Assessing the Health of American Democracy

A Washington Post article on different assessments of the stability of American democracy cited the 2022 Berggruen Governance Index, which tracks quality of life, governance and democracy in countries around the world. The article noted that the U.S. political status quo has triggered pessimism and despair, yet several countries still regard the United States as a bulwark of liberal democratic values. The recently released Berggruen Governance Index, a collaborative project of UCLA Luskin and the Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute, identified significant declines in U.S. “state capacity” and “democratic accountability” over the past 20 years. “The steepness of the U.S.’s drop is unusual: Its path parallels Brazil, Hungary and Poland much more closely than that of Western Europe or the other wealthy Anglophone countries,” according to Markus Lang and Edward Knudsen, researchers who work with the governance index’s principal investigator, Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Helmut Anheier.


Pierce on Floating Desalination Plants for Disaster Relief

Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to BBC about the prospect of floating desalination plants to bolster scarce supplies of fresh water worldwide. Desalination plants remove the salt from seawater, but the process of pumping large volumes of water across membranes at high pressure is expensive and energy-intensive. Now, engineers are working on building floating, nuclear-powered desalination systems that would make it much easier to create clean drinking water and power. Pierce noted that the most significant application of floating desalination systems could be in disaster relief. The current method of flying and trucking in bottled water after a disaster is “the most inefficient thing possible,” he said. “If floating desalination can address that, I’m all for that.” However, in other contexts, there are many other ways of securing clean water supplies that are more cost-effective, Pierce said.

Rowe on the New Frontier of Weed Cafes

Public Policy lecturer Brad Rowe was featured in a New York Times article about the emerging business of weed cafes across California. To compete with the huge illegal marijuana market in California, new lounges are opening where customers can consume cannabis on site by vaping, smoking or eating edibles. However, Rowe pointed out that there will be many new policy questions to sort out with the emergence of these cannabis lounges. “These are a totally new frontier,” he said. For example, California law restricts indoor smoking and there are regulations in place to protect employees from working in smoke-filled environments. According to Rowe, “this segment of the industry is in the infancy of its infancy.” The beach town Port Hueneme recently became the first city in Ventura County to legalize the lounges. “We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” Rowe said. “We’ve got some figuring out to do.”

Gun Violence Creates Shockwaves, Kaplan Says

Social Welfare Professor Mark Kaplan was featured in an Alabama Media Group article about a shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. The attack left three people dead, but it is not considered a “mass shooting” since that term technically refers to shootings with four or more victims. Experts have noted that gun violence is on the rise in Alabama and across the United States, and the entire community of Vestavia Hills was rocked by the shooting. “When we hear about shootings in schools, churches, grocery stores, that does send shockwaves across the citizens,” said Kaplan, an authority on gun violence.

Astor Cautions Against ‘Making Schools Into Little Prisons’

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor spoke about competing approaches to curbing gun violence in an extended interview on the Slate podcast “What Next.” Astor cautioned against plans that would “make schools into little prisons” with metal detectors, steel doors, armed teachers and other strategies to “harden” campuses, which can deepen students’ anxiety, according to research. He called for vigilance to detect a constellation of risk factors displayed by potential school shooters, including suicidal thoughts, a hunger for attention and an extreme obsession with firearms, prior shooters and conspiracy theories that focus on harming others. Several other media outlets have also called on Astor to share his expertise on the most effective strategies to create a safe campus environment; current legislation to curb gun violence; and an eight-point call to action put forth by a nationwide coalition of scholars. They include Time, ABC News, the New York Times, EdWeek and K-12 Dive.


Climate Disasters Are Intertwined With Policy, Goh Says

Kian Goh, assistant professor of urban planning, was mentioned in a KCET article about the misleading language surrounding extreme weather events. In recent years, harmful events including heat waves, wildfires and floods have been called “climate disasters,” and many politicians have pointed to them as proof of the dire need for urgent action to address climate change. However, some experts have argued that the focus on climate in the phrase “climate disasters” fails to acknowledge the role of policies that make certain communities more vulnerable to disasters in the first place. Goh explained that many disasters are “completely intertwined” with how cities are planned and governed, down to where neighborhoods were built in the first place. The international “No Natural Disasters” campaign rejects the idea that natural hazards are the sole cause of disasters and seeks to reframe the conversation around social and political factors.

Manville Responds to Oakland A’s Stadium Proposal

Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville spoke to Courthouse News about the Oakland A’s stadium proposal for the Port of Oakland. At a public hearing, the proposed $12 billion ballpark project at California’s third largest port in Oakland sparked significant controversy. Many industry workers are concerned about losing the Port’s Howard Terminal to a huge development, and the proposal has already prompted three lawsuits in opposition. According to Manville, such large projects are “magnets for controversy” which can deter developers who have to fend off lawsuits. He explained that many urban planners advise against using valuable land for stadiums. “If the value comes from building housing and commercial, then just build housing and commercial,” Manville said. “Oakland has a lot of needs. Certainly there’s many things they could put that money into that could be a better use of those funds.”

Astor on Dangers of False Alarm Violent Threats

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor was featured in a New York Times article about the disturbing increase in school shooting threats across the country. Social media has made it increasingly easy to craft violent threats that clog up one of the few avenues law enforcement has to police them. These hoax threats have increased in prevalence following deadly mass shootings, including the killing of 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. New York City has fielded an average of two school shooting threats per day this year, and an average of six per day in the week following the May 24 Uvalde shooting. Law enforcement officials are concerned that the increase in hoax threats will make it more difficult to identify real threats. “If the system becomes overwhelmed by false alarms, some could slip through,” Astor said. “It takes away a big tool.”

Manville on Affordable Housing’s Impact on Property Values

Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville was featured in an Orange County Register article about a recent study on the relationship among affordable housing, property value and crime. Research by the Livable Cities Lab at UC Irvine examined the impact of affordable developments in Orange County and found that affordable housing did not increase crime or drag down housing values. In many cases, there was a positive impact on property values after affordable housing was built. Manville explained that affordable housing is highly regulated and “we put it in places where lower-income people are already likely to live.” He said that while the addition of affordable housing can bring down property values in affluent, exclusive areas, it is rarely allowed to do so. But he added, “The purpose of public policy is not to keep your home value high.”

Heed the Data Behind Criminal Justice Measures, Leap Says

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap spoke to the San Francisco Chronicle about decisions awaiting the city’s next top prosecutor after the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin. During his time in office, Boudin changed policies relating to cash bail, charging minors as adults and California’s “three strikes” law, among other reforms. Leap, an expert on gangs, criminal justice and prison reform, pointed to research on the effectiveness of different approaches to deterring crime. For example, there is little research to back up the claim that cash bail provides an incentive for people to return to court so they don’t forfeit what they paid. In addition, the use of gang enhancements, which can add time to defendants’ sentences if they are proven to have been motivated by gang ties, are ineffective and do nothing to address the causes of crime, she said. “We have no accountability for how this is done — no research studies, no nothing,” Leap said.