Saturday, May 10, 2008

Let's comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted

Sam Smith has no use for either of the Clintons -- hasn't for many years -- but he also has no use for the media piling on Mrs. C to get out of the race:

Under the rules of traditional journalism a fight is always better than its resolution. The former can last forever; the latter is stale news in a day or two.

But ever since the media became indentured servants of the powerful, this is no longer true. As soon as it seemed Obama would win the nomination, the media was out to show it recognized the fact and Clinton, like a bleeding, losing canine in a dog fight, was to be put to rest. Little things like the practice of democracy and the intrinsic purpose of even having a convention are placed aside out of respect for the presumptive winner.

You see this same creepy coddling of power in the way the media makes fun of third party candidates, worthy causes that lack major power, or singers who get kicked off American Idol. ...Let's hope the political media doesn't start covering sports events. You'd end up paying for nine innings and only getting five.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Foreign policy as if the people were consulted

Public Agenda notes in a recent email that
Americans balk at being the world’s policeman, but they wouldn’t mind being the world's firefighter, moving in with humanitarian aid in a crisis. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) say helping out in natural disasters should be a "very important" priority, according to our Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index. That puts disaster relief on a par with preventing the spread of nuclear weapons for the public. While few foreign policy experts would frame disaster relief in these terms, the public has been quite consistent on this. ...
whether or not disasters were in the news.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Getting the lead out = getting the crime out?

The National Bureau of Economic Research, a dependable source of reading on topics you hadn't thought of, summarizes recent work by Amherst economist Jessica Wolpaugh Reyes on the relationship between reduced lead in the environment and reduced crime a generation later:

In her state-by-state analysis, Reyes controls for other possible determinants of crime rates, including the unemployment rate and per capita income, the number of prisoners and police, gun laws, beer consumption, welfare generosity, the teen pregnancy rate, the population age distribution, and the effective abortion rate. The results suggest that a 10 percent increase in the grams of lead per gallon of gasoline leads to a 7.9 percent increase in violent crime. These results are subjected to a number of sensitivity tests, with particular attention paid to the importance of certain states, the possibility of a non-linear relationship, and the role of alternate lead measures....

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Local burgers worse than chicken from far away

The latest from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh:
Substituting chicken, fish, or vegetables for red meat just once a week can help combat climate change — even more dramatically than buying locally sourced food, according to scientists in Pennsylvania who studied the environmental impacts of food production and distribution in the United States. The study is scheduled for the May 15 issue of ACS’s bi-weekly journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Full article here.

Monday, May 5, 2008


Michael Axworthy makes several good points at HNN, of which this is one:

The fundamental problem with Iran is not that the Iranian government is stuffed with fanatics (for the most part, despite the rhetoric, Iranian foreign policy has been pragmatic, notably in helping to get rid of the Taliban and set up a democratic regime in Afghanistan), nor that it is hell-bent on getting a nuclear weapon (important Iranian religious leaders have declared that nuclear weapons, and all weapons of mass destruction, are immoral and unacceptable). The problem is the dysfunctional US/Iran relationship. If that were resolved, the other problems (nuclear, Iraq) would fall away.

Ms. Clinton could use such an advisor.

Friday, May 2, 2008

When Clinton and McCain agree, run for the hills

Fact Check's quick summary:

Hillary Clinton and John McCain are offering overburdened motorists a federal "gasoline tax holiday." But economists say that the proposal is unlikely to actually lower the price of gasoline. McCain's plan would essentially give federal funds to oil refineries, while the net effect of Clinton's plan probably wouldn't be much at all, although it would create a lot of new administrative work.

(BTW, in the worm's-eye view of the Indiana primary, our household has received six calls of various kinds on behalf of Clinton, none on behalf of Obama.)

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Ike foreshadowed

President Eisenhower's notorious reference to the desirability of "a deeply felt religious faith and I don't care what it is" supposedly appeared in the New York Times of 23 December 1952, but I am too cheap to check. This reductio ad absurdum of Protestantism has a longer pedigree than I had imagined. The following comes from A.T. Andreas's History of Chicago, volume 2, page 439, about the First Unitarian Church founded in 1857. BTW, this was no fringe outfit; one of it stalwarts was early railroad executive William M. Larrabee:

"Early in its history this Church attempted to formulate a creed, but found its belief too inclusive, and so abandoned the attempt. The only article of faith upon which all could unite was, that each member might entertain his own belief."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Energy independence -- code word for whatever you like

Paul Roberts makes an interesting case in Mother Jones:

Thoughtful observers have been trying to debunk energy independence since Nixon's time. And yet the dream refuses to die, in no small part because it offers political cover for a whole range of controversial initiatives. Ethanol refiners wave the banner of independence as they lobby Congress for massive subsidies. Likewise for electric utilities and coal producers as they push for clean coal and a nuclear renaissance. And it shouldn't surprise that some of the loudest proponents of energy liberation support plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other off-limits areas to oil drilling—despite the fact that such moves would, at best, cut imports by a few percentage points. In the doublespeak of today's energy lexicon, says Julia Bovey of the Natural Resources Defense Council, "'energy independence' has become code for 'drill it all.'"

Yet it isn't only the hacks for old energy and Archer Daniels Midland who are to blame. Some proponents of good alternatives like solar and wind have also harped on fears of foreign oil to advance their own sectors—even though many of these technologies are decades away from being meaningful oil replacements.

Put another way, the "debate" over energy independence is not only disingenuous, it's also a major distraction from the much more crucial question—namely, how we're going to build a secure and sustainable energy system. Because what America should be striving for isn't energy independence, but energy security—that is, access to energy sources that are reliable and reasonably affordable, that can be deployed quickly and easily, yet are also safe and politically and environmentally sustainable.

History vs. market fundamentalism

Brad DeLong quotes George Soros:

the system, as it currently operates, is built on false premises. Unfortunately, we have an idea of market fundamentalism, which is now the dominant ideology, holding that markets are self-correcting; and this is false because it's generally the intervention of the authorities that saves the markets when they get into trouble. Since 1980, we have had about five or six crises: the international banking crisis in 1982, the bankruptcy of Continental Illinois in 1984, and the failure of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998, to name only three. Each time, it's the authorities that bail out the market, or organize companies to do so. So the regulators have precedents they should be aware of. But somehow this idea that markets tend to equilibrium and that deviations are random has gained acceptance and all of these fancy instruments for investment have been built on them...

Monday, April 28, 2008

Small things count

I commend to you Jamie Kalven's essay here under the Chicago Tribune umbrella. One key to it is a paragraph he wrote in Slate 5 1/2 years ago:
There are large violent acts. There are no large healing acts. Healing is a matter of small acts of attention and care sustained over time. When men aspire to large healing acts, they generally come up with things like lynchings and wars.

Friday, April 25, 2008

If natural selection was God's tool, what does that imply?

Noah Millman makes an interesting point (h/t Ross Douthat):
science does have implications for the persuasiveness of specific religious doctrines, simply as a psychological matter. And I think evolution through natural selection is extremely uncongenial to the central Christian story about the nature of sin and evil in the world. Why? Because the Christian story has the entry of strife into the world come about as the result of human sin, whereas the core idea behind evolution by natural selection is that our existence – and the consciousness and ability to sin that comes with it – is a product of strife. Put bluntly: natural selection is not the mechanism that the Christian deity would use to create man in His image. Or, if it is, I’d like to see the explanation. I think that natural selection poses similar but less-acute problems for Judaism and Islam; it poses the fewest problems, I suspect, for Hinduism. Again: I’m not speaking of science refuting religion. I’m speaking of scientific results making certain core religious claims less persuasive.
Perhaps needless to say, there's more where this came from.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It's going to be a long bad year

Sam Smith at Undernews:
While Bill Clinton got away with treating national policy as one long television commercial, it is worth remembering that he initially snuck in thanks to Ross Perot. Further, as a con artist, he is far more skilled than either his wife or Obama.

The Republicans, on the other hand, can put up a candidate as intrinsically weak as John McCain and still have him run neck and neck with either of the two Democrats, despite each having extraordinarily passionate constituencies.

The difference is that the GOP believes in something that transcends whoever is running for office. For nearly three decades, in fact, Republican mythology has so dominated political discussion that the media and the public accept much of it as the norm, witness in the war on terror and the limitless virtues of capitalism.

The fact that the GOP is wrong, heartless, stupid and mean about much of this merely adds power to the argument that it helps to believe in something.

Ever since Bill Clinton dismantled the Democratic belief system, his party has virtually forgotten what it thinks. It has no comprehensible plan for the economy, the environment, the Iraqi war, cities, education or who's coming for dinner. It has become just another House of Pancake Makeup, presenting what it believes will look good on television.
I wouldn't demonize Bill that much; those who think government can do good and that communities and collectives are real as well as individuals have had trouble getting their message across in all countries for the last quarter-century or so. (This is actually the same logic, BTW, that shows sprawl isn't primarily caused by US subsidies or US racism.) But the current scene doesn't offer a lot of, er, hope.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

From America the Omnipotent to America the Doomed

Ian Buruma has a nice New Yorker gang review of books on the decline of the US, or is it the rise of China/India etc.? I enjoyed his take on Robert Kagan: "Reading Kagan is like reading the work of a very clever Marxist: the logic is impeccable, even when the premise is wrong."

Buruma has a deadly eye for bad premises and overgeneralizations, of which Kagan is far from the only supplier. B. himself treads somewhere between the optimistic liberal internationalists who think prosperity will automatically bring peaceful cooperation on one hand, and the gun-toting neocons and their thuggish president on the other.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Of Prairie, Woods, & Water

Joel Greenberg, author of the definitive A Natural History of the Chicago Region (my lengthy review here) has edited Of Prairie, Woods, & Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing, brand-new, gorgeously designed and published by the University of Chicago Press.

I won't even pretend to have read all of his 100 selections, which range from the 1700s to 1960. I can say they include well-known naturalists and writers like Gene Stratton-Porter and Jens Jensen, and unheard-of ones like Colbee Benton. Like Greenberg's own history, this book defines the Chicago region with appropriate generosity, stretching north into Wisconsin, southeast into Indiana, and around the corner into southwest Michigan.

(Greenberg will be on WBEZ-FM 91.5 tonight at 9 pm Central. I'll link to the podcast if one becomes available later.)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Another cult

The Cato Institute is promoting Gene Healy's book The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power. He writes in a mass email:
Americans have come to see the president as a figure responsible for solving all our problems and fulfilling all our hopes and dreams. Is it any wonder then that the presidency has burst its constitutional bonds and grown powerful enough to threaten
American liberty?

Using historical scholarship, legal analysis, and cultural commentary, my book traces the growth of the Imperial Presidency over the course of the 20th century, showing how the Imperial Presidency has been a regularly recurring feature of American life for nearly a century. George W. Bush has, in short, followed a path marked out by history’s ‘great’ presidents.
Why pick on just the 20th century? Activist presidents like Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase), Jackson (Indian "removal"), Lincoln (Civil War), and Grant (Reconstruction) -- and their worshippers -- are all over the 19th century.

I'm curious enough to ask, but probably not curious enough to actually read the book: does Healy confront the problem that sometimes liberties conflict? The "rights" to secede and to hold black people in bondage were surely infringed by activist presidents, but allowing those "liberties" probably would have hindered the expansion of corporate capitalism across a large uniformly governed area. If Healy is expounding an actual political philosophy and not just playing ventriloquist's dummy for a certain portion of the upper crust, he'll produce a rationale that goes beyond just hating on the New Deal.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The new energy world order

Michael Klare , author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy:
There are few countries — perhaps a dozen altogether — with enough oil, gas, coal, and uranium (or some combination thereof) to meet their own energy needs and provide significant surpluses for export. Not surprisingly, such states will be able to extract increasingly beneficial terms from the much wider pool of energy-deficit nations dependent on them for vital supplies of energy. These terms, primarily of a financial nature, will result in growing mountains of petrodollars being accumulated by the leading oil producers, but will also include political and military concessions.

In the case of oil and natural gas, the major energy-surplus states can be counted on two hands. Ten oil-rich states possess 82.2% of the world’s proven reserves. In order of importance, they are: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Russia, Libya, Kazakhstan, and Nigeria. The possession of natural gas is even more concentrated. Three countries — Russia, Iran, and Qatar — harbor an astonishing 55.8% of the world supply. All of these countries are in an enviable position to cash in on the dramatic rise in global energy prices and to extract from potential customers whatever political concessions they deem important.

We have seen the future, and regardless of who wins the election we're not going to be in charge.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Don't know much about blasphemy

Damon Linker reviews Charles Marsh's Wayward Christian Soldiers in The New Republic:
Evangelicals, in his view, have actively betrayed Jesus. ... Consider Bush's speech at Ellis Island on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks. In his remarks, the president described the United States as the 'hope of all mankind' and asserted that this 'hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.' Marsh bristles at this passage, which alludes to the prologue to the gospel of John but modifies its message in a crucially important respect. Whereas the New Testament describes God as the light that will not be overcome by the darkness that surrounds it, Bush ascribed divine agency to America. For Marsh, this substitution is unforgivable -- nothing less than the idolatrous 'identification of the United States with Christian revelation.'
Hubris? Blasphemy? What say you?

Monday, April 14, 2008


The New Rules Project offers some guidance to localists everywhere:
One way communities can ensure that redevelopment projects and new retail centers include locally owned businesses is to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with the developer that stipulates how much of the project's retail space must be set aside for local businesses.
When I was growing up, localism (like balanced federal budgets) was a conservative thing. Now it seems to some extent to have crossed the spectrum, what with a Republican president spending like a drunken sailor and expanding federal power from schooling to torture, while liberals drool over farmers' markets and local food. What has been going on here?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Then and now

"The times recall those of the late 1800s," writes my friend Jim Krohe in Illinois Issues (this portion of which isn't on line),
that gave rise to the biz schools. Then, as now, rapacious corporations strode over the land, corrupting politics, exploiting aggrieved workers and leaving citizens at large appalled by the damage that the untrammeled pursuit of profit had done to their cities and civic values. The difference is, back then the new biz schools hoped to bring civilized values to the running of business.
Then, professional management expertise was expected to reconcile labor and capital, ethics and self-aggrandizement. What now?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Conservation: learn first, buy later

My friends John Porterfield and Cappy Kidd at Informed Energy Decisions just got a new shot of publicity from A Fresh Squeeze. If you aren't already inspired to call them for an energy audit BEFORE you make a possibly pointless investment in new windows, then check out the Reader story from 2006. They're students and practitioners of "building science":
Building science looks at energy-saving ideas in the context of an entire structure. One recent client, says Porterfield, was thinking of spending $700 on attic ventilation fans for his building. "We told him that was a waste of money. A 1978 National Bureau of Standards study established that running roof fans just increases electricity use for cooling, without improving on natural ventilation through grills. That's only one of thousands of in-field energy-efficiency studies that builders and buyers are unaware of."

People ambushed by high heating bills often ask Porterfield and Kidd, Where can I buy the right appliance? They answer that in nonemergency situations it's more important to reduce their home's larger energy losses first, then buy equipment to fit their new lower energy needs. In other words, make sure the building shell is doing the best possible job of using and retaining whatever energy is put into it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Are Newspapers Doomed? Do We Care?

My former colleague Mike Miner points to an online symposium on whether newspapers are doomed. Read all about it and post there if you choose; I've got videos to watch.

As both of my faithful readers will have noticed, posting on this blog has become intermittent and is likely to remain so, at best. The business of re-inventing my life post-journalism doesn't leave time for me to create daily posts of the kind that I would like to read. (No, I'm not short of opinions, just short of the time to make them defensible!) In a blogging emergency you should always be able to find me at

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Iraq: out now

Sam Smith points to retired Lt. Gen. William Odom's 2 April 08 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
The only sensible strategy is to withdraw rapidly but in good order. Only that step can break the paralysis now gripping US strategy in the region. The next step is to choose a new aim, regional stability, not a meaningless victory in Iraq. And progress toward that goal requires revising our policy toward Iran. If the president merely renounced his threat of regime change by force, that could prompt Iran to lessen its support to Taliban groups in Afghanistan. Iran detests the Taliban and supports them only because they will kill more Americans in Afghanistan as retaliation in event of a US attack on Iran. Iran's policy toward Iraq would also have to change radically as we withdraw. It cannot want instability there. Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, and they know that Persians look down on them. Cooperation between them has its limits.

No quick reconciliation between the US and Iran is likely, but US steps to make Iran feel more secure make it far more conceivable than a policy calculated to increase its
insecurity. The president's policy has reinforced Iran's determination to acquire nuclear weapons, the very thing he purports to be trying to prevent.
Read the whole thing, it's short (PDF).

Monday, April 7, 2008

Kiss my ring and join the voodoo crowd

Rick Perlstein, our most astute observer of the conservative sensibility, on the McCain situation:

Conservatism is, among many other things, a culture. The most important glue binding it together is a shared sense of cultural grievance--the conviction, uniting conservatives high and low, theocratic and plutocratic, neocon and paleocon, that someone, somewhere is looking down their noses at them with a condescending sneer. And to conservatives, McCain has been too often one of the sneerers. It is, as much as anything else, a question of affect. As Michael Reagan wrote, "I don't like the way he treats people. You get the impression that he thinks everybody is beneath him."

They are not entirely imagining things. Birds fly, fish swim, McCain preens: it has ever been thus. His preening has turned the thin-skinned crypt-keepers of conservatism hysterical. "McCain's apostasies," Charles Krauthammer recently wrote in the Washington Post, "are too numerous to count." They aren't, really. Some conservatives still call the Republican nominee "Juan" McCain, for what Reagan calls "such blatantly anti-conservative actions as his support for amnesty for illegal immigrants." But of course Reagan's sainted father, in signing the 1986 immigration bill, was a more unapologetic and effective advocate of "amnesty" than McCain ever was--and you don't hear him getting labeled "Ronaldo" Reagan. Note, also, that other supposed bugaboo of conservative ideology: pork-barrel government spending. McCain is the Senate's leading fighter against spending earmarks. If pork was what they truly cared about, he'd be a hero. But that stance has earned him no points on the "conservative" side of the ledger.

The issues aren't the issue. George Stephanopoulos once asked Tom DeLay what it was conservatives demanded of McCain, and DeLay admitted as much: "I don't think they're demanding that he change in his position," he said. "It is attitude."

In other words: it's the ring-kissing, stupid. Consider George H.W. Bush's attitude: he all but groveled before conservatives--first calling supply-side doctrine "voodoo economics," then swallowing hard and accepting a spot as voodoo priest Reagan's running mate. Bob Dole, formerly a proud budget balancer, lay prostrate before them in accepting a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut as the cornerstone of his 1996 presidential platform, then took on movement hero Jack Kemp as his running mate.

Read the whole thing in the Nation.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Bush's worst legacy

Glenn Greenwald in Salon:
Yet again, the ACLU has performed the function which Congress and the media are intended to perform but do not. As the result of a FOIA lawsuit the ACLU filed and then prosecuted for several years, numerous documents relating to the Bush administration's torture regime that have long been baselessly kept secret were released yesterday, including an 81-page memorandum (.pdf) issued in 2003 by then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo (currently a Berkeley Law Professor) which asserted that the President's war powers entitle him to ignore multiple laws which criminalized the use of torture ....

The fact that John Yoo is a Professor of Law at Berkeley and is treated as a respectable, serious expert by our media institutions, reflects the complete destruction over the last eight years of whatever moral authority the United States possessed. Comporting with long-held stereotypes of two-bit tyrannies, we're now a country that literally exempts our highest political officials from the rule of law, and have decided that there should be no consequences when they commit serious felonies. John Yoo's Memorandum, as intended, directly led to -- caused -- a whole series of war crimes at both Guantanamo and in Iraq.
Read the whole thing. I don't see how this could be a liberal vs. conservative issue, given that liberals seek to be humane and conservatives don't approve of an all-powerful government.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Disagree this!

Brad DeLong points to Paul Graham's taxonomy of disagreement (and explanation of why it's more important than usual these days). Just so you know, in ascending order from worst to best, the kinds of disagreement are name-calling, ad hominem, responding to tone, contradiction, counterargument, refutation, and refuting the central point.

How did you disagree today?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

History lesson

Radical historian Howard Zinn in the Nation:
The New Deal was tentative, cautious, bold enough to shake the pillars of the system but not to replace them. It created many jobs but left 9 million unemployed. It built public housing but not nearly enough. It helped large commercial farmers but not tenant farmers. Excluded from its programs were the poorest of the poor, especially blacks. As farm laborers, migrants or domestic workers, they didn't qualify for unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, Social Security or farm subsidies. Still, in today's climate of endless war and uncontrolled greed, drawing upon the heritage of the 1930s would be a huge step forward.
Whether you agree with Zinn's prescription, I think his characterization of politics in general is spot on. The right-wing noise machine can't admit it, and the milquetoast Clintons and Obamas can't either, but on economic issues, today's much-vilified "liberals" would have been right-wingers in the 1930s and 1940s.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Urban "pioneers" rethought

Utne Reader points to Eula Biss's precise, thoughtful reflections on urban "pioneering" in Chicago's northeasternmost neighborhood, Rogers Park.
The word pioneer betrays a disturbing willingness to repeat the worst mistake of the pioneers of the American West—the mistake of considering an inhabited place uninhabited. To imagine oneself as a pioneer in a place as densely populated as Chicago is either to deny the existence of your neighbors or to cast them as natives who must be displaced. Either way, it is a hostile fantasy.
Her reflections are coupled with reflections on those earlier pioneers, as presented by Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose children's books don't duck away from confronting the rampant racism in her childhood environment.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The money is there

I'll outsource the observance of the fifth anniversary of the conservatives' stupid war to Robert Weissman:
One lesson that can be drawn from the fifth anniversary of the shameful Iraq war, as well as from the recent Federal Reserve actions to uphold the financial system, is that the United States can find the money to do things it believes important. There are real fiscal limits, but the spectacular wealth of the United States gives it the power to find astounding resources for top priorities.

The federal government has spent $700 billion to kill hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, on a mission leading to the deaths of 4,000 U.S. soldiers and the maiming of thousands more. The Federal Reserve has conjured $200 billion to keep Wall Street functioning.

Can there be any doubt that the United States could, tomorrow, begin spending $100 billion a year -- or much more -- to address global warming?
Question for commenters: have you observed any conservatives or libertarians publicly worrying about the moral hazard involved in the government's giving out Wall Street welfare?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fargo the movie

I've seen "Fargo," but after reading David Denby in the New Yorker last month, I don't think I saw deep enough:

The Coens grew up in Minnesota and believed that something strange was going on there—a regional verbal tic that masked a collective nervous breakdown. Jerry’s idiocy is a product not just of personal fecklessness but of a way of life in which rampant greed (among other things) gets covered over by an implacable blandness. Committed to politeness and the best of all possible worlds, Jerry has no inkling of his own wickedness—no words to put it in—and not the slightest fear that his idiotic scheme might fail.

Ouch. If they, or Denby, really think that this insight is limited to Minnesota, or to the Midwest, they're missing something.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Seductive examples

Over at History News Network, essayist Eric Zencey asks what is for him a rhetorical question -- "Is Industrial Civilization a Pyramid Scheme?" -- and gives a much shorter version of Jared Diamond's argument in Collapse:

Oil gave us a once-in-the-history-of-the-planet chance to build a sustainable industrial infrastructure, one that would provide a high standard of living by running on current solar income rather than by drawing down the planetary stock of capital, and so far, we've blown it. We've been like Ponzi, meeting current expenses out of capital rather than true income. Like him, we've built a system that has to grow or it will crash; and like him, we've built a system that cannot grow forever, and so it must crash.

Many environmentalists are hypnotized by this argument and Zencey's example (the 1920s Ponzi scheme), or Diamond's examples (Easter Island, Greenland). It helps to notice that there are other examples: in my review of Diamond, I pointed to Stanley Jevons, who had much the same kind of thing to say about coal in England in the 1860s. Zencey may be right, but he is not obviously right. He doesn't confront the counterexamples and explain why this time is different.

In general, any argument that seems absolutely right and unanswerable probably depends on your being obsessed with a seductive example.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Why doesn't everyone else understand how wonderful we are?

David Bromwich in the New York Review of Books:

Nothing can excuse acts of terrorism, which are aimed at civilians, or those acts of state terror in which planned civilian deaths are advertised as "collateral damage." Yet the uniformity of the presentation by the mass media after 2001, to the effect that the United States now faced threats arising from a fanaticism with religious roots unconnected to anything America had done or could do, betrayed a stupefying abdication of judgment. The protective silence regarding the 725 American bases worldwide, and the emotions with which these are regarded by the people who live in their shadow, cover up a clue in the fact that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on September 11 were Saudis. The presence of thousands of American troops on Arabian soil was hotly resented. To gloss over or ignore such facts only obstructs an intelligent discussion of the reaction likely to follow from any extended American occupation of the Middle East.

This inability to see ourselves as others see us is hardly new, but it can't be good news.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Headless mag

Am I the last to notice that Conscious Choice -- Chicago's "'enlightened' urban lifestyle magazine focusing on social, green, health, food and spiritual consciousness" -- employs a publisher, a production manager, a copy editor, three editorial interns . . . but no editor?

It doesn't count that the chain that owns it has a "national senior editor," or that it still publishes reader communiques under the heading "letters to the editor," or that freelance submissions are to be sent to an email address bearing that title.

I understand writers are a dime a dozen (my price is either higher or lower than that, so I'm out of the game), but -- no editor? Who will decide which press releases to reprint?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Go a lot farther west, young researchers

"If NIH [the National Institutes of Health] does not get consistent and robust support in the future, the nation will lose a generation of young investigators to other careers and other countries and, with them, a generation of promising research that could cure disease for millions for whom no cure currently exists."

The news story on ENN. The report and related Congressional testimony, from six research universities and a major teaching hospital.

Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard: "Right now, the nation’s brightest, young researchers, upon whom the future of American medicine rests, are getting the message that biomedical research may be a dead end and they should explore other career options —and in too many cases, they’re taking that message to heart. The President’s latest budget proposal that calls for another year without an increase will only make the problem worse."

Maybe it really is more important to cut taxes, wage endless war, and build fences to keep poor people from coming into the country than it is to keep smart people working here. If so, let Bush and those few Americans who still support him -- and John McCain -- defend that position.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Keeping candidates honest on health care

Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research News (PDF) is great for those of us without the time or train fare to attend all their briefings and symposia. The new (winter) issue includes a summary of health industry management prof David Dranove's December take on what presidential candidates aren't saying about cost containment, entitlement, and the role of technology.

I'm a sucker for people who are well enough informed to take a good whack at both sides. Here's DD on "the darling of Republican Party candidates," consumer-directed health plans. He says they're unlikely to have any impact because they target healthy well-educated individuals.

As for entitlements: "No one is promising a $300,000 house to homeless families. But many candidates are promising equal access to the world's most expensive and advanced healthcare system." That either means a big bill to pay, or a rationing system.

If you're a person of leisure, you can skip the newsletter and see the presenters' PowerPoint slides or watch a video of the event itself (46:45) -- and tell us about 'em in the comments.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Blue city, red country

"In red states, urbanites tended to vote blue, whereas in blue states, ruralites tended to vote red."

I know he goes on a bit, and he's trying to hard to make it interesting when it already is, but Daniel Herman writing at History News Network has a good reminder that it's not red states and blue states, it's cities and the countryside -- and they've switched colors in the last 120 years. There's something going on here that is neither right nor left.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Urban Habitat Chicago

Urban Habitat Chicago will sponsor a talk by Jill Kunde of WasteCap Wisconsin at the Lincoln Park Branch Library April 2. "Under her leadership, WasteCap Wisconsin developed the first drywall recycling efforts in Wisconsin for Type X drywall, obtained the first-in-the-state exemption for recycling of engineered wood along with dimensional lumber, coordinated the first-in-the-state ceiling tile recycling effort and one of the first commercial carpet recycling efforts." Free preregistration required here.

While you're preregistering, check out UHC's other work in "demonstrating the viability of sustainable concepts and practices in urban environments through research, education, and hands-on projects." They've been instrumental in promoting deconstruction in Chicago (and were very helpful when I was researching an article on the subject of tearing down buildings and saving the parts for reuse).

And if you've got some money to recycle they could definitely use that.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Blogging Chicagoland

Two essential abilities these days are (a) identifying the truth inside the gaffe, and (b) laughing until you cry, because what else is there?

My former colleague Whet Moser has both, which makes Chicagoland one of the few non-genealogical blogs I check every day. Here's his take on the Chicago Tribune's new "innovation officer," an AOR and satellite radio guru who thinks news and information might be the new rock and roll.
News and information:

* Produces great wealth for old dudes who are kind of afraid of it

* Produces modest wealth for a few middle-aged guys who have been playing their greatest hits for the past ten years or so, eg. David Brooks

* Is increasingly the provenance of balkanized groups of alienated young quasi-amateur urbanites

Read the whole thing, and the rest of them too.

Denialist alarmism

The planet's future aside, it's amusing how the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other disinformationmongers oppose "alarmism," except when it's their own, and insist on "sound science," except when it produces results they don't like. Progress Report offers a quick rundown on their latest round of cynical lies about climate science, soon to be purveyed in TV ads. My own take on an earlier phase of the campaign here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

This can't be good news

From the Economic Policy Institute:
In 2006, public school teachers earned 15.1% lower weekly earnings than other employees with comparable education credentials and experience earned. In 1996, this wage disadvantage was only 4.3% (see Chart). Although the wage disadvantage for both male and female teachers has grown substantially over the last 10 years, in 2006 the gap was far larger among males (25.5%) than females (10.5%).

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The view from the other side of the desk

One-time planner, now professor, Patrick Condon writes in his new book Design Charrettes for Sustainable Communities:
The author once served as director of community development and planning for the small city of Westfield, Massachusetts. I clearly remember looking at the telephone on my desk and hoping it wouldn't ring. In my experience, the phone rang only when someone out there beyond my office walls was angry and had enlisted a city councillor, or maybe the mayor, to bring their dissatisfaction to my attention. I remember thinking it ironic that I was so clearly being rewarded for doing nothing. When I did nothing, the phone stayed silent. It rang only when I actually did my job -- angry phone calls came in only when I actually did some planning. This insight is crucial: the extremely stressful context within which senior city staff must survive is a huge impediment to change. Any model for advancing sustainability in North America must...develop processes that do not exacerbate those stresses. {25}

Monday, March 10, 2008

Bob Park's border solution

The ever vigilant University of Maryland physicist Bob Park:
The history of the world is a story of fences that failed: the Great Wall of China, the Red Sea, the Berlin Wall, Robert McNamara’s electronic wall dividing Vietnam, followed by the horror of Agent Orange. Securing the 2,000 mile border [with Mexico] was expected to cost $7.6B; the estimate will now go up. But desperate people will find a way in spite of obstacles. By contrast, the border with Canada remains unsecured. Why would Canadians want to come here? About 200,000 illegal immigrants enter from Mexico each year. For $7.6B we could pay them $38,000 each to stay in Mexico. We would all be better off.
Um, except for the incentive effects, Bob. Still, it's got to be a more productive line of thought than just using the issue to stir up hatred in an effort to elect Republicans.

Curiously, it seems at one point Abraham Lincoln had some similar thoughts about the costs of buying slaves' freedom vs. continuing the Civil War. (H/t Sam Smith)

Friday, March 7, 2008

Statistical Abstract #1

Who needs to read anything else? I bet one could maintain a blog for months, if not a full year, just by wandering around in the 2008 Statistical Abstract of the United States. (Hat tip to the indispensable and long-lived Scout Report for the reminder.)

I'll start with Table 104 (PDF), "Age-Adjusted Death Rates by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin, 1960-2004." In 1960, the age-adjusted death rate per 100,000 people was 1311 for whites and 1578 for blacks. As of 2004, the figures were 786 and 1027.

This is another case of overall improvement without much improvement in equality. If you follow the trends, black people in 2004 had achieved the death rate that white people had back in 1980.

This difference isn't trivial, and it tracks many others. Discussion of black-white racial issues -- when it occurs, which isn't often enough -- can start with this established fact, as opposed to most whites' bland assumption that those issues are all in the past.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Foster care works -- group homes don't

University of Illinois researchers have good data showing that
Kids (mostly adolescents) who enter group home placements are about two-and-a-half times more likely to enter the juvenile-justice system relative to similar kids, with similar backgrounds, who are served in foster-home settings.
Details here.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Stupid state politician tricks

Nicholas Johnson at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explains why a miniature version of the federal economic stimulus project won't do states any good, and may well do harm:
Unlike the federal government, which can run a deficit to cover the cost of its stimulus package, 49 of the 50 states are required by constitution or statute to balance their operating budgets .... states cannot simply enact new expenditures or tax cuts to be financed by increased borrowing. A reduction in revenue typically must be accompanied by a reduction in the spending that otherwise could occur.

Since roughly four-fifths of all state spending comes in just four areas — education, health care, transportation, and public safety — it is likely that tax cuts would come at the expense of one or more of those services.

Cutting services to pay for “stimulus” tax cuts would not only harm the people who depend on those services, but also negate the stimulative impact on the economy. Recipients of the tax cut would have a bit more money to spend. But the recipients of state expenditure dollars, including public employees and contractors (e.g., teachers, construction workers, and health-care workers), would have less to spend. In terms of aggregate economic impact, the result likely would be a wash.

Indeed, such a tradeoff could actually hurt the economy. The lost jobs and income resulting from the spending cuts would outweigh the stimulus from the tax cuts if recipients save their tax cut or spend it out of state rather than injecting it into the local economy. This might occur, for example, if the recipients are multi-state corporations or relatively well-off individuals.

I find this mode of argument -- that tax cuts can do good in some circumstances and not others -- far more persuasive than arguments from those who assume that tax cuts, or tax increases, are always the answer.

Monday, March 3, 2008

"Emergency influx of immigrants"? WTF?

Lewis Seiler and Dan Hamburg in the San Francisco Chronicle, 4 Feb:

Since 9/11, and seemingly without the notice of most Americans, the federal government has assumed the authority to institute martial law, arrest a wide swath of dissidents (citizen and noncitizen alike), and detain people without legal or constitutional recourse in the event of "an emergency influx of immigrants in the U.S., or to support the rapid development of new programs."

Beginning in 1999, the government has entered into a series of single-bid contracts with Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) to build detention camps at undisclosed locations within the United States. The government has also contracted with several companies to build thousands of railcars, some reportedly equipped with shackles, ostensibly to transport detainees....

The Military Commissions Act of 2006, rammed through Congress just before the 2006 midterm elections, allows for the indefinite imprisonment of anyone who donates money to a charity that turns up on a list of "terrorist" organizations, or who speaks out against the government's policies. The law calls for secret trials for citizens and noncitizens alike.
Read the whole thing.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Ray Bradbury's "The Pedestrian"

Life, as forecast by art. Almost 20 years ago, a friend and editor and I deliberately chose to make our way, via public transportation, to an anti-sprawl conference set in the remote western suburbs of Chicago. (We made it; no one else even tried.) In a slightly more serious and more recent vein, Arnold Tukker of Delft in the Netherlands, writes in the fall issue of the e-journal Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy:
As a cosmopolitan European, I am stunned every time I visit the United States and witness the extent to which primary transportation is organized around the automobile and the airplane. ...Indeed, the small minority of Americans that forsakes automobile ownership carries a heavy stigma.

A few years ago, I had occasion to cross the border between Windsor (Ontario) and Detroit. The customs agents were astonished that a well-dressed man, claiming to be a scientist en route to a conference in nearby Ann Arbor, wanted to walk with a luggage cart into the United States. It jarred their mental picture, and they cross-examined me with disdain for over half an hour before finally letting me proceed. "He’s clean!” the customs agents told the border officer, a sure expression of my suspected criminal status—or worse.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

16th century Protestantism still matters

Luther's reformation wasn't about freedom, let alone freedom to interpret the Bible, argues historian James Simpson (Burning to Read) at History News Network, and he chastises religious liberals for thinking otherwise:

we should abandon the following rock-hard persuasions of the liberal tradition: that Luther believed that readers should interpret the Bible freely, making up their own minds about the truth of Scripture; that Luther placed the liberating text of Scripture above the institution of the Church; and that Lutheran theology is more “democratic.”

Instead, we would be well advised to reread Luther and his vigorous English followers, especially William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536). There we discover that the Lutheran moment was the source of fundamentalism, and the source of different kinds of persecutory violence. ... Luther detested what he called “private interpretation.” He promoted, instead, a movement that repudiated interpretation itself. A recurrent theme in Lutheran theology is that Scripture interprets itself. Scripture is not, and cannot be subject to the messy negotiations of history in which all other texts are immersed. It does its own interpreting (i.e. Scripture interprets itself, but my interpretation is right).

The idea that anything interprets itself seems like a kind of intellectual cancer. I had no idea that its roots might be this deep or this reputable.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Urban college teaching

Jennifer Tronti at Teachers College Record reviews a book that echoes her experience:
Like J. D. Scrimgeour, author of Themes for English B: A Professor’s Education In and Out of Class, I remember that my early experience as an instructor required a gradual “acclimation” (p. 7) to an atmosphere, not exactly foreign, but not fully native to my constitution. In an urban community college, my first writing course consisted of: one student with Tourette Syndrome, whose intermittent outbursts and discussions of his fictional work-in-progress punctuated the class period, one couple, recently divorced, who inexplicably sat next to each other during every class session, two deaf students (and their interpreter) whose academic well-being was far beyond my meager skills at that time, one outspoken former prostitute determined to write an account of her life and profession, several students who were part of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program who frequently wrote about their “past” lives (both legal and illegal) in their essay prompts, and a smattering of the general students to be found at any urban community college—young people just out of high school, one living in her car, others blindly following their “expected” path, and the best writer of the bunch, a soft-spoken young man whose white tank top, baggy jeans, and prominent tattoos silently proclaimed his gang affiliations. Like Scrimgeour, I also humbly cringed before these students, uncomfortably aware of my own sense of privilege and autonomy, an inherited sense of mobility that remains stable despite any wealth or dearth of academic and economic opportunities. So few of these students—his or mine—seemed to be in possession of this independent outlook.
Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

DIY Obama

Sam Smith hopes for a movement to put some audacity into the hope:
Obama is an empty vessel. If liberals and progressives are as pathetically obsequious towards Obama as they were towards Clinton, that vessel will be filled with the desires of large financial institutions, health insurance oligopolies and foreign policy experts attempting to compensate for hormonal insecurities by invading this or that. ...

It could be happen differently if liberals and progressives were to follow the techniques of the civil rights movement with the Democrats or the contemporary GOP right, a politically sophisticated blend of intramural pressure and cooperation.

Monday, February 25, 2008

News you can't really use

According to EPI News, the most manufacturing-intensive state is Indiana, "where manufacturing accounts for 28% of the state's gross domestic product."

And the indefatigable folks at FactCheck remind us of the three presidents, so far, who were elected while still serving in Congress. That happened in 1880, 1920, and 1960, so (I add) apparently we're overdue, and (has to be said) the records of the first three do not overwhelm.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Media morass

Eschewing easy targets like presidential campaign coverage, the irreplaceable Mike Miner reads, and politely eviscerates, the abysmal coverage of recent mass murders: "Mad Gunman Triggers Healing Process."

Friday, February 22, 2008

Berry in his own words

We had some words here about Wendell Berry a few weeks ago. In an interview nicely conducted by Lauren Wilcox in World Ark, a publication of the Heifer Project, Berry himself gives what I take to be a good short summary of his stance (this issue's not on line yet):
It's important at least that we understand our economic relation to the world, the way we live from it, the way we do or don't take care of it. I think the conservation movement unwittingly helped to drive a wedge between us and our land by implying that we could live most of our lives in circumstances that don't quite suit us -- doing work that doesn't suit us, work that makes us say, Thank God it's Friday -- and then somehow, on vacation, go to a national park and reconnect with the natural world. But of course that's not a connection. ...

You don't have to go to the Rocky Mountains to confront nature, to learn from it and ask the necessary questions. If you go to a good farm that has been properly and gracefully fitted into a place, then you can see that real questions about the terms on which we live have been asked, and answered.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Where you stand depends on where you sit

Kim Bobo of Interfaith Worker Justice reviews new books by Jim Wallis (The Great Awakening) and E. J. Dionne (Souled Out) in In These Times, but I'm most interested in her own experience:
Evangelical and Pentecostal traditions have a long history of supporting working class struggles. And the best indicator of whether a church will do so is based on where the workers attend services.

When coalmining members of Four Square Gospel churches in Appalachia go on strike, those churches get involved. When janitors who are members of Pentecostal storefront churches seek a contract, that church gets involved. When an unethical employer cheats members of a mega-church out of their wages, leaders of the church are likely to join a delegation to visit the employer, praying on the employer’s home doorstep until wages are paid.

Though such congregations are often written off as “conservative,” many are willing to advocate for workers if their members are affected. On the flip side, a wealthy congregation may be liberal on cultural issues but less likely to engage on worker justice issues. In other words, class matters—often more than theology.
BTW, I see Wallis will be at Seminary Co-op in Chicago, 5757 S. University, Monday noon.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sometimes you should skip the blog and read the comments

"lone wolf," whoever he or she is, lists a number of qualities that should disqualify anyone from being taken seriously in discussions about foreign policy -- this in a comment at ex-Chicagoan Daniel Drezner's blog:

Cheerleading, uni-dimensional advice (pacifistic or militaristic), blaming others (individuals, institutions, countries) for poor execution, and the continuous disregard/simplification of the seminal self-interests of other countries and peoples (whether they coincide or conflict with ours) are automatic disqualifiers for consideration.

Anyone who has ever used the term 'domino' to refer to anything other than their personal gaming experiences in their family room is disqualified.

Anyone who refers to the voting percentage in an occupied country as a barometer of democratic health is disqualified.

Anyone who combines the terminology of 'escalation' and 'democracy' in the same sentence is disqualified.

Anyone who does not know that threats not acted upon are simply bluffs waiting to be called is disqualified.

Lastly, anyone who thinks that the short or intermediate term application of military force will be 'transformative' in any other way than destructive (which can be desirable in some circumstances, like Hiroshima) needs to be permanently barred from any serious foreign policy discussion.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The long retreat continues

Once upon a time, human beings were unique, a divine exception to nature with dominion over it. Now we know that we share most of our DNA with chimps; other animals make and use tools, and reason in certain ways. Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser (not this one AFAIK!) has established a new line of defense. According to a Harvard press release distributed by EurekAlert, he says humans are still the only creatures who have the following four abilities:
to combine and recombine different types of information and knowledge in order to gain new understanding;

to apply the same “rule” or solution to one problem to a different and new situation;

to create and easily understand symbolic representations of computation and sensory input; and

to detach modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual input.
animals have “laser beam” intelligence, in which a specific solution is used to solve a specific problem. But these solutions cannot be applied to new situations or to solve different kinds of problem. In contrast, humans have “floodlight” cognition, allowing us to use thought processes in new ways and to apply the solution of one problem to another situation. While animals can transfer across systems, this is only done in a limited way.
OK, folks, there's your target. Can your dog do any of that?

Actually, this puts me in mind of Thoreau in Walden, where he takes a different tack, speaking of
a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Barry bounces so you can too

About five years ago I wrote about Barry Moltz, an author/entrepreneur with an uncharacteristic kind of business book, You Need to Be a Little Crazy: The Truth About Starting and Growing Your Business. Now I'm the wannabe entrepreneur and he's back with a new book, Bounce! Failure, Resiliency, and Confidence to Achieve Your Next Great Success.

It's NOT a comeback book. Moltz is still in the business of telling truths that don't fit in the narrow intellectual confines of your usual business or motivational talk. Failure happens. Failure isn't always educational. It often isn't even your fault.
There are plenty of times when dead-end failure just plain stinks, and you can't pretty it up or minimize the pain by ferreting out something of value from the mess.

My third company once lost its largest company because the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) caught them stealing. Another time, I lost my best employee because her spouse took a new job 1,000 miles away. There wasn't much new for me to learn from either of these situations that I didn't already know. {8}
Since a lot of bad things just happen, and since business theology is no better at making them nice than regular theology is, you need to develop the resilience to live through failure and bounce back. Moltz's book is modeled on rubber-band balls he created as a kid: he suggests ten "bands" to add to yours so you too can bounce better when it's required. Sounds like a book that should be on the list of a lot of current, former, and soon-to-be-former journalists, for starters.

Friday, February 15, 2008


Please make sure brain is engaged before putting mouth in gear. From Worldwatch Institute via ENN:
A few years ago, a homeowner in Las Vegas—a place that gets maybe five inches of rainfall a year—was confronted by a water district inspector for running an illegal sprinkler in the middle of the day. The man became very angry. He said, “You people and all your stupid rules—you’re trying to turn this place into a desert!”

How trustworthy would you say oil companies are?

What's less popular than almost anything? Big business. Robert Weissman has the numbers at the Multinational Monitor Editor's Blog:
A November 2007 Harris poll found that less than 15 percent of the population believes each of the following industries to be "generally honest and trustworthy:" tobacco companies (3 percent); oil companies (3 percent); managed care companies such as HMOs (5 percent); health insurance companies (7 percent); telephone companies (10 percent); life insurance companies (10 percent); online retailers (10 percent); pharmaceutical and drug companies (11 percent); car manufacturers (11 percent); airlines (11 percent); packaged food companies (12 percent); electric and gas utilities (15 percent). Only 32 percent of adults said they trusted the best-rated industry about which Harris surveyed, supermarkets.
Despite decades of unremitting propaganda for deregulation of pretty much everything, small majorities favored increased regulation of oil, pharmaceutical, and health insurance companies. Weissman adds,
These are remarkable numbers. It is very hard to get this degree of agreement about anything. By way of comparison, 79 percent of adults believe the earth revolves around the sun; 18 percent say it is the other way around.
I wouldn't necessarily draw specific policy proposals from these numbers, but it's interesting how rarely the opinions of most Americans penetrate the media bubble, even in an election year.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dry country

"Although the West has gone through natural wet and dry cycles in the past, the current water flow trends differ significantly in length and in strength from natural variations in the past, the researchers conclude." That's from the a summary of an article in a recent issue of Science, "Human-Induced Changes in the Hydrology of the Western United States," (pdf) where Tim Barnett of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego and colleagues report that "up to 60 percent of the changes in river flow, snow pack and winter air temperatures in the region during this period can be attributed to human-caused climate change."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Keep them honest

Getting the facts right isn't everything, but it's the prerequisite to most things. The good folks at Fact Check would be happy to hear or see your evidence of "dubious political mailers, chain e-mails, phone calls or other political communications attacking or supporting a presidential candidate," down to and including telephone push polls "in which the caller asks something like, 'Would you change your vote if you learned that Candidate X didn’t pay her income taxes last year?'"

Biofuels: even worse than I thought

At first I thought this was just part of the noise, but it looks serious: biofuels may well cause more global warming than gasoline. Read the whole thing at the Reality-Based Community.

Any guesses how many decades it will take the bipartisan Illinois politicans from ADM to notice?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is Charles Darwin's 199th birthday, observed as Darwin Day specifically in honor of "the man who first described biological evolution via natural selection with scientific rigor," and more generally in honor of "the enormous benefits that scientific knowledge, acquired through human curiosity and ingenuity, has contributed to the advancement of humanity."

Duncan Crary of the Institute for Humanist Studies heard from some journalists who aren't celebrating, one from Indiana. Well, the earth does kinda look flat out here...

Monday, February 11, 2008

Farmer John's on DVD

Over the years, starting in 1994 when few of us knew what "CSA"* stood for, John Peterson of Boone County was one of my favorite journalistic subjects. I thought I'd told his story in this article, but I didn't know the half of it. Now the movie about his unique combination of glitter and grease and how it played in rural Illinois is out on DVD, with extras.

*Community Supported Agriculture.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Don't cry for FutureGen

Joseph Romm at Gristmill has the scoop on the supposed clean-coal project that was to be in downstate Mattoon, Illinois:
"By the time this technology was ready to commercialize on a significant scale in the early 2020s, the world will have built or begun construction on more than a 1000 GW of coal plants, using traditional technology that is not designed for carbon capture and storage. The climate will have been destroyed irrevocably before Futuregen could have accomplished anything useful in the marketplace. Also, we will still need a mandatory cap on carbon emissions to make future FutureGen plants viable because they will be more expensive than traditional plants even in the 2020s. Since the Bush administration opposes a mandatory cap, the whole R&D effort looks like another delaying action."

Thursday, February 7, 2008

US health care doesn't measure up

From a Commonwealth Fund summary of a study published in Health Affairs:
Between 1997–98 and 2002–03, amenable mortality fell by an average of 16 percent in all countries except the U.S., where the decline was only 4 percent. In 1997–98, the U.S. ranked 15th out of the 19 countries on this measure—ahead of only Finland, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Ireland—with a rate of 114.7 deaths per 100,000 people. By 2002–03, the U.S. fell to last place, with 109.7 per 100,000. In the leading countries, mortality rates per 100,000 people were 64.8 in France, 71.2 in Japan, and 71.3 in Australia.
In case you're wondering,
The concept of amenable mortality was developed in the 1970s to assess the quality and performance of health systems and to track changes over time. For this study, the researchers used data from the World Health Organization on deaths from conditions considered amenable to health care, such as treatable cancers, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
By the authors' most conservative estimate, 75,000 people died in the US in 2002 who would have lived if we were merely up to the average of the other countries.

Note that this is not a case where our system is actually declining in absolute terms; it's simply improving more slowly than comparable systems. For those of us brought up on the idea that the US was ahead of everyone else and always would be, that's small comfort. But the sooner studies of this sort knock that notion out of our heads, the better.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Obama the Clintonite

Max Fraser in the Nation isn't happy with Barack:
Only Obama has not called for a moratorium and interest-rate freeze. Though he has been a proponent of mortgage fraud legislation in the Senate, he has remained silent on further financial regulations. ... Obama's disappointing foreclosure plan stems from the centrist politics of his three chief economic advisers and his campaign's ties to Wall Street institutions opposed to increased financial regulation. ... Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachussets, believes "these three advisers generally reflect Obama's very moderate economic program, similar to Clintonism."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Gore's job

At Grist, Mark Hertsgaard explains that Al Gore has a more important job than being president:
I spent two hours one-on-one with Gore just before An Inconvenient Truth was released. Much of our interview focused on an irony that seems to have escaped many of those who have urged him to run for president: the last time Gore served in the White House, he failed to deliver much progress against global warming. During its eight years in office, the Clinton-Gore administration did not pass a single major law against climate change. It did sign the Kyoto Protocol, but only after watering it down with crippling loopholes, and then it chose not to seek Senate ratification of the treaty.

In our interview, Gore acknowledged these failings. But he argued that the blame lay not with him or Clinton, who, he said, "was much more responsive than not." Rather, Gore said, "the resistance was tremendous" from the status quo. The two richest, most powerful industries in American history, oil and autos, were fiercely opposed to cutting emissions, as were coal and electricity companies. Kyoto was "blocked by pressure from the polluters," Gore told me, adding that ExxonMobil and other big companies "purposely confused people" with tens of millions of dollars of advertising and lobbying that misrepresented and disparaged the science behind global warming. This disinformation campaign encouraged "massive denial in the country as a whole" and "conditioned the battlefield" in Washington so that Congress ended up blocking reform.

The lesson Gore seems to have drawn from his defeats in the White House is that being president is not enough to create real change, especially if powerful interests are against you. The only way to defeat them is to recondition the battlefield -- to build such a pervasive wave of public pressure that no matter which politicians get elected, each will feel compelled to take action, even if it means disappointing ExxonMobil and friends.
No prize at the end of this road, just the gratitude of posterity.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Biophilia vs. Videophilia, round 3 of many

Your mom didn’t need a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Environmental Management to say, “You kids turn off that TV and get outside -- now!” But biologists Patty Zaradic and Oliver Pergams have provided today’s parents with one.

They’re saying pretty much what mom did, but they came to it in a roundabout way. After Pergams (now at UIC) left commodities trading and got a Ph.D., he came across an unnerving fact: for the last 20 years Americans have been visiting their national parks less and less. From just 0.2 visits per person per year in the late 1930s, attendance rose to a peak of 1.2 visits per person per year in 1987. Since 1988, it’s dropped steadily, and is now back to the Carter-era level of 0.9.

If you’re just back from a crowded weekend at Indiana Dunes or Yosemite, you might say it’s about time. But think about the long term: most people who care about nature grew up spending time outdoors with loved ones. A kid on a family vacation at Mammoth Cave has a better chance of understanding nature’s beauty and importance than one who fears (or ignores) the tall weeds in her back yard. Zaradic (of Bryn Mawr College) and co-author Pergams think this decline might be a “check engine light” for the future of the environmental movement. Now they've published even more reasons to think so, extending beyond the peculiarities of national parks.

As many forms of outdoor recreation decline, what's gone up? Screen time. “The average person in the US went from spending 0 h/year on the internet in 1987 to spending 174 h/year on the internet in 2003,” they write, “and from spending 0 h/year playing video games in 1987 to spending 90 h/year in 2003.” All those hours came out of some other 1987 activity -- sleeping, chatting with friends, playing Dungeons and Dragons, watching TV, or blowing milkweed seeds into the wind. Pergams and Zaradic don't know for sure, but they're especially worried about that last one.

The correlation's impressive and it's a zero-sum game 'cause we only get 24 hours a day. Lotsa details (plus links to their journal articles) at and this Chicago Wilderness article.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

"The Election Is Over: We Lost"

Sam Smith observes that once again in 2008 we have no serious opposition party to vote for:
There is, to be sure, a great difference between the two remaining major Democratic candidates: Obama has integrity, the Clintons do not; only one alleged crook has showed up on the Obama big backer list; with the Clintons they litter the place like packing peanuts on the floor after opening a package.

But while that provides a choice and an important one, there is another that we also need -- restoring the First American Republic and ending the second robber baron era -- which is no longer on the table with departure of John Edwards. We are left with corporatized, conservative compromisers who add mightily to the argument that the Democratic Party should be forced to change its name to end the consumer fraud it purveys.
His proposals of what to do are a bit more pragmatic than this rhetoric might suggest.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Capitalism without accountability

"Hemorrhaging losses, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Bear Sterns had to increase the percentage of revenue they devote to pay to ladle out these bonuses. So much for pay for performance."

That's Robert Borosage at the Campaign for America's Future. Click through to see his response to the breathtaking comment from a headhunter firm: “It’s essential that pay is still there or you’re going to lose really good people.”

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Camelot in one sentence

My former colleague Whet Moser has the best one-sentence summary of the mysteriously deified Kennedy administration:
apparently the sex-addicted son of a Neville Chamberlain sympathizer gave America the sense of national possibility it needed to get into the Vietnam War, leave a bunch of Cuban exiles for dead as part of the worst coup attempt ever, run to the brink of nuclear apocalypse, and help install the Baath party as the ruling party of Iraq.
I'm up for some more of the same, applied to outrageously overrated graven images like Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. If nothing else, telling truth in one sentence might just take the snooze out of history class.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Reform for me but not for thee

Catalyst Chicago doesn't always pick fights with city school reformers, so it's especially interesting when they do. This story by John Myers appeared in December:
Chicago Public Schools is closing in on its goal of opening 100 new schools under Renaissance 2010, but almost half of the communities identified as most in need of high-performing schools have yet to get them.
No surprises here. Some of the same communities, mostly South Side and mostly black, that were shortchanged by the old educational order are being shortchanged by the new one: East Garfield Park, Near South Side, Riverdale, Roseland, South Chicago, South Shore, Washington Park, West Elsdon, West Lawn, and West Pullman.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Vietnam's revenge

A tidbit from Stephen Kotkin's article on Vietnam in the January 30 New Republic
(requires $ubscription although you can get a taste here):
At 17.5 percent, Vietnam has a significantly higher degree of per capita Internet penetration than China (10 percent) or Indonesia (8 percent)....

Vietnam ranks sixth globally in recorded hits on MIT's "open courseware" site, which offers information from more than fifteen hundred college courses -- exclusively in English. If nothing else, this testifies to aspirations.
Actually, the site (which is not the same as an MIT education but no doubt a sight better than none at all) does offer at least some courses translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, and both simplified and traditional Chinese. Among the most frequently visited are courses in classical mechanics, linear algebra, electricity and magnetism, and circuits and electronics.

Monday, January 28, 2008

What voting is like these days

A good blog post can bring all the abstract junk of journalism down to earth. Case in point, Ann Bartow at Feminist Law Professors on voting in the South Carolina primary.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Rick Perlstein

My profile of the author of Before the Storm and the forthcoming Nixonland is in this week's Chicago Reader. If you'd rather read excerpts, Digby has some.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Marketing the South

If you've ever wondered how a flag that sympolizes slavery, racism, terror, and treason came to be a piece of Americana treasured by those who think themselves conservative patriots, you may be interested in this press release summarizing an article on the marketing of the South from the February Journal of Consumer Research. Authors Craig Thompson and Kelly Tian report on a
broad coalition of Southern mythmakers [who] sought to defend the honor of their Confederate ancestors, rebuke the cultural stigmas that had been ascribed to white Southern identities and perhaps most of all, attract infusions of Northern capital needed to build a more prosperous New South.
The key white identity myths are the Lost Cause (Confederate soldiers as "gallant Christian Knights"), Moonlight and Magnolias (white Southern womanhood as "a vulnerable vessel of virtue"), and Celtic Rednecks (poor whites as hillbillies).

And, I gather, the less said about those human beings owned by the first two categories of people, the better.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A bit of business

If you don't find me here some days, or if you discover a sudden need to keep up with Midwestern genealogy, you can mosey over to


Rhetorical questions from Sam Smith:
What is the bipartisan solution for. . .

The Iraq war, which was started and continued with full support of both the Republican and Democratic parties?

The destruction of the Constitution through such means as runaway wiretapping and the Patriot Act, both of which have received strong bipartisan support including from major Democratic presidential candidates?

The harm done by the cynical No Child Left Behind Act, which received broad bipartisan support?

The growing use of torture by the US government, support for which is so bipartisan it hasn't hardly been mentioned during the current campaign?

Global warming, around which Republicans and Democrats have reached a consensus to keep as much below the surface as possible?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Jencks on consequences of immigration

One of the few benefits of not being employed is being able to admit when you're late with something but it's interesting anyway. Last fall Christopher Jencks, formerly of Northwestern, laid out a characteristically straightforward account of the "immigration charade," as he calls it, in the guise of a review of a somewhat confused Pat Buchanan book. Here's the nugget:
Allowing employers to hire immigrants almost guarantees that unskilled natives will have more trouble finding steady work. Between 2000 and 2005 the unemployment rate among eighteen-to-sixty-four-year-old natives without high school diplomas rose from 10 to 14 percent; among their foreign-born counterparts it fell from 9 to 7 percent.
(The numbers are from this article from the Center for Immigration Studies by Steven Camarota.)

Jencks contends that a balance must be struck between the needs of native dropouts and of desperate immigrants, and that
The only way to strike a balance is to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, offer visas to more unskilled foreign-born workers, and set the number of visas with an eye on how that number will affect job opportunities for unskilled natives.
Note the strategically deployed passive voice. Any administration that did this would have to be willing to offend powerful employer lobbies, powerful immigrant lobbies, those do-gooders who feel sorrier for uneducated foreigners than for uneducated natives, plus it would have to somehow insulate from politics the setting of those visa numbers. Good luck with that.

Monday, January 21, 2008

It's not the light bulbs

Chicago Architect, the new magazine of AIA Chicago, is mostly not on line. That includes Dennis Rodkin's short piece on Doug Farr's ambitious new book Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design With Nature. I'll get to review it later in a couple of places. For now, his key message is that no amount of compact fluorescent light bulbs and Priuses will save us.
We have to think beyond the light bulb, the car and the building to the block, the neighborhood, the corridor.... If you want to green, densify.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Beyond Beyond Petroleum

It used to be "Beyond Petroleum," before that it used to be "British Petroleum." The green mask came off the other day when it changed its corporate mind and invested in Canadian tar sands, the excavation of which Greenpeace has characterized as "the biggest global warming crime ever seen." Part of the story here. (H/t Common Dreams.)

George Monbiot puts this fracas in perspective:
When you review the plans for fossil fuel extraction, the horrible truth dawns that every carbon-cutting programme [from CAFE standards to insulating houses] is a con. Without supply-side policies, runaway climate change is inevitable, however hard we try to cut demand. The talks in Bali will be meaningless unless they produce a programme for leaving fossil fuels in the ground.