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.

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