set up a slippery slope to full closure because the postal service reviews the workload and revenues of individual post offices annually.  As one resident in Greenwood, Virginia reasonably inquired[3], “How in the world can our revenue increase if they’re reducing the hours that our window can perform retail sales?” (more…)[4]

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Indie Trade Associations Form New Coalition

by Stacy Mitchell | November 1, 2013 12:35 pm

In an exciting new development for the local economy movement, seven independent business organizations have come together to launch the Advocates for Independent Business[1] (AIB), a new coalition dedicated to ensuring that locally owned, independent businesses succeed and thrive.

The coalition was founded by the American Booksellers Association[2], American Independent Business Alliance[3], American Specialty Toy Retailing Association[4], Independent Running Retailers Association[5], National Bicycle Dealers Association[6], Professional Association of Innkeepers International[7], and Record Store Day[8].

AIB will provide a structure for its member organizations to exchange information about successful programs that deliver value for their members, generate new ideas to support independent businesses, and work together to advocate for shared public policy goals.

ILSR helped the coalition get off the ground and is coordinating its work.  We think building a national coalition  will give independent businesses a stronger voice on critical public policy issues.

AIB has its roots in the Advocates for Independent Retail Summit[9] organized by the American Booksellers Association two years ago. The day-long meeting drew over 50 people from more than 30 trade associations covering a broad range of independent businesses.

Recognizing the significant opportunity represented by that gathering and the value of having an ongoing vehicle for sharing ideas and collaborating to support independent businesses, the founding members of AIB began meeting earlier this year to create the coalition.

They anticipate that it will grow in the coming months as other organizations join.  Membership is open to organizations that primarily represent independent, locally owned businesses.

More on the AIB’s website[10].

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Review: The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet One Community At a Time

by Neil Seldman | October 30, 2013 3:15 pm

A Review of The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet One Community At a Time
(By Paul Connett, published by Chelsea Green Publishing[1])

Review by Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, DC

Neil Seldman is President and co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). He is a specialist in recycling and the history of ideas. He is co-founder of the National Recycling Coalition, 1980, Grass Roots Recycling Network, 1995 and Zero Waste International Association, 2003. Seldman wrote the “Introduction” to the International Zero Waste Dialogue, Anthony and Liss, Editors, Grass Roots Recycling Network, 2000.

Disclosure: Neil Seldman and Paul Connett have worked together for over 25 years fighting against waste incineration and for total recycling and economic development, or zero waste, in the US and UK. The book under review includes discussion of Neil Seldman’s and ILSR’s ideas and work.

Paul Connett’s newly released book displays his personal charisma, scientific knowledge and applied wisdom to the deadly serious, though mundane, world of waste. It is a book worthy of the man who Richard V. Anthony, president of the Zero Waste International Association, refers to as the ‘rock star’ of the anti-incineration, pro zero waste movement.

Indeed, Professor Connett’s lectures are scientific tarantellas of facts, consequences, warnings and solutions, accompanied by charts, tables and slides that lay out the biological and chemical realities of wasting and poor management of residuals. They are also wonderfully entertaining, generating more than one side splitting laugh at his metaphors, similes and profound aphorisms — the Devil Burns, God Recycles, Make Love Not Waste, and for older folks, Make Friends Not Waste. The lectures end with a most spirited rendition, lead by Connett, of “No Incineration Forever”, with words set to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Audiences clamor for more.

What a boon to the US and international zero waste movement! This is one super star who charges no money for his participation in thousands of grass roots events over the decades.

Connett is a retired chemistry professor who currently works on fluoridation issues, while still maintaining a heavy schedule of anti wasting speeches and workshops. He initiated and coordinated the Citizens Dioxin Conferences and produced the videos Zero Waste: Idealistic Dream or Realistic Goal? and Road to Zero Waste in the l990s[1]. Most recently, Connett has worked with Rossano Ercolini, a former schoolteacher and winner of the 2013 Goldman for Excellence in Protecting the Environment in Europe for his anti incineration in Italy.

Connett, a native of the UK, fits in well with the US tradition of citizen scientists Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner who used their scientific skills for grass roots rather than corporate or bureaucratic interests. These environmental and scientific heroes strive to apply the benefits of scientific knowledge for the common good, the ideal form of science hailed in Rousseau’s First Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, those that make for a better and happier world.

The text is grounded in Connett’s optimistic belief that there can be a world where local decision making counts. Garbage is just the tip of the iceberg. Wasting is a paradigm that encompasses energy, jobs and small businesses, climate change, toxicity, the fate of the oceans. The solutions to wasting open up a world of renewed possibilities for the human race and nature.

Nothing if not specific, Zero Waste educates us about the Five Rs (Recycle, Reuse/Compost, Redesign, Reduce, Responsibility) and the Four Cs (Common Sense, Community, Creativity, Children). These simple, yet profound, concepts and practices are critical for sustained resource management and broad prosperity. Zero waste is not one big solution for waste management, a large incinerator or mega landfill. Rather the solutions are small scale, locally owned and environmental sound. These policies, programs and enterprises are ‘pieces of zero waste’ that have spontaneously emerged in every part of the globe, the instinctual human response to the bourgeoning and threatening waste stream.

Zero Waste identifies the needs for citizen and small business organizing and solidarity as the necessary socio-political context for zero waste technologies, policies and businesses to thrive. With localism and citizen participation at every stage of development, zero waste is a pathway to a stable, steady state economy as envisioned by previous economic visionaries John Stewart Mill, Frederick Engels, Kenneth Boulding and Herman Daly.

Zero Waste also includes the stories of US and world grass roots leaders who have shaped the new paradigm in resource management and made it possible for business people and residents to say no to incinerators and landfills that destroy resources and pollute. There are essays written by leading activists and thinkers in the zero waste movement:  Eric Lombardi links the practicalities of zero waste to world peace, Dan Knapp and Mary Lou Van Deventer, pioneers in reuse entrepreneurialism, the leading theoreticians of the US total recycling and zero waste movement, Jeffrey Morris a leading zero waste economic analyst, Buddy Boyd a recycling practitioner who discusses the need for political leadership, Richard V. Anthony and Gary Liss describe zero waste efforts in the private sector. I have an essay linking recycling to resilient communities and cities.

Following these essays, Connett provides detailed updates and lessons learned from local accomplishments in Canada. Europe, Asia, Mid East, South America and Australia-New Zealand.

The book’s publication took two years.. Yet, even as the essays contain older information, they are quite useful. They need updating in some places as ideas and projects around the world have grown and new issues emerged. The sections on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) as they stand are inadequate. They are not informed by the latest push back against the rigid, ideological, EPR Formula and Framework that have resulted in zero waste dystopias in British Columbia, Canada and Europe where Extended Producer Responsibility has been diverted from core values of zero waste including small scale, local ownership entrepreneurialism, anti monopoly and anti incineration. Most pertinent are the recent policy statements that place EPR under local government rather than industry control, the Zero Waste Commission, Berkeley, CA, and the Global Recycling Council of the California Resource Recovery Association, the dialogue within local and national Sierra Club chapters and committees, and the Grass Roots Recycling Network.  Connett addresses these inconsistent policies, but EPR deserves more sophisticated essays on its own. Recyclers and cities are not willing to turn over their cities, companies and industries to the concentrated corporations that produce wasting in the first place.

The history section could use more details from the pre-1985 period. During the late 1960s and l970s and early l980s, the infrastructure of the post World War II recycling movement was rebuilt on the remaining paper and metal scrap industries by private consulting firms (SRD and SCS Engineers), dozens of community based recycling companies (Santa Rosa Community Recycling, EcoCycle in Boulder, Ann Arbor Ecology Center) and regional anti toxics groups (Western Washington Anti Toxics Coalition, Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, ReClaim, Springfield, MO), and direct technical assistance groups (ILSR, NYPIRG, BioCycle). It was this groundswell of activism that finally, by 1985, caught the attention of the national environmental organizations, which then formed their own response to garbage and wasting.

Finally, I disagree with an assessment cited to the effect that the current challenge posed by the incinerator industry is greater than in previous decades (1970-1995) and that the industry is now better organized. The current number of proposed incinerators is half of that in previous decades. The current grass roots institutions that have emerged and proved their mettle as a firewall against mass propaganda for technological fixes, false science, financial patronage and a government-industry revolving door still serve every corner of the country. Years ago these local and regional organizations had to pull themselves together as they fought off incinerators, which benefited from far more comprehensive government support and subsidies than today. The anti incineration movement is as vibrant and diversified today as it was yesteryear when 300 planned incinerators were defeated.

These shortcomings are minor compared to the enormous value of this book. Zero Waste will contribute greatly to the public discussion of waste. It will become a standard text for students of all ages. No longer can business and government leaders ‘sleepwalk’ through an era of “socially sanctioned wasting that characterized the Twentieth Century.”[2]

In my last book review, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash [2][3], I praised its lively description of the social history of wasting in the US economy. Zero Waste by Paul Connett complements this history. It is required reading for those who seek to understand the recycling phenomenon and avoid the economic and environmental pain that will certainly follow if zero waste is not introduced immediately throughout the world.

One further recommendation, after reading Zero Waste, watch the movie “Trashed: No Place for Waste,” which features Dr. Connett.[4]


[1][3], click on videos

[2] Helen Spiegelman, Zero Waste, page 47.




  1. Chelsea Green Publishing:
  2. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash :

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New Report: 8 Ways Local Energy Policies Can Boost the Economy

by John Farrell | October 7, 2013 2:22 pm

Minneapolis, MN (October 7, 2013) – The economy has stalled and so has the war on climate change. But a new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance describes how dozens of cities are boosting their local economies while dramatically reducing greenhouse gases.

City Power Play:  8 Practical Local Energy Policies to Boost the Economy[1] reports on how Chattanooga, TN, is adding over $1 billion to its local economy in the next decade by implementing one of the most advanced smart grids while delivering the fastest internet service in the country.  Sonoma County, CA, has created nearly 800 local jobs retrofitting over 2,000 properties for energy savings with city financing. Babylon, NY, repurposed a solid waste fund to finance retrofits for 2% of the city’s homes, saving residents an average of $1,300 a year on their energy bills at minimal cost to the city.

“These savings weren’t dependent on state or federal grants,” said report author John Farrell, ILSR’s Director of Democratic Energy. “These cities used their own resources to seize control of their energy future and economy.”

The report highlights eight practical energy policies cities can and have used to their economic advantage, from more rigorous building codes to solar mandates and easier permitting to the use of a wide array of financing tools to spur renewable energy and energy efficiency.  The brief case studies link to the text of the relevant ordinances.

The policies aren’t tied to a political ideology, but a practical and local one.  Cities have identified where they have untapped resources and deployed them to generate jobs and keep more of their energy dollars in the economy.

“Not every city can use every policy,” notes Farrell, “but every community can find at least one that will help them strengthen their local economy while contributing to the worldwide effort to reduce climate change.”

The report is freely available from ILSR’s Democratic Energy program:[2]

  1. City Power Play:  8 Practical Local Energy Policies to Boost the Economy:

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City Power Play: 8 Practical Local Energy Policies to Boost the Economy

by John Farrell | October 7, 2013 12:43 pm

placeholder[1]The economy has stalled and so has the war on climate change. But dozens of cities are creating jobs and cleaner energy using their own power. Check out the full report or the 12-slide summary below, or read on for a summary of the key findings.

Read the report:

City Power Play - cover 150[2]

View presentation:

city power play presentation screengrab 150[3]

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Keeping Energy Dollars Localsunshine means local dollars[6]

Eight Powerful, Practical Policies

This report details eight practical energy policies cities can and have used to their economic advantage:energy efficiency means local dollars[7]

  1. Municipal utilities
  2. Community choice aggregation
  3. Building energy codes
  4. Building energy use disclosure
  5. Local tax authority
  6. Solar mandates
  7. Permitting
  8. Local energy financing

Case studies of each policy vividly illustrate their impact with specific examples, right down to the text of the relevant ordinances.

The policies aren’t tied to a political ideology, but a practical and local one.  Cities have identified where they have untapped resources and deployed them to generate jobs and keep more of their energy dollars in the economy.

Every City Could Do Something

Some cities are more limited than others. While the federal constitution typically reserves all powers not expressly given the federal government to the states, states typically do not similarly reserve powers for cities. In fact, an opinion issued by Justice Dillon of the Iowa Supreme Court in the mid-1800s (Clark v. City of Des Moines) set a precedent for local authority that extends to this day in most states: many cities have only those powers expressly granted them by the state or that are indispensable in being a city. Issues like energy codes or property assessed clean energy programs don’t fit under “Dillon’s Rule.”

On the other hand, many states have instituted a form of “home rule,” that grants (at least some) powers of self-governance to cities. The following map illustrates the complex landscape of local authority.limits-of-local-authority-map-v2[8]

No city, no matter how committed to boosting its economy, could adopt all eight policies (heck, the first two are incompatible). Forming a municipal utility means a tough fight with the incumbent utility.  Few states allow community choice aggregation.

But nearly every city has a local budget and borrowing power, can issue permits for buildings, and can set local policy. And likely no city has explored the full potential of their power to boost the local economy with local energy policies. This report shows how dozens have done so, in the hopes it inspires many more to act.

Download the report

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Let The Red States Vote on Health Care

by David Morris | October 5, 2013 5:18 pm

In 2009, when Congress passed the health care bill, only one Republican voted in favor.  In 2010, with opposition to the new health care law as their rallying cry, Republicans gained a net 63 seats and control of the House of Representatives.  They also won control of 11 additional states, bringing their total to 25.

On October 1st, the first day of the new federal fiscal year and the launch of the new health care exchanges, the victors of 2009 collided with the victors of 2010.  The entire nation felt the impact.

Even when it ends, the government shutdown will have demonstrated the willingness, indeed the eagerness, of Republicans to do everything possible to stop the health care law. Already well-funded campaigns are trying to persuade healthy 25 year olds not to purchase health insurance through the exchanges.  If successful, these campaigns will result in higher premium rates for those who do sign up, which will spawn dissatisfaction with the new law.

The health care law finances “navigators” to help people sign up, similar to what Medicare has.  But red states are hamstringing navigators, often requiring them to pass licensing exams, obtain insurance bonds, and pay heavy fees.  Tennessee recently adopted[1] an emergency rule requiring any “enrollment assister” to undergo a criminal background check, fingerprinting and take 12 hours of course work.  The more problems people have with the exchanges the greater their dissatisfaction will be with the new law.

Given this level of intransigence what is to be done?  President Obama and the Democratic Party are resolute about rolling out the health law in all 50 states.  They refuse to give in to what they see as blackmail.  But I believe the country, and the Democratic Party itself would be better served if Republican controlled states were allowed to opt out of the Affordable Care Act, but only under three conditions.

First, opting out requires opting out of all provisions of the law. No individual mandate.  No health exchanges.  No requirement that insurance companies spend 80 percent of the premium dollar on health care and cover people with pre-existing conditions.  No federal incentives contained in the new law will be provided.

Second, those states that are implementing the health care law will be given great latitude in designing their new health systems. Several states, for example, want to create a single payer insurance system similar to that which Canadian provinces have had for almost 50 years.  The existing law allows significant autonomy only in 2017.  A bill should be passed that gives them the authority to do so immediately. (more…)[2]

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Setting the Value of Solar – Part 1 of Minnesota’s Process

by John Farrell | September 27, 2013 1:13 pm

What is solar worth to a utility? It’s an issue of national debate, but one unexpected state – Minnesota – is engaging a formal process for determining the methodology for setting the value of solar. As the first multi-utility process, it’s likely to set a precedent nationwide for what the “value of solar” will mean and whether it will aid the continued growth of distributed solar power.

So what’s happening with solar in Minnesota?

Starts with a Standard

It starts with the recently adopted solar energy standard[1], which requires investor-owned utilities to get 1.5% of their energy from solar by 2020, establishes a standard, long-term contract for buying distributed solar, and allows utilities to file for a “value of solar” tariff (VOST).

The Value of Solar Concept

The “value of solar” concept is designed to solve one of the most pressing problems with expanding solar power. Utilities see customers generating their own energy as a mortal threat to their business model, because the regulatory structure and their business rely on selling kilowatt-hours. The policy in place, net metering[2], allows customers to get a credit on their bill that’s the same whether they made power from the sun or reduced their energy use by turning off lights. Either way, it means less sales for the utility, but while the utility can’t fight conservation, they can make trouble for solar.

The value of solar concept is a means to catalog and make transparent the many benefits solar energy provides to the grid system (producing energy at times of high demand, being very close to where people use energy).  The idea is that utilities would pay solar producers that full value (on a per kilowatt-hour basis) and that customers would reduce their energy bill with the money from that sale, rather than a credit based on how much energy they produce.  The benefit to the utility would be transparent, and customers would continue to see how much energy they are using.

Minnesota’s Value of Solar Law

The law sets out the required components of the VOST:


  1. solar energy standard:
  2. net metering:
  3. (more…):

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ILSR co-Sponsoring Cultivating Community Composting Forum

by Brenda Platt | September 23, 2013 12:56 pm

ILSR is pleased to announce — along with BioCycle, Highfields Center for Composting, and the Organics Recycling Association of Ohio — Cultivating Community Composting[1], a day-long forum (11:00 AM-4:30 PM) on October 19, 2013 in Columbus, Ohio. The forum is inspired by the excitement, energy and innovation emanating from the rapidly growing number of community composting sites in the U.S. that are processing source separated household, commercial and institutional food scraps.Cultivating Community Composting is being held at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Columbus — which operates a large community garden and education program (Growing To Green) that includes on-site composting. The forum starts with a panel of community composters who will address a range of topics, including site footprint, composting methods, permitting and financing, volunteer management and sourcing/collecting food scraps. A variety of models and scales of community composting — from a bin system at a community garden to windrows and aerated static piles at stand-alone sites — will be covered. The forum includes lunch and a tour of the Conservatory’s garden, composting site and educational facilities
.More information and Online Registration.[2]
  1. Cultivating Community Composting:
  2. More information and Online Registration.:

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Defending the Public Good: FDR’s Portland Speech

by David Morris | September 11, 2013 10:36 am

A month before the 1932 election, Franklin Roosevelt traveled to Portland, Oregon to deliver a speech about government and governance. Some 80 years later, his talk, given in the depths of the Depression to a nation that had yet to accept that government should play an important role, remains one of the clearest and most accessible explications of the relationship between the public and the private.

FDR specifically addressed the relationship of government to electric utilities but one could easily translate the theory and principles he proposes to today’s banks, or cable companies or airlines.

In the decade before FDR’s visit to Portland the electricity sector had undergone a sea change. Power companies that once served neighborhoods now served cities and even states.  The era of competition when Chicago had 29 electric companies and New York at least 6 had given way to a consensus that the inherent nature of electricity production and distribution lent itself to monopolies.

The key question after 1920 was who would own and control these monopolies.  At the local level, the war between the public and the private raged for a decade.  More than 2200 smaller cities eventually built their own electric networks.  Most large cities lost the battle although a few like Los Angeles, Seattle and Cleveland emerged victorious.

FDR began with the basic question, then and now. Why not leave electricity production and distribution in private, unregulated hands?  He answered: (more…)[1]

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Review: 40 Years of Curbside Recycling

by Neil Seldman | September 11, 2013 7:46 am

A Review of 40 Years of Curbside Recycling: A Celebration of Our Culture’s Greatest Environmental Movement[1], Waste & Recycling News, Detroit, August 2013, 42 pages

By Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, DC
(Neil Seldman is President of ILSR and a specialist in recycling and economic development. He works for cities and counties, community and environmental organizations, and small businesses.)

And a worthy celebration it is! Recyclers should be grateful that the editors and publishers of Waste & Recycling News (WRN) invested their time in preparing this retrospective. Despite some curious lapses in their recounting of the history of recycling, the essays and tables they present will significantly add to the growing literature of recycling for the next generation of Americans.

“No other environmental movement,” the report begins, “can come close to changing the way we think about garbage in our daily lives. None other can match recycling’s economic, cultural and ecological impact…on humanity’s greatest environmental idea.”

Oddly, WRN begins by incorrectly crediting the “hippies” of the 1960s for the recycling revolution. Nothing can be further from the truth, as readers soon find out when they delve into the text. Cliff Humphrey of Modesto Environmental Action, Penny Hansen of the EPA, and the children and grandchildren of 19th century immigrant scrap entrepreneurs hardly fit the image of hippie culture. To be sure, Cliff and Mary Humphrey’s mock funeral for a new car was hippie-like in its irreverence for materialism and counter-culture message. But these activists were no flash in the pan. They and thousands more followed up with years of hard work and political organizing.

Praise is duly noted for the “scrappies” who, out of necessity, built viable businesses in scrap metal and paper that kept recycling alive as it withered under the emerging post-World War II throwaway economy. Mayor Sam Yorty’s 1960 campaign to end curbside recycling in Los Angeles as a spoil of victory of World War II is duly noted as the harbinger of wastefulness and hubris. In Washington, DC, it was ABC Salvage that preserved markets for materials, and invested money and equipment in community-based drop-off centers—an important building block for the curbside recycling that was soon to follow. Hundreds of “scrappies” from across the country did the same. WRN estimates that 1 billion tons of raw materials derive from US recycling efforts since curbside was reintroduced in the early 1970s.

The retrospective covers individual and community accomplishments, the evolution of collection and processing equipment as curbside recycling reappeared, and the change in the economics of recycling during the mid-1980s emergence of a recycling culture. WRN correctly emphasizes the staying power of recycling through the 2008 recession and the current stagnant economy.

WRN also walks us through the latest recycling effort: the one bin, “dirty MRF” system being rolled out in Houston and other cities. Dirty refers to the fact that processing lines recover recyclables and compostables from mixed waste streams, thus reducing the quality of materials recovered. Recyclers also object to dirty MRFs: if people no longer sort their own garbage, efforts to educate them about the waste stream will be for naught, and previous behavior modification surrounding recycling will be lost. Dirty MRFs may also end up as feedstock for planned incinerators, as proponents in Houston and elsewhere anticipate.

Throughout WRN’s report, there are stories that reinforce lessons learned over the past 30 years, and that remind us of both the conventional and unconventional people and ideas that formed and continue to drive the movement to this day.

There are, however, significant omissions in the retrospective that deserve attention. The subtitle is misleading in that it separates the recycling movement from the prior emergence of a larger environmental movement. One could not have been possible without the other: Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner and other scientists prepared the groundwork for the general population’s acceptance of recycling by revealing the appalling state of the environment and the imminent dangers of current practices. These citizen scientists were the midwives of modern recycling. Their work led directly to the national consensus that allowed for 1965’s groundbreaking National Solid Waste Management Act, which marked the first time in a century that the federal government paid attention to garbage. New federal, state and local rules began to change quickly. Like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, recyclers starting aiming for a Clean Land Act, as reflected in the now unfolding zero waste paradigm.

Despite WRN’s initial focus on the grassroots origin of the movement, there is little follow-up on grassroots activism. The l980 Fresno Recycling Congress is omitted in the timeline completely, as is the 1995 emergence of the Grass Roots Recycling Network, a critical development in reaction to the takeover of the National Recycling Coalition by industry consultants and corporations. It would have been helpful to describe the critical role of environmental educators in spreading recycling literacy in schools and in the public’s consciousness. Recycling education has been a vehicle for public knowledge about closely related issues of water, energy and air issues.

The report omits mention of transformative works that deserve attention include Brenda Platt’s 1990s EPA-supported case studies Beyond 25% Recycling, Beyond 40% Recycling and Cutting the Waste Stream in Half, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and Tania Levy’s Garbage to Energy: The False Panacea, Santa Rosa (CA) Community Recycling Center.
Levy’s 1979 booklet launched the anti-incineration movement. Recyclers and ad hoc local groups eventually scuppered over 300 planned incinerators in virtually every major US city and county. WRN chooses to highlight the Mobro Garbage Barge incident as the source of vitality for the recycling movement in the mid l980s. It’s true that the daily images of Long Island garbage floating around the world on the nightly news—ultimately to be returned to NY—were indeed powerful. The threat of massive pollution and the high cost of incinerators in cities, however, were what really galvanized local actions and raised the recycling movement to the forefront of people’s imaginations as a viable alternative to incineration and, later, the parallel development of mega-landfills.

Surprisingly, WRN’s retrospective does not focus on how important citizen- and small business-led anti-incineration activism was to the recycling movement. The prospect of 1000 ton per day plus garbage incinerators led to a broad, locally based movement in opposition. Citizens learned that recycling was a viable alternative to incinerators but that to become the predominant way we handled garbage, we needed to change the rules.

My colleague Brenda Platt’s work appeared as a crucial antidote to industry and EPA periodic assertions in the 1970s that only 10% (later raised to 25%), of MSW could be recycled. Platt’s case studies changed the solid waste narrative by showing communities what other communities had already accomplished. Once people could see successful recycling in action, it became much easier to replace the “burn and bury” paradigm with the recycling and economic development paradigm. Today, hundreds of communities in the US are recovering over 50% of their discarded materials. Some have reached over 70% diversion, while striving for 90%. Recycling has, remarkably, continued to expand its hold on the public’s imagination and practice to this day.

The timeline of WRN’s report focuses mostly on the business side of the movement. Readers should supplement their understanding of the recycling movement by comparing WRN’s timeline with ILSR’s grassroots-oriented timeline[2].

Despite these omissions, the “40 Years” report is a most welcome addition to our history. It provides insights and context that are required if current and future generations are to understand and learn how grassroots democracy can work when decision-making remains in the hands of local government where organized citizens can change the rules.

  1. 40 Years of Curbside Recycling: A Celebration of Our Culture’s Greatest Environmental Movement:
  2. ILSR’s grassroots-oriented timeline:

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A “shot across the bow” for Real. Local. Power.

by John Farrell | September 5, 2013 4:58 pm

In 2011, citizens of Boulder, CO, opted to oust their monopoly, corporate electric utility[1] for a locally owned, cleaner, more affordable model despite being outspent 10-to-1.  They’ve since shown[2] that a locally owned utility could deliver 54% renewable energy, lower greenhouse gas emissions by half, and all at a cost as good or better than the incumbent utility.

But Xcel Energy is doubling down after their 2011 loss, preparing to spend well more than $1 million (what they spent in 2011) to protect their profits (and their outmoded business model).  They’ve sponsored a new ballot initiative[3] that would spike Boulder’s wheel and make running a municipal utility nearly impossible.  It’s a textbook example of a corporation looking to buy the election result they want, and all that’s standing in their way is a committed group of local citizens.

But the citizens aren’t giving up without a fight.  This video – headlining their crowdfunding campaign[4] – shows what’s at stake, and how you can be part of a solution to deliver real. local. power. in Boulder, and across the country.  Boulder might be the first to fight to be energy deciders for a cleaner energy future, but it’s not fighting alone.  Already their campaign has raised 3 times it’s goal of $40,000, and with a little more help (from you[5]), they can put up a terrific people powered campaign to stop one utility’s dirty money, and put a shot across the bow on local climate action.

  1. citizens of Boulder, CO, opted to oust their monopoly, corporate electric utility:
  2. since shown:
  3. a new ballot initiative:
  4. crowdfunding campaign:
  5. from you:

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Book Review: Garbology – Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash

by Neil Seldman | August 16, 2013 4:33 pm

A Review of Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, by Edward Humes
Penguin Group, NYC, NY, 2012 

By Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, DC 

Pulitzer Prize-wining writer, Edward Humes, has turned his attention to garbage. Most recently, in a Cato Institute publication, he wisely observes, recycling is America’s last line of defense against waste, when it should be the last. His book, Garbology, contains an excellent concise history of how the US became addicted to garbage and the socioeconomic and environmental dilemmas of today. It also introduces us to extraordinary individual activists and entrepreneurs attempting to solve problems, and provides useful summary charts and tables to further inform readers. Garbology also addresses key issues of corporate bigness and incineration with less success.

Proper Setting but Improper Analysis

In presenting garbage as “nothing less than the lens on our lives, our priorities, our failings, our secrets ands our hubris”, Humes uses the 102-ton-per-life generated by each of us in the USA as a metaphor for the garbage crisis and the opportunities to turn the waste stream into a raw materials stream.

The waning days of the vast Puente Hills landfill in Los Angeles County is the setting. This ‘temporary’ facility has stayed open for decades as the planned network of incinerators for Los Angeles city and county never materialized due to citizen and small business financial and environmental concerns. This pattern of frustrated incinerator deals has impacted New York, New Jersey and other major urban areas. Alas, Humes concludes that European style garbage incineration is the key to any realistic solution. Yet the conditions that make European systems appealing (use of steam for district heating, public ownership, small scale) are virtually impossible to replicate in the US. The conditions that defeated 300 planned garbage incinerators in the l970s, 1980s and 1990s have become stronger than ever before. In 2013 facing a new round of garbage incineration proposals, anti incineration efforts have defeated or stalled all but one proposed facility.

Humes unfortunately takes short cuts with his research and analysis of landfills and incinerators. He praises Waste Management, Inc. CEO David Steiner for the insight that the millions of tons the company handles is worth billions of dollars, an insight that has been recognized for over 40 years. He fails to point out that the company still makes more money from landfill than recycling, that its recycling program was forced upon WMI by new rules imposed by citizens, that the company is trying to repeal yard debris bans from landfills and incinerators, and that the key to WMI success was its ability to raise tons of capital to buy out competitors and build RCRA prescribed landfill systems that cities and smaller companies could not afford.

Misplaced admiration grows worse with Nickolas Themelis who heads a pro-incineration industry think tank at Columbia University. Data presented on incineration costs, environmental or economic impacts are unreliable. Nor does he present the depth of the justified anger against proposed incinerators by citizens and small businesses owners that propel the anti incineration and pro recycling movement. Finally, the discussion on European garbage incineration omits the fact that recyclable plastic and paper are burned because of overbuilt incineration capacity and industry dominated Extended Producer Responsibility programs. Western Europe incinerates an estimated 54 million tons of garbage annually, but has an estimated 64 million tons of incineration capacity. This explains the significant increase in international transport of garbage on the continent and the burning of recyclable and compostable materials. To remedy this, the European Parliament is developing a policy framework to phase out the destruction of these valuable materials by 2020. (See this report for more information[1])

Humes, provides plenty of data but fails to properly analyze it. He emphasizes the high cost of recycling some materials but does not compare this to the multi billion dollar cost of incineration; capital, bond debt, high operating costs.

Readers must balance Humes’ caricature of garbage incineration with accurate information, analysis and context from Bradley Angel, GreenAction for Health and the Environment, Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network, Paul Connett, professor of chemistry (ret), Caroline Eader, No Incineration Frederick County, MD and Jean Marc Simon, Global Anti Incineration Alliance/Europe. In Carroll County, MD, conservative county commissioners refused to move forward on garbage incineration after citizens showed them that the plant would have to be subsidized through a new System Benefit Charge on their homeowner tax bill.

The Political Economy of Garbage in the US

The book’s history of the US garbage generation is well worth reading. While Humes overlooks two early social critics — Thorstein Veblen who first alerted Americans to the bourgeoning social, economic and moral crisis of over and conspicuous consumption (Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, 1899, Theory of the Business Class, 1904) and William Leiss focuses on the psychological impacts of the our society’s embarrassment of riches (The Domination of Nature, 1972, Limits to Satisfaction, 1976) — his narrative is highly educational. It makes us take a good look at ourselves for falling under the sway of what Stuart Ewen refers to the ‘captains of consciousness’ that is the base cause of consumption without responsible discard management. It would also have been good if Humes considered the work of economist Kenneth Boulding who described the US as a ‘cowboy economy’ to extend the waste discussion to a broader economic context.

Humes picks up the sordid tale in the late 1940’s with marketing and design genius Gordon Lippincott’s pivotal notions of the ‘super consumer’: one who is ready to consume unneeded products and discard and replace useful products to support the national prosperity. This American willingness to part with something before it is worn out is a phenomenon of no other society in history, he observed. Based on the economy of abundance, this willingness “must be further nurtured even though it runs contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity, the law of thrift,” Lippincott taught companies and their ad agencies. The failure to waste was the enemy, Hume writes, and the message has been carried to the highest levels of mass communication through Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan and Bush. Hume continues by aptly describing the companies and products that eased these unnatural habits of consumption (TV dinners, Styrofoam, Coca Cola’s one-way bottle and a river of other disposable products and packaging) that introduced the ‘Throw-Away Society’. Here too are presented the financial, cultural and technology changes that catered to the consumption fest: plastic bags, credit cards, compaction garbage trucks and the Golden Age of TV which made all of this seem so natural and inevitable. Along with mass consumption with no thought to disposable, Humes underscores, the idea of thrift was erased from consciousness, and the resulting historic low individual savings in the US.

Against the tidal wave of consumption, Vance Packard’s brilliant warning about the insidious use of subliminal advertising and general veneration of promoting consumption (The Hidden Persuaders, 1957, The Waste Makers, 1960), made no headway. By l960, Packard notes, “The people …are becoming a tiger….They are taught to consume more and more…or their magnificent machine may turn and devour them….Their ever-expanding economy demands it.” “Not even Packard imagined”, Humes writes, that Americans would achieve a 102-ton legacy.”

The Wrong Direction

In addition to this excellent social history, Hume describes the efforts of individual citizens who have opted to live without ‘stuff’. Others have joined efforts to document and halt the plasticization of the oceans. Still others were inspired to start businesses to serve a zero waste economy such as TerraCycle and Chico-Bag. Humes concludes with a compilation of practical steps that individuals can take to reduce the environmental impacts of their discards.

This is the wrong message. The garbage crisis will not be solved by individual heroics. Community organizing, anti incineration organizing and local political campaigning are the strategic tools to take against the war on waste. Cooperative and combined efforts by citizens and small businesses is the only strategy that can challenge the onslaught of stuff that makes our economy and environment unsustainable. These are in fact the ways and means that the ‘burn and bury’ paradigm has been transformed to the ‘recycling and economic development’ paradigm in the last 40 years. Humes does not see the critical nature of combined efforts, because he focuses on the individual. He does not know the history of the recycling movement.

Curiously, Humes does not address the issues of Extended Producer Responsibility or Bottle Bills, although these are hotly debated among professionals in the field and public at large.

Garbology will remain a curiosity to veteran recyclers and solid waste planners based on its uneven treatment of the field. For those new to the fascinating world of garbage, parts of the book will be very helpful in understanding the scale of garbage dilemma and the history of how the US got into the mess that we must clean up. For a more thorough analysis these readers will have to read on.


Neil Seldman is president and co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He works with cities, businesses and community organizations start and expand recycling, reuse and composting businesses and implementing policies that nurture a homegrown economy. Seldman also assists communities in implementing alternatives to garbage incineration and landfill. His book and movie reviews appear in Bicycle Magazine, Greenyes Listserve and ILSR’s Waste to Wealth web page.

  1. See this report for more information:

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Stop the Presses: Washington Discovers Mergers Reduce Competition, Increase Prices

by David Morris | August 16, 2013 9:59 am

In 1985 the United States was home to 24 airlines.  Today there are 7.  The Justice Departments under Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush II and Obama welcomed all mergers. Then in August 2013 the antitrust division of the Justice Department suddenly discovered why there is an antitrust division.

According to the New York Times[1], “But antitrust officials said on Tuesday that despite the cost savings for the carriers from consolidation, domestic airfares, on average, had increased much faster than inflation over the last several years, prompting the department to revise its thinking about what was best for the consumer…And the fares varied greatly, often depending on the level of competition.”

“Justice Dept. Alters View of Mergers By Airlines.” New York Times. August 15, 2013

  1. New York Times:

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“We Can Never Make Enough Money” CEO Tells Ever-Poorer Workers

by David Morris | August 15, 2013 4:29 pm

200px-Caterpillar_logo.svg[1]“Caterpillar has pioneered a two-tier wage system in which workers hired after a certain date are consigned to a significantly lower wage scale than others and it recently pressed its longer-term employees into accepting a six year wage freeze.  Many Caterpillar workers ask why the company insisted on a pay freezer when it reported repeated record profits-$5.7 billion last year, amounting to $45,000 per Caterpillar employee.  Caterpillar’s chief executive, Douglas Oberhelman (whose compensation has increased more than 80 percent over the last two years) says the freeze was vital to keep wages competitive with rival companies.  “I always try to communicate to our people that we can never make enough money”,  he recently told Bloomberg BusinessWeek.  “We can never make enough profit.”

Steven Greenhouse, “Fighting Back Against Wretched Wages[2].” New York Times. July 28, 2013

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The Tea Party vs. the Public Library

by David Morris | August 15, 2013 4:14 pm

In September 2012 the Library Board of Pulaski County raised property taxes $1 per year for a typical homeowner to maintain the existing level of services in its five libraries. Voters were not given the opportunity to reject the increase; in 2006 however, they were and resoundingly approved a much larger increase to finance a new library.

But in 2006 the county and the country did not have a Tea Party.  That grassroots movement sprang up early 2009 in fury at the federal government’s attempt to help millions of people facing foreclosure stay in their homes.  In 2010 it escalated into a full-throated attack on the federal government’s attempt to expand medical care access to tens of millions.  By 2012 the Tea Party movement’s virulent anti-government, anti-tax philosophy and take-no-prisoners, I’m-not-my-brother’s-keeper attitude had come to define American politics.

Pulaski County Tea Partiers, justifying their fury by noting the $1 increase had not been voted on by the people began circulating a petition to dissolve[1] the library tax district completely.  The effort’s leader declared[2] her group would stop accumulating signatures only if all members of the current library board resigned.

The Board did not resign and ultimately the petitioners found they had too little time to gather the necessary signatures.  But the Tea Party had demonstrated its strength and revealed its willingness to use scorched earth tactics.

A year before the Pulaski library district raised property taxes without asking voter permission, the Campbell County Library Board proposed a $20 per year tax increase to finance the construction of a new library in the underserved southern part of the County. It would submit the proposal to voters on the November 2012 ballot.

In six public hearings Tea Party members tried to stop the project from being on the ballot. When they failed they asked[3] a lawyer to identify ways to halt the project.  He came across a 1964 statute that prohibited library taxing district formed by a petition from voters – as the Campbell County district was – to change its tax rate without a petition signed by at least 51 percent of voters in the last election.  In January 2012, eleven months before the voters were to decide the issue (they rejected the project) several Tea Party members went to court. A few months later tea party members in Kenton, a neighboring County, did the same.


  1. dissolve:
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Medical Marijuana: 40 Years of Sanity from the Bottom and Insanity from the Top

by David Morris | August 13, 2013 10:47 am

Our attitude toward medical marijuana has unfolded like a sisyphean tragedy in three acts.

Act I:  The People Press Their Case, Again and Again

In 1937 Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which made the recreational use of marijuana illegal.  But it affirmed the right of physicians and pharmacists to prescribe and dispense it. The American Medical Association opposed the Act not because it allowed medical marijuana but because it required doctors to register with federal authorities and pay an annual tax or license fee that the AMA felt would unduly inhibit doctors ability to offer their patients this medicine.  The AMA was right.  Few doctors were any longer willing to prescribe marijuana.  In 1942 cannabis was removed from the United States Pharmacopeia of existing medicines.

In 1961, 74 nations signed the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs[1].  Again the treaty criminalized the recreational use of marijuana but allowed it for medical purposes.  Indeed Article 49 specifically advises, “The use of cannabis for other than medical and scientific purposes must be discontinued as soon as possible…”

Physicians retained the ability to legally prescribe marijuana until the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 made marijuana a Schedule I drug, equivalent to heroin and, according to the Congress, with no medical uses.  In the debate leading up to its passage the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs, responding to a Congressional request for guidance noted[2] there was “still a considerable void in our knowledge of the plant and effects of the active drug contained in it” and recommended it be retained within schedule I temporarily while “certain studies now underway to resolve the issue.”

Those studies were undertaken by the newly created National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse Commission, chaired by Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Shafer, who had earned a reputation as a tough-on-crime U.S. Attorney.

President Nixon had already made up his mind.  In May 1971 he told[3] H.R. Haldeman, “I want a goddamn strong statement about marijuana. Can I get that out of this sonofa-bitching, uh, domestic council? I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them.”  And Nixon told[4] Shafer directly, “You’re enough of a pro to know that for you to come out with something that would run counter to what the Congress feels and what the country feels, and what we’re planning to do, would make your commission just look bad as hell.”

In June 1971, to pre-empt the Commission’s report Nixon declared a War on Drugs. “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”  Over the next year marijuana arrests jumped by over 100,000.

In March 1972 the Shafer Commission’s submitted its report to Congress.  Revealingly titled Marijuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding[5] the Commission concluded, “The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only ‘with the greatest reluctance’.”


  1. UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs:
  2. noted:
  3. told:
  4. told:
  5. Marijuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding:
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The Truth about Amazon and Job Creation

by Stacy Mitchell | July 29, 2013 6:44 pm

Of all the places President Obama might give a speech on job creation, an Amazon warehouse is a particularly perplexing choice. Here are five ways Amazon is costing our economy and undermining real job growth.

1. Amazon destroys more jobs than it creates.

Brick-and-mortar retailers employ 47 people for every $10 million in sales, according to an analysis by ILSR of US Census data. (If you exclude chains and look just at independent retailers, the figure is even higher — 52 57 jobs.) But Amazon employs only 14 people per $10 million in revenue[1]. As Amazon grows and takes market share from other retailers, the result is a decline in jobs, not a gain.  In 2012, Amazon expanded its share of retail spending in North America by $8 billion, which works out to a net loss of about 27,000 jobs.

2. Most Amazon jobs are awful.

How does Amazon manage to sell so much stuff with so few workers? The online giant is technologically efficient, yes, but it also excels at squeezing a back-breaking amount of labor out of its employees. Amazon’s workplace abuses, including life-threatening temperatures inside its warehouses[2], injury-inducing workloads[3], and neo-Nazi guards[4], have been well-documented by investigative journalists.

At the Amazon warehouse Obama is visiting in Chattanooga, workers are paid about $11.20 an hour, according to[5].  That’s 17 percent less than the average wage for U.S. warehouse workers reported by the U.S. Labor Department.

3. Amazon pilfers value created elsewhere in the economy.

Another way Amazon gets by with such a small workforce is by leaning on the services provided by brick-and-mortar stores. Through its mobile app, Amazon actively encourages consumers to try-out merchandise in stores and then buy online. This allows Amazon to free-ride on the value created by other businesses. Take books, for example. Amazon now accounts for about one-third of book sales. But, if you ask Amazon book shoppers where they learned about a book, only rarely is the answer Amazon. Far more often, according to research by Codex Group[6], they discovered the book while browsing in an actual bookstore.

A similar dynamic is at play across a wide variety of products, from toys to cameras. The threat Amazon’s free-riding poses to the U.S. economy is that, over time, brick-and-mortar stores will no longer be around to showcase new products, depriving both consumers and manufacturers of a valuable service that stimulates demand and innovation.

4. Amazon drains dollars from local economies. (more…)[7]

  1. only 14 people per $10 million in revenue:
  2. life-threatening temperatures inside its warehouses:
  3. injury-inducing workloads:
  4. neo-Nazi guards:
  5. according to,10_IL.11,22_IM164.htm
  6. research by Codex Group:
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VICTORY! Arizona Court Overturns Renewable Energy Credits for Incinerators

by Neil Seldman | July 18, 2013 3:59 pm

For the first time a court of law has disqualified trash burning as a non-renewable energy source. The Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter in Arizona has been victorious in its challenge to the Arizona Corporation Commission’s ruling that trash burning could qualify for renewable energy credits.

On July 16, the Maricopa County Superior Court ruled that the Commission erred and abused its discretion in deciding to give renewable energy credits to the Mohave Electric Cooperative for the project it planned near Phoenix by the Reclamation Power Group.

The Sierra Club argued that burning trash to produce power was not a use intended under the state’s renewable energy standard, and that funds should be redirected to support truly renewable energy resources such as wind and solar. The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit last September challenging the Commission’s decision to allow trash burning to be considered a renewable energy resource.

“This decision is good news for clean renewable energy such as solar and wind,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. “Promoting polluting and dated technologies such as burning trash to produce electricity would be a step backward for Arizona’s renewable energy programs.”

ILSR’s Brenda Platt worked with Jeff Morris of Sound Resource Management in preparing expert testimony for the case and assisting the Sierra Club and the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest in its analysis and submissions.  According to Brenda Platt, “This is a critical precedent as state renewable energy incentives perversely subsidize trash burners, making it more difficult for non-burn and safer reuse, recycling, and composting options to compete.  Now in Arizona this money can support legitimate renewable energy systems. Trash is not renewable.”

The average value of a renewable energy credit in 2010 in Massachusetts was between $20 and $40 per MWh.  (“Burning Recycling[1], “Resource Recycling, May 2013.)

For more information on the Arizona decision, view:

Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter & Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest press release[2].

Arizona News Tribune July 16th article, “Judge rules burning trash isn’t renewable energy”  here[3].

Arizona Star Net July 16th article: “Maricopa Superior Court: Trash burning not a renewable resource – Utility Can’t Use Incineration to Meet Mandate, Judge Says”  here[4].

For information and fact sheets on ILSR’s 2011 work in Maryland fighting the weakening of that state’s renewable portfolio standards, go to:
Trash Is Not Renewable[5]

For additional data on the environmental, energy, and climate problems posed by trash incineration, see ILSR’s 2008 report, Stop Trashing the Climate[6].

trash is not renewable[7]

  1. Burning Recycling:
  2. press release:
  3. here:
  4. here:
  5. Trash Is Not Renewable:
  6. Stop Trashing the Climate:
  7. [Image]:

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Does the Citizens Recycling Movement Face a Hostile Takeover?

by Neil Seldman | July 8, 2013 11:54 am

Neil Seldman provides an update and review of recycling and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) developments based on his interviews with recycling practitioners,  local officials and environmental leaders.

Download the policy review[1].

  1. policy review:

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Towards a Localist Policy Agenda

by Stacy Mitchell | July 5, 2013 4:35 pm


This presentation was delivered on June 14, 2013, at the BALLE Conference in Buffalo, New York.  Download a PDF version of the text[2]. 

Welcome, everyone.  Thanks for being here.  (Slide 2)  I’m Stacy Mitchell.  I direct the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community-Scaled Initiative[3], which provides research, policy analysis, and tools to help communities gain greater control over their own economic futures.

Let me begin by offering a little background on this session. (Slide 3)  The movement for local economies has grown dramatically over the last decade.  We’ve attracted public support and engaged tens of thousands of entrepreneurs and community leaders.  But I think we’ve reached a point where we can’t get much further solely with the strategies we’re using now.  We’re at a stage where we need to up our game.  I want to suggest to you today that moving a policy agenda is a key part of what we need to do.

I’m hoping we can tackle four key questions in this session (Slide 4):

The format for today is that I’m going to kick off the session by providing some thoughts on each of these questions. Then we’re going to turn to the panel.  We have four terrific panelists today: Kimber Lanning of Local First Arizona; David Levine of the American Sustainable Business Council; Micaela Shapiro-Shellaby of the Coalition for Economic Justice here in Buffalo; and Jonathon Welch, owner of Talking Leaves Books, also here in Buffalo.  They each have a story to share about a policy win that will help us reflect on some of these themes.  And then we’re going to have a roundtable discussion. I’ll be bringing in all of you at that point for what I hope will be a lively conversation.  So, with that, let me dive in. (more…)[4]

  1. [Image]:
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  3. Community-Scaled Initiative:
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Here’s One Smart Way to Handle Big-Box Stores

by Stacy Mitchell | July 1, 2013 8:56 am

This article was originally published on Grist[1].

This month, citizens and planning officials in Cape Cod, Mass., will get a chance to do what almost no one else in the U.S. is allowed to do when deciding whether to approve or reject a big-box retail development: weigh the likely impacts on the region’s economy.

Thousands of proposals to build big-box stores and shopping centers will be submitted to cities and towns this year. (Walmart alone is pushing to open 220 new stores by January.) In almost every case, local planning policies will limit any review of these projects to conventional zoning issues, like how much traffic the store will generate and whether the site has sufficient landscaping.

Questions about the economic impacts of these projects will be off the table. Residents who want to talk about how a new shopping center will affect the viability of Main Street business districts, wage rates for local workers, or even the cost of public services will be told that those issues cannot be considered as part of the planning board’s deliberations.

This narrow approach to land-use policy strips communities of an important tool for shaping their own economic future, constraining the reach of extractive corporations, and moving toward less carbon-intensive economic systems and shopping patterns.

One exception to this common state of affairs is Cape Cod, a peninsula home to about 217,000 people.

Mindful of the Cape’s fragile environment and economy (despite pockets of wealth, the peninsula’s median household income is below the state as whole), residents voted to create the Cape Cod Commission[2] in 1990. Made up of representatives of each of the Cape’s 15 towns, this regional planning body has the authority to review, and reject, large development projects that could significantly impact the local economy or environment, including any commercial building over 10,000 square feet. The commission does not supplant municipal planning boards, but rather adds a second layer of review for large projects, in which all of the region’s towns are given a say.

Guided by a Regional Policy Plan[3] that frowns on development outside of town centers and favors projects that protect the Cape’s character, expand local ownership, and enable the region’s communities to meet more of their own needs instead of relying on imports, the Cape Cod Commission has turned down several big-box stores over the last two decades, including a Walmart in Falmouth, a Sam’s Club in Hyannis, a Costco in Sandwich, and a Home Depot in Yarmouth.

A few big retailers have made it in, but only by proposing much smaller stores and locating them on sites that were already developed. Walmart finally won approval to open its one and only store on the peninsula when it applied to put a 73,000-square-foot store (one-third the size of a typical supercenter) into a building in Falmouth previously occupied by a defunct regional department store chain. Home Depot likewise was given the green light to take over an empty retail space in Hyannis, opening a store about half its standard size. (more…)[4]

  1. Grist:
  2. Cape Cod Commission:
  3. Regional Policy Plan:
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The One Thing Obama’s Climate Policy Can’t Leave Out

by John Farrell | June 20, 2013 5:04 am

When President Obama unveils his climate policy proposal in the coming days, he should focus on the one key element of successful climate and energy policy.  It’s not about utilities or incentives or numbers, it’s about ownership.

Climate-protecting energy policy succeeds when communities can keep their energy dollars local by directly owning and profiting from investments in renewable energy.

Look at Denmark, with wind power capacity sufficient for 28% of its electricity use.  When the world’s nations descended on Copenhagen in 2009 for the climate conference, attendees could have gleaned their most important lesson by gazing across the water at the Middelgrunden offshore wind farm – 50% owned by over 10,000 Copenhagen residents.  Local ownership like this was the centerpiece of building over 4,000 megawatts of wind power in Denmark, increasing energy independence by letting ordinary citizens collectively own wind farms that brought money right back into their community.  Ownership let Danes focus on their own energy independence and economy.  Concern for the climate was secondary.

Andrew Cumbers of the UN Research Institute for Social Development explains the ongoing strength of the Danish commitment to renewable energy:

The participation of communities in the ownership and development of the technology has been a critical factor in the successful growth of renewable energy capacity.  Surveys suggest around 70 per cent of the population are in favour of wind farms with only around 5 per cent against (Soerensen et al 2003), figures that are far higher than found elsewhere. (emphasis added)

Germany’s roaring success reinforces why ownership should be President Obama’s highest priority.  Over 60% of mid-day electricity demand was met with wind and solar on a recent sunny day[1], and almost 25% of annual German electricity usage comes from renewable sources.  Once again, it’s a people-powered transition (or as the Germans like to call it, Energiewende[2], or “energy change”).

Nearly half of all German renewable energy capacity is owned by individuals[3], not utilities.  These small, quickly built distributed energy projects multiplied quickly under simply policies that made it easy for Germans to own a share in their energy future.

Despite numerous attempts by various political factions to curtail the renewable energy transition (most frequently citing high costs), Germans remain stolidly committed to growing renewable energy, with over 60% willing to pay more to continue its expansion[4].  A survey of Germans towns[5] suggest that ownership, more than anything else, has built this steadfast political support for a low carbon energy future.

Evidence that ownership holds the key to political success lies closer to home, as well.  After a near-death experience at the polls, Ontario’s Liberal Party revised their renewable energy program[6] to prioritize new wind and solar projects that sport local ownership and public support.  Most U.S. state renewable portfolio standards include language that requires or prefers qualifying projects to be in state,* to link the economic and environmental outcomes.  These statutes have survived an all-out assault[7] by the corporate-funded conservative lobbying group ALEC.  And one should not ignore the power of having the Atlanta Tea Party testifying alongside solar power advocates against monopoly utility Georgia Power, arguing that more people should be able to generate their own energy.

Ownership is good politics not just because of who wins, but how much they win.  A study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows local ownership dramatically multiplies the economic returns of renewable energy[8] for the host community.

No climate proposal from President Obama will sail past Republican opposition (see: Waxman-Markey), but his greatest chance for a climate legacy lies in empowering Americans to take control – with their votes and their dollars – of their own energy future.


Photo credit: Black Rock Solar[9]

*Note: a recent court decision struck down this provision in Michigan, jeopardizing the in-state preference for all states that include this policy.

  1. 60% of mid-day electricity demand was met with wind and solar on a recent sunny day:
  2. Energiewende:
  3. half of all German renewable energy capacity is owned by individuals:
  4. over 60% willing to pay more to continue its expansion:
  5. survey of Germans towns:
  6. renewable energy program:
  7. These statutes have survived an all-out assault:
  8. local ownership dramatically multiplies the economic returns of renewable energy:
  9. Black Rock Solar:

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On Liberty and Security Democrats and Republicans Drastically Differ

by David Morris | June 18, 2013 10:19 am

The gridlock that plagues Washington leads many, fairly or unfairly, to lump together the two parties and declare a pox on both their houses.  But most state governments are not gridlocked. Just the opposite.  In almost two thirds one party controls both legislative houses (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature) and the governorship:  Republicans 20, Democrats 13.

In these states, parties can translate ideology into policies virtually unimpeded.  An examination of these policies allows us to get behind the name-calling and 30-second sound bites and discover the remarkable difference between the two parties on fundamental issues.

Contrary to popular wisdom, the fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats is not on the size of government but the purpose and goals of government.  Both parties believe in taxing heavily and spending lavishly when it comes to protecting our nation from external attack.  Both parties fervently embrace the Declaration of Independence’s insistence that among our “unalienable rights” are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  But their conceptions of security and liberty differ radically.

Democrats believe that governments should not only secure our borders but also advance our personal security.  As reflected in recently enacted state laws, that belief translates into policies extending health care access to as many as possible, raising the minimum wage and expanding unemployment insurance. Republicans vigorously oppose this use of government.  They insist we should not be compelled to be our brothers’ keeper. Of the 13 states that so far have refused the federal government’s offer to pay 100 percent of the costs of expanding health care coverage to millions of their residents, for example, Republicans dominate 12.  All six of the states that are leaning that way are Republican controlled.

What Democrats see as steps to enhance security Republicans view as steps that restrict liberty.  They assert that government-created health exchanges interfere with the right of insurance companies to manage their own affairs while the requirement that everyone have health insurance constitutes an act of tyranny.  Minimum wage laws interfere with the economic liberty of business and the freedom of the marketplace.

Republicans argue that taxes, especially those that tax the rich at higher rates than the poor, interfere with our liberty to pursue happiness by amassing unrestrained wealth.   In the last legislative session Democrat-controlled California, Maryland, Massachusetts and Minnesota raised the income tax rate on millionaires while in the last two legislative sessions, Republican-controlled Kansas reduced such rates by 75 percent and legislators in Kansas as well as in North Carolina and Nebraska are openly pushing for the complete elimination of the income tax.

It is important to note that these Republican actions often result less in a tax reduction than in a tax shift from income taxes to sales or property taxes that burden lower income households most heavily.

When it comes to personal liberty, however, Republicans believe in big government. As former Republican Senator and Presidential candidate Rick Santorum observed, “The idea is that the state doesn’t have rights to limit individuals’ wants and passions. I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire.”  Even if their wants or passions do not harm others.

This legislative session Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota joined 9 other states and the District of Columbia in extending the freedom to marry to include those of the same sex. Meanwhile, of the 25 states with constitutional prohibitions on same sex marriage, 22 are completely controlled by Republicans.  None are Democrat dominant.

Of the 17 states that have enacted medical marijuana laws, 10 are Democratic and only two are Republican. (The rest are not controlled by a single party.) As if to put an exclamation point on this difference, the same day last November that voters in Washington and Colorado approved the legalization of marijuana, voters in Arkansas handily defeated a proposal to allow the drug to be used for medicinal purposes with a doctor’s prescription.

Gun control is an issue that for Republicans and Democrats affects both liberty and security. For Republicans the ability to own unlimited numbers of guns and carry them whenever and wherever one wants with a minimum of government oversight, constitutes an essential part of freedom while allowing the owner to protect herself from physical harm.  For Democrats widespread gun ownership significantly contributes to physical violence inside and outside the gun owner’s household; thus in this case unrestrained liberty must give way to regulation.

In this legislative session while Democratic states like New York and Connecticut and Maryland tightened gun laws, more than a dozen GOP states scaled back their already minimal gun laws. Statistician Nate Silver insists, “Whether someone owns a gun is a more powerful predictor of a person’s political party than her gender, whether she identifies as gay or lesbian, whether she is Hispanic (or) whether she lives in the south…”

For both Democrats and Republicans liberty means being able to participate in influencing the political decisions that affect our lives and futures.  But here again their conception of liberty differs significantly. For Republicans it means the liberty of money, allowing individuals to spend unlimited amounts to elect candidates and lobby legislators while restricting the liberty of people by making voter access more difficult.  For Democrats it means the opposite.

Recently Colorado, Delaware and Maryland have enacted laws making it easier for people to register and vote while Arkansas, Indiana, Nebraska, Tennessee and Virginia have made it harder. Nine of ten states that have voter photo ID laws are Republican dominated.

One could hope that in 2014 the stark evidence emerging from state capitols about the difference between the parties can lay the foundation for a nationwide debate on the purpose of government and the ends to which collective authority should aspire that goes beyond the are-you-for-it-or-against-it attitude that contaminates and diminishes that debate.


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Why Master Limited Partnerships are a Lousy Policy for Solar, Wind, and Taxpayers

by John Farrell | May 30, 2013 6:04 am

Read reactions to this piece here[1]

If you follow the renewable energy industry and haven’t been sleeping, then you’ve probably heard about one of the few pieces of federal legislation purported to help clean energy that’s actually moving: expanding Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) to cover wind and solar energy. (H.R.1696)

This is not a good thing.

MLPs originated in 1986, when Congress decided that to allow certain businesses (oil and gas pipelines) to avoid paying corporate income tax.  These partnerships function a lot like publicly traded corporations, with publicly traded stock, but don’t pay income taxes. Most folks who’ve touted expanding MLPs to include renewable energy projects see this move as “leveling the playing field.”  And it will, allowing big energy corporations to avoid paying taxes on their renewable energy projects just like they do for pipelines.

But that’s not the worst.  Several years after the MLP was created, the federal agency responsible for setting the prices to use these oil and gas pipelines (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) allowed the not-paying-corporate-income-tax companies to charge rates for access as though they DID pay the corporate income tax.  Including this phantom tax payment in rates amounted to a 75% increase in after-tax profits for pipeline companies. This policy wasn’t even set in a public forum (such as a docket with public hearings), but through a shadow “policy statement” released after private meetings with the oil and gas industry (and after a federal judge had previously struck down the absurd notion that users of pipelines should have to pay phantom taxes).

This makes two big problems in adding renewable energy companies to the list of eligible Master Limited Partnerships.

First, there are many powerful, regulated industries that would love a bite at this apple, like the existing electric and gas utilities.  The cost to taxpayers from letting these hogs get to the trough is likely much, much larger than the opportunity for renewable energy.  These big industries – with huge lobbying budgets – are not likely to miss the opportunity.

But even more important, the extension of MLPs to renewable energy is likely to reinforce centralized, corporate control of the energy system.  Right now, renewable energy – particularly solar – is transforming the energy system.  It’s turning energy consumers into producers, re-routing energy dollars back into community economies, and giving cities and towns more control over their energy future.  Half or more of new solar power in the U.S. is being put on the rooftops of homes and small businesses.  New community solar policies (like one just adopted in Minnesota[2]!) are giving even more Americans a chance to have skin in the energy game and share in the profits of a transition to renewable energy.

The average American isn’t going to be a shareholder of a Master Limited Partnership, but they probably will pay a share of phantom taxes in their electric and gas rates if MLPs are expanded to other energy industries.  Even if Congress miraculously limits the MLP expansion to just the renewable energy industry, subsidiaries of most of the large corporations in the energy business (Shell, BP, Exxon) are building wind and solar projects.  These subsidiaries would certainly be reorganized as MLPs, giving them a tax advantaged opportunity to crowd out competitors (like community solar or other distributed generation) AND make larger profits off their renewable energy business.

There are many ways the federal government could improve its policy toward renewable energy.  A CLEAN Contract or feed-in tariff could supplant tax credits that act as a barrier to production-based payment for energy and avoid paying for panels that don’t produce power[3].   The feds could remove ridiculous bonus incentives for long-distance, high-voltage transmission[4] that gives electric companies an incentive to build power lines for 20th century power plants instead of distributed solar and wind power.  They could set a federal distributed renewable energy standard that requires utilities to procure energy from places close to where people use it.

But let’s not expand a tax loophole to big renewable energy companies.  This is one playing field best left unmoved.

(most of this article is based on a book, The Fine Print[5] by former New York Times writer David Cay Johnston)

Photo credit: Michael Fleshman[6]

  1. here:
  2. one just adopted in Minnesota:
  3. panels that don’t produce power:
  4. ridiculous bonus incentives for long-distance, high-voltage transmission:
  5. The Fine Print:
  6. Michael Fleshman:

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Expect Delays: Reviewing Ontario’s “Buy Local” Renewable Energy Program

by John Farrell | May 20, 2013 7:07 am

placeholderLaunched in 2009, Ontario’s “buy local” Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program promised to deliver hundreds of megawatts of new renewable energy and create 50,000 new jobs by the end of 2012. The program has had some notable achievements, and the province has worked hard to remedy some of the remaining roadblocks to success.

The bottom line is that the FIT program and its predecessors (despite facing significant threats) have jumpstarted renewable energy development in Ontario: the province would rank #4 and #11 for solar and wind deployment, respectively, if it were a U.S. state. It has created 31,000 jobs. It has also enabled widespread participation in renewable energy generation: 1 in 7 Ontario farmers is participating, earning a return on their investment.  Finally, it has enabled the province to shut down all of its coal-fired power plants by the end of 2014.

Learn more:

Read the report:[1]
expect delays Ontario FIT thumb[2]
View the infographic:[3]ontario infographic thumb[4] View presentation:
Expect Delays - Presentation cover[5]
Help support more research like this![6]

Ontario FIT program solar wind capacity[7]

Huge Interest

The biggest challenge for the FIT program is the overwhelming demand. Already, signed contracts for nearly 5,000 megawatts of new renewable energy capacity will allow the province to meet most of its 2030 renewable energy target, 12 years early. Actual deployment has kept pace with many U.S. states, but poor preparation has meant that less than 10% of energy under contract (thus far) is actually producing electricity.


  1. Read the report::
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  3. View the infographic::
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Can We Save the Commons that is the Post Office?

by David Morris | May 13, 2013 4:14 pm

For 225 years the U.S. Post Office has been the most admired and ubiquitous manifestation of government. From 1789 until the 1960s, the Cabinet level agency saw its mission not only to deliver the mail but to aggressively defend the public good.  In the late 19th century when oligopolistic mail order delivery companies abused their rural customers the Post Office launched parcel post.  The competition quickly forced private companies to reduce their exorbitant prices and dramatically improve the quality of their service.  In the early 20th century, when bank collapses resulted in depositors losing their life saving the Post Office created postal banks that for half a century provide security and attractive interest rates to millions of small depositors.

In 1970 Congress stripped the post office of its cabinet status and stopped providing public funding.  The new quasi public corporation was urged to adopt a more business like attitude.  Its name, the U.S. Postal Service, reflected a circumscribed mission statement.  No longer was it to be a tool to check the predations of the private sector.  Its sole mission would be to deliver the mail.

The USPS used its new flexibility and ability to borrow to dramatically increase productivity.  By the 1990s, despite the elimination of a public subsidy that in 1970 had accounted for 25 percent of its total budget the USPS was generating a consistent profit.  But to USPS management the mandate to operate in a more businesslike manner was viewed as a mandate to operate more like a private business, improving its internal balance sheet at the cost of weakening the balance sheet of the communities it served.  Again and again Congress had to step in to prevent USPS management from pursuing actions that would have inflicted harm on the nation:  stopping closing Saturday delivery, closing rural post offices willy-nilly.

In 2006, in an accounting maneuver I’ve discussed in more detail elsewhere[1] Congress forced the USPS to pay $5.5 billion a year to do what no other public agency or private corporation does—prepay 100 percent of its future health insurance costs. As the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) later observed, these payments quickly “transformed what would have been considerable profits into significant losses.”  Today the USPS deficit has reached $20 billion.  Headlines constantly use the word “bankruptcy”, conveying the message that the post office is an antiquated institution doomed to irrelevancy in the age of the internet, but 80 percent of this huge deficit has been caused not by a decline in first class mail but by this human contrived financial burden.

The debt may be contrived, but its impact is real. USPS management is cutting its “deficit” by eviscerating the institutional commons it oversees.  By closing rural post offices the USPS is delinking the institution from the community.  By closing half of its processing centers, the post office is eliminating local overnight delivery of the mail, a severe burden on weekly newspapers and undermining another sense of geographic community.  In 2012 the USPS announced that first class mail delivery would take at least one more day.  USPS is selling off dozens of magnificent buildings constructed during the New Deal that have served as testaments to a time when the very design of public buildings was seen as part of the commons.  Tens of thousands of workers with the most experience have taken early retirement, resulting in an increasingly less knowledgeable and lower paid workforce.


  1. elsewhere:
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Why Won’t Conservatives Let Communities Decide for Themselves?

by David Morris | May 11, 2013 4:50 pm

In his 1996 State of the Union Address Democratic President Bill Clinton famously declared, “the era of big government is over.”  And during his tenure he did everything he could to make that true–deregulating the telecommunications and the financial industry, enacting a free trade agreement severely restricting the authority of the federal government to protect domestic jobs and businesses and abandoning the 75 year old federal commitment to the poor.

Seventeen years later I fully expect a Republican Governor or two to declare in their state of the state address, “the era of small government is over”.  For again and again, Republican governors and legislatures are preempting and abolishing the authority of communities to protect the health and welfare of their communities.

Earlier this year Wisconsin passed a law eliminating the authority of cities villages and counties to require public employees to live inside city limits and voiding any existing requirements.

A few weeks ago Kansas passed a law prohibiting cities, counties, and local government units from requiring private firms contracting with the city to provide leave, benefits or higher compensation than the state minimum wages.

The Florida House recently voted to preempt local governments from enacting “living wage” laws and “sick time” ordinances.  If signed into law, the bill would also overturn counties like Miami-Dade and Broward that have “living wage” ordinances that require companies that contract with the county to pay wages higher than the federal minimum wage, and sometimes provide certain benefits.


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Composting Supports Jobs and Healthy Watersheds, Say New ILSR Reports

by Brenda Platt | May 8, 2013 7:00 am

Two new reports from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Composting Makes $en$e Project document the importance of expanded composting and compost use to enhance soils, protect watersheds, reduce waste, and create green jobs and a new made-in-America industrial sector.

For press release, click here.

With compostable material making up almost one-half of municipal solid waste, there is an enormous opportunity to achieve higher recycling levels with comprehensive composting.  Increasing composting and compost use are also drivers of local economic growth and vital for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and other watersheds.  When added to soil, compost has the unique ability to filter pollutants and absorb water, reducing flash runoff that causes erosion and pollution downstream. It’s a win-win for local economies and the environment.

Pay Dirt: Composting in Maryland to Reduce Waste, Create Jobs, & Protect the Bay

This 47-page report summarizes the current composting infrastructure in the state of Maryland, compares the number of jobs sustained through composting versus disposal facilities, outlines the benefits of expanding composting and compost use, underscores the importance of a diverse composting infrastructure, and suggests policies to overcome obstacles to expansion. One key finding is that 1,400 new full-time jobs could potentially be supported by converting the 1 million tons of yard trim and food scraps now disposed in Maryland into compost and using that compost locally in green infrastructure and low-impact development.

For full report, click here.
For Executive Summary, click here.
For Key Findings, click here.
For List of Benefits of Composting & Compost Use, click here.
For Job Potential Summary Tables, click here.

Building Healthy Soils with Compost to Protect Watersheds

This 12-page report highlights the importance of organic matter to healthy soils, and links healthy soils in turn to a healthier watershed.  It makes the case that amending soil with compost is the best way to increase the level of organic matter.  This report identifies watershed problems, the benefits of compost-amended soils, model initiatives and policies, frequently asked questions, and resources for more information.

For full report, click here.

Pay Dirt and Building Healthy Soils with Compost to Protect Watersheds were produced by ILSR’s Composting Makes $en$e Project under funding support from the Town Creek Foundation and from the University of the District of Columbia’s Water Resources Research Institute.

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5 Barriers to and Solutions for Community Renewable Energy

by John Farrell | May 3, 2013 11:13 am

placeholder[1]Community renewable energy has significant political and economic benefits, but is often hindered by five major barriers. Watch this vividly illustrated presentation to learn how communities can overcome the barriers and advance more local renewable energy.

ILSR Senior Researcher John Farrell gave this presentation as part of a Sustainable Economies Law Center[2] webinar on April 30, 2013.

You can also download or view just the slide show[3].

  1. [Image]:
  2. Sustainable Economies Law Center:
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Happy 39th Birthday, ILSR!

by ILSR Admin | May 1, 2013 3:52 pm

On the first of May 1974 Neil Seldman, Gil Friend and David Morris self-consciously incorporated the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.   We thought it made for a suitable birthing day.

A little history might be in order.

Traditionally May Day marked the beginning of spring.  In the Middle Ages it belonged to the workers. No work was done and the landlord of was required to provide a huge feast for all his tenant farmers and employees. The day was totally given over to enjoyment: dancing, singing, games, feasting.

After the Civil War as the industrial revolution moved into high gear, workers organized for an 8-hour day and used May 1st as the day for demonstrations. On May 1, 1886, protests erupted across the United States. Some 340,000 workers took part. An estimated 190,000 went out on strike.

As a large peaceful protest was winding down in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886 someone threw a dynamite bomb that killed a policeman.  That led to a battle in which 12 were killed. A widely publicized trial followed and the eventual hanging of four anarchists.

What came to be known as the Haymarket Massacre became a powerful symbol for workers around the world. In 1889, the Second International, a group comprised of leading communists and anarchists officially initiated the tradition of May Day labor demonstrations. In 1894, the first Monday in September was established as a federal holiday in the United States.

May Day celebrations later spread to Communist governments.  Which led President Eisenhower, in 1958, to proclaim May 1 as Law Day.

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Locally owned businesses can help communities thrive — and survive climate change

by Stacy Mitchell | April 26, 2013 9:24 am

Originally published on Grist[1].

Cities where small, locally owned businesses account for a relatively large share of the economy have stronger social networks, more engaged citizens, and better success solving problems, according to several recently published studies.

And in the face of climate change, those are just the sort of traits that communities most need if they are to survive massive storms, adapt to changing conditions, find new ways of living more lightly on the planet, and, most important, nurture a vigorous citizenship that can drive major changes in policy.

That there’s a connection between the ownership structure of our economy and the vitality of our democracy may sound a bit odd to modern ears. But this was an article of faith among 18th and 19th century Americans, who strictly limited the lifespan of corporations and enacted antitrust laws whose express aim was to protect democracy by maintaining an economy of small businesses.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that this tenet of American political thought was fully superseded by the consumer-focused, bigger-is-better ideology that now dominates our economic policy-making. Ironically, the shift happened just as social scientists were furnishing the first bona fide empirical evidence linking economic scale to civic engagement.

In 1946, Walter Goldschmidt, a USDA sociologist, produced a groundbreaking study comparing two farming towns in California that were almost identical in every respect but one: Dinuba’s economy was composed mainly of family farms, while Arvin’s was dominated by large agribusinesses. Goldschmidt found that Dinuba had a richer civic life, with twice the number of community organizations, twice the number of newspapers, and citizens who were much more engaged than those in Arvin. Not surprisingly, Dinuba also had far superior public infrastructure: In both quality and quantity, the town’s schools, parks, sidewalks, paved streets, and garbage services far surpassed those of Arvin.

At about the same time, two other sociologists, C. Wright Mills and Melville J. Ulmer, were undertaking a similar study of several pairs of manufacturing cities in the Midwest. Their research, conducted on behalf of a congressional committee, found that communities comprised primarily of small, locally owned businesses took much better care of themselves. They beat cities dominated by large, absentee-owned firms on more than 30 measures of well-being, including such things as literacy, acreage of public parks, extent of poverty, and the share of residents who belonged to civic organizations.

One might expect such findings to have had a powerful influence on government policy. (more…)[2]

  1. Grist:
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Four Victories for the Public Good

by David Morris | April 17, 2013 11:51 am

I’m not saying it’s time to break out the champagne and start chanting, “The people united will never be defeated”.  But the past few weeks have brought us some heartwarming demonstrations that the popular will still has a bite.

February 22:  After a major public outcry, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) directed federal agencies to make published results freely available to the public.  Director John Holdren declared, “Americans should have easy access to the results of research they help support.”

The announcement by the Obama Administration came after 65,000 people petitioned the White House to make publicly supported research available to the public and 6 weeks after the suicide of Aaron Swartz who was facing up to 35 years in prison for freely distributing nearly 5 million scholarly articles from a privately owned digital archive.  The death of Swartz, whose 2008 manifesto declared sharing information a “moral imperative” and the “privatization of knowledge” a curse, became a rallying cry for those who wanted to honor his legacy by changing a federal bias toward the privatization of public information first adopted by Ronald Reagan.

March 3:  By more than 2 to 1, Swiss voters approved the “fat cat initiative”, a Constitutional amendment that bans big payouts to new and departing managers, gives shareholders the right to veto executive compensation and makes prison the penalty for executives who defy the new rules. All 26 Swiss cantons approved the amendment.  A few weeks before the vote the nation was both outraged and energized by the $78 million payoff offered to the outgoing Chairman of Novartis even as the firm was cutting jobs. The vote reflected a deep-seated public sense “that company managers have been ransacking the coffers at the expense of society”, noted one Zurich newspaper.

March 21:  The European Right to Water Initiative announced it had gathered 1.3 million signatures on a petition to demand the European Commission stop mandating or encouraging the privatization of water utilities.  To be formally recognized by the European Union, the petition needs not only a million signatures but also a sufficient number from 7 EU member states.  Currently 5 states have exceeded that level; several more are close.

April 10:  The US Postal Service reversed its February 6th decision to end Saturday mail delivery as of this August.  The Postal Service blamed Congress for requiring six-day delivery in a continuing budget resolution in March, but the culprit really was the groundswell of public opposition to its decision.  Indeed, the leading advocate of privatizing the Post Office, Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee declared, “Despite some assertions, it’s quite clear that special interest lobbying and intense political pressure played a much greater role in the Postal Service’s change of heart than any real or perceived barrier to implementing what had been announced.”


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Proposed Solar Standard is Cheap Compared to Minnesota Utilities’ Rate Increases

by John Farrell | April 17, 2013 11:25 am

If you’re a state legislator in Minnesota, here are a few grains of salt to season the message you’ve been getting from electric utilities about the proposed solar energy standard.  The bill (HF956[1]/SF901[2]) requires most utilities to get 4% of their energy from solar by 2025 and offers a standard, fixed-price contract to distributed solar energy producers (the same deal utilities get when they build their own power plants).  The bill works by combining a utility-financed, revenue-neutral, market-based “value of solar” tariff and a ratepayer-financed incentive that is explicitly capped at a one-time 1.33% increase in electric rates.

Utilities are crying foul over the cost, the same utilities that have raised electric rates by 35-40% in the past decade.  Let’s start with the average retail price of electricity, as reported by the utilities to the federal Energy Information Administration.

  average Minnesota retail electric price by customer class (1990-2013)[3]

The average retail rate for Minnesota electricity customers has increased by 40% in the past decade, spread fairly evenly over the three customer classes: residential, commercial, and industrial.


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VICTORY against Maryland’s “Waste Portfolio Standard” — the Latest Creative Way to Prop Up Incinerators

by ILSR Admin | April 10, 2013 7:02 am

Reposted from Energy Justice –[1]

by Mike Ewall

What does an incinerator industry do when they can’t compete?  Change the rules.  Biomass[2] and trash incinerators[3] are the most expensive way to make energy, and trash incineration costs more than directly landfilling the waste.  These industries survive to the extent that they can change the rules to get monopoly waste contracts, become ‘renewable’ energy in state mandates, or as we’re seeing in Maryland: worse.

In 2011, Maryland became the first state to change their state Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law[4] — a law that mandates “renewable energy” use — to move trash incineration from the dirtier “Tier II” to the not-quite-as-dirty “Tier I” (where wind and solar, but also biomass[5] and landfill gas[6] compete).  Many states with RPS laws have two tiers, where the cheaper, already-built, and dirtier technologies (usually trash incineration and big old hydroelectric dams) are put in a second tier menu of options where the credits are cheaper, and in Maryland’s case, where the mandate gets phased out over time.  Putting trash incineration in the same tier as wind power creates a much larger and growing market with more valuable credits.  Since this, several other states have seen proposals to do the same.

In 2013, Maryland tried to set an ever worse precedent.  Covanta (the nation’s largest waste incinerator corporation) wrote a bill that gets more creative: a municipal solid waste portfolio standard[7].  Taking the notion from renewable energy laws, this law would phase in a 50% recycling goal, but also phase out direct landfilling of waste.  By doing so, the law would create a strong incentive to incinerate waste before burying the ash.  Zero waste[8], as defined by the Zero Waste International Alliance[9], means diverting as much waste as possible (90%+) from both landfills AND incinerators.  However, the incinerator industry has managed to hijack the “zero waste” idea by pushing this “zero waste to landfill” rhetoric which many cities and corporations are mimicking — which really means “toxic ash to landfills.”

On April 8th, the Maryland legislature came very close[10] to passing this awful precedent, but thanks to work by Community Research, Clean Water Action, Energy Justice Network and 15 other groups who lent their name to opposing this bill, it died a quiet death in the state House after passing the state Senate earlier in the last day of the 2013 legislative session.  Covanta’s lobbyist was fuming and we can now focus back on stopping the two large new waste incinerators planned for the state, without worrying that they’ll be propped up by yet another pro-burn state policy.  Keep an eye out for this tactic in your state.


  2. Biomass:
  3. trash incinerators:
  4. change their state Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law:
  5. biomass:
  6. landfill gas:
  7. municipal solid waste portfolio standard:
  8. Zero waste:
  9. Zero Waste International Alliance:
  10. came very close:

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Why Walmart’s Death Grip on Our Food System Is Intensifying Poverty

by Stacy Mitchell | March 27, 2013 9:08 am

Originally published on Alternet[1], Truthout[2], and Salon.

When Michelle Obama visited a Walmart in Springfield, Missouri, a few weeks ago to praise the company’s efforts to sell healthier food, she did not say why she chose a store in Springfield of all cities. But, in ways that Obama surely did not intend, it was a fitting choice. This Midwestern city provides a chilling look at where Walmart wants to take our food system.

Springfield is one of nearly 40 metro areas where Walmart now captures about half or more of consumer spending on groceries, according to Metro Market Studies.  Springfield area residents spend just over $1 billion on groceries each year, and one of every two of those dollars flows into a Walmart cash register.  The chain has 20 stores in the area and shows no signs of slowing its growth. Its latest proposal, a store just south of the city’s downtown, has provoked widespread protest.  Opponents say Walmart already has an overbearing presence in the region and argue that this new store would undermine nearby grocery stores, including a 63-year-old family-owned business which still provides delivery for its elderly customers. A few days before the First Lady’s visit, the City Council voted 5-4 to approve what will be Walmart’s 21st store in the community.

As Springfield goes, so goes the rest of the country, if Walmart has its way. Nationally, the retailer’s share of the grocery market now stands at 25 percent. That’s up from 4 percent just 16 years ago.  Walmart’s tightening grip on the food system is unprecedented in U.S. history.  Even A&P — often referred to as the Walmart of its day — accounted for only about 12 percent of grocery sales at its height in the 1940s.  Its market share was kept in check in part by the federal government, which won an antitrust case against A&P in 1946.  The contrast to today’s casual acceptance of Walmart’s market power could not be more stark.

Having gained more say over our food supply than Monsanto, Kraft, or Tyson, Walmart has been working overtime to present itself as a benevolent king. It has upped its donations to food pantries, reduced sodium and sugars in some of its store-brand products, and recast its relentless expansion as a solution to “food deserts.” In 2011, it pledged[3] to build 275-300 stores “in or near” low-income communities lacking grocery stores. The Springfield store Obama visited is one of 86 such stores Walmart has since opened.  Situated half a mile from the southwestern corner of a census tract[4] identified as underserved by the USDA, the store qualifies as “near” a food desert. Other grocery stores are likewise perched on the edge of this tract.  Although Walmart has made food deserts the vanguard of its PR strategy in urban areas, most of the stores the chain has built or proposed in cities like Chicago and Washington D.C. are in fact just blocks from established supermarkets, many unionized or locally owned.  As it pushes into cities, Walmart’s primary aim is not to fill gaps but to grab market share.


The real effect of Walmart’s takeover of our food system has been to intensify the rural and urban poverty that drives unhealthy food choices.  (more…)[5]

  1. Alternet:
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  3. pledged:
  4. half a mile from the southwestern corner of a census tract:
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Steve Johnson: Episode 3 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

by John Farrell | February 21, 2013 3:15 pm

In this edition of Local Energy Rules, John Farrell and Wade Underwood speak with Steve Johnson of Convergence Energy about a successful 660 kilowatt community solar project near Delavan, WI.  The project required 33 separate LLCs to take advantage of the state’s net metering rules, and also used the limited-time federal cash grant program to pull it together.  Unfortunately, the policy environment isn’t as favorable for repeats, and Convergence has interest in, but no plans to replicate the project.

Just north of Delavan, Wisconsin, is Dan Osborne’s nursery farm. Where you once found a bean field now sit 80 solar panels on 100 tracking towers, generating power for over 125 homes. It’s a small, but successful energy harvest.  The solar farm was developed by Convergence Energy of Lake Geneva, WI. Steve Johnson, vice president of business development, spoke to John Farrell and Wade Underwood about the solar farm in Delavan,

“The genesis of the project from the beginning was to try and provide an offsite location for individuals interested in investing in solar.”

Many individuals interested in going solar can be stymied because their property has tree cover or inadequate roof space, so Dan Osborne’s fields offered a better option, a community solar project.

Dan, who had worked with Convergence in the past, offered up 14 acres of his farm for the 660 kilowatt (kW) facility outside of Delavan. From there, Convergence arranged for 33 individual Limited Liability Companies to invest in 20 kW increments, which are sold back to the utility at retail price as a part of the net-metering policy (note: the utility’s net metering policy does not require the solar project to offset on-site load).  The state’s net metering policy caps projects at 20 kW, hence the 33 separate companies.

In addition to receiving the retail electricity price for solar electricity produced, the projects also received grants from the state’s Focus on Energy program[5] and used the cash grant option (since expired) in lieu of the 30% federal tax credit.  Project investors signed up for either an 11-year or 20-year investment term (with an 8% return on investment) after which the project ownership reverts to Convergence Energy.

As Steve says, their investors are happy with the solar farm, but there have been precious few opportunities for similar networked projects to grow.  The federal cash grant program has expired and the Focus on Energy incentives have been reduced.  Despite the changed landscape, Steve and Convergence Energy are keeping their eyes open for opportunities where the success from the Osborne farm might be replicated. It’s small seed that they want to see growing in many places.

This is the third edition of Local Energy Rules[6], a new ILSR podcast that will be published twice monthly, on 1st and 3rd Thursday.  In this podcast series, ILSR Senior Researcher John Farrell talks with people putting together great community renewable energy projects and examining how energy policies help or hurt the development of clean, local power.  

Click to subscribe to the podcast: iTunes[7] or RSS/XML[8], sign up for new podcast notifications[9] and weekly email updates from the energy program[10]!

Photo credit: Dan Lassiter, from Walworth County Today[11]

  2. Play in new window:
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  5. Focus on Energy program:
  6. Local Energy Rules:
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  9. new podcast notifications:
  10. weekly email updates from the energy program:
  11. Dan Lassiter, from Walworth County Today:

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How a City Can Get More Clean, Local Energy

by John Farrell | February 19, 2013 4:54 pm

Like many cities attempting to solve climate change at a local level, Minneapolis is finding the prospect more challenging that it may have imagined. The lion’s share of emissions (two-thirds in the case of Minneapolis) come from electricity and gas sold by two monopoly, corporate utilities. Minnesota’s state-level policy is helping: a renewable energy standard pushes the electric utility to 30% clean energy by 2020 and a conservation standard aims to reduce the growth in energy consumption. But state (and federal) policies aren’t enough[1], and Minneapolis has had no leverage to force its utilities to de-carbonize.

But an opportunity is coming soon.

In a short time, the city’s “franchise” contracts with its electric and gas utility will expire, giving the city a once-in-20-years chance to negotiate new terms for its energy services. These contracts are largely focused on right-of-way agreements, discussing an annual payment to city coffers in exchange utility use of city right-of-way to deliver energy services (in other words, payments for poles and wires in the alleys). But the contracts need not be limited to such mundane matters, especially when the city has a commitment to a climate-safe future and a populace strongly supportive of more clean, local energy. Already, the city’s franchise working group – a select four city council members – is examining alternatives to the status quo, options for energy services that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But there’s a catch. State law gives the utilities a monopoly on serving Minneapolis customers, regardless of their interest in negotiation. In other words, there’s not much incentive for Xcel Energy or CenterPoint Energy to talk turkey with Minneapolis when their citizens are a captive audience.

That’s the motivation behind Minneapolis Energy Options, giving the city an option and giving residents and businesses a choice for more control over their energy future. To do it, the city needs to put a municipal utility on the ballot this fall. If passed, it would authorize the city to create a municipal utility but only if it could be cleaner, more affordable, more reliable, and generate more local energy than the incumbent utilities. (see the video below for more about Minneapolis Energy Options[2]).

It’s been done before, in Boulder, Colorado. After many years of fruitless negotiation with their monopoly electric utility (Xcel Energy, by coincidence), citizens in Boulder narrowly approved authorization of a city-owned utility in fall 2011[3]. It hasn’t closed the door to negotiation; in fact, Xcel continues to ply the city with alternatives[4] to forgo losing tens of thousands of customers and millions in profits. The utility’s motivation should not be lost on Minneapolis or other cities with an eye on meeting ambitious climate and energy goals:

If you want investor-owned, for profit, monopoly utilities to work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they need a financial incentive. And there’s no better incentive than losing customers.

In the next two years, Minneapolis will have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take charge of its energy future in its utility franchise negotiations. But it’s only likely to make a difference if they have options on the table. Here’s hoping city council gives citizens that chance.

  1. state (and federal) policies aren’t enough:
  2. see the video below for more about Minneapolis Energy Options:
  3. citizens in Boulder narrowly approved authorization of a city-owned utility in fall 2011:
  4. Xcel continues to ply the city with alternatives:

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Germany Has More Solar Power Because Everyone Wins

by John Farrell | February 8, 2013 4:49 pm

Suddenly everyone knows about Germany’s solar power dominance because Fox Newsheads made an ass of themselves[1], suggesting that the country is a sunny, tropical paradise.  Most media folks have figured out that there are some monster differences in policy (e.g. a feed-in tariff[2]), but then latch on to the “Germans pay a lot extra” meme.  Germans do, and are perfectly happy with it[3], but that’s still not the story.

The real reason Germany dominates in solar (and wind) is their commitment to democratizing energy.

Half of their renewable power is owned by ordinary Germans[4], because that wonky sounding feed-in tariff (often known as a CLEAN Contract Program in America) makes it ridiculously simple and safe for someone to park their money in generating solar electricity on their roof instead of making pennies in interest at the bank.

It also makes their “energy change[5]” movement politically bulletproof.  Germans aren’t tree-hugging wackos giving up double mochas for wind turbines, they are investing by the tens of thousand in a clean energy future that is putting money back in their pockets and creating well over 300,000 new jobs (at last count).  Their policy makes solar cost half as much to install as it does in America[6], where the free market’s red tape can’t compete with their “socialist” efficiency.

Fox News’ gaffe about sunshine helps others paper over the real tragedy of American energy policy.  In a country founded on the concept of self-reliance (goodbye, tea imports!), we finance clean energy with tax credits that make wind and solar reliant on Wall Street[7] instead of Main Street.  We largely preclude participation by the ordinary citizen unless they give up ownership[8] of their renewable energy system to a leasing company.  We make clean energy a complicated alternative to business as usual, while the cloudy, windless Germans make the energy system of the future by making it stupid easy and financially rewarding.

I’m all for pounding the faithless fools of Fox, but let’s learn the real secret to German energy engineering and start making democratic energy in America.

  1. Fox Newsheads made an ass of themselves:
  2. feed-in tariff:
  3. perfectly happy with it:
  4. Half of their renewable power is owned by ordinary Germans:
  5. energy change:
  6. cost half as much to install as it does in America:
  7. tax credits that make wind and solar reliant on Wall Street:
  8. give up ownership:

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The End of the Post Office as a Public Institution?

by David Morris | February 6, 2013 3:34 pm

“When the post office is closed, the flag comes down.  When the human side of government closes its doors, we’re all in trouble.”   Senator Jennings Randolph (West Virginia) 1958-85

For the post office the end game is on.  This year the post office will close half its processing centers.  By late spring a first class letter will take 1-3 days longer to arrive at its destination. By the end of this summer Saturday delivery is scheduled to end.  Over the next year the Post Office plans to close over 3000 local post offices while slashing some 220,000 of the its 650,000 employees.

How did we come to this place?  In retrospect, it is easy to distinguish three discrete stages in the 221-year life of the Post Office.

Stage 1:  The Post Office Has a Broad Public Mandate

The first stage began in 1792 when President George Washington signed legislation making the United States Post Office a Cabinet level Department. It was a public institution with a clear mandate:  to enable universal low cost access to information.   In its early years this led it to initiate free and low cost delivery of newspapers and eventually, to offer a special rate for periodicals and books.

The post office helped tie the country together physically as well as intellectually.  Post roads were essential to the early development of the country.  Rural free delivery established in the late 19th century, spurred improvements in roads and bridges since the post office would not offer service where roads were bad.  In the 20th century mail contracts underwrote the embryonic aviation industry

In the 1820s, when private companies began charging a handsome fee to deliver information faster, enabling cotton speculators to make a killing on the difference in prices at the docks of New York and the plantations of Alabama, the post office responded by establishing its own express mail service.  The private sector complained.  A Congressional investigation concluded “(T)he Government should not hesitate to adopt means…to place the community generally in possession of the same intelligence at as early a period as practicable.

In the 1840s, when the private sector began siphoning off the most profitable mail routes, leaving to the post office only money losing routes, Congress gave the post office a monopoly, enabling it to dramatically reduce the price of postage and initiate free door to door delivery in cities.  In 1858 the first mailboxes appeared on street corners.

At the end of the 19th century, when private parcel companies began treating their customers badly, the post office introduced parcel post.  The competition resulted in reduced prices and improved customer service.


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Survey Finds Independent Businesses Benefit from “Buy Local First” Campaigns, But Challenges Loom

by Stacy Mitchell | February 6, 2013 11:29 am


CONTACT:  (Additional contacts below)
Stacy Mitchell, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 207-774-6792

MINNEAPOLIS, MN (Feb. 6, 2013) – An annual survey has found that independent businesses experienced solid revenue growth in 2012, buoyed in part by “buy local first” initiatives and growing public interest in supporting locally owned businesses.

But the survey also documented significant challenges facing independent businesses, most notably an increase in “showrooming” and competition from online retailers, tax and subsidy policies that favor their big competitors, difficulty obtaining loans, and a customer base still reeling from the recession.

The 2013 Independent Business Survey, which was conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in partnership with several business associations, gathered data from 2,377 independent businesses across 50 states and the District of Columbia.  Among its findings:

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MD Seminar on Compost BMPs for Watershed Protection

by Brenda Platt | February 5, 2013 4:03 pm

Tools exist that can remove up to 96% of stormwater pollutants. Are you interested? Attend this FREE seminar on March 5, 2013, to learn how compost-based BMPs can dramatically reduce sediment and targeted pollutants entering the Chesapeake Bay.

ILSR has partnered with local watershed and organizations to sponsor this event. Scientists from Filtrexx International and representatives from EPA, Anne Arundel County, and others to share insight on the challenges facing the watershed and the natural systems that can be harnessed for ecological and economic benefits.

SPACE IS LIMITED. To register download the PDF and follow the instructions to submit your RSVP.

Compost BMPs: EPA-WIP/TMDL Challenge

Date: March 5, 2013
Time: 9 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. EST
Location: Annapolis Maritime Museum
723 2nd Street, Annapolis, MD 21403

Compost BMPs Seminar Invitation (PDF)[1]

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Decentralized Recycling Models for Cities: Berkeley and El Cerrito, CA

by Neil Seldman | January 28, 2013 6:52 pm

placeholder[1]Berkeley, CA, and El Cerrito, CA, in the San Francisco Bay area have been special examples of government, grassroots, and private business collaboration in recycling and reuse for the past 30 years. Below are comments on the decentralized model by one of its key advocates and activists, Dan Knapp. Dan is the founder of Urban Ore[2], which operates in both cities. Urban Ore is a reuse enterprise that handles 7,000 tons of materials a year with just 2% going to landfill.  Among other achievements, Dan has authored the 12 categories of materials and products in the discard supply to allow for proper planning for each subset of materials and products.

Urban Ore and ILSR are long-term working partners.

Decentralized Recycling Models for Cities: Berkeley, CA, population 113,000, and El Cerrito, CA, population 24,000

by Dan Knapp, Ph.D.

Berkeley is a good example of a city that has an interlocking set of specialized operators with access to different subsets of the discard supply. All the operators cooperate with one another on policy, compete with one another for supply, and even trade resources with one another on a daily basis.  All together, there are six major enterprises: one for-profit, two nonprofit, and three that are municipally owned and operated.  They are: Urban Ore[2] (transfer station salvage, reuse, some recycling including regulated materials); Community Conservation Centers[3] (clean MRF operator, buyback and drop off operator, regulated materials operator), Ecology Center[4] (residential CleanStream split-cart curbside pickup); and three City Operations: commercial curbside pickup including separate pickup for mixed plant debris and putrescibles, transfer station management, including more regulated materials and hard-to-recycle materials, and construction and demolition materials recovery from mixed loads.  The City also provides garbage pickup service, but I don’t include that as recycling.

All this has been built up incrementally over time, in a process that is ongoing. Berkeley’s biggest problem, apart from periodic upsets caused by people who think a monopoly would be better, is that our facility is old and the customer interface is too small because the whole thing was designed to feed an incinerator that was never built.  Altogether the City-owned discard management center occupies 9.6 acres; Urban Ore’s Ecopark adds another 2.6 to the total footprint of materials recovery in West Berkeley.  There are other smaller companies dealing with smaller subsets of the discard supply, but these are the main ones.

For a community pursuing essentially the same model as Berkeley, consider the City of El Cerrito, about five miles to the north.  They opened their source-separation facility in the early 1980s, and rebuilt it in 2011 after citizens rejected the idea of closing it down.  The rebuilt facility opened in 2012 on Earth Day and has been a big success.  It features quick in-and-out traffic flow, a fine and welcoming administration building, and a large customer interface with over thirty drop-off options.  It is city-owned and operated, but there are a number of contractors, including Urban Ore, that also provide specialized recovery services onsite.

I personally think there are many advantages to this decentralized model.  Last year at the CRRA (California Resource Recovery Association[5]) conference held in Oakland, Berkeley’s operators presented their businesses as a case study of the ecology of commerce in action.

Photo credit: Urban Ore. A sculpture was made mainly from materials salvaged at Urban Ore by Bay Area artist Nemo Gould.

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New Mexico Recycling Industry Poised to Add 5,000 Jobs

by ILSR Admin | January 21, 2013 10:39 am

Reposted from New Mexico Recycling Coalition[1]

Many people associate recycling as something that is good for the environment.  But, not many realize the number of jobs created and what a significant economic driver the recycling industry plays in our state and country. In fact, nationally the recycling industry represents more jobs than the car manufacturing industry. A general rule of thumb is that for every landfill job there could be 10 recycling jobs for that same amount of material handled.  The recycling industry is a $236 billion industry compared to the $45 billion waste industry.

A new report released by the New Mexico Recycling Coalition (NMRC) details the estimated number of jobs in the recycling industry and predicts how many jobs could be gained through increased recycling activities. It is estimated that close to 5,000 new direct, indirect and induced jobs will be created in New Mexico when the state recycling rate reaches 34%.

With recent investments and commitments made in both rural and urban areas, New Mexico is poised to meet this goal. Recycling activity is measured by the New Mexico Environment Department: Solid Waste Bureau, which calculates the state’s 2011 recycling rate at 21% of the municipal solid waste stream. That rate has witnessed a 16% average annual increase over the previous 5 years. If this trend continues, reaching the national average of 34% could be attained by 2015. (more…)[2]

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The Most Amazing, Interactive U.S. Solar Grid Parity Map

by John Farrell | January 14, 2013 1:16 pm

placeholder[1]Within a decade, 300,000 megawatts of unsubsidized local solar power could compete with utility electricity prices in almost every state, enough clean energy to produce 10% of U.S. electricity.  Grid parity is building like a relentless wave, but how much solar is at parity today?  In 2016?  In 2020?  On homes or businesses?  With incentives or without?

Answer all of these questions with the Greatest, Most Interactive U.S. Solar Grid Parity Map from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance[2].  Click the link or the map image below to interact.

Screen shot of the Greatest Most Interactive U.S. Solar Grid Parity Map from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance [3]

For more on the data behind the map, see ILSR’s Rooftop Revolution resources[4].

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Who Should Pay the Costs of Climate Disasters?

by David Morris | January 4, 2013 4:54 pm

Who should pay the costs of climate disasters?  In light of the current debate in the United States about federal assistance to Hurricane Sandy victims and the recent debate at the recent Doha Climate Conference about international assistance for climate change victims, that has become an increasingly pressing question for humankind.

The frequency and cost of natural disasters is rapidly increasing. Since the 1980s the number of billion dollar natural disasters in the United States has tripled[1] from two to six.  In 2011 there were 14 separate $1 billion plus weather events and losses topped $60 billion.  This year Hurricane Sandy alone will exceed that total.

As costs have exceeded the ability of insurance companies, individual homeowners, businesses and communities to pay, some states have created statewide pooled risk funds.  After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, for example, Florida created the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund.

An increasing federalization of disaster relief has been occurring since the 1988 passage of the Stafford Act that required Washington to assume at least 75 percent of the costs of federally declared disasters. Predictably, the number of such declarations has increased[2] dramatically, from 53 in 1992 under George H.W. Bush to 110 in 1999 under Bill Clinton, to 143 in 2008 under George W. Bush.  In 2011 President Obama set a record by declaring federal disasters 242 times.

But as Hurricane Sandy has demonstrated, natural disasters are exceeding even FEMA’s expanded financial capacity, leading to the need for additional ad hoc Congressional appropriations.  This has given a boost to efforts to create a natural catastrophe insurance fund that would pool the risk nationally, similar to the terrorist catastrophe fund we put in place immediately after 9/11 with the passage[3] of the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act.  The fund created by that Act eventually paid out about $7 billion to more than 7400 victims.

In 2002 Congress passed[4] the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. The program is triggered if losses exceed $100 million and cost to an individual insurance company is more than 20 percent of premiums paid. When the program is triggered, the federal government pays 85 percent of insured terrorism losses in excess of individual insurer trigger/deductibles while the insurer pays 15 percent.  The program is capped at $100 billion per year.


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Should We Subsidize Giving?

by David Morris | December 19, 2012 4:37 pm

Robert J. Shiller, Professor of Economics and Finance at Yale recently weighed in with his perspective on subsidizing charity with a New York Times column[1] whose title clearly conveys his message: “Please Don’t Mess With the Charitable Deduction.”

There is a case to be made for charitable deductions.  Regrettably, this isn’t it.

Shiller offers three arguments.

First, giving is a fundamental part of who we are.  He cites anthropological research by Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi that contends reciprocal gift giving ”has pervaded healthy human society from its Neolithic beginnings.”  And he points to recent brain imaging research revealing, “reciprocity is supported by fundamental structures in the brain.”

But Shiller misreads this evidence and its implications.  Reciprocity is the key word.  Polanyi and Mauss, and more recently, Lewis Hyde have argued that socially obligatory gift giving was the glue that held many societies together.  It was the material expression of cohesive relationships.

Polanyi and Hyde made clear that market economies have undermined the concept of reciprocity, made relationships more impersonal, severely injured the culture of sharing and caused grievous social harm.  In a review of Hyde’s 1983 book, The Gift, Detroit librarian JoAnn Schwartz notes[2] the fundamental difference between a market economy and a gift economy.   “In a market economy, one can hoard one’s goods without losing wealth. Indeed, wealth is increased by hoarding— although we generally call it ‘saving’.  In contrast, in a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is the circulation of the gift(s) within the community that leads to increase— increase in connections, increase in relationship strength.”

Our declining sense of reciprocity is not an argument for subsidizing charity but for reducing the dominance of market thinking.  Not surprisingly, Professor Shiller does not pursue this argument.


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The Headlines Say It All. When Guns Are Involved, People Die

by David Morris | December 18, 2012 12:40 pm

[1]A letter to the editor in today’s New York Times succinctly makes the case that when guns are involved, people die. When they’re not, people are hurt.

To the Editor:

The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2012:

Page A1: “Gunman Massacres 20 Children at School in Connecticut[2].” Twenty children shot, 20 died.

Page A9: “Man Stabs 22 Children in China[3].” Twenty-two received knife wounds, 22 survived.

National Rifle Association claim: Guns don’t kill. People do.

Case closed.

. Decatur, Ga., Dec. 16, 2012


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Rooftop Revolution

by John Farrell | December 14, 2012 2:30 pm

At the start of 2012, the United States had over 4,000 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaics (PV) connected to the grid, with the pace of new installations accelerating as the price continues to fall. There has never been a better opportunity for Americans to generate their own electricity on-site nor such a challenge to the electricity system paradigm and for its policy makers and regulators.  The greatest challenge is to prepare: although only 0.1% of electricity is generated by solar power in 2012; within a decade, 300,000 MW of unsubsidized solar power will be at parity with retail electricity prices in most of the United States and more than 35 million buildings may be generating their own solar electricity sufficient to power almost 10% of the country.

Learn more:

Read the reports:
View the interactive map:
View the infographic:[1][2] View presentation:
rooftop revolution presentation screengrab[3]
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Lincoln, the Movie, and The Rest of the Story

by David Morris | December 7, 2012 10:34 am

Lincoln is a magnificent movie. But as I left the theatre, to echo Paul Harvey, the late radio commentator, I wanted to know “the rest of the story”.

The movie begins in January 1865, exactly 2 years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves of the Confederate States “thenceforward and forever free. ”

As Lincoln himself told Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles issuing the Proclamation was a “military necessity. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.”   Indeed, Lincoln wanted to issue the Proclamation in July 1862 but Secretary of State William Seward cautioned that the series of military defeats suffered by the Union army that year would lead many to view such a move simply as an act of desperation.   The victory at Antietam in September gave Lincoln the opportunity he needed.

The Emancipation Proclamation helped the Union immeasurably.  It converted a war to preserve the union into a war of liberation, a change that gained widespread support in key European nations.  And by rescinding a 1792 ban on blacks serving in the armed forces, the Proclamation solved the increasingly pressing personnel needs of the Union Army in the face of declining number of white volunteers. During the war nearly 200,000 blacks, most of them ex-slaves joined the Union Army, giving the North additional manpower needed to win the war.   As historian James M. McPherson writes, “The proclamation officially turned the Union army into an army of liberation…And by authorizing the enlistment of freed slaves into the army, the final proclamation went a long step toward creating that army of liberation.”

Abolitionists viewed arming ex-slaves as a major step toward giving them equality.  Frederick Douglass urged blacks to join the army for this reason. “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

The movie focuses on one month—January 1865–and the Congressional vote on the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Indeed, it could have been subtitled, “How a bill becomes a law.”  The film ends with triumphant celebrations by whites and blacks after the Amendment that ended slavery throughout the nation passed by the razor thin margin of two votes.  But earning the rights of citizenship was to prove a much more protracted affair.


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Commercial Rooftop Revolution

by John Farrell | December 4, 2012 4:50 pm

[1]The United States has over 4,000 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaics (PV) connected to the grid, with the pace of new installations accelerating as the price continues to fall. There has never been a better opportunity for Americans to generate their own electricity on-site nor such a challenge to the electricity system paradigm and for its policy makers and regulators.  The greatest challenge is to prepare: although only 0.1% of electricity is generated by solar power in 2012; within a decade, 300,000 MW of unsubsidized solar power will be at parity with retail electricity prices in most of the United States and more than 35 million buildings may be generating their own solar electricity sufficient to power almost 10% of the country.

Download Commercial Rooftop Revolution

Solar parity begins in areas with strong sun and high electricity prices.  In some places (like Hawaii) that has already occurred.  In several parts of the country, e.g. southern California, New York, parity is just around the corner.  Commercial solar represents a third of the total installed base for solar PV and it has grown faster and the price has fallen more rapidly (by nearly 30% in two years) than for residential solar. Meanwhile, retail electricity prices have risen by 3% per year in the past decade.

Until now, the solar energy boom has largely been driven by federal tax incentives and state-based incentives.  But incentive policies will also need to change to accommodate the uneven geographic distribution of unsubsidized solar at price parity.

Furthermore, almost all attention on solar power has been focused on cost, but industry, utilities, and policy makers need to begin addressing significant non-cost barriers that will become prominent as parity arrives.

Key Findings


Year-by-Year Solar Parity Potential

The following table shows the parity potential for residential and commercial solar power by year.  For example, in 2016 when the installed cost of solar will approach $3 per Watt, there’s a potential to install 75,000 MW of residential solar and 33,000 MW of commercial solar in utility service territories at prices competitive with retail electricity.


Existing federal and state incentives expand and accelerate the parity opportunity, but also create pitfalls.  The sudden reduction of the federal tax credit in 2016 could set back solar markets in several states by 5 to 6 years.  But without incentive changes, the tax credit may over-reward producers in sunny states at the expense of those in states with nascent solar markets.

Policy makers need to replace a one-size-fits-all incentive program with one that can adapt to the rapidly falling cost of solar and variations in regional competitiveness (e.g. a CLEAN Contract). It will also be necessary to address unexpected barriers to solar that emerge as the cost issue fades away.

A Decade Spreads Solar Parity Far and Wide

The following maps illustrate the enormous potential for the spread of solar at retail price parity.  An impressive 5.5 gigawatts of solar is already at price parity in 2012, rising to 122 gigawatts in 2022.



Like what you see?  Get email updates on ILSR’s energy work![4]

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Why We Can’t Shop Our Way to a Better Economy: Stacy Mitchell’s TEDx Talk

by Stacy Mitchell | December 1, 2012 3:00 pm

[1]In this TEDx talk, delivered on October 20, 2012 at TEDxDirigo[2]‘s Villages conference at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine,  conference, ILSR Senior Researcher Stacy Mitchell argues for a new phase in the local economy movement. She notes that there’s been a resurgence of support for small farms, local businesses, and community banks, but argues:

“As remarkable as these trends are, they are unlikely to amount to more than an small sideshow on the margins of the mainstream if the only way we can conceive of confronting corporate power and bringing about a new economy is through our buying decisions… What we really need to do is change the underlying policies that shape our economy. We can’t do that through the sum of our individual behavior in the marketplace. We can only do it by exercising our collective power as citizens.”

Please watch and leave us your comments. And please share it. (The “Share” button on the YouTube page[3] makes it easy to embed the video on your own website or Facebook.)


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How Walmart is Devouring the Food System (Infographic)

by Stacy Mitchell | December 1, 2012 2:41 pm

[1]Walmart now captures $1 of every $4 Americans spend on groceries. It’s on track to claim one-third of food sales within five years. Here’s a look at how Walmart has dramatically altered the food system — triggering massive consolidation, driving down prices to farmers, and leaving more families struggling to afford healthy food.

This infographic was also published on Grist[2] and Huffington Post[3].  Click to enlarge.

Infographic: Walmart is Taking Over the Food System[4]

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Free Checking is Rare at Big Banks, Common at Small

by Stacy Mitchell | November 27, 2012 1:05 pm

Share of Institutions Offering Totally Free Checking

While just 24 percent of big banks offer totally free checking, more than 60 percent of credit unions and small banks do, according to a new report (“Big Banks, Bigger Fees[1]“) from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

To gather data for the report, PIRG staff made inquiries at over 300 bank and credit union branches in 17 states. They found that credit unions and small banks have lower fees on average and do a better job of disclosing fees to prospective customers.

Comparison of Median Fees at Big and Small Banks[2]

(Data from 2009[3] likewise show that, the bigger the bank, the higher the fees.)

PIRG also found that many financial institutions are failing to comply with the Truth In Savings Act, which requires that banks make complete fee schedules available to prospective customers. (more…)[4]

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Seeking a Director of Strategy and Development

by ILSR Admin | November 14, 2012 1:36 pm

We are expanding our team and are looking for an energetic individual passionate about ILSR’s mission to serve as Director of Strategy and Development.  This is a great opportunity for an experienced fundraiser and nonprofit leader to help ILSR grow and develop new strategies during an important time. (more…)[1]

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Creating Jobs and Saving Money through Reuse – A Deconstruction Case Study

by Neil Seldman | November 13, 2012 9:34 am

The joint venture between Westmoreland Community Action[1] (WCA), Greensburg, PA, and The ReUse People[2] (TRP), Oakland, CA, completes a circle begun over a decade ago when HHS engaged ILSR to explore the feasibility of building deconstruction as a community development tool. The ILSR technical assistance work that followed led to the start up and expansion of numerous deconstruction companies and projects. As advisor to TRP, ILSR suggested that WCA would be a suitable partner as TRP expanded from its base in CA to nine additional sites throughout the US. WCA and TRP have been working together for the past two years.


Westmoreland Community Action, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in Greensburg, PA, has been serving disadvantaged residents in Westmoreland County and surrounding counties in southwestern Pennsylvania since 1980.  WCA’s mission is to “strengthen communities and families to eliminate poverty,” and the organization currently runs 22 programs to achieve its organizational goals.  WCA provides housing services including the construction of 10-20 homes per year.  The organization also offers emergency assistance in addition to employment, mental health, and child development programs. (more…)[3]

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Finding Value in Distributed Generation, Before it Finds You

by John Farrell | November 9, 2012 4:17 pm

[1]ILSR Senior Researcher John Farrell is giving this presentation to a collaborative meeting of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners (NARUC) this weekend.  It highlights the proven value of distributed solar to utility grid systems and the urgent need for regulators and utilities to incorporate this value into their long-term plans, because distributed and unsubsidized solar is poised to explode as it reaches retail price parity.

Finding Value in Distributed Generation, Before it Finds You[2] from John Farrell[3]
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Even Superstorm Sandy Couldn’t Stop the Mailman

by David Morris | November 8, 2012 11:29 am

[1]“Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail shall keep the postmen from their appointed rounds.” Bill Fletcher Jr. of the Institute for Policy Studies tells of how he was reminded of that covenant when in the middle of superstorm Sandy he saw a postal van traveling on his street. And he reminded us that we should not expect such commitment and dedication by a public institution and public servants if private companies and private employees delivered the mail.

Postal Service Undeterred by Superstorm Sandy[2]

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What Utilities Can Do for Distributed Solar

by John Farrell | October 31, 2012 1:06 pm

Last week the Minnesota Public Utility Commission had a rare live public comment period on Xcel Energy’s long term planning process (called an Integrated Resource Plan).  At the urging of several fellow clean energy advocates, I gave my 3 minute testimony about the enormous gulf between Xcel’s 10-year plan for solar power and the solar opportunity.

In their plan, the state’s largest electric utility indicated an interest in adding 20 megawatts (MW) of solar power to their Minnesota system (in comparison to a current statewide capacity of around 6-7 MW).  If that seems small, consider that our forthcoming report on commercial solar grid parity indicates an opportunity to construct 940 MW of commercial rooftop solar at a price (without subsidies) that matches or beats retail electricity prices.  The opportunity for residential solar is 2-3 times greater.  Combined, 4400 MW of unsubsidized rooftop solar could compete with utility retail prices statewide by 2022.

In other words, Xcel’s plan is remarkable under-estimate of Minnesota’s likely solar market in the next decade.

Minnesota is a utility-regulated state.  In other words, Xcel is a government-sanctioned monopoly with guaranteed customers and a guaranteed profit.  Being the public utility for half the state means Xcel also has a public responsibility to the citizens of Minnesota, many of whom will want to take advantage of the chance to generate their own power, cut their electric bills, and keep their energy dollars local.

There are several ways Xcel could meet that public responsibility:

As a government-sanctioned monopoly, Xcel should enable its customers to make energy decisions that reduce their bills, generate clean energy, and keep their energy dollars local.  It’s the least they can do for their guaranteed shareholder return.

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Sandy and the Importance of Government

by David Morris | October 30, 2012 4:49 pm

If this election is a referendum on the benefit of government then superstorm Sandy should be Exhibit A for the affirmative. The government weather service, using data from government weather satellites delivered a remarkably accurate and sobering long range forecast that both catalyzed action and gave communities sufficient time to prepare. Those visually stunning maps you saw on the web or t.v. were largely based on public data made publicly available from local, state and federal agencies.

As the storm neared, governors and mayors ordered the evacuation of low lying areas. Police and firefighters ensured these orders were carried out and helped those needing assistance. As the storm hit, mayors imposed curfews.

Government 911 and 311 telephone operators quickly and effectively responded to hundreds of thousands of individual calls for assistance and information. Indeed, the volume of those calls may lead us to propose a different answer to the question asked by those famous lines from the movie Ghostbusters. “If there’s something weird and it don’t look good who ya gonna call?” Government.

Public schools and other public buildings were quickly converted into temporary shelters. Transit systems and bridges were closed when public safety might be compromised.

Tens of thousands National Guard troops were mobilized to assist at evacuation shelters, route clearance, search and rescue and delivery of essential equipment and supplies. USNORTHCOM placed its forces on 24-hour alert to provide medium and heavy lift helicopters and rescue teams and activated local military bases for possible use by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Before the storm hit state agencies required emergency preparedness plans from publicly regulated utilities and after the storm hit monitored their responses.

The President quickly issued Major Disaster Declarations that allowed states and communities to access funding for recovery efforts. His ongoing hands-on role earned him the fulsome praise of New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie who told Good Morning America, “I have to say, the administration, the president himself and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding with us so far.”

Public agencies swung into action to protect bridges, and roads, and sewer plants and subways and to plan for a cleanup that will require clearing debris, repairing infrastructure, and providing financial and other assistance to homeowners and businesses.

Seven years ago, Katrina showed the tragic consequences when government fails its duty to respond to natural disasters. But that was the exception that proves the rule. When disasters hit, the government is the only agent with the authority and capacity to marshal and mobilize resources sufficient to the undertaking. It can coordinate across jurisdictions and with both public and private actors. And its mission is not to enhance its balance sheet but to preserve the well being of its citizens. And in October 2012 it has shown how effectively it can perform that task.

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Six Small Business Issues at Stake in this Election

by Stacy Mitchell | October 22, 2012 9:45 am

A number of critical small business issues are at stake in next month’s federal and state elections. Below we take a look at six of these issues.

1. Restructuring the Banking System

Nearly half of all small businesses have been unable to secure adequate financing, according to recent surveys. Even as the economy recovers, lending is unlikely to improve significantly because the problem is largely structural. Big banks, which increasingly dominate the banking system, do relatively little small business lending[1]. Since 2007, the share of bank assets held by the largest 18 banks grew from 52 to 60 percent[2]. Meanwhile, small and mid-sized banks, which provide most small business loans, have been losing ground. Over 900 of these banks have disappeared since 2007, casualties of the recession and government policy responses that have favored big banks.

What to look for in Congressional candidates:

Presidential positions: Romney has said that he does not support breaking up big banks. The Obama Administration opposed an amendment to the Dodd-Frank financial reform law that was similar to the SAFE Banking Act.

What to look for in candidates for state offices:

2. Closing Corporate Tax Loopholes (more…)[6]

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Too Big to Lend

by Stacy Mitchell | October 17, 2012 9:04 am

[1]Two years ago, Bank of America made headlines in nearly every major national news outlet when it announced it would “hire more than 1,000 small business bankers.”  It’s been using the hirings to gin up a steady stream of positive local press ever since, most recently in Florida, where newspapers reported[2] last month that Bank of America was adding 130 of these special loan officers.

But what exactly these “small business bankers” have been doing is anyone’s guess.  Small business lending at Bank of America has plunged 38 percent since 2009, falling from $34 billion to $25 billion, according to FDIC data.

Change in Share of Assets Devoted to Small Business Lending, 2009-2012[3]

The story is much the same at the other giant banks.  Even as they’ve been pushing out marketing messages touting their support of small businesses, big banks, including JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup, have been steadily shrinking their small business portfolios.

Overall, the volume of small business lending at the nation’s largest 18 banks has fallen 21 percent since 2009.  But the picture is even worse when you consider that these banks have gained market share.  As a share of their assets, small business lending at these banks fell 33 percent. The top banks now control 60 percent of U.S. bank assets, but provide only 27 percent of small business loans.

Small business lending has fallen some at small and mid-sized banks, but not nearly as much as it has at big banks. Today, there are 938 fewer small and mid-sized banks than there were three years ago and their share of bank assets has fallen from 23 to 21 percent.  Even so, these banks continue to provide 54 percent of small business loans, the same share they held three years ago.

All of this adds up to what may be the most compelling argument for breaking up the nation’s biggest banks (by passing Senator Sherrod Brown’s SAFE Banking Act[4]). A critical function of our banking system is financing small businesses and big banks are doing a rotten job of it.

Trying to cajole or compel them to do more won’t make much difference because the problem is largely inherent to their scale.  They lack the local decision-making and intimate knowledge of local borrowers and local markets that small banks have, which leaves them ill-equipped to make smart judgments about the likelihood that a particular business will succeed or fail. (more…)[5]

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What a Difference a Court Makes

by David Morris | October 16, 2012 12:40 pm

In a democracy the majority wins. Which makes minority groups vulnerable.  At the dawn of the Republic John Adams warned about “the tyranny of the majority.”

Almost a century later, the 14th Amendment finally declared that no State shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”  Despite its being passed specifically to protect the rights of ex-slaves from the south’s new Black Codes, the Supreme Court astonishingly ruled the 14th Amendment did not apply to states as it dismissed indictments for lynching two blacks that had been issued based on violations of the Amendment.

Sixty years later the Court reversed itself. In the 1950s and 1960s the Warren Court, now viewed by conservatives as engaging in unwanted judicial activism, intervened to protect minorities from state legislatures.

In 1966, the Supreme Court struck down a $1.50 tax imposed on each voter (equivalent to about $10.50 today).  Legislators in southern states defended the poll tax as a way to prevent “repeaters and floaters” from committing voting fraud. The Court disagreed.  It rules that voting is a fundamental constitutional right and thus the burden was on the state to prove that a discriminatory law was necessary.   The Court argued[1] that introducing a “wealth or payment of a fee as a measure of a voter’s qualifications” violated the equal protection clause by unfairly burdening low-income, mostly black voters.

In 1967, the Court overturned[2] bans on interracial marriage that remained on the books, and in some cases the constitutions of 16 states.  The defendant, the state of Virginia argued that marriage laws are traditionally under the control of states and it had a rationale for treating interracial marriages different from other marriages because some studies found that children of interracial couples suffered intellectually and emotionally and the Bible clearly revealed God’s intention to separate the races.  The Virginia Supreme Court had agreed, “Both sacred and secular history teach that nations and races have better advanced in human progress when they cultivated their own distinctive characteristics and culture and developed their own peculiar genius.”

“The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men,” the Court declared.  “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.”  And because the freedom to marry is a fundamental right, the burden of proof is heavily on the state to offer substantial evidence that limiting access to that fundamental right was necessary to achieve a compelling government interest. (more…)[3]

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Exemptions/Exclusions Added to Atlanta Airport Info Packet

by ILSR Admin | October 11, 2012 9:37 am

Reposted from Elemental Impact’s Zero Waste in Action blog[1]
By: Holly Elmore

The Sustainable Food Court Initiative[2] (SFCI) Airport Pilot, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, [3]works closely with the SFCI Team to bring sustainable operating practices to their operations, especially regarding food waste. In early 2012 the Atlanta Airport made a bold statement in the new concessionaire contract, the largest foodservice contract executed in North America. In the new contract, airport food vendors must meet the following provision:

“Concessionaire shall use compostable serviceware along with consumer facing packaging and source separate all food service wastes for direct transport to off airport composting facilities.” (more…)[4]

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Is It All About Hormones?

by David Morris | October 9, 2012 11:40 am

[1]Sometimes everywhere I turn, the story line seems to pivot on hormones.

Recently the Boys Scouts denied[2] Ryan Anderson, a gay 17 year-old the rank of Eagle Scout because “he does not meet scouting’s membership standard on sexual orientation.”  Last April, Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian parent in Ohio, was forced out[3] as a den mother of her son’s Tiger Scouts group. (Can it be the Tiger Scouts were worried their boys would become lesbians?)

Way back in 1991, the Girl Scouts also grappled with the issue of homosexuality, but they came to a starkly different conclusion[4] than their male counterparts. “As a private organization, Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. respects the values and beliefs of each of its members and does not intrude into personal matters. Therefore, there are no membership policies on sexual preference.”  They’ve never found it necessary to revisit that policy nor, apparently have they been under much pressure to do so.

And then there’s the Catholic Church.

A few months ago, on orders from male Pope Benedict XVI, the all male Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (popularly known as the Holy Inquisition) appointed a male Archbishop from Seattle to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).  The LCWR is an association comprised of 80 percent of America’s Catholic sisters.  What was the nuns’ heresy?  Focusing too much on promoting social justice and too little on opposing contraception and same-sex marriage.  The head of the church’s doctrinal office informed[5] the nuns they should regard their receivership as “an invitation to obedience.”

And Wall Street.

Unlike the Catholic Church, Wall Street cannot use scripture to justify excluding and diminishing women.  Yet its organizational ranks eerily echo those of the Vatican.  Women comprise only[6] 2.5 percent of U.S. CEOs of finance and insurance companies.  And Wall Street also treats its heretical women with contempt.

In 1997, in Congressional testimony Brooksley Born, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission warned that unregulated trading in derivatives could “threaten our regulated markets or, indeed, our economy without any federal agency knowing about it.” She called for greater transparency.  The New York Times later revealed[7] that Alan Greenspan treated her with “condescension”.  Larry Summers “chastise(d) her.”  When she persisted Greenspan, Robert Rubin and the head of the SEC, Arthur Levitt, Jr., called on Congress “to prevent Ms. Born from acting.”  Months later, the huge hedge fund Long Term Capital Management nearly collapsed–confirming Born’s warnings. (Bets on derivatives were a key reason for the collapse.) “Despite that event,” the Times reports,” Congress ‘froze’ Born’s Commissions’ regulatory authority.” The next year, she left as head of the Commission.


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Illinois’ Game-Changing E-scrap Law

by Neil Seldman | October 4, 2012 5:00 pm

The Illinois Electronic Products Recycling and Reuse Act[1] is breaking the mold of 25 state e-scrap laws. Under the law, passed in 2008 and amended in 2011, companies that reuse machines get twice the credit of those companies that recycle the materials.

The law addresses the fastest growing part of the U.S. waste stream, mandating that manufacturers pay for recycling their products after consumers are through with them. According to Mel Nickerson, of the Environmental Law & Policy Center[2], over 130 million cell phones are discarded annually in the U.S. Most e-scrap is sent overseas where improper “recycling” burden people and the environment with dioxins, mercury, lead and other toxics. When these materials go to U.S. landfills they act as filters for rain, which then pollutes groundwater with these same toxic materials. (more…)[3]

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We’re the NFL. We don’t have to care.

by David Morris | September 26, 2012 10:14 am

Watching professional football these days reminds me of Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine the telephone operator on Saturday Night Live and her famous punch line, “We don’t care.  We don’t have to.  We’re the phone company.”

Or in this case the National Football League.  For those who don’t follow football, let me bring you up to date.  In June the NFL locked out its referees and has been using replacements ever since.  Referees at major college conferences refused to become scabs so the NFL reached down into the lower college and even high school ranks.

The result, as many predicted, has been a disaster.

“We have all seen officials have bad games. We have even seen bad officials. This is different, and unlike anything I can remember,” writes[1] Michael Rosenberg of Inside NFL. “These guys are overwhelmed. They look like they spent 20 years riding a bicycle and now they have to fly a plane, and they keep looking around the cockpit for the handlebar brakes.”

Mike Pereira, who used to oversee NFL officiating before he went on Fox t.v. reveals[2] that his on-the-air commentary has become much more challenging. “I’m not sure how refs arrive at rulings when they aren’t using NFL rules.”

Games are longer and much more tedious as replacement officials huddle and huddle and huddle trying to figure out what to do.  “They’re killing the tempo and flow of the game,” CBS’ Shannon Sharpe asserts[3].

Typically, the home team wins a little more than 50 percent of the time. This season, the home team is 31-17 writes[4] Marc Tracy at The New Republic.  Some believe this is a result of replacements being intimidated by hometown fans.

It’s gotten so bad that Mitch Mortaza, founder of the Lingerie Football League, a league that has fined players for wearing too many clothes, recently tried to make his league look good by comparison. “Due to several on-field incompetent officiating we chose to part ways with a couple crews which apparently are now officiating in the NFL,” he writes[5] on the league’s Facebook page.  “We have not made public comment to date because we felt it was not our place to do so. However in light of tonight’s event, we felt it was only fair that NFL fans knew the truth as to who are officiating these games.”

The “event” he was referring to occurred on Monday Night Football.  With a few seconds to go the Seattle Seahawks QB launched a Hail Mary pass into the end zone.  A Packer caught the ball and a Seahawk quickly grabbed on to it. According to NFL rules that meant the pass was an interception.  Two replacement officials, positioned perfectly on either side of the corner of the end zone, made two opposite calls. They huddled and huddled and after reviewing the play ruled it a touchdown.  Only the hometown fans were happy.  Others are already calling[6] it the play that will live in infamy.

The assault on the integrity of the game, and the safety of the players, has not fazed the NFL.  Before the season began Dave Zirin and Mike Elk predicted[7] in The Nation, “The NFL clearly believes with no small amount of justification that they can do this because no one will care.”   At the time NFL Vice President Ray Anderson apparently agreed, “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch someone officiate a game.”

By the second week of the new football season coaches and players were vigorously complaining about the officiating.  The NFL quickly responded by threatening to discipline those coaches or owners who publicly protested.  “We contacted them to remind them that everyone has a responsibility to respect the game,” said NFL’s Ray Anderson.  A few days later the fines began.

On SportsCenter, former Forty Niner QB Steve Young forthrightly explained[8] to fans that nothing could be done, “Everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand. There’s nothing they can do to hurt the demand for the game. So the bottom line is they don’t care. Player safety—doesn’t matter in this case. Bring in the Division III officials–-doesn’t matter. Because in the end, you’re still going to watch the game, we’re going to all complain and moan and gripe and say there’s all these problems, all the coaches say it, the players say it—doesn’t matter. So just go ahead, gripe all you want.”

After griping, Josh Levin at Slate grudgingly agrees[9],  “It’s crappy to know that you and I and all the NFL fans out there provide the NFL’s leverage against its workers. But what are we supposed to do—not watch football? … Being a silent accomplice to Roger Goodell’s union-busting barely even registers.”

The key bargaining issue between owners and workers has to do with money.  No surprise there.  What is surprising is how little money is involved–$3.3 million a year according[10] to Peter King of Sports Illustrated.  That’s the amount the NFL wants to cut from its current pension contributions.

Compare that to the $3 billion a year the 32 owners of the NFL are dividing up in t.v. revenue, plus the tens of millions of dollars more they make from selling tickets, merchandise, concessions, etc.   The cost of keeping referees pensions where they are is about $100,000 per team.  A few days ago Forbes came out with its 2012 list of billionaires.  Three more NFL owners made the list, bringing the total number of billionaire football owners to 18.

Ironically, there is another sticking point between referees and owners.  The owners want to be able to “bench” referees who make mistakes in order to hold them accountable.  But no replacement referee has yet to be benched.

And who will hold the owners accountable for the way they have undermined the sport?  Apparently no one.  We like our football too much.

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John Farrell Presents on Local Energy Options for Minneapolis

by John Farrell | September 20, 2012 2:19 pm

[1]What happens when a city’s franchise contracts with its incumbent electric and gas utilities expires?  A once-in-20-year opportunity to consider how its energy can be cleaner, more affordable, more reliable, and more local.  ILSR Senior Researcher John Farrell presents to Environment Minnesota’s Green Ideas and Ham policy breakfast, discussing the implications of an expiring franchise and some examples of how municipal utilities are pushing the envelope on clean, local energy.

Listen to the presentation audio[2] as you click through the slides.

Minneapolis Energy Options[3] from John Farrell[4]


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The Times They Are A’Changing. Or Are They?

by David Morris | September 13, 2012 3:19 pm

The recent colorful tirade by Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe against a legislator who demanded the Baltimore Ravens owner fire linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo for supporting gay marriage and the overwhelmingly positive response to it by football fans and players alike are heartwarming developments.  It shows how far we’ve come.  But the fact that voters in four states—Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, Washington—will have an opportunity this November to ban same sex marriage and voters in 31 states have already approved constitutional amendments to that effect, usually by wide margins, shows how far we have to go.

The path from prejudice to understanding and acceptance has been much smoother in other countries.  Eight European countries have legalized same sex marriage, including predominantly Catholic countries like Portugal and Spain.  In Europe this is not a left-right issue.  The new Socialist-led government in France promises to legalize same sex marriage next year.  The Conservative-led government in Britain will introduce similar legislation.

On this continent, in 2000 the Canadian Parliament, by a wide margin, banned same-sex marriage.  Five years later, after a series of court decisions overturned bans on same-sex marriage in several Canadian provinces the nation’s legislators revisited the issue, reversed themselves and legalized same-sex marriage.

In this country, by contrast, whenever state courts have overturned a ban on same sex marriage as a violation of state constitutions, Americans often have reacted by changing state constitutions or enacting federal laws that devalue same sex marriage in those states that do legalize it.  In 1996, for example, after a Hawaiian court concluded that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violated the equal rights provision of its constitution Congress quickly passed the Defense of Marriage Act denying federal benefits to same-sex couples even if they are legally married under state law.  And Hawaiians promptly changed their constitution to allow their legislature to ban gay marriages, which it just as promptly did.

As I was doing research for my recently published book, The Thoughtful Voter’s Guide to Same Sex Marriage:  A Tool for the Decided, the Undecided and the Genuinely Perplexed[1], I was struck by how many times we’ve addressed and changed the institution of marriage.  We’ve upgraded the status of wives (originally subordinate to their husbands in the eyes of the law), enabled no-fault divorce (initially a spouse had to prove adultery), permitted family planning (initially in many states the sale of contraceptives was illegal), and overturned bans on interracial marriage.

I was also reminded of how often scripture was used to justify opposition to change.  Believe that wives must be subservient?  Cite Genesis 2:24.  Oppose allowing divorce simply when both parties want one?  Cite  Matthew 19:3-9. Oppose contraception?  Cite Genesis 1:28.  Oppose interracial marriage?  Cite Acts 17:24-26.

Opponents of same sex marriage argue they are defending the institution of marriage but their arguments have little to do with marriage.   After all, the institution of marriage has suffered grievously in the only-heterosexuals-can-marry era.  The percentage of households comprised of married couples plunged from 78 percent in 1950 to just 48 percent in 2010. Meanwhile the 2010 Census reported about 600,000 same sex households in this country.  Allowing those among them who want to abandon cohabitation and choose marriage to do so can only strengthen the institution of marriage.

Nor does the argument opponents make that they are defending the psyche and safety of children have anything to do with marriage. Same sex couples already parent 115,000 children and study after study after study finds them at least as well-adjusted as children of heterosexual couples.  In 2008 a Florida Circuit Court judge, after taking voluminous testimony from both sides on whether to overturn that state’s ban on adoption by same-sex couples flatly concluded, “… based on the robust nature of the evidence available in the field, this Court is satisfied that the issue is so far beyond dispute that it would be irrational to hold otherwise; the best interests of children are not preserved by prohibiting homosexual adoption.” Indeed, as psychologist Abbie Goldberg points out, the fact that gays and lesbians do not become parents by accident, compared to almost 50 percent accidental pregnancy rates among heterosexuals “translates to greater commitment on average and more involvement”.  And allowing same sex couples with children to marry can only benefit the child.

No, the arguments against same-sex marriage are not about marriage;  they’re about homosexuality. We should remember that only a generation ago an admission of homosexuality could not only get one fired but arrested.  In 1970 the IRS rejected the application of The Pride Foundation for a non profit tax exemption by declaring the organization’s goal of “advanc(ing) the welfare of the homosexual community” to be “perverted or deviate behavior…contrary to public policy and therefore not ‘charitable’”.

We’ve come a long way since then, but the road has been bumpy and we have yet to arrive at our destination.   In a cover story, Entertainment Weekly noted that just 15 years ago when Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet the story became the cover of Time magazine, a major story on Oprah and the subject of an editorial in the New York Times.  Today t.v. and movie actors come out with little publicity.  “What was impossible 60s year ago and dangerous 40 years ago and difficult 20 years ago is now becoming no big deal.”

Nevertheless, prejudice against homosexuals is still widespread. In 34 states it is still legal for lesbian and gay employees to be fired simply because their employers disapprove of their sexual orientation. And the vitriol of opponents of same sex marriage, especially among the clergy, has lent legitimacy to that prejudice.  The FBI reports a significant increase in hate crimes directed at gays and lesbians.

In several states the Catholic Church is leading the fight against legal recognition of same sex couples. In Minnesota virtually all funding for the opposition to same-sex marriage has come from the Catholic Church.  Earlier this year the Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis declared the banning of same sex marriage one of the most important ambitions of the Church and made clear he would brook no dissent on this issue from any member of the clergy.  He then ordered priests to sermonize on the sins of same sex marriage and say a prayer for its prohibition every Sunday and began sending teams to high schools to tutor seniors on the definition of marriage.

The Archbishop has had trouble finding scriptural justification for his frenetic campaign.  In a letter to the clergy early this year he offered two pieces of biblical evidence to support his crusade.   A passage in Genesis that says Adam was lonely so God made Eve and they, the only two people on earth, had sex (even though they weren’t married.)  And a passage from Matthew that contains Jesus’ opposition to divorce and has nothing to do with homosexuality, which Jesus never condemns) nor same sex marriage.

The Catholic Church, regrettably, doesn’t point to the part of the New Testament that conveys the essence of the values that Jesus hoped would be the foundation of Christianity.  Matthew relates the story of a Pharisee asking Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” His answer is both instructive and revealing as to which side of the debate He might take.   “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (22:36-40)

I suspect that for Jesus what is important is not a family structure based on biology or even heterosexual relationships but the quality of love exhibited in relationships.  Unfortunately, those who oppose the right of loving, committed individuals to become married often seem driven more by hate than love.

In 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the constitutional amendment approved by the voters that banned same-sex marriage violated the U.S. Constitution.  After taking weeks of testimony from both sides he concluded,  “The considered views and opinions of even the most highly qualified scholars and experts seldom outweigh the determinations of the voters.  When challenged, however, the voters’ determinations must find at least some support in evidence… Conjecture, speculation and fears are not enough.  Still less will the moral disapprobation of a group or class of citizens suffice, no matter how large the majority that shares that view. The evidence demonstrated beyond serious reckoning that Proposition 8 finds support only in such disapproval.”

To date no ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage has been defeated.  We will see in November whether that string continues or whether we will be able to say we have turned a corner and are willing to join the increasing part of the rest of the western world that accepts the diversity of the human condition and truly honors the precept, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”





Wedding rings (c) Jeff Belmonte. Published under a creative commons license.




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Minnesota’s First Community Solar Project is Minnesota-Made

by John Farrell | September 7, 2012 4:32 pm

Update 12/20/12: This project includes battery storage.

Just last month, the Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association[1], serving communities just north and west of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, announced Minnesota’s first community solar project[2].  The 40 kW solar array will be located at the cooperative’s headquarters, with members allowed to purchase individual panels in the project for $869.   In exchange, members will receive a credit on their bill equal to the electricity production of their portion of the 40 kW array.

[3]Participation in the community solar project lowers the payback period for solar, as compared to individual ownership, by 7-12 years.

The project is organized by the Clean Energy Collective[4], a Colorado-based firm that has already built two community solar projects with rural electric cooperatives in that state and with plans to build several more.  Their projects are noteworthy for being the only consistently replicable community solar model, as evidenced by their success.  (for more on community solar projects, see our 2010 report[5]).

Partnership is the key to CEC’s success, with the company providing cooperatives with “RemoteMeter” software allowing them to handle the accounting part of the community solar project (and a smartphone app to allow participants to track production).  They also handle all of the project financing and development, with utilities having merely to market the program to their members and help oversee the project interconnection to their electric grid.

The community solar project provides a good deal for members, for three reasons.  Most Minnesotans lack an appropriate, sunny space for a solar array (75% of people rent or have a roof that is unsuitable for solar).  With Wright-Hennepin’s community solar array, participants can own a share of a local, centralized system that will be maintained by the cooperative, and still get their share of the electricity as though it were on their own rooftop.


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The Thoughtful Voter’s Guide to Same-Sex Marriage

by David Morris | August 31, 2012 11:04 am

This November voters in four states–Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Washington–will be voting on whether to legalize or ban same-sex marriage.

After 20 years of debate one might reasonably ask why another report on same-sex marriage would be necessary. Our reply is that although the debate has been long it has often generated more heat than light.

We learn best through debate, by listening to both sides and sifting through the evidence they present. Too often, outside the courtroom where examination and cross-examination are the basis of judicial decision making, we hear only one side or the other. And in this case we too often lose the forest for the trees, failing to step back and examine the heated debates over the definition of marriage that have occurred throughout U.S. history and abroad.

That’s why we wrote, The Thoughtful Voter’s Guide to Same-Sex Marriage: A Tool for the Decided, the Undecided and the Genuinely Perplexed

We begin with a background that puts the current debate about same-sex marriage in a historical context. We then present both sides of the debate, with extensive footnotes that allow the interested reader to dig deeper.

We opted for thoroughness rather than sound bites. The result, we concede, is a long document that demands a willingness to spend some time on the issue. We believe the reader will find the time spent rewarding. The issue itself is one of the most important ever put before voters.

Download The Thoughtful Voter’s Guide to Same-Sex Marriage: A Tool for the Decided, the Undecided and the Genuinely Perplexed

Or download the guide as an eBook, in ePub[1] or Kindle format[2]

The Guide is also in print.  Bulk copies are available for as little as 50 cents apiece if ordering over 50.  For more information contact David Morris at


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How San Francisco is Dealing With Chains

by Stacy Mitchell | August 30, 2012 9:19 am

No other large American city has done as much to check the spread of chain stores as San Francisco. Under a city law enacted in 2006, a “formula” retail store or restaurant cannot open in any of the city’s neighborhood commercial districts unless it undergoes a public hearing and obtains special approval from the Planning Commission.

The restrictions have helped San Francisco maintain a relatively vibrant independent retail sector. The city has twice as many independent bookstores per capita as New York. It is home to some 80 local hardware stores. It also boasts more than 900 independent retailers selling fresh food, including more than 50 locally owned grocery stores of at least 5,000 square feet.

But San Francisco’s policy has major gaps. The law, for example, covers only neighborhood business districts, leaving the city’s downtown and other commercial areas unprotected. Its guidelines for approving formula businesses, which were written with smaller stores like Walgreens in mind, are also ill-suited to evaluating the impacts of big-box stores and large supermarket chains, which recently began pushing their way into San Francisco and other urban areas.

These gaps have allowed scores of new chain stores to slip into the city over the last couple of years. Target is opening two stores this fall. Fresh & Easy, a subsidiary of the British mega-retailer Tesco, has won approval for four stores and is working on a fifth. Whole Foods has opened half a dozen outlets. Several new malls[1] are under construction. Even Walmart is scouring the city for sites. And, while San Francisco still has half as many Starbucks stores per capita as Manhattan, it’s now home to a staggering 66, along with about the same number of chain drugstores.

“San Francisco is perceived to be a tough place for big businesses and corporate formula retail chains. The facts don’t bear this out,” said Supervisor Eric Mar, who chairs the city’s Land Use and Development Committee. “We continue to hear from neighborhood merchants and residents that they feel the city is being steadily overrun by chain stores.”

Should that trend continue, it will not only erode the city’s distinctive character. It will also weaken its economy. According to a 2005 study[2] by Civic Economics, local retailers have a much larger market share in San Francisco than they do nationally. This high proportion of local ownership is great for the city’s economy, because every $1 million in consumer spending the flows to independent businesses instead of chains generates about twice as many local jobs. (more…)[3]

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Stacy Mitchell Talks Walmart and the Future of Big-Box Retail on San Francisco’s KALW

by Stacy Mitchell | August 22, 2012 1:01 pm

ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell was a guest on Your Call[1] on San Francisco public radio station KALW. She joined host Rose Aguilar and Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect, for an hour-long conversation about how Walmart came to dominate the economy and what local business owners and retail workers are doing to counter its market power.

Listen to the show[2].

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Encouraging Corporate Crime

by David Morris | August 16, 2012 3:09 pm

Almost daily we read about another apparently stiff financial penalty meted out for corporate malfeasance. This year corporations are on track to pay as much as $8 billion to resolve charges of defrauding the government, a record sum, according to the Department of Justice.  Last year big business paid the SEC $2.8 billion to settle disputes.

Sounds like an awful lot of money. And it is, for you and me.  But is it a lot of money for corporate lawbreakers?  The best way to determine that is to see whether the penalties have deterred them from further wrongdoing.

The empirical evidence argues they don’t. A 2011 New York Times analysis[1] of enforcement actions during the last 15 years found at least 51 cases in which 19 Wall Street firms had broken antifraud laws they had agreed never to breach.  Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, among others, have settled fraud cases by stipulating they would never again violate an antifraud law, only to do so again and again and again.  Bank of America’s securities unit has agreed four times since 2005 not to violate a major antifraud statute, and another four times not to violate a separate law. Merrill Lynch, which Bank of America acquired in 2008, has separately agreed not to violate the same two statutes seven times since 1999. Outside the financial sector the story is similar. Erika Kelton at Forbes reports[2] that Pfizer paid $152 million in 2008; $49 million a few months later; a record-setting $2.3 billion in 2009[3] and $14.5 million last year. Each time it legally promised to adhere to federal law in the future.  Each time it broke that promise.

The SEC could bring contempt of court charges against serial offenders, but it doesn’t. Earlier this year the SEC revealed it has not brought any contempt charges against large financial firms in the last 10 years.  Adding insult to insult the SEC doesn’t even publicly refer to previous cases when filing new charges.

We know that CEOs of big corporations never go to jail.  We probably didn’t know they often benefit financially even when the corporations under their control violate the law. GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty recently received a significant pay boost to roughly $16.5 million just four months after Glaxo announced it will pay $3 billion to settle federal allegations of illegal marketing of many of its prescription drugs. Johnson & Johnson Chairman and CEO William Weldon received a 55 percent increase in his annual performance bonus for 2011 and a pay raise despite a settlement J&J is negotiating with the Justice Department that could run as high as $1.8 billion.


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Independent Businesses Deliver Bigger Economic Benefit, Study Finds

by Stacy Mitchell | August 16, 2012 2:23 pm

[1]Choosing a locally owned store generates almost four times as much economic benefit for the surrounding region as shopping at a chain, a new study[2] has concluded.  The analysis also found that eating at a local restaurant produces more than twice the local economic impact of dining at a chain restaurant.

The research firm Civic Economics analyzed data from fifteen independent retailers and seven independent restaurants, all located in Salt Lake City, and compared their impact on the local economy with four chain retail stores (Barnes & Noble, Home Depot, Office Max, and Target) and three national restaurant chains (Darden, McDonald’s, and P.F. Chang’s).

The study found that the local retailers return an average of 52 percent of their revenue to the local economy, compared with just 14 percent for the chain retailers.  Similarly, the local restaurants re-circulate an average of 79 percent of their revenue locally, compared to 30 percent for the chain eateries.

What accounts for the difference? In a handy graphic, Civic Economics shows the breakdown. Independent businesses spend much more on local labor.  They also procure more goods for resale locally and rely much more heavily on local providers for services like accounting and printing.  This means that much of the money a customer spends at a local store or restaurant is re-spent within the local economy, supporting other businesses and jobs.


Chains have little need for local goods and services, and keep local labor costs to a minimum.  Most of the revenue that these stores and restaurants capture leaves the community.

This study was sponsored by Local First Utah[4].  “Most of us have a natural sense that local businesses are good for communities,” said Betsy Burton, who co-chairs the organization’s board and owns the King’s English Bookstore. “And studies[5] in other parts of the country have borne this out… Now we have hard evidence right here in our own city that consumers can have a huge impact on the local economy, just by shifting some of their purchases to local businesses.”

The study is part of a nationwide research project being conducted by Civic Economics in partnership with the American Booksellers Association.  Other communities where a similar data analysis is underway include Bainbridge Island, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; Las Vegas, New Mexico; Louisville, Kentucky; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Pleasanton, California; and Raleigh, North Carolina.


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For Quality Customer Service Go to Government, Not Business

by David Morris | August 14, 2012 10:52 am

In 2012 we accept as received wisdom that government is unresponsive while a competitive marketplace forces private business to offer quality customer service.  So when Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX) introduced his warmly received bill, The Government Customer Service Improvement Act, we considered his announcement a truism, “When taxpayers interact with a government agency, they deserve the same timely, reliable assistance they would expect from a private sector business,”

Ironically, just as we achieve a bipartisan consensus that to improve customer service government should act like a private business both the empirical and anecdotal evidence is telling us it should be the other way around.

Consider the results of a new study[1] by the Commonwealth Fund that compares private health insurance companies to government Medicare.  Government was the hands down winner. People covered by private health plans were much more likely than Medicare beneficiaries to forego needed care, experience access problems, encounter medical bill problems, and be less satisfied with their coverage.  Is anyone who’s had a conversation, or tried to have a conversation, with his or her private insurance carrier surprised?

Indeed, the evidence that government is far better than business at delivering health insurance is so compelling that anti-government Americans have adopted an ingenious strategy to avoid conceding the point.  They have simply decided that Medicare is a private insurance program.  Recall the signs and letters and talk show host warnings during the health reform debate that President Obama better keep the government out of Medicare!

We no longer even expect personal customer service in the fastest growing part of the economy and the one with which we interact the most–internet based services.  “Twitter’s phone system hangs up after providing Web or e-mail addresses three times,” the New York Times recently reported[2].  “At the end of a long phone tree, Facebook[3]’s system explains it is, in fact, “an Internet-based company.” …LinkedIn[4]’s voice mail lists an alternate customer service number. Dial it, and the caller is trapped in a telephonic version of the movie “Groundhog Day,” forced to work through the original phone tree again and again until the lesson is clear: stop calling.” Google’s phone system (what, you didn’t know Google has a phone number?) sends callers back to the Web no less than 11 times.

Internet based companies argue that with millions of users, they cannot possibly pick up a phone.

But of course they could. They certainly have the resources. This year Google’s profits will hit $10 billion with revenues approaching $50 billion.  Diverting just 10 percent of its profit, 2 percent of its revenue to customer service would allow Google to hire an additional 80,000 people to answer the phone.

“Mikkel Svane, the chief executive of Zendesk, which helps companies manage incoming requests offers the companies’ 21st century perspective on customer service, “People get aggressive or aggravated; people are depressed or crying. It’s just hard talking to customers.”

Yes dealing with humans is messy.  But hard as it is, government, unlike private business, appears equal to the challenge. In 1996 Baltimore launched the nation’s first 311 number, a single non-emergency number that residents can call to complain, ask advice, or request service.  The number now receives 1 million calls a year.  New York City 311, activated in 2003, receives 20 million calls a year on a remarkable range of issues.   My mom once called to ask why the reception of her beloved local public television station had become intermittent after the conversion to digital.  The 311 operator politely and efficiently shifted her to a person at Channel 13 who provided her with a clear (albeit ultimately unsatisfying) explanation.

Unlike Google, New York devotes about 2 percent of its revenues to this most personal and effective customer service. “We consider 311 one of the most used and most critical city services,” says[5] Joseph Morrisroe, executive director of NYC 311.

Budget difficulties have led several cities to launch online options to reduce costs. But they don’t see them as a replacement for a human answering the phone. Spencer Stern, a 311 consultant for more than 10 years notes, “Technology is an important tool, but everyone I’ve worked with — from city managers to county executives — is also very much focused on human interaction…They realize having that human touch is important to their constituents — no matter what the cost.”

Despite the cost, and shrinking budgets, cities don’t appear to be slowing their embrace of 311.

Why do big businesses all but ignore customer service?  Because the profits of Facebook and Google and Humana do not depend on providing high quality customer service. In fact, some keen observers of the giant companies that have come to dominate the private sector have concluded that good customer service actually hurts the bottom line.  The New York Times reports[6] on the epiphany of one such observer, Richard X. Bove, an analyst with Rochdale Securities about customer service in the banking sector. “Spending time solving problems with people is not selling products. It’s wasting time.”  “One of the core beliefs you have about any company is that the quality of their product is the determinant of the company’s financial success,” says Mr. Bove. “The point is, it doesn’t work here.” He adds, “I’m struck by the fact that the service is so bad, and yet the company is so good.”  Good to an analyst means the stock price has increased.

Mr. Bove gained this insight from personal experience.  He was a longtime customer of Wachovia, acquired by Wells Fargo in 2007.   Since then investors have pushed up Wells Fargo’s stock price so much that it is now the largest American bank by stock market capitalization. Meanwhile its customer service ratings have plunged.  In 2007, J. D. Power & Associates rated Wachovia among the banks with the highest level of customer satisfaction. After it was taken over its banks received below-average customer service ratings. In Florida, where Mr. Bove lives, Wachovia/Wells Fargo was 10th out of 11 banks.

Mr. Bove recently upgraded his recommendation on Wells Fargo stock to a buy.  At about the same time he began to move his personal accounts to another bank.

A few years ago Kevin Drum, a writer at Mother Jones, after describing his infuriating experience dealing with customer service at another corporate giant, Verizon nicely encapsulated what may become the new received wisdom. “Frankly, my dealings with the government, on average, are better than most of my dealings with corporations.  The government might sometimes provide poor customer service just because they lack the motivation to do better, but corporate America routinely provides crappy customer service as part of a deliberate and minutely planned strategy.”

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How Archaic Utility Rules Stall Local Solar [Infographic]

by John Farrell | August 8, 2012 11:02 am


Many people expect that solar power will dramatically expand once it bursts through the cost barrier and becomes less expensive than grid electricity.  But archaic utility rules can effectively cap local solar development at just 15% of peak demand.  Fortunately, pioneering states like Hawaii and California are exploring ways to lift the cap and bring utility rules into the 21st century.

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Supportive Rules For Small-Scale Composting

by Brenda Platt | August 6, 2012 10:07 am

Composting is inherently local; it supports local green jobs, farmers and other businesses. Indeed, farmers have a vital role to play in producing and utilizing compost to restore depleted soils. They also have land, a necessary factor for developing the capacity to compost. State permitting rules can facilitate on-farm and other small-scale operators, thus helping to expand and diversify the composting infrastructure.


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Charter Schools and Kudzu

by David Morris | August 5, 2012 2:36 pm

On this, the 20th anniversary of the opening of the first charter school, kudzu comes to mind.

In the 1930s the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) paid farmers $8 per acre to plant this Japanese vine whose deep root structure helps reduce erosion and enrich a depleted soil.  Farmers planted more than 1.2 million acres.

Twenty years later the SCS declared kudzu a virulent, parasitic weed.  Its rapid growth shades the native flora, blocking their access to life-sustaining light. As these plants die, nutrients previously used by them become available to kudzu.

Initially, charter schools were embraced as a strategy to enrich what many viewed as an increasingly sterile public school landscape.  Early promoters included most famously Albert Shanker, President of both the United Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers.  The first charter school opened in Minnesota, one of the nation’s most liberal states.

“Groups of teachers and administrators who wanted to innovate and try new things would band together and little laboratories of education would emerge,” Dr. Gary Miron, Professor of Evaluation, Management and Research at Western Michigan University recalls[1], “The idea was simple: anything valuable culled from these experiments could be copied by the district…”

Within a decade the goals of experimentation and innovation were replaced by a focus on kudzu-like growth. Charter schools were less and less viewed as a way of improving public schools and more and more seen as a direct competitor and eventual replacement for them.  For conservatives, charter schools are an effective weapon for undermining Democratic strength in big cities and teacher unions.  For investors, charter schools are cash cows as local non-profit public school laboratories morphed into multi-state non-profit and eventually for profit corporations.    More than a third of all charter schools are now operated[2] by private corporations.  Student enrollment in for-profit charter schools has soared from approximately 1,000 in 1995-1996 to slightly less than 400,000 in 2010-2011. About 80 percent of Michigan’s charter schools are operated[3] by for-profit corporations.

As charter schools began to vie with public schools for supremacy Congress and the White House titled the playing field sharply in their favor.  To improve public education No Child Left Behind (NCLB) enthusiastically embraced what came to be known as “high stakes accountability”.  Parents of children in public schools that fail to make continued improvement on standardized tests for two years can transfer them to charter schools. If progress continues to stall the public school is closed.  The NCLB pointedly does not apply to charter schools.  To be eligible for funding from Obama’s Race to the Top program states must eliminate caps on charter schools.

Today 2 million students attend[4] some 5,600 charter schools in 41 states, with a waiting list of more than 600,000.   In the last 18 months, 23 states have approved[5] new laws aimed at promoting their growth. Meanwhile, last year cities announced the closing of about 2000 public schools.  And the cycle feeds on itself.  The more charters the less money for public schools, the more public education deteriorates and the greater the popularity and number of charter schools.


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Atlanta Airport Launches Compostable Foodservice Ware Packet

by Brenda Platt | July 30, 2012 8:11 pm

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (HJAIA) sends more than 19,000 tons of waste to Georgia landfills each year.  Food scraps are the single largest component of HJAIA waste, making up about one-third of this tonnage.  In fact, food waste is the most prevalent material disposed in the landfills in the State of Georgia. Non-recyclable paper and plastic foodservice ware represent significant volumes of HJAIA’s trash as well.  HJAIA has a goal to divert 50% of its waste from landfill disposal by 2015.  Composting food waste is essential to reach this goal, and switching to compostable food packaging will enable successful food residuals recovery. (more…)[1]

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The Health Care Debate: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

by David Morris | July 27, 2012 11:10 am

Nowhere is the phrase American Exceptionalism more appropriately used than when describing our debate over health care.  Outside the bubble that is the United States health care is viewed as a right, recognition that sickness and injury can strike anyone despite their best efforts and an acknowledgement of a basic obligation civilized societies have to its members.

If members of those societies were to tune in to the American debate I suspect they’d be baffled to watch grown men and women come up with ingenious ways to complicate a very simple moral issue.

From the Sublime

Consider Richard Epstein’s response to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold most of the health reform law. Epstein, an influential law professor at the University of Chicago chided[1] Chief Justice Roberts in the New York Times for relying on Congress’ Constitutional power to “lay and collect Taxes.”  He reminds us that the Constitution restricts the use of that power solely “to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence (sic) and general Welfare of the United States.”  And he insists that extending health care to 30 million Americans does not meet this standard because “general welfare” means “benefits that must be given to all citizens, if given to any,” that is, “matters that advance the welfare of the United States as a whole.”(Italics in the original)

Extending health care to 30 million does not enhance the general welfare, argues Epstein, because it does not extend health care to all 330 million Americans.

Now consider the argument by the vast majority of the Supreme Court who voted to strike down the law’s provisions regarding states’ expanding Medicaid.  Under existing law the Secretary of Health and Human Services has the right to withdraw Medicaid funding from any state that does not meet minimum standards of access and coverage.  The new law gave the Secretary the authority to strip states of their existing Medicaid funding if they do not expand Medicaid.  The Court struck down this provision, arguing,[2] “the expansion accom­plishes a shift in kind, not merely degree. The original program was designed to cover medical services for particular categories of vulner­able individuals. Under the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid is trans­formed into a program to meet the health care needs of the entire non-elderly population with income below 133 percent of the poverty level.”


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Hawaiian Sunblock: Solar Facing Unexpected Barriers Despite Low Cost

by John Farrell | July 26, 2012 12:51 pm

[1]First in the U.S., Hawaii residents and businesses can install solar power – without incentives – for less than the cost of grid electricity.  But as local Earthjustice lawyer Isaac Moriwake notes, “the gates of heaven do not open just because solar is cheap.”  Instead, a number of unexpected barriers have kept the solar market from to its full potential or growing as quickly as it might.  ILSR’s new report, Hawaiian Sunblock: Solar Facing Unexpected Barriers Despite Low Cost, explores these barriers and how Hawaii’s experience might provide valuable lessons as the cost of solar makes it competitive across the country.

Learn more:

Download the report:
View the infographic:[2]archaic utility rules barriers infographic ILSR[3] View presentation:
hawaiin sunblock presentation.001[4]
Read ebook[5]
hawaiian sunblock ebook[6]


Executive Summary

[7]An island state reliant on imported oil for 83% of its electricity generation, Hawaii has become the pioneer for solar grid parity in the United States.  It had an early commitment to solar power in the name of energy independence and state energy mandates and incentives encouraged the development of more solar power.

A rapid rise in the price oil and a rapid decline in the cost of solar have suddenly removed the economic barrier to solar, but like a receding tide, it has also uncovered unexpected and previously hidden barriers.

Solar is Profitable

With abundant sunshine and falling solar costs, solar power in Hawaii can pay back in a remarkably short time.  Since 2010, electricity from solar has cost less than electricity from the utility, with the gap steadily growing.  Without any incentives, an investment in a residential solar project pays back in just 10 years while adding significant value to the property.  Adding in federal and state tax credits reduces that payback period to 5 years.  Payback periods for commercial solar are even better, thanks in part to federal accelerated depreciation.



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The Chutzpah of Peter Orszag

by David Morris | July 26, 2012 10:27 am

[1]If chutzpah is killing your parents then throwing yourself on the mercy of the court because you’re an orphan then Peter Orszag is the poster child for chutzpah.  In his recent article[2] in Bloomberg News he insists the best fix for the post office is to take it private.  Where does the chutzpah come from?  Orszag was Director of the Office of Management Budget (OMB), an agency that played a key role in crippling the USPS with a manufactured financial crisis.

Here’s the back-story.  In 1970, after almost two centuries, the Post Office was transformed from a Cabinet agency to the quasi-independent US Postal Service (USPS).  In keeping with its new status, Congress eventually moved its finances off budget.  Yet, as I’ve discussed before[3], the OMB and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) ignored Congress and continued to include the USPS in the unified budget, the budget they use for “scoring” legislation to estimate its impact on the deficit.

Fast forward to 2001. The Government Accountability Office put the Postal Service on its list of “high-risk” programs because of rising financial pressures resulting from exploding demand from both the residential and commercial sectors.  Then in 2002 the anxiety level fell dramatically when the Office of Personnel Management found the Postal Service had been significantly overpaying into its retirement fund.

It seemed a simple matter to reduce future payments and tap into the existing surplus to pay for current expenses.  And would have been if the OMB and the CBO did not insist on adhering to their make-belief accounting system.

Several times between 2002 and 2005 Congress did overwhelmingly approved tapping into the existing surplus. Each time the White House nixed the idea because it would increase the deficit.

Finally, in 2006 the Post Office and Congress agreed to literally buy off the CBO and OMB.  Budget neutrality over a ten-year period was achieved by requiring the USPS to make ten annual payments of $5.4-5.8 billion. The level of the annual payments was not based on any actuarial determination.  They were produced by the CBO to equal the amounts necessary to offset the loss of the escrow payments. Under the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 the USPS was forced to prefund its future health care benefit payments to retirees for the next 75 years in ten years, something no other government agency or private corporation is required to do.

The Postal Regulatory Commission noted that those payments “transformed what would have been considerable profits into significant losses.”  Indeed, 90 percent or more of the current deficit is a result of these artificially created debts.

The Post Office is indeed in a financial crisis, but not one of its own making.

Enter Peter Orszag who still subscribes to the make believe world created by his old agency. His article lists three problems the USPS faces.   The artificial debt is not among them.  He lists three counterarguments people might use to oppose privatization.  The artificial debt is not among them.

A real world solution to the USPS fiscal crisis would be to remove the artificially generated financial noose from its neck and then build on its two most important assets:  its ubiquitous physical infrastructure and the high esteem in which Americans hold it.  In combination, these assets offer the post office an enviable platform upon which to generate many new revenue-producing services.

But for Peter Orszag the solution is to ignore the fraudulent financial burden imposed on the USPS and sell off and dismantle its ubiquitous infrastructure. “In addition to its 32,000 post offices, it has 461 processing facilities[4], monopoly access to residential mailboxes and an overfunded pension plan,” he writes. “These assets would attract bidders. Consider, for example, that many processing facilities and post offices sit on valuable real estate, and it may be smarter to sell many of them than to keep them.”

Did I forget to mention that Peter Orszag is currently vice chairman of corporate and investment banking at Citigroup?   Citigroup certainly be in the running to oversee the privatization of the post office, a process that would generate tens of millions of dollars in fees and undoubtedly handsomely benefit Mr. Orszag personally.

Now that’s chutzpah.


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Texas Judge Rules The Sky Belongs To Us All

by David Morris | July 25, 2012 9:31 am

“Texas judge rules atmosphere, air is a public trust”, reads the headline in the Boston Globe[1].  A tiny breakthrough but with big potential consequences.  And as we continue to suffer from one of the most extended heat waves in US history, as major crops wither and fires rage[2] in a dozen states, we need all the tiny breakthroughs we can get.

Back in 2001, Peter Barnes, a co-founder of Working Assets (now CREDO) and On The Commons[3] and one of the most creative environmentalists around, proposed the atmosphere be treated as a public trust in his pathbreaking book[4], Who Owns the Sky: Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism (Island Press).

In 2007, in a law review article[5] University of Oregon Professor Mary Wood elaborated on the idea of a Nature’s Trust. “With every trust there is a core duty of protection,” she wrote. “The trustee must defend the trust against injury. Where it has been damaged, the trustee must restore the property in the trust.”

She noted that the idea itself is not new. In 1892 “when private enterprise threatened the shoreline of Lake Michigan, the Supreme Court said, ‘It would not be listened to that the control and management of [Lake Michigan]—a subject of concern to the whole people of the state—should . . . be placed elsewhere than in the state itself.’ You can practically hear those same Justices saying today that ‘[i]t would not be listened to’ that government would let our atmosphere be dangerously warmed in the name of individual, private property rights.”

In 2010 Wood, along with Julia Olson, Executive Director of Our Children’s Trust[6] “had the vision to organize a coordinated international campaign of attorneys, youth, and media around the idea that the climate crisis could be addressed as a whole system,” Barnes observes, replacing a situation in which “legal solutions were fragmented, focused on closing down a particular power plant or seeking justice for a particular endangered species, threatened neighborhood or body of water impacted by our fossil fuel abuse.”

On behalf of the youth of America, Our Children’s Trust, Kids Versus Global Warming and others began filing suits around the country, arguing the atmosphere is a public trust.   So far cases have been filed in 13 states.

The “public trust” doctrine is a legal principle derived from English Common Law. Traditionally it has applied to water resources.  The waters of the state are deemed a public resource owned by and available to all citizens equally for the purposes of navigation, fishing, recreation, and other uses. The owner cannot use that resource in a way that interferes with the public’s use and interest.  The public trustee, usually the state, must act to maintain and enhance the trust’s resources for the benefit of future generations.

In Texas, after a petition to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to institute proceedings to reduce greenhouse gases was dismissed, the Texas Environmental Law Center[7] sued on behalf of a group of children and young adults. The Center asserted the State of Texas had a fiduciary duty to reduce emissions as the common law trustee of a “public trust” responsible for the air and atmosphere


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Local Ownership Makes Communities Healthier, Wealthier and Wiser

by Stacy Mitchell | July 18, 2012 3:32 pm

When policymakers debate anything having to do with economic development — approving a new big-box store, say, or handing out tax breaks to large companies — most don’t imagine that the decision will have any effect on such things as voter turnout or the prevalence of chronic disease.

But a growing body of research is finding that scale and ownership of business matter in ways that extend far beyond economic outcomes.

A study[1] recently published in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, for example, found that people who live in communities where small, locally owned businesses are the norm are healthier than those who live in places where large corporations predominate. “We find that counties with a vibrant small-business sector have lower rates of mortality and a lower prevalence of obesity and diabetes,” conclude the study’s authors, Troy Blanchard, Charles Tolbert, and Carson Mencken.

They surmise that a high degree of local ownership improves a community’s “collective efficacy” — the capacity of its residents to act together for mutual benefit, to solve problems, and to further local goals. Previous research has identified a strong relationship between collective efficacy and population health, because high-functioning communities tend to build initiatives and infrastructure that foster healthier choices and prevent disease.

Another study[2], by Blanchard and Todd Matthews, found that counties dominated by a few big firms have lower levels of social capital and less engaged citizens than those in which economic activity is dispersed across many locally owned businesses. “We find that residents of communities with highly concentrated economies tend to vote less and are less likely to keep up with local affairs, participate in associations, engage in reform efforts or participate in protest activities at the same levels as their counterparts in economically dispersed environments,” they conclude.

Sociologists Stephan Goetz and Anil Rupasingha have linked this decline in civic participation to Walmart specifically.  With each Walmart store that opens, social capital erodes, their research[3] finds. Communities with more Walmart stores have lower voter turnout and fewer active nonprofit organizations. In their latest study[4], published in June, they’ve documented a correlation between Walmart and the presence of hate groups.

Still other research[5] has linked the regional market share of large retail chains with higher rates of poverty, infant mortality, and crime.

Why is local ownership so nourishing to the social and civic fabric of communities? (more…)[6]

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Living in Another Financial Reality

by ILSR Admin | July 15, 2012 10:50 am

[1]Sally Sorbello, a grassroots organizer with the No Incinerator Alliance[2], is a small business women and citizen activist from Frederick, MD. Small business people and citizens have been fighting a proposed garbage incinerator in their County for seven years. Ms. Sorbello’s letter to her local newspaper captures the essence of the case against the incinerator. It is based on years of research and analysis of solid waste management in Frederick County and the state of Maryland.

The No Incinerator Alliance has an excellent web page[3] filed with information about the Frederick, MD anti-incinerator fight that can be applied to other locales fighting incineration of garbage.

ILSR is pleased to be part of the process in which citizen and small business activists get involved in anti-incineration organizing and emerge as leaders for other citizens in other communities. (more…)[4]
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Walmart Claims Its Stores are Magnets for Small Businesses; Not So, Research Finds

by Stacy Mitchell | July 13, 2012 8:15 am

Lately Walmart has taken to claiming that its stores are actually good for nearby small businesses, at least those that do not compete in the same product lines.  As Walmart tries to elbow its way into cities from New York to L.A., this assertion has become a standard part of the company’s PR rhetoric, repeated in media interviews and marketing materials.

On a website[1] set up to promote its expansion in Seattle, the company contends: “Walmart stores often serve as magnets for other new businesses, large and small. The small businesses that surround our stores generally have products and services we don’t offer or are strong in areas where we can’t compete.”

On a similar web site devoted to its Chicago plans, the retailer even provides a list of the types of small businesses[2] that supposedly thrive in the shadows of Walmart stores.  The list includes everything from appliance stores to specialty grocers.

The empirical evidence, though, indicates otherwise.

In a study[3] published in the Journal of Urban Economics[4], economists John Haltiwanger, Ron Jarmin, and C.J. Krizan analyzed about 1,200 big-box store openings and looked at the impact on two sets of independent businesses in the vicinity: those competing directly with the new big box and those offering different products and services.

For competing retailers, the study found “large, negative effects” on those within a 5-mile radius of the new big box, including a substantial number of store closures.  Although the impact was greatest in the immediate vicinity, the researchers also documented significant negative effects on competing businesses as far away as a 10-mile radius from the new store.

In addition to the closures, the number of new retail stores opening in the neighborhood dropped sharply.

As for non-competing businesses, the study found that big-box stores generate no positive spillover whatsoever.  Nearby businesses offering other products and services neither increased their growth nor expanded in numbers after the big box opened.

The  study found that small chains did not fare any better, with the exception of small chain restaurants, which experienced a modest positive effect when a big-box store opened nearby.

Most ominous for cities like Chicago, where about half a dozen Walmart stores have already been approved, the study found that big-box stores have a greater negative impact on local businesses in densely populated cities, compared to low-density suburbs, and the effects are worse still in low-income neighborhoods.


  1. website:
  2. list of the types of small businesses:
  3. study:
  4. Journal of Urban Economics:
  5. Mom-and-pop Meet Big-box: Complements Or Substitutes?:
  6. Key Studies on Big-Box Retail & Independent Business:

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Why We Pay Double for Solar in America (But Won’t Forever)

by John Farrell | July 10, 2012 5:24 pm

Update 12/21/12: Corrected chart.  Overhead and Sales Tax had been switched in the German data column.

I often get flak when I publish research on the cost trajectory for solar (e.g. my Rooftop Revolution report[1] estimates 100 million Americans reaching grid parity by 2021).  About half think I’m too conservative, and half think I’m too overconfident that solar will continue to drop in price by 7% per year indefinitely.

But I’m not alone in perceiving an enormous cost reduction opportunity for solar in the United States.  An article in Forbes last week suggested that we can “Cut The Price Of Solar In Half By Cutting Red Tape[2]“.  It provides a chart (reproduced below) like one I published in March[3], that shows how a similarly sized residential solar array in Germany costs 60% less than one built in the U.S.


This anecdote from a colleague illustrates the ridiculous disparity in red tape between the two nations (and consequently, the enormous opportunity):

There’s an article in the most recent issue of PHOTON describing a German family that got a 4.6 kW PV array installed and interconnected to their roof 8 days after calling a solar installer for the first time. The homeowner had a proposal from the installer within 8 hours. The installer called the utility the morning of the installation to request an interconnect that afternoon. The installer called at 10am, the utility came and installed 2 new meters and approved the interconnect at 2:37pm– the same day. The online registration of the PV system with Federal Grid agency and approval of the feed-in tariff took 5 minutes.

I’m sure that not every project gets completed that fast in Germany, but an interconnection and permitting process that takes less than a day?! 10 times that…would still be just incredible.

By comparison, New York City’s permitting goal under Solar America Cities was 100 days (before Solar America Cities it took 365 days).

[emphasis mine]

As I’ve mentioned before, the difference is mostly in “soft costs,” not hardware, and these cost barriers are solved by policy, not technological, innovation.  For example, soft costs include an enormous paperwork burden for U.S. solar installers, pictured at the top (photo taken from the Forbes post on cutting costs[5]), and already there are policy[6] ideas[7] that significantly reduce these costs.

So is it too ambitious to assume the price of solar continues to fall by 7% per year?  On the contrary, if the cost of solar continues at that pace, it will take the U.S. until 2025 – 13 years! – to match today’s cost of solar in Germany.  Can anyone honestly claim we’ll remain so far behind for so long?

When you add potential hardware innovations (e.g. like this[8]) to the soft cost reduction opportunity, the cost of solar is likely to keep falling rapidly in the United States.

  1. Rooftop Revolution report:
  2. Cut The Price Of Solar In Half By Cutting Red Tape:
  3. one I published in March:
  4. [Image]:
  5. photo taken from the Forbes post on cutting costs:
  6. policy:
  7. ideas:
  8. like this:

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Walmart: 50 Years of Gutting America’s Middle Class

by Stacy Mitchell | July 5, 2012 12:08 pm

This op-ed is cross-posted from Other Words, which distributes commentary articles to newspapers.  It is licensed for use under a Creative Commons “Attribution-No Derivatives Work[1]” license.

Sam Walton opened the first Walmart store in Rogers, Arkansas, 50 years ago this month. Sprawled along a major thoroughfare outside the city’s downtown, that inaugural store embodied many of the hallmarks that have since come to define the Walmart way of doing business. Walton scoured the country for the cheapest merchandise and deftly exploited a loophole in federal law to pay his mostly female workforce less than minimum wage.

That relentless focus on squeezing workers and suppliers for every advantage has paid off since July 1962. Walmart is now the second-largest corporation on the planet. It took in almost half-a-trillion dollars last year at more than 10,000 stores worldwide[2].

Walmart now captures one of every four dollars Americans spend on groceries. Its stores are so plentiful that it’s easy to imagine that the retailer has long since reached the upper limit of its growth potential. It hasn’t. Walmart has opened over 1,100 new supercenters since 2005 and expanded its U.S. sales by 35 percent. It aims to keep on growing that fast. With an eye to infiltrating urban areas, Walmart recently introduced smaller “neighborhood markets” and “express” stores.

While the big-box business model Sam Walton pioneered half a century ago has been great for Walmart, it hasn’t been so great for the U.S. economy.

Walmart’s explosive growth has gutted two key pillars of the American middle class: small businesses and well-paying manufacturing jobs.

Between 2001 and 2007, some 40,000 U.S. factories closed, eliminating millions of jobs. While Walmart’s ceaseless search for lower costs wasn’t the only factor that drove production overseas, it was a major one. During these six years, Walmart’s imports from China tripled in value from $9 billion to $27 billion.

Small, family-owned retail businesses likewise closed in droves as Walmart grew. Between 1992 and 2007, the number of independent retailers fell by over 60,000, according to the U.S. Census.

Their demise triggered a cascade of losses elsewhere. As communities lost their local retailers, there was less demand for services like accounting and graphic design, less advertising revenue for local media outlets, and fewer accounts for local banks. As Walmart moved into communities, the volume of money circulating from business to business declined. More dollars flowed into Walmart’s tills and out of the local economy.

In exchange for the many middle-income jobs Walmart eliminated, all we got in return were low-wage jobs for the workers who now toil in its stores. To get by, many Walmart employees have no choice but to rely on food stamps and other public assistance.

Walmart’s history is the story of what has gone wrong in the American economy. Wages have stagnated. The middle class has shrunk. The ranks of the working poor have swelled. Whatever we may have saved shopping at Walmart, we’ve more than paid for it in diminished opportunities and declining income. (more…)[3]

  1. Attribution-No Derivatives Work:
  2. 10,000 stores worldwide:
  3. (more…):

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Twenty Jobs Created at Bridgeport Mattress Refurbishing Plant

by Neil Seldman | July 3, 2012 8:03 pm

ILSR, working under a recycling and economic development grant from US EPA Region 1 and the Office of Mayor Bill Flint of Bridgeport, CT, facilitated the development of a mattress refurbishing and recycling plant that opened for business on June 27. (more…)[1]

  1. (more…):

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Justice Department Abets Amazon’s E-Book Monopoly

by Stacy Mitchell | June 20, 2012 3:30 pm

For years, Amazon has used its size and market power to bully publishers and keep other retailers from competing in the e-book market.  And, for years, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has done nothing to constrain Amazon’s abuses or bring about a more competitive marketplace.

So it was quite a shock last month when the Justice Department decided to intervene in the book industry, but, instead of going after Amazon, filed suit against five publishers that had dared to challenge Amazon’s dominance and Apple, an e-book retailer with a modest market share. In filing the case, the DOJ moved from ignoring concentrated market power to actively abetting a monopolist.

Two of the publishers and Apple plan to fight the lawsuit in court, but the other three publishers, facing sizeable legal costs, have agreed to settle.  If the DOJ’s proposed settlement is accepted by a federal judge, it could spell disaster for the book industry.  The proposed settlement would return control of e-book pricing to Amazon.  It would likely push the online giant’s only viable e-book competitors, including about 400 independent bookstores, out of the market, helping Amazon regain the 90 percent market share it held as recently as two years ago.

(Public comment on the proposed settlement is being taken through Monday, June 25th.  We urge you to submit comments.  More details on how to do so at the end.)

E-Book Pricing

The case alleges that the five publishers (HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster), with Apple’s help, colluded to fix e-book prices.  The activities in question took place as Apple was preparing to launch the iPad in early 2010.  At the time, Amazon was essentially the only outlet for e-books, and it was selling new releases at a steep loss in order to maintain its monopoly.  Amazon paid publishers a wholesale price of about $12-14 for top new titles and then retailed them for $9.99.  Other retailers, including Barnes & Noble, did not have the cash to sustain similar losses and were thus locked out of the growing e-book market.

Publishers feared Amazon’s tactics would ultimately destroy competing retailers, leaving the industry in the hands of a single dominant player.  With the launch of the iPad and the iBookstore, they saw an opportunity to renegotiate terms. They signed deals with Apple to sell e-books through an “agency” pricing model, under which publishers set the retail price of their books and retailers collect a 30 percent commission on each sale.  Publishers then insisted on the same terms with Amazon.

There is nothing illegal about agency pricing.  In fact, it’s a common pricing model for electronic goods.  It is, for example, the same approach that Apple uses with its App Store: app makers set the retail price and Apple keeps a commission.  It’s also the way both electronic and print books are sold in many European countries[1]. (more…)[2]

  1. both electronic and print books are sold in many European countries:
  2. (more…):

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Crowdfunding for Community Power?

by John Farrell | June 19, 2012 6:24 am

Back in April, President Obama signed the JOBS Act and one of the most-heralded elements was so-called crowdfunding. The law sought to solve a major problem: it’s hard to finance small-scale business ventures.  Wall Street only cares about multi-million dollar plays and securities regulations make small-dollar projects rather difficult (and costly) to jointly fund.

The Act could have big implications for community-based renewable energy projects.

Right now, there are two kinds of community-based renewable energy projects, the charitable or the persistent.  Solar Mosaic, for example, was founded and funded on the concept that many environmentally-motivated people would help finance local solar projects with 0% interest loans.  They succeeded in building several projects, but the model is constrained by the limited universe of people who have money at hand and are willing to let it be used for no reward.

The other kind of renewable energy project allows participants to get some kind of financial reward through sheer persistence, overcoming enormous regulatory and legal barriers to success (some of which I covered in this 2007 report[1]).  It means finding a complex legal structure to capture federal tax credits despite needing investors with “passive tax liability” or sacrificing federal incentives for simple ownership structures like cooperatives or municipal utilities.  It means having “accredited” (rich) investors or only soliciting investors through personal relationships.  This community wind project is an illustration[2], as are several solar projects in this report[3].

The JOBS Act may finally allow thousands of regular folks to make a modest return (5-10%) by investing in local renewable energy projects.  The Act allows for crowdfunding under the following circumstances:

The $1 million limit is the approximate cost of a 200 kW solar project, so crowdfunding could mean a significant boost for community-based solar arrays, especially in states with virtual net metering (allowing those potential investors to share the electricity output).

Crowdfunding won’t mean much for wind projects, where a single turbine costs well over the dollar limit, but the JOBS Act also opened the door for more community-based wind with changes to SEC exemption Regulation A.  (For more on this, read my 2007 report on wind energy ownership[4] and then this article on the changes to Regulation A[5]).

It’s not all roses and unicorns.  There are still several potential hangups for the crowdfunding model:

I’ll be interested to see how it develops.


Photo credit[7]

  1. this 2007 report:
  2. community wind project is an illustration:
  3. several solar projects in this report:
  4. 2007 report on wind energy ownership:
  5. this article on the changes to Regulation A:
  6. information disclosure requirements:
  7. Photo credit:

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U.S. CLEAN Programs: Where Are We Now? What Have We Learned?

by John Farrell | June 11, 2012 8:00 am

This report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance identifies all of the existing CLEAN (Clean Local Energy Accessible Now) programs in the United States (also known as feed-in tariffs) and examines the lessons learned from the early adopters.

Download the report [pdf]

Read the ebook[1] version

Executive Summary

CLEAN programs (Clean Local Energy Accessible Now) provide long-term contracts with utility companies whose price is set to guarantee a modest return for investors.  They have long been used in Europe (as “feed-in tariffs”) to spur renewable energy development, often with remarkable success.  In Germany for example, CLEAN contracts have been credited with developing over 50,000 megawatts of wind and solar power.  Indeed, so successful have these contracts been that Germany recently all but eliminated the premium paid for solar energy and re-directed the premium to encourage innovation in on-site use and storage systems.

While late to the game, Americans are finally in the game.  In 2012, all or part of fourteen American states have adopted CLEAN contracts for renewable energy.  Many more are in development.

U.S. States With CLEAN or Similar Program


The recent surge in popularity coincides with the recognition that on-again, off-again federal tax incentives undermine renewable energy investments and that the falling price of solar energy creates a need for a more flexible and regionally tailored transitional incentive.

But U.S. CLEAN programs still suffer from four common shortcomings.

Program Caps: A key shortcoming of U.S. programs is very small program size, especially given that these are multi-year, cumulative caps.  Evidence from other countries is that larger scale programs achieve greater cost reductions.

Scant Support for Small Scale: Another shortcoming, as discussed in greater detail in the full report, is the lack of support for on-site residential solar.  Sacramento, for example, allocated almost all of its 100 megawatt (MW) allocation to projects 1 MW and larger.  Palo Alto’s program is restricted to projects 100 kilowatts (kW) and larger.  Although there may be some cost savings involved in focusing on larger projects, these are modest.  On the other hand, the benefits of having tens of thousands of households with on-site solar and therefore an economic self-interest in supporting expanded renewable energy far outweigh the possible increased costs.  Europe has found this to be the case.  Nearly 90% of Danish wind turbines are locally owned, as is most of German solar and half its wind power. (more…)[3]

  1. ebook:
  2. [Image]:
  3. (more…):

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Solar Power for Minnesota

by John Farrell | June 8, 2012 3:26 pm

This report, done for the Solar Works for Minnesota[1] campaign, explores the value of solar power on schools, libraries, and other public buildings in Minnesota.  It was co-authored by John Farrell[2] of ILSR[3] and Christina Mills[4] of IEER[5].

Download the Report


What Policies Would Help

  1. Solar Works for Minnesota:
  2. John Farrell:
  3. ILSR:
  4. Christina Mills:
  5. IEER:
  6. solar energy standard:
  7. local permitting process:
  8. net metering law:

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Amazon Infographic: How a Single Company Gained a Stranglehold over Online Shopping and the Future of Retail

by Stacy Mitchell | June 5, 2012 5:10 pm


  1. [Image]:

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Business Can’t Win the Privatization Game Without a Handicap

by David Morris | June 4, 2012 5:31 pm

Handicapping occurs in sports to equalize the winning chances of contestants of varying abilities. Sometimes, as in horse racing, superior horses, based on past performance, are required to carry more weight.  Sometimes, as in golf, poorer players are allowed more strokes.

Unbeknownst to most of us, the competition between the public and private sectors is also handicapped.  But contrary to the popular wisdom, it is the private sector that often cannot compete without being given more strokes.

Everywhere we look this principle seems to hold true.

School busing

About 75 percent of Pennsylvania’s school districts now use private firms to bus their students. Yet according to a new report[1] by the Keystone Research Center (KRC), “Contracting out substantially increases state spending on transportation services. We estimate that if all districts switched to the self-supply of transportation services, total spending on student transportation services would fall by $78.3 million dollars…”

Despite the higher costs school districts continue to contract out.  Why? Because, to use the golf analogy, the private sector receives a handsome handicap. Back in 1970 the Pennsylvania School Code added a provision requiring the state to reimburse school districts that contract out at a higher rate.  Legislators knew the private sector couldn’t compete without a handicap.

The result is that while bus privatization costs Pennsylvania taxpayers more, the state subsidy often slightly reduces the cost to the contracting school district itself.


In 1994 the Republicans took over the House of Representatives and immediately began to privatize Medicare.  Their first step, achieved in 1997 with the support of President Clinton was Medicare+Choice.   But the Republicans made a serious tactical mistake.  They were so confident in the inherent superiority of the private sector they didn’t ask for a handicap.  Private insurers received the same amount as the service cost under Medicare.

The private sector lost the race. Badly. Private insurers began pulling out en masse. In 2000, more than 900,000 patients were dropped from the program.

No one should have been surprised.  Private insurers overhead costs-marketing, profits, etc.—dwarf[2] those of Medicare: Slightly under 17 percent compared to about 5 percent for Medicare.  So to become competitive the private sector required at least a 12 percent handicap.


  1. report:
  2. dwarf:
  3. (more…):

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How Phantom Accounting Is Destroying The Post Office

by David Morris | May 29, 2012 5:23 pm

As every 6 year old learns, there is real and there is make believe. The massive Post Office deficit that is driving management to commit institutional suicide by ending 6 day delivery, closing half of the nations’ 30,000 or so post offices and half it’s 500 mail processing centers, and laying off over 200,000 workers, is make believe.

Here’s why.  In 1969 the federal government changed the way it did accounting.  It began to use what was and is called a unified budget that includes trust funds like social security previously considered off budget because they were self-sustaining through dedicated revenue.

At that time the Post Office was, as it had been since 1792, a department of the federal government like the Department of Energy or the Department of Agriculture.  While generating most of its revenue from postage it also received significant Congressional appropriations.

In 1970 Congress transformed the Post Office into the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). The new quasi-public agency was intended to put the Postal Office on a more business like footing.  The Postal Service was allowed to borrow to make needed capital investments and was given more flexibility in how it spent its money.  In return Congress required the Postal Service to become self-sufficient.  The subsidy, at that time running about 15 percent of total revenues (close to $10 billion a year in 2012) was phased out over the next 15 years.  After the mid 1980s the only taxpayer funds involved, amounting today to $100 million a year, subsidizes mail for the blind and official mail to overseas voters.

In keeping with the new philosophy that the Postal Service should be independent Nixon’s Office of Management and Budget administratively moved its finances off budget in 1974.  In 1989 Congress did it by statute.

None of this made any difference, as exhaustively detailed by the USPS Inspector General in a 2009 report[1].  The OMB and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) continued to treat the postal service as part of the unified budget, the budget they use for “scoring” legislation to estimate its impact on the deficit.

And that’s where the make believe comes from.


  1. report:
  2. (more…):

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The Euro and Local Self-Reliance: A Flashback

by David Morris | May 24, 2012 2:27 pm

In May 1998 the European Union voted to adopt a single European currency.  A few days later David Morris set down his thoughts about that momentous decision from a local self-reliance perspective.  Fourteen years later, as Greece and Europe revisit the costs and benefits of the Euro, we thought it appropriate to offer that column on our front page.   Not to say “we told you so” but to demonstrate that in an age of globalization, local self-reliance can still be a powerful analytical tool.

A Single European Currency: High Risk, Low Returns

David Morris

Saint Paul Pioneer Press. May 7, 1998.

“A man is wise with the wisdom of his time only and ignorant with its ignorance”, Henry David Thoreau wrote. “Observe how the greatest minds yield in some degree to the superstition of their age.”

What is the superstition of our age? Globalization. In its name we are willing to take any risk, no matter how great, to achieve benefits no matter how small.

Consider what happened last weekend. Eleven nations, in an unprecedented political and economic leap of faith, formally adopted a single European currency. A New York Times headline accurately describes the experiment, “The euro: High Wire Without a Net”.

On January 1, 1999, the euro will come into existence. National currencies will begin to disappear. New government bonds will be issued in euros; old ones will be redenominated. Stocks and other financial assets will be redenominated as well. European businesses will keep their books in eros. On January 1, 2002, euro notes and coins will enter general circulation. On July 1, 2002, national currencies will cease to be legal tender within participating countries.

The transition to a single currency is expected to cost as much as half a trillion dollars.


  1. (more…):

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Distribution of Bank Assets by Size of Institution, 2011 vs. 2007

by Stacy Mitchell | May 18, 2012 3:59 pm

Distribution of Bank Assets by Size of Institution, 2011[1]

More than three years after their reckless greed triggered the Great Recession, the nation’s biggest banks have paid almost no penalty and are bigger than ever, as these two graphs illustrate.

In 2007, the top four banks — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo — held assets of $4.3 trillion*, which amounted to 33 percent of the all assets held by U.S. depository institutions (commercial banks and credit unions). By the end of 2011, they controlled $5.9 trillion, or 40 percent of assets.

Overall, in the space of just four years, the share of assets held by these four banks plus another 15 giant banks (defined those with more than $100 billion in assets) rose from 49% to 56%. Meanwhile, the share held by small and medium-sized banks and credit unions declined.

* These figures count only the assets held by the banks’ FDIC-insured subsidiaries and do not reflect nondeposit subsidiaries.

Distribution of Bank Assets by Size of Institution, 2007[2]

  1. [Image]:
  2. [Image]:

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Walmart Heirs Quietly Fund Walmart’s Environmental Allies

by Stacy Mitchell | May 16, 2012 7:21 pm

A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran a story on the front page of the business section under the headline “Unexpected Ally Helps Walmart Cut Waste[1].” The retailer’s accomplice, readers of the article learned, is the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the largest and most influential environmental groups in the country. EDF has been working closely with Walmart on its sustainability efforts since 2005, and has even opened an office in Bentonville, Ark., where Walmart is headquartered.

The Times noted that EDF “does not accept contributions from Walmart or other corporations it works with.” EDF itself often mentions this when the subject of Walmart comes up, making note of it on its website[2], as well as in blog posts and other communications about its work with the company.

But, while it’s true that Walmart does not fund EDF (either directly or through its internal, company-run foundation[3]), the environmental group does receive an awful lot of money from the Walton Family Foundation. Since 2004, the foundation has given EDF more than $53 million. Last year, the foundation’s $13.7 million grant to the group amounted to about 15 percent of EDF’s budget[4]. After readers brought this to the attention of The Times[5], the newspaper amended its story and ran a correction noting the Walton foundation’s grants to EDF.

Established by Walmart founder Sam Walton in 1987 and run today by his children and grandchildren, the Walton Family Foundation has quietly grown into one of the largest foundations in the country. Last year, it ranked second in the nation based on total giving, behind only the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

It’s impossible to untangle all the connections between the Walton Family Foundation and the Walmart corporation. They are separate entities, but the Waltons pull the strings within both — the family has complete control over the foundation and significant control over the corporation.

The foundation’s board is made up entirely of Waltons. Walmart’s board includes three family members: Rob Walton, who’s been a director since 1978 and chair since his father Sam died 20 years ago; Jim, another of Sam’s sons; and Greg Penner, who is married to Rob Walton’s daughter, Carrie, one of the more visible and active directors of the foundation.

More important than board seats is stock: The Waltons own about 50 percent[6] of Walmart’s stock. Yes, it’s mind-boggling, but a single family owns half of the second-largest company[7] on the planet, a corporation whose revenues last year exceeded the GDP of all but 23 countries. (more…)[8]

  1. Unexpected Ally Helps Walmart Cut Waste:
  2. website:
  3. foundation:
  4. EDF’s budget:
  5. brought this to the attention of The Times:
  6. about 50 percent:
  7. second-largest company:
  8. (more…):

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Are Lightly Regulated States Really More Friendly to Small Businesses?

by Stacy Mitchell | May 9, 2012 6:39 pm

Number of Small Firms per 1,000 People, By State[1]


A new ranking of states based on “small business friendliness” was released this week by Thumbtack[2]. Thumbtack, an online directory that helps people find local service providers, surveyed over 6,000 small business owners who list their services on its site and, based on their responses, assigned letter grades to each state.

The survey-takers were asked to rate their state across several measures of small business friendliness. Many of the questions dealt with regulations. Business owners were asked how friendly or unfriendly their state is with regard to environmental, labor, health & safety, licensing, and land use regulations.

In the final results, which you can see in this interactive map[3], states that have more regulations tend to rank low, while those with fewer and looser rules top the list. The five states deemed least friendly to small businesses are Rhode Island, Vermont, Hawaii, California, and New York. The five most friendly are Idaho, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, and Louisiana.

In a press release, Thumbtack put a point on the findings by quoting the owner of a roofing business in Texas:  “With comparatively few regulations or government oversight on small businesses, Texas is truly a small-business-friendly state.”

The trouble with this analysis, though, is that many of the “unfriendly” states are actually home to much larger numbers of small businesses than the “friendly” states. (more…)[4]

  1. [Image]:
  2. Thumbtack:
  3. this interactive map:
  4. (more…):

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Romney, Hoover, Eisenhower and that Pipeline

by David Morris | May 9, 2012 6:17 pm

After winning the Illinois primary, Mitt Romney delivered a victory speech[1] in which he deplored America’s lost “can do spirit”.  Unsurprisingly, he blamed it on government.  If elected he promised, “We’re going to get government out of the way”.   Then he offered a few examples of what he meant.  “We once built the interstate highway system and the Hoover Dam. Now we can’t even build a pipeline.”

Romney liked the line, and the thunderous applause it generated so much that a few weeks later at a Tea Party gathering in Pennsylvania he used it again[2].

Rachel Maddow[3] and many others have pointed out the fundamental flaw in Romney’s argument.  The government built both the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system.   Republican administrations championed both projects. They were testaments to the can-do spirit of government, grand collective undertakings that benefited generations to come.

How grand?  The Hoover Dam cost the equivalent of $24 billion in today’s dollars, notes Steve Benen[4].  Congress appropriated $25 billion to build the first 40,000 miles of the interstate highway system, equivalent to $830 billion in today’s dollars.

Few have commented on Romney’s second sentence. “Now we can’t even build a pipeline”.  Having cited two examples that contradicted his thesis that government lacks the can do spirit, he offered an example of how government is preventing the private sector from having the can do spirit that may be even more problematic.

Romney, as everyone in his audience and most of the country knew, was talking about the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama had delayed construction while a detailed environmental impact study is completed, generating universal Republican outrage.

If completed, the pipeline will transport crude oil extracted from Canadian tar sands through the United States and to Gulf Coast refineries where it will then be exported. Demonstrating that private sector can-do spirit Romney so exalts, TransCanada, the company that owns the pipeline, is continuing to acquire land to construct the pipeline despite Obama’s decision. “We don’t need a presidential permit in order for us to obtain the easements that we need for the right of way for this project,” says[5] TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha.

Apparently, the foreign corporation also doesn’t think it needs permission of the landowners to move ahead.  When some farmers refused to sell their land, TransCanada began the process of seizing their private property.   Which has led many of Mitt Romney’s most ardent supporters to rebel.

A month before Romney’s speech this major story appeared[6] in the Texas Tribune, “Keystone Pipeline Sparks Property Rights Backlash”.  The reporter conveyed the anger of Julia Trigg Crawford who manages a 600-acre farm in Lamar County that’s been in her family since 1948. “I’m just an angry steward of the land. A foreign-owned, for-profit, non-permitted pipeline has taken a Texan’s land. Doesn’t sound right, does it?”

Does it?  The Texas Constitution requires that eminent domain, that is, the right to seize private property, can only be exercised for “public use.”  In the past courts have routinely dismissed challenges to pipelines by landowners.

But last year the Texas Supreme Court ruled[7] that a company that wanted to build a CO2 pipeline for its own use was a private carrier and couldn’t use eminent domain to get an easement on a Houston-area rice farm.  In his opinion[8] for the majority, Justice Don Willett wrote that “even when the Legislature grants certain private entities ‘the right and power of eminent domain,’ the overarching constitutional rule controls: no taking of property for private use.”

“The ruling sent shockwaves through the oil and gas lobby, which is now urging the Supreme Court to rehear the case,” the Texas Tribune observes.

Ms. Crawford successfully obtained a rare restraining order from the courts that halted any further encroachment on her land until questions surrounding TransCanada’s right to condemn her property are resolved.

The case is going to court.   There will be a hearing in June and possibly a trial in July. I hope they are televised.  Texas’ two Republican Senators and its Republican Governor have come out against the Crawford Family

The Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system were built by the people for the people.  They were and are public assets, huge public undertakings that have generated huge public benefits. The Keystone XL pipeline is proposed by a private company for private gain. The private company insists it has the right to seize private land to enhance the value of its private asset.

Perhaps an enterprising reporter on the campaign trail could ask Mitt Romney if he would like to revisit his comments?


This article first appeared on On The Commons.[9]



  1. speech:
  2. again:
  3. Rachel Maddow:
  4. Steve Benen:
  5. says:
  6. appeared:
  7. ruled:
  8. opinion:

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Profiles in Political Courage

by David Morris | May 3, 2012 7:12 pm

A few weeks ago Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA who is retiring from the House this year, gave a memorable interview[1] to New York magazine in which he criticized President Obama for aggressively pushing health care reform.  Frank says he warned Obama the Democratic Party would pay “a terrible price.”

Apparently Frank was not alone in counseling Obama to take health care off the front burner. “At various points, Vice President Joe Biden, senior advisor David Axelrod and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel advised the President to focus entirely on the economy and leave comprehensive health care for another day,” Jonathan Alter, senior editor of Newsweek reports[2]. “‘I begged him not to do this’, Emanuel told me when I was researching my book about Obama’s first year in office.”

After the law passed Alter asked Obama why he overruled his team.  The President responded,  “‘I remember telling Nancy Pelosi that moving forward on this could end up being so costly for me politically that it would affect my chances’ in 2012.”  But he and Pelosi agreed that if they didn’t move at the outset of the his Presidency “it was not going to get done.”

In 2009 Obama put country above party.  Bringing health security to over 30[3] million Americans, strengthening the social compact and laying the foundation for a major restructuring of our health system were sufficient rewards for him to accept the political risks.

Almost exactly 45 years before Obama’s decision we witnessed another profile in political courage. Former Texas Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, after becoming President on the death of JFK, aggressively and decisively ended the south’s filibuster against a Civil Rights Act, ensuring its passage in July 1964.  In 1965 he secured enactment of the Voting Rights Act.

As is the case with the health care law, the Constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act was tested.  Southern states argued the federal government had no right to force the private sector to treat blacks and whites the same.  The Supreme Court ruled it did.

One hundred years after the Civil War, millions of southern blacks effectively gained the right to vote.  LBJ also put country above party, at least the country that strives to honor the foundational moral values of the Declaration of Independence.


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Local Solar Could Solve ‘Massive Supply-Demand Imbalance’ in Renewable Energy Financing

by John Farrell | May 1, 2012 9:12 pm

In the next two years, the U.S. may get a lot less solar and wind power than it could.

It’s not a shortage of solar panels or the cost of turbines.  Rather, it’s a problem of the perverse nature of federal incentives for renewable energy.  Right now, the owner of a solar or wind energy project can get a federal tax credit based on the value of the project or the electricity it produces.  But many owners don’t have enough tax liability to make use of the entire credit, and their search for a “tax equity” partner has created a logjam in the renewable energy market.

As reported in Greentechmedia[1],

CITI calculates there is a need in solar for $10 billion to $12 billion in tax equity for 2012 through 2014,  but not more than $5 billion in tax equity is available. That, Salant said, is “a massive supply-demand imbalance” that is not “going away anytime soon.” [emphasis mine]

The following graphic (from the article) illustrates:


A big part of this big money problem is a focus on big projects (and technologies that can’t economically be done at small scale):

“PV can be done on a much smaller scale and be economic, and a large project can be done in phases. It’s a lot easier to finance $250 million or $500 million than it is to get $3 billion all at once.” [Concentrating solar power] requires vital economies of scale “so you’ve got to raise $2 billion all at once. That’s a lot harder to do than to raise $500 million four times.”

That’s a small-scale solution to a big problem.  There may be a handful more folks who can invest $500 million than $2 billion.

But there are millions more Americans who could invest a few thousand dollars in community-based solar and wind power.  In 2009, American taxpayers cumulatively paid $865 billion in federal income taxes[3].  If just 1 in 100 could invest in a renewable energy project, it would nearly quadruple the tax equity market (from $3.2 billion to ~$12 billion).  And since 1 in 3 Americans will be able to get electricity from rooftop solar for less than their utility provides in the next decade[4], policy makers should find a way to open the small investor floodgates

The answer is community-based solar and wind projects, for three reasons:

  1. Economies of scale (without excessive size)
  2. Smaller investment increments (financed with bank loans and paid back with energy savings)
  3. Much greater political support[5]


But there are three policy solutions needed to enable community power:

  1. Community net metering – to allow project owners to share the project’s electricity output.  Right now, most state policies require utilities to allow net metering, but only for a solar or wind project on your own property.
  2. Simplified securities law – to make community-based projects easier.  Right now, there’s little difference between setting up a mutual fund and setting up a community solar project, and both take a lot of lawyers.  (Learn more in this report[6])
  3. Smarter federal tax incentives – to allow community-based institutions to host community-based projects.  Non-profits, cooperatives, cities and counties are logical entities to build projects, but they can’t (easily) use federal tax incentives for solar and wind power.  This raises the stakes for problem #2.


Some of these policy solutions are already in play.  As many as eight states already offer community net metering.  The federal 1603 cash grant (now expired) was one of the best tools for community-based projects (like this one[7]); President Obama has proposed another solution[8].

The U.S. could spend the next few years letting wind and solar power development lag because of artificial financing constraints.  Or policy makers could use two or three carefully crafted tools to open the floodgates to a massively democratic investment in local, clean energy.

  1. reported in Greentechmedia:
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  3. American taxpayers cumulatively paid $865 billion in federal income taxes:
  4. 1 in 3 Americans will be able to get electricity from rooftop solar for less than their utility provides in the next decade:
  5. Much greater political support:
  6. this report:
  7. like this one:
  8. President Obama has proposed another solution:

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The Walmart de Mexico Scandal: Here’s a Punishment that Befits the Crime

by Stacy Mitchell | April 27, 2012 12:33 pm

This article originally appeared on Grist[1].

Walmart spent much of last week burnishing its green image[2] and touting its progress “toward becoming a more sustainable, responsible company.” All the while, those at the very top of the company, including CEO Mike Duke, knew that The New York Times was about to publish an explosive story[3] that would lay to waste the notion that Walmart cares about anything other than its own growth.

The Times story presents credible evidence that Walmart’s Mexican subsidiary spent millions of dollars bribing local officials in order to speed up permits for new stores, get “zoning maps changed,” and make “environmental objections vanish.” When top executives, including Duke, learned of the bribes in 2005, they declined to notify U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, shut down Walmart’s own internal investigation, and continued to lavish promotions on the alleged ringleader, Eduardo Castro-Wright, who currently serves as Walmart’s vice chair.

In the days since the Times story broke, attention has turned to the potential punishment Walmart might face. A criminal investigation is underway at the U.S. Department of Justice, which, under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, could pursue prosecutions that might lead to substantial fines and even jail time for Duke and others implicated. The Mexican government, meanwhile, has initiated its own inquiry.

If justice is to be served in this case, though, Walmart must not only face fines and prison terms, but also be forced to sell off a sizeable number of its ill-gotten Mexican stores. By bribing officials, Walmart was able to crush its competitors, opening new stores so fast they had no time to react. In just a few years, Walmart came out of nowhere to dominate the Mexican economy.

But, as any athlete or other competitor knows, if you’re caught cheating your way to a win, then you most certainly do not get to keep the prize.

Walmart’s expansion into Mexico began in earnest in 1997 when it bought a controlling stake in one of the country’s largest retail chains. Walmart then began to build new stores with stunning speed. By the time the bribery allegations reached executives at the company’s Arkansas headquarters in the fall of 2005, Walmart had more than 750 stores in Mexico and was opening new ones at the rate of almost two per week.

As Walmart grew, Mexico’s traditional vendors, open-air markets, and independent businesses declined. Competing supermarket chains were left in the dust too, unable to match Walmart’s speed and financial muscle.

Although Walmart’s expansion plans often encountered strong grassroots opposition, as its stores frequently do in the U.S., the company consistently outmaneuvered local residents, in part, we now know, by using bribes to skirt land-use rules and quickly win approvals. (more…)[4]

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The More Local the Energy, the More Valuable

by John Farrell | April 24, 2012 8:38 pm


Local ownership of a wind project accounts for half of its lifetime economic value to the community!


From: Value Creation for Local Communities through Renewable Energies[2] [pdf]

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Are Republican Governors Truly Representing Their Citizens on Health Care?

by David Morris | April 16, 2012 4:14 pm

A few days ago 26 states argued before the Supreme Court that the health law’s dramatic extension of Medicaid coverage constitutes unconstitutional federal coercion.  “Congress easily could have designed an act that encouraged rather than forced states to expand their Medicaid programs,” their brief submitted[1] to the Court argues. “By making a conscious decision to deprive states of any choice in the matter, Congress has effectively forced this court’s hand.”

Since virtually all these states are headed by Republican Governors, we can consider this the Republican Party position.

What form does this coercion take?   According to the states, it is the unprecedented federal generosity[2] that allows them to achieve the required expansion at virtually no cost. They believe the federal government is making them an offer they can’t refuse, which rises to the level of an unconstitutional invasion of state prerogatives.

A little background may be in order.  Medicare guarantees health care to those over 65.  It is funded from payroll taxes.  Enacted at the same time as Medicare, Medicaid is aimed at lower income households.  It is funded out of general revenues.  State participation is voluntary but if states offer minimum levels of coverage, the federal government will pay the majority of the costs.  Currently the average federal share[3] is 57 percent but it can be much higher for specific states.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires participating states to extend Medicaid eligibility to all households with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level (in 2012 about $15,000 for an individual and $30,000 for a family of four). In return for their doing this the federal government will pick up 100 percent of the costs of Medicaid for new entrants for the first three years.  Then states will pick up a tiny share of the cost, gradually growing to 10 percent by 2020, and remaining there.

I have a question for these 26 mostly Republican Governors.  Whom do you think you are representing?  It’s hard to believe it’s the citizens of your states.

Consider the impact of the law on Alabama, one of the signatories to the Supreme Court brief. Medicaid in Alabama is a $6 billion-a-year program. The federal government covers[4] more than $4 billion of that.  Under the new law, the number of Alabamans covered by Medicaid, currently about 1 million of its 5 million residents, would rise by 500,000. That may increase[5] Medicaid spending between 2014 and 2019 by $470 million but federal expenditures in Alabama would increase by $10.3 billion. For every additional dollar Alabama will spend on health care for new Medicaid enrollees out of its general budget, federal spending in the state on health care will increase by more than $20.


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Post Offices: Too Important To Be Stamped Out

by ILSR Admin | April 10, 2012 7:11 pm

Star Tribune, April 9, 2012

In this piece in the Star Tribune[1] David Morris speaks out on the need to stop the tidal wave of post office closings that will occur when the Post Office’s self-imposed moratorium ends in mid May.

Last year, 3,600 communities, about 90 in Minnesota, were notified that they’ll probably lose their local post office. Last December, a popular uprising persuaded members of Congress to speak out, which led U.S. Postal Service management to impose a 6-month moratorium on further closings.

That ends in mid-May. We need to demand that it be extended indefinitely. Our local post offices are too valuable to lose.

Tens of millions of Americans will be negatively affected by the closures, while the Postal Service’s own estimates are for savings that are trivial. Closing all 3,600 would save $200 million — 0.03 percent of its $64 billion budget.

“We’re not the only ones going through this trend,” insists Dean Granholm, vice president of delivery and post office operations for the Postal Service. “All sorts of retailers are trying to find ways to do this.”

But the post office is not Starbucks or McDonalds or Wal-Mart. It is a commons, a public service — and a significant part of that service is the ubiquity of post offices themselves.

Postal Service management is deciding which post offices live or die using a cost-benefit methodology almost identical to that used by private retailers. Only half the equation is included: the savings to the USPS. The other half, the costs to the community, is ignored.

Consider the post office closure in Prairie City, S.D. It saved the Postal Service $19,000 a year. The community it served will spend far more each year to travel to a more distant post office.

But it is the qualitative costs that haunt the community. The Prairie City post office was a gathering place where people could keep up with one another and with the local news. Prairie City postal clerks kept a pot of coffee brewing and posted birth and death notices.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the area’s only major hospital and pharmacy is in Hettinger, N.D., 40 miles away. Before, when an elderly person or farmer in Prairie City quickly needed an antibiotic or other medication, a pharmacist in Hettinger would rush prescriptions to the Hettinger post office, catching the mail carrier who each day traveled from Hettinger to the Prairie City post office.

The closing eliminated that direct route, and now Prairie City mail is sorted and delivered on a rural route out of Bison, S.D., delaying the delivery of medicine from Hettinger by two or three days.

The Postal Service is our most ubiquitous and admired public institution. Six days a week, it delivers an average of 563 million pieces of mail, 40 percent of the entire world’s volume, often directly to our front doors.

For the price of a 44-cent stamp, the lowest postal rate in the world, you can mail a letter anywhere within the nation’s borders. And if the recipient can’t be found, the Postal Service will return it at no extra charge. Business Week calls it “the greatest bargain on earth.”

After the 1970s, the Postal Service became its own agency. Congress eliminated its taxpayer subsidy. Productivity soared. By the 1990s, it often generated a profit. As of 2005, it was free of debt.

So how is it that today the service is being forced to decimate itself to pay off a huge deficit?

Here’s the back story. The Postal Service pays into several retirement and health funds. Almost everyone agrees that in the past it has vastly overpaid, some estimate by as much as $100 billion.

One would think it a simple matter for Congress to allow the USPS to tap into these excess funds to pay current health benefits. One would be wrong. The Congressional Budget Office counts the surplus funds as part of the existing budget.

Thus if the Postal Service were to use its own money, it would increase the deficit. In 2006, it finally agreed to buy off the CBO. Budget neutrality over a 10-year period was achieved by requiring the USPS to make annual payments of $5.4 billion to $5.8 billion.

This manufactured financial crisis legitimized the privateers attack on the Postal Service. Proposals include ending Saturday delivery, which would open the door to private companies; divesting half the service’s physical infrastructure, and even ending door-to-door delivery.

Eventually the Postal Service plans to close more than 15,000 post offices. A nationwide grass-roots resistance has emerged that cuts across party lines, uniting rich and poor, rural and urban, black, white and Hispanic.

They are fighting to save a government institution that fundamentally contributes to their sense of community, of social cohesion, of well-being.

We need to demand that Congress end the manufactured financial crisis and cease forcing the transformation of the nation’s oldest public institution into an increasingly private enterprise that looks to strengthen its internal balance sheet by weakening the balance sheets of hundreds of millions of Americans it serves.

This is a public institution worth fighting for.

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Democracy Under Attack

by David Morris | April 4, 2012 2:33 pm

For its first 200 years the American Republic slowly, sometimes infuriatingly slowly and at horrific human cost (e.g. the Civil War) expanded the franchise.

In 1870 the 15th Amendment gave blacks the right to vote.  In 1920, the 19th Amendment extended the franchise to women. In 1924 Congress granted Native Americans citizenship and thus the right to vote.  In 1961 the 23rd Amendment gave the residents of the District of Columbia the right to vote for President.  In 1971 the 26th Amendment gave l8 year olds the vote.  In 1986 Congress gave military personnel and other US citizens living abroad the right to use a federal write-in absentee ballot for voting for federal offices.

The right to vote, however, did not ensure that one could vote.  Beginning at the end of the 19th century, states began passing legislation directed at restricting minority voting with often dramatic effect, especially in the South where turnout fell[1] from 64.2 percent in 1888 to 29.0 percent in 1904.

For 100 years after the Civil War the Supreme Court ruled that even where state voting rules were discriminatory, the federal government had no right to intervene.  Then in 1965 Congress finally gave blacks and other minorities the effective vote by passing the Voting Rights Act, eliminating most voting qualifications beyond citizenship for state and federal elections, including literacy tests and poll taxes.  In 1966 the Supreme Court affirmed that law.

Since 1970 federal and state voting reforms have all moved in one direction: facilitating access. In 1993 the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) offered citizens the opportunity to register or re-register to vote at many public facilities, including Motor Vehicle offices and post offices.

Between 1973 and 2009 nine states enacted[2] Election Day registration laws. States made provisions for early voting and eased the rules on absentee voting.  Some allowed voting by mail. Between 1997 and 2010 twenty-three states either restored[3] voting rights or eased the restoration process of voting rights for those convicted of felonies.

Virtually all these laws were passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and signed into law by Republican and Democrat Governors alike.


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What Happened to the New Rules Project?

by ILSR Admin | April 2, 2012 5:54 pm

New Rules logo[1]It’s all still here. We have reorganized the and websites to better coordinate and publicize our work. All of the project’s activity, research, and information continues here, on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s new web site[2].

The New Rules Project’s primary focus areas — Energy[3], Banking[4], Broadband[5], Independent Business[6], and The Public Good[7] — are now organized as Initiatives, under which you will find the full depth of news, research, publications, and policy models as before.

The project’s extensive collection of rules — policies, bills, regulations, and ordinances — has also been transferred here. These policy models can be found under the Rules Library[8], where you can filter your search by both level of government (local, state, etc.) and sector (agriculture, banking, etc.).  The rules for each Initiative can be found under that Initiative as well.

We hope you’ll find the new site a useful and easy-to-use resource. As always, we welcome your questions and feedback[9].

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Banking For the Rest of Us

by ILSR Admin | April 1, 2012 4:01 pm

Soujourners Magazine, April 1, 2012

In this cover story for Sojourners Magazine[1], Stacy Mitchell writes that there is remarkably little evidence to support the idea that bigger banks are superior and calls for a new set of rules—banking policies for the 99 percent.

One meaning of the word “occupy” involves asserting sovereignty over a place. For the demonstrators who set up camp in lower Manhattan last fall, “occupying” was a reassertion of popular sovereignty at the very epicenter of our economic system. It was a challenge to the power that giant corporations—and Wall Street banks in particular—have amassed. It was a challenge to the way these firms have captured the levers of government and rigged policy to protect their own positions and profits at the expense of everyone else.

More than three years after their reckless greed triggered the Great Recession, the nation’s biggest banks have paid almost no penalty and are bigger than ever. In 2007, the top four banks—Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo—held assets of $4.5 trillion, which amounted to 37 percent of U.S. bank assets. Today, they control $6.2 trillion, or 45 percent of bank assets, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. For them, the recession was a brief hiccup, promptly ameliorated by a public bailout and a return to robust profitability. Last year, these four firms, together with the next two largest banks, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, paid out $144 billion in compensation, making 2011 their second highest payday ever. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average bank teller made $24,980 in 2010. Such rank-and-file employees didn’t benefit from the big bonuses and compensation packages which were heavily concentrated at the top of the corporate ladder.

Meanwhile, joblessness, staggering debt, and foreclosure have devastated countless families. Many have shared their stories on the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr website, which should be required reading for the 1 percent. It provides a heart-breaking account of living in a society “made for them, not for us,” of drowning in debt and struggling merely to secure a means of keeping food on the table.

The Occupy movement brought this injustice to the forefront and reawakened American populism. It set the public discourse in a new direction and launched a conversation about the scale and structure of our banking system. Many Americans seem quite eager to have this conversation, and to act on it. Last fall, more than 600,000 people, citing the issues raised by Occupy, closed their accounts at big banks and moved to small local banks and credit unions. (more…)[2]

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New Report: Walmart’s Greenwash

by Stacy Mitchell | March 7, 2012 7:05 pm

Report: Company Fails to Deliver on Much-Publicized Sustainability Campaign

Contact: Stacy Mitchell, ILSR, 207-774-6792,[1]

March 7, 2012 | Minneapolis, MN — In a report released today, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance documents how Walmart’s heavily promoted sustainability initiatives are falling short. The report, “Walmart’s Greenwash”, examines all aspects of the major retailers environmental impact to see how sustainable Walmart really is.

Download the Report: Walmart’s Greenwash

“Walmart’s sustainability campaign has done more to improve the company’s image than to help the environment,” said Stacy Mitchell, the report’s author and a senior researcher at ILSR. Since Walmart unveiled its sustainability campaign in 2005, the number of Americans with an unfavorable view of the company has fallen by nearly half, from 38 to 20 percent.

The report’s key findings include:

— At its current pace, Walmart will need roughly 300 years to reach its goal of 100 percent renewable energy. As of 2011, Walmart was deriving only 2 percent of its U. S. electricity from its wind and solar projects.

— Walmart’s greenhouse gas emissions are increasing rapidly. Its energy efficiency and renewable projects are too modest to match the scale of the company’s operations.

— Walmart’s price pressure on manufacturers is undermining the quality and durability of consumer goods, which has contributed to a sharp increase in the amount of stuff Americans buy and a doubling of the trash households generate.

— Walmart has not addressed the habitat and climate impacts of its land development practices. The retailer continues to build sprawling stores on undeveloped land, often just a few miles from older, vacated Walmart stores.

— Walmart has made little progress toward its goal of developing a Sustainability Index to rate consumer products. (more…)[2]

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Where is Kropotkin When We Really Need Him?

by David Morris | February 10, 2012 6:13 pm

On February 8, 1921 twenty thousand people, braving temperatures so low that musical instruments froze, marched in a funeral procession in the town of Dimitrov, a suburb of Moscow. They came to pay their respects to a man, Petr Kropotkin, and his philosophy, anarchism.

Some 90 years later few know of Kropotkin. And the word anarchism has been so stripped of substance that it has come to be equated with chaos and nihilism.  This is regrettable, for both the man and the philosophy that he did so much to develop have much to teach us in 2012.

I am astonished Hollywood has yet to discover Kropotkin. For his life is the stuff of great movies.  Born to privilege he spent his life fighting poverty and injustice.  A lifelong revolutionary, he was also a world-renowned geographer and zoologist.  Indeed, the intersection of politics and science characterized much of his life.

His struggles against tyranny resulted in years in Russian and French jails.  The first time he was imprisoned in Russia an outcry by many of the world’s best-known scholars led to his release.  The second time he engineered a spectacular escape and fled the country.  At the end of his life, back in his native Russia, he enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the Tsar but equally strongly condemned[1] Lenin ’s increasingly authoritarian and violent methods.


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Challenging the Republican’s Five Myths on Inequality

by David Morris | February 3, 2012 3:34 pm

Recent comments by Mitt Romney, the probable Republican nominee for President all but guarantee the inequality issue will remain front and center this election year.

When asked whether people who question the current distribution of wealth and power are motivated by “jealousy or fairness” Romney insisted, “I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare.” And in this election year he advised that if we do discuss inequality we do so “in quiet rooms” not in public debates.

A public debate, of course, is inevitable. And welcome. To help that debate along I’ll address the five major statements that comprise the Republican argument on inequality.

1. Income is Not All That Unequal

Actually it is. Since 1980 the top 1 percent has increased its share of the national income by an astounding $1.1 trillion. Today 300,000 very rich Americans enjoy almost as much income as 150 million.

Since 1980, the income of the bottom 90 percent of Americans has increased a meager $303 or 1 percent. The top 1 percent’s income has more than doubled, increasing by about $500,000. And the really, really rich, the top 10th of 1 percent, made out, dare I say, like bandits, quadrupling their income to $22 million.

Meanwhile a full-time worker’s wage was 11 percent lower in 2004 than in 1973, adjusting for inflation even though their productivity increased by 78 percent. Productivity gains swelled corporate profits, which reached an all time high in 2010. And that in turn fueled an unprecedented inequality within the workplace itself. In 2010, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, the average CEO in large companies earned 325 times more than the average worker.

2. Inequality doesn’t matter because in America ambition and hard work can make a pauper a millionaire.

This is folklore. A worker’s initial position in the income distribution is highly predictive of how much he or she earns later in the career. And as the Brookings Institution reports “there is growing evidence of less intergenerational economic mobility in the United States than in many other rich industrialized countries.”

The bitter fact is that it is harder for a poor person in America to become rich than in virtually any other industrialized country.


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Four Ways Enviros Can Keep Walmart in the Hot Seat

by Stacy Mitchell | February 2, 2012 10:37 pm

This is the ninth and final article in a special 9-part series written by ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell and published by Grist[1].  You can read the whole series here[2].

Walmart’s sustainability campaign is not your typical corporate greenwash. It is more complex and clever than that. It has enough substance mixed in with the spin to draw you in. It’s easy to get swept up in the big numbers Walmart can roll out — like the 30 tons of plastic hangers it recycles every month — and to be charmed by the very fact of this giant company, with its hard-nosed corporate culture, using a word like “sustainability.”

More than a few environmentalists have been won over. With their endorsements and the flood of positive press that seems to follow each of Walmart’s green announcements, the company has managed to turn around flagging poll numbers[3], shift its labor practices out of the limelight, and, most crucially, crank up its expansion machine.

The environmental consequences of Walmart’s ongoing growth far outweigh the modest reductions in resource use that the company has made. Walmart’s business model and its future success depend on further accelerating the cycle of consumption[4], industrializing our food supply[5], and exacerbating sprawl[6]. It’s not just Walmart, but also Target, Home Depot, and other big chains. The big-box model is “efficient” only to the degree that many of its costs are borne by the planet and the public at large. As these retailers take over an ever-larger share of the economy, more sustainable enterprises and systems of production and distribution are squeezed out.

Walmart’s expansion is not inevitable. The rise of Big Retail, much like Big Ag, has been aided and abetted by government policies and a host of hidden and not-so-hidden subsidies (which I detail in my book Big-Box Swindle[7]).

Lately, though, instead of advocating for new and better policies, mainstream environmental groups having been abetting Walmart’s growth and helping to secure its future supremacy. It’s time to drop that failing strategy.


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Independent Businesses Report Strong Holiday Sales

by Stacy Mitchell | January 26, 2012 9:56 pm

“Buy Local” on the minds of more shoppers, businesses report


CONTACT: (Additional contacts below)Stacy Mitchell, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 207-774-6792

MINNEAPOLIS, MN (Jan. 26, 2012) – An annual survey has found that independent businesses had strong sales growth over the holidays and appear to be benefitting from growing public interest in supporting locally owned retail stores, banks, restaurants, and other enterprises. (more…)[1]

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Eaters, Beware: Walmart is Taking Over our Food System

by Stacy Mitchell | December 30, 2011 10:28 pm

This is the eighth article in a special 9-part series written by ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell and published by Grist[1].  You can read the whole series here[2].

Aubretia Edick has worked at a Walmart store in upstate New York for 11 years, but she won ’t buy fresh food there. Bagged salads, she claims, are often past their sell-by dates and, in the summer, fruit is sometimes kept on shelves until it rots. “They say, ‘We’ll take care of it,’ but they don ’t. As a cashier, you hear a lot of people complain,” she said.

Edick blames the problems on the store’s chronic understaffing and Walmart’s lack of respect for the skilled labor needed to handle the nation ’s food supply. At her store, a former maintenance person was made produce manager. He’s often diverted to other tasks. “If the toilets get backed up, they call him,” she said.

Tracie McMillan[3], who did a stint working in the produce section of a Walmart store while researching her forthcoming book, The American Way of Eating[4], reports much the same. “They put a 20-year-old from electronics in charge of the produce department. He didn ’t know anything about food,” she said. “We had a leak in the cooler that didn’t get fixed for a month and all this moldy food was going out on the floor.” Walmart doesn’t accept the idea that “a supermarket takes any skill to run,” she said. “They treated the produce like any other kind of merchandise.”

That’s plenty to give a shopper pause, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reasons to be concerned about Walmart’s explosive expansion into the grocery sector.

Growth of a giant

In just a few short years, Walmart has become the most powerful force in our food system, more dominant than Monsanto, Kraft, or Tyson.

It was only 23 years ago that Walmart opened its first supercenter, a store with a full supermarket inside. By 1998, it was still a relatively modest player with 441 supercenters and about 6 percent of U.S. grocery sales. Last year, as its supercenter count climbed above 3,000, Walmart captured 25 percent of the $550 billion Americans spent on groceries.

As astonishing as Walmart’s national market share is, in many parts of the country the chain is even more dominant. In 29 metro markets, it accounts for more than 50 percent of grocery sales.

Seeking an even bigger piece of the pie, Walmart is campaigning to blanket New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other big cities with its stores. It has made food the centerpiece of its public relations strategy. In a series of announcements over the last year, Walmart has deftly commandeered high-profile food issues, presenting itself as a solution to food deserts, a force for healthier eating, and a supporter of local farming.

It is a remarkably brazen tactic. On every one of these fronts, Walmart is very much part of the problem. Its expansion is making our food system more concentrated and industrialized than ever before. Its growth in cities will likely exacerbate poverty, the root cause of constrained choices and poor diet. And the more dominant Walmart becomes, the fewer opportunities there will be for farmers markets, food co-ops, neighborhood grocery stores, and a host of other enterprises that are beginning to fashion a better food system – one organized not to enrich corporate middlemen, but to the benefit of producers and eaters.

The big squeeze

[5]Walmart’s rise as a grocer triggered two massive waves of industry consolidation in the late 1990s and early 2000s. One occurred among supermarkets, as regional titans like Kroger and Fred Meyer combined to form national chains that stood a better chance of surviving Walmart’s push into groceries. Today, the top five food retailers capture half of all grocery sales, double the share they held in 1997.

The second wave of consolidation came as meatpackers, dairy companies, and other food processors merged in an effort to be large enough to supply Walmart without getting crushed in the process. The takeover of IBP, the nation’s largest beef processor, by Tyson Fresh Meats is a prime example. “When Tyson bought IBP in 2001, they said they had to do that in order to supply Walmart. We saw horizontal integration in the meat business because of worries about access to the retail market,” explained Mary Hendrickson, a food systems expert at the University of Missouri. Four firms now slaughter more than 80 percent of cattle. A similar dynamic has played out in nearly every segment of food manufacturing.

“The consolidation of the last two decades has created a food chain that’s shaped like an hourglass,” noted Wenonah Hauter[6], executive director of Food & Water Watch, explaining that a handful of middlemen now stand between 2 million farmers and 300 million eaters.

Their tight grip on our food supply has, rather predictably, come at the expense of both ends of the hourglass. Grocery prices have been rising faster than inflation and, while there are multiple factors driving up consumer costs, some economic research points to concentration in both food manufacturing and retailing as a leading culprit.

Farmers, meanwhile, are getting paid less and less. Take pork, for example. Between 1990 and 2009, the farmers’ share of each dollar consumers spent on pork fell from 45 to 25 cents, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. Pork processors picked up some of the difference, but the bulk of the gains went to Walmart and other supermarket chains, which are now pocketing 61 cents of each pork dollar, up from 45 cents in 1990.

Another USDA analysis[7] found that big retailers have used their market power to shortchange farmers who grow apples, lettuce, and other types of produce, paying them less than what they would get in a competitive market, while also charging consumers inflated prices. In this way, Walmart has actually helped drive overall food prices up.

What Walmart means when it says “local”

Last year, Walmart announced that it would double the share of local produce it sells, from 4.5 to 9 percent, over six years.

This doesn’t necessarily mean shoppers will soon find a variety of local produce at their nearest Walmart, however. Walmart counts fruits and vegetables as local if they come from within the same state. It can achieve much of its promise by buying more of each state’s major commodity crops, such as peaches in Georgia and apples in Washington, and by using big states like California, Texas, and Florida, where both supercenters and large-scale farming are prevalent, to pump up its national average.

“It speaks to the weakness that we’ve all known about, which is that ‘local’ is an inadequate descriptor of what we want,” said Andy Fisher, former executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition. “It’s not just geography; it’s scale and ownership and how you treat your workers. Walmart is doing industrial local.”

Walmart’s sourcing is becoming somewhat more regional, but the change has more to do with rising diesel prices than a shift in favor of small farms. It’s a sign that Walmart’s Achilles heel – the fossil-fuel intensity of its far-flung distribution system — might be catching up with it. According to The Wall Street Journal[8], trucking produce like jalapeños across the country from California or Mexico has become so expensive that the retailer is now seeking growers within 450 miles of its distribution centers.

“They see the writing on the wall. They know the cost of shipping from California back to Georgia and Mississippi is high now,” said Ben Burkett, a Mississippi farmer who noted that Walmart is now meeting with producers in his region. He’s hoping to sell the chain okra through a cooperative of 35 farmers. “We’ll see. My experience in the past with Walmart is they want to pay as little as possible.”

That skepticism is shared by Anthony Flaccavento, a Virginia farmer and sustainable food advocate. “If multimillion-dollar companies like Rubbermaid and Vlasic can be brought to their knees by the retail behemoth, how should we expect small farmers to fare?” he asks.

Walmart’s promise to increase local sourcing is reminiscent of its pledge five years ago to expand its organic food offerings. “They held true to their corporate model and tried to do organics the same way,” said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute. For its store-brand organic milk, for example, Walmart turned to Aurora Organic Dairy, which runs several giant industrial milking operations in Texas and Colorado, each with as many as 10,000 cows. In 2007, the USDA sanctioned Aurora for multiple violations of organic standards. Earlier this year, the agency stepped in again, this time revoking the organic certification for Promiseland Livestock, which had been supplying supposedly organically raised cows to Aurora.

These days, Walmart’s interest in organic food seems to have ebbed. “Our observation is that they sell fewer organic products and produce now than four years ago,” said Kastel. Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association agrees. Today, he says, “the proportion of their sales that is organic is the lowest of any major supermarket chain.”

Leveraging food deserts

Walmart has renewed its push to get into big cities, after trying and failing a few years ago. This time the company has honed a fresh strategy that goes right to the soft underbelly of urban concerns. In July, Walmart officials, standing alongside First Lady Michelle Obama, pledged to open or expand as many as 300 stores “in or near” food deserts[9].

Walmart sees underserved neighborhoods as a way to edge its camel’s nose under the tent and then do what it’s done in the rest of the country: open dozens of stores situated to take market share from local grocers and unionized supermarkets. Stephen Colbert dubbed the strategy Walmart’s “Trojan cantaloupe[10].” For example, an analysis by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office estimates that if Walmart opens in Harlem, at least 30 supermarkets, green grocers, and bodegas selling fresh produce would close.

For neighborhoods that are truly underserved, it seems hard to argue with the notion that having a Walmart nearby is better than relying on 7-11 and McDonald’s for meals. But poor diet, limited access to fresh food, and diet-related health issues are a cluster of symptoms that all stem from a deeper problem that Walmart is likely to make worse: poverty. Poverty has a strong negative effect on diet quality, a 15-year study[11] recently concluded, and access to a supermarket makes almost no difference.

Neighborhoods that gain Walmart stores end up with more poverty and food-stamp usage than communities where the retailer does not open, a study[12] published in Social Science Quarterly found. This increase in poverty may owe to the fact that Walmart’s arrival leads to a net loss of jobs and lowers wages, according to research[13] [PDF] by economists at the University of California-Irvine and Cornell.

Walmart has also been linked to rising obesity. “An additional supercenter per 100,000 residents increases … the obesity rate by 2.3 percentage points,” a recent study[14] concluded. “These results imply that the proliferation of Walmart supercenters explains 10.5 percent of the rise in obesity since the late 1980s.”


Check out the whole series on Grist.

The bottom line for poor families is that processed food is cheaper than fresh vegetables — and that’s especially true if you shop at Walmart. The retailer beats its competitors on prices for packaged foods, but not produce. An Iowa study found that Walmart charges less than competing grocery stores for cereals, canned vegetables, and meats, but has higher prices on most fresh vegetables and high-volume dairy foods, including milk.

The future of food?

We stand to lose a lot if Walmart keeps tightening its grip on the grocery sector. Signs of a revitalized food system have been springing up all over — farmers markets, urban gardeners, neighborhood grocers, consumer co-ops, CSAs — but their growth may well be cut short if Walmart has its way.

“People need to keep an eye on the values that are at the root of what is driving so much of this activity around the food system,” said Kathy Mulvey, policy director for the Community Food Security Coalition.

Walmart is pushing us toward a future where food production is increasingly industrialized, farmers and workers are squeezed, and the promise of fresh produce is used to conceal an economic model that leaves neighborhoods more impoverished. Are we going to let it happen, or are we going to demand better food and a better world?

  1. Grist:
  2. here:
  3. Tracie McMillan:
  4. The American Way of Eating:
  5. [Image]:
  6. Wenonah Hauter:
  7. USDA analysis:
  8. According to The Wall Street Journal:
  9. pledged to open or expand as many as 300 stores “in or near” food deserts:
  10. Trojan cantaloupe:
  11. study:
  12. study:
  13. research:
  14. study:
  15. [Image]:

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Walmart spends big to help anti-environment candidates

by Stacy Mitchell | December 23, 2011 10:20 pm

This is the seventh article in a special 9-part series written by ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell and published by Grist[1].  You can read the whole series here[2].

In 2006, Walmart made headlines when its vice president for corporate strategy and sustainability, Andrew Ruben, told a congressional committee that the company “would accept a well-designed mandatory cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases.” Other major U.S. companies had spoken favorably of cap-and-trade, but Walmart made a bigger splash. Not only was it America’s second-largest corporation; it also had deep roots in the country’s coal-burning heartland.

But even as Ruben was delivering his testimony, Walmart’s political action committee (PAC) was funneling a river of campaign cash into the coffers of lawmakers who would ensure that the U.S. did absolutely nothing to curb its greenhouse gas emissions. During the 2007-2008 election cycle, 80 percent of Senate campaign contributions that came from Walmart’s PAC and large donors employed by the company went to senators who helped block the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill, according to data on political giving published by the Center for Responsive Politics. (When the bill arrived on the floor in 2008, it came up 12 votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.) (more…)[3]

  1. Grist:
  2. here:
  3. (more…):

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Key Studies: Why Local Matters

by Stacy Mitchell | December 22, 2011 9:27 pm


Last update: Dec. 19, 2014

Below are summaries and links to key studies that examine the impact of large retail chains and the benefits of locally owned businesses. For ease of use, we’ve organized these studies into the following categories, although they do not all fit neatly into one category.

(In addition to these studies, see the book Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses[2] for a look at the far-reaching impacts of large retail chains and the advantages that accrue to communities that opt for locally owned, independent businesses instead.)

1. ECONOMIC IMPACT OF LOCAL BUSINESSES VS. CHAINS The following studies have found that locally owned stores generate much greater benefits for the local economy than national chains do.

Independent BC: Small Business and the British Columbia Economy[16] — by Civic Economics, February 2013

Commissioned by the British Columbia division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, this study analyzes the market share and economic impact of the province’s independent retailers and restaurants.  It finds that BC’s independent retailers captured just over half of all retail sales as recently as 2003, but have since lost ground.  By 2010, independents accounted for 45 percent of BC’s overall retail sales and only 34 percent of the market with automobile and gasoline sales excluded.  Although BC has a reputation for innovative planning initiatives, on this measure it lags the rest of Canada, where independents account for 42 percent of retail spending.  Among restaurants, BC’s independent sector accounts for 72 percent of full-service dining and 19 percent of limited-service dining.  With regard to economic impact, the study finds that, for every $1,000,000 in sales, independent retail stores generate $450,000 in local economic activity, compared to just $170,000 for chains.  Among restaurants, the figures are $650,000 for independents and $300,000 for chains.  Across both sectors, this translates into about 2.6 times as many local jobs created when spending is directed to independent businesses instead of chains. The study concludes that a shift of just 10 percent of the market from chains to independents would produce 31,000 jobs paying $940 million in annual wages to BC workers.

Indie Impact Study Series: Salt Lake City, Utah[17] — Civic Economics, August 2012

In this study, Civic Economics analyzed data from fifteen independent retailers and seven independent restaurants, all located in Salt Lake City, and compared their local economic impact with four national retail chains (Barnes & Noble, Home Depot, Office Max, and Target) and three national restaurant chains (Darden, McDonald’s, and P.F. Chang’s). The study found that the local retailers return a total of 52 percent of their revenue to the local economy, compared to just 14 percent for the national chain retailers.   Similarly, the local restaurants recirculate an average of 79 percent of their revenue locally, compared to 30 percent for the chain eateries.  What accounts for the difference? In a handy graphic, Civic Economics shows the breakdown. Independent businesses spend more on local labor, goods procured locally for resale, and services from local providers. This means a much larger share of the money you spend at a locally owned store stays in your local economy, supporting a variety of other businesses and jobs.

Going Local: Quantifying the Economic Impacts of Buying from Locally Owned Businesses in Portland, Maine [18]— by Garrett Martin and Amar Patel, Maine Center for Economic Policy, December 2011

On a dollar-for-dollar basis, the local economic impact of independently owned businesses is significantly greater than that of national chains, this study concludes. Analyzing data collected from 28 locally owned retail businesses in Portland, Maine, along with corporate filings for a representative national chain, the researchers found that every $100 spent at locally owned businesses contributes an additional $58 to the local economy.  By comparison, $100 spent at a chain store in Portland yields just $33 in local economic impact. The study concludes that, if residents of the region were to shift 10 percent of their spending from chains to locally owned businesses, it would generate $127 million in additional local economic activity and 874 new jobs.

Thinking Outside the Box: A Report on Independent Merchants and the Local Economy[19] -by Civic Economics, September 2009

This study examined financial data from 15 locally owned businesses in New Orleans and compared their impact on the local economy to that of an average SuperTarget store. The study found that only 16% of the money spent at a SuperTarget stays in the local economy. In contrast, the local retailers returned more than 32% of their revenue to the local economy. The primary difference was that the local stores purchase many goods and services from other local businesses, while Target does not. The study concludes that even modest shifts in spending patterns can make a big difference to the local economy. If residents and visitors were to shift 10% of their spending from chains to local businesses, it would generate an additional $235 million a year in local economic activity, creating many new opportunities and jobs. Likewise, a 10% shift in the opposite direction – less spending at local stores and more at chains – would lead to an economic contraction of the same magnitude. Another noteworthy finding of the study is that locally owned businesses require far less land to produce an equivalent amount of economic activity. The study found that a four-block stretch of Magazine Street, a traditional business district, provides 179,000 square feet of retail space, hosts about 100 individual businesses, and generates $105 million in sales, with $34 million remaining in the local economy. In contrast, a 179,000-square-foot SuperTarget generates $50 million in annual sales, with just $8 million remaining in the local economy, and requires an additional 300,000 square feet of space for its parking lot. See our New Rules article[20] for more background on this study.

Local Works: Examining the Impact of Local Business on the West Michigan Economy[21] – by Civic Economics, September 2008

This study concludes that if residents of Grand Rapids and surrounding Kent County, Michigan, were to redirect 10 percent of their total spending from chains to locally owned businesses, the result would be $140 million in new economic activity for the region, including 1,600 new jobs and $53 million in additional payroll. The study calculates the market share of independent businesses in four categories: pharmacy (41%), grocery (52%), restaurants (50%), and banks (6%). It analyzes how much of the money spent at these businesses stays in the area compared to national chains. Local restaurants, for example, return more than 56% of their revenue to the local economy in the form of wages, goods and services purchased locally, profits, and donations. Chain restaurants return only 37%. Measuring the total economic impact of this difference, including indirect and induced activity, the study estimates that $1 million spent at chain restaurants produces about $600,000 in additional local economic activity and supports 10 jobs. Spending $1 million at local restaurants, meanwhile, generates over $900,000 in added local economic activity and supports 15 jobs. The study also analyzes the economic impact of independent vs. chain businesses on a square footage basis, noting, “In a largely built-out city like Grand Rapids, policy dictates seeking the highest and best use of available properties, and this analysis strongly supports the idea that local firms should be the preferred tenants for city sites.”

The San Francisco Retail Diversity Study[22] – By Civic Economics, May 2007

This study finds that San Francisco remains a stronghold for locally owned businesses, which generate sizable benefits for the city’s economy. The study has three parts. The first calculates market shares for independents and chains in several categories: bookstores, sporting goods stores, toy stores, and casual dining restaurants. In all four categories, independent businesses capture more than half of sales within the city of San Francisco, a much larger share than they have nationally. The second part examines the economic impact of locally owned businesses versus chains. It finds that local businesses buy more goods and services locally and employ more people locally per unit of sales (because they have no headquarters staff elsewhere). Every $1 million spent at local bookstores, for example, creates $321,000 in additional economic activity in the area, including $119,000 in wages paid to local employees. That same $1 million spent at chain bookstores generates only $188,000 in local economic activity, including $71,000 in local wages. The same was true in the other categories. For every $1 million in sales, independent toy stores create 2.22 local jobs, while chains create just 1.31. The final part of the study analyzes the impact of a modest shift in consumer spending. If residents were to redirect just 10 percent of their spending from chains to local businesses, that would generate $192 million in additional economic activity in San Francisco and almost 1,300 new jobs.

The Andersonville Study of Retail Economics[23] – By Civic Economics, October 2004

This compelling study, commissioned by the Andersonville Development Corporation, finds that locally owned businesses generate 70 percent more local economic impact per square foot than chain stores. The study’s authors, Dan Houston and Matt Cunningham of Civic Economics, analyzed ten locally owned restaurants, retail stores, and service providers in the Andersonville neighborhood on Chicago’s north side and compared them with ten national chains competing in the same categories. They found that spending $100 at one of the neighborhood’s independent businesses creates $68 in additional local economic activity, while spending $100 at a chain produces only $43 worth of local impact. They also found that the local businesses generated slightly more sales per square foot compared to the chains ($263 versus $243). Because chains funnel more of this revenue out of the local economy, the study concluded that, for every square foot of space occupied by a chain, the local economic impact is $105, compared to $179 for every square foot occupied by an independent business.

The Economic Impact of Locally Owned Businesses vs. Chains: A Case Study in Midcoast Maine[24] – by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and Friends of Midcoast Maine, September 2003.

Three times as much money stays in the local economy when you buy goods and services from locally owned businesses instead of large chain stores, according to this analysis, which tracked the revenue and expenditures of eight locally owned businesses in Midcoast Maine. The survey found that the businesses, with had combined sales of $5.7 million in 2002, spent 44.6 percent of their revenue within the surrounding two counties. Another 8.7 percent was spent elsewhere in the state of Maine. The four largest components of this local spending were: wages and benefits paid to local employees; goods and services purchased from other local businesses; profits that accrued to local owners; and taxes paid to local and state government. Using a variety of sources, the analysis estimates that a national big box retailer operating in Midcoast Maine returns just 14.1 percent of its revenue to the local economy, mostly in the form of payroll. The rest leaves the state, flowing to out-of-state suppliers or back to corporate headquarters. The survey also found that the local businesses contributed more to charity than national chains.

Economic Impact Analysis: A Case Study[25] – by Civic Economics, December 2002.

This study examines the local economic impact of two locally owned businesses in Austin, Texas—Waterloo Records and Book People—and compares this with the economic return the community would receive from a Borders Books store. The study finds that spending $100 at Borders creates $13 worth of local economic activity, while spending $100 at the local stores generates $45 in local economic activity. The difference is attributed to three factors: a higher local payroll at the independent stores (because, unlike Borders, none of their operations are carried out a an out-of-town headquarters office); the local stores purchased more goods and services locally; and the local stores retained a much larger share of their profits within the local economy.

2. RETAIL EMPLOYMENT Studies conclude that the arrival of a big-box store decreases the number of retail jobs in a region.

The Effects of Wal-Mart on Local Labor Markets[26] – by David Neumark (University of California-Irvine), Junfu Zhang (Clark University), and Stephen Ciccarella (Cornell University),  Journal of Urban Economics, Mar. 2008

This study presents the most sophisticated analysis to date of Wal-Mart’s impact on retail employment and wages. Analyzing national data, the study found that the opening of a Wal-Mart store reduces county-level retail employment by 150 jobs. Because Wal-Mart stores employ an average of 360 workers, this suggests that for every new retail job created by Wal-Mart, 1.4 jobs are lost as existing businesses downsize or close. The study also found that the arrival of a Wal-Mart store reduces total county-wide retail payroll by an average of about $1.2 million. This study improves substantially on previous studies by convincingly accounting for the endogeneity of the location and timing of Wal-Mart’s entry into a particular local market. That is, Wal-Mart presumably does not locate stores randomly. When expanding into a particular region, it may, for example, opt to build in towns experiencing greater job growth. Unless this location selection bias is accounted for, one might compare job growth in towns that gained Wal-Mart stores versus those that did not and erroneously conclude that Wal-Mart caused an expansion in employment. The authors of this study have devised a persuasive method of accounting for this bias. They also argue that the method developed by Basker (see next item below) to account for this bias is flawed and therefore her conclusion that Wal-Mart has a small positive impact on retail employment is not reliable.

Job Creation or Destruction? Labor-Market Effects of Wal-Mart Expansion[27] – By Emek Basker, University of Missouri, Review of Economics & Statistics, February 2005

Often cited and typically misrepresented by Wal-Mart supporters, this study examines the impact of the arrival of a Wal-Mart store on retail and wholesale employment. It looks at 1,749 counties that added a Wal-Mart between 1977 and 1998. It finds that Wal-Mart’s arrival boosts retail employment by 100 jobs in the first year—far less than the 200-400 jobs the company says its stores create, because its arrival causes existing retailers to downsize and lay-off employees. Over the next four years, there is a loss of 40-60 additional retail jobs as more competing retailers downsize and close. The study also finds that Wal-Mart’s arrival leads to a decline of approximately 20 local wholesale jobs in the first five years, and an additional 10 wholesale jobs over the long run (six or more years after Wal-Mart’s arrival). (Wal-Mart handles its own distribution and does not rely on wholesalers). This works out to a net gain of just 10-30 retail and wholesale jobs, and the study does not examine whether these jobs are part-time or whether they pay more or less than the jobs eliminated by Wal-Mart. The study also found that, within five years of Wal- Mart’s arrival, the counties had lost an average of four small retail businesses, one midsized store, and one large store. It does not estimate declines in revenue to retailers that survive. Basker looked at the effect of Wal-Mart on retail employment in neighboring communities, but found that the confidence intervals were too large (meaning the results showed wide variation) to draw any conclusion about Wal-Mart’s impact. (Her initial working paper, p