Changing for the Climate

glacier_np

Two years ago, Taylor and I road tripped to Glacier National Park, on the northern U.S. border where cell phone reception doesn’t exist. In early June, the crowds were sparse, the wildlife was abundant, and the views were spectacular. It instantly became one of our favorite destinations.

Yet, in the week we spent hiking up, down and around the mountains, lakes and waterfalls, we saw just one of the park’s eponymous glaciers. To do that, we had stay at a lodge at the heart of the park, boat across a lake, hike a quarter mile to a higher lake, then boat to the other side. After all that, we finally could see through the early summer fog the Salamander Glacier clinging to the backbone of the continent. An incredible sight, undoubtedly, but as our boat captain pointed out, one that was more than  20% larger just twenty years ago and in another twenty may be gone completely.

When Glacier National Park was dedicated in 1910, it featured nearly 150 alpine glaciers, but 2014 estimates now put that number at just 25. Almost assuredly, my children will be visiting a glacierless national park, and much of the plant and animal life dependent on the glaciers to regulate the high climate will have no place left to go.

Since that trip I’ve not thought much about glaciers, humanity’s carbon footprint or the resulting accelerated climate change we’re causing. Every time I read an article or dig out from another massive snow storm, I feel like it’s such a huge problem I can do nothing about. Some people even think our impact is closing in on – or even past – the point of no return. Not to mention, multitudes of people stand to gain from misinforming and obfuscating the seriousness of the issue, and even those who agree on the causes can’t agree on the remedies. But last year’s historic Paris accord, which requires nearly every nation to drastically reduce its carbon emissions, got me interested again. If even the United States government can get in line with the rest of the world to combat climate change, then surely I could do my part. So how do I begin to make smart decisions for mitigating our damage?

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When Progressive Wasn’t a Dirty Word

taft_roosevelt

By pure coincidence, I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” throughout the last month of silly season Republican politicking – the Donald Trump Show, the debate circus, and the Iowa State Fair “please-notice-me-I’m-wearing-dad-jeans-and-holding-a-fried-porkchop-on-a-stick” routine of American politics. Sadly, I’ve noticed the only thing unhealthier that what they stick in their mouths seems to be what comes out of them. But as I watch these pitiful bought-out attention-starved fundamentalist egomaniacs prance around trying to deport the most minorities, I can’t help but contrast this laughable state of public discourse with the debates of 100 years ago thoroughly outlined in DKG’s latest. Whatever happened to candidates like Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft?

These guys were the original “progressives”: pro-worker, pro-social welfare, pro-market, pro-conservation, anti-trust, anti-tariff, anti-lobbying, and anti-establishment. Oh, and they advocated all of this as standard bearers of the Republican Party.

Roosevelt and Taft typified a time when the parties were probably closer ideologically than any other time in US history. In 1912, the two of them along with Woodrow Wilson campaigned against each other for president, all on platforms well to the left of any candidate today. It would be like the 2016 field were dominated by three candidates who all shared the politics of Bernie Sanders. We’ve changed a bit in 100 years.

By all accounts, Roosevelt was one of the great presidents of the 20th century. A Republican dynamo who couldn’t sit still for five seconds, he helped break up major railroad and oil trusts, fought for worker’s rights, intervened in labor disputes on behalf of workers, initiated civil service reform, preserved vast areas of the U.S. as National Parks and National Forests, and started the Panama Canal project. He was also a bit of a psychopath – violent, belligerent, thought that the U.S. needed to go to war with somebody every few years because it would keep us healthy and alert. But his Bull Moose spirit is what helped pushed much of the reform he advocated. Few, whether business or machine politicians – dared line up against him.

Taft, on the other hand, is not remembered as a great president, but he did more than most.

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The New Broken Arrows

da_bomb

You might be aware that the United States dropped a nuclear weapon on North Carolina. Unintentionally, of course. A B-52 bomber collided with a refueling tanker mid-air, and the plane had to jettison its nuclear payload. Some official reports suggested one of the hydrogen bombs may have been armed. Had it detonated, it would have incinerated most of North Carolina, then dropped radioactive fallout on Washington, D.C. all the way up to Boston. But we’ll never know if it was armed, because the weapon’s nuclear core sank so far into a swamp it was unable to be recovered. It’s still there today.

Of course, maybe you weren’t aware of this. The details of the incident were only declassified in 2013, even though it occurred more than 40 years ago.

It’s one of hundreds of previously undisclosed nuclear “Broken Arrows” that occurred under the watch of US Strategic Air Command (headquartered in good ol’ Omaha, Neb.). These incidents and many more are documented in Eric Schlosser’s “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.”

Schlosser’s investigating uncovered a huge list of near-misses with nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War. His narrative is built around another major incident – the explosion of a Titan II long-range missile in rural Arkansas. That blast killed one serviceman and launched a thermonuclear warhead 80 feet into the air before it landed intact in a nearby ditch.

You’d think these incidents would be more well known, but naturally Strategic Air Command was eager to bury details of the reports, in the name of national security and keeping strategic and technical details out of the hands of the Soviet Union. From the book:

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Place Matters

neighborhood-effect

Two schools of thought have dominated recent thinking about the future of our society. The first idea, that “the world is flat,” suggests our physical locations no longer matter, thanks to communication technology, free-trade, fast travel and globalization. Another perspective bemoans the collapse of social cohesion, driving us to a world where dissent is up, compassion is down, and ability to find common ground and solve society’s problems disappears because we are “bowling alone.”

Enter sociologist Robert J. Sampson.

Sampson served as one of the primary investigators on the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), a study conducted over more than eight years in dozens of Chicago’s neighborhoods. The study tracked cohorts of Chicago children of different ages over time, measuring basic demographics, economic conditions, education, crime, health and more. He has published some of the major findings of this study – nearly 20 years in the making – in “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.”

The sheer scope of the study is impressive enough. However, the findings have major implications for national and local policy in regard to institutionalized and structurally reinforced opportunity, inequality and economics and well-being. The PHDCN also appears to refute the ideas that place no longer matters and that social networks have degraded. Quite the opposite, Sampson argues.

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The Smoke-Filled Chatroom

digital-disconnect

Journalism is dead. Why? Because old media were stubborn and did not adjust to a new world of smart phones and social media. Or so the prevailing thought goes.

Robert McChesney’s “Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy” offers another theory, though, one I believe should be discussed and dissected in every journalism school in the United States.

Those who aspire to be journalists need to know and understand the information and arguments in “Digital Disconnect,” because it gives a brutally honest description of today’s “political economy of communication,” and how the demise of good investigative reporting is contributing to a rise in economic inequality.

The book is primarily about how the promise of the Internet – open, untethered, democratic, free of advertising – has been co-opted by two groups of massive conglomerates – telecoms (Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, etc.) tussling over the right to control access, and massive new media companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, etc.) fighting over your data – all to maximize profit. As Jaron Lanier writes, those who owns the most distribution channels and data own the future.

At its heart, however, McChesney’s book tackles the death and future of American journalism. National news organizations are now almost entirely owned by one of six media corporations (who also often own telecom networks), and they design their product to get maximum pageviews or ad clicks through one of the massive social media networks. In other words, the news has fundamentally changed thanks to a squeeze for profits from both ends. The wall between ownership and newsrooms were long destroyed, and terms like “sponsored content” try to disguise the fact that most “news” is now no more than regurgitated press releases.

All of this means journalism is spending less time putting pressure on those who control resources and power in society. This includes their own ownership, actively rewriting laws and regulations to further monopoly control over public means of communication. As a result, these companies, along with the American government, now know nearly anything they want about you, while you are allowed to know as little as possible about them. Primarily, “Digital Disconnect” is an account of corporate and state collusion to increase profits and power at the expense of privacy, choice, dissent and the democratic process. And professional journalism has rolled over and played along.

The Internet has been detrimental to news media, because it has destroyed ad revenues. Journalism struggles to remain afloat. But this was always the case – real journalism has always been a thorn in the side of power, and thus always under attack. Intimidation via digital communication is just the latest tool to render reporting and investigation harmless.

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Milton Friedman’s Radical Idea

friedman

The American public policy discussion is currently abuzz about economic inequality. French economist Thomas Piketty doused gasoline on the discussion with his work Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century. Last month, President Barack Obama dared Congress to combat inequality in a forceful State of the Union Address, and his budget proposal this week walks the walk. Even conservatives like Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have recently discussed policy solutions to shrink the gap between the ultra-wealthy and the middle class – a surprising pivot from just a few years ago.

A wide array of policy proposals claim to tackle the problem, but at its core, the solution will require that Americans get more money in the hands of those that don’t currently have it. In other words, we’ll need to ensure that everyone in the United States has a basic level of income to feed, shelter and medically care for themselves. The policy, Voxplained:

Basic income is not a radical socialist idea – it’s a solidly conservative one, designed by the intellectual architect of conservative economics and the messiah of a free-market society – Nobel-prize winning University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman. He was a proponent of school vouchers, financial deregulation, and dismantling Keynesian programs of the New Deal (which, for the record, I am not). However, he was also a proponent of social welfare.

In Capitalism and Freedom (1962), Friedman proposed a solution to the inherent threat of income inequality in capitalism. He called this solution a negative income tax – a tax-funded subsistence payment to any individual who made less than required to live in America. Here I’ve included the entire chapter on the subject, just in case you don’t believe me that this idea came from a staunch conservative:

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Iran and Pakistan

pak_iran

I talked with the president at one of those fundraisers some months back, and I asked him, “What keeps you up at night?”

And he said, “Everything. Everything that gets to my desk is a critical mass. If it gets to my desk, then no one else could have handled it.” So I said, “So what’s the one that keeps you up at night?”

He goes, “There are quite a few.”

So I go, “What’s the one? Period.”

And he says, “Pakistan.”

-George Clooney, 2011

I recently finished a couple of books – A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind and Pakistan: A Hard Country. Noticing a lot of striking differences between the two neighboring countries Iran and Pakistan, particularly when factoring in the misinformed common wisdom about each nation, I decided to put together a comparative study on these two Islamic powers, because apparently that’s the kind of thing I do for fun.

Both nations are fascinating remnants of massive empires, and my quick survey begs the question – which of these countries has the best outlook, which can be a positive force in the world, and which should the international community be most concerned about? As opinions stand at the moment, seems we might have it backwards.

If we’re worried about an Islamic extremism and nuclear threat in the Middle East, why is so much focus on Iran and so little on Pakistan, a nation that’s already nuclear and a haven to religious extremists? Perhaps cultural heritage and tradition drives Western attitudes? Perhaps recent history? Perhaps an outdated, post-Cold-War, ideological foreign policy vision of global hegemony?

First, let’s look at some of the demographics and history of Iran and Pakistan:

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Don’t Shoot

ferguson

I suppose I’m a little late to comment on the Ferguson mess. I am so far removed from the issues and parties involved that I probably shouldn’t comment on it, so I won’t… too much. However, the way those few weeks played out might have damaged that community and its relationship with law enforcement permanently. What were those cops thinking? What kind of message do armored vehicles and military-grade assault rifles send?

I bring this up because as Ferguson was igniting, I had just finished reading David M. Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America. Again, I know very little about this area, which is probably why Kennedy’s words seemed so profound. The killing of an unarmed teen by a police office in Ferguson and the violent crime spikes among inner-city youth in Boston are totally different issues, but the roots of the tension are the same.

Kennedy, is a passionate, pragmatic consultant, and it comes out in his writing style. Academics or political correctness aren’t his concerns in this book – his concern is what works. And he’s very sure he knows, because he’s been there and he’s done it.

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I just finished “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

There’s been a lot of debate and political controversy around French economist Thomas Piketty’s new work “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” so naturally I had to read it as soon as I possibly could. The book discusses economic inequality throughout the world (though primarily France, Britain and the United States), which has been a contentious issue for the last few years on both sides of the Atlantic. I finished it this last week, and my thoughts are as follows:

My political leanings aren’t much of a secret, but in reading “Capital” I wanted to put aside any preconceptions and just see what I could learn. That turned out to be pretty easy. “Capital” is much less prescriptive than one might assume. On top of that, there’s hell of a lot of data and history crammed into this 600-page thesis.

“Capital” isn’t for newcomers to macroeconomics. I’m not an econ PhD by any stretch of the imagination, but I have read a number of other texts on the subject, and without that base knowledge the book would have been borderline unreadable. If you’re looking for a more palatable entry point, I recommend Charles Wheelan’s “Naked Economics.”

For those familiar with the topics, “Capital” is not an ideological screed nor an exercise in scare tactics. Malthus was wrong, Piketty says – uncontrolled growth will not be humanity’s downfall. Marx, too, was wrong, as he underestimated the power of productivity growth, education and innovation as rising tides that lift all boats. However, Piketty argues, the prominent 20th century economists, who hailed capitalism as an ultimate solution to inequality and universal prosperity, were also wrong. To paraphrase Churchill, capitalism, like democracy, is the least worst option. As it turns out, capitalism itself inherently produces and perpetuates the types of wealth inequality we saw in the 19th century.  It needs adjustment and correction, and does not inherently self regulate. The “invisible hand” is dealing much more to a select few.

Even if you don’t subscribe to these views, the breadth of data accumulated in the first two sections is staggering. Not being an economics expert, the history of capital, productivity and growth since the year 0 A.D. fascinated me in a way that academic texts rarely do.

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