This is a pro Cantwell-Collins post.  It’s a post that echoes what the Economist wrote this week and what stalwarts like Mike Tidwell and John Passacantando have been saying for years: cap and dividend is great environmental policy, great social policy, and great economic policy.  After all, what’s not to like?:

  • Put a cap on the sources of global-warming polution as they are introduced into the economy
  • Give 75% of the revenues generated from that cap to everyone with a social security number – a total of about $1100 for a family of four
  • Use the remaining 25% to invest in clean-energy and carbon sequestration so we can win the green-jobs race vs. China and others.

Indeed, here’s a suggestion: describe the bill that way to your friends and neighbors and see how they react.  If your experience is like mine, they’ll simply say: “How can I sign up?!” 

Sure, many green groups (and prominent green spokespeople) are against Cantwell-Collins.  In some cases, vehemently so.  Their biggest objection is that the bill is not stringent enough.  But that argument (which has holes in it – see this description by WRI on why their methodology undercounts Cantwell-Collins’ emissions reductions) completely misses the point: what makes cap and dividend such a great piece of legislation is that it represents something new, an approach to lawmaking that Americans are deeply thirsty for.     

And that is what this post is really about: that Americans are ready for a new way to make laws, for a new democracy that fully rejects insiderism in Washington DC.  And here’s the thing – I think we have the tools to spark just such a new approach.

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My argument begins with what Lawrence Lessig describes so well in this week’s Nation.  Americans of all political persuasions – Tea Partiers and Move On folks alike – are disgusted by what Congress has become:

The source of America’s cynicism is not hard to find. Americans despise the inauthentic.  … We may want peace and prosperity, but most would settle for simple integrity. Yet the single attribute least attributed to Congress, at least in the minds of the vast majority of Americans, is just that: integrity. And this is because most believe our Congress is a simple pretense. That rather than being, as our framers promised, an institution “dependent on the People,” the institution has developed a pathological dependence on campaign cash. … This is corruption. Not the corruption of bribes, or of any other crime known to Title 18 of the US Code. Instead, it is a corruption of the faith Americans have in this core institution of our democracy.  

As many have noted (here’s my relevant take), this is one way to interpret the Scott Brown result: Americans are sick of all that seems corrupt, phony, and self-serving in our body politic.

And let me add something more.  As Jeremy Rifkin’s powerful new book suggests, there’s an “empathy gap” around the world right now – even as science is beginning to find evidence of how empathy is baked into our DNA.  As Arrian Hufflington recently summarizes in her review of Rifkin’s book:

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According to Rifkin, the progress of civilization has been a constant struggle between empathy — increased human connection — and entropy, the deterioration of the health of the planet. It is, quite literally, a race against time. “We are on the cusp of an epic shift,” he writes. “The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy.”

So if we want integrity and empathy in the way we govern, how can we begin … on a national scale?  For starters, we should take a page or two from the books of two recent green trends: slow food and slow money.  These two succesful mini-movements are built around characteristics that resonate not just with environmentalists, but with all Americans:

  • They connect us with the mythic view of our past, a past in which indigenous people (many centuries), pioneers like Thoreau (19th century), Scott Nearing (20th Century) and many others seem to have attained a more connected life: a life that is slower. more patient and therefore more rewarding
  • They are clear, straightforward ideas that provide concrete solutions to modern complexities. In our weird high-tech state of modernity, too many of us race around, not thinking about what we ingest and what are savings (should we be lucky enough to have any!) are really doing. Jointly, slow food and slow money not only help us to ease off the throttle; they also give us things to do in the time we free up. Enjoy a relaxing meal with friends; celebrate the difference your money is making in your community.  In this way, each is a double tonic.
  • They help us to connect.  I haven’t seen data on this, but I’m guessing that both slow food and slow money have worked, in many localities around the world, in part because they are engines for connectedness.    

All told, each of these ideas is pretty darn brilliant: they connect us to the best of our past, provide timely solutions to our present, and lay the groundwork for empathy.

So here’s my punchline.  We need an equivalent idea for governance, a concept that feels grounded in our history, helps us all to ease up a bit, and connects us a bit more with folks of many inclinations in diverse localities.  In short, a simpler. more authentic form of democracy, a democracy of integrity and empathy. 

What to call it?  Alas, ‘slow democracy’ doesn’t work – that’s in some ways what we are all against! How about ‘deliberative democracy’? 

If you like that term, then check this out: such a thing is alive and well, as noted here.  For years now, scholars and practitioners have been using the tools of deliberative democracy – in which a randomly-selected group of citizens is convened to weigh in on an important policy issue – to bring about change.  Think of it as jury duty meets town meeting: as noted here by James Fishkin, the idea of deliberartive democracy is to promote decision-making that is ruled by “the voice of the people, when they are thinking.”  To learn more, check out the videos here, at Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy.  

This brings me back to Cantwell-Collins.  I am sure that DC-powers-that-be will not just walk away from cap and trade and embrace cap and dividend: human nature doesn’t work that way.  And I am even more certain that a certain brand of politician – Inhofe et al. – will not suddenly embrace the need to fight global warming.   

So how to move forward?  I propose that a couple of forward-thinking funders sponsor ten deliberative-democracy sessions, in ten
representative parts of the country, in which four alternatives for national climate policy are presented to the randomly selected Americans in attendance:

  1. Do nothing
  2. No Cap (the so-called Plan B energy bill)
  3. Cap and Trade
  4. Cap and Dividend

Based on the latest poll results from Yale 360 and what I hear everytime I talk about cap and dividend, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that choice 4 will win in such a deliberative setting –  hands down.

And such a country-wide exercise wouldn’t be just a vote for a specific piece of legislation (as important as so many of us think it is.)  It would be a vote for something even bigger: an approach to democracy that promises integrity, empathy, and also effectiveness.

And who knows, maybe when these ten deliberative sessions end, the participants will invite others to their homes, slowly cook up some food, and then discuss how they will invest in their local towns and farms. 

And if we all get it right, they’ll be able to do the same next year with a fresh $1100 in their pocket, thanks to Senator Cantwell, Senator Collins and a reinvigorated American democracy.