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How USDA is failing farmers

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Helena Bottemiller Evich reports in Politico:

ROCK PORT, Missouri — Rick Oswald is standing on the doorstep of the white farmhouse he grew up in, but almost nothing is as it should be.

To his right, four steel grain bins, usually shiny and straight, lie mangled and ripped open, spilling now-rotting corn into piles like sand dunes. The once manicured lawn has been overtaken by waist-tall cattails, their seeds carried in by flood waters that consumed this house, this farm and everything around it last spring.

“This house is 80 years old,” Oswald says, stepping inside the darkened living room, which now smells faintly of mold. “Never had water in it.”

American farmers are reeling after extreme rains followed by a “bomb cyclone”— an explosive storm that brought high winds and severe blizzard conditions — ravaged the heartland, turning once productive fields into lakes, killing livestock and destroying grain stores. The barrage of wet weather across the country this spring left a record-shattering 20 million acres unable to be planted — an area nearly the size of South Carolina. Other weather-related disasters, from fires in the West to hurricanes in the Southeast, have converged to make the past year one of the worst for agriculture in decades.

But the Agriculture Department is doing little to help farmers adapt to what experts predict is the new norm: increasingly extreme weather across much of the U.S. The department, which has a hand in just about every aspect of the industry, from doling out loans to subsidizing crop insurance, spends just 0.3 percent of its $144 billion budget helping farmers adapt to climate change, whether it’s identifying the unique risks each region faces or helping producers rethink their practices so they’re better able to withstand extreme rain and periods of drought.

Even these limited efforts, however, have been severely hampered by the Trump administration’s hostility to even discussing climate change, according to interviews with dozens of current and former officials, farmers and scientists.

Top officials rarely, if ever, address the issue directly. That message translates into a conspiracy of silence at lower levels of the department, and a lingering fear among many who work on climate-related issues that their jobs could be in jeopardy if they say the wrong thing. When new tools to help farmers adapt to climate change are created, they typically are not promoted and usually do not appear on the USDA’s main resource pages for farmers or social-media postings for the public.

The department’s primary vehicle for helping farmers adapt to climate change — a network of regional climate “hubs” launched during the Obama Administration — has continued to operate with extremely limited staff and no dedicated resources, while keeping a very low-profile to avoid sparking the ire of top USDA officials or the White House.

“I don’t know if its paranoia, but they’re being more watchful of what we’re doing at the local level,” one current hub employee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid possible retaliation. “It’s very interesting that we were able to survive.”

The result is parallel universes of information. On the climate hubs’ under-the-radar Twitter account, farmers, ranchers and the public receive frank reports about monsoon rain storms becoming more intense across the Southwest, fire seasons getting longer across the West and how rising temperatures are already affecting pollinators.

“With #climatechange, wet is wetter, hot is hotter, dry is drier… and what do we do about all that?” reads one hubs account tweet from last April, quoting a New Jersey farmer talking about how to adapt to climate change.

The climate hubs’ account has only 3,200 followers. There are about 2 million farmers and ranchers in the country. By contrast, the official USDA Twitter account, with nearly 640,000 followers, completely avoids the topic. That account hasn’t used the word “climate” since December 2017.

Nearly every farmer and rancher POLITICO interviewed for this story — dozens in hard-hit states including Nebraska, Ohio and California – said they had not heard of the climate hubs. Of the few producers who had heard of them, most were not aware of the many adaptation tools and resources that have been developed to help with decision-making.

Though Oswald has been unusually vocal about climate change negatively affecting farmers, he, too, hasn’t heard much from the climate hubs, nor does he ever hear USDA officials broach the subject. Asked if his local USDA office ever talks about climate change adaptation, Oswald laughed.


The logic for such silence makes little sense to farmers like Oswald: Most believe that the climate is changing, though only a small share believe it’s primarily driven by human activities. But the department doesn’t have to dive into the debate about what’s causing climate change to help farmers prepare and adapt.

“I’m standing right here in the middle of climate change right now,” Oswald said.


The Agriculture Department is not one of those government agencies that believes it does best by doing least.

Founded in 1862, at Abraham Lincoln’s request, the department would grow to play a central role in the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt, embracing a more activist approach to respond to crises like the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Today, its mission is even more expansive. The department doles out billions of dollars in farm subsidies, underwrites insurance on millions of acres of crops, researches and helps control diseases that threaten plants and animals and buys up massive quantities of food when farmers produce too much — a surplus that supplies food banks and schools nationwide.

But when it comes to climate change, there has been a curious silence hanging over the department, even as its own economists have warned that warming temperatures will make helping the agriculture sector more expensive in the future. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including some interesting charts.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2019 at 5:58 pm

Atatiana Jefferson was a victim of law-and-order rhetoric

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Radley Balko writes in the Washington Post:

Last Saturday, a neighbor in Fort Worth called the city’s non-emergency line because he was concerned about his neighbors, 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson and her 8-year-old nephew. It was the middle of the night, but her front door was open. The dispatcher sent police officers, who appear to have treated the call as a reported burglary. While searching the perimeter of the house, Officer Aaron Dean saw a figure in the window. Without announcing himself, he yelled “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” Two seconds later, he fired his gun, killing Jefferson in her own home.

The Fort Worth Police Department released a photo of a gun they claimed to have found in Jefferson’s house, a clear attempt to head off criticism. As of yet, there’s no indication that Jefferson was holding the gun when she was shot. And, of course, even if she had been, there’s nothing illegal about having a gun in your home in Texas. If Jefferson had been holding it, it was likely because she saw men with flashlights prowling around outside her home.

In June, just a few months before Jefferson’s death, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit refused to dismiss a lawsuit against another Fort Worth police officer. In that case, the police were responding to a burglary call, but went to the wrong house. When homeowner Jerry Waller saw activity outside his house, he grabbed a gun and went out to see what was going on — and then ran into a Fort Worth police officer. According to police, the officer ordered Waller to drop his gun. He put it down on a car, but then reached for it again, at which time the officer fatally shot him. The police narrative makes little sense. Waller was on his own property, and did nothing wrong. It’s hard to fathom why he would knowingly try to kill a police officer. The police narrative also doesn’t quite fit the wound patterns on Waller’s hands, which appear to be inconsistent with someone holding a gun.

No reasonable person would suggest that either of these officers started their shifts intending to kill someone. Nor would any reasonable person suggest that then-Dallas police officer Amber Guyger went home from work intending to kill Botham Jean. You can say the same for the Southaven, Miss., police who responded to the wrong house, then shot and killed Ismael Lopez in his own home. Or for the Florida officers who shot and killed Andrew Scott, also after responding to the wrong house. Same for the officers who killed David HooksJason Wescott and Andrew Finch. And those who killed Terence CrutcherPhilando Castille and Stephon Clark.

In fact, if we could somehow read the minds of all the officers involved in these cases, I wouldn’t be surprised if we learned that all of them sincerely feared for their safety. The problem is that not one of them was actually in any danger. Nor were the countless officers who shot someone (usually a black male) after claiming to have seen a suspect reaching for his waistband — only to discover the suspect was unarmed. There have even been cases in which a police officer shot a fellow undercover officer, then claimed to have sincerely feared for his safety.

The law permits the police officers to use lethal force if they have a reasonable fear for their safety or for the safety of others. Courts have consistently held that, when considering the potential liability of a police shooting, we should consider only the facts known to the officer at the time. That’s understandable. We can’t hold police officers accountable for information they didn’t have.

But reasonable isn’t the same thing as legitimate or accurate. And if police officers are seeing threats where there clearly are none, it makes sense to start asking why.

This is where the rhetoric of police groups and their supporters comes in. Law enforcement advocates such as the National Rifle Association, police unions, conservative politicians and, of course, President Trump regularly tell us there’s a “war on cops.” They describe police work with words usually reserved for the battlefield. They fuel the mistaken belief that relatively rare incidents such as roadside ambushes are common. They equate criticism and oversight of police with violence. And they cite small increases in the number of police fatalities year to year with percentages without providing the proper context — that violence against law enforcement has dropped to the point where even small increases look large when expressed as percentages.

One could argue that some of this would be harmless if its only effect was an excess of caution — if it made police officers more careful, led to more spending on gear like bulletproof vests, or caused more cooperation with police to solve violent crimes. But deaths such as Atatiana Jefferson’s show that the effects of such demagoguery are far more pernicious. We tell officers they can use lethal force when their fear is reasonable, but we then define “reasonable” down by falsely telling them that present-day America is a war zone, that protest and criticism is violence, that danger lurks around every corner. It creates a false reality where almost any use of force seems reasonable. This is a problem for everyone, but it’s compounded for black people, given the ample evidence that people of all races tend to disproportionately fear and see criminality in blacks — especially black men.

The NRA, in particular, has amplified the “war on cops” rhetoric, likely because it counts a lot of law enforcement officers among its members. But, as the cases above illustrate, legal gun owners should be more worried about this than anyone. An armed populace patrolled by hair-trigger police officers is a recipe for tragedy — and it’s all the worse if those officers have been conditioned to see threats where none exist. We’re all human. We will all make mistakes. Police officers will be sent to the wrong house. Some people will have mental-health crises. Someone will mistake the police officers outside his home for criminal intruders. Such incidents shouldn’t end in death. They too often do.

The “war on cops” rhetoric perverts the mental calculations officers make in these volatile moments by weighting them toward violence. When you’re inundated with messages that you’re perpetually under attack, every gesture starts to look furtive, every twitch looks like a killer reaching for his waistband. And when officers make these sorts of mistakes, we tend to reward them for their courage, which only reinforces the “shoot first” state of mind.

But often, courage is holding your fire. Courage is absorbing the risk of waiting an extra moment or two to gather more information before making a decision that may well save yourself but could also do irreparable harm to an innocent person. Courage is taking the extra seconds to learn that the “gun” you feared is actually a toy, or a cellphone, or a video-game controller. Or that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2019 at 11:49 am

Democrats still cannot level with voters about the American empire

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Jon Schwartz writes at the Intercept:

IN THE PAST few years, the Democratic Party has started dealing with reality on domestic policy. Largely thanks to leadership from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, actual solutions to actual problems are now on the agenda: Medicare for All, a big minimum wage hike, a Green New Deal, and the most radical, important idea — changes in who runs corporations.

Unfortunately, the presidential debate in Ohio on Tuesday night showed that Democrats are still a million miles away from reality on foreign policy.

Thanks to President Donald Trump’s recent green light to Turkey to invade northern Syria and assault the Kurds there, the debate contained an unusual amount of discussion about foreign policy.

That was the upside. The downside was that almost all of the discussion was totally specious, because no one on stage wanted to tell Americans the awful truth. That truth is, first, that the grim reality in Syria available for viewing via Twitter videos is the climax of decades of bipartisan foreign policy. And second, by this point the only choices available are either wretched or horrible or both.

The worst offenders were South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and former Vice President Joe Biden. But even Sanders and Warren came nowhere near the honesty of their domestic policies.

Buttigieg delivered an ode to an imaginary America, proclaiming that “when I was deployed, I knew one of the things keeping me safe was the fact that the flag on my shoulder represented a country known to keep its word. And our allies knew it and our enemies knew it.” In reality, of course, the U.S. has — like all powerful countries throughout history — continually betrayed allies whenever necessary. We’ve previously betrayed the Kurds alone seven times. This particular betrayal was inevitable, although a more competent president could have kept it smaller and quieter.

Meanwhile, Booker declared that Trump is “turning the moral leadership of this country into a dumpster fire.” As the Kurds or the Cherokee, Filipinos, Vietnamese, or many others would be happy to tell you, this glorious moral leadership is something that exists mostly on the op-ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post.

For his part, Biden said that Trump throwing the Kurds to the wolves is “the most shameful thing any president has done in modern history.” Of course, as bad as it is, it’s far less shameful than many other U.S. actions — including the Iraq War, for which Biden voted. In terms of the Kurds specifically, it is at least to date less shameful than the Clinton administration’s fervent support in the 1990s for Turkey’s slaughter of tens of thousands of Kurds. One of the key defenders of that policy was then-State Department spokesperson Nicholas Burns, who is now a top adviser to Biden’s campaign.

Sanders said little about Syria, mostly just echoing Buttigieg’s concern about the rest of the world losing trust in America. By contrast, Warren and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard dipped their toes into the complicated truth before scurrying away.

Warren said, “I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East. But we have to do it the right way, the smart way.” This sounds great, but what is this right, smart way? When even Noam Chomsky wants U.S. troops to stay in Syria, it’s a little tricky.

Gabbard did aggressively challenge standard U.S. foreign policy blather. She decried “this regime change war” in Syria and mentioned the unfortunate facts about “the U.S. actually providing arms in support to terrorist groups in Syria, like Al Qaida, HTS, al-Nusra and others.”

What Gabbard didn’t say is that, by this point, any plausible exit by the U.S. will be extraordinarily ugly, with the Assad regime brutally reestablishing control over Syria. The U.S. certainly bears some of the blame for that, as Gabbard said. But she did not mention that Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are also responsible for the past, present, and future carnage. Most importantly, she did not mention the much larger context for what’s happening.

And it’s that context that Democrats must get comfortable talking about, if they ever want to deal with the reality of U.S. foreign policy. Any politician brave enough to do that Tuesday night would have had to say something like this:

Look, the U.S. is the center of the most powerful empire that’s ever existed. We’re not . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2019 at 11:12 am

The banana-republicizing of the United States: This Governor Still Guides His Billion-Dollar Business Empire, Even Though He Said He Wouldn’t

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A banana republic is a country—prototypically a Latin-American country—whose politics and government are dominated and controlled by business interests—prototypically United Fruit Company. The problem with corporations, which are legal persons and also memeplexes with their own goals and immune systems and the like, is that as persons they are sociopaths and as memeplexes their only goal is growth and protecting themselves. Thus the ideal goal of government—the welfare of the commonwealth and the citizens—is beside the point.

Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette-Mail has a report in ProPublica:

Last fall, Gov. Jim Justice called reporters to his office in the West Virginia Capitol for a hastily arranged news conference.

Sitting behind a table and flanked by GOP lawmakers, the governor touted the latest budget surplus and announced a proposed pay raise for teachers and a plan to fix the state’s underfunded public employee health care plan.

But within minutes, he ended the event and dismissed the lawmakers, saying they had pressing state business. The governor took just one question.

“Nobody else? Great,” he said, banging his palms on the desk. “Let’s go.”

Justice had somewhere else to be. Across town, one of his energy companies, Bluestone Coal Corp., was due in federal court. The firm had sued a competitor for $80 million after a drilling accident had flooded a mine. And as Bluestone’s owner, Justice was playing a key role in the settlement talks. The parties spent two days negotiating a deal, and he was there when they gathered in a courtroom to present their agreement to the judge.

“May I say something?” the governor asked at one point, according to a transcript of the hearing.

“Certainly,” U.S. District Judge Thomas E. Johnston responded.

Surrounded by nearly two dozen lawyers, the governor proceeded to explain the finer points of the agreement.

Justice’s involvement in his company’s legal matters is a far cry from what he pledged more than two and a half years ago when he took office as West Virginia’s governor. Back then, the billionaire promised to put his business empire aside and focus on public service. In an arrangement that echoed that of President Donald Trump, Justice said his adult children, Jay and Jill, would run his family’s coal mines, resorts and farms.

“Being governor,” he wrote in a January 2017 note to state employees, “is a full-time responsibility.”

But as his courtroom appearance makes clear, Justice remains deeply enmeshed in his businesses. In fact, he has frequently used official public appearances, and the trappings of his office, to promote them.

Over the past year, he has hosted a news conference at the governor’s office to tout a settlement between his coal companies and his administration’s tax collectors. He has used an interview at the governor’s mansion to press his luxury resort’s $75 million lawsuit against its insurance companies. And he’s turned an appearance at a statewide business gathering — held at that same resort — into breaking news about his family’s plans to reopen a coal mine.

The governor’s dual roles are now fueling complaints and political headaches, just as Justice is seeking a second term as the state’s chief executive. Critics in both parties say that Justice is an absentee governor, often leaving the state without strong leadership at a time when West Virginia faces key challenges, from a painful economic transition as the coal industry declines to the struggle to emerge from the worst drug overdose crisis in the country.

“The governor is running his businesses, and the state of West Virginia gets neglected as a result of it,” said Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, a Democrat who brought a lawsuit against Justice, alleging the governor is violating the state Constitution because he does not “reside” in Charleston. Justice lives in Lewisburg, near his Greenbrier resort, about 110 miles from the capital, but he has opposed the lawsuit. His lawyers say the Constitution’s term — reside — is too “nebulous” a concept for a court to enforce.

On the campaign trail, Republican rival Woody Thrasher is questioning Justice’s commitment to public office. “I think he’s a worker,” Thrasher told a Wheeling newspaper this month. “I just don’t think he works on state government. I think he works on his personal businesses, which quite frankly probably need more help than the State of West Virginia does, if that’s possible.”

Justice declined to be interviewed for this report; however, he issued a statement through a spokesman for his companies.

In it, he acknowledged his ongoing involvement in his businesses but said his interactions are limited, with his adult children running day-to-day operations. “Because the businesses employ thousands of West Virginians, I continue to have an interest in their success and do check in on them from time to time,” he said. “There are also times where I have specific historical knowledge of a particular aspect of one of the businesses, and Jay and Jill will ask me about it.”

His primary interest, he added, is West Virginia.

“Above all,” Justice said, “as I travel from one end of the state to the other, my No. 1 focus is continuing to do everything I can as governor to make sure West Virginia will continue to improve, put people in good-paying jobs and attract industry and tourism to our wonderful state.”

Unlike his recent predecessors, Justice has refused to place most of his holdings into a blind trust, which would put them under the control of an independent manager and shield him from at least the appearance of a conflict. Instead, the governor has retained ownership in 130 corporate entities, and his assets are valued by Forbes magazine at $1.5 billion.

Many of Justice’s businesses, from coal mines to farms to a casino, are regulated by the state, and some of them do business with the administration.

An investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica in August found that, despite what the Justice administration called a “moratorium” on state spending at The Greenbrier, state agencies have paid for more than $106,000 in meals and lodging at the luxury resort since Justice became governor.

That report prompted lawmakers to call for an overhaul of the state’s ethics rules. One proposal would make West Virginia the first state to mandate that governors place all of their assets into a blind trust. Separately, federal investigators have issued subpoenas seeking information about the administration’s dealings with Justice’s businesses.

Justice has denied any wrongdoing and has repeatedly dismissed concerns about his business interests. He maintains that they present no conflicts of interest, because he has stepped away from day-to-day management while he’s serving as governor.

Justice’s own actions have undercut that argument.

In August 2018, the governor called reporters to the Capitol to talk about his business empire’s delinquent taxes. Millions of dollars in various state levies tied to Justice’s family coal operations had been overdue for years, providing frequent fodder for his political opponents and the media.

“Today’s a really neat day for me in that I think we can put to bed once and for all this tax issue that’s been looming around forevermore,” Justice said.

Speaking in the reception room just outside the governor’s office — historically used for official government press events — Justice took reporters on a rambling verbal tour of his mining holdings and the challenges of the coal industry. He spoke in detail about how he refused to file bankruptcy to avoid debts, and he outlined the back-and-forth over selling most of his coal operations to the Russian firm Mechel, before buying them back years later.

“It has stretched our companies beyond belief to overcome this situation right here,” the governor said. “It’s been a struggle.”

But when reporters asked for specifics on how much his companies had ultimately paid in taxes — and whether the governor cut a deal with his own tax collectors — Justice was short on details.

“I don’t know what the amount is,” he insisted. “I think that’s a question you would really have to ask my son.” (Justice’s son, Jay, who was not at the news conference, has refused to answer such questions.)

Pressed for more information, Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy cited taxpayer confidentiality, but Justice interrupted. “I think you can tell them that it was audited,” the governor told the tax official.

Two months later, Justice was focused on Bluestone Coal and its ongoing lawsuit against Pinnacle Mining Co., the operator that had flooded the mine. The negotiating session was scheduled for 10 a.m. on Oct. 2, 2018, in federal court. Justice’s official calendar informed his staff, “DO NOT SCHEDULE” on that day.

But with tensions rising over the state’s underfunded health care plan for teachers and other public employees, the governor scheduled a news conference to tout Republican accomplishments. . .

Continue reading.

I have to admit that I’m surprised at the forbearance of the citizens. Maybe they simply are ignorant, or if not ignorant, too intimidated to stand up for their rights even in the privacy of the polling booth. Or perhaps it’s something else. I don’t get it.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2019 at 5:03 pm

I keep returning to this image

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Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2019 at 4:36 pm

“What Teaching Ethics in Appalachia Taught Me About Bridging America’s Partisan Divide”

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Evan Mandery, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America, writes in Politico:

BOONE, N.C.—On the first day of my “Justice in America” seminar at Appalachian State University, I offer a deal to a student named Forrest Myers. I explain that I’m a tough grader and that the class average will be around a B-minus. “I’ll give you an A,” I say. “All you have to do is designate someone to get an F.”

The other students laugh nervously while Forrest considers the deal.

I’ve asked this question at the beginning of every semester for over 20 years, mostly to liberal northeasterners at Harvard and the City University of New York. It’s a good starting point because it tends to show commonality. The beginning of ethical thinking is to accept that other people’s interests matter. In all my years of teaching, I’ve never had anyone take me up on my offer.

But I’ve come here seeking difference, not similarity. The 2016 election exposed a national rift so deep that it feels as if even reasonable conversation is impossible. I’m a liberal New Yorker, but I know that plenty of people on both sides of the political spectrum worry that this divide poses an existential threat to the American democratic project. On the most controversial issues—race and immigration, to name just two—we’ve lost the capacity for compromise because we presume the most sinister motives about our opponents. I’ve arrived here in the fall of 2018, hoping to find a wider range of views—not to change anyone’s opinions but rather to see whether there remain principles and a shared language of ethics that bind us together.

So I’m as curious as everyone else in the class about how Forrest is going to answer.

Lean and wearing a red t-shirt, Forrest massages his wire-rimmed glasses as he thinks. “I’d rather get the grade on my own merit,” he says at last. “And I don’t want to have anyone mad at me because I gave them an F.”

The offer’s losing streak intact, I extend it to every student in the class. “Raise your hand,” I say, “and you’ll get an A. All you have to do is point to someone who’ll get an F.” No hands go up. With a young woman named Sienna Lafon, I sweeten the offer: I’ll give everyone in the class an A, including her. She simply has to pick one student to get an F.

Sienna says she won’t do it.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because it’s not fair,” she replies.

“What’s going on?” I ask. If someone accepts the deal, the class as a whole will be better off. In the language we’ll develop during the semester, it’s a utilitarian no-brainer: The class GPA will rise from 2.7 to near 4.0. Still, no one bites.

A student named Jackson says finally, “I think we should just earn what we get.”

These answers, with the exception of some southern accents, sound almost identical to ones that I hear from my typical class at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Of course, we’re still in the realm of hypotheticals. It’ll be several weeks until we get to late-term abortions, gun bans and the death penalty. Donald Trump’s name has yet to be spoken. The conversations will no doubt become more fraught as things get more real.


Finding a place to teach ethics in the South was more difficult than I had imagined. My initial idea was to go to the most remote school that would have me, but most don’t even offer an ethics course. The philosophy department of a community college in rural Tennessee was interested until the administration balked at my qualifications. They’d have accepted a degree in religion, but not one in law. When I stumbled upon Appalachian State, the school immediately seemed like a good fit—open to me and the kind of conversation I wanted to foster.

“App,” as the students call it, was founded in 1899 by the son of a Confederate veteran and his brother in Boone—a remote community in the Blue Ridge Mountain highlands that had been pillaged by Union soldiers, a wound from which its economy never fully recovered. Their ambition was to train public school teachers in the so-called “lost provinces.” Today, the college is part of the University of North Carolina system with 19,208 students, 92 percent of whom are from the state.

On the surface, App possesses all the hallmarks of the American academy—a grassy quad framed by a student union, dining hall and library. Kiosks beckon students to concerts and club meetings. But underground run a pair of pedestrian tunnels, connecting the east and west campuses, that have been designated as free speech havens. These dank passageways are filled with graffiti—most of the messages are positive, but the students tell me that a swastika was painted there last October and then quickly painted over by other students. When I visit, the space feels sinister, but also strangely healthy—a messy marketplace of ideas that I like to think portends open-mindedness.

Boone feels like any other college town. Ambling down the main drag—King Street—wafting incense lures me into the Dancing Moon Earthway Bookstore, where I peruse an impressive collection of paranormal titles and herbal teas. The store hosts Thoughtful Thursdays and a poetry circle. The centerpiece of the “Boone Mall” is Anna Banana’s consignment shop and the place to eat is the F.A.R.M Cafe (Feed All Regardless of Means), a locally-sourced community kitchen where customers pay what they can.

But Boone is a little blue island in a sea of red. You’d have to drive about 30 miles to find another polling district that voted for Hillary Clinton, and there are only a total of five within a 75-miles radius. The district’s eight-term incumbent Congresswoman, Virginia Foxx, opposes abortion, co-sponsored legislation to end birthright citizenship and said the nation had more to fear from Obamacare than from any terrorist.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, I read widely—and somewhat unsatisfyingly—to try and understand the root causes of polarization. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy moved me, and it’s impossible to read George Packer’s The Unwinding, which takes place largely in North Carolina after the Great Recession, without being unsettled by the coming apart of bedrock American institutions. But nothing I read fully explains the mistrust—daresay hatred—that has evolved between liberals and conservatives.

Coming in, I assumed some of my students would reflect the conservatism of the surrounding region and others the liberalism generally prevalent among college students. What I didn’t know is whether my students—and young people generally—are predestined to sort themselves into those mutually loathing tribes, or if a shared conversation about foundational ethical beliefs could alter their views of people with whom they disagree.


My class is modeled on one created by Michael Sandel, a charismatic, globetrotting political philosopher who has taught “Justice” to more than 15,000 Harvard undergraduates. It’s the perfect vehicle for learning about people’s political values. The syllabus pairs readings in classic philosophy—John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Aristotle, John Rawls—with modern policy dilemmas including abortion, affirmative action and hate speech.

But inevitably, all journeys of ethical discovery begin with the trolley problem.

“A trolley is barreling down the tracks to which five people have been tied,” I explain during our second meeting. “You can flip a switch and divert the trolley, but you’d kill someone else who’s been tied to the sidetrack.”

I ask a young woman named Kierstin Davis what she would do. (It’s her real name—all of the students quoted here consented to participate in this article.) “I probably would flip the switch because I know less people would be killed,” she says. Almost all of her fellow students concur, albeit reluctantly. The notable exception is Jackson.

“You kill the one person,” he says without hesitation.

Jackson is wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a Carhartt shirt. His baseball cap, which he got on a trip to Yellowstone, displays the outline of a bison and mountains. In the discussion of grades, Jackson was the one who said that everyone deserved equal opportunity. I remind him of this, but he’s ready with a distinction: “In this situation you don’t have a choice—somebody has to die, so it goes beyond equal opportunity and becomes what this outcome is going to be.” It’s clear that Jackson will be a force. The distinction he’s drawing is smart—no one had to get an F in my first example, but, more importantly, it’s clear that he likes this kind of intellectual jousting.

I return to Kierstin and change the facts. It’s her mom who’s tied to the tracks.

“I’m going to save my mom obviously,” Kierstin replies, “but I would feel bad.”

Utilitarianism can take you to dark places. It certainly has no room to accommodate youthful sentimentality.

Now, I say, the trolley is loaded with nuclear weapons. Five million people will die in a fiery inferno, including innocent babies, unless Kierstin throws the switch. “I probably would save my mom to be honest,” she says.

Most of the students nod their heads in agreement, voting for mothers over cities.

But Jackson once again stands out. He says he’d kill his mom or even a baby if it meant saving more lives. “I mean, someone has to die either way and I’m fine putting my life—even if I had to spend the rest of my life in prison or whatever it is—to save the five versus the one.”

I haven’t known Jackson for long, but I believe that he would sacrifice himself for the greater good, and I can see that his classmates believe it too. Even if they don’t share his willingness to throw the switch on a family member, they see him as principled, not cruel. It’s a type of selflessness and consistency that seems lacking in contemporary discourse, in which people are too willing to prioritize what’s politically expedient over fundamental values. It’s what feels wrong, for example, about liberal intolerance of dissenting speech, especially on campus, or the rush to punish alleged sexual predators without due process. And it’s what feels equally wrong about conservatives who claim to revere life, and yet can display such brazen cruelty to immigrants and prisoners.

My students don’t come to class with signs around their necks announcing their political leanings. None of them were even old enough to vote in the 2016 election. But the near unanimity with which they responded to the trolley question is notable. Over the years, I’ve noticed that most people analyze these sort of dilemmas in more or less the same way.

Indeed, Jesse Graham, a professor at the University of Utah’s business school, says that for all their ideological differences, liberals and conservatives are pretty much identical in how they view trolley-like dilemmas. Graham has conducted a dozen studies on “trolleyology,” which occupies its own niche in social psychology research. “Liberals are a little bit more likely than conservatives to say, ‘OK, yes you can push the guy off the bridge to save the five people,’” Graham says, emphasizing a little. “It’s questionable whether you’d even say there’s a difference there,” he continues. “Overall liberals and conservatives are really similar.”

Libertarians, however, are a different story. We don’t talk much about them—not members of the political party with that name, but rather people who believe in limited government. There are a lot of the latter (estimates range between 7 percent and 22 percent), and they merit greater discussion. Graham and his collaborators, including New York University’s Jonathan Haidt, have collected reams of data on people’s values at One instrument, called the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, measures the extent to which a person is influenced by five moral foundations: harm-care, fairness-reciprocity, ingroup loyalty, authority-respect and purity-sanctity. In a study of 12,000 libertarians, Graham found that libertarian responses to the MFQ differ more from either liberals or conservatives than liberals and conservatives’ answers differ from each other.

Graham explains that the libertarian cognitive style is cerebral rather than emotional. “Libertarians are far and away the most likely to say, ‘Yeah, push the guy off.’ They just see it as a math problem,” he tells me. “They have no squeamishness about having to kill the person.” It’s coldly calculating, but also, arguably, rigorously ethical. As Graham tells me this, I can’t help but think that efforts to unpack what separates red states from blue states haven’t been careful to differentiate between conservatives and libertarians. Venn diagrams of voters generally categorize voters as Republicans and Democrats or liberals and conservatives. But as is becoming increasingly apparent, the cool-headed libertarian in my classroom who’s willing to sacrifice his mother for the greater good doesn’t fit neatly into any of these circles.

It occurs to me that if America is going to come together, it’s going to have to reckon with Jackson Cooter. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s interesting. Later in the article:

Perhaps not surprisingly, when we arrive, five weeks into the semester, at our discussion on the ethics of gun control, Jackson’s is the dominant voice. To prepare, we’ve read Milton and Rose Friedman’s capitalist manifesto, Free to Choose; an ethnography of gun owners; and a brief history of the NRA. The central question is how broadly the right of gun ownership should be construed.

Jackson begins with a historical argument. “Our military fought the British military,” he says, “but the real reason we seceded, at least according to the historical record, is the militia of private citizens that took up arms.” His point is that the Second Amendment exists principally to check government power. Many of the students support the sentiment.

“One of the principles of good government is providing a way in which citizens can topple it when they don’t have faith in its ability to govern justly,” says Cole Cadman. He’s the only Jewish person in the class other than me and is generally a social liberal. It’s clear that the gun issue resonates in a way that transcends political labels.

“What do you think is a condition under which rebellion against the federal government is required?” I ask. “Suppose Trump nationalized The New York Times?”

A couple of students demur, saying they still wouldn’t revolt. But Jackson nods his head vigorously. “The second they undemocratically go against the Constitution,” he says, “is when I’m going to revolt.”

“Can the militia have nuclear weapons?” I ask.

“I’ve actually thought about this a lot,” Jackson replies. In the past, “Cannons were mostly privately owned, and people had far more than muskets to begin with. I think that the intention would have been that as the military develops—let’s say the repeating rifle, then the citizen has that option.”

“So what’s the limit?”

“If we had nukes, it would be chaos,” Jackson answers. “But you have to be able to defend against the government.”

“Your bottom line of justice is very similar to mine,” I tell Jackson, “but how do I know that everyone’s like you? How do I know that group number two won’t say, ‘The government’s allowing abortions,’ or group number three says, ‘They’re allowing black people to vote, so we should nuke Congress?’ Whose conception of government overreach should control?”

“That’s a hard question,” Jackson confesses. He thinks for a long time before adding, “They believe they’re doing right, and I’m not God. I don’t get to say what’s right and what’s wrong. When I say I’m going to revolt, I’m obviously going to think that I’m right.” Recognizing that libertarianism taken to the extreme is anarchy, Jackson asks, “Can I keep thinking about this?”

“Of course,” I answer.

Strikingly, Jackson’s defense of gun ownership never once mentions a love of guns. He’s a “little-d” democrat who wants a super-process in place in case democracy, as his classmate Cole puts it, “fails to work or provide any meaningful benefits.” Resolving the ambiguity of for whom it’s supposed to work and who’s supposed to decide when change within the system is futile might be impossible, but it’s important to recognize the argument for what it is. It’s not about guns for the sake of guns, it’s about protecting civil liberties, and it’s deeply ethical.

And this is where our somewhat fanciful classroom discussion reveals real-world implications. Imagine a gun control debate that avoided an argument over the value and necessity of guns, but instead was framed around how to protect civil liberties and limit gun violence without excessive governmental involvement. Imagine if care were taken to frame the discussion not as outsiders trying to impose their will on people whose culture they did not understand, but rather as one among people with a shared interest in protecting the safety of their children. My suspicion is a conversation like that would reveal useful common ground. It’s an epiphany.

And it leads quickly to epiphany number two, which seems dramatically more important. If Americans are serious about reducing polarization, they’re going to have to start doing some careful listening, because what Jackson is saying has very little to do with what we say he’s saying.

If one looks—and listens—carefully, a consensus reveals itself across a wide diversity of fields on the importance and untapped power of listening. The names and nuances of these approaches to careful listening differ, but they share two basic qualities.

The first is  . . .

This PDF (free) “The Listening Guide method of psychological inquiry” should be of interest.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2019 at 3:31 pm

U.S. Procurement Won the Civil War, Today It Would Lose A War to China

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Matt Stoller writes at BIG:

Today’s issue is written by two government procurement experts (and readers of BIG). One is an anonymous currently practicing government contracting officer who has been doing acquisitions for ten years. The other is Lane Becker, who was formerly with the Technology Transformation Services at GSA, where he started and ran the 10x investment program ( Before that Lane started a couple of companies in Silicon Valley. These folks are really smart, you are in for a treat.

Their piece is on innovation and war in the 19th century and today, which as it turns out, are conceptually the same. What do the Confederacy, Union procurement, and Chinese development of their air force have in common? More than you think…

But first, my book is out today! Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy. Buy it, read it, and tell me what you think. The first excerpt is out in the American Prospect on one of the great villains of American history, Andrew Mellon. . .

U.S. Procurement Won the Civil War, It Would Lose A War to China

If it were not for a single unorthodox approach to contracting by the U.S. Navy in early 1861, the Confederate States of America would very likely have won the Civil War.

The story of how the Union kept Washington from falling into the hands of the Confederates by buying smarter is illuminating — as is the reason that such a purchase would be almost impossible to make in the United States today, given the level of dysfunction in our present-day defense contracting system.

At the beginning of the Civil War, the Union was able to successfully establish a naval blockade because the Southern states had few ships of their own. A blockade was critical to prevent cotton from flowing to Europe, allowing the South to strengthen its financial, military, and foreign policy position. But the Union’s blockade was tenuous. The U.S. Navy at the time was, according to the assessment of U.S. naval secretary Gideon Welles, “feeble, and in no condition for belligerent operations. Most of the vessels in commission were on foreign service; only three or four, and they were of inferior class, were available for active duty.”

The Confederacy’s naval secretary, Stephen Mallory, sought to take advantage of the Union’s naval weakness, and crafted a superior fighting ship to defeat the Union on the water. When the South took the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, in April of 1861, the confederates salvaged the hull of the U.S.S. Merrimack, and Mallory ordered his men to rebuild the top half of the scuttled wooden ship with iron — a first for its time. As one historian noted, “Mallory understood that innovation and creativity would be his primary hope in the face of an overwhelming conventional force he could not match.”

Union spies inside the Confederacy sent a steady stream of information about the building of the “ironclad” northward. Union leaders realized that to maintain the blockade, they needed better ships. The Navy issued open advertisements and gave respondents 25 days to submit plans, but, “still hanging on to what they knew best,” the request was laden with requirements that severely limited the range of what could be offered in response while also ensuring the build cost would remain high (a situation that will sound strikingly familiar to anyone involved in government acquisitions today.)

The selection board received proposals for 16 designs and settled on two, but, worried that neither would actually float, asked the finalists to provide mathematical evidence of their ships’ viability. This request stumped the submitter of a design for the U.S.S. Galena, Cornelius Bushnell, until a chance encounter at The Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. with the owner of a major ironworks plant led him to a Swedish born engineer named John Ericsson. Ericsson did the calculations in a night, and then, offhandedly, proceeded to show Bushnell an entirely new design for an ironclad ship he had designed 10 years earlier.

Bushnell later said listening to Ericsson talk about building his ironclad “awoke [him] to the fact that salvation was in store for our Government and country.” Ericsson’s design had no masts, rigging, or sails whatsoever,  and was much smaller than similar fighting ships, more like a modern day submarine. Most importantly, it was made entirely of iron, not wood with iron plating, which meant it would be able to withstand a significantly greater attack.

Bushnell took the model directly to Secretary Welles. Impressed, Welles and Bushnell attempted to convince the more conservative naval officers on the selection board to approve this new design despite its deviations from their list of required features, ultimately enlisting President Lincoln to join them for their presentation.

Even with Lincoln’s endorsement, the design was rejected by the board as too radical. Undeterred, Bushnell convinced Ericsson to come to Washington to present to the board himself. After much debate, the board relented and allowed Ericsson to proceed, convinced by the fact that his $275,000 submission was by far the cheapest, and that he could build his ship in 100 days — the only proposal that would be finished by the time the Merrimack’s conversion into the C.S.S. Virginia would be completed.

On March 8th, 1862, the Confederate ironclad left port, headed to the northern side of Hampton Roads, Virginia, where the James River meets the Chesapeake Bay, and where the U.S. Army was stationed at Fortress Monroe with several wooden ships enforcing Lincoln’s blockade.

Panic set in. Should the blockade fall, as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said to Lincoln, “it was not unlikely we shall have a shell or cannon-ball from one of her guns in the White House before we leave this room.” Fortunately, Ericsson had finished his ship, the U.S.S. Monitor, two weeks earlier. The crew of the Monitor sailed 51 hours straight to get to Hampton Roads, arriving six hours after the fighting had begun and several Union ships had already been lost.

The two ships were evenly matched and battled for several hours, but in the end, the Monitor prevailed, entirely because of Ericsson’s design. The classically ironclad design of the Virginia — the top half of the old Merrimack now covered in iron plating but the bottom still exposed wood — meant that, as the battle wore on, the Virginia used up so much ammunition that the ship began to lighten, eventually rising high enough in the water that it was about to expose its wooden underbelly to the all-iron Monitor. The Virginia steamed off before that could happen. The Union had won.

War without Competition

It is as true today as it was during the Civil War that bringing new ideas into old institutions is a daunting task. But whereas in 1861 it was difficult for someone like John Ericsson to get his idea for a new kind of ship into the hands of the U.S. Navy — requiring a combination of talent, connections, persistence, and sheer luck, all very American traits  — today it would be impossible.

That’s not to say that similar threats desperately in need of inventive responses don’t exist. They’re everywhere, whether it’s the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noting that every major weapons system is riddled with cybersecurity vulnerabilities that could neutralize them entirely, warnings from top level commanders that the military needs to adapt, or experts outright declaring that as things currently stand America will likely lose a war against “near-peer” rivals Russia or China. But we’ve professionalized and obfuscated the practice of government contracting to such a degree that it’s become nearly impossible to penetrate by normal industry, let alone dogged patriots like Ericsson. Eisenhower’s warnings about the military industrial complex 50 years ago have truly come to fruition.

Healthy competition encouraging new entrants and smaller players are critical to the successful development of any new technology. This is especially true for military technology, where historically it has been outsiders who bring the biggest changes, like Patrick Blackett essentially creating modern day operations research during World War II. The ironclad board in 1861 got 16 bids and awarded to three different companies, but that level of competition is unheard of for today’s major weapons systems, where 67% of major government defense contracts are now awarded to companies without any form of competition. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 October 2019 at 10:59 am

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