I’m feeling sick and you should too

The Thinker by Rodin

I was in Boston last week when the massive heat wave struck. I was there to attend a Wordcamp, a gathering of people interested in WordPress. (WordPress powers forty percent of websites, including this one.) While the “camp” was great (in part because it was indoors), the heat outside was oppressive. Walking eight blocks or so to dinner from my hotel nearly gave me sunstroke.

For a while, I walked beside a homeless man with a shopping cart. Inside were his prized possessions, such as they were. They included two plastic jugs of water that he kept drinking from. He put on a happy face though amongst his profuse sweating. “Love the heat, love the heat”, he intoned, moving down the sidewalk.

It was probably 98 degrees. To me it, was about as brutal a heat as I could ever remember, which included one 104-degree day in Virginia’s humidity. It was perhaps made worse by all the asphalt and concrete around me. I eventually found the Jewish deli where I had dinner. The threat of heatstroke went away when the waitress poured me glass after glass of ice water.

The homeless man proved to be more resilient than I was, but he had no choice. I figure it would have killed me had I had to stay out in it all day. I felt woozy, sticky, terribly uncomfortable and sweaty beyond belief. I couldn’t fathom how people endured this kind of heat before air conditioning. The truth is though that most of the time they didn’t have to because it very rarely got so hot. What I was experiencing was climate change in action. It is only going to get worse.

I remember back to the 1970s when the Environmental Protection Agency was first established. By the end of the decade, the skies were largely clean and the rivers largely unpolluted. We felt like we had pollution under control. Climate change was not on anyone’s radar, except by maybe some outlier scientists. No wonder that when Ronald Reagan declared Morning in America again in the 1980s we were so enthusiastic. Off went the solar panels on top of the White House that dopey Jimmy (“cardigan sweater”) Carter had put up. We went back to getting our energy the old fashioned way, which at the time meant importing oil from mostly corrupt Middle East countries that we supported. We did manage to modestly increase fuel efficiency standards over the decades, but mostly we tuned out Al Gore’s warnings. Trump, of course, is doubling down on willful ignorance. And he’s hardly alone. In Brazil, their new Trump-like president Jair Bolsonaro declared open season on what’s left of the Amazon.

Addressing climate change is not entirely hopeless, but nearly so. With the exception of the United States, most developed countries agree there is a problem but most are taking half measures at best to address it. It doesn’t begin to realistically address the crisis. To realistically address the crisis, we all need to work together. Moreover, there is no short-term solution. It will require generations of work and carefully nurturing of our ecosystems. In the best case there will be much more massive deforestation, widespread species destruction, mass migrations and added misery and poverty. There’s a lot to be afraid of as the crisis worsens. Most people react to fear by building walls like the Supreme Court decided Trump could do on our southern border on Friday. Countries will try to have their cake and eat it too, which will make things worse for everyone.

Heat and misery then are now the new normal, but the effects of 108-degree records in cities like Paris recently are just beginning. It’s already pushing sea levels to rise but this will get much worse too. There are ten million people in Jakarta, Indonesia but most of it is expected to disappear under rising seas as it sits at just (or below) sea level. And it’s but one of the cities to be impacted the worst by climate change. Everything is changing, and none of it is changing for the better because of climate change.

So I was feeling sick not just from the heat, but because of the legacy I am leaving to my daughter’s generation and all future generations. They may expect that their lives will closely resemble the lives they were born into, but that’s largely not going to be the case. Their lives are likely to be shorter, more miserable and with a lower standard of living than their parents’.

But it’s not just future generations but also my generation too. At least financially I am the exception, but I see plenty of people in my generation that are living precarious lives largely unknown by their parents. I learned this week that my friend from childhood, Tom, is working at a distribution center. He’s just another Amazon droid in a poorly air conditioned warehouse shoving things into bins for distant customers for a little over $15.00/hour. Tom is an extremely talented advertising professional, but at age 61 he simply can’t find much beyond spot work for doing what he does best and most profitably. He’s been aged out and his industry favors the young. So while you sleep, Tom is shuffling things into bins for a fraction of what he’s worth. The only good part for Tom is that Amazon was shamed into raising wages to $15.00/hour. Also, because he works nights he gets a small bonus. Tom is hardly alone. Maybe $15.00/hour is a living wage, but not for a man with a mortgage, a wife, and two kids, one of who is going through a gender transition.

I feel sick for Tom not to mention his friend Jeff who is in a similar situation, and that the economy is failing millions like them. I feel sick for that homeless man too. Being retired and comfortable financially, I spend a fair amount of my leisure trying to rectify the mess my generation has made, such as helping to create a community network. But it’s not nearly enough. The problem is so massive it looks hopeless. I know that fear is a very strong motivator. But since most of us are short-term thinkers, our fear will be used against us to make our lives even more miserable. Malicious idiots seem to be in charge everywhere, and most of us are stupid enough to keep allowing them to do so.

No wonder that I feel sick. I have a feeling though that this is a condition I will never recover from. Neither will you.

Dialing it to 12 with a new asbestos use proposal

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s not hard to feel daily outrage at the Trump Administration. Doubtless it will be remembered as the worst administration in US history. The only part I am looking forward to (aside from the day Trump leaves office) are the many memoirs that will document the inside story. I strongly suspect that however much I imagine them that my imagination is not nearly broad enough.

One such soon to be released memoir is from Omarosa Manigault Newman, one of the few blacks with any power in the Trump White House. Her memoir, Unhinged: An Insider Account of the Trump White House sure looks juicy. The book’s royalties should more than make up for the $15,000 per month she says she was offered to shut her up after she was fired by Chief of Staff John Kelly. Manigault Newman also apparently has tapes of Trump and others. They may get more listens than Richard Nixon’s secret tapes. Some reported revelations though won’t be all that surprising: she says Trump is a racist, narcissist and lacks impulse control.

One bizarre theory going around is that when Trump was elected we entered an alternate universe, kind of like that episode “Mirror, Mirror” from the original Star Trek series. Yes, it’s crazy but lately has seemed to be the most plausible explanation. That’s because every day of the Trump Administration is full of events crazier than the day before. The crazy meter gets dialed to 11 every day. The one though that really got my attention this week and perhaps deserved more attention: a proposal from the EPA for asbestos to be used again. This proposal is definitely at Level 12. Naturally, Donald Trump seems to approve.

Let’s be quite clear here: asbestos is a human carcinogen. You breathe in asbestos dust and it could kill you. It’s associated with lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. In the past it was used principally for insulation. If your home had it, it was hard to sell. You usually had to pay a specialized contractor to remove it. Even its substitute, fiberglass insulation, is not without issues, which is why workers wear masks when installing blown insulation. For more than fifty years we’ve known this, which is why asbestos can’t be used as insulation and its few uses are heavily regulated. The EPA proposal will allow the EPA to approve it for new uses. Naturally, this was one of former EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s “great” ideas.

I literally didn’t think it was possible for an EPA to take an action more evil than its proposal this month to relax EPA fuel standards, which followed a 2017 proposal to relax power plant emissions. Apparently we don’t have enough pollutants in the atmosphere. These rules are truly toxic in that they actually kill Americans. They make the air unhealthier. In doing so, the additional pollution hospitalizes millions needlessly. Eight million people a year die from air pollution worldwide. It comes mostly from the particulate matter placed into the atmosphere by carbon polluters, including our cars. Those with lung problems and sensitive immune systems are most impacted.

While deaths by air pollution are indirect, by allowing for new uses of asbestos the EPA is promoting new ways for asbestos to directly kill people that don’t kill anyone anymore. I’m not sure, but it may have killed my father. As with air pollution, these effects can manifest over decades. My father coughed persistently most of his life and died of pulmonary disease. Basically, his lungs died before his body. He never smoked but he was exposed to industrial solvents in closed areas earlier in his career, and spent his time crawling around our asbestos-laden attics too. His lungs turned into a fibroid mass unable to put oxygen in the blood. Once we determined that asbestos caused preventable deaths, our government banned it.

The Trump Administration though simply doesn’t care. And now it is actively finding ways to kill more of us by reintroducing products like asbestos whose lethality is not even in question.

Why on earth would any administration want to do this? It’s because they are so evil and hateful that they simply don’t care. They want people to be more miserable. They want people to die. That’s because apparently they are a bunch of sadists. Sometimes though it bites back at one of their own. One of the infamously conservative Koch brothers, David Koch, has been battling prostate cancer for decades. It’s probably not related to the chemicals he and his brother’s industries have been pumping into the air, but who can say for sure? At 78, he is retiring.

But maybe it’s because the Trump Administration really believes its own bullshit: that everything is not related and that there is no limit to the amount of industrial pollutants we can dump into the environment because none of it impacts nature or people. I’d like to think that they aren’t really that dumb and just mentally ill sadists instead. But I’m sad to say I do believe that Donald Trump really is this dumb. Maybe I’ll read about it in Manigault Newman’s memoir.

Recipe for dysfunction: the Flint water crisis

The Thinker by Rodin

My wife and I have been watching the Flint Water crisis for the last year or so. It has been in the news for a long time, just on back pages of papers or in obscure news articles when it was mentioned at all. Now, of course, it is suddenly a national story.

We were following it in part because my wife was born in Flint, Michigan so stories from Flint will naturally flag her interest. When she first heard that the state of Michigan (acting as its manager) had changed Flint’s water source from Lake Huron (via Detroit’s system) to the local Flint River, she said, “This isn’t going to work”. Although considerably cleaned up from its polluted days, she knew the Flint River was still an unsafe water source, much like the Hudson River near Albany is after decades of General Electric dumping PCBs into the river. The river is not the sewer it once was but lots of crap still ends up in it.

In the auto industry’s heyday, Flint was Detroit’s younger brother, living off the auto business. While cars were certainly built in Flint, equally important was its role in supplying auto parts. ACDelco, for example, still has a plant in Flint although it is certainly smaller than it was. Over the years we have made a few trips to Flint. Like many cities in Michigan, it’s a pretty sad place. If you’ve been paying attention to Flint stories, you’ll learn there is much that is dysfunctional in Flint. For example, it has a police force that works 8 to 6, Monday through Friday. If you need help at other times call the county police and hope that they will respond. This was due to the city’s declining tax base. It could no longer afford a full-time police department. Long ago Flint was pimped for its cheap blue-collar labor, found even cheaper elsewhere, so the city underwent hard times from which it never recovered. It became another sad tale of urban blight, if you can call of city of 100,000 with lots of boarded up houses and a declining tax base “urban”.

A perfect storm came together to cause the Flint water crisis. It would be easy to blame this entirely on Michigan State government, and it certainly does earn the majority of the blame. But it’s clear that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had a hand in the problem, basically by not providing the oversight that was needed. When it detected a problem, it didn’t take effective action to hold Michigan accountable.

The impact of the problem is easy enough to see now: thousands children and adults with elevated lead levels, which are not easily corrected and will likely lead to lifelong cognitive problems. The problem is more than the lead, which is mostly a factor of the differently treated water going through old pipes rather than of contaminants in the Flint River. It’s mostly a story about an absence of government, but it’s also a story of ideology overriding common sense. It’s also a story about the drawbacks of federalism. I’ll tackle each of these.

For several decades now Republicans have been pushing the rube that government is the problem instead of the solution. The government than governs least governs best they opined, channeling Thoreau. Michigan voters bought into this and turned the state bright red when it elected Rick Synder in 2010 as its governor. That was also the year its legislature went red, when Republicans won the State House (they had previously controlled the State Senate). It was quite a change, with the house going from 67 Democrats to 47 Democrats. Republicans got carte blanc, controlling all the levers of state government. The usual stuff that happens when Republicans claim a state government started. This included legislation allowing the state to take over local governments that could not stay fiscally solvent. Flint was one major city (the other being Detroit) to be taken over by the state.

From Governor Snyder’s perspective, Flint residents proved they couldn’t govern themselves. This was their fault: they were incompetent. In fact the city was a victim of economic forces largely beyond their control. The city needed “adults” (i.e. mostly white men from nowhere near Flint) to take charge, adults appointed by Snyder with the consent of the state government. And thus half-baked solutions like changing Flint’s water supply became a way to make the city more lean and efficient. (In fact, the City of Detroit offered Flint a 50% discount to keep it as a customer but the offer was spurned.)

Unsurprisingly the new city managers were tone deaf to complaints from citizens about their discolored water or from a local pediatrician who kept trying to get their attention with actual test results. They were not accountable to any voters and being challenged on their actions simply set up a wall of cognitive dissonance: if you are so smart why did you let things get so bad? Those cute, misinformed and principally black Flint residents simply didn’t know what they were talking about. It’s clear though that had Flint not been taken over, it would not have done something so radical as to quickly change its water source, at least not without considerable deliberation and testing. The mayor and city council would have probably raised concerns like whether it would have affected the aging lead pipes in the city. Not doing so might jeopardize their reelection. But when you are an out of town manager not running for reelection, you do what you think is right and aren’t concerned much about local input.

Federalism empowers regional control by allowing states to make regional decisions. There are obviously virtues to federalism, but occasionally there are drawbacks as well. This was pretty obvious by the way the EPA mishandled this crisis. The regional EPA senior executive was mindful of the political consequences of getting too involved in the issue. Michigan was now bright red, and he could expect interference and hostility if he went out on a limb for Flint. He chose not to, which was obviously a mistake, but an understandable one given that the job requires making political choices. In politics sometimes you overlook individual deficiencies to address a larger goal. That’s probably what happened here, but the judgment was obviously a flawed one and led to his resignation. Michigan deserved to have its hand slapped, but more importantly it’s the EPA’s job to raise these issues to prevent exactly these sorts of situations.

And so a perfect storm happened. A tone-deaf and ideologically driven state government tried to do things its way with entirely predictable results. Thousands were sickened and will endure lifelong disabilities. Government served no one here, certainly not the residents of Flint, and became an obstruction to common sense governance.

It’s unclear to me if we will learn any lessons from this. Here are mine:

  • Government should not be run by ideologues but by people who want society to run like a well-oiled engine.
  • We need local input and local control if possible but sometimes local government can’t do it all and are victims of macro forces beyond their control, like Flint’s shrinking tax base and it’s not necessarily their fault.
  • State and federal resources should be used to empower and supplement local control, not to countermand it.
  • Government exists to serve the people, not just the people that fund politicians’ campaigns.
  • Most importantly, anyone who serves in government has the role of a fiduciary. They should be there not to destroy government but to make it run better. Gumming up its machinery won’t make it better, and that’s what happened here to tragic effects.