Mother’s Day 2019

Mom gets her Master’s Degree circa 1972

My mother is simply an amazing woman.  She grew up in a poor family and attended Central High School in Little Rock right before the Little Rock Nine.  Mom married very early in life and had two sons in a single year – before she was old enough to drink legally – and a third four years later.  

Family lore holds that on the day Mack, her third, was born Mom rode the city bus across town to a beauty salon to have her hair done.  She terrified the stylist when she responded to “When is your baby due?” with “Any minute.” Her contractions had begun on the bus ride over, and in the Thanksgiving tale version she points out that Mack was not her first, she knew what she was doing, and she was determined to look her best when they finally met.

Mom took classes at night while working days at a Mad Men – era advertising agency until she earned a fellowship to do graduate work.  About the time I turned ten she packed us up for a move to Ole Miss as a single mom with no job and little money.  Mom edited and typed papers for other students to pay the bills and saved on babysitters by taking us with her to the library. I still love to read.  In only three years she earned a doctorate in English Literature after writing a computer program that compiled data on syntax in William Blake poems for her dissertation – in 1973.  

Mom never showed any give-up of any kind.  She did what had to be done and never quit. Every day she demonstrated an inner strength and moral courage unmatched in anyone else I’ve ever met.  She taught us to respect women – and with a Mom like her we could come away with no other lesson. She taught us to believe in ourselves and by her own actions showed us that we could often grasp things that looked beyond our reach.  And she taught us to love unconditionally and without reservation by loving us unconditionally and without reservation.

Yes, Mom, you certainly knew what you were doing.  Thanks for everything, and Happy Mother’s Day.

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The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Designed by Livia Polise using NOAA and USGS data.

Virginia should join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. This is a straightforward agreement among northeastern states to create a market for carbon emissions.  Member states cap generating plant emissions and issue permits to emit a defined amount of carbon dioxide.  Firms can trade these permits, which allows more efficient firms to profit on that efficiency.  This creates incentives to reduce emissions so firms have excess permits they can sell at a profit.  From Wikipedia:

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, pronounced ‘Reggie’) is the first mandatory market based program in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. RGGI is a cooperative effort among the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont to cap and reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the power sector. RGGI compliance obligations apply to fossil-fueled power plants 25MW and larger within the ten-state region.

RGGI establishes a regional cap on the amount of CO2 pollution that power plants can emit by issuing a limited number of tradable CO2 allowances. Each allowance represents an authorization for a regulated power plant to emit one short ton of CO2. Individual CO2 budget trading programs in each RGGI state together create a regional market for CO2 allowances.

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Saturday Morning Coffee

A few links to things I was reading over coffee this morning:

Climate Change and Migration

A lot of people make the connection between American imperialism and migration to the US. Others lay part of the blame on globalization and NAFTA. This article at The New Yorker suggests that climate change now drives migration from Central and South America to the US.

‘It was about six years ago that things started to change,’ he said. Climentoro had always been poor. Residents depended on the few crops that could survive at an elevation of more than nine thousand feet, harvesting maize to feed their families and selling potatoes for a small profit. But, Pérez said, the changing climate was wiping out the region’s crops. ‘In the higher part of town, there have been more frosts than there used to be, and they kill an entire harvest in one fell swoop,’ he said. ‘In the lower part of Climentoro, there’s been much less rain and new sorts of pests.’ He added, ‘Farmers have been abandoning their land.’

Climate change is real and changing the way we do things, especially in agriculture. And if you think people fought over oil, wait until they’re fighting over food and water.

Virginia and Carbon Emissions

We have to reduce carbon emissions if we want to do something about this, and Virginia has a chance to take a market-based approach by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Unfortunately, Republicans in the General Assembly keep blocking this.

Instead of celebrating this modest progress on climate action, Virginia Republicans have been fighting it every step of the way. Their latest effort takes the form of two amendments to the state budget that would effectively prevent Virginia from joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a nine-state platform for trading carbon emission allowances. It would also stop the Commonwealth from participating in a new compact focused on reducing carbon emissions in transportation.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network called on Governor Northam to “veto the budget language that blocks the Commonwealth from joining RGGI and to move forward on climate action, to protect the future of all Virginians.” I agree.

A Conservative Defense of the Electoral College

Elsewhere in Virginia politics, Stephen Brodie Tucker writes in defense of the Electoral College at Bearing Drift.

My point is that the federal government does not exist to represent us individually or in mobs. The Federal Government exists to represent the 50 States and to arbitrate amongst them. The State Governments are our governments and the Federal Government is theirs. The worst mistake the United States ever made was ratifying the 17th Amendment, which turned the Senate over to the popular vote of the people. The House of Representatives is The People’s House. The Senate was meant to represent the will of the State governments.

I left a lengthy comment on the post, so here I’ll just point out that this is an anachronistic new of the American Republic made effectively obsolete by the Civil War. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention created the Electoral College and left election of Senators to state legislators to protect elite interests, among them slavery, in the States that existed at the time. The Electoral College is anti-democratic and needs to go.

Finally, I had a lot of fun this week listening to Rick Reilly plug his new book, Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Donald Trump. John Cassidy reviews the book in the New Yorker.

Reilly recounts a time when Trump was declared the senior club champion at Trump National Bedminster, in New Jersey, even though he was in Pennsylvania on the day that the event was played. ‘He’d declared that the club should start having senior club championships for those 50 and up, but he forgot that one of the best players at the club had just turned 50,’ Reilly writes. ‘Having zero chance of beating the guy, he went up to his Trump Philadelphia course on the day of the tournament and played with a friend there. Afterward, according to a source inside the Bedminster club, he called the Bedminster pro shop and announced he’d shot 73 and should be declared the winner. The pro, wanting to stay employed, agreed. His name went up on the plaque.’

I’ll resist the urge to elaborate on what I think this says about Donald Trump. Reilly, Cassidy, and others have articulated this far better than I could. But I will say that it surprises me not at all that a man who would refuse to pay people for the work they did for him would pull shenanigans like this. Read the review, buy the book, and judge for yourself.

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Straw Man Socialism

Ileana Johnsongrew up in Romania under the Nicolae Ceaușescuregime and immigrated to the US in 1978.  By 1982 she had become a citizen and went on to earn two advanced degrees.  Johnson has written several books, including one on her experiences under Communism in Romaniaand anotheron the United Nations sustainable development plan known as Agenda 21.

On Monday she posted “We are Serving the Working People” at The Bull Elephant.  This essay amounted to a fascinating strawman definition of “socialism.”  A sample: 

Do they understand that socialism suppresses individuality, forces collectivism, causes mass starvation, imprisons people with divergent ideas in labor camps, herds them off their properties into high rise cinder block apartments, nationalizes all industries, and confiscates all private property and wealth?

This accurately describes East European and Russian political economies up to the end of the Cold War, so in a way Johnson comes by this view honestly.  She experienced it this way.  And because everyone called this kind of political and economic system “socialism” or “communism” back in the day, this is pretty standard-issue conservative rhetoric about the dangers of making sure the economy and political system work for everyone.  I wonder though how much this has to do with protecting corporations and the wealthy from calls for a more equitable distribution of economic productivity than it does with any real concern over liberty.  It’s not as if our system protects citizens from voter suppression and gerrymandering in a way that restricts elite power.  In the end the conservative project looks a lot like a defense of corporate rights to profits while showing little concern for what liberty looks like to people who have to work two jobs so they can pay the rent and keep dinner on the table.  

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It’s the Robot Economy, Folks

David Atkins made a good point yesterday at The Washington Monthly after former Clinton staffer Nick Merrill shot back at Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for suggesting that economic anxiety indeed played a role in Donald Trump’s 2016 win:

So, in the argument between Merrill and Buttigieg, who is right? They both are. And the fact that Merrill doesn’t understand that point is part of the problem; and it’s a sign of what the 2020 Democratic nominee must fix.

One cannot even begin to talk about this issue without acknowledging that the white working class is quite literally dying. Mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans have been ticking upwards for nearly 20 years, led primarily by a sharp rise in “deaths of despair”—suicide, drug abuse, and alcohol abuse—among those without college degrees. According to research, these deaths are primarily driven by a lack of good jobs and the dysfunction that economic anxiety creates in the social fabric.

Buttigieg is right that Trump pretended to offer solutions for these voters specifically, and that certain aspects of Clinton’s messaging did not convey the urgency that people in these communities feel about their circumstances. It’s no accident that “learn to code” has become a scornful joke on both the right and the progressive left.

Merrill is also right that the solutions Trump offered were racist, vitriolic, and full of false promises. Trump blamed economic and social problems on immigrants, promised to use his supposed skill as a negotiator to fix trade deals and bring jobs back, and promised to use his bully pulpit to strongarm companies into keeping existing factories open and getting new ones built.

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The Bank of Virginia Act

A few weeks ago, a group called Protect USannounced the launch of an effortto create the Bank of Virginia, a “socially responsible public bank” modeled on the Bank of North Dakotathat “would provide low-cost public financing to municipal governments and state agencies.”  The Bank would lend money only to “companies and organizations that Virginians support.” (Hat Tip: Blue Virginia).

This makes me think of efforts at the federal level to bring banking to post offices.  Gillibrandand others seem to be proposing the kind of retail Post Office banking I remember from my time in the Army stationed in Germany. People could start basic interest-bearing savings accounts at local post offices with paychecks from any employer (Americans could do this at US Post Offices until 1967).

Government payments like Kindergeld (every parent in Germany gets a small stipend for…being a parent) went automatically to these accounts. For a time, I used such an account to handle household bills.  In the US context a system like this would help working people who earn a paycheck but only qualify for commercial bank accounts that carry fees and conditions (e.g., monthly fees without direct deposit, minimum balances).  These fees eat into their already small budgets.  Many people have to pay a fee to WalMart or a grocery store, or a check cashing service every Friday when they get paid by check for their construction or other gig labor that week.  So a state bank where low-wage workers could open simple passbook accounts with no fees would improve the lives of working people.

As far as I can tell from the Protect US site, the Bank of Virginia proposal does not address this issue. Without a look at specific legislation it’s hard to know, but it appears to focus more on making sure that Virginia Retirement System and Commonwealth tax revenue, which must be parked somewhere until spent, don’t find their way into fossil fuel investments or big bank accounts subject to fees.  I support this goal, but it’s not clear how Protect US locks in which Virginians just what “causes” the Commonwealth should support.  Without seeing the details, I’m also wondering whether a Bank of Virginia ensures socially conscious investment over the long term. Political winds change.

The Protect US proposal has another potential problem: it would form the Bank of Virginia by combining the functions of the Virginia Housing Development Authority( VHDA), Assistive Technology Loan Fund Authority (ATLFA), Virginia College Savings Program, and the Virginia State Employee Loan Program.  This could perhaps make sense from an efficiency standpoint given that these agencies have at least some of the experience and infrastructure needed to create a bank.  

But unless the Bank of Virginia created under this plan would continue – and expand – the services provided by these organizations, it would not make the Commonwealth of Virginia materially more socially responsible. Shifting funds to more environmentally friendly investments has value, but state government exists to create opportunities for and improve the lives of working people, not supporting corporations whether socially conscious or not.  I’m especially concerned about the employee loan program – ending it would send low-wage state employees to payday loan companies.  

This proposal could be a good idea – but needs more work.

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Topics in American Politics

Starting on March 30, I’ll be presenting a lecture series on Topics in American Politics at the Lokal Cafe in Colonial Williamsburg. In the first session I’ll discuss how slavery influenced the writing and ratification of the Constitution and the ways this impacts American politics today.

Later lectures will cover the expansion of civil rights and how this helped lead to the sorting of US political parties, the ways interest groups and gerrymandering polarized US politics over existential issues, and Russia’s efforts to influence US elections.

Please contact me at rss (at) foggybottomline (dot) com if you have questions or would like more information.

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More on the Scandals in Virginia Politics

A few weeks have passed since scandals shook up Virginia politics, starting with the news that Governor Ralph Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) year book page included a photo of two men at a party.  One of the men in the photo wore a KKK costume, the other blackface.  Governor Northam could not, in the moment, definitively say he was not one of those people.  So Northam admitted he may have been in the photo, then retracted that admission the next day.  

Democrats in Virginia, myself includedlined upto ask the Governor to resign.  It got worse after his “Moon Walk” press conference, and speculation started about who Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax would appoint to take his place as LG after he took Northam’s place.  But then the second scandal popped: accusations of sexual harassment against Fairfax. This shifted discussions to succession in Virginia, and scenarios that would put House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox in the Governor’s mansion.  Soon enough a third shoe dropped:  Attorney General Mark Herring volunteered that he had once appeared in blackface himself. 

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Ralph Northam Should Resign – Updated

UPDATE: Governor Northam held a press conference this afternoon and walked back his admission last night that he was in the picture:

“I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo. This was not me in that picture. That was not Ralph Northam.”

https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/02/politics/northam-racist-yearbook-photo/index.html

Northam went on to say that he gave photos to the yearbook staff, did not participate in assembling his page, did not purchase a copy, and hadn’t seen it in thirty years. Publication blindsided him.

Maybe the yearbook staff placed the photo in question on Northam’s page by mistake and he genuinely did not know about this until yesterday. Which of course begs the question: why admit to being one of the people in the picture unless you remember wearing blackface or a KKK costume but cannot remember a specific? Someone out there might have photos of me that I’d prefer never became public, but I know one thing with 100% certainty: no picture of me in blackface or a KKK outfit exists. I’ve never worn either. Ever.

Northam’s admission that he wore blackface for a dancing contest, which he won with a Michael Jackson impersonation, doesn’t help. Dressing up like Jackson was common enough at the time – Jackson was on the Jackson’s Victory Tour and at the height of his fame. But he could have performed without the shoe polish makeup, and his claim that he “only used a little because it’s hard to get off” means he was familiar with the blackface concept (and likely knows photos of this exist that he wanted to get out in front of).

Perhaps we shouldn’t hold Governor Northam responsible for the photo appearing on his page – this kind of mistake happens. And I very much hope that Governor Northam was not in the photo. But I’m not sure it matters any more, even if this turns out to be a right wing hit job using a doctored photo or yearbook. That he couldn’t vehemently deny this based on his own memory says quite a lot. Northam’s denial this afternoon muddies the waters. But resignation remains the right course.

Original Post:

Learning that Governor Ralph Northam apparently attended a party in either blackface or a KKK costume during his time in medical school flabbergasted and disappointed me.   

Like everyone, Northam is at least in part a product of the time and place of his upbringing, and his Eastern Shore youth and Virginia Military Institute college career apparently included problematic attitudes on race.  Whatever his thinking on racial equality today, the Governor clearly had no problem joking about terrorizing or making fun of people of color in 1984.  I would hope that Northam’s time in the US Army and as a pediatrician lead to some personal introspection and change.  

But if he has truly adjusted his attitudes about human beings not like him he could have owned his past and used it as a way to help Virginia confront its own problematic history of slavery and resistance to desegregation.  He could have turned it into a teaching point about ways to move America to racial equality.  Instead, Ralph Northam either hoped no one would discover this disgusting photograph or forgot it altogether – which is problematic in itself.  

It matters because racial discrimination is America’s original sin.  Colonization of North America by Western Europeans depended on the labor of chattel slaves, most of them Africans.  America’s founding generations constructed our version of Capitalism on slavery and included clauses in our founding governing document specifically designed to protect slavery in some states.  The Electoral College, equal state representation in the Senate, and the Second Amendment all have roots in the need to protect slavery in order to secure ratification of the Constitution by slave states.  

We still pay for this sin – or at least people of color still pay.  Even after the end of de jure slavery, de facto slavery in the form of Jim Crow lawsredlining and housing discrimination, voter suppression, and depression of education opportunities through segregated schools has kept families of color from building wealth and participating fully in American society.  Efforts by white elites to socialize poor whites to fear poor blacks after the Civil War shows its effects through American attitudes about social safety nets and immigration still today.  I don’t mean to suggest that the United States has not been a force for liberty and justice in the world.  But America becomes more exceptional as such a force when we live by example for others, and we cannot do this without confronting this very real and very problematic history.

None of us has a perfect past, free of troubling actions, decisions, or attitudes.  We all change as we grow, and I seriously doubt that Ralph Northam still holds views on race that would allow him to attend a party dressed in blackface or a KKK costume.  He almost certainly has changed his attitudes about racial equality.  As he became a prominent pediatrician and then politician, he had a unique opportunity to help Virginians have a discussion about its racial history and how people like him could overcome their past and help us move forward together.  This may not have won him the Governorship, but it would have helped make Virginia a better place to live.  Sadly, he forgot his past or chose to bury it instead.

This morning, Governor Northam will hold a press conference and will likely resign. He should.

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Gun Violence and Virginia’s General Assembly

Virginia’s General Assembly this session has already killed some important gun violence prevention legislation. Let me say that again: Republicans in Virginia’s legislature have blocked passage of popular policies that would help prevent gun violence without also interfering with the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms. 

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee killed SB1034, which would have created a Class 1 Misdemeanor for purchasing more than one handgun in a 30 day period.  Since it would have exempted several classes of gun purchasers, including anyone with a valid concealed handgun permit and anyone buying a handgun in a private sale, it’s not clear how this would interfere with the right of any law-abiding Virginia resident’s right to “keep and bear arms.”  Besides the obvious point that the Second Amendment says nothing about just how many arms a citizen has a right to “keep and bear,” I personally wonder why anyone would want to purchase more than a dozen weapons of any kind in a given year.  But since most citizens qualify for concealed permits, and any citizen could make as many private purchases as time permits, it seems that this legislation would have one important effect: making mass purchases of firearms for transport to states with more restrictive firearms laws slightly more difficult.  This does, in fact, happen.  And Virginia can help stop it.

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