Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The Road to Calvary

by Ken Melvin


The Road to Calvary

From: What to Think

To: What to Believe

From 15 to 30mins of TV Evening News in 1970 to 24hr TV News in 1980; then on to Fox News in 1996. From the 1950s print journalists and radio news broadcasts, to TV Evening News, to 24hr TV telegenic news readers, to Fox News, to Donald Trump. From the trusted Cronkite, and Huntley – Brinkley nightly news, to cable 24hr CNN opining/news, to Fox News (the most-watched cable news) telling us what to think, to Donald Trump telling us what to believe. Were nearly half of Americans always so dumb, so lazy, as to want to be told what to think? What to believe? If not, what has changed? Is the first prologue the latter?

In the summer of 1970, Roger Ailes, then consultant to then President Nixon, in a memo entitled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News,” wrote, “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather from any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.” Later, Ailes, as media consultant to both Reagan and Bush I, was there for continuing the ‘Southern Strategy’; coming up with, via a protege, the ‘Willie Horton’ ad; and the character assassination of Michael Dukakis; … He was, via TV News, doing the people’s thinking for them,.

CNN introduced 24hr Cable Network News in 1980, to be followed by Fox News and MSNBC in 1996 and CBSN in 2014. All are for-profit operations with ad revenues a function of ratings determined by their number of viewers. The News had become a commodity, an economic good, competitively marketed to cable TV audiences. But, given that news doesn’t happen on the hour, they were facing a lot of dead air time. Competing for viewers, a provider might: try to be the very best news source, spend time telling viewers what they want to hear, seek to make the news entertaining; or, more likely, provide some attractive combination of these.

In 1996, Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News with Roger Ailes as CEO — to appeal to a conservative audience, and, to offset the ‘liberal bias’ of the ‘other’ outlets — (nothing said about being the best or even good). For 45 years Roger Ailes was there for the republican party. Today, symbiotically, Fox News is Donald Trump’s biggest supporter, best source for info and advice, and he a most featured personage on Fox News.

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Tip of the Iceberg

by Ken Melvin (reader Ken Melvin offers more on climate change)

Tip of the Iceberg

Around the world, the poorest live on marginal land. Land where, whether due the shortness of the growing season, frequent flooding, lack of moisture, poor quality of the soil, temperatures, altitude …, it is difficult for them, even in the good times, to eke out a living. (The history of how is it that they come to live on these lands is the stuff of anthropology.) These marginal areas may cover large portions of a nation, whole nations, parts of several nations, … Due to lack of rainfall, much of the land mass of Asia is marginal at best. The same is true of much of the North America’s west/southwestern and Africa’s northern regions. In these regions, the scant populace gathers around what water is to be found.

A marginal land area lacking normal rainfall might know years, years in a row, of above normal rainfall and see its inhabitants prosper. Such years would encourage them to hang on and keep trying in the dry years. With the advent of Climate Change, many of these areas have seen ever less rainfall. For them, it is no longer possible to eke out a living, to hang on. Cliven Bundy’s 160 acres next to a water source in Nevada wasn’t big enough to run cattle. For ranching, he rented tens of thousands of acres of nearby Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land; land where each cow might need graze as many as 35 acres in order to eke out a living. Disputing with the government agency; Bundy refused to pay the rent, didn’t even bother to remove his cattle.

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Happy Sesquicentennial Birthday, Vladimir Lenin! (Oh, And Happy Half Century Earth Day)

(Dan here…a day late to AB better than not)

Happy Sesquicentennial Birthday, Vladimir Lenin! (Oh, And Happy Half Century Earth Day)

A half century ago today was the first Earth Day, which I paerticipated in while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Although I did not know him well, I even met the founder of the event, then Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin.  While it is easy to be discouraged by the ongoing failure to deal with the global warming issue as well as the large amount of rollbacks of reasonable environmental regulations in the US by Donald Trump, with several happening very recently under cover of the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic, much has also been achieved, with vastly reduced air and water pollution of many types over the last half century in most nations.

It is easy to forget that in 1970 there was no Enviromental Protection Agency and that most of the most basic laws regulating most air and water pollutants were not in place almost anywhere in the world. I remember seeing the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland in 1965, a year it caught fire, when it not only stank but had an unpleasant pinkish hue to it. Today it looks like regular water and fern bars and restaurants stand beside it where in good weather (and no pandemics) people sit outside to eat and drink beside it.

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Meanwhile…climate change

(Dan here…I know its long, broad, … but I think it says somethings that need be said.  Another look??)
by reader Ken Melvin

The Anthropocene and Global Warming

Anthropocene: geological epoch dating from the commencement

of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems.

Someday, anthropologists and historians will look again at the possible causes of Global Warming. That it was Anthropogenic has long since been recognized, but let them ask what were some of the worse things humans did to cause Global Warming? What led them to so damage their only home?

For Humans’ first 200,000 years, their impact remained low. World wide Human Population, made up of small groupings of hunter-gatherers, never reached 10 million. The First Agricultural Revolution, occurring around 10,000 B.C. when human population was still below 10 million, brought more land under cultivation; producing more food which supported an increase in population.

As the Human Population continued to grow, humans came to live in villages, then towns, and then cities. More people required more food, more housing, more fuel for heating and cooking, … Ancient Rome, circa 800 B.C., is thought to have had a population of 1 million. A city of that size needed a lot of lumber from trees for houses, wood from trees for cooking and heating, timbers from trees for the ships for trade and war. Over-cutting of adjacent forest caused soil erosion and local Climate Change. A lot of food was needed to feed a population of 1 million. This required the cultivation and grazing of more land; led to the over-cropping and over-grazing of the surrounding lands. Soils were being degraded and eroded, and grasslands were being turned into deserts.

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From Social Distance to Social Justice: An Unsolved Riddle

In the last two weeks of March and the first week of April, 2020 16.5 million new claims for unemployment were filed in the U.S. After the novel coronavirus is successfully contained some but not all of those jobs will return. The post-pandemic economy will not be the same as the economy before and to assume a return to business-as-usual economic growth would be folly.

There will need to be immediate share-the-work policies along with basic income guarantees. These must be viewed not as temporary measures to be abandoned as soon as “normality” returns but as transitional steps toward an entirely new regime of work, income and common wealth. Addressing climate change has momentarily taken a back seat to the urgent immediacy of the pandemic. But the irreversible long-term consequences of failing to free ourselves from the fossil-fueled treadmill of growth will make Covid-19 seem like a flash in the pan.

In The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, published shortly after the end of World War I (and, incidentally, the flu epidemic of that time), Stephen Leacock observed that the surprising resilience of industry during the recent war had “thrown its lurid light upon the economics of peace.” The coronavirus pandemic has once again “thrown its lurid light upon the economics of peace.” What the lurid light of war revealed to Leacock was the immense superfluity of peacetime employment. “Not more than one adult worker in ten…” Leacock speculated, “is employed on necessary things.”

Leacock’s estimate of superfluous workers may seem high but, to be honest, we don’t really know how much of the work that is done is necessary to sustain a society. If even one-fifth or one-quarter of the work being done was unnecessary, that would be a compelling rationale for suspending the growth imperative. Why not phase out current waste before producing even more waste?

But what if the proportion of superfluous to necessary work is even larger than that? How would we know it isn’t? As commentators from Simon Kuznets and Robert F. Kennedy to Marilyn Waring and Joseph Stiglitz have pointed out, national income accounts do not distinguish between “good” and “bad” commodities. They do not differentiate between necessities, comforts, luxuries and ugly Christmas sweaters that go from the closet to the trash. Furthermore, they do not account at all for the prodigious production of waste by-products. Nobody buys the carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels – even though somebody, someday, will indeed pay for them – with their lives if not money.

The absence of authoritative metrics serves as a convenient alibi for keeping things as they are or for actively making them worse. Efforts to construct alternative indices to the national income accounts, such as the Genuine Prosperity Index, have provided glimmers of insight but have ended up abandoned orphans that national governments have disdained to adopt.

What I am proposing here as an alternative to these global metrics focusing on the average number of hours that individuals work annually and the hours per capita worked in the economy as a whole. How many of those hours are devoted to wasteful production – built-in obsolescence, excess productive capacity, propaganda, disposable fashion, and other forms of sheer waste? For the answer, we turn to Arthur Dahlberg’s analysis of the effect of long hours on labor’s share of income.

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The superiority of stay at home orders vs. voluntary social distancing: two graphic proofs

The superiority of stay at home orders vs. voluntary social distancing: two graphic proofs

Here are a couple of graphs I pulled last week that I’ve been meaning to post. Together they show that mandatory “stay at home” orders have been much more effective than voluntary social distancing.

First, here is a graph of the “change in distance traveled” by county during March:

While almost all counties showed a sharp decline in the average distance travelled – the average decline in counties with only voluntary “social distancing orders” was about -66%, while the average in counties with a mandatory “stay at home” order was over 80%.

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Atlanta and downstream friends

(Dan here…another  of David Zetland’s students Johanna writes on groundwater…a reminder of what also matters during this heated political climate, and from a younger generation. The first mention of water wars at AB was 2007 I believe.)

Atlanta and downstream friends

Johanna writes*

This post offers some insight into the problems of water management in Atlanta (the capital of Georgia) and the effects of those problems on its downstream neighbors Florida and Alabama. These problems are part of a 30-year water allocation drama in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (AFC) basin.

 (Map source)

In Atlanta, population growth, legal disputes, and droughts result in water scarcity. Atlanta is one of the fastest-growing urban cities in the US, relying only on surface water supplies drawn from the Chattahoochee River, the source of the Tri-state water dispute with Alabama and Florida. The litigation began in 1990 when Alabama sued the Corps to stop allocating water to Atlanta. In 2014 Florida filed a complaint in the Supreme Court stating that Georgia has harmed the environment downstream and a bid for equitable apportionment (background on the litigation).

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How to roast the planet with good intentions: The Climate Equity Act

I have suggested (here and here) that idealism is leading progressives astray.  Unfortunately, climate policy offers many examples.

Consider the Climate Equity Act of 2019.  The CEA was, I believe, the first concrete piece of legislation proposed as part of the Green New Deal.  Unfortunately, it illustrates several of the problems with progressive idealism.  The CEA is moralistic rather than strategic.  It does not take policy analysis seriously; it assumes that Congress can simply write a law requiring justice and that justice will magically appear.  In practice, the CEA will do little to promote justice, but it will put a powerful weapon in the hands of opponents of a clean energy transition.

The purpose of the CEA is to ensure all people a right to a healthful environment, and to address systemic environmental injustices and inequities.  To achieve these goals, the CEA imposes extensive procedural and analysis requirements on federal rules that affect “frontline communities”, which the act defines as low income communities, indigenous communities, communities of color, deindustrialized communities, vulnerable elderly communities, unhoused populations, people with disabilities, and communities dependent on fossil fuel industries.

Protecting frontline communities is a worthy goal.  However, the federal rulemaking process is already too cumbersome to address a problem like climate change, which will require rapid, economy-wide changes.  The CEA will make the problems with the federal rulemaking process much worse.  The CEA 1) requires agencies to engage in a comprehensive review of proposed rules and possible alternatives to proposed rules that minimize negative economic, environmental, and health consequences on frontline communities, or maximize benefits to these communities, 2) fails to specify a clear standard for agencies to use when evaluating alternative rules, and does not explain how conflicts between or within frontline communities should be resolved by government agencies, and 3) gives members of any aggrieved frontline community the right to judicial review, including the right to block enforcement of agency rules.

If progressives care about preventing climate change, this is insane.  Requiring agencies to evaluate multiple options using vague standards and giving a wide array of groups easy access to the courts will turn the CEA into a powerful weapon against all federal rulemaking, including rules that are essential for stopping climate change.

For example, creating a renewable energy system may require construction of a new network of high voltage power lines to shift electricity from areas where the wind is blowing and the sun is shining to areas where it is calm or cloudy.  It is far from clear that our political system will be able to overcome the NIMBY forces that will predictably resist every power line location decision.

Instead of helping to solve this problem, the CEA will make it far worse.  The government will have to investigate the impact of multiple power line routes on different frontline communities.  There will be conflicts between frontline communities and within such communities.  The law is silent on how these conflicts should be resolved, but everyone gets to go to court.  Fossil fuel producers resisting clean energy growth will have no trouble creating “astroturf” organizations to challenge rules they dislike.  The same problems will arise with siting decisions for wind and solar farms and the location of dams for hydro power.  Stalemate rather than progress will be the order of the day.

Even rules limiting the burning of fossil fuels will be snarled in lawsuits.  Suppose EPA tries to limit the burning of coal to generate electricity.  Such a rule would be vulnerable to attack by coal producers (recall that communities dependent on fossil fuels are frontline communities).  Coal producers or their allies would not have to argue that regulation is impermissible, they would just have to argue that the agency failed to consider an alternative rule that would be less economically harmful to communities dependent on fossil fuels – say, a rule with a somewhat slower timetable for reducing coal use.  On the other hand, children with asthma could sue the agency for not reducing coal use fast enough.  (Are children with asthma covered by the CEA?  This question seems to turn on whether asthma counts as a “disability” under the law, because people with disabilities are a frontline community.  No matter how an agency decides this question, it will be vulnerable to a lawsuit.  The possibilities for legal wrangling and delay are literally endless.)

Decarbonizing the United States economy will be a massive undertaking, and even progressives who care about a just transition to a carbon-free world should think twice about turning administrative procedure into an all-purpose weapon at the disposal of anyone seeking to block change.  This doesn’t mean that we should ignore the very real burdens imposed on disadvantaged groups.  But instead of adding more veto-points to our already creaky environmental rulemaking system, we need to figure out what types of assistance different communities need and get it to them directly.  Fossil fuel workers and communities need job training, relocation assistance, pensions and other forms of assistance.  Unhoused populations need housing.  Giving people the assistance that they actually need will do far more to alleviate hardship than suffocating the rulemaking process in a blanket of CEA lawsuits.

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Local Climate Policy Run Amok, Bellingham Edition

Local Climate Policy Run Amok, Bellingham Edition

Earlier this month the New York Times ran a story about Bellingham, Washington, a picturesque town that looks out across Puget Sound to the San Juan Islands. Bellingham is home to Western Washington University, but rational thought is in short supply when it comes to climate activism.

What got the country’s attention is a proposal before the city council to require all homeowners to switch from natural gas to electric heating by 2040. A number of cities already require new construction to use electric heat, but Bellingham would be the first to mandate a complete phaseout for everyone.

The opposition is spearheaded by, surprise, the privately owned gas and electric utilities, which plan a PR campaign talking up the wonders of CH4. Real estate interests are unhappy too. They will face off against the enviros, who all seem to see this as a big step toward municipal carbon neutrality.

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Two Can’t Miss Sessions in San Diego Next Week

Two Can’t Miss Sessions in San Diego Next Week

Well, I can’t miss them because I’m in them.  You can, but why would you?

Climate Crisis Mitigation: Implementing a Green New Deal and More
Union for Radical Political Economics: Paper Session
Friday, Jan. 3, 10:15am–12:15pm
Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego – La Jolla B

“Financial Bailout Spending Would Have Paid for Thirty Years of Climate Crisis Mitigation: Implementing a Global Green New Deal and Marshall Plan” – Ron Baiman, Benedictine University

“Green New Deal: Interdisciplinary Heterodox Approaches” – Mathew Forstater, University of Missouri–Kansas City; Fadhel Kaboub, Denison University; Michael Murray, Bemidji State University

“The Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal: The Issue Is the Issue, After All” – Peter Dorman, Evergreen State College (emeritus)

Chair: Ron Baiman

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