Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Dayton Voice and A.J. Wagner

Allies in the good fight

A.J. Wagner is the only county auditor I've ever known, or heard of, who managed to inject his social justice values into the business of managing public funds. Years ago, when Marrianne and I ran the Dayton Voice, A.J. made the decision that Montgomery County, Ohio was paying far too much to run legal notices in the Dayton Daily News (DDN). He reasoned that the requirement that certain official notices be published throughout the county in general circulation publications could be met by placing the notices in a combination of small newspapers that, in the aggregate, covered the county.

In doing so, A.J. argued, the cost of publication would be greatly reduced. And, though A.J. got sued by DDN, he eventually got the News to sign a five-year contract for publication of all notices at two-thirds the rate the paper had been charging. In the process of reaching the agreement, the county ran a couple of multi-page listings of tax-delinquent properties in the Voice at a rock-bottom price that was, nevertheless, manna from heaven for our paper.

Of course, A.J. would argue that one cannot manage public funds responsibly without having strong social justice values, but DDN was a powerful entity at the time, one that most politicians in its circulation area wouldn't have considered offending. No matter, this is my blog and I've got a different bone to pick with A.J.

In the years since he served as Montgomery County auditor, he has been a Common Pleas judge and, more recently, a blogger on legal issues for the Dayton City Paper, a direct descendant of the Voice. Wearing his blogger hat, A.J. wrote a column about the decision we made at the Voice to change our name.

It was a good post. I just disagreed with parts of it, so I e-mailed A.J. to express my disagreement with some important parts of his column, "A rose by any other name."
Here's my message:

"Hey, A.J.,
It's been awhile since you were Montgomery County Auditor and Marrianne and I were Dayton residents. I don't know if the '90s count as the good, old days in Dayton, but the memories work for me. You're still my all-time favorite county auditor, anywhere.
I have a blog of my own on the way to mentioning the Dayton Voice in a post, I googled the paper to see how it presented on the web.
Pretty weak, I'd say, but I did come across a mention of the Voice on your Dayton City Paper blog and decided I wanted to object to your description of how we came to change the paper's name from the Dayton Voice to Impact Weekly.
No question that it was a lamentable decision. The name Dayton Voice was almost iconic regionally, while Impact Weekly was an awkward handle that had none of the same grit.
Your column looked at some legal issues related to trademarks, noting in particular the time when the Village Voice asked us to stop the use of a name to which they claimed to have exclusive rights.
You wrote: "The courts will uphold exclusive use of a trademark name if another business uses it in a like or similar manner that 'is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive.' The Dayton Voice was prepared to argue that no one would confuse a small weekly entertainment paper in Ohio with the New York weekly that was high on production values, big on investigative reporting, larger in size and catering to a totally different market. But alas, David could not find the needed rock to slay Goliath. The Dayton Voice, short on cash and, thus, lawyer power, became philosophical and decided the name change might be good. They settled with the Village Voice and became Impact Weekly." 
Later, referring to the Cape Cod Voice, which did not change its name, you wrote, "I wish there were a legal case that set forth the law on all this, but the Village Voice never took these cases to court. They scared off the Dayton Voice and others with letters from lawyers. Cape Cod Voice refused to back down to the letters and that is where it ended."
But, A. J., they didn't scare us off, at all. We printed the letter from their lawyer and printed one of our own. Our letter treated the Village Voice with deliberate disrespect and asserted that our decision to name our paper the Voice was out of respect for Michael Moore's Flint Voice, with no thought, at all, about any other paper, New York-based or otherwise.
We prayed to be taken to court. It would have been a PR coup for us that might even have had a positive effect on the business side of our operation. But we couldn’t even pay our printer at the time, a more immediate concern to be sure.
Sometime after Thanksgiving I got a call from the publisher of the Village Voice who actually expressed admiration for our response and offered to pay us to resolve the matter in their favor.
They paid us an amount big enough to pay our printer (for about 8 more issues, if I recall correctly). Our public position was that we needed to avoid a court fight and that there was something to be gained by changing our name to Impact Weekly. We stopped calling the paper by the name it deserved and got a few pieces of silver. Call us sellouts, if you like, but don't call us chicken.
And don't call us merely "a small weekly entertainment paper," either. Had we been an entertainment weekly, we might have been able to pay the printer regularly, but our desire to make an editorial difference pushed our costs higher than we could manage.  
The Village Voice had a much higher percentage of its pages in personal ads, and in tobacco and liquor advertising. We wouldn't carry any personal ads that objectified women or bordered on sex trade advertising. Believing that tobacco companies were racketeers who deliberately and knowingly misrepresented the nature of their product, we wouldn't take tobacco advertising, either.
Fully one-third of our paper each week was editorial copy, covering politics and community issues (including covering local bands as grassroots art-generators). No other alternative weekly at the time committed so much space to editorial. And our mission was always explicit:
To treat working people, communities of color, women and the LGBT community as subjects, audience and sources for the news.
As I said, we would have loved for the Village Voice to take us to court. After all, we were totally judgement proof. And we would have argued, on our own behalf, not that they were "high on production values, big on investigative reporting, larger in size and catering to a totally different market," but that they were a grasping, avaricious, corporate entity who were not in our league.
Like you, I wish we had gotten the chance. But we gave that chance up in favor of taking their money and paying our printer.
It was probably a bad decision at the time. I never got to apologize to readers or to staff for it. And I'm sure not proud of it. I loved the Dayton Voice."

That's the message I sent to A.J. But I'd like to add a postscript.
The truth is A.J. loved the Voice, too. And, even after he could no longer use public funds to publish legal notices in the paper, he always made a good subject, audience and source for the news. He was always a supporter of the good fight and always engaged with great zest. Now, A.J. is running for mayor of Dayton, a city desperately in need of a leader who will take on the difficult challenges with a smile. You go, A.J., the Dayton Voice (or one of its tattered remnants, anyhow) endorses you.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Buy a bit of economic justice

Raise the minimum wage

So, I've written the Washington Post, again. And, reliably, it does not appear that they will print my letter.

No matter. I almost prefer the opportunity to elaborate my point in a forum (this one) that I know will always make space for me and, from time to time, will be read by others.

In any case, here's what I wrote:


I applaud Charles Lane's effort to broadly consider the merits of an increase in the minimum wage ("Better than minimum wage," Feb. 19). One quibble, though.

Lane reviews four of the possible effects of an increase that may minimize an employer's interest in cutting jobs when an increase in the minimum wage is mandated. But in concluding that an expansion of the earned income tax credit (EITC) is superior to an increase in the minimum wage, Lane appears to discount two of the potential benefits connected to an increase--lower turnover and higher organizational efficiency.

Why not capture those positives, too?. Get better at calibrating and regularizing increases in the minimum wage and spread the benefits of a broader EITC.

Jeff Epton

But the truth is that I have more than one nit to pick with Lane's piece, and one happy observation to add, as well. I held back on the quibbles because the Post doesn't seem very receptive to extended critiques and I figured the one point--that Lane was posing an either/or choice when both would work--was substantial enough.

In any case, Lane's column kicks off with his characterization of Paul Krugman as a "liberal firebrand [who] is still economist enough..." to note that quickly raising the minimum wage by a substantial amount would create problems. This description ignores the fact that Krugman is also a Nobel Prize winner in economics and signals to the casual reader that Krugman is a partisan and Lane is not.

This is not good journalism. We are all partisans. Krugman is the one with the Nobel. With his characterization of Krugman the firebrand, Lane is also signaling from the beginning that he is going to come down in favor of some alternative to raising the minimum wage.

Applauding Lane for actually appearing to be carefully considering a minimum wage increase was a bit of sychophancy in the interest of getting the letter published. Say it didn't work, if you will. Say that sychophants will burn in hell, if you like, but I tried.

The issue my letter raises is that despite Lane's apparent willingness to consider all the pros and cons of raising the minimum wage, he actually dismisses two potential benefits pointed out in a study by John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Workforces that are compensated better at the low end may end up working with more enthusiasm and improved efficiency. In the long run, such improvements allow employers to recover costs. But Lane sees that potential benefit as less certain than the potential downsides, like the possibility of reduced employment overall, and fewer job opportunities for youth.

Indeed, Lane cites studies that show reduced unemployment for "young, low-skilled people" when the minimum wage goes up. That ought to be a genuine concern and should be addressed, even if the problem is not quite the one Lane defines. The fact is that many young people have been pushed out of the job market with increasing frequency as more older people, including those collecting Social Security, take part-time jobs just to make ends meet. Holding down the minimum wage doesn't serve either group.

There is a silver lining in Lane's column. He actually uses CEPR as a substantial source for his column. That's a big deal, and a credit to CEPR and to co-founders Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot who have been a relentless voice for progressive economic policy. Lane has always been a centrist, at best, and has never seemed very willing to consider progressive policy options. But he does here, even if he ends up rejecting the idea of a minimum wage increase.

As George Lakoff tells us (a bit on Lakoff here), sometimes speech is action. Baker, Weisbrot and CEPR keep researching, writing and talking and have helped move the political discussion to the left.

A better column on the minimum wage by Harold Meyerson ran in the Post on Feb. 20. In "A jump-start for wages," Meyerson points out that the lion's share of the benefits from productivity gains have been going to employers, not workers, since 1973. "The decoupling of wages from the fortunes of big business has been going on for the past 40 years," he writes.

Meyerson cites another study that may not have crossed Lane's desk. "As a January report by Cal-Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez documents, while the income of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans rose by 11.2 percent during the recovery years of 2009-11, the incomes of the bottom 99 percent declined by 0.4 percent. That's some recovery," he observes. Read the rest of Meyerson's column here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dear Pulitzer Committee,

(The short list will be fine for now. See the P.S. below.)

I'm sure you get a lot of these letters, so I'm going to be brief.

After all, brevity is, what? The heart of something, the path to getting one's point across succinctly and in a compressed period or space?

Are those two things the same thing? I'm going to have to look that up.

Anyway, that's why I'm going to be brief. To make my point, or my pitch, as it were, and be done with it. Because I'm sure you get a lot of these letters (see above).

But let me first clear up a likely misunderstanding. I am not writing you some where's-my-prize letter, which I'm sure you thought this was. But, please, just hear me out without jumping to conclusions here, though I do also wonder about when I will hear from you about my prize (you can respond to that whole question some other time).

But, what? Maybe it's just a problem with the Postal Service? If so, then, maybe it would be better to be sending a different letter. When you think about it, how would one ever know which it is? I mean, one would be sitting there, about to write a letter, and wondering which letter to write or type or use the internet. Because we are all more than one thing to more than one person (persons?). And, besides, we don't always know exactly what we're doing.

I must say, I'm actually beginning to lose my focus here. Communicating is an exacting discipline, really. It's not like anybody's always in the zone when they're trying to get their point across. I mean think about it. How many letters have you gotten from people like me (or almost like me) that set you to wondering what point it was that they were trying to make. A lot, right?

But the point is, if it's because the Postal Service (I always use upper-case for the first letter of each word in "Postal Service" when I write about the Postal Service. I don't know, a sign of genuine respect for the Post Office (see what I did differently there?), so the point is that nobody should turn anything in this letter into some anti-government screed--which we all know that there are people out there who would do that. So the point is that you guys have a security obligation here, also, to keep this letter secret and secure after you read it and do as it asks. Maybe you should burn the letter, then I'll have the only copy and you can be damn sure that I won't share it around.) has been the reason for the delay in hearing from you, well, then, that fact does get us, finally, to the point, or near the point.

If the problem is that there has just been a delay of some kind in notifying me about the prize, then the point of this letter changes slightly because I was writing you to ask for a small loan, which I'm sure we could just reduce my prize award by that amount, if that in fact is the actual reason why we are having this discussion now.

If not, then I'll just promise to pay the loan back at a future date, which none of us, probably, knows right now. And, of course, maybe you've awarded the prize to someone who you consider equally worthy. That could certainly happen. I mean, everyone makes mistakes, right? Though life always gives us another chance to correct our mistakes.

The loan itself will be spent on paying someone for some help getting the non-writing aspects of my life in order. As you can see, the writing takes care of itself.

It's the other stuff, the parenting and the partnering and the viable friending and the staying calm in traffic and the bill paying and the effective political action stuff that I really need help with. And when I use your loan to help me get all those other ducks in a row, I'll have more time to be an even better, more prolific writer, which I'm betting you didn't think was really doable. Am I right?

Anyway, you can send the check to:

Jeff Epton
3735 17th Place NE
Washington, DC 20018

Jeff Epton

P.S. The short list will be fine for now.

P.P.S. I love the brevity challenge. Don't you?

P.P.S.S. Daniel Garedow made me write this letter. Well, not made me do it. Facilitated the letter. Daniel's my insurance agent, He e-mailed me the other day about getting something done in a timely way. If it doesn't happen I probably crack up my car and then where would we be? Not writing this letter, that's for sure.

P.P.P.S.S. Ha!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Letters from the Earth

(Actually not a reference to climate change, however much I may have been beating that horse of late.)

Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth is the title story in a collection of writings published posthumously. The letters are the Archangel Satan's side of a correspondence with his brethren, Gabriel and Michael.

As Twain's version of the story goes, Satan routinely gets on God's last nerve. And, with apparent regularity, Satan gets suspended, i.e., banished from heaven for varying lengths of time. One of Satan's banishments follows on the heels (in celestial time) of one of God's most baffling experiments, the creation of animals, in general, and humans, in particular. The fact that they are all found on Earth and no place else is part of the experiment. After all, God doesn't know what the outcome of the experiment will be, so why risk contaminating the universe? (This, of course, raises another question, how to measure the extent of contamination, if any.)

Anyway, Gabriel and Michael and Satan can't puzzle out quite why God has done such a ridiculous thing and, ordinarily, would confine themselves to heavenly inquiry, navel-gazing and the like. But Satan figures that since he has to wander through space, cold and dark as it is, until his current suspension ends, he may as well visit Earth and see how the experiment is coming along. Letters from the Earth lays out his observations about humans.

"This is a strange place, an extraordinary place, and interesting. There is nothing resembling it at home. The people are all insane, the animals are all insane, the earth is insane, Nature itself is insane," Satan writes in the first letter.

"Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very very best he is a sort of low-grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and at all time he is a sarcasm. Yet he blandly and in all sincerity calls himself the 'noblest work of God'," continues Satan. "This is the truth I am telling you."

And, indeed, Satan's story does seem fact-based. There is more, lots more, but you'll have to find the Letters someplace and read them. In general, Twain always had an easier time spotting the pretensions and pontifications of faith. He was also inclined to minimize the apparent benefits, but not the power of religion, organized or otherwise. That is why Letters from the Earth wasn't published during Twain's lifetime. The book probably would have been banned, and Twain almost certainly wounded financially.

And speaking of banned, if you followed (or follow) the link to the Wikipedia entry for the book, you might encounter a link there to Dan Savage, who actually wrote a stage adaptation of Letters. When Marrianne and I were co-publishers of The Dayton Voice, we carried Savage's wickedly funny and very gay friendly advice column, "Savage Love." Occasional columns and other bits by Savage have almost certainly gotten the publications they were in banned from time to time, but that would also be a measure of their real value.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Postman's advice for activists,

"It's getting better all the time..."

The stars seem to be lining up in favor of progressive change.

Barack Obama's reelection, never a real goal to the disorganized Left, is nevertheless a good deal better than the alternative. Into the bargain, Obama seems willing to continue the populist push that was a key element of his victory. The Tea Party insurgency appears spent, posing a much bigger threat to Republicans than to the rest of us. Democrats of all kinds have apparent electoral advantages, like a superior national campaign apparatus and an increasingly diverse electorate, that should make it easier to move them toward peace and justice and sustainability; or, easier to imagine them moving that way, anyhow.

Further, the Republicans seem bent on turning the 2014 elections into another referendum on which party isn't the lunatic party--a bad choice of political terrain. Marco Rubio sounds like Mitt when he says opportunity "is not bestowed on us by the federal government," as though someone else out there is saying so.

A Republican filibuster, faux or no, aimed at blocking Obama's appointment of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense merely threw the President another fat pitch he could muscle over the fence.
"It's just unfortunate that this kind of politics intrudes at a time when I'm still presiding over a war in Afghanistan and I need a secretary of defense who is coordinating with our allies," Obama said. Ka-boom.

And the sequester? Everybody really ought to find some kind of cover soon. Republicans are clearly organizing a circular firing squad on that one. Which brings us to another GOP gift to Democrats, the increasing likelihood that they will oppose every single proposal for more gun control.

The overall impression here is that the Republicans aim to engineer one of the few instances when a party lost a mid-term election to a sitting president. And the first party to lose a Congressional election to an incumbent in his second term.

Activists for peace and justice and sustainability are mobilized.

How many examples are necessary to prove that point? Here's three:

The time to change national policy on addressing climate change is now. Senators Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders have introduced comprehensive legislation on climate change. The largest ever public demonstration on the issue will happen in DC on Sunday.

At the invitation of Chicago anti-violence activists, President Obama will address the problem of gun violence in Chicago today.

 Immigration reform, fueled primarily by the efforts of Latinos and their allies is on the Congressional agenda.

There are plenty of other examples, but the point is that the national political space opening on the left is larger than it has been since Civil Rights and Medicare. This is an opportunity for a progressive movement that does not confine itself to electoral politics, but does not separate itself, either. There is a an electoral path to peace and justice opening up here.

In that spirit, a few ideas to keep in mind:

1. The diversity of our movement, demographically, stylistically and strategically, is our strength.

2. Climate change may be the uber issue, but people deserve to live in communities that affirm their lives, nurture them, teach them and protect them. All other human rights and social issues still matter.

3. Playing nicely with Democrats is a good thing, not an immoral compromise. We believe in change, we organize for change, we vote for change. Sometimes, yes, we vote for the lesser evil. If not, we relinquish the field to the one-percent.

4. Some people are going to say that the right says one thing, the left says another--it's just politics. Dismiss such oversimplification. Say, with Hannah Arendt, that the truth about the reality that surrounds us can be investigated and discerned. Tell them the battle ahead is for their future, also. Sitting it out is not a moral choice.

5. In the post-apocalyptic world of The Postman, getting the mail service reorganized, connecting isolated communities, seems like a good first step. But for the young mail carriers, a 21st century Pony Express, really, the going gets hard some of the time. The Postman (Kevin Costner) has to inspire them, which he does, with the news that the United States government, under President Richard Starkey, has been reestablished in Minneapolis.

"Things are getting better. They're getting better all the time," the Postman reports.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

We all can see the future...

though the details may be fuzzy

The 2012 film Men in Black 3 has many virtues. These include Will Smith, Emma Thompson and Tommie Lee Jones. Josh Brolin, playing his best role yet--a young Tommie Lee Jones--is in it, too.

The story is simple: Alien arch-villain Boris the Animal ("It's just Boris," he says with repeated exasperation) travels back in time to kill Agent K (Jones) before the MiB agent can capture Boris and thwart his plan for an invasion of the earth. Only Agent J (Smith) realizes that the new version of the future he is inhabiting, the one in which K has been killed and the path to an invasion has been cleared, is the result of a temporal disturbance. J goes back in time to save K and, in the process, save the earth.

As the story unfolds, J and the young K navigate the late '60s, meet Andy Warhol (who it turns out is also an MiB agent) and thwart Boris. All of this happens in the company of Griffin, the sole survivor of another alien race whose planet has already been destroyed by Boris' predatory species.

Griffin has a well developed ability to see alternative futures as they arise out of current events and to compute the relative probability of each one he can see. The details sometimes elude Griffin, but often he can describe, with some precision, key events which will increase or decrease the probability of a specific bend in the timeline.

"Agent J: How's it going?

Griffin: How's it going? Well, that depends. For me personally, it's good. Things are good. Unless, of course, we're in the possible future where the muscle boy near the door gets into an argument with his girlfriend, which causes her to storm away and bump into the guy carrying the stuffed mushroom, who then dumps the tray onto those sailors on leave and a shoving match breaks out and they crash into the coffee table here. In which case, I gotta move my plate like right now. 
[as he speaks, the events he narrates occur]"

For Griffin clarity about the details of future events seems to accompany alternatives that are most imminent, though he can see some disasters, like the destruction of the earth, coming from further away in time. In that respect, Griffen seems uncommonly human, able to look at what is happening in the present and project outcomes into the future, both near and far.

Of course, for most earthlings, this ability is not generally nurtured or formally guided. So our predictions frequently go wrong; e.g., we have been predicting the end of the world frequently and for thousands of years, yet it staggers ahead. But there are also many better examples of comprehensive predictions of the future that stand up decently well. John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar is one.

In 1968, when the book was published, 3.5 billion people lived on the earth. In 2010, the era in which Stand on Zanzibar unfolds, 7 billion people live on the planet. Brunner's dystopic vision was largely focused on the destructive consequences of urban overcrowding and, to a lesser extent, endless war. Environmental destruction was also a subtext. Though our future may not have evolved exactly as Brunner predicted, Stand on Zanzibar, is a good argument that we humans have a capacity for predicting the future that compares favorably to Griffen's abilities.

So, let's use that capacity. Let's stand with the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is the major cause of global warming and that the damage from climate change is already devastating and will get worse. Let's stand against climate change denial and against the Keystone pipeline. Let's show up in DC on Sunday, February 16, to stand in solidarity with thousands of others to demonstrate in favor of federal action to mitigate and reverse global warming.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Want to change America?

Talk about it, says George Lakoff

It says here, in an article in today's Washington Post, that what President Obama talks about tonight in his State of the Union address isn't likely to make much difference. I don't buy that. Not for this particular speech.

After all, Obama is coming off an inaugural address that received wide approval in public opinion polls. The speech may also have been Obama's most vigorous defense of social programs and action during his presidency.

"The commitments we make to each other--through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security--these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great," he said.

Variations of statements like that received majority support in follow-up polls, in some cases polling over 60 percent. Some might argue that Obama is free to say such things because he won't have to run for reelection. I would argue that it was Obama's decisive victory over Mitt Romney that has allowed him to begin reasserting liberal values that have been in retreat since Ronald Reagan began the redefinition of the federal government as the enemy of democracy and free enterprise.

The Reagan-era initiated a steady right-wing agenda of "right-to-work" laws and assaults on public employee unions, opposition to taxation in general, government regulation and social programming, aggressive intervention into health-care and the private lives of women, new laws mandating the continuing closeting of lesbians and gay men, and more.

In a piece in the Post's Sunday Outlook section, UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff asserts that political speech is sometimes not so separate from political action. "When we hear political language, particular circuitry is activated in our brains," he wrote. "The more often we hear the words, the stronger that circuitry gets, until the frames become embedded in our thinking.

"The ascent of extreme conservativism and the gridlock so apparent in Washington have everything to do with divergent moralities, as reflected in language and its framing. The conservative call for 'tax relief' assumes that taxation is harmful and immoral," he continued.

"Tea party supporters framed Obama's health-care plan in moral terms as a violation of freedom ('government takeover!') and life ('death panels!')," Lakoff wrote. That is why more than 50 percent of Americans opposed the law, even though "many key provisions...had majority backing across the country." And continuing ideological opposition to the health-care law led directly to the Republican capture of the House of Representatives in the 2010 election.

But Obama's reelection victory may have changed all that in a way that did not happen when Bill Clinton was elected. Clinton's presidency was still decisively shaped by Republican framing. The mid-term elections in 1994, fueled by the Contract with America, resulted in the election of the first House Republican majority in 40 years. As the Republican propaganda machine relentlessly and effectively linked Clinton's sexual dalliances with the liberal agenda, an embattled Clinton pursued welfare reform and announced that the "era of big government is over" in his 1996 State of the Union address.

Given how dominant Republican tropes have been these last 30 years or so, Obama's 2008 victory was fortunate. Despite the mobilization of African Americans and others in support of an historic election outcome, it was almost certainly the collapse of the economy that prevented Republicans from destroying Obama's candidacy in much the way that they "swift-boated" John Kerry in 2004.

But Mitt Romney's defeat was different. A weak candidate who publicly and privately embraced his own eliteness--"my job is not to worry about [the 47 percent]," he said at a fundraiser--Romney helped to shape an election in which a stronger candidate with a superior election apparatus saw an opportunity to renew the elements of a liberal agenda.

It appears now that the Obama administration sees that the same opportunity continues to unfold. "You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time--not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals," Obama said in his inaugural speech.

In saying so, Obama made clear that it is no longer simply a matter of what a president has to say. Lakoff puts it this way:

"This means Obama can take the first step, framing public discourse, but all of us as citizens must do the heavy lifting. We can also do it by using words that have vital meaning--among our families, co-workers and communities.

"The more we repeat the language of equality, freedom and social responsibility, the more those ideas come to dominate the public conversation."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Bad News and the Good

The climate change challenge is also a huge social justice opportunity

Here's the bad news in three numbers:

2 degrees Centigrade. 565 Gigatons. 2,795 Gigatons.

(All from Bill McKibben's article, Global Warming's Terrifying New Math, July 2012, Rolling Stone.)

For almost two decades the global consensus among scientists and responsible political leaders has been that the world ought to act to hold the average global temperature increase to 2 degrees Centigrade (or less) above the range that has prevailed for more than 10,000 years of human history. That ain't happening, Bill McKibben writes:

"So far, we've raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected." The damage has been so extensive thus far that scientists are saying that the world faces huge problems long before the 2 degree limit is reached.

McKibben quotes NASA scientist James Hansen: "The [2-degree] target that has been talked about in international actually a prescription for long-term disaster."

Nevertheless, the 2-degree limit was reaffirmed at the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen. But, according to McKibben, "scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees." Based on current estimates of carbon dioxide "production" already underway" a further increase of 0.8 degrees is inevitable. "That means we're already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target," McKibben adds.

But 2,795 gigatons "is the [scariest] number of all," he wrote. "The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number--2,795--is higher than 565. Five times higher."

There's no way to do justice to McKibben's piece by continuing to summarize what he had to say. Significantly, the article contains a strong denunciation of the role that fossil-fuel companies are playing in preventing effective action against climate change. A thorough understanding of the economic interest these companies have in preventing regulations that leave their most important assets unconsumed ought to be a requirement for everyone who wishes to join the fight to minimize further damage and mitigate the damage that has already been done. A complete read of McKibben's piece would be a good place to start.

One last point to be made here about the bad news. It is very bad. Bad enough to satisfy even pop culture tastes whetted by, say, Falling Skies, or The Walking Dead.

As seems to be the case so often with bad news/good news-type formulations, the good news is more ambiguous than the bad news, but an article in today's Washington Post, "Paper giant to stop cutting in rain forests," suggests that even multinational corporations, who historically have been part of the problem, will respond to the kinds of political and social pressure that environmental and social justice organizations can muster.

"Asia Pulp & Paper, the third-largest pulp and paper company in the world, announced Tuesday that it is halting operations in Indonesia's natural rain forests, a victory for advocates who have been negotiating with the company for a year," reporter Juliet Eilperin wrote. Other NGOs, like Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and The Forest Trust, have also worked successfully to pressure major corporations to move toward sustainability targets. Significantly, these organizations have frequently bypassed  purely political strategies in favor of directly targeting multinationals who are much closer to the heart of the problem.

"Nestle agreed to a deforestation pledge in October after Greenpeace aired an ad in Europe showing an office worker biting into a Kit Kat bar that revealed a bloddy orangutan finger; Mattel stopped using [Asia Pulp & Paper]'s materials in its boxes in June 2011 after the group began a PR campaign in which Ken broke up with Barbie, distraught over the idea that she was engaged in rain forest destruction," Eilperin wrote.

Such news, of course, is not nearly as good as it needs to be. "Fossil-fuel companies," as McKibben calls them, are the worst of the worst, and are quite notorious for being willing to harm the interests of other multinationals, if their capitalist colleagues become obstacles to their own profits.

Though the oil crises (embargoes, shortages and dramatic price hikes) of 1973-74 and 1979 harmed the interests of most oil consumers globally, it also helped leading oil companies to join the ranks of the world's largest industrial corporations, a list once headed by auto companies. Fossil-fuel companies, McKibben points out, have over twenty trillion dollars in reserves posted on their balance sheets.

If (actually when, as things stand now) the top six oil companies were able to bring all their known reserves to the market, the combined carbon pumped into the atmosphere through the consumption of that oil would use up the rest of the 2-degree target. But action to keep their reserves off the market and out of the atmosphere would tank the value of oil company assets and bankrupt their operations. This is not something fossil-fuel corporations are going to volunteer to do, writes McKibben. He quotes Naomi Klein, a veteran peace and justice activist and writer: "...these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It's what they do."

For those of us still waiting to get involved, we are not about to enter the pop-culture version of the end of the world. It will not be a few intrepid road warriors banding together in groups alternately committed to either good or evil and battling each other for supremacy.

Severe climate change is already here and it will be a grinding slog for everyone. It will mean longer droughts and more severe storms. It will mean wrenching economic dislocation and even larger gaps between the rich and the poor around the world. It will mean lower agricultural production, higher food prices and, for some, malnutrition and, even, starvation.

A lucky few are able right now to insulate themselves from significant changes in the quality of their lives, and will continue to do so. But for most of today's young people, climate change will mean a lifetime of struggle to maintain something like the quality of life they have today.

All right, then. NGOs and the rest of us against the oil companies. The ultimate battle for peace and justice and sustainability.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Among the things I can't explain are...

why my outgoing e-mail stopped working for two weeks. I couldn't solve that problem and neither could my internet provider, so i have a new e-mail: And

why I spent three hours at the ophthalmologist's office this morning and why the word is spelled the way it is, but my eyes are apparently okay. When I finally did get to see Dr. Branch, I found that I really liked her. We talked about Erica Jong's book, Shylock's Daughter, and Anthony Burgesses' Nothing Like the Sun and Steven King's The Stand. The Jong and Burgess books are great for people who struggle with Shakespeare, but don't want to be entirely out of the Shakespearean loop. The Stand is wonderful humanist story about ordinary people gathering courage and building community in the face of extraordinary danger. And

why A Bad Idea: Generals Making Social Policy got ten or so hits between spring of 2009 when I posted it and this week when it got about 30 more hits, including at least one visit by a guy who has a cab service running to and from Dallas Fort Worth Airport. The easy explanation is that all things are possible on the web. A precise explanation would be more elusive and is not pending. And,

finally, why we don't do something significant and urgent, like organize a global Marshall Plan aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change. This, of course, is a near constant preoccupation of In and Out and will be explored repeatedly on this website. In the meantime, if you missed Bill McKibben's incredible piece in last June's Rolling Stone about just how certain a four or five or six degree increase in the average global temperature is, it's not to late to go back and read it. In fact consider reading Global Warming's Terrifying New Math an assignment, we all need to get on the same page (page 10, more or less, in McKibben's piece) and mobilize ourselves.