March 19, 2019
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How to decarbonize America — and the world

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The Green New Deal has burst onto the American stage, spurring more conversation about – and aspiration for – ambitious climate policy than at any point in at least a decade.

I’m glad to see it. Suddenly, climate is on the agenda, and ambitions for climate policy are higher than perhaps at any point in US history.

The Green New Deal is a resolution right now. It’s a statement of intent. It hasn’t yet progressed to the point of detailed policy proposals or legislation, which means now is the time to help craft its details.

For the last decade I’ve written about and publicly spoken about innovation in clean technology and ways to address climate change. I’ve helped to lead a climate-fighting citizen ballot initiative in my home state of Washington, invested in clean energy startups, and advised on climate and clean energy policies of other nations.

In that time, my views on what sort of climate policies have the most impact and have the greatest chances of winning over voters have changed. Policies that I thought were foolish a decade ago have revealed themselves to have been farsighted and effective. Policies I thought were powerful and elegant have, on closer inspection, revealed themselves to be far less effective than I believed. And the history of climate and energy legislation and attitudes in the US has demonstrated a path to getting new and more ambitious policies passed.

What I’ve learned over time is that good climate policy has 3 key traits:

  1. It has a large, meaningful impact on carbon emissions and climate change.
  2. It specifically tackles the problems that aren’t already being tackled by the market.
  3. It actually gets passed into law.

All of that is compatible with a Green New Deal. Here’s what it could look like.

  1. Impact: Climate Change Isn’t Local. Good Policy Isn’t, Either.

The conventional wisdom on climate policy is straightforward. Every nation uses its policies to reduce its own emissions. This conventional wisdom is wrong. Carbon dioxide doesn’t honor national boundaries. Climate change is global. And the best climate policies have a global impact as well.

The US, overwhelmingly, is the country most responsible for climate change. The carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we’ve emitted over the past decades are largely still in the atmosphere, still warming the planet. The world’s present and future emissions, though, are increasingly elsewhere. The US now accounts for just 15% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.  And because the developing world is rising in energy consumption far faster than the US, American emissions will be an ever-smaller share each year.

That means that, despite the fact that the US is the largest overall contributor to climate change thus far, the US could completely eliminate its carbon emissions and barely affect the future course of climate.

This means we need a different strategy. It’s not enough to eliminate the US’s carbon emissions alone. Our goal has to be to drive down the whole world’s emissions.

The Most Effective Climate Policy in the World

How can the US drive down the emissions of other countries? We can do it by making clean technologies irresistible to the entire world. And there we can take a lesson from the most effective climate policy of all time – Germany’s early subsidies of solar and wind.

Solar panels and electricity-producing wind farms have been around for decades. Yet, for most of that time, they’ve been a far more expensive way to produce electricity than burning coal or natural gas. Germany changed that. Starting in 2010, Germany’s Energiewende legislation heavily subsidized solar and wind. That, in turn, drove utilities and home owners and corporations to purchase solar and wind. And that, in turn, made the technology cheaper. As prices fell, other nations – first European nations, then the US, and then China – jumped into the fray, enacting more ambitious policies that further brought down the price of solar and wind (and now batteries and electric cars).

Why did subsidies bring down the price of technology? Because industry scale leads to industry learning and innovation, and that, in turn, leads to lower cost ways to manufacture, deploy, and manage new technologies. We’ve seen this for a century. Almost all technologies improve via Wright’s Law, often referred to as the learning curve or the experience curve.  In the late 1930s, Theodore Paul Wright, an aeronautical engineer, observed that every doubling of production of US aircraft brought down prices by 13%.  Since then, a similar effect has been found in nearly every technology area, going back to the Ford Model T.

Electricity from solar power, meanwhile, drops in cost by 25-30% for every doubling in scale. Battery costs drop around 20-30% per doubling of scale. Wind power costs drop by 15-20% for every doubling.  Scale leads to learning, and learning leads to lower costs.

Germany began subsidizing solar and wind when they were extremely small scale industries, and their costs were quite high. Those subsidies drove German utilities, businesses, and home owners to purchase clean energy. That created a market. That, in turn, led solar and wind manufacturers to leap into the market, competing ruthlessly against one another to bring down their prices faster, offering the best product at the best price to customers.

By scaling the clean energy industries, Germany lowered the price of solar and wind for everyone, worldwide, forever.

The International Renewable Energy Agency finds that, between 2010 and 2019, the price of solar power, worldwide, has dropped by more than a factor of 5. The price of offshore wind power has dropped by a factor of three.

In just the past decade, solar power has gone from being uneconomical anywhere on earth without subsidies, to being cheaper than any fossil fuel electricity in the sunniest parts of the world. Building new solar is now cheaper than building new fossil fuel electricity plants in India, Chile, Mexico, Spain, and in sunny US states like Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and  Texas.

And because, in general, businesses, utilities, and consumers all around the world will deploy the cheapest energy they can, solar is now the fastest growing energy source around the world.

Happy? Good. Thank policy makers in Germany, and the US, and China – all of whom took action to bootstrap markets for solar and wind before they were cost-competitive.

The lesson for US climate policy is clear: The biggest impact we can have is by driving down the cost of technologies that reduce carbon emissions, to the point that clean technologies are cheapest way to provide the energy, food, and transportation that everyone around the world desires, and then spreading those technologies to the world. That means a mix of early-stage government R&D, government incentives to scale deployment in the private sector, and a very healthy dollop of private sector competition.

1 – As solar volume has grown, prices have dropped, leading to more growth.

Would the Green New Deal drive down the cost of clean technologies in a way that scales to the rest of the world? The current resolution is vague on exactly how the rapid decarbonization in the US would happen. One reason for concern is that the now-retracted Green New Deal FAQ released by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez specifically dismissed the idea that the private sector – even with government incentives – could pull off this decarbonization, and explicitly says that “Merely incentivizing the private sector doesn’t work”.

I agree in one sense – basic government R&D is a high-value investment, especially when the technologies we need to invent don’t even exist yet. The government has a vital role to play. At the same time, the incredible, unprecedented decline in cost of solar power, wind power, batteries, and electric cars has happened both because of early government R&D, and because private sector companies, incentivized by governments, have brought these technologies to market and been forced to compete with one another to provide the best technology at the lowest price. Ignoring this is to ignore what brought us the very best progress we’ve seen in cleaning up the way we produce energy.

The FAQ I reference has been retracted. The Green New Deal hasn’t yet become a detailed roadmap or legislation. As it does, I urge you, Green New Deal legislators and architects: Craft policies that create incentives to build and deploy clean technologies. Then use the market for what it’s good at: fierce competition that delivers ever-better products at ever-lower prices.

  1. Tackling the Hardest, Least-Solved Problems

The Green New Deal resolution is really quite comprehensive. It touches on almost every source of US emissions.

Even so, there’s a tendency for climate and energy wonks – and legislators – to focus on electricity and cars when discussing climate policy.

Electricity and cars aren’t our hardest problems. They’re both big chunks of our carbon emissions, yes. And they both need more policy to drive them home. (More on that down below.) They’re also the areas where we’ve made the most progress, with incredible declines in the price of clean electricity and electric vehicles that put us at the edge of a tipping point. We aren’t over the hump yet, but the solutions are here – and if we continue to push them with policy, we can decarbonize electricity and cars.

Our hardest climate problems – the ones that are both large and lack obvious solutions – are agriculture (and deforestation – its major side effect) and industry. Together these are 45% of global carbon emissions. And solutions are scarce.

Agriculture and land use account for 24% of all human emissions. That’s nearly as much as electricity, and twice as much all the world’s passenger cars combined.

Industry – steel, cement, and manufacturing – account for 21% of human emissions – one and a half times as much as all the world’s cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes combined.

Add industry, agriculture, and land use together and you have a very sticky, very difficult-to-improve 45% of carbon emissions.

By contrast, electricity and transportation are 39% of global emissions – nearly as big. The good news is that in electricity and transportation, we have momentum.

We do NOT have momentum in reducing the carbon emissions of industry and agriculture.

Decarbonizing Agriculture and Industry

The Green New Deal does, happily, mention these sectors. In agriculture, though, it avoids the biggest chunk of the problem: Livestock.

Livestock around the world – specifically cows, pigs, and other mammals – consume a tremendous amount of the world’s agriculture output. They drive the bulk of the deforestation around the world (which itself releases carbon into the atmosphere, and reduces forest land that could absorb carbon instead). And cows and pigs belch methane – a greenhouse gas that’s causes tremendously more warming than CO2 – about 100 times more in the first year, and 30 times more over the course of a century. Livestock in total produce about 15% of the world’s carbon emissions, as much as all transportation on land, air, and sea combined.

And the world’s appetite for meat is rapidly growing, with consumption expected to double in the next 40 or so years.

Cows should scare you more than coal.

In industry, meanwhile, steel and cement production both remain incredibly carbon intensive. We’ve learned to recycle steel using electricity, but making new steel from ore still involves the use of a tremendous amount of coal. (Theoretical ways to make steel without coal exist, but aren’t expected to be commercially viable for another 20 years.) We’re closer to technologies that could make cement without carbon emissions, but those technologies are still young, expensive, and haven’t been deployed to any significant degree. And the rest of industry – from manufacturing finished goods to making petrochemical products like plastics and lubricants – remains extremely carbon intensive.

These two sectors – agriculture and industry – are on path to be the two largest sources of carbon emissions in the world. And they’re the ones we have the fewest and least developed solutions for. The Green New Deal – or any serious climate policy – ought to focus first and foremost on R&D to develop methods for clean agriculture and clean construction and manufacturing; and then on incentives to deploy those clean methods, which will initially be extremely expensive, until they hit the scale to compete directly with dirty methods on cost alone.

What would a climate policy for agriculture and industry look like?  Let’s take a page from energy, where we have a one-two punch: 1) Agencies like the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, ARPA-E, that funds early stage energy science and technology R&D; and 2) A breadth of state and national subsidies and incentives that help those technologies reach higher scale and lower costs.  

This one-two punch first invents technology (ARPA-E is modeled after the original ARPA, which created the foundations of the internet, originally called ARPANET), and then scales technology to the point that the new clean technology is cheaper than the alternatives.

We can use that one-two punch in agriculture and industry, by creating:

  1. An ARPA-A in the Department of Agriculture, tasked with finding a way to reduce the carbon emissions of agriculture broadly, and especially of livestock and meat. ARPA-A might fund research into:
    1. Radically increasing crop yields so farmers have less need to chop down forests to feed their animals.
    2. Technologies to eliminate the methane emissions of cows and pigs.
    3. Technologies to reduce the emissions of NOx (another incredibly powerful greenhouse gas) that’s produced by animal manure left on fields, and to a lesser extent by excess synthetic fertilizer.
    4. Real-time global deforestation monitoring technology, (perhaps in partnership with other agencies) to spot illegal deforestation as soon as it happens, and nip it in the bud.
    5. New alternatives to meat – from plants or stem cells – that might someday taste and feel as compelling as the real thing.
  2. Incentives to Deploy Clean Agriculture would be paired with the early-stage research of an ARPA-A.  Just-out-of-the-lab technologies to reduce agricultural greenhouse emissions are likely to start expensive. Early (and steep) subsidies could motivate farmers (or even consumers) to adopt those new technologies and products. Just like German subsidies, by scaling solar, bootstrapped an industry whose fierce competition then brought down prices, early subsidies for clean agriculture and clean foods would do the same.

    Such incentives could include:
    1. Incentives for farmers who capture carbon in their soils. (By far the cheapest way to remove carbon from the atmosphere.)
    2. Subsidizing feed additives or other products that reduce methane emissions or NOx emissions from animals and their manure.
    3. Tax breaks for farmers who invest in “precision agriculture” technologies that reduce the amount of fertilizer or fuel they use on the farm.
    4. Incentives for farmers to deploy clean energy on their farms, and to switch farm operations from diesel to electric.
  3. An ARPA-I for Industry, meanwhile, would be chartered with funding early stage R&D in carbon-free industry.  Research areas would include:
    1. Carbon-free steel – technologies that can make steel from iron ore without the use of coal.
    2. Carbon-free cement technologies.
    3. Alternative building materials that have lower carbon emissions.
    4. Carbon-free manufacturing technologies.  
    5. Better carbon-free or low-carbon plastics, lubricants, and other petrochemicals that don’t require oil extraction.

In several of these areas some options exist today, but a need for more innovation and more fundamental research – that the federal government is uniquely equipped to fund – still exists.

2-ARPA-I would fund research to decarbonize industry, starting with the largest industrial sources – steel, cement, and petrochemicals.

  1. Incentives to Deploy Carbon-Free Industrial Methods would give steel mills, manufacturers, and builders a reason to use these new, carbon-free methods while they’re still young and expensive.  These incentives would include:
    1. Tax breaks for new carbon-free industrial equipment, to reduce the cost for manufacturers to adopt these new technologies in their early stages.
    2. Tax breaks or subsidies for the buyers of carbon-free steel, cement, or other industrial goods, to bootstrap a market of customers for these new products and grow it to scale.  

As with solar and wind in Germany, scaling use of these methods in industry would bring their prices down, with a target of beating the price of existing, carbon-heavy methods.

All of the above is compatible with Green New Deal language. It’s just a matter of emphasis. We need to double down on these two areas – agriculture and industry – that are soon to be the largest sources of global carbon emissions, and the ones we have the least progress in solving.

  1. Good Policy Must be Passable

Perhaps the most important question about the Green New Deal is this – what can we actually pass?

The Green New Deal has already moved the Overton window, by elevating the conversation about climate. At the state level, in progressive states like California and New York, Democrats have solid majorities and could pass large parts of the Green New Deal that are applicable at a state level. As I argued just after Donald Trump’s election, the States are where we can most effectively push for climate action.

What about at the Federal level? Maybe the Green New Deal, by motivating the base, will lead to more electoral victories for Democrats in 2020.  Or maybe it will hurt in red states like Alabama, where Democrats are defending a Senate seat. It’s far too early to say.

Democrats don’t have any chance of reaching 60 Senate seats in 2020. They do have the option, if they win a majority and the Presidency, of eliminating the legislative filibuster (using the so-called “nuclear option”), in which case a simple majority of the House and Senate could pass as much of the Green New Deal as Democrats could achieve consensus on, without the need for any Republican legislators.

What if none of the above occurs? What if Democrats don’t get a Senate majority at all? Or do get a majority, but are unwilling to eliminate the legislative filibuster?  Could any parts of the Green New Deal pass with some Republican support?

Bipartisan Climate Policy is Possible. In Fact, It’s Here Now

Yes. Recent history shows that, while climate is a highly divisive issue in the US, clean energy and innovation have massive support on both sides of the aisle.

Consider the following:

  1. In 2015, a Republican Congress reached a bipartisan deal to extend the solar and wind tax credits (the ITC and PTC) out through 2022.
  2. In 2017, a Republican Congress, under Donald Trump, could have easily repealed or prematurely ended these tax credits. Yet the GOP left solar, wind, and electric vehicle tax credits untouched.
  3. In 2017, a Republican Congress gave clean energy research in the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E its largest budget increase since 2009.

Wait. Don’t Republicans hate clean energy?

Nope. Not at all. Americans on both sides of the aisle love solar and wind.  Solar is the most popular energy source in the US, with 76% of Americans saying that their utility should get more energy from solar. Wind is a close second, at 71%.  The third choice, natural gas, is 24 points behind solar, at 52%. And a meager 30% of Americans want more coal.

It helps that clean energy is literally everywhere in America. Solar and wind have been built out in every state. Wind power, especially, is booming in rural districts in red states. Representatives from these districts, and Republican Senators from red states like Iowa and Texas that have deployed a tremendous amount of solar and wind, have every reason to support policies that benefit clean energy.

What’s more, Americans – on both sides of the aisle – wildly support research into new technologies that can improve their lives. A whopping 85% of Americans support funding more research into renewable energy sources. Ready for the real shocker? Solid majorities in virtually every county and every congressional district in the US support more funding of research into clean energy.

Nearly as many Americans – 82% – support tax breaks for Americans who purchase energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels. And again, the support isn’t limited to blue states or blue districts. It’s overwhelmingly national.

So Americans don’t just love innovation and R&D spending. They also support incentives to deploy clean technology faster. And, in fact, those two policy levers – more research funding, and incentives to deploy clean technology – get both the most support in poll after poll, the most bipartisan support, and the most geographically consistent support.  If you want a policy proposal that that will work in red or purple states, or that can win over some Republican Senators and Representatives, clean technology research and clean technology deployment incentives are the two most likely to garner support.

What Bipartisan Policy Would Look Like

If Democrats do get both the White House a filibuster-proof congressional majority – one way or another – and get enough internal consensus, they can drive forward whatever GND policy they wish. Right now, that seems unlikely to me.

In the event that we have a Congress without that filibuster-proof majority, or with enough moderate democrats who balk at the entirety of the Green New Deal, there are still extremely effective climate policies that Congress can put in place.

First, in industry and agriculture, the four policies we mentioned already:

  1. ARPA-A to fund research into carbon-free agriculture & forestry.
  2. Clean Agriculture Incentives and subsidies to deploy carbon-free ag rapidly to farmers and drive down its price through scale.
  3. ARPA-I to fund research into carbon-free steel, cement, and manufacturing.
  4. Clean Industry Incentives and subsidies to deploy carbon-free industrial tech and drive it down in price.

Those policies in agriculture and industry have an excellent chance of getting bipartisan support. They follow a pattern of Americans being willing to invest in new science and technology R&D. And, because they benefit industrial and agricultural states and districts, by giving carrots for deploying clean industry and clean agriculture, they’re a benefit to politicians from those – often red – states that have the greatest concentration of farms and factories. That’s the exact opposite of a policy that penalized farmers or factories for their carbon emissions. You’d have a hard time getting much bipartisan support for that. Make the policy an incentive that helps farms and industry thrive, and helps them get an edge over their global competitors, and the politics completely change.

In electricity, transportation, and buildings, there are also policies – some of them counter-intuitive  – that would accelerate us towards a clean future :

  1. Continent-Wide Electricity Transmission.  It’s a common perception that renewable energy means less dependence on the grid. The opposite is true, for two reasons. First, at any given time, weather may hurt the output of solar panels or wind farms in any given area. The further away you are from that area, the less likely you are to be in the same weather pattern. Second, the sunniest parts of the US, the windiest parts of the US, and the parts of the US that need the most electricity don’t all coincide. Study after study shows that the larger an area we integrate renewables over, the more renewables we can put on the grid, and the lower the cost.

3- A nation-sized grid increases the amount of energy we can use from solar and wind, and reduces the overall cost. Source – Nature Climate Change

Long-range transmission is also remarkably efficient and low cost. High-voltage DC transmission lines can send power 2,000 miles with only 10% losses and a small additional cost. That means solar power plants in Texas could be powering New York City…an hour after the sun has gone down in New York. China understands this, and is building the world’s largest high voltage power grid, moving power from the sunniest and windiest areas in the west to the coastal population centers 3,000 km (1,860 miles) east.  In the US, meanwhile, it’s nearly impossible to build new long-range transmission – largely because of NIMBY. Congress should make it easier to get the necessary permissions to build transmission, paving the way for a grid with more and cheaper clean energy.

4- China’s Ultra High Voltage Grid moves clean energy 2,000 miles from the sunny and windy interior to the population centers on the eastern coast.  The US has nothing similar.

  1. Clear the Way for Offshore Wind. The most exciting development in wind power is building offshore. Winds blow faster and more consistently just a few miles off the coast of the US than they do almost anywhere on land. Not only does that mean offshore wind power is likely to be the cheapest wind power, it also means – because the winds are more steady – that it causes fewer intermittency problems for grid operators and is closer to being a “baseload”-like power source. Offshore wind sites are also closer to electricity demand in cities along the coast, making it easier to get power where its needed. And while solar power peaks in the sunny months of summer, wind power peaks in winter – making solar and wind great complements for each other. Offshore wind has plunged in price in Europe, reaching grid parity last summer, and is now growing faster there than wind power on land. It’s also still much smaller than on-land wind. That means that is has much farther to fall in price, and that deploying it now can bring the price down faster than with on-land wind. Unfortunately, the US is far behind in building offshore wind. A law from the 1920s and a raft of lawsuits have held offshore wind power up. Congress can and should take action to clear the way for offshore wind.
  2. Extend & Unify Solar, Wind, and Energy Storage Tax Incentives. Congress should make the 30% Investment Tax Credit for solar (the ITC) permanent. Failing that, it should extend it out to at least 2030. Wind, which has long mostly used a different tax credit called the PTC, should be moved to the same 30% tax credit and timing as solar. Energy storage – batteries and the technologies that come after them – should get the exact same tax credit, however and wherever that energy storage technology is deployed. While this tax credit may sound modest, solar and wind are now on the very edge of a tipping point.  

    Consider, for example, that late last year, a utility in Northern Indiana announced that the cheapest way for it to provide power to its customers was to go from being 65% coal powered today, to just 15% coal powered by 2023, and zero coal by 2028 – and to replace that coal with solar, wind, batteries, and flexible storage.  Let me repeat that: This utility wants to replace 50% of their power generation in just 4 years, and the rest in 5 more. And it wants to do so because solar and wind and batteries are cheaper than running their existing coal power plants. That’s a tipping point moment. And the solar and wind deployed in Indiana will lower the cost of future solar and wind deployed elsewhere. If this sort of tipping point can happen in Indiana, a deeply red state that Donald Trump won by 19 points, that isn’t all that sunny, and that has good but not amazing wind, then that tipping point can happen anywhere. Our job is to keep the pressure up.
  3. A National Renewable Portfolio Standard. 29 US states – including red states like Texas, Missouri, Iowa, and Ohio – have Renewable Portfolio Standards that mandate that a certain percentage of their electricity must come from carbon-free or renewable sources. That means 21 states don’t have such mandates. If electricity were a perfectly competitive market, solar and wind and batteries would win on price and displace coal and gas in all these states. But utilities have a number of ways to resist change, even when it makes economic sense.

5-29 US States have Renewable Portfolio Standards

The solution is for Congress to mandate a Renewable Portfolio Standard nationally, dragging the laggard states up to the standard of the rest. How high should that mandate be? The Green New Deal goal of 100% carbon free electricity by 2030 is incredibly ambitious. And it pushes us into the unknown. Beyond 70 or 80 or 90% of electricity from renewables, integration becomes increasingly difficult as periods of bad weather nation-wide cause serious problems. The technical challenges there can be overcome – perhaps through nuclear, or next-generation carbon-capturing natural-gas plants, or long-term energy storage technologies (which are being funded by ARPA-E).

Those challenges are still real enough that even a clean energy optimist like me gets nervous. A goal of 50% of electricity from carbon free sources in every state by 2030, then 80% by 2040, and 100% by 2050 would be in-line with what scientific models say we need to achieve in order to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. And by scaling both clean energy and the technology to integrate it to high percentages of the total grid, it would drive those technologies down in price for the rest of the world, and pave the way for cleaner grids everywhere.

  1. Permanent, Uncapped, On-the-Spot Electric Vehicle Tax Credit. On transportation, we may have reached another tipping point. 2018 may have been the peak year for gasoline and diesel car sales, ever.  Electric Vehicles, while still small in number, are growing at an astounding rate, and account for all growth in the auto industry. In some areas, electric vehicles are now cheaper to own than gasoline cars on a per-mile basis. And that will become true in more and more areas as the price of batteries declines. Even so, we need to move faster. On average, a US car gets replaced when it’s around 10 years old. That means that, even if electric vehicles were 100% of new sales today, it would take around 20 years for them to replace all gasoline cars. That needs to happen faster. Congress can help.

First, for individually owned vehicles, Congress should improve the federal electric vehicle tax credit. Today’s $7,500 federal tax credit is capped at 200,000 electric vehicles per manufacturer. That’s an absurdly low number in a country that has 260 million cars on the road. General Motors CEO Mary Barra recently called for the cap to be removed. Congress ought to put electric vehicles on the same footing as solar, wind, and batteries: A 30% tax credit – like the solar ITC – with no limit on the number of vehicles its applied to would be simple, clear, and consistent. For individuals buying their own vehicles, that tax credit ought to be structured so it can be taken off the purchase price of the vehicle directly, rather than waiting for tax season.

Second, the same tax credit ought to apply to fleet operators who buy or build electric vehicles to offer rides to consumers. While the pace at which consumers buy new cars is slow, the pace at which they switch miles of transport can be far faster, as they switch some of their travel to fleets like Uber, Lyft, and whatever comes after. Those fleets, today, are mostly gasoline engine vehicles of hybrids. As electric vehicles increasingly become the cheapest per mile, those app-based transport fleets will go electric. And a typical taxi drives 70,000 miles a year, or roughly 4 times the 13,500 miles per year of a typical individually-owned car. That means each electric vehicle deployed as a taxi can have the impact of four individually owned vehicles.

Finally, Congress ought to accelerate the deployment of autonomous cars on the nation’s roads. Why? Because an autonomous vehicle, by taking out the cost of the driver, can cut the cost per mile by half. Some calculations show that an autonomous electric taxi, by 2025, could cost 35 cents per mile. That’s 1/10th of what a taxi costs, 1/5th of what a Lyft or UberX costs today, and half the cost of owning and operating your own car. That lower cost would cause even more rapid switching to electric transport fleets, as currently-owned gasoline vehicles increasingly sat unused, or saved for long-distance trips or other scenarios. Some studies find that, even at twice that price, as much as 40% of miles driven would switch to these electric fleets.

6 – Autonomous Electric Taxis could be half the cost per mile of owning and operating a gasoline car – if autonomous vehicles arrive.

Getting to those costs absolutely depends on autonomy. Today, however, autonomous driving is regulated by a hodge-podge of different laws at the State level. Congress should step in and act to standardize safety testing, unify laws between states, and accelerate the deployment of safe, cheap, efficient, electric autonomous taxi services.  Congress almost did so in 2018. It’s time to try again.

These three actions would both accelerate the deployment of electric vehicles in the US, and drive innovation in a sector where US companies are currently in the lead, and where they could be global leaders in trillion-dollar industries for decades to come.

  1. Incentives for EV Chargers – Everywhere. Deploying more electric vehicles also means a demand for more charging infrastructure.  Congress ought to create incentives to deploy electric chargers in the places they make the most sense, and to lower the cost of charging stations by scaling them.

    For individually-owned vehicles, incentives already exist to install a charger at home.  But drivers who park on the street or who live in apartment buildings without charging don’t have an easy way to use a home charger. Congress ought to create federal incentives to deploy charging stations in multi-unit buildings, in malls, at grocery stores, and so on. Congress should especially create incentives for employers to deploy charging stations for their employees at work.  Charging stations make the most sense in the locations that cars spend the most time in. And after home, the clear #2 for most vehicles is at work. In addition, vehicles driven to work are most likely to be idle during the day – when solar power is producing. Charing electric vehicles during the day both allows the US to put more total solar power to use (effectively storing it in these vehicles) and solves the problem of a lack of charging location for those who don’t have convenient charging at home.

    Similarly, if transportation is going to move more and more to electric (possibly autonomous) taxi fleets, those vehicles will need charging too. Congress ought to create incentives for that charging infrastructure to accelerate its deployment.

    More generally a report from the Smart Electric Power Alliance finds that  as electric vehicles and electric vehicle charging infrastructure spread, there’s an opportunity to use software to manage when vehicles charge, to line that charging up with both solar and with the hours of peak wind power output, allowing more renewables to be integrated onto the grid.  

7 – Electric vehicles with smart chargers could charge when solar and wind are most abundant on the grid, increasing the amount of renewable energy we can use.

  1. Tax Credits for Carbon-Free Heating and Building Efficiency. Beyond electricity and transportation, heating buildings accounts for 6% of all carbon emissions around the world, and is growing rapidly. To decarbonize the world’s economy, we need to shift from heating with natural gas (or, in the poorest parts of the world, with coal or wood) to heating with carbon-free energy. While extending tax credits for solar and wind, Congress should keep those credits consistent for passive solar heating and geothermal heating systems, and extend those tax credits to also to include switching to an electric heat pumps, and any energy efficiency improvements made to a building.

Wait, but what about?

So I didn’t list your favorite technology, policy, or issue?  Here:

  1. Nuclear.  In 2018, the US got roughly 20% of its electricity from nuclear power, or roughly twice as much as it does from solar and wind combined. That’s carbon-free electricity from already running reactors. Shutting down those reactors prematurely would be a mistake. Germany’s shutdown of their nuclear reactors led to Germany missing their goals for carbon reduction. Existing reactors – so long as they’re safe – should be kept running as long as possible, while solar and wind scale up. And indeed, there’s still quite a bit of debate about whether solar, wind, hydro, and batteries together can power 100% of the US. Some very smart scientists who care deeply about climate are skeptical that renewables can get us all the way there. I’m on the more optimistic side of this equation. Even so, let’s not tie one hand behind our back.

    New nuclear, on the other hand, is probably dead in the US and Europe. Costs are rising over time, and reactors are plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays. The US ought to continue funding research into next-generation reactors that could be built smaller, more repeatably, and hopefully one day at a lower cost. Even those reactor designs are most likely to be a fallback in case solar, wind, and batteries stop falling in price the way they have.
  2. Carbon Taxes.  I spent much of 2015 advocating for a revenue-neutral carbon tax in Washington State. I love carbon taxes. And in electricity, they can be quite powerful. As I explain elsewhere, though, outside of the electricity sector, carbon taxes are far less effective than believed. They have only a little impact on industry, almost no impact on transportation, and usually aren’t applied to agriculture. If a carbon tax magically passed Congress, I’d cheer, and it could be an effective way to fund some of the proposals here. It’s not a silver bullet, though, and it doesn’t address the hardest sectors.
  3. Carbon Capture. People mean a wide variety of things when they say “carbon capture”.  If we mean retrofitting coal power plants with equipment to capture their carbon emissions and store it, that’s probably a waste of time. Coal is economically dead, even before adding on the cost of carbon capture. On the other hand, the NetPower design for an advanced natural gas plant that has carbon capture built right in could be a great complement to solar and wind, filling in for them during wind droughts in winter. (Though keeping any sort of natural gas in use also requires that we address the serious  problem of methane leaks from natural gas wells and infrastructure.)  

    The most important type of carbon capture, though, is being able to capture carbon directly from the air. I support more R&D into high-tech ways to scrub carbon from the air. I’m also cheered to see the tax credit Congress created to encourage carbon capture. That said, overwhelmingly the most affordable ways to capture carbon, today, are the ones the Green New Deal talks about:  returning carbon to the natural environment, by enriching soils and planting trees. Enriching farm soils and planting trees cost ten times less than fancier methods of carbon capture, and could capture a billion tons of carbon a year in the US alone. What’s more, the US could make those methods even cheaper by spurring new technology – like tree-planting drones, or transparent digital markets for carbon capture – in a way that increases the adoption of carbon capture into natural ecosystems around the world.  Ultimately, we may need to draw even more carbon out of the air than soils and trees can handle.  We should do the R&D for higher tech methods that can do so, and encourage their deployment, even as we use the cheapest methods of soils and forests first.

8 – The cheapest ways to capture carbon are on the bottom of this chart – in soils and forests.

What About Climate Justice?

The Green New Deal advances a plan to fight climate change and to ensure that we do so through a just transition. Here, I think a few principles clearly apply.

  1. First, the cost of the transition shouldn’t be paid by those with the lowest income or who’ve contributed the least to the problem. In the long term, transitioning to a clean economy will make energy, transportation, and the rest of the goods we consume cheaper. If, in the short run, (when we’re using subsidies to scale out new technologies to drive their costs down) there’s any temporary increase in the cost of life’s necessities, that shouldn’t be passed on to low-income Americans. If costs for basic necessities go up, that needs to be offset by policies that buffer lower-income Americans against those changes.
  2. Second, if we need new taxes to pay for these programs, those taxes should be highly progressive. If those taxes are on income, they should come in at the higher tax brackets. This also has to inform our view of a carbon tax. Carbon taxes are, on their own, highly regressive. Lower-income Americans spend a larger fraction of their paycheck on electricity, heating, transportation, and other carbon-intensive goods than wealthier Americans do. Rural Americans, who also tend to be lower income and who have the highest rates of poverty in America, spend even more of their paycheck on transportation. So raising the price of energy, transportation, and other goods hits low-income Americans and rural Americans the hardest. If we use a carbon tax, we can offset it by sending a flat dividend check to every woman, man, and child in America. In Washington State, in our 2016 ballot initiative, we used another approach, using carbon tax revenue to boost the federal Earned Income Tax Credit – a tax credit that goes to low-income working families, and which is the closest thing to a basic income we have now.
  3. Third, we need to help Americans in the most vulnerable communities with climate resistance and climate adaptation. Whether those are communities that are vulnerable to climate-related flooding, crop losses from extreme weather, heat and drought, or to wildfires that will get worse as temperatures rise, society ought to invest in boosting the resilience of these communities, and, if necessary, in helping individuals and communities relocate to areas that are less vulnerable to climate.
  4. Fourth, massive investment in new clean energy, industry, transportation, and agriculture will pour trillions into the US economy. What’s more, it has the potential to turn the US into an exporter of new clean technology. Together, they’ll create the opportunity for potentially millions of new jobs. That opportunity ought to be open to all – to workers in dirty industries like coal who have their jobs displaced, to lower income Americans who have fewer opportunities today, and to immigrants willing to come to America and work. Job training programs, and programs to bridge the gap between the end of an old career and the start of a new one – are a win/win for America. They help us produce the labor pool to transition to this clean economy, and they provide a means for millions of Americans to uplift themselves with new, highly in-demand skills.

All of that is fully in alignment with the Green New Deal resolution.  The GND goes further, though, making the case for universal healthcare, universal higher education, universal housing, a job guarantee for all people in the United States, strengthening unions, reducing discrimination in the workplace, respect for Native American rights and sovereignty, and stopping the transfer of jobs overseas.

Many of those policies are ones I support, or at least where I support the motivations behind them. Yet I am not at all certain those policies should be coupled with climate action. Coupling a long list of liberal priorities with climate action would seem to make it harder to get the bipartisan support we’ll probably need to enact these climate policies.  That said, the Green New Deal resolution is a high level map, not a specific bill. The original New Deal wasn’t one piece of legislation – it was made up of more than 30 separate bills. Democrats should approach the Green New Deal the same way. They ought to embrace the idea that the overall effort may take multiple years and multiple Congresses to enact, and that it’s perfectly acceptable to support some parts of the Green New Deal and not others. They ought to embrace alliances and assistance – including bipartisan alliances – to pass parts of the Green New Deal where they can.

(Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

Climate Action is the Ultimate Climate Justice
Even more importantly, though, acting on climate change itself creates a more just world. Climate change is a slow, insidious, and massive threat to human well-being. It’s also profoundly unjust. Americans may only emit 15% of carbon emissions today, but all the CO2 we’ve emitted in the past will linger in the atmosphere for roughly a century from when it was released. Add up all the carbon the US has emitted over time, and the US remains the largest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet. We Americans are more responsible for climate change than any other nation, even those with many times our population.

Meanwhile, two billion people live in countries that have emitted the least carbon dioxide over history – the poorest countries on planet earth – which are also the countries where people are likely to suffer the most from climate change. Climate change itself is a deep inequity. The most just thing we can do is to address climate change as rapidly as possible, and to produce and spread the tools that also boost climate resilience around the developing world. Indeed, most of the benefits of fighting climate change don’t go to Americans at all. Americans do benefit. But the largest benefits of fighting climate change go to the billions around the world who have the fewest resources and who live in the nations with the greatest vulnerability.
Lower income Americans also stand to suffer more from climate change than do wealthier Americans. A lower-income American in Detroit isn’t as vulnerable as a subsistence farmer in Botswana – not by a long shot. At the same time, it’s hard to deny that Katrina, for example, hit the poor of New Orleans harder than it did the rich. Wealthier Americans can relocate more easily, can pay energy bills more easily, can rebuild from climate disasters more easily. And here again, the most just thing we can do is to act on climate, as rapidly as possible.

Should we find ways to use the fight against climate change to also address the long history of inequality and injustice, and the differences in wealth and income that exist in the US? If so, should we stop there? Climate change is global. Carbon emissions and the harm they cause know no national borders. The harm of American (and European, and more recently Chinese) carbon emissions will fall most heavily on the poor of the developing world. Should climate policy aim to decarbonize the world as rapidly as possible? Or should it aim to decarbonize and address other global ills?

For me, the answer is clear. Climate change itself is so unjust, so lopsided in who has benefited from burning fossil fuels and who will suffer the most from that combustion, that addressing climate change is, itself, to help undo an injustice – one that threatens billions of people around the world.

Let’s tackle all the world’s other problems too. As we do so, let’s keep in mind that addressing climate change, even if we don’t succeed at everything else, is a major, vital, and necessary step towards a more just world.  

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A new Congress means a new opportunity for consumer privacy protections

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The 2018 mid-term elections, for the first time in U.S. history, resulted in a Congress that has the look and feel of America…our very diverse America. There are now 102 women serving in Congress and a record number of Members representing all Americans. Our Members now represent the African American, Hispanic, LGBTQ, and interfaith communities.

Thirteen new members are under the age of 35. This evolution of the legislative branch provides an opportunity to represent the best interests of all consumers. In our digital world, what is it that consumers, from each and every community represented by this new diverse Congress, have asked for? Online privacy protections.

As consumers enjoy the benefits of the great range of services that ride on the internet, they have increasingly lost confidence in once trusted companies who, we now know, have offered false promises of protections for their private online information. In 2018, consumers experienced one of the greatest losses of their personal information when Facebook revealed that Cambridge Analytica gathered the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent.

In another significant incident, Marriott had its database hacked and the information about over 500 million individuals was accessed from their guest reservation system. Uniquely personal information including phone numbers, passport numbers and dates of birth could all be accessed from the Marriott database. These are just two examples, with many other incidences of loss of consumers’ personal data over the past several years by companies small and large.

These data breaches all come at a significant cost to consumers and companies. According to an IBM study last year, the average cost of a data breach per comprised record in 2018 was $148. The total cost of a breach that impacts 50 million comprised records (an average size breach) costs a total of over $350 million – and these dollar amounts increase every year.

While the monetary costs of a data breach are significant to business, the real, and perhaps even greater costs, are borne by consumers. The loss of privacy, the potential for identity theft, and the years it takes to repair the damages that result from identity theft are seemingly immeasurable.

Consumers are now very aware that the country lacks a reliable solution to online privacy threats and concerns. It’s time for Congress to pass legislation that will implement a set of national privacy rules, offering consumers strong privacy and data security protections, and data breach notifications. These privacy rules should be uniformly applied to all companies in the online ecosystem.

Consumers cannot distinguish between the companies they engage with in the online world, so neither should the rules. The best arbiter to manage and enforce these national rules is the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC has the expertise in consumer protection in privacy and security matters and should continue to build on this role with new and enhanced privacy protections.

While state legislative initiatives are noble efforts to offer privacy protections, this approach is not ideal for consumers, or for the digital economy.

They don’t offer uniform rules and they will protect a microcosm of consumers at best. As Representative Susan DelBene recently stated in reference to states moving forward on privacy legislation, “If we are not careful, we risk creating digital borders… within the (United) States causing massive disruptions in digital supply chains and digital trade…” A patchwork of state laws versus a national law could result in other implications for our digital economy as well. Congress must realize the immediate need of this privacy crisis and act; limited state protections cannot fill this void.

The best, and most long-lasting, resolution for consumers is for Congress to approve bipartisan privacy protections, providing national rules of the road for all companies to adhere to in this digital ecosystem.

With the unprecedented diversity represented by this Congress, we can feel confident that all points of view are being heard. It’s time to renew consumer confidence in our online services and devices. Let’s get it done, Congress. Our online privacy is an important protection that just can’t wait.

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Africa Roundup: Zimbabwe’s net blackout, Partech’s $143M fund, Andela’s $100M raise, Flutterwave’s pivot

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A high court in Zimbabwe ended the government’s restrictions on internet and social media last month.

After days of intermittent blackouts at the order of the country’s Minister of State for National Security, ISPs restored connectivity per a January 21 judicial order.

Similar to net shutdowns around the continent, politics and protests were the catalyst. Shortly after the government announced a dramatic increase in fuel prices on January 12, Zimbabwe’s Congress of Trade Unions called for a national strike.

Web and app blackouts in the southern African country followed demonstrations that broke out in several cities. A government crackdown ensued, with deaths reported.

On January 15, Zimbabwe’s largest mobile carrier, Econet Wireless, confirmed that it had complied with a directive from the Minister of State for National Security to shutdown internet.

Net access was restored, taken down again, then restored, but social media sites remained blocked through January 21.

Throughout the restrictions, many of Zimbabwe’s citizens and techies resorted to VPNs and workarounds to access net and social media, as reported in this TechCrunch feature.

Global internet rights group Access Now sprung to action, attaching its #KeepItOn hashtag to calls for the country’s government to reopen cyberspace soon after digital interference began.

The cyber-affair adds Zimbabwe to a growing list of African countries — including Cameroon, Congo and Ethiopia — whose governments have restricted internet expression in recent years.

It also provides another case study for techies and ISPs regaining their cyber rights. Internet and social media are back up in Zimbabwe — at least for now.

Further attempts to restrict net and app access in Zimbabwe will likely revive what’s become a somewhat ironic cycle for cyber shutdowns. When governments cut off internet and social media access, citizens still find ways to use internet and social media to stop them.

Partech doubled its Africa VC fund to $143 million and opened a Nairobi office to complement its Dakar practice.

The Partech Africa Fund plans to make 20 to 25 investments across roughly 10 countries over the next several years, according to general partner Tidjane Deme. The fund has added Ceasar Nyagha as investment officer for the Kenya office to expand its East Africa reach.

Partech Africa will primarily target Series A and B investments and some pre-series rounds at higher dollar amounts. “We will consider seed-funding — what we call seed-plus — tickets in the $500,000 range,” Deme told TechCrunch for this story on the new fund. Partech is open to all sectors “with a strong appetite for people who are tapping into Africa’s informal economies,” he said.

Partech Africa joined several Africa-focused funds over the last few years to mark a surge in VC for the continent’s startups. Partech announced its first raise of $70 million in early 2018 next to TLcom Capital’s $40 million, and TPG Growth’s $2 billion.

Africa-focused VC firms, including those locally run and managed, have grown to 51 globally, according to recent Crunchbase research.

Andela, the company that connects Africa’s top software developers with technology companies from the U.S. and around the world, raised $100 million in a new round of funding.

The new financing from Generation Investment Management (an investment fund co-founded by former VP Al Gore) puts the valuation of the company at somewhere between $600 million and $700 million—based on data available from PitchBook on the company’s valuation.

The company now has more than 200 customers paying for access to the roughly 1,100 developers Andela has trained and manages.

With the new cash in hand, Andela says it will double in size, hiring another thousand developers, and invest in new product development and its own engineering and data resources. More on Andela’s recent raise and focus here at TechCrunch.

Fintech startup Flutterwave announced a new consumer payment product for Africa called GetBarter, in partnership with Visa.

The app-based offering is aimed at facilitating personal and small merchant payments within and across African countries. Existing Visa  cardholders can send and receive funds at home or internationally on GetBarter.

The product also lets non-cardholders (those with accounts or mobile wallets on other platforms) create a virtual Visa card to link to the app.  A Visa spokesperson confirmed the product partnership.

GetBarter allows Flutterwave  — which has scaled as a payment gateway for big companies through its Rave product — to pivot to African consumers and traders.

The app also creates a network for clients on multiple financial platforms to make transfers across payment products and national borders, and to shop online.

“The target market is pretty much everyone who has a payment need in Africa. That includes the entire customer base of M-Pesa,  the entire bank customer base in Nigeria, mobile money and bank customers in Ghana — pretty much the entire continent,” Flutterwave CEO Olugbenga Agboola told TechCrunch in this exclusive.

Flutterwave and Visa will focus on building a GetBarter user base across mobile money and bank clients in Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa, with plans to grow across the continent and reach those off the financial grid.

Founded in 2016, Flutterwave has positioned itself as a global B2B payments solutions platform for companies in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad. It allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber,  Facebook, and African e-commerce unicorn

Flutterwave added operations in Uganda in June and raised a $10 million Series A round in October The company also plugged into ledger activity in 2018, becoming a payment processing partner to the Ripple and Stellar blockchain networks.

Headquartered in San Francisco, with its largest operations center in Nigeria, the startup plans to add operations centers in South Africa and Cameroon, which will also become new markets for GetBarter.

And sadly, Africa’s tech community mourned losses in January. A terrorist attack on Nairobi’s 14 Riverside complex claimed the lives of six employees of fintech startup Cellulant and I-Dev CEO Jason Spindler. Both organizations had been engaged with TechCrunch’s Africa work over the last 24 months. Condolences to  family, friends, and colleagues of those lost.

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

African Tech Around The Net    

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Congress needs your input (but don’t call it crowdsourcing)

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Like many modern digital innovations, “crowdsourcing” is a concept borrowed from the commercial tech industry. It is a method to solicit ideas from the internet masses to complete a task or solve a challenge. It seems a perfect fit for Congress, an entire branch of government stuck in the past, losing public legitimacy and increasingly ineffective in policymaking.

Even though it is the world’s most powerful representative assembly, Congress is working at 45 percent less expert capacity than it did in the 1970s. It has remained in this state of dereliction despite accumulating millions more constituents and demands for consideration. Plus, its most important policy bridge to the public — committee hearings — have declined, sometimes by 50 percent or more.

It’s obvious that Congress could use collaborative assistance.

Yet in a weaponized information environment, crowdsourcing appears unproductive and even ominous.  Take social media platforms. Five years ago, Facebook and Twitter looked like promising venues for more regular voices to provide feedback in the policymaking process. But given the lack of civic guardrails like moderation or verified identity, that “crowd” too often behaves like a hired mob.

My colleague Nate Wong is familiar with crowdsourcing from his years of consulting. He notes that before throwing our hands up, there are some key elements of crowdsourcing to unpack. “Some people would say that crowdsourcing works, but it’s not as effective because the crowd is not curated well.”

At this time, crowdsourcing does not work for policymaking in Congress because participants are not organized for it and the institution itself lacks a curation method for credible input.

Years ago, author James Surowiecki noted that crowds can be wise if they are diverse, if individuals are independent, and if participants are decentralized with locally specific knowledge. Crucially, there also needs to be a mechanism for aggregating input.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Congress should be this mechanism. Informed public deliberation should be its forte. But right now, our system does not have the capacity nor the incentives to reap the benefits of collective wisdom. Before we jump to crowdsourcing, we must ask ourselves, how much assistance can be useful outside the institution unless the in-house capacity exists to process it? And, how much can we citizens expect our leaders to take risks on behalf of democratic discourse when flash-mobs, ambush tactics and armies of contempt lurk in every public space? As it stands, Congress does not have the technical infrastructure to ingest all this new input in any systematic way. Individual members lack a method to sort and filter signal from noise or trusted credible knowledge from malicious falsehood and hype.

What Congress needs is curation, not just more information

Curation means discovering, gathering and presenting content. This word is commonly thought of as the job of librarians and museums, places we go to find authentic and authoritative knowledge. Similarly, Congress needs methods to sort and filter information as required within the workflow of lawmaking. From personal offices to committees, members and their staff need context and informed judgement based on broadly defined expertise. The input can come from individuals or institutions. It can come from the wisdom of colleagues in Congress or across the federal government. Most importantly, it needs to be rooted in local constituents and it needs to be trusted.

It is not to say that crowdsourcing is unimportant for our governing system. But input methods that include digital must demonstrate informed and accountable deliberative methods over time. Governing is the curation part of democracy. Governing requires public review, understanding of context, explanation and measurements of value for the nation as a whole. We are already thinking about how to create an ethical blockchain. Why not the same attention for our most important democratic institution?

Governing requires trade-offs that elicit emotion and sometimes anger. But as in life, emotions require self-regulation. In Congress, this means compromise and negotiation. In fact, one of the reasons Congress is so stuck is that its own deliberative process has declined at every level. Besides the official committee process stalling out, members have few opportunities to be together as colleagues, and public space is increasingly antagonistic and dangerous.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

With so few options, members are left with blunt communications objects like clunky mail management systems and partisan talking points. This means that lawmakers don’t use public input for policy formation as much as to surveil public opinion.

Any path forward to the 21st century must include new methods to (1) curate and hear from the public in a way that informs policy AND (2) incorporate real data into a results-driven process.

While our democracy is facing unprecedented stress, there are bright spots. Congress is again dedicating resources to an in-house technology assessment capacity. Earlier this month, the new 116th Congress created a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. It will be chaired by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA). Then the Open Government Data Act became law. This law will potentially scale the level of access to government data to unprecedented levels. It will require that all public-facing federal data must be machine-readable and reusable. This is a move in the right direction, and now comes the hard part.

Marci Harris, the CEO of civic startup Popvox, put it well, “The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking (FEBP) Act, which includes the OPEN Government Data Act, lays groundwork for a more effective, accountable government. To realize the potential of these new resources, Congress will need to hire tech literate staff and incorporate real data and evidence into its oversight and legislative functions.”

In forsaking its own capacity for complex problem solving, Congress has become non-competitive in the creative process that moves society forward. During this same time period, all eyes turned toward Silicon Valley to fill the vacuum. With mass connection platforms and unlimited personal freedom, it seemed direct democracy had arrived. But that’s proved a bust. If we go by current trends, entrusting democracy to Silicon Valley will give us perfect laundry and fewer voting rights. Fixing democracy is a whole-of-nation challenge that Congress must lead.

Finally, we “the crowd” want a more effective governing body that incorporates our experience and perspective into the lawmaking process, not just feel-good form letters thanking us for our input. We also want a political discourse grounded in facts. A “modern” Congress will provide both, and now we have the institutional foundation in place to make it happen.

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How business-to-business startups reduce inequality

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When considering the structural impact of technology companies on our economy and society, we tend to focus on questions of scale and monopoly.

It’s true that the FAANG companies and more recent winners (Airbnb, Uber) have surfed a combination of network effects, preferential access to capital and classic efficiencies of scale to generate tremendous value for their shareholders—to the detriment of new entrants who attempt to unseat them.

At their high water mark in mid-2018, FAANG alone made up 11% of the total market cap of the S&P 500 and 38% of the index’s year-to-date gain, representing a doubling in their influence in only five years. The question of regulating technology companies—to the point of instituting anti-trust actions—has even become a rare point of relative concord between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

But is the narrative of tech companies in the 2010s only a story of economic consolidation and growing inequality? Many of the most successful B2B startups of the last decade are aligned by a theme that paints a different picture. By transforming the nature of the costs required to start a business, these startups are reducing the influence of capital and leveling the playing field for new entrants to share in the surplus generated by the secular shift to a tech-mediated economy.

Source: Getty Images/MIKIEKWOODS

A Path To Equal Opportunity: Turning Fixed Costs Into Variable Costs

What do AWSWeWorkStordGusto and RocketLawyer have in common? They provide cloud computing services, office space, warehouse storage, payroll management and access to legal templates, respectively—at first glance, not a particularly congruent set of services.

But they are alike in the economic purpose they serve for their customers. Each of these services takes a fixed cost—a bank of servers, a lease, a legal retainer—and transforms it into a variable cost. As a refresher, a fixed cost stays constant regardless of output, and variable costs scale with the output of a business.

When my father started his software consulting business in the early 1990s, I remember the giant boxes of AIX servers that arrived at our apartment, and tagging along to office tours in central New Jersey before he decided to run the company out of our spare bedroom. Back then, starting almost any kind of business was hard because of high fixed costs. Without AWS or WeWork, you shelled out up front for hardware and a lease.

Access to capital, whether in the form of a bank loan, savings, or friends and family was a prerequisite for entrepreneurship.

Today, startups make it possible to start and scale almost any kind of business while incurring few fixed costs. Want to found an ecommerce store? Start with a free Shopify account and dropship your inventory. Want to become a freelance designer? Put a shingle up on Fiverr and meet clients at a Breather you rent by the hour.

Whether software or hardware or labor, building a business is way easier when overhead is transformed into a string of flexible microservices that you only pay for as you grow.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Lower Fixed Costs Means Capital Matters Less

Taken together, startups that turn fixed costs into variable costs make it less capital intensive to start a business. This decreases the influence of gatekeepers and aggregators of capital—an impact evident in the way entrepreneurs think about starting businesses today.

It’s no coincidence that the rise of B2B startups fitting this theme has coincided with the bootstrap movement, in which tech entrepreneurs with major ambitions demur from raising venture funding because—well, they don’t need the money anymore.

It has also coincided with a renaissance in freelance entrepreneurship: 56.7 million Americans freelanced in 2018. Beyond the economic benefits of working for yourself—the fastest growing segment of freelancers earns over $75,000 a year—freelancers can access the lifestyle and health benefits of owning their destiny, which aren’t directly captured but play a role in the economic picture. 51% of freelancers said no amount of money would lure them into a traditional job, and 64% reported feeling healthier and happier.

When capital plays a reduced role in new business formation, access to capital plays a smaller role in determining who will succeed. More companies are founded, and the economy becomes more likely to birth new Davids that will unseat the Goliaths. Economics 101: lower barriers to entry create markets that converge on perfect competition instead of oligarchic concentration.

Sourlce: Getty Images/ERHUI1979

Variable Costs Don’t Scale, But That’s OK

Variable costs have their downsides. A startup with a relatively higher proportion of fixed costs—the profile of the classic high-tech software business—can achieve higher profit margins as it scales. Compare Microsoft or Google, which pay high fixed costs in the form of salaries and servers but few costs in delivering their services and achieve operating margins of 25-30%, to Costco, which takes in more than $100B of annual revenue but earns an operating margin in the single digits.

That’s OK. Neither type of cost is “better” or “worse,” but having the option to decide how to structure costs through a company’s lifecycle can meaningfully impact an entrepreneur’s ability to execute a business idea.
Founders investigating startup ideas—and politicians debating the impact of technology—would do well to pay attention to how B2B companies have democratized access to entrepreneurship.

Equality of outcome arrives from equality of opportunity—and a future where millions of people can start businesses, differentiate, and succeed on the basis of their ability and value proposition, rather than their access to capital, sounds like a promising representation of the egalitarian ethos Silicon Valley wants to bring to pass.

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