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Longer Sentences, Drug Enforcement, and Voter Suppression

CorettaScottKingLetter_cropped

Letter to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, March 19, 1986

Jeff Sessions says he’s not a racist. So who are you going to believe–him or Coretta Scott King? Let us place in evidence the order to US attorneys issued by Trump’s Attorney General yesterday to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences against crime suspects, reversing Obama administration efforts to ease penalties for some nonviolent drug violations.

Why is that racist, you might ask? Don’t white people get arrested for drug offenses too? Indeed they do, though much less frequently, and they are even less often sent to prison for them. Let’s connect the dots and explain why Sessions’ hard line is not only bad policy in general, but disproportionately impacts minority communities and is actually an effective method of voter suppression.

The US imprisons people at rates shockingly higher than any other developed country in the world. The latest data shows that the US incarceration rate is 693 prisoners per 100,000 people. By way of comparison, the rate for Canada–a country with a similarly diverse population and higher percentage of immigrants–is only 114. Somehow our neighbors to the north keep less than 1/6 as many of their people in jail and still achieve a lower crime rate than we have. For a fascinating interactive comparison of incarceration rates by country and state, click here.

There are also great disparities among states in incarceration rates. Louisiana is the champion at 1,143/100K, followed closely by Georgia, Oklahoma, and Alabama (Sessions’ home state). In other words, in those states one person out of every 100 is in prison at any given time. Florida ranks number 8, just behind Texas. But even Massachusetts, which has the lowest rate at 330/100K, jails more people than any other developed country except Russia–that paragon of justice.

According to official figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2015 (the latest released statistics) some 2,173,800 adults were in federal, state, or local jails or prisons in the US. This is a slight decline from the peak in 2007-08, which resulted partly from a shift in policy under the Obama administration. Perhaps an even more astounding figure is that 6,741,400 people–1 in 37 adults in the US–were under some form of “correctional supervision”, i.e., in jail, prison, on parole, or on probation. If that population were a state, it would be the 15th largest in the country–just after Massachusetts and just ahead of Arizona.

1_Total_adult_correctional_population_1980_2015

The huge increase in incarceration started slowly in the 1970s and then exploded in the 80s and 90s as the War on Drugs became a priority in the Reagan and subsequent administrations. With the flood of drug arrests and convictions, more prisons sprang up around the country to house the convicts, creating virtually a new prison industry including private for-profit prisons.

According a 2008 report in the New York Times, drug arrests shot up from around 581,000 in 1980 to l.9 million in 2006. More than 80 percent of arrests were for possession, rather than sale or manufacture. And four out of 10 arrests were for mere marijuana possession, according to FBI data.

But the War on Drugs impacted quite differently depending on whether you happened to be black or white.  According to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report cited by the NYT, blacks were arrested on drug charges at rates that were 2.8 to 5.5 times as high as those of whites even though studies had shown no significant difference in propensity to use drugs between blacks and whites in the US. For black men, arrest rates were up to 12 times that for white men in some places.

The disparity of incarceration rates between blacks and whites in general is astoundingly high, and perhaps surprisingly the greatest disparities occur in states not stereotypically associated with overt racism. A 2016 analysis of official data published by the Sentencing Project found that nationwide African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times that of whites. In five states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the disparity is more than 10 to 1. The study found that in eleven states, at least 1 in 20 adult black males is in prison, and in Oklahoma, the state with the highest overall black incarceration rate, 1 in 15 black males ages 18 and older is in prison.

The mass incarceration of black men has had a devastating effect in communities across the US in all sorts of ways. (See Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant 2015 exploration of this scourge published in The Atlantic.) But one of the malign effects of the War on Drugs was the elimination of voting rights for people convicted of drug charges.  Again, because of the disproportionate imprisonment of blacks, this has in turn had a much greater effect on voting by black people than on whites.

All states except Maine and Vermont have some form of “felon disenfranchisement”, but 12 states permanently strip voting rights from those convicted of felonies.  According to a 2014 Sentencing Project report, “Nationwide, one in every 13 black adults cannot vote as the result of a felony conviction, and in three states—Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia—more than one in five black adults is disenfranchised.”

The use of such laws to keep black people from voting originated in the 19th century in the South following reconstruction. It was deliberate then, and it sure looks deliberate now. According to an op-ed piece published by the New York Times, some 6 million people (of all races) currently can’t vote because of these laws. In Jeff Sessions’ Alabama, an estimated 7.2 percent of all adults and 15 percent of black adults have lost their right to vote for this reason.

For a while there in the Obama years, it seemed as if the tide had begun to turn, with a growing recognition–even among some Republicans–that mass incarceration didn’t keep us safer and that the War on Drugs had been a colossal failure and social disaster. Seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of marijuana. The federal prison population had started to decline, and use of private prisons was starting to be curtailed.

Then came Trump and Sessions, telling lies about crime and “voter fraud.” Sessions wants to go back to aggressive enforcement of drug laws, presumably including places where marijuana is perfectly legal.

White racists have learned that there are other ways to keep minorities “in their place”, and there are many ways the Republicans have found to suppress voting among blacks and other people who oppose them. They’re not going to give up this one easily. Wouldn’t it be sweet irony if both Trump and Sessions wound up in prison themselves?

Ousting Scientists From EPA Board (and Other Low-Profile Outrages)

ClimateDemo

Trump’s first 100 days were super busy with what Steve Bannon calls “regulatory deconstruction”.  Here are three new items that have come to light in the press just since the 100 day mark. See if you can discern a pattern here.

Replacing scientists with corporate flacks on EPA boards.  According to the New York Times, the EPA has dismissed 5 scientist members of the agency’s 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors.  The spokesman for EPA head Scott Pruitt said he was considering bringing in corporate representatives to fill the vacated positions. “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community.” The move was denounced by the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists as “part of a multifaceted effort to get science out of the way of a deregulation agenda.”  Basically, this amounts to replacing independent academic scientists with representatives of the industries the EPA is charged with regulating.

This move came after the House passed a bill to change the composition of another EPA board, the 47-member Science Advisory Board, to increase the number of members from industry. This board advises on what should be researched and the scientific integrity of EPA regulations. The bill was written by the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Lamar Smith (R – Texas, naturally) who is an aggressive climate change denier. As is, of course, the EPA’s new administrator.

Trump has proposed slashing the EPA budget and is rescinding Obama-era regulations on climate change and clean water. Recently, the EPA has removed climate data from public view on its website, and announced that the website would be “undergoing changes” to better represent the new direction the agency is taking.

Re-deregulating Wall Street.  Does anyone still remember the economic crash of 2008? Two things that came out of that disaster and the Great Recession that followed were the Dodd-Frank bill, aimed at curbing risky lending and investment practices by banks, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which enforces consumer protection laws and scrutinizes the practices of  businesses selling financial products and services.

Now the Republican-dominated House has reported out of committee the “Financial Choice Act”, designed to gut both Dodd-Frank and the CFPB, which has turned out to be a remarkably effective agency.  The bill would repeal about 40 provisions of Dodd-Frank, ostensibly to relieve struggling local and regional banks overburdened by regulations imposed by that bill. However, the data show that these banks are actually doing quite well under those supposedly onerous regulations.

Republicans have always hated the CFPB, partly because of its association with Elizabeth Warren and partly because it, well, protects consumers. The Financial Choice Act would remove some of the agency’s powers and replace its guaranteed funding from the Federal Reserve with whatever Congress decides would be the appropriate amount. With the Republicans controlling Congress, you can imagine how that would work out–killing the agency by starving it of operating funds, a playbook that’s already being employed in other parts of the government.

One of the more esoteric parts of the bill involves financial rating companies (like Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s), which assign grades to financial securities based on their risk. You may recall that a major factor that precipitated the 2008 crash was that these companies gave absurdly high ratings to “derivative” bonds (which were so complicated that no one really understood them) based on very risky subprime mortgages, which then failed and nearly brought down the entire US economy. Dodd-Frank imposed new accountability measures on the rating companies, which the Republican bill would roll back. According to the NY Times, company CEOs would not be required to attest to internal controls over processes used to determine ratings, and the bill would rescind the requirement to confirm that a rating was not influenced by its business activities. Moreover, it would protect the ratings industry from being opened up to new firms and increased competition.

It would appear that this administration and congressional Republicans learned nothing from the Great Recession and are bent on restoring the lax regulatory regime that led to it by giving Wall Street and the banking industry everything they want.

This brings us to Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education, which is changing regulations to make student loans riskier, more expensive, and more burdensome for borrowers, according to the New York Times.  Under DeVos, the department has weakened accountability of the companies that administer student loans. It has make it harder to apply for, and keep enrolled in, repayment programs scaled to borrowers’ incomes. And it is allowing banks to charge higher fees–up to 16 percent of the loan balance–if they fall behind.

The Education Department outsources servicing of student loans to private companies. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (see above) has documented  thousands of cases where these companies have lost or misdirected payments or paperwork or charged higher interest rates, resulting in serious problems for borrowers. The Department parcels out contracts based on metrics, but didn’t consider whether the contractor engaged in illegal practices until the Obama administration required it. Now under DeVos, the Department has reversed this directive. The same goes for punitive fees charged for falling behind in payments–the Obama administration imposed limits which the Trump administration has reversed. And, of course, the Republicans want to kill the CFPB, as we have noted.

The federal student loan program, which now has more than a trillion dollars in outstanding debt, is not a free market where borrowers can shop around for lenders. Once the loan is assigned to a servicing company, it’s there for good. If the CFPB isn’t there to be a watchdog and if the Department of Education is serving the interests of the banks and servicing companies rather than borrowers, it’s quite clear who are the winners and who are the losers.

Once again this “populist” administration is screwing the average Joe who was naive enough to vote for the self-proclaimed champion of “forgotten America”.

The Casual Evil of Trumpcare

ACAdemo at capitol

Yesterday afternoon I went to an impromptu demonstration at the US Capitol as the House of Representatives was voting on a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with…what should we call it? Trumpcare? Ryancare? Wedon’tfuckingcare?

The demonstrators chanted “Shame! Shame!” as congressmen emerged from the Capitol, which was basically what I feel about this sordid affair–shame to be living in a country where the dominant political party has no shame at all. Where the apprentice despot in the White House and his Republican enablers in Congress rejoice at the prospect of making daily life more precarious and expensive for millions of their most vulnerable countrymen. Blessed are the rich, for they shall receive tax cuts.

There is simply no credible rationale for the bill that just barely passed the House. It was cobbled together and brought to a vote in great haste for no reason other than to sooth the sting and humiliation of previous failures. Both Trump and Ryan just needed a legislative win and didn’t care what the impact of their bill would be. Indeed, the members who voted for it had not read the bill and didn’t really know what it contained. It had not been vetted in committee hearings or debated on the floor. Nor did they have any idea what it would cost or what the fiscal impact would be, because the Congressional Budget Office had no time to “score” it on those grounds. They didn’t care. It just needed to pass, because…you know…Obama.

One thing we do know is that the bill is a major tax cut for wealthy people. Those hurt the most will be the old, the poor, and the sick. For an initial analysis of the impact, click here. Two aspects really stand out as cynical and cruel. One is drastic cutbacks in funding for Medicaid, which provides insurance for low-income people. The other is that it eliminates the pre-existing conditions coverage requirement under the ACA, allowing states to opt out, which some certainly will.  The list of conditions that states could decide not to cover is truly amazing. Most people would be affected by them at some point in their lives.

The CBO report will probably be out next week before the Senate takes up the bill. But it is virtually certain that this version will cover even fewer people than the previous one, which was estimated to eliminate coverage for some 24 million Americans currently covered under the ACA. For some Republicans, especially those in the Freedom Caucus, this is a feature, not a bug. Their position is essentially that if you can’t afford health insurance, then tough shit.

What Trump actually thinks about all of this is anyone’s guess. The only thing that’s clear is that he wants to destroy anything associated with Obama, regardless of the consequences for actual Americans. Both he and the Republicans who voted for this abomination are claiming that this bill will cover more people at lower cost, which clearly is false, and they seem to believe that they can get the American people to swallow this lie. What matters to him is the “win”, not who gets mangled in the process.

The battle isn’t over yet, and the bill faces serious difficulties in the Senate, but it is entirely possible that party discipline will prevail there as well. The only way to defeat this is massive public opposition and pressure on Republican congressmen and senators from their home districts. They are on recess now. Let them hear from you!

 

 

Ivanka, the Perfect Apologist

complicit

Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka on SNL

Who knows what’s going on behind the preternaturally composed and perfectly made-up mask that is the public face of Ivanka Trump? In some ways, she seems the polar opposite of her father. She’s polished where he is vulgar. She’s smooth where he’s abrasive. She purrs where he brays. She’s articulate where he’s incoherent. She even seems kind of nice, where he just seems mean and vindictive.

Ivanka has fostered the notion that she can act as the brakes on her father’s runaway train, that she alone can be the Trump Whisperer who can tell him when he’s wrong and he will listen to her. But is there any evidence that this is true? A lot of Americans, desperate for any ray of hope that someone can temper the orgy of destruction that Trump has unleashed, seem to have fallen for this idea.

But I’m not buying it, and I’m calling it for the bullshit that I think it is. I think she’s just as venal and mercenary as the rest of the Trumps, but more insidious because it’s all concealed in that chic and exquisitely wrapped package.

The New York Times just published an exhaustive (and rather sympathic) look into Ivanka’s role in her father’s administration to date. The only clear instance the journalists were able to document where Ivanka was able to change Trump’s position on anything was a brief positive mention of Planned Parenthood at one of the Republican debates during the campaign. That tiny victory has, of course, evaporated in his administration’s full-on adoption of the Republican party’s demand for defunding Planned Parenthood. Ivanka simply dodges when questioned about whether she supports abortion rights; she has never publicly taken a position on the issue. According to the NYT, Ivanka is claiming that she helped preserve and increase funding for women’s health in the government budget deal now in Congress, but there is no actual increase and the bill simply keeps spending at current levels. Moreover, there is nothing that would indicate that Ivanka had any particular influence on this.

Here’s what we do know: Ivanka has an office in the West Wing and is now officially part of her father’s administration, albeit in a supposedly unpaid (and very hazily defined) position as an adviser to her father. She evidently can chime in on anything she likes and is frequently included in meetings and social events with important foreign leaders as well as American business and political leaders. This cozy management style is in keeping with the privately-held family business model of the Trump enterprises, which remain extraordinarily opaque to external scrutiny. And, of course, her husband Jared Kushner has been handed a laughably enormous sheaf of portfolios ranging from reforming the VA to bringing about peace in the Middle East.  Basically, Ivanka and Jared seem to be Trump’s most trusted advisers on everything–there appears to be virtually nothing from which they are excluded.

All of this means that there are enormous opportunities for using their positions for self-enrichment, and federal ethics rules governing conflict of interest should be strictly imposed. But like her father, Ivanka has not divested anything and doesn’t plan to, but merely turned day-to-day operations of her business interests to her company’s president, Abigail Klem. According to Bloomberg News, she retains ownership, including the right to approve or veto deals and receive payments. She pays minimal lip service to the idea of complying with the rules, but her actual behavior appears to endorse her father’s position that ethics are for suckers.

Meanwhile, she sat next to Chinese President Xi Jinping at an April 6 dinner at her father’s Mar-a-Lago resort, on the very day that China gave provisional approval for three new trademarks which give her the exclusive right to sell Ivanka Trump merchandise to 1.4 billion people. Tut, tut…pure coincidence, of course! And during the transition, she sat in on a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while her company was working on a deal with a Japanese apparel retailer whose parent company’s largest shareholder is owned by the Japanese government. Nothing to see here, folks.

Still, CBS News reported that according to one fashion analyst, Ivanka Trump’s company saw a 771 percent increase in sales between February 2016 and February 2017. Industry experts call that number “incredible” and “insane.” Well, surely that’s just that brilliant Trump management!

Ivanka’s “brand” plays off her carefully cultivated image as a “working mom” and entrepreneur. Her new book Women Who Work, released yesterday, is part of that self-promotion–a hybrid of feminist self-actualization and inspirational business manuals. As Jennifer Senior’s review of the book points out, the advice she offers isn’t exactly aimed at the stereotypical white female Trump voter, but rather at professional women who aren’t worried about coming up short on the monthly bills. Her women-who-work have “teams”, by which she seems to mean staff and domestic servants. “By the time Trump gets to her primer on maternity leave, she is, consciously or not, addressing an imaginary cohort of upper management and C.E.O.s. Back at work, she expects you to have a team.” But the real purpose of the book is a marketing campaign to reinforce the Ivanka Trump brand. Indeed, the very title is taken from a marketing theme launched on her website in 2014: #womenwhowork. Obviously, launching a book from the White House certainly can’t hurt business.  Ivanka says that profits from the book will go to charity, but as we have learned, Trump charity donations have a way of mysteriously disappearing.

Of the older trio of Trump offspring, Ivanka clearly makes a far more sympathetic apologist for her father than the oleaginous and repellent Donald Junior or poor bumbling Eric. There seems to be no occasion in her young life when she has ever rebelled even mildly against her father. Indeed, none of them seems ever to have uttered a single off-message sentence in public. After all, their father’s money set up all of the kids’ enterprises, and presumably they know which side their trust funds are buttered on.

As HBO’s brilliant satirist John Oliver points out, Ivanka has a remarkable ability to speak while saying nothing at all, which allows her listeners to project whatever they want to hear on her nebulous words.  (Watch his entire segment on Ivanka and Jared here.) Her mission is to humanize and normalize her father to the public, and she teasingly suggests that she can present a different point of view to him on subjects where they disagree. But she very carefully avoids ever revealing what those subjects might be.

But perhaps the best comedic response to Ivanka’s increasingly central White House role was the Saturday Night Live perfume comercial parody: “Complicit”.  Watch it here.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the greediest Trump of all? Hmmm, hard to say…

 

Christian Sharia Rises Again

Auto-da-fe

Auto-da-fé, 16th Century Spain

Update 5/4/17:  Trump just signed the executive order, which allows churches to engage in partisan political activity without losing their tax-exempt status. This is a very significant step toward removing the barrier between church and state. It potentially unleashes conservative megachurches (and mainstream churches like Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists) to employ their fundraising power on behalf of socially reactionary candidates. And of course, there is now no impediment to direct political advocacy from the pulpit on behalf of specific candidates or parties.

The order does not include the sweeping exemptions that were in the February draft, described below. That battle isn’t over yet, however.

Take a moment to contemplate the cynicism and irony of a man like Donald Trump, a thrice-married libertine who believes in nothing but Mammon, using and being used by the most reactionary elements of the Christian right in pursuit of a Christian theocracy. A sad day indeed. 

Tomorrow is the National Day of Prayer. Yes, children, there is such a thing. It’s the day when true believers invoke divine retribution upon their political enemies–but in a loving Christian way.

According to Politico, the Trump administration has invited conservative religious leaders to the White House to commemorate the day by signing a new “freedom of religion” executive order. The order is reportedly being pushed by Mike Pence and his allies on the religious right, who have been working to revise a draft that was leaked to The Nation on February 1, but never signed. The new order is reported by those who have seen it to be very similar to the earlier one–“very, very strong”, according to a Politico source.

The earlier draft would have created sweeping exemptions for people and organizations who claim religious or moral objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and trans identity, and it sought to curtail women’s access to contraception and abortion through the Affordable Care Act. It defined religious organizations extremely broadly as “any organization, including closely held for-profit corporations,” and would protect “religious freedom” in a variety of secular transactions, such as “when providing social services, education, or healthcare; earning a living, seeking a job, or employing others; receiving government grants or contracts; or otherwise participating in the marketplace, the public square, or interfacing with Federal, State or local governments.”

The earlier draft order specifically protected the tax-exempt status of any organization that “believes, speaks, or acts (or declines to act) in accordance with the belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage, male and female and their equivalents refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy, physiology, or genetics at or before birth, and that human life begins at conception and merits protection at all stages of life.”

In other words, if you despise gays, all you would have to do is claim a deeply held religious conviction to exempt yourself from non-discrimination laws.

Mike Pence famously signed similar legislation when he was governor of Indiana, provoking a huge controversy and damaging backlash. Some in the religious right believe that Ivanka and Jared had a hand in leaking the earlier draft order, though no evidence of that has ever been produced. After the leak hit the press, the administration apparently decided that it was a bridge too far at the time, but the Trump’s team may now think they need something to rally the religious right after failing to repeal Obamacare and capitulating on the resolution to keep the federal government open until September.

The one big thing that is different now is that Neil Gorsuch is on the Supreme Court. As we have noted before, Gorsuch has been highly supportive of religious exemptions to federal law, and his lower court ruling on the Hobby Lobby case was essentially upheld by the conservative majority in the SCOTUS when Scalia was still alive. Now Gorsuch sits in Scalia’s chair and is in a position to make another major ruling that could increase rights of corporations and undermine anti-discrimination law.

Maybe Trump will chicken out and back off on signing the order again, but the Christian Taliban is implacable and tireless and Mike Pence is their champion.  They will be back again and again.

Trump to South Florida: Drop Dead

sea level rise

Yesterday, Donald Trump came down squarely on the wrong side in the struggle to halt and reverse the worldwide threat from climate change.  Specifically, he signed–with great fanfare–a sweeping executive order to rewrite federal regulations to ease carbon emissions, lift a moratorium on federal coal leasing, and remove the requirement that federal officials consider the impact of climate change when making decisions. Basically, he was telling the world: “Fuck global warming, pollute all you want!”

No one can say that we didn’t see this coming, but Trump’s delivery of the message was so vindictively gleeful, that it’s hard not to read it as another spiteful effort to obliterate the legacy of Barack Obama. Maybe The Donald needed a little upper after the humiliating fiasco of his failed crusade to repeal ObamaCare.

And of course he presented his destruction of “job-killing” Obama-era regulations designed to speed transition to cleaner and renewable energy sources as removing the shackles on the economy and reviving the coal industry. “My administration is putting an end to the War on Coal. We’ll have clean coal, clean coal.” As if repeating it could somehow make it true. Sad.

How does promoting coal threaten South Florida? There is actually an interconnection here, which I’ll get to eventually, but first let us take a look at the coal industry and the jobs that Trump says he wants to save.

Coal mining has been an integral part of the culture of Appalachia (especially West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and Pennsylvania) for well over a century. Mining is a dangerous and dirty job with side effects that often sicken and kill the men who do it, but it pays relatively well–thanks to unions that have fought sometimes violent battles with the coal companies for miners’ rights–in places where other opportunities are scarce. But coal mining jobs have been disappearing for decades for reasons that have nothing to do with environmental regulations but rather changes in mining techniques and mechanization and competition from other fuels.

In 1923 there were 863,000 coal miners in the US. In 2015, according to official figures from the US Energy Information Agency, there were only 65,971 people employed by the entire US coal mining industry, including those working in administrative jobs. In West Virginia, coal mining employed 15,490 people in 2015. By way of comparison, Walmart was employing 12,321 people in West Virginia in February of this year–albeit at average wages far lower than mining jobs usually pay.

Most of the coal now mined in the US no longer comes from underground mine shafts but rather from open surface pits, and most of it doesn’t come from Appalachia. In 2015, some 42 percent of US coal production came from Wyoming (versus 11 percent from West Virginia, the second largest producing state). Western coal mining is almost entirely from open pits like the enormous Black Thunder mine in Wyoming’s Powder River basin, seen in the Google Earth image below.

Black Thunder Mine

Even in Appalachia, almost a quarter of coal production now is from surface mining using a method called mountaintop removal. This has become especially prevalent in southern West Virginia, where 40 percent of coal production used this method in 2015. Basically, the tops of mountains are blasted away and leveled to get at the coal seams without need for tunneling, and the spoil is dumped in adjacent valleys creating a potential or actual water pollution hazard.

 

mountaintop removal

Mountaintop removal for coal mining in West Virginia

Surface mining is cheaper (especially if environmental costs are not a factor) and requires far less labor. According to the USEIA Annual Coal Report, in West Virginia in 2015, underground mining employed 12,255 miners and produced 75,212 tons, or 5.75 tons per miner. In Wyoming, 6,327 miners produced 372,682 tons, or 58.9 tons per miner–ten times the productivity. Best of all, from the perspective of the mining companies, is that surface mining tends to be done by non-union workers. In Wyoming, 97.4 percent of coal production in 2015 was by non-union labor. For Appalachia as a whole, 70 percent of all coal production was by non-union labor, which generally gets a lower wage and fewer benefits.

The bottom line is that even if coal production goes up (which is dubious), Trump’s promises to bring back lots of well-paying mining jobs are hollow nonsense.

The coal industry’s biggest problem now is competition from cheap natural gas created by the fracking boom (which brings its own problems) and sharply declining exports to China. More than 90 percent of US coal consumption is for generating electricity, and the decline in coal’s share of this market is almost an exact mirror image of the rise of natural gas. Also, over the last ten years, there has been a significant rise in electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind, which has been encouraged by federal (and some state) government policies–programs that the Trump administration seems set on killing. Three of the four largest coal mining companies have sought bankruptcy protection over the last few years.

 

electric generation

The key looming issue is the fact that both coal combustion and mining are huge contributors to the build up of greenhouse gases that are generating climate change. Natural gas is not a benign fuel, but it produces about half the carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated as coal does. Therefore, increased reliance on natural gas is seen as a means of reducing CO2 emissions until alternatives like solar and wind can be ramped up. Coal mining (especially surface mining) also releases large amounts of trapped methane into the atmosphere (there are problems here with natural gas production as well).  Methane is some 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, and it’s estimated that about 6 percent of released methane comes from coal mining. Burning coal is also among the worst sources for other pollutants like mercury, which wind up in our waterways and oceans.

In other words, if you want to put the breaks on global warming, you should not be giving the green light to unfettered burning of coal and eliminating consideration of impact on climate change from federal decision-making.

But this is exactly what Trump’s executive orders have done. This is an administration full of climate change deniers from Trump himself to the malignant Scott Pruitt at EPA to the buffoonish Rick Perry at Energy, and on and on, reflecting the anti-science bias and disregard for evidence-based policymaking that pervades the entire Republican party which cares about nothing but money and religion. It’s really difficult to find words to express my horror at the willful catastrophes that this reckless cabal seems bent on creating, not just for the US, but the entire world. They really just don’t care!

After the Paris Accords of 2014, I had thought–perhaps–that we had a chance to correct course and avert a worldwide calamity, but from what I learn from the scientific community, that window is rapidly closing. By the time the Trump administration and Republican hegemony in Congress are over, it may well be too late.

All of which brings me back to South Florida, where the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area is probably more threatened than any other in the country by an inexorable rise in sea level. We now know it’s going to happen, we just don’t yet know how much and how fast. My house is 7.4 feet above sea level, so this is personal. (Have a look at this video.) Given my age, I probably won’t live to see anything close to the full extent of what’s in store for us here.  But damn it, I love this beautiful, crazy, fascinating city of Miami, and it makes me beyond enraged that so many of our elected officials are so eager to sacrifice the very land we live on at the altar of money.

So Marco Rubio, Rick Scott, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo and all the other Republican deniers, FUCK YOU! You enable this disaster of an administration, and the consequences are on you.

 

White Working Class Pathology and the Trump Vote

trump rally

Yesterday the Washington Post published an article summarizing a fascinating study by two Princeton University economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, analyzing the startling increase of “deaths of despair” (suicide, drugs, and alcohol) since 2000–particularly among whites with a high school education or less. It occurred to me that this trend coincides with the increased tendency of working class whites to vote Republican, seemingly against their own economic interests, which was especially notable in the last election. Could these two trends be related?

The Case/Deaton study (link to the full paper available here) builds on their study published two years ago, which revealed a surprising rise in mortality among American non-Hispanic whites, especially those who are middle-aged and with no more than a high school education. This holds true for both men and women, and most of this increase is due to deaths from drug overdose, suicide, and alcohol-related disease.

mortality by education

This finding is particularly striking, since mortality rates in other developed countries have generally been trending downwards or fairly stable. It also goes against the trend among American blacks and Hispanics, whose mortality rates also have continued to decline.

country comparisons

There is also a striking rural/urban divide in the mortality rates with rural areas in the South and Midwest particularly showing a much greater increase.  By contrast, the death rates in major metropolitan areas are much lower and more stable, as a Washington Post analysis published last year showed.

mortality map

From Case and Deaton, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century”

Why is this happening?  The authors note that it cannot be explained simply from falling or stagnant incomes, partly because that has affected American blacks and Hispanics to an equal if not greater degree, but there has been no spike in their mortality rates. Rather, they suggest that there is a complicated and still poorly understood social pathology deriving from a loss of optimistic expectations and a sense of declining status among whites without college educations. They tentatively propose “a preliminary but plausible story in which cumulative disadvantage over life, in the labor market, in marriage and child outcomes, and in health, is triggered by progressively worsening labor market opportunities at the time of entry for whites with low levels of education.” This is reflected in increased drug use (especially the huge increase of both prescription and illegal opioids), more alcoholism, and suicide.

This particularly affects people in their late 40s and 5os who are still in the labor force rather than those 65 and older who are protected by programs like Social Security and Medicare. The major divide is between people who have a college education and those who don’t.

So how might all this relate to voting trends? There has been an increasing polarity in American politics and voting that divides along the same axes: urban vs. rural, and college vs. non-college education.  Almost all US major cities and their more immediate suburbs vote heavily Democrat, while rural counties have gone increasingly Republican. (Take a look at this analysis by the Washington Post last November.) At the same time, there has been a similar split along education lines among white voters, with those with a college education more likely to vote Democrat while those with only high school or less much more likely to vote Republican.

voters by education

The Democratic Party has long had a problem with keeping white voters and increasingly depends on black and Hispanic voters to win elections. In particular, Democratic presidential candidates have been losing white blue collar (non-college graduate) voters since the late 90s, and the trend is especially pronounced among males. (Take a look at the graphic above, taken from a study by the Pew Research Center.)  These voters used to be their base. Do they really believe that the Republican party will defend their economic interests, or is something else going on here?

Here’s my hypothesis: The Democrats’ loss of white blue collar voters is another symptom of the sense of malaise among non-college-educated and rural Americans that is fueling the increased mortality rates from diseases of despair. So many workers have seen well-paying skilled manufacturing jobs that used to afford a decent, comfortable life disappear, and they see nothing but minimum wage jobs to replace them. Rural communities have been hollowed out and see their economic bases drying up. The sense of optimism about the future has evaporated. The middle-aged realize that they don’t have the skills to prosper in an information-based economy and feel stuck and helpless. The unions that once defended their interests have been decimated. Their sense of status is slipping away, fueling resentment against elites and other ethnicities who they believe are getting undeserved advantages. People are angry and want someone to blame, while looking back to an idealized time when they felt secure and everything was good.

All of this makes people vulnerable to someone like Donald Trump, who provides them with the scapegoats they want and makes empty promises to restore the world they think they remember. He lets them know that those racist feelings that everyone has are justified and it’s now okay to say it out loud. The Republicans tell them that government is the problem, and if only those “job-killing” regulations were eliminated, prosperity would come pouring back. Stressed communities are desperate to entice corporations that promise to bring in jobs and are willing to give them anything they want. It’s just another drug to make you feel better and hold out a shred of hope.