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.