Interesting Reads February 17-23, 2019

I will start again this week with an article on climate change. This one is a book review but it seems to spell out a way of thinking about how we can unite across our current divides to face this global threat.

With so much noise (useless) about the Green New Deal, Bruno Latour does us a service by stepping back and asking what is really going on with climate change denial and how we might re-think our relationship to the planet.

He grasps the challenge of those who retreat into the “local” or “global” to state their case by challenging all of us to be “terrestrial.

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Evening Ride

The bottom line here is that we need to understand two things: one, that we ARE intimately connected to our watersheds, our local natural resources, and the things in our nearby that make for life. Two, we need to understand also that we are part of globe-encompassing systems that either enable life or stand against it

Sigh… another book to add to my shelf…

And now onto some themes.

 

Economics

Here is an unexpected article from an unexpected place (an investment magazine), that, much like the previous one, asks us to move away from our meaningless categories and focus on the real question. In this case it is phrased as the distinction between a market economy and a market society. Here is a short piece:

So forget capitalism versus socialism. The more revealing debate for business, the issues executives and investors have to struggle with, is why and how, in the language of renowned Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, we have “drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.” In other words, has the logic of profit and loss, winners and losers, insinuated itself so deeply into all aspects of society that we have eroded the sense of shared experiences and common bonds that once held together people of different means and backgrounds? Have we become a culture that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing? When the unforgiving logic of Wall Street occupies Main Street, when everything has a price, do we create divisions we can’t afford?

A market society… Something I have thought about in the way that very wealthy people have found ways to simply “opt out” of concern for others–and how all of us scramble to do the same. There is much to reflect on here: from the defacto Ayn Randian dream of retreat into an alternate society (Atlas Shrugging), to the Joan Didion “dream we won’t admit” (Howard Hughesian absolute autonomy).

And there are more links here to the the Latour explanation of climate change denial’s roots than might first appear. Are we living in a world in which each of us seeks our personal escape capsule from the destruction below. Reminds me of a recent science fiction book I read (Judas Unchained by Peter Hamilton) in which the uber wealthy built escape stations to leave destroyed star systems.

 

As promised, I am keeping my eye open for interesting articles on the issue of deficits and debt–especially from economists claiming that neither are big problems for an economy like the US’s. After all, now that the Republicans have officially abandoned their opposition to deficits (Democrats apparently never had that aversion), who IS left to claim that there is a problem here?

It turns out that there is a growing “school” of economic thought called (in lower case letters) “modern monetary theory” that rejects the alarmist “deficit scolds” who were so prominent until very recently. This article in the Times is a useful reminder of what has happened with deficits and debt–and economic growth–since the Bush I years. I will be curious if this really gets traction and what it will mean for debate of things like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All that we have been hearing about.

I am going to put this one under economics too… though it could easily be public health. Indeed, the actual study of the effects of Berkeley’s soda tax 3 years on is in the American Journal of Public Health (subscriber!). But there is an argument, that at least in part, people are drinking less sugary stuff because of cost. From the author

“When you implement a soda tax, there is a bunch of media around it, so people start to think, ‘Maybe soda isn’t too good.’”

The second thing that happens is that the public stops buying soda.

Go here for a summary of the research and reach out to me if you want the original study. The bottom line is that Berkeleyites have gone from drinking 1.5 services per day to 0.5. Our oh-so-progressive city could not even see fit to put this on the ballot to allow voters to decide 3+ years ago (one of many ways in which my vision for our city did not move forward), and now the state has put a moratorium on such taxes. Maybe this study will start shaking things up again.

 

Make America ___________ Again

Okay, this is a lame category but two offerings here remind us of who we are (and are not).

The first is who we are in relation to our cars. Not having had one for going on 16 years, I am, perhaps, uniquely positioned to see how much a religion automobile ownership actually is. I will let this article in the American Conservative speak for itself. This is who we are…

So it is that for some Americans, any discussion of the ills wrought by the car or by the automobile-dependent mode of development that defines most of the American landscape is merely a verbose substitute for “communism.” A smart, young conservative friend of mine once listened patiently while I explained New Urbanism to her: that it was a design philosophy focused on building walkable, dense, mixed-use communities in place of suburban sprawl. “That sounds communist,” she replied. She is not alone in her general estimation. Never mind that it is also the default manner of building human habitats before circa 1950.

We forget, or perhaps more accurately never learn, that almost the entire set of characteristics that constitute suburbia—from the population densities to the lawn sizes and setbacks of houses to the features of those houses to the commercial strips that replaced Main Streets and their accompanying oversized parking lots—was a project, more or less, of Keynesian economic policy and social engineering. An old professor of mine, quite correctly, called the Interstate Highway System the largest subsidy ever given to the automobile industry…

This is not to say that, in the absence of certain government policies between roughly 1930 and 1960, suburbia would not exist. But the history of suburbia, as it actually unfolded, is bound up with such policies. Suburbia was, at least in part, something resembling a crony capitalist public works project. The notion that it embodies the pinnacle of freedom and free enterprise is not much in evidence.

And if that is who we are… Bacevich is here to tell who we are not. Again, from the American Conservative we have a reminder that the US is no longer the “indispensable nation.” Will we find a way to talk about this? I kind of doubt it.

So the coming campaign will no doubt be entertaining. In some respects, it may also be enlightening. But in all likelihood, it will leave untouched the basic premises of U.S. policy—the bloated military budget, the vast empire of bases, the penchant for interventionism, all backed by the absurd claims of American exceptionalism voiced by the likes of Madeleine Albright and her kindred spirits.

 

The Politics of Fear… (or border dilemmas)

I don’t know what else to call this section. Both the Brexit and the “panic” over the border were born of cynical politicians using fear to get their way.

God only knows what will come of the Brexit. Most agree that it will not be good. Most over here have no idea what it is about or the key sticking point–known as the “Irish Backstop.” If you want a fairly quick read that lays out the recent history of Ireland and why the Brexit has floundered on the rocky shoals of the Irish border (between Northern Ireland, part of the UK and the Repulic of Ireland, a member of the EU who is not exiting), read this. It cleared up the whole mess for me and is timely through the end of March.

And then we have our very own border emergency here in the US. If I were to bet I would say that the Supreme Court majority, issuing a narrow decisions as they did in the case the “Travel Ban” will hand the President a “victory” in the border wall thing. I used the words cynical before. This is now a dictionary definition of that term.

This article lays out why such a ruling will take us backward (WHAT EXACTLY did happen to the Republican rage over Presidential overreach? Oh right, see what happened to their rage over deficits/debt).

 

Hors Categorie!

I don’t know where to place this science fiction-like article. Researchers working on AI that produces text based on basic prompts are fearful about releasing their entir project for fear of what it might do.

Read this one to remind yourself that you need to actually THINK when you read. A cautionary tale.

 

Lunchtime Riffs on… homelessness and housing

Went to my very first City Council meeting since my term ended last July.

What I saw is what I had seen. A privileged group of neighbors decrying a low-income housing complex as dangerous, degrading to their way of life, not a place they would even let their kids go past… And on it went for an hour.

To one person it was evidence of the “ghettoization”of his neighborhood (we have so many low-income housing complexes in this part of town–they are clustered here).

The same night, different part of the meeting, the discussion turned to homelessness and the city’s efforts to deal with its challenges.

People are (have been) demanding action on this growing problem.

One person said it was time to admit that some people were beyond help, didn’t want it, weren’t going to change, and, therefore…

What?

I mean really… what?

In the room sat two of the irredeemables, apparently now redeemed. But would the speaker have eliminated them from the “largesse” of the community back then when they were ensconced in the downtown with no hope?

One wonders.

The bottom line is that people in this educated town prefer their own beliefs about homelessness to what the evidence actually shows.

In this they demonstrate themselves to ascribe to a faith-based approach to homelessness: faith in themselves because they JUST KNOW that if you provide services more homeless people will crowd in and overwhelm our town, that homeless people are dangerous, bearers of disease, and beyond help: people who are not even from here–not ours, not our responsibility.

The facts, of course, are different. The majority of homeless people in town are “our children.”

Homeless people don’t come here for services (except perhaps a bed in the coldest months–but even that appears to be waning). They come here for the same reason everyone else does: jobs, family, education.

The facts, of course, say that if you want to make a dent in the most difficult forms of homelessness (the chronic variety, accompanied by trauma, untreated mental health conditions, and the attendant self-medication that chains people to hopelessness), you need housing first. Put people in houses and then we can deal with Maslow level two (as our homeless outreach coordinator eloquently stated).

But this is California and our “progressivism” melts in the face of the messiness of housing these folks in our “nearby.”

And that brings us back to the first part of the meeting–the low-income housing “problem”.

DO SOMETHING about homelessness but don’t provide them with housing close to me because, I will have to see things I don’t like to see.

DO SOMETHING about homelessness but don’t provide services because that will just attract more of “them.”

DO SOMETHING about homelessness but don’t spend my money, ask for my assistance, disrupt my life… (Isn’t this the “state’s” responsibility?)

DO SOMETHING about homelessness but don’t forget I am the one that pays taxes here and so don’t make the “doing” anything unpleasant for us “good folks” (they don’t have to say “makers” and “takers” but… Ayn Rand lurks at our door).

When we are expected to squeeze down the margins within which we can legitimately act in these ways, the only true solution is removal, banishment, and the final dehumanization of people who are not “people” to us in any significant way.

Interesting Reads Feb 1-15, 2019

I am going to get back to some categories for these articles in a bit, but I want to start with two articles that I think, rhetorically, capture some essential elements of recent debates in our nation that are worth having.

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Davis, CA February 15, 2019

I like them because they are well-written, thought provoking, and because they drive to the heart of some important issues.

 

1. The New Green Deal

I know, I know… you have already made up your mind about this one.  It is either a bold move towards the future or Stalinism cloaked in New Deal (or Marshal Plan) language.  Whatever the case, this article lays out some simple points about our built environment and what it would take to create something that is not fossil fuel dependent.  Here is the key point (please read the whole thing):

Our carbon emissions are not mainly about the price of gasoline or electricity. They’re about infrastructure. For every human being, there are over 1,000 tons of built environment: roads, office buildings, power plants, cars and trains and long-haul trucks. It is a technological exoskeleton for the species. Everything most of us do, we do through it: calling our parents, getting to work, moving for a job, taking the family on vacation, finding food for the evening or staying warm in a polar vortex. Just being human in this artificial world implies a definite carbon footprint — and for that matter, a trail of footprints in water use, soil compaction, habitat degradation and pesticide use. You cannot change the climate impact of Americans without changing the built American landscape.

Okay, if you are denying that human-induced climate change is a thing then this article is not for you.  But if you even suspect that our lifestyles have something to do with the “weirding” of our climate then you have got to grapple with this argument.

It is odd to me that the idea of mobilizing the nation for war (see WWII) is not at all controversial (nor, apparently, is the idea that we need to feed the war machine to the tune of trillions every couple of years despite the fact that we are NOT at war), but that public expenditure on our built infrastructure to lower our collective carbon footprint is somehow anathema, sophomoric, and beyond the pale… Color me red (or green) I guess.

2. The “Emergency” Declaration

This whole article by Jeff Greenfield receives a YES, YES, YES from me.  Why?  Because I am a hopeless liberal?

No, because I grew up in a conservative family and this is what I learned:

  1. Leaders must be morally upright.  Kennedy and King were shams, I was taught, because they had sexual relations outside marriage.
  2. Big government is bad because it robs us of essential freedoms.  Only war itself should lead to the central state acting to take control.  Everything else is tyranny.
  3. “We balance our budget and so should the government.”  Deficits are the result of moral failure and no right-minded politician will support deficit spending–only the “Cadillac Liberals” act that way (and they spend to keep power).
  4. We saved Europe and we need NATO as a bulwark against all that is wrong in the world (Soviet Union, then later Islamic fundamentalism).

And that conservatism had the Grand Old Party as a sacred vessel to hold these essential truths.  Now we have this:

If you think the Republicans in Congress are going to stand up to Trump’s fake national emergency in order to defend the party’s long-held principles, or to assert the constitutional authority of the legislative branch, you haven’t been paying attention for the past three years. Trump said he would win so much that you’d get tired of winning—the lone arena in which this is objectively true is how he has imposed his will on his fellow Republicans, who have surrendered abjectly to him…

At times, it’s possible to imagine the president almost willfully testing his party, musing about whether there is any part of its belief system that he cannot compel Republicans to abandon. Is character key to a good leader? White evangelicals, who once overwhelmingly supported that proposition, now reject it by landslide margins. Are deficits a mortal danger to the national economic health? Are international alliances crucial to national security?

Yes, all the way around.  The Republican Party is not conservative. Not in any way.  Glad I can finally put that to rest.

Now, on to the rest…

Peacemaking

My dear friend Lisa Schirch has been boots (okay, shoes) on the ground in Afghanistan for a good long while.  A person committed to the way of non-violence, she has bravely entered the halls of military academies to try to help the makers of war wrestle with what “nation building” really requires.  I admire her commitment to peace–it is practical, open-eyed, and grounded in an understanding of our shared humanity with folks like the Taliban.

This article gets at the heart of what peacemaking in a decades-long conflict must include.  And Lisa is right:

Successful peace agreements emerge from comprehensive peace processes such as those that took place in South Africa, Tajikistan, Colombia, Guatemala, Liberia and the Philippines.

Comprehensive means that they are broadly inclusive of community (human) needs and focus on building broad consensus.

Closer to home we have (finally?) an awakening of our need for peacemaking in our communities.  This article is encouraging in this regard, but as my friend Bill (husband of Lisa) remarked to me “(I)t irks me that the article reads as if they just discovered structural injustice and the country was peachy keen until Trump became president.”

Indeed… these divisions, the need for local peacemaking, restorative justice, and conflict resolution are NOT new… Maybe we are just waking up to them.  Thanks Bill (the article IS helpful however).

All About Health

I am pretty sure you won’t agree with the basic argument of this article on suicide in the military.  It certainly made me squirm.  Here is the gist:

Military service members, while perhaps not fully understanding their own evolutionary idealism, enlist to escape a society where it’s every man for himself. Human beings instinctively need to be part of a tribe. There is something mysteriously satisfying about offering yourself for the greater good of others. An experience in the military followed by a life deficient in community, solidarity, and shared suffering is, well, depressing.

Frankly, I am open to any argument to understand this epidemic (like so much about the military, hidden from view).  I will say that what it suggests is that our de-facto mercenary military is not made up of a healthy group of people.

Ezra Klein writes excellent longish articles on key policy and economics themes and this one on the idea of “Medicare for All” is no exception.  Klein is unsparing in his criticism of the various Democratic “plans” (including Bernie Sanders’) and breaks down both what is meant by “Medicare” and what is meant by “All.”  A sample:

Medicare works, and Americans know it. That’s a political boon for Democrats. But it carries an implicit threat: If whatever ends up being Democrats’ Medicare-for-all bill feels risky to people, the same forces buoying the idea’s poll numbers now will sink the policy later.

As a companion to the Klein piece, I recommend this one, which talks about the role of private insurance in Europe and Canada: that is the role of private insurance in the context of strong and successful state-run schemes.  Lots of interesting models and approaches.

If you don’t read publications from the American Public Health Association, I strongly recommend you start.  They are accessible, include key links and provide key evidence of the arguments they are making.

This one on the fall of life expectancy in the US (for the third year running) blames suicide and opioids.  The article refers to these as “conditions of despair”:

Suicide and opioid addiction are not the same, with different causes and solutions. But as conditions of despair, both opioid addiction and suicidality are rooted in social and socio-economic adversities, many of which are widespread in the U.S.

Now I am not particularly satisfied with the catch-all of “social and socio-economic adversities.”  Those terms seem to hide more than they reveal.  However, how is it that in the wealthiest nation, perhaps in all of history, we have a declining life expectancy because of despair?

I think we need to have a look in the mirror here.

I lump poverty in with health because… well… just like poor people scrimp on food, they also scrimp on health care to get by.  A few weeks ago I linked to an article criticizing the way some development economists (and Bill Gates) describe improvements to poverty rates (that is, that they are falling globally).  That article questioned the poverty threshold Gates referred to and the dubious quality of data from the 1800s on poverty.

Turns out that the whole Gates thing has led to a pretty healthy debate about the whole issue of global poverty.  I strongly recommend this article because it is a true primer to the discussion of poverty and what it means on a global scale.

Bacevich

I know I am way over the top in my adoration of this guy… but he gets it.  In case you have missed all his incisive writing over the past several years (including his warning about the “imperial presidency”), this review of his collected works should be a link to encourage you to buy the book. 

He is that good…

 

I will close today from an extended quote from the Heritage Foundation’s website.  This bookends one of my opening articles and situates us pretty much where we are. The Ten Conservative Principles are by Russell Kirk, a respected figure in American conservative circles.  I point to Principle Number 8 in light of our national “emergency”:

Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, (just) as they oppose involuntary collectivism. Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger.

Emphasis added…

Interesting Reads: January 2019

No time for weekly updates this month but here are some of the interesting reads for January.

Public Health

This article provides a useful visual on the distribution and concentration of gun violence in the US. In addition to helping to visualize a “rate” it demonstrates the limitations of rates and allows a finer-grained analysis of clusters of gun violence. Excellent resource.

Once again The Economist does a good job teasing out the absurdity of the seeming hell-bent elimination of any and all air and water quality standards by the current administration. This one, on mercury, shows how unnecessary and even unwanted such eliminations are.

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Coastal Hills Looking West towards San Francisco

Read this one to get a sense of how complex (beyond imagination) our health care system is. So complex that experts are not even sure how to explain it so people can demand changes.

I file this one under public health even though it is really about public infrastructure, the way we build our living spaces, and how transportation fits into that. If you haven’t paid attention to how your own living space either promotes or impedes a healthy lifestyle, check out this article. It really helps clarify things.

Economics

If you have read much Dean Baker, you know his main points: his objection to patents, his critique of maintaining high interest rates to “tame” inflation; his plea to always put large numbers ($500 million dollars!!!!) in perspective…

They are all here in his wish for clearer and more honest debate over economic policy. An excellent primer.

Coming to a city near you: attempts to lower tax bills by chain stores claiming their land should be valued at the sale price of their stores in other cities. The article also points out the problems of construction of purpose built stores that no one else wants. As a former local policy maker, I can tell you that moves like this are disastrous for small communities that rely heavily on sales tax for “big boxes” and the property tax that goes with them.

Robert Bork’s surprising role in rolling back anti-trust laws is the subject of this insightful piece. I have lived my entire adult life in the face of all out efforts by the Republican to remove “barriers” to businesses. They generally get a pass from business people of companies of all sizes. The general feeling is “there is too much regulation and the Republicans do something about it.” But in examples like this, and the air quality one above, we can see that these are not conservative values on display but revolutionary and disruptive ones. They will destroy small businesses, the environment, and competition—ironically in the name of “free competition.” There is here a denial of the failure of markets due to monopolistic (an monopsonistic) practices and inattention to externalities. Glad to see a conservative newspaper calling them out.

Is government debt always bad? I am keeping my eyes out for other articles on this theme because more and more are popping up fundamentally questioning how we think about funding government programs and the issue of national debt.

And now everyone is joining their voices in agreement about the dehumanizing effects of free-market capitalism. If the foregoing articles don’t fit your politics, how about this guy’s take. I can’t agree with everything Carlson says but that he said stuff like this seems to capture the essence of something important for all of us:

The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.

This articles summarizes some conservative responses to what Carlson said. Read both.

More Baker, this time on the tax cut. The basic story: all the promises about revenue growth (not spikes), reduced tax avoidance, and increased corporate investment, are not coming true. Is anyone shocked?

In case you weren’t reading Baker on patent monopolies, or anything I have referred to about deregulation (or government capture by large companies), read this one to better understand our opioid crisis. Guess who gets to clean up this mess? Yup, local governments everywhere.

 

Policing in America

The “thin blue line” was much on display in my hometown recently when a young officer was shot and killed while responding to a traffic violations. This article and video from the New York Times talks about another town’s encounter with this symbol, why it is necessary for some and opposed by others. Like any symbol, it can be used and abused for objectionable ends. Talking about its meaning, for all members of the community, seems to be a good example of how to effectively deal with symbols that have come to mean very different things to different members of a community. Symbols are rarely neutral.

 

Democracy

Bacevich at his best (he always is) with the one phrase that sums up this short piece on Brexit and democracy in the US—“curated” democracy.

It is no doubt true that the United Kingdom and the United States are democracies, with the people allowed some say. But to be more precise, they are curated democracies, with members of an unelected elite policing the boundaries of acceptable opinion and excluding heretics. Members of this elite are, by their own estimation, guardians of truth and good sense. They know what is best.

 

Food

I am not sure there is any good farm bill but this critique from a Jesuit magazine lays out the issues. Here is one key quote during which the author declares we are not facing a food crisis:

(T)his is not a crisis. It is true that farmers are working more and more hours for ever-diminishing returns, rural communities are hollowing out, and young people are staying away or are being boxed out from agriculture. It is also the case that farmers—exhausted, cash-strapped and with communal supports knocked out from under them—are experiencing a remarkable rise in instances of mental illness and suicide. In a great number of places, the rivers continue to grow more polluted, the soil is being depleted, and biological diversity is disappearing. Nonetheless, it is not a crisis, because food shows up with a wonderful regularity on our store shelves and on our plates, and most of us are well and happily fed. It is a fine thing to be so secure in our food. But if our patterns of production and consumption mean that we are squeezing every last drop out of the farm families and farmland only to discard them, then our priorities have become seriously, dangerously out of order.

And while we are on food, do we ever think about how the concentration occurring within the food crop seed industry (see monopoly article above), might affect farmers, farm families, and food production—not just in the US but around the world. Some of these firms have research facilities in my home town and they are great people. But where does this all end? In particular, what does it do to the need to innovate?

 

Inequality

I have seen the good and the bad of elites trying to bring about social change. When they work with already existing entities with deep understanding of the problems, it can be positive. If they are willing to look at structural injustice and attack it, all good. If not… Well here is the critique:

(E)lites start initiatives of their own, taking on social change as though it were just another stock in their portfolio or corporation to restructure. Because they are in charge of these attempts at social change, the attempts naturally reflect their biases.

For the most part, these initiatives are not democratic, nor do they reflect collective problem-solving or universal solutions. Rather, they favour the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government. They reflect a highly influential view that the winners of an unjust status quo – and the tools and mentalities and values that helped them win – are the secret to redressing the injustices…

By refusing to risk its way of life, by rejecting the idea that the powerful might have to sacrifice for the common good, it clings to a set of social arrangements that allow it to monopolise progress and then give symbolic scraps to the forsaken – many of whom wouldn’t need the scraps if society were working right.

This one caught me a bit by surprise but is an important read about how we think about poverty and what it means to live on “a dollar a day.” Has poverty declined in our world? If so, by how much? And what does that mean?

One lesson: if you take out China, the rest of the economically poor places around the world are not doing that well…

 

Immigration Arcania

If you don’t work with immigration issues every day (like I do), the sheer complexity of the whole system is largely hidden. If you are an American returning from abroad your trip through customs and border protection is usually fast and painless (unless you forgot and brought fresh produce in your luggage—NEVER do that).

If you are anyone else entering our nation and seeking the legal benefits of your “status” then things are not so easy—not so easy when you come, not so easy to stay, not so easy to make sure you follow all the rules. And your waits for benefits you have applied for (usually work-related) are getting longer.

 

Science Fiction (or not)

This does remind me of some science fiction I have read or watched. How the poor sell themselves and how their governments help, just so they can survive.

I had never heard of “ethics dumping” but it is a thing and if we allow it the path to using the poor as “petri dishes” for our organs and cures does not see too far away…

 

And a quote from Sarah Smarsh writing Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.  Speaking of the body, and labor, and how it is valued…

The person who drives a garbage truck may himself be viewed as trash.  The worse danger is not the job itself but the devaluing of those who do it.  A society that considers your body dispensable will inflict violence upon you.  Working in a field is one thing; being misled by a corporation about the safety of a carcinogenic pesticide is another.  Hammering on a roof is one thing; not being able to afford a doctor when you fall is another.  Waiting tables is one thing; working for an employer whose sexual harassment you can’t afford to fight and risk a night’s worth of tips is another.

The Way of Remembrance

As I sat through the funeral of Officer Corona, slain on the streets of my hometown just a week before, I thought about the act of remembering.  Everyone who spoke that morning implored us to remember this young woman.  And in their words was more than a hint of what that might mean. img_0105

Her young life, by any reckoning, was extraordinary in how she touched people, how she lived, and how she led.  We do not want to forget her.  But after all the services are over, after the makeshift memorial on 5th street is removed, and after all the blue ribbons come down–by hand or by wind and weather–how can we remember this unique life?

The hint I heard on Friday morning is that we can remember Ms. Corona by living out, together, in our community, the best of who she was.  This is how we remember.

To remember is to act on memories.  It is a liturgy to those who are gone.

In this sense, a remembrance, a true one, must move beyond fading recollections to daily acts that form us to be certain kinds of people, and keep the person who is no longer with us, “with” us–before us, present in the day to day.

It is only thus that we immortalize that which is mortal.

And, from what I heard, Natalie Corona is someone we should desire to immortalize.

There is a local columnist who, from time to time, prods our small city to come up with a motto.  He often jests but there is a point.  A motto, according to the dictionary is “a short sentence or phrase chosen as encapsulating the beliefs or ideals guiding an individual, family, or institution.”  I could propose that we take what we have learned of Officer Corona and use it to create our City’s motto.  Unfortunately, what we learned is far too much to contain in a sentence or phrase.

So, I would propose, instead of a motto, an aspirational statement our City can adopt to lay out what we desire to be.  In this way we keep Natalie in our hearts, in our lives, and in our actions.

The following is based on what I heard on Friday morning, cast as a statement of who we want to be:

The City of Davis is

  • a city that serves
  • a city that always smiles
  • a city that is the first to arrive in a time of need, and the last to leave
  • a city of youthful energy
  • a city that works tirelessly to create a welcome place and safety for everyone.

Stay with us Natalie, in the words we speak and in the acts we undertake.

 

Denying the Desperation

At present, there is no single, coherent theory of international migration, only a fragmented set of theories that have developed largely in isolation from one another, sometimes but not always segmented by disciplinary boundaries. Current patterns and trends in immigration, however, suggest that a full understanding of contemporary migratory processes will not be achieved by relying on the tools of one discipline alone, or by focusing on a single level of analysis.
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Accessed at https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/human-journey
Rather, their complex, multifaceted nature requires a sophisticated theory that incorporates a variety of perspectives, levels, and assumption… Given the fact that theories conceptualize causal processes at such different levels of analysis-the individual, the household, the national, and the international-they cannot be assumed, a priori, to be inherently incompatible. It is quite possible, for example, that individuals act to maximize income while families minimize risk, and that the context within which both decisions are made is shaped by structural forces operating at the national and international levels. (Massey et al (1993) “Theories of International Migration: A Review and Appraisal” in Population and Development Review

Potential gains in absolute income through migration are likely to play an important role in households’ migration decisions, but international migration by household members who hold promise for success as labor migrants can also be an effective strategy to improve a household’s income position relative to others in the household’s reference group. (Oded Stark and J Edward Taylor (1989) “Relative Deprivation and International Migration” in Demography)

The man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed… (Stephen King, The Gunslinger—Darktower I)

And when the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstlings of your cattle that are males shall be the Lord’s. Every firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every first-born of man among your sons you shall redeem. And when in time to come your son asks you, “What does this mean?” you shall say to him, “By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” (Exodus 13)

When humans first ventured out of Africa some 60,000 years ago, they left genetic footprints still visible today. By mapping the appearance and frequency of genetic markers in modern peoples, we create a picture of when and where ancient humans moved around the world. These great migrations eventually led the descendants of a small group of Africans to occupy even the farthest reaches of the Earth. (https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/human-journey/)

Suddenly the storm caught them away and swept them over the water weeping, away from their own country… She brought them inside and seated them on chairs and benches, and mixed them a potion, with barley and cheese and pale honey added to Pramneian wine, but put into the mixture malignant drugs, to make them forgetful of their own country. (Odyssey Book 10)

We sat around the circle and they explained “levleika” to us. That time of year in the Northern Sahel when people just cannot make ends meet.  They described the strategies for the worst of times and it basically came down to a great scattering.  The scattering of people near and far to find work, and food, and life.

Even today farther south in the Sahel they refer to the exodus. And sometimes people, especially the men, never return.

We are a migratory species, leaving home in search of lives that home sometimes cannot provide.  I started studying migration seriously in the early 1990s and was astounded at the number of theories that had been set forth, over many years, to explain it.  I always preferred Stark’s concept of relative deprivation–the idea that people seem to inherently compare themselves to their neighbors and, feeling relatively, if not merely absolutely poor, decide to leave to find a better life.  (Much later I discovered that Stark was basically describing Girard’s mimetic desire, though I doubt he knew that).

And while people do leave, it has always been my experience that they harbor hopes, often deep hopes, of returning home.  Migration is a temporary state that will make survival at home possible.  Only much later do they learn that it is too late, or that home is too far, or that home has transformed into the “here.”

Standing in a cornfield in Guerrero, Mexico or sitting around a fire talking to Mauritanians, Burkinabe, or Malians, I learned of the forces that drove people to move.  I learned from a father that his sons really did not want to leave to find work in the US, but that they had had no choice.  Dropping corn and pepper prices meant they could never provide education for their children, homes for their families, or care for the father himself in his old age.  They dreaded leaving.  He feared they would never return.

I formally researched migration for my dissertation, and what I concluded in “Risk Management Strategies in a Changing Social and Economic Environment: The Case of the Assaba Region of Mauritania” was that families not only relied on migrants to provide cash or in-kind goods, but they also used them to “purchase” insurance in places where the market provided none.

I think we should consider that finding a bit: in places in which people cannot purchase life, or homeowners’ or crop, or cattle, or health insurance, migrants enable their families to “create obligations” towards themselves that function as insurance in times of need.  For many poor people around the world migration of family members is a risk management strategy.  Perhaps one of a handful of ways to hedge against catastrophic loss.

But, I have also talked to the migrants who fled things that are far worse than poverty or the need for insurance.  Those cowering in Bassiknou having fled across the Mali/Mauritania border in times of war and pillage, migrated to save themselves.

And I can assure you… to wander the desert, cross a sea in an unseaworthy boat, or cross great distances on foot without certainty at what is at the other end, is the result of deep desperation.  No one can pay you to do that.  No one can organize a “caravan.”  Desperate people do that when there is no other choice and leaving is the only real option among a set of very bad ones.  Sometimes it seems that only God can compel them to go–and then their “captors” (drug lords and gangs and pharaonic types), try to make them stay.  But sometimes they escape.

It has always struck me as grotesque that we will accept the logic that globe straddling companies will migrate around the world in search of the cheapest labor, the highest profits, the most beneficial tax deals, but we will not apply the same logic to human beings who migrate to seek life.

In the first instance we seem to throw up our hands and say “the market.”  We don’t have to like it but, hey, what can we do?  Invisible hand being what it is…

But when people move (especially across foreign boundaries) to seek a benefit we demonize them as criminals, terrorists, disease carriers, “economic migrants” (as in “They are only moving because their economy is in shambles and they want to benefit from ours…”  Really???).

Parenthetically, I have read The Economist newspaper for years.  It is a religiously free market news source extolling the virtues of unfettered trade and the free movement of goods, services, information… but not people.  They, like the current crop of nativists in DC, seem to view people and their cultures as so vulnerable, so fragile, that any incursion of new ideas, practices, dress or… color is seen as a threat.

And so here we hear claims that nearly 4000 terrorists have attempted to gain access across the southern border (not true, but about that number of people on a watchlist tried to enter the US last year), that 6,000 gang members were picked up at the southern border (not true, about that number were arrested or deported from all over the US last year), that 17,000 people clustered at the southern border are criminals (not true, they may have plead a misdemeanor or merely attempted to cross over without authorization, but criminal?–I don’t think that means what you think it means).

And the facts about “evil” migrants everywhere gets conflated with suffering masses on the southern border to create a crisis.

And so our goal must be, as is Italy’s, which has outsourced the rounding up of migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean to the Libyan Navy, to send a clear message that you should not even try.

This is why people who have left their homes in true fear of survival or simply because there is no real tomorrow there, are stranded at our frontier waiting the purposefully glacial-speed processing of asylum requests (hear all about in “Let Me Count the Ways”).

This is why we separate families.

This is why we lie about “facts:” to demonize the innocent.  To deny the desperation. To minimize the misery.

But, we are a migratory species…

One final word.  Let us declare our outrage at how migrants take our jobs, make us lose our culture, overload our school systems, and the myriad other blames we lay at their feet.  And then let us sit in our homes (most likely built by migrant labor), eat our food (most likely picked and processed by migrant labor), and enjoy our vacations (rooms cleaned by migrants, food served by migrants).

We are a migratory species and we all enjoy the fruits of migration. And it is not going to stop.  Not ever.

Interesting Reads Week of December 23, 2018

War

I have been quite taken aback by the pushback that President Trump has received on his proposal to remove US troops from Syria.  I get that his motivation for doing so does not match mine but… what is the goal here?  Why is the US there?  What is the end-game?  What does “success” look like? What are the metrics?

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Winter moon, Davis, CA 2018

It bothers me more than a little that in all the years I worked in public health around the world, the US government DEMANDED an evidence-based approach, careful monitoring, and regular reporting on our efforts if we were to obtain funding.  I never see those demands placed on military intervention.  An Atlantic article force us to confront the reality of our endless wars and what they bring. Conor Fredersdorf notes and asks:

Still, many now say that the United States would be betraying our allies if we leave. It’s reasonable to ask, given the positions of Congress, the president, and the public: Who took on that ostensible obligation on the nation’s behalf? What gave them the right to do so?

Andrew Bacevich writing in the American Conservative comes at this whole thing in a different way asking why the Neo-Cons are wringing their hands over inattention to “alliances” when they were so willing to trash such alliances when they were not getting their way.

To drive the point home, Sanger recruits Robert Kagan, who obligingly chides President Donald Trump for treating allies as “freeloaders who can go to hell if they don’t get on board.” 

Treating allies with disrespect is no doubt a terrible thing. Yet not so very long ago it was Kagan and his fellow neoconservatives who were telling allies unwilling to get onboard to go to hell. The moment was the run up to the Iraq war.

To that I would add: What are the true ends the US is trying to achieve there… or in other wars in which people continue to die for reasons that are entirely unclear.  To the question of “ends” Matt Gallagher adds this:

But when questions like “How long?” and “How many?” and “What’s the objective?” get swallowed up by a defense industry that essentially answers with, “We’ll handle it,” it’s no wonder that the American citizenry doesn’t engage with its military much beyond surprise homecomings at football games.

And the lack of clarity about ends must, inevitably lead us right back to… Iraq.  But not the Iraq of the Trump visit.  Another Iraq.

Remember that one?  Ben Taub hasn’t forgotten, and his article on the cycles of revenge that the US military unleashed in that land is almost too hard to read.  Read it anyway.

Economics

Just one here but the title alone–No, Donald Trump Is Not Leaving Us Poorly Prepared for the Next Recession–should entice a read (coming as it does from Dean Baker).  But lest you think Baker has gone too far, check out this pretty classic summary of his views (emphasis added):

The point is that if we want to do a full accounting of the government’s debt then we better add in the increased cost for a wide range of goods and services due to the monopolies the government has granted. My crude calculations put these in the neighborhood of $1 trillion a year, or roughly one quarter of the federal government’s current tax revenue.

Of course our deficit hawks never do this. This can be explained by the fact that they either don’t understand economics, which is a good reason not to listen to them, or they are simple not honest, which is also a good reason not to listen to them.

To be clear, large tax cuts to corporations, so that they could give more money back to wealthy shareholders in the form of buybacks and dividends (yep, giving money to shareholders through dividends is no better than buybacks) is not a good use of resources. It means the rich get to spend more money at a time when we should be focusing resources on green infrastructure and energy conservation.

In this sense, the Trump tax cuts leave us less well-prepared to face the future. But as far as being prepared for the next recession, sorry folks, you don’t have an economics case.

The politics are another matter. We know that the tax cut loving Republicans will all become huge deficit hawks the next time Democrats are in power. We should not be in the business of assisting their efforts to undermine the economy.

Grace

Okay, this is not a typical topical area for these brief posts but perhaps it should be.  In my view (and I speak as someone who, as an elected official, had a front row seat on local civics), we are a graceless society.  So… grace deserves some attention and Peter Wehner provides it:

When I recently asked Jonathan how, as a nonbeliever, he understood grace and why it inspires us when we see it in others, he told me that grace is “some combination of generosity and magnanimity, kindness and forgiveness, and empathy — all above the ordinary call of duty, and bestowed even (or especially?) when not particularly earned.” We see it demonstrated in heroic ways and in small, everyday contexts, he said. “But I guess, regardless of the context, it’s always at least a little unexpected and out of the ordinary.”

Please read this to start your 2019.

 

And I leave you with a quote from Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism by Sheldon Wolin (a post-Iraq-invasion reflection):

Two crucial consequences of the Cold War upon domestic politics contributed major elements to the power imaginary evolving from the conflict.  One was the shrinking place occupied by politics and the enlargement of state power.  The growing dominance of foreign policy and military strategy altered the scope and status of public participation. Public officials, experts, and pundits were quick to declare these to be privileged subjects where partisan politics should defer to national unity and experts should be decide among themselves. The second development was intimately connected with the priority of foreign policy and military preparedness: the emergence and legitimation of elitism, of a political class, “the best and brightest.” (p 39)