Thursday, June 4, 2015

Debunking that Freakonomics "hit piece" on local food movements

This is particularly disappointing to see, as I have in general loved the material that Dubner and Leavitt put out in their books, but I suppose I should take some comfort in the fact that this piece is by Steve Sexton, a PhD student at UC Berkeley. Other sites, like Mother Jones, have already reacted to Sexton's intellectually thin gruel, but I don't think they did him justice.

Sexton essentially sets out to argue that "locavore" food strategies--favoring local producers over far-distant corporate farms--are both more costly in terms of food prices and detrimental to the environment:
My conservative estimates are that under the pseudo-locavore system, corn acreage increases 27 percent or 22 million acres, and soybean acres increase 18 percent or 14 million acres. Fertilizer use would increase at least 35 percent for corn, and 54 percent for soybeans, while fuel use would climb 23 percent and 34 percent, for corn and soybeans, respectively. Chemical demand would grow 23 percent and 20 percent for the two crops, respectively. 
In order to maintain current output levels for 40 major field crops and vegetables, a locavore-like production system would require an additional 60 million acres of cropland, 2.7 million tons more fertilizer, and 50 million pounds more chemicals. The land-use changes and increases in demand for carbon-intensive inputs would have profound impacts on the carbon footprint of our food, destroy habitat and worsen environmental pollution.
This sounds incredibly damning, until you realize that the "conservative" in Sexton's "conservative estimate" is functionally more of an ideological label than a statistical descriptor.

Since this piece has been getting such enormous traction at sites like "scibabe" [she calls it a "great read"], it's actually important to devote the time to fisking it, and to revealing the nature of Sexton's "conservative estimates."

First, consider this:
It is difficult to estimate the impact of a truly locavore farming system because crop production data don’t exist for crops that have not historically been grown in various regions. However, we can imagine what a “pseudo-locavore” farming system would look like—one in which each state that presently produces a crop commercially must grow a share proportional to its population relative to all producers of the crop. I have estimated the costs of such a system in terms of land and chemical demand. 
Ok, we can only hope that Sexton does better in his eventual dissertation than the first link suggests, because the definition of "truly locavore" comes from a Wikapedia page entitled "Local Food" that (A) carries this disclaimer at the top:
This article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay that states the Wikipedia editor's particular feelings about a topic, rather than the opinions of experts.
... and (B) the only definition of "locavore" refers to individuals, not production systems, and is itself sourced back to a 2006 Time magazine article that never actually provides a working definition in the sense that Sexton uses it.

Forget about "pseudo-locavore"because, uh, Sexton just made it up.  It's a synonym for "straw man," as a matter of fact.

Here's the key paragraph where he palms the card:
It is difficult to estimate the impact of a truly locavore farming system because crop production data don’t exist for crops that have not historically been grown in various regions. However, we can imagine what a “pseudo-locavore” farming system would look like—one in which each state that presently produces a crop commercially must grow a share proportional to its population relative to all producers of the crop. I have estimated the costs of such a system in terms of land and chemical demand.
Notice here the definition, which is in bold.  Got that?  The implementation of Sexton's imagined "pseudo-locavore" system REQUIRES each state to produce commercial crops in proportion to its population.  In other words, Sexton is saying, "I'm going to require (by law, presumably) my pseudo-locavore system to deliver EXACTLY THE SAME DIET that is currently being produced, and then compare efficiencies."

He's not going to examine any system that any advocates of changing food production and/or distribution have ever put forward; no, he's going to create his own clown-car, Gestapo-mandated system, attribute it to them, and then tear it apart.  Sort of.  Turns out he doesn't even do that "tearing apart" thing particularly well.

Here's where you find his "estimates."  Let's note at the outset that his "analysis" is published by the Gianni Foundation of Agricultural Economics, and lacks any footnotes or source citation.  You can't actually reproduce Sexton's numbers because (A) he never tells you where he got the underlying stats, or (B) what statistical process he used to massage them in order to develop his argument.  He also attributes multiple arguments to "locavores" without ever bothering to quote anybody, name anybody, or provide any material for additional reading beyond other Gianni Foundation publications.

Again, let's hope he does better on his dissertation.

His assumptions, even if one spots him the lack of documenting his evidence, are wonderful:
These assumptions reallocate production so that each state produces an average “diet” for each if its residents. Because of data limitations, production is reallocated in this analysis for each crop only over those states for which a complete set of data exists. For instance, yield data for a given crop do not exist for states that are not currently producing that crop, so it is impossible to determine input demands.
This is truly amazing, as Sexton fails to tell us how many states this would entail leaving out, which states he uses, or how the develops the regions that he will mention in his following paragraph. Moreover, Sexton decides that the total impact of his "pseudo-locavore" system can be modeled through only four crops:  corn, soybeans, oats, and milk.  Leave aside that any such system that doesn't include wheat production or produce couldn't possibly pretend to bear the weight that Sexton wants his model to carry, he also leaves out such niceties under input demands as the impact of the existing Federal milk price support system or the percentage of soybeans utilized in the production of ethanol and therefore grown (and presumably modeled in his system) but not consumed as food or fodder.

Sexton palms many other cards in his presentation, including
These assumptions reallocate production so that each state produces an average “diet” for each if [sic] its residents. ... 
Using the regional mean production costs and state-level data on yield ... 
If a national price for inputs is assumed, these input cost changes can be interpreted as changes in input demand ...  
Table 2 reports the states that gain the most farmland under local production and those that lose the most, in absolute terms. Extrapolating this change across the 2.26 billion acres of farmland in the United States, the agricultural land base would grow by 214.8 million acres— an area twice the size of California. ...
None of these assumptions is either sourced or quantified, nor is there any validation for his methodology.  For all any skeptical reader could know, Sexton reaches up into his head and picks out numbers that sound good.

And he has to stumble past a number of problems in his conception without trying to draw attention to them.  Consider milk:
Notably, however, results for milk suggest that production costs decrease under the “pseudo-locavore” scenario, and purchased feed is substituted for grazing and feed produced in the dairy farm. The changes in feed consumption suggest carbon savings relative to the status quo, but the increased number of cows would induce more carbon emissions. Because of the way data for milk are reported, the change in head of cattle accounts for efficiency differences across states, where as input costs do not.
Actually, Sexton hasn't proven at any point that more cows would be required, nor does he do more than thinly swipe at the impact of Federal price controls on input costs.

Or there's this:
Large monocropped farms are more dependent than small polycrop farms on synthetic fertilizers and tilling operations to restore soil nutrients. They also face heightened pest pressure because they provide a consistent environment for breeding of crop-specific pests. Higher pest pressure increases demand for chemical damage control agents. Disposal of farm residues, like animal waste, also becomes a significant environmental challenge on industrial farms. The direct environmental costs of large-scale agriculture are clearly non-trivial. What is unclear, however, is whether the environmental benefits of small, poly-cropped farms outweigh the loss of efficiencies that are equally well-documented to accompany the increasing scale of production. 
In this case the card may not be where you think it is.  Sexton admits the comparative environmental damage of large monocropped farms, but then then says that it is "unclear" whether the environmental costs are offset by the environmental benefits of small poly-cropped farms.  It's that UNCLEAR where Sexton palms the card.  In an entire essay in which (without benefit of source or methodology citations) he has been arguing exactly that IT IS CLEAR (and even more forcefully in his Freakonomics one-off) that large-scale farming is economically and environmentally beneficial in a comparative sense, he hides a hedge that threatens to invalidate his entire argument.

I think the card just dropped on the floor.

Here's one of my other favorites:
For instance, agricultural economists have rejected the notion that farm policy is to blame for the obesity epidemic in America. While policy has made grains relatively cheap, it has also made sugar more expensive. 
Yep, it's made sugar more expensive in order to create a demand market for high-fructose corn syrup. Which, of course, has NOTHING to do with the obesity epidemic in America.

Here's my favorite card. Remember that Sexton's straw man "pseudo-locavore" system is designed to examine the costs of delivering exactly the same diet that the average person eats now, which makes this not only disingenuous but intellectually dishonest:
Would a local food system improve American diets? In two key respects, the likely answer is no. First, as this analysis has shown, a local food system would greatly increase the costs of food production by imposing constraints on the efficient allocation of resources. The monetary costs of increased input demands from forsaken gains from trade and scale economies will directly bear on consumer welfare by increasing the costs of food. Research shows that as incomes rise, fresh produce as a share of diets increases. Therefore, given that locavorism would effectively make consumers poorer by increasing the cost of food, it is hard to see how local production improves diets or health outcomes. 
What Sexton knows (and we know he knows it because of the few sources he cites for his Freakonomics article) is that local food advocates (A) make arguments about the quality and freshness of food; and (B) have, as a part of their strategy, CHANGING both the kinds and qualities that people consume.  In other words, he has created a system that locavores don't support, analyzed it to find it wanting, and then applied to it to other than the objectives the local food movement is trying to achieve.

All the while pretending he's actually doing serious research.

Finally, he ends with the assertion that local food advocates--not lack of population control, not climate change, not governmental policies, not trade regulations not market manipulations--but local food advocates (think of the woman in the denim skirt ahead of you in line at the farmer's market) will cause mass starvation and/or the clear-cutting of the rain forests in order to avoid mass starvation by 2050.

And, yes, he really does say that:
If mass starvation is to be avoided in the current century, then we must either forsake natural land, including tropical forests, or renew our commitment to crop science ["crop science" is here used as a surrogate for current monocrop corporate agriculture]. 
Ironically, I'm an agnostic on the whole locavore thing, from a whole variety of perspectives.  But when I read about a piece of garbage "research" being floated as somehow authoritative when it is essentially one large assertion backed up by ... more assertions ... then I can't resist the urge to point it out.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Poverty in Delaware: the hole that digs itself--Part 1: meeting Stella

I have not used this platform at all in the past two months because I have been focusing on Facebook and, oh yeah, real life.  But I want to do some longer articles, and while people will click to longer articles on FB they often will not read long FB posts.  Go figure.  So I'll post these and then link to them on FB.

In particular I want to deal in a fact-based but highly individualized manner with the many ways in which our society (specifically in Delaware) not only declares war on poor people, but conspires through a variety of governmental and private-sector actions, to keep them safely impoverished while blaming them for their own condition.  The stories I am going to tell you are true, and based on a person close to me, whose identity I'm going to protect.  I'll change names and some other identifying information, but the misadventures of this individual will be absolutely factual.

I'll call her Stella.  She's not the perfect poster-child human being, but then who is?  Currently in her early 30s, she was abused (both physically and sexually) as a child; she has severe Learning Disabilities but by dint of great effort graduated high school and is functionally literate (if barely); she suffers from PTSD from the abuse, is Bi-Polar, and has chronic depression.

Until the middle of last  year, Stella has always worked.  The high-school counselor from the Division of Voc Rehab (and this is the ONLY good thing I will say about this division, ever) was excellent and made sure she ended up with a Home Health Care certificate right after graduating high school.  Later she managed (thanks to Del Tech in Dover, with a great big raspberry to Del Tech in Wilmington) to get a Certified Nursing Assistant credential.  She originally aspired to move up to something like an LPN slot, but she just doesn't (and won't ever be able to) read well enough.

Stella started working in high school because she wanted a car.  Worked fast food for three years, rising to become a Shift Manager, never (this was the late 1990s) making more than $8.50/hour, which ain't too bad for teenagers.

Out of school, she started working as a Home Health Aide for a visiting nurse outfit--one of those where you go to people's houses.  Despite being willing to work as much as possible, she soon discovered that (a) they will fire you if they find you moonlighting for another company; and (b) they are dead determined that you will never get more than about 20-22 hours per week because benefits they don't even want to think about.  (Oh, and while you're thinking about it, these jobs paid then $8.50-$10.00/hour with a lot of driving that you never got compensated for.)

After a couple years, tired of the driving and the never knowing what she'd walk into at a client's house, Stella moved into working as an aide at a nursing home that was pretending to be an assisted-living facility.  We have a lot of them in Delaware.  They pretend to be assisted-living facilities because that way they can use one RN to boss around a bunch of Residential Care Aides who aren't CNAs (as they would have to be in a real nursing home) and who get paid $3.00-4.00 less per hour. Put that over 12-15 people and the difference adds up on the bottom line if not the quality of care.

Eventually Stella managed to acquire her CNA and went to work at a real (if really low-rent) nursing home, full-time, supposedly with benefits.  She stayed there for four years, occasionally winning excellence awards, until (as we will see in a later chapter) getting the shaft last year.  Other items you need to know:  since age 21, when she has had health insurance it has been Medicaid (we'll discuss those economics in a subsequent chapter); at various times she's been on Food Assistance (another jungle); and she had a child in her early twenties.

So, roughly, you got the picture?

Here's installment number one:

The State of Delaware does not want people to get on, or even stay on, Medicaid.

I'm not kidding.  You can talk all you want about Medicaid expansion, or the people at DHSS and DPH who talk about extending services, but at no time in the past decade have there been fewer than 28,000 people in DE who were eligible for Medicaid but not covered.

First, getting on:  this requires a plethora of documentation that most people who need the service do not have--at least not readily available.  Birth certificates.  Social Security cards.  Two most recent pay stubs.  This all sounds simple, right?  Ah, but you haven't met the Delaware Medicaid bureaucracy.

Take the two most recent pay stubs.  Stella went to the Medicaid office over in Newark and presented them.  It was a Wednesday, and she was to be paid that Friday.  So she brought the two prior pay stubs based on the day she applied.  But there was a hiccup in the processing, so the case worker didn't submit her documents until the next Monday.  At that point the reviewer noted that her last pay date should have been the Friday two days after she applied, and ruled that she had not provided the two necessary pay stubs, and denied the application on that basis.

(You've got this, right?  On the day she applied she gave them the two most recent pay stubs, and she was denied based on a pay stub she had not yet received.)

Did they call her?  No.  She received a Notification of Termination of Benefits (a great concept, terminating benefits she'd never received), with three pages of instructions on how to appeal the termination.  She tried to call her case worker.  In case you did not know it, Medicaid case workers in Delaware DO NOT EVER return phone calls from the numbers listed on these notices; most will claim that they never got them.  Eventually Stella took a day off from work (that she could not afford) to go sit again in the Medicaid office for THREE HOURS to be told by another worker (hers had the day off) that she had to file an appeal, because she couldn't file a new application until 30 days after her Termination, so if she didn't file an appeal she wouldn't be eligible to re-apply for at least another month, and very possibly two.

So, the appeal.  There's this wonderful form that tells you in very plain English to put down why you think the decision to terminate the benefits you never received was in error.  Unfortunately, Stella discovered when she got back home to fill it out, there's one thing missing from the form:

The address of where to send the appeal.

Nobody answers the phone.  Take another hour to go back to the office WHERE THEY WON'T ACCEPT THE FORM because IT MUST BE MAILED IN, but they'll finally give her the address, while telling her, "You should have asked for that the last time you were here."

Three weeks later the appeal is granted, but Stella is not covered by Medicaid, just given the ability to immediately apply again (with TWO NEW PAY STUBS since she might have come into millions--who knows?--in the last month), which she does again ...

... and gets terminated again.  This time they tell her that providing the birth certificate for her child is not sufficient and that she must re-apply and PHYSICALLY BRING THE CHILD to the Medicaid Office.

She then goes through another two-week delay in getting coverage because they find the father's name (all of a sudden) on the birth certificate and now (on the third time around!) demand all the custody and child support papers (he is at that point $25,000 behind in his payments) for yet another application.

Three weeks later she finally gets coverage.  But don't think that solves anything.

Three weeks after she gets her coverage, she gets another document in the mail.  It seems that she got covered first in mid-August, and everybody on Medicaid has to completely re-certify their eligibility four times a year, every year.  September is a recertification month, and no matter how many days you have or have not been on Medicaid (in Stella's case three weeks) you have to PROVIDE ALL YOUR DOCUMENTATION ALL OVER AGAIN.  Or they throw you off.  And then you're only on for three more months.

There is an important corollary to all this bureaucratic rigamarole, which makes it apparently more palatable to pay salaries and benefits to morons who don't answer phones or provide return addresses than to provide health-care benefits ...

You see, this Medicaid runaround would eventually cost Stella the best job she ever had.

Why?  Remember I told you that Stella suffers from PTSD, is Bi-Polar, and chronically Depressed?

Well, in order to keep functioning, Stella needs to stay on a really steady diet of anti-depressants and even anti-psychotics that over-the-counter without prescription assistance cost in total around $1,300/month.  After about 3-4 days without the meds, Stella becomes withdrawn and moody.  Within a week she's seriously depressed, has wide mood swings, and starts into really erratic behavior.  In two weeks ... let's just say (and we'll find out later in detail) it's not pretty.

Nor is she capable of working at that point.

You may think to yourself, why am I (joe taxpayer) forking out $1,300 a month to keep some low-rent chick working a just-above minimum wage job in anti-depressants?  Let me spell it out to you:

1.  With them, she's working and earning at least most of her living.  That's critical.  We're talking somebody here with a strong work ethic, and a burning desire NOT to be dependent.

2.  Without them, in a month, she's going to be hospitalized (whether she has insurance or not, because she's potentially a danger to self and others) and that's going to cost you (joe taxpayer) at the very least $2,500 PER DAY.  Got that?  Six days of hospitalization (which, if you know anything about mental health institutions is the bare minimum for stabilizing somebody in Stella's condition) equals the cost of ONE YEAR'S MEDICATIONS.

Oh, there are programs to get the meds for free or low cost. The one from the manufacturer has a 17-page application that must be counter-signed by your employer, two doctors, and a pharmacist; requires an additional ten pages of medical records appended; and takes 6-8 weeks for the company to process.  I've talked to more than a dozen psychologists and psychiatrists in Delaware, and NONE of them have EVER seen ANYBODY meet the requirements for this supposed program.

There is exactly ONE free clinic in the Wilmington area where you might be able to find a psychiatrist who can get you an emergency two-week supply of these meds at little or no charge if you don't have insurance.  Of course you have to be able to get there, and you have to be able to land one of the few available appointments, or just wait six hours for the possibility that somebody MIGHT OR MIGHT NOT be able to see you today without an appointment.  (There are only two days a week that you are allowed to do this.  No guarantees.)

Over a fourteen-year period of always working, Stella never made more than than $25,000 in any given year (and remember, she's got a child) and was usually in the $16-17,000 range.  In those fourteen years, Medicaid canceled her coverage for periods ranging from two weeks to four months on TWENTY-ONE DIFFERENT OCCASIONS.

When the gap was 2-4 weeks or less, Stella found ways to stretch her meds, or help getting them from family or friends, or even (exactly twice!) the free clinic.

But then, about a year ago, Medicaid cut her off for nearly six months ...

What happened then was not pretty.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Karen Weldin Stewart: idiocy or hypocrisy?

"OMG ... look at the time! I'm late for
my morning meeting with my
corporate overlords to rubber-stamp
whatever plans Highmark has for
screwing Delaware customers today!"
Today's inane op-ed by Delaware Insurance Commissioner Karen Weldin Stewart perfectly exemplifies why even the Libertarian idea of voting for "none of the above" and leaving the office empty would be better than having her in power.

First, here is KWS explaining her idea of her job:
DOI exists to regulate the state's insurance market, protect consumers, and ensure that the insurance carriers who operate in our state are able to generate enough income to remain solvent and pay claims when claims come due. It is my duty as the Insurance Commissioner to strike a balance between protecting consumers and ensuring that the insurance companies are able to operate a stable business model. When insurance companies see that Delaware provides a fair and balanced approach to regulating the insurance markets, it attracts and retains good companies that compete for your business.
Notice that protecting consumers is NOT a primary mission of her office, as interpreted by KWS--she is to strike a balance between the interests of consumers and insurance companies, because then Delaware attracts and retains good companies that compete for your business.

Really?  Then explain, please, Karen, why 93% of the private health insurance market in Delaware belongs to a single company--Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield--and why you just forced another company out of the Medicaid market to allow Highmark access to another 230,000 captive customers in that market?  (A foonote:  Aetna, the company that KWS and others drove out, actually planned far lower rate increases than Highmark.)  Where, exactly, is all this competition?

That's what makes this platitude particularly offensive:
What can you do to keep your rates low? The most important thing to do is to shop around and compare prices. 
Uh, Karen?  There is no competition in health insurance in Delaware.  Delaware is nationally recognized as having the 4th least competitive health insurance market in the US.

So if that's what we can do to lower costs, then you're a f--king failure.  Unless, of course, your definition of success is (as it seems to be) pimping for corporate interests:
How exactly do the insurance companies come up with the rate requests that they submit? The various insurance sectors (life, health, auto, home, etc.) use complex formulas to predict future costs. Insurers consider data from past claims and other state-specific factors, such as state-required minimum levels of coverage, the percentage of uninsured drivers, the likelihood of severe weather that can cause accidents or damage buildings, the state's legal climate, and the level of competition among insurance companies. 
This is such utter horsecrap that I'm surprised even the News Journal would print it (wait, no I'm not).

Highmark of Delaware's parent company last year recorded $14.9 BILLION in revenues and had a bad year of only racking up a $372 million profit.  Still, not bad for an empire supposedly built on non-profit enterprises.  Highmark uses a very simple, very traditional formula for calculating next year's rates:  whatever the market will bear (which is a LOT when you're a monopoly) and whatever your tame Insurance Commissioner will approve (in this case about 9.9%).

Karen has done such a great job as Insurance Commissioner that, besides having no competition, Delaware has suffered the highest insurance rate increases in the nation under the Affordable Care Act:
For the individual insurance market (plans sold directly to consumers); among the ten states seeing some of the sharpest average increases are: Delaware at 100%, New Hampshire 90%, Indiana 54%, California 53%, Connecticut 45%, Michigan 36%, Florida 37%, Georgia 29%, Kentucky 29%, and Pennsylvania 28%.
 In Delaware, folks we have exactly the government we deserve and that the corporations paid for:

--An Insurance Commissioner gouging customers as a proxy for corporate interests ...

--A Secretary of Education destroying our schools for corporate interests ...

--DNREC committed to the continued gutting of the Coastal Zone Act for corporate interests ...

--A Department of Homeland Security and Public Safety that spies on law-abiding citizens and shares the information with corporate interests ...

If you're beginning to see a pattern here, you're correct.

Unfortunately, you're too late, because you just voted the bastards back into office again, and they're confident that you'll keep doing so.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Time to be Unpopular: on riots and Ferguson

it's a really good thing I didn't get elected, because I'd talk about issues like Ferguson and protests, and I'd get my own constituents all upset.

Here's the idiotic first paragraph of the WNJ's "editorial" on the subject:
Ripples from the Michael Brown tragedy continue to spread doubts about our justice system across the nation. An immediate harm comes from the rioting and violence that erupted after the Missouri grand jury's decision was announced. Rioting is never justified. In fact, it threatens to make matters worse. It shifts attention from the tragedy of a young man's death and from the facts of what happened in August in Ferguson, Missouri.
Why would I call this pablum "idiotic"?

Three reasons:

1) Rioting is never justified.  In fact, it threatens to make matters worse.  This is the pious platitude that always grates on my nerves, particularly right after I teach the course in American history wherein our textbook authors encourage teachers to venerate the Founding Fathers who participated in the Stamp Act Riots, the riots after the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party ... These same "patriotic" interpreters of American history then proceed to either soft peddle, condemn, or ignore the Whiskey Rebellion, Shays' Rebellion, the Dorrite Rebellion in New Jersey, the Renter's Rebellion in New York's Albany River Valley, Nat Turner's Rebellion, the Landry Plantation insurrection, "Beecher's Bibles" in Kansas, the John Brown raid, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877,
and so on and so forth ...

We are, ironically, a country birthed upon the notion that political violence in the face of rank oppression IS justified after you've suffered and tried for years.  That's the "patriotic" message from the period 1763-1783, at any rate.

The real message is that after the Founding Fathers stopped being rebels and started being The Establishment, the idea of political violence (except as studied when they did it, in the past) as an acceptable response to oppression went right out the window and became downright anarchistic and treasonous.  It threatens to make matters worse.  Really?  For whom?

Go ahead, get hacked off, but he's
a militiaman bearing arms ...
A second unlovely fact:  my friends (and I do have them, I am not speaking rhetorically here) in the 9-12, "Liberty," and "Tea Party" movements are quick to employ the "pry my guns from my cold dead hand" and "the 2nd Amendment is intended to provide the means of resistance against government tyranny" and to praise all those armed militiamen etc. who headed out to the Bundy Ranch and drew a bead from snipers' positions on Federal marshals ...  But people rioting and looting (no, I'm not about to deny that's happening) in Ferguson cannot have principles, cannot be fighting oppression, cannot be patriotic because, because, because ... Well, let's see?

2) It shifts attention from the tragedy of a young man's death and from the facts of what happened in August in Ferguson, Missouri.  Wake the f**k up, WNJ!  It was NEVER actually about what happened in August in Ferguson, Missouri.  Michael Brown's death was what is called a catalyst.  If there had not been years upon years upon decades of it being acceptable for law enforcement to treat African-American lives as worth less than the lives of middle-class white people, the death of Michael Brown would have been an isolated incident.  We could all wait for "the facts" to come out. We could all tell everybody to be calm.  The blunt reality of Ferguson is that the death of Michael Brown was not a first straw, or a second straw, or even a 249th straw, but (quite possibly) the last straw.

What do Americans do when they become viscerally convinced that the system does not give a flying f**k at a rolling doughnut about them, won't protect them, will kill them, and will not even allow them to be part of the political process to change things?

If they are named RAMBO they fight back and people cheer in the movie theaters.  (How much "collateral damage" do you figure Sly did to that town, with half-drunk theater-goers all fantasizing about being enough of a bad-ass to do it themselves if the cops ever came for them?)

If they are black and live in Ferguson they are savages, animals, barbarians and, yes, niggers, who are simply showing how uncivilized they are.  They should probably first be fenced in ("Escape from New York:  African-America Edition") and then ... no, I'm not going to say it, but there are people out there who will and who are and who have said it.

3) Then there's this:  Ripples from the Michael Brown tragedy continue to spread doubts about our justice system across the nation. "Doubts"?  You gotta be kidding me.  Stand in front of a class of students aged 18-23 at DSU and ask the question about how many of them have lost a loved one to law enforcement, how many have personally been threatened or harassed by the police--listen to it year and and year out and discover ...

... they don't live in the same America that you and I think we inhabit.

(At least 2-3 times a year I will have a student on scholarship come tell me s/he have to miss class for a week to go home to NJ, NY, DC, or other locations to bury a relative who has been shot--as much as 50% of the time by law enforcement.)

It's easy, ridiculously, reflexively easy to condemn rioters and looters, to draw false moral equivalences ("nobody ever gets upset when a black thug kills a white teenager"), or to reflexively "come to the defense" of "our" police officers.

"Violence never solves anything!" scream the people whose tax dollars go, hundreds of billions at a time, to kill people all over the world for the crime of being in proximity to people our government doesn't like.

Here's the interesting part of this all:  about six weeks into the Occupy protests I remember going to an event at UD campus and meeting several of the active Wilmington Occupiers.  One of them (I will leave him nameless), said quietly that he didn't think the movement would ever go anywhere or change anything unless--ultimately--the Occupiers were willing to engage in some violence, either to protect themselves, provoke a real confrontation with law enforcement, or destroy some of the property of the 1%.  His exact quote was:  "Until somebody is willing to break something, nobody is going to take us seriously.  Even Martin Luther King got something broken--his own people's heads."

There's a political logic there that goes against the feel-good bland crap we've all been sold for many many years, and it leads to an unlovely truth:

If nobody in Ferguson had rioted, the death of Michael Brown would not today be a national story.  Because Michael Brown alive--like John Brown in 1860--was very probably an unlikeable man who most of us wouldn't want to be around.  Michael Brown dead--on the other hand--might become the lever that changes history in ways (good or bad) that we cannot yet imagine.

But I'm through tolerating "riot-shaming" for the African-Americans in Ferguson, and closing ranks behind a law enforcement system who wants this whole case to be nothing but a speed bump to a full-scale police state wherein we will all be "safe" just as long as we do exactly what the people with guns and badges tell us to do.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

If you don't recognize these women, neither (apparently) do "eminent" American historians

Let's think about the following lists of American women in modern history:

In Literature:
Maya Angelou
Pearl S. Buck
Emily Dickinson
Gertrude Stein
Virginia Woolf

In Politics:
Madeleine Albright
Hillary Clinton
Barbara Jordan
Condoleeza Rice
Margaret Chase Smith

In Science and Technology:
Elizabeth Blackburn & Carol Greider
Marie Curie
Gertrude Bell Elion
Janet Rideout
Janet Rowley

In Media and Popular Culture:
Margaret Bourke-White
Isadora Duncan
Annie Leibowitz
Oprah Winfrey

Just because:
bell hooks
Billie Jean King
Rosa Parks
Hazel Scott
Ida B. Wells

By the way, if you don't recognize some of them, I'm not going to provide the links, because you should go look them up for yourself.

Now take a look at this list:
Jane Addams (64)
Rachel Carson (39)
Mary Baker Eddy (86)
Betty Friedan (77)
Margaret Mead (81)
Eleanor Roosevelt (42)
Margaret Sanger (51)

You may be wondering what the numbers are.  Recently, The Atlantic commissioned "ten eminent historians" (three of whom were women, to develop a list of the 100 "most influential figures in American history."  In the modern era (and with Mary Baker Eddy I'm really stretching a point), only seven women made the list, with the highest (Rachel Carson) coming in at #39.

For curiosity's sake, let's see how well you do with the names of some of the men from the top 100:
James Gordon Bennett (69)
George Eastman (94)
Walter Lippman (89)
Horace Mann (56)
Louis Sullivan (59)
James D. Watson (68)

I know, I know, it's only a list, in a culture that dotes on lists.  But here's the thing:  ten "eminent" historians looked at American history to find the 100 "most influential" people and completely ignored the woman who set off the Civil Rights movement, the first woman to host her own TV show (who happened to be African-American and married to the first modern African-American US Representative); the first woman to become an entire entertainment conglomerate in her own right ...

When supposedly made by "eminent historians," such lists are supposed to tell us something about what we think "influential" means, and what we value in the study of our history.  Sixteen of the men on the list were US Presidents, including the top four names (Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, FDR), but do you really think that in the grand scheme of things that James Knox Polk had a better claim to a spot in the Top 100 than Marie Curie, Pearl S. Buck, Hillary Clinton (love her or hate her), or even Madonna?

And once you look up Elizabeth Blackburn & Carol Greider, Gertrude Bell Elion, Janet Rideout, and Janet Rowley--not to mention Marie Curie--you may wonder how Enrico Fermi or Robert Oppenheimer made the list instead of any of them.

Maybe we need to think about redefining what we mean by "influential," or maybe we need to rethink the idea of who gets to do the defining for us.

And, if you're up for a challenge, identify the ladies beneath the fold, each of whom also has strong case for inclusion in any list of "most influential" (one's a dead easy giveaway, the others should make you work a little):

Friday, November 21, 2014

"Americans All"? The Bracero Program and the roots of illegal immigration

Ronald Reagan once said, "Facts are stubborn things."

It is way too easy to bloviate about immigration in this country and ignore the facts of our history.

Fact: Latino immigration into this country to do primarily agricultural work in the 20th Century required both a "push" (economic conditions in Mexico and points south) and a "pull" (aggressive advertising from employers in the US).

Witness;  the Bracero program, that from 1942-1964 legally allowed 4.5 million Mexican workers to come to the US to labor under conditions that most historians agree were little more than legalized slavery.  The Bracero program began due to labor shortages during World War II, and was promoted with wonderful, patriotic posters like this:
Wow.  "Americans All"? That included Mexicans?
Some states refused to participate initially--like Texas, which preferred an "open borders" policy to allow pretty much anybody in to work at any time without papers.  Why?  Because Texas employers didn't like the requirements of the Federal program that you had to pay certain levels of wages, offer housing, and basic public health medical care, etc.  Texas liked the "Free Market" approach.

But other employers, as you can see by the advertisement below, were more than happy to get as many Mexican workers as possible:
In fact, there were major advertising blitzes throughout the wartime and immediate postwar period:
Curiously, large agricultural concerns in the US had absolutely no interest, right after the war, in stopping the program, and it continued in various forms until 1964.  It was not an entirely happy chapter in labor relations, as there were horrible exploitations of the Mexican workers as well as awful accidents that killed thousands:
But the primary reason that American employers chose to push for an end to the program is that it cost too much, and illegal immigrants were cheaper:
These new illegal workers could not be employed "above the table" as part of the program, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. This resulted in the lowering of wages and not receiving the benefits that the Mexican government had negotiated to insure their legal workers' well-being under the bracero program. This, in turn, had the effect of eroding the U.S. agricultural sector's support for the program's legal importation of workers from Mexico in favor of hiring illegal immigrants to reduce overhead costs. The advantages of hiring illegal workers included such workers' willingness to work for lower wages, without support, health coverage or in many cases legal means to address abuses by the employers for fear of deportation.
The grim reality from the 1960s forward is that American agricultural interests (including many of our favorites--like Monsanto, Archer-Daniels-Midland, and other mega agribusinesses) used their clout to shut down programs that provided for legal immigration with statutory protections for migrant workers because the Bracero program forced them to pay the true costs of their labor.

What they preferred to do was privatize their profits while socializing the costs by importing cheap immigrant labor at cut rates, often paying below starvation wages, and tacitly encouraging these immigrants to apply (illegally) for government assistance.  Thus they kept the above-board costs of their products low, and passed on the costs to American citizens in the form of higher taxes to cover the food stamps, medical benefits, etc. etc. that the newer generations of illegals were accessing.

So it may be true that, in a legal sense, Mr. Obama yesterday proposed "tearing up the Constitution," in the use of Executive Orders to delay deportation of up to 5 million undocumented aliens.  After all, if the Washington Post says so, it must be true, right?

But facts, again, are stubborn things:  illegal immigration exists in this country NOT primarily because wetback parasites want to access our welfare state, but because American businesses large and small want the cheapest possible labor and are willing to spend the big bucks in campaign contributions to keep it--even if it requires them to tear down perfectly legal solutions.

So they bought a President.  Wouldn't be the first one.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Vampire Children of Lancaster Court

Reading the petition of the so-called "Cooke Elementary community" (how there is a community when the school has yet to open is beyond me); scanning the blog comments of Meesh, Pseudo-elitist, and John Done; and listening to the comments of (I suppose) parents at last night's Red Clay Consolidated School District School Board meeting causes several different thoughts to spawn in my brain.

This first is that we need an image to frame this debate over 105 children--K-5--traveling 4.4 miles a day this fall to attend Cooke Elementary instead of Marbrook.  I thought of two possible images.  The first, created by Norman Rockwell, would be "Little Rock," which came to mind after I read this comment by MEESH at Delawareliberal:
So the schools have historically tried de-segregation based on raced and were unsuccessful now the focus is bridging a gap in academic achievement by desegregating socioeconomic status , the bottom line is this there will always be a difference! When this fails, as the desegregation of race did, what will we try next hair color?
Ironically, however, instead of Federal marshals, the escorting officials at Cooke Elementary would be RCCSD staff.  But then I read the comments from Pseudo-elitist about how as few as four poor children per class in a school in an upper middle class neighborhood would destroy the potential quality of Cooke Elementary like a vampire sticking fangs into our chidden;s throats:
Here is a breakdown of what is happening.  Our tax dollars already are paying for both city schools and suburban schools. I’m not complaining for this in particular, since it is already going on, and who else would pay for those poor city kids anyway (not like their parents, if they have one, would), so for the country and those kids’ sake, I accept that. Now you are saying the city schools are not nice, so better get them into nice suburban schools (which by the way only become nice because of the composition of the students). So now in addition to paying for both schools, I have to pay for my kids to get out of that supposedly nice suburban school. How nice! Congratulations again. You WON! Triple times! As long as there is someone else picking up the bills! 
Do you know how much teacher’s attention those 4 kids would suck up? By my imagination, it may well be 50%. Yes, that is not acceptable in my world.
So I thought that THIS would be a better graphic for those horrible vampire children of the Lancaster Court Apartments:
Little fiends!  We'll need to get out crosses, garlic, silver bullets, and wooden stakes to keep a bunch of undead vermin (aged 5-9) out of our suburban schools.

I was there for lunch one day recently, and when I was waiting in the car, some guys came around and were gesturing to me trying to deal drugs to me. Unbelievable.
This is what MEESH reported about Lancaster Court Apartments at Kilroy's Delaware:
I walked around LCA today to find some people of the community to speak with because this I am not racist or classist as someone on Delaware Liberal referred to our group. I wanted to see how many people actually were aware that their children were now going to a different school as previously proposed , whether or not any of them were asked by the Board members how they felt about the change because you know someone from Westwoods said they wanted to stay at NSE because that is where their kids friends are. So does that mean kids from LCA haven’t built friendships at their school? No one asked me or my kids how they felt about it either. Btw those that I conversed with had no idea what I was talking about nor did they have kids, everyone must of been working.
So what I was expecting is something like this:
And I'm sure that's what Pseudo-elitist and MEESH felt like they were seeing, even though the reality is this:
Trying to make sense of this all--how people could fear little kids because they come from poorer families (Is it contagious?  Will some 2nd-grade slut seduce my junior into a life of crime and crack houses? What happens when Harvard finds out that my daughter was once in a reading group with a child on Food Stamps?), I thought of one more image:
This is William "Buzzy" Cooke, old upper-middle-class white guy and the former principal of Forrest Oak and Brandywine Springs for whom the new Cooke Elementary is named.

I've known Buzzy for years, as have thousands of Red Clay parents.  Buzzy fervently believes (and practiced based on that belief for over thirty years) that the purpose of public schools is to love, cherish, and teach every child who walks through the doors.  No matter where they come from, no matter what baggage they've been saddled with ...

I remember the dedication ceremony for Cooke Elementary where many people (including my wife) spoke about Buzzy's values and how fitting it would be to have a new school named after this gentle man ...

... which makes me think that sometime soon Buzzy will call up the district and ask to have his name removed from a school whose surrounding community is so fearful of a few dozen small children from"the other side of the tracks" that they've lost their minds.

Then we could rename the building in a more appropriate manner (because the name has suddenly become available):