Better World Club

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Better World Club Members Receive 20% Off Purchase

ReBinder offers a full suite of recycled office and school supplies. Their binders, folders, journals, and CD/DVD cases are the most responsible you'll find. Better World Club members can take advantage of a 20% discount on ReBinder purchases by logging in to the member section of our website.

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Access Hotel And Rental Car Discounts at BWC Member Site

Members Get Great Discounts Through Access Hotels (a Discount Program and a Confusing Double Entendre)

Need a place to stay on your family vacation? Renting a car for that wedding on the other coast? Flying last minute to Vegas in desperate hopes that you can re-pad your savings before your wife finds out what you spent it on? Better World Club members can access a wide range of lodging discounts through, well, Access. Access Hotels, that is. Just log in to the member section of our website and click on the Access link at the bottom left of the page. You'll automatically be logged into the Access website where you can search hotels and motels by name or location. Members can also access Access discounts by showing the Access logo on their cards to hotel or motel staff when they make reservations.

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Obama Administration to Tighten Smog Standards

...and Other Weird Tales of Washington

Next Thing You Know the Securities and Exchange Commission is Going to be Regulating Wall Street!

After nearly a decade of inaction on air pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration recently proposed stricter standards for smog-causing pollutants. Under the new proposals, the primary standard for smog would be tightened to between 0.060 and 0.070 parts per million, the strictest standard in E.P.A. history. The current standard (set by the Bush administration in 2008) is 0.075 parts per million, a figure that has been challenged by both environmental activists and public health advocates.

Smog, or ground-level ozone, forms when emissions from industrial facilities, power plants, landfills and motor vehicles react in the sun. Currently, only 15 of 675 cities that monitor smog levels would be in compliance with a 0.060 ppm standard. E.P.A. analysts expect that the stricter standard could prevent thousands of premature deaths a year from lung cancer and heart disease, as well as thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma (a health care savings of up to $100 billion).

What?!? E.P.A. using it's regulatory power under the Clean Air Act to protect public health? "E.P.A. is stepping up to protect Americans from one of the most persistent and widespread pollutants we face," said bizzaro E.P.A. Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, "Smog in the air we breathe poses a very serious health threat, especially to children and individuals suffering from asthma and lung disease. It dirties our air, clouds our cities and drives up our health care costs across the country.” We guess so. Maybe if you believe in science...

Even stranger: new proposals on smog regulation came on the heels of a December E.P.A. finding that greenhouse gases threaten public health. That ruling will allow the E.P.A. to begin regulating carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases emitted by both automobiles and stationary sources like farms and power plants. The endangerment finding took effect on January 14, and a first wave of rules is expected by March.

What's next? The S.E.C. reigning in Wall Street? It won't be long until the F.D.A. is telling us what to eat!

Meanwhile, the E.P.A. is accepting public comments on its smog proposals for 60 days from January 19, and is holding three public hearings beginning early February. A final rule setting a single primary standard between 0.060 and 0.070 ppm is expected by August. States must submit plans for compliance by the end of 2013. New rules will be enforced gradually from 2014 to 2031 depending on the dirtiness of the air in an affected area.

Submit a Public Comment

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Speed Limits Are So 20th Century!

AAA of California Blocks Bill to Stop the Increase of Speed Limits in Residential Areas

We're Talking Residential Streets Here

Everyone likes to get where they're going safely, quickly, and with as little hassle as possible. In general, speed limits are set to protect the safety of people and their property while expediting traffic flows in accordance with reasonable driving patterns. And -- again in general -- the setting of speed limits near the speed of a majority of reasonable drivers (on a given stretch of road under normal conditions) would seem to be sufficient for those goals.

But reasonability should also dictate special conditions for roads near homes, schools, or businesses, especially when those roads are regularly trafficked by non-motorists (children, pedestrians, cyclists, horse cops, private security patrols on Segways, etc). California State Automobile Association (CSAA) doesn't seem to think so.

On February 25, 2009, California Assembly Member Anthony Portantino of Pasadena introduced Assembly Bill 564. The bill sought to revise the definition of "local street or road" so that all smaller roads giving access to residential properties in California could be exempt from traffic surveys that would allow for speed limits on those roads to be raised above 25 mph. (You can read the bill here. But it's not very exciting, so maybe just trust us on this one.)

In most cases -- in California and across the country -- new speed limits are set at the 85th percentile of speed found in a relevant survey, a standard intended to maintain regular traffic flows on roads with speed limits below state established maximum limits. Maintaining flows at the speed of most drivers makes sense on roads with few driveways or intersections that are used only by cars traveling at middling speeds.

But on roads with other types of traffic, setting speed limits at the speed of most cars and trucks doesn't promote safety or encourage non-motorized transportation. California already enforces stricter speed limits in school zones and exempts them from traffic surveys or speed limit increases. AB564 would have extended those enforcements and exemptions to all residential roads that were one or two lanes, under 40 feet in width, and were interrupted at no more than half-mile intervals. In other words, streets where you'd likely encounter pedestrians (including children) or cyclists (maybe also including children), as well as frequent driveway traffic.

CSAA was AB564's principal opponent. Better World Club member Felicia Williams, who acted as Transportation Commissioner for the City of Pasadena while the bill was before the California Assembly, discussed battling the auto club on the issue with KA.

According to Williams (a bike commuter), CSAA representatives were frustratingly pro-auto (surprised?), arguing only that speed limit signs have nothing to do with actual driving speeds and that setting limits too low would make criminals out of everyday drivers, never considering the safety repercussions for multi-modal transportation. In addition to sending public affairs staff to testify against the bill, CSAA also disseminated anti-564 materials to other membership groups throughout California. The bill was ultimately defeated.

The Automobile Association of Southern California publishes a pamphlet entitled 'Realistic Speed Zoning, Why & How' that makes plain how little regard AAA has for non-motorists in its consideration of speed limits. We can't help wondering why and how an auto club would want to get involved to deny localities the ability to strengthen their own safety regulations. Maybe AAA's public affairs people just need to slow down and get a more realistic picture of their neighborhoods.

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Better World Insurance Expands Again

Coverage Available in 39 States and the District of Columbia

(Note to members in Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wisconsin: We're Still Waiting on Our Valentine's Day Chocolate)

It's true. We just made a similar announcement back in the December edition of Kicking Asphalt Insurance, but our associates at Gales Creek have been working around the clock since the beginning of the new year expanding our coverage offerings. (Plus, our members in Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, and South Carolina really came through on the Christmas gifts.) In any case, Better World Insurance is now accepting quote requests in 39 states* and the District of Columbia. A complete list of states is available here. Click here for a quote.

For those of you who didn't bother to click through to the December story, we'll take it once more from the top. (Ahem!) Better World is an independent insurance agent that works for you. In addition to discounts for air bags, anti-lock brakes, and other safety devices, we also discount our rates for members of the Better World Club in many states (join now!). And we are the only insurance company providing a FREE carbon offset to cover the first 2,000 miles of greenhouse gas emissions generated by your automobile.

To all of our friends in Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wisconsin: we're not resentful, we get that the holidays are a busy time for everyone. Come to think of it, all that stuff you got us probably just got lost in the mail. But if anything, this announcement should be a good indication of our ability to take part in a little quid pro quo. And the staff does like chocolate.

- Get a Quote!
- Join Better World Club!

*You've all already caught it, so we might as well come clean. In December we announced expanding our insurance to a total of 37 states. Now we've expanded to four more states and are announcing a total of 39. Alaska went rogue and somehow sneaked its way onto our list. That still leaves us one off. Maybe it was that tricky DC... Anyway. We checked the list twice this time, but hope you'll let us know if we're off. Check the list here.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

''Quid Pro...What?''

Can the Supreme Court Be So Naive as to Believe That Corporations Give From the Goodness of Their Hearts?

Well, The Court Says That Corporations Are People, So It's Possible

In 1979, I testified before the House Administration Committee on campaign finance reform. Representative Jerry Lewis (R-CA), today Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee, interrupted my testimony:

"Mr. Rofsky, do you have evidence of bribery relative to any of the members of this committee?"

I was only 28 years old, so I did not have the presence to respond as I would today: "Sir, I think you are all evidence of bribery."

Well, one man's bribery is another's free speech. At least, that's the conclusion from the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that corporate political endorsements are "free speech" and protected by the First Amendment.

Space does not permit detailing all of this decision's flaws. Treating corporations as "legal persons", is fraught with problems as corporations don't vote (or inevitably die for that matter) and don't deserve any number of protections that are provided individuals

Moreover, if corporations had pure First Amendment rights, then commercial speech would be equally protected. Alcohol, tobacco, perhaps, prescription drugs, and, some would say, marijuana should be legal - the cost of making them illegal is too high. But these products should not be permitted to be advertised (with the possible exception of ingredients). The makers of beer, vodka, cigarettes, and related products should not be permitted to make their brands "cool". But that would tamper with corporate free speech rights - if they have them.

Crucial to the majority decision was Justice Kennedy's noting that bribery remains illegal. He distinguished "independent" corporate political endorsements from direct corporate contributions which remain illegal, at least for the time being.

But, of course, these "independent" endorsements are a form of campaign contributions. So, the justices have joined conservative political commentators: "Campaign contributions are almost always not bribery," Fred Barnes once asserted on CSPAN.

Can Washington really be this naive?

The Court has joined prosecutors who must enforce the strictest possible definition of bribery: the "quid pro quo," where a specific act is exchanged for some benefit, usually money.. With this definition, politicians can act offended that anyone would even think that they could be "bribed" (as, on the MacNeil-Leher News Hour, Utah Senator Robert Bennett once huffed about throwing out any favor seeker who would be so dim as to offer him cash in his office. Good for you, Senator.).

Yet, the public's common sense that millions of dollars in political donations aren't exchanged for nothing is correct.

Look up bribery in the dictionary and you will find a very different definition than the prosecutorial one. Merriam-Webster defines a bribe as: "1. money or favor given or promised in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust." That's right, the key term is "influence." And campaign contributors have plenty of it.

It is also amazing that the same conservatives who believe that corporations are at the top of the organizational evolutionary pyramid, the most intelligent way to organize an economy yet developed, can then conclude that these same corporations give away hundreds of millions of dollars every two years and receive nothing in return!

If there is rarely a "quid-pro-quo", how is influence exhibited? How do legislators think about maintaining contributor support? Presumably, corporate representatives are not huddled with officeholders in the backrooms of DC pleasure palaces. Even Fred Barnes would consider that a story. So how does the game work?

As political scientists define "politics," it is the response to the demands of the public. All men may be created equal, but not all those with "demands" are treated equally. Voters are more equal than non-voters and contributors are more equal than voters. So, politicians are in the position of recognizing their demands first.

But to remain officeholders, most politicians have to respond to conflicting demands (we'll ignore gerrymandering for now). The basic principle of resolving these demands is not to give major contributors everything they want and everyone else nothing. That is not viewed as an effective strategy. Rather, your typical officeholder tries to give something to everyone. Or at least to every donor.

In other words, there is a little calculator constantly running in a politician's brain: "What do I have to do to give this contributor enough to keep the dollars flowing?" No one assumes that you have to give a corporation 5 out of 5 votes. Perhaps 4 of 5 will do it. Most likely, for an incumbent, 3 of 5 will. Maybe even 2 of 5. (It is Washington lore that various leaders have actually held legislation over from one Congress to the next just to keep the contributions coming in-but I guess the D.C. press considers this, like compassionate conservatism, to be an urban legend.)

If special interests have enough legislators who vote with them 40%, 50%, or 60% of the time, they will win a lot of votes-votes that they would not necessarily have won without their contributions.

Over-focusing on votes can also distract from the myriad opportunities that a politician has to whore (oh, excuse me, I meant "advocate") for a major contributor. As we saw in the Abramoff scandal, a mere mention in the Congressional Record may be worth selling. And, it is much easier to stop legislation than it is to enact it. Putting a "hold" on a bill or nominee or skipping certain committee meetings may be all that's required. As the Clinton Lincoln Bedroom "auction" demonstrated, there are always opportunities (and incentives) to be creative.

One former liberal Senator made it clear that he would front for two industries that were powerful in his state: the savings & loan and defense industries. A Washington journalist might say that these are prominent industries that employ lots of people in his state. Wouldn't he support them even if there were no contributions?

Then explain this: Why would this Senator devote himself to the elimination of the government board that examined defense contracts for excess profits? This has little to do with the employees of these companies and much more to do with bonuses to management and returns to shareholders.

Or explain this: if money is meaningless or if business merely supports those who share their philosophical predisposition, then why do major industries give to both candidates in a race? What can they be buying other than "influence?"

As long as we're talking crime, the flip side of today's campaign fund-raising culture is extortion--the use of one's position or powers to obtain property, funds, or patronage. Republican efforts like the K Street Project seem to meet this definition as Republican officeholders told Washington lobbyists that they would not be welcome in their offices unless they hired their friends (patronage) and received their donations (funds). And, thanks to the Supreme Court for giving the politicians another way to intimidate potential contributors.

So, don't use the terms "bribery" or "extortion" if you consider them too gauche, but spare us the defenses of Washington DC business as usual on First Amendment grounds. No group of "insiders" can be that naive. And what should we think of this group of justices when Merriam Webster knows what's going on and the Supreme Court doesn't?

In Oregon, corporations are permitted to make contributions. Better World Club has been explicitly solicited for funds — and refused. We can only dream that every business will do the same.

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Go Tell It On the Mountain

Help Us Convince The EPA to Stop Mountaintop Removal Mining

It seems pretty obvious that blowing up the top of a mountain would be bad for the mountain (and the surrounding environment). But, despite overwhelming scientific evidence pointing to the negative environmental effects of mountaintop removal mining, the Army Corps of Engineers has submitted 79 revised permit requests for mountaintop removal operations to the Environmental Protection Agency. (The EPA rejected the 79 permit requests last year because all requested operations would likely violate the Clean Water Act.) So far, one project has been approved.

When a mountaintop is "removed" to afford access to coal, forests are clear-cut and topsoil stripped, millions of tons of earth are exploded, and the resulting debris is then dumped into adjacent valleys, often burying the streams below. These processes not only cause (obvious) irreparable harm to a mountain, but also threaten biodiversity and the health of human populations downstream from valley fills. In other words, the results are anything but scenic. In fact, the whole thing makes for an altogether un-pretty environmental picture.

What's more, the entire process is employed only for the mining of coal, a source of expensive and dangerous pollution in itself. Government should be incentivizing the exploration of cleaner, sustainable energy sources, not encouraging an environmentally destructive activity that also furthers an industry with so many problems of its own.

Help us drive change by asking EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to stand strong against the coal industry and put an end to mountaintop removal under the demands of the Clean Water Act.

Readers can also contact the EPA's Mid-Atlantic office with comments and suggestions for EPA staff near proposed mining sites.

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