Archive for 2015 June

Jefferson and the problem of inequality in a democracy

Earlier this month, the Ojai Chautauqua held a panel discussion on income inequality, with a brilliant and politically diverse group of panelists, phenomenally well-moderated by Dan Schnur of USC. I'll put in a link, but may I say (even as someone associated with the "Ojai Chat") that it really went well, and honestly may be worth your time to watch, if you worry about the imbalance of power between the rich and the not-so-rich in this country.

Speaking of American government, we often hear Thomas Jefferson mentioned as someone who believed in small government, who advocated for the bucolic country life, and worried about tyranny of government. Well, Nelson Lichtenstein, of UC Santa Barbara, had a fresh take on that question (that deserves to be searchable here on the interwebs).

According to Lichtenstein, a MacArthur Foundation scholar, the problem of inequality in a democracy was something that Thomas Jefferson thought about a lot. Lichtenstein taught at the University of Virginia, he said, so he had first hand exposure to Jefferson's thought. Here's what Lichtenstein said:

"What Jefferson was worried about in the late 18th century was the problem of democracy. How do you have democracy in a world of inequality? What do you do when you have a society of people who own lots of land, and Jefferson happened to be one of them, and other people are either enslaved, or are working for someone, or are women, who are disenfranchised?


So what Jefferson said was that the problem is that those people who do not have an independent income, who didn’t own their own land, if they voted, if they had a voice, it would be inherently corrupt, because they were dependent on those with power and money and land. So his solution, Jefferson’s solution, was let’s have a world of independent farmers. Let’s not have big cities. And those people who aren’t independent farmers, i.e., slaves, or women, or even landless people, they shouldn’t vote, because they’ll be corrupt.


Now, in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt, when gave his acceptance speech on being renominated, he had a solution to that question. What he said was, what are doing with the New Deal? We are ending a new form of tyranny. Jefferson and the founders ended a political tyranny, when they threw out  King George. We are ending an economic tyranny. We have a new class of economic royalists, he said, and he used that phrase to evoke King George, and he said what we have to do is democratize the society.


How do we do that? We create institutions that can counter the power and land and money, and can give the powerless a voice, as in trade unions, as well as the power of the government to regulate, with the SEC. To tame, to regulate, to control this new form of economic tyranny.


The solution, to fulfill Jefferson’s ideal, is not to go back and only give the vote to those people who have an independent income, but to do something else, which is to give everyone a sense of independence. Let me give you an example of this right here on the South Coast.

We did a survey in Santa Barbara two months ago. We asked lots of questions, and among those questions we asked, of people earning low wages, was the question: Can you take time off if you get sick? Some companies make provision for sick leave, and others don’t. A huge proportion of those people we asked said, no, I’m not taking time off if I get sick, because I don’t have enough money and I need to work, or because I’m afraid I’ll be fired or penalized if I take time off. So what they represented when they said that was what Jefferson was afraid of, which was the fear and dependence of people without their own voice, or without institutions that could defend them. What these [low wage] people need is not an inspector in every workplace, but institutions [such as trade unions] that will defend people without a voice, to give them the equivalent of a farm, the equivalent of independence."

Jefferson as a defender of the independence of the working poor! That's original – and hearteningly American.

Full Story »

Can Las Vegas grow without limits in a drought?

Abraham Lustgarten, a top-notch reporter for the public interest site Pro Publica, a couple of years ago wrote the toughest story on fracking ever, in my limited experience.

Here's the money quote from that piece from 2012:

…in interviews, several key experts acknowledged that the idea that injection [of oilfield wastes in underground wells] is safe rests on science that has not kept pace with reality, and on oversight that doesn't always work.

"In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted," said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA's underground injection program in Washington. "A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die."

Lustgarten's story won a number of awards, and was nominated for the biggest award in environmental reporting. Now he's shifted his focus to water in the West, and this week published by far the most critical story I've seen on Las Vegas water chief Pat Mulroy.

Mulroy is a legend among water experts, and much admired for her ability to talk tough and get results, be it "wet water" for Las Vegas, or conservation from that city. But Lusgarten is not impressed. He takes her on for never once daring to challenge Las Vegas' central creed: development.

…an examination of Mulroy’s reign shows that, despite her conservation bona fides, she always had one paramount mission: to find more water for Las Vegas and use it to help the city keep expanding.

Mulroy wheeled and dealed, filing for rights to aquifers in northern Nevada for Las Vegas, and getting California to use less water while her city took more. She helped shape legislation that, over her time at the Water Authority, allowed Las Vegas’ metropolitan footprint to more than double. She supported building expensive mechanisms with which to extract more water for the city’s exploding needs – two tunnels out of Lake Mead and a proposed pipeline carrying groundwater from farms in the east of the state. Not once in her tenure did the Authority or the Las Vegas Valley Water District she ran beneath it reject a development proposal based on its use of water. The valley’s total withdrawals from the Colorado River jumped by more than 60 percent on her watch.

Yet even last summer — staring at the effects of growth and drought on the reservoir, where once-drowned islands were visible for the first time in as much as 75 years — Mulroy apologized for none of it. She bridled at the idea that Las Vegas or other desert cities had reached the outer edge of what their environments could support.

“That’s the silliest thing I have ever heard,” she said, her voice rising in anger. “I’ve had it right up to here with all this ‘Stop your growth.’”

It's a great story, and raises the question: How many California communities have dared to limit their growth, based on their water supply? Any?

Can't really accuse "the Water Witch" of short-sightedness and hypocrisy, of course, if she is only doing what every other thirsty community in the West is doing as well.

An example? How about growth in Phoenix, from l960 (in brown) to today (in orange). 


From an interesting and interactive set of graphics that goes with the Killing the Colorado series.

Full Story »

Visiting Larry McMurtry at Booked Up

A few years ago, back in the days when the LATimes had a stand-alone Sunday magazine, Scott Kraft wrote a tremendous story about visiting Larry McMurtry, the writer, author of "The Last Picture Show," "Lonesome Dove," and "Terms of Endearment," among many other great stories, at his bookstore in tiny Archer City Texas. It's called The Loner.

A couple of noteworthy lines:

McMurtry lives in a majestic three-story home a few doors down from the single-story house where he grew up and not far from the high school where he graduated in 1954 among a senior class of 19. He moved back to Archer City, population 1,848, just five years ago.

He keeps mostly to himself, and locals know better than to try to engage him in chitchat. "He's a very conservative-type feller," says Max Wood, the town's 68-year-old mayor. Wood has known McMurtry since high school but doesn't consider himself a close friend. "Larry was always the type of person who was more of a loner."

Here's a picture of McMurtry, from a photo posted in one of his bookstores in Booked Up:


Well, to put it simply, to learn that one of this nation's greatest writers has a bookstore — a monster bookstore — in a famous (from "The Last Picture Show") little town in Texas, and what's more hangs out at his store, and can be talked to — well, I had to visit. So yesterday, after attending a reporting workshop that gave me the chance to visit Dallas, two hours away, I did.

More below…

Felt a little nervous driving into town on Saturday morning. This person can get geeky in the presence of heroes, and McMurtry is without question a hero, if only for Sam the Lion's speech in "The Last Picture Show," and his Oscar-winning adaptation of Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain."  

("If anybody had any sense," says the writer Carolyn See, a professor of English at UCLA, in the Kraft story, "they'd throw out 'Moby Dick' and put 'Lonesome Dove' in the center as the great American epic novel. No question about it. His heroes in that book are just terrific. His women are just terrific. And he sustains it for 800 pages.")

So I found myself dawdling on my way, and, once inside the plain storefront of a bookstore that once contained a half-million volumes, a bit tongue-tied. I did note a fellow who appeared capable of being McMurtry, and expressed my amazement as he passed at the incredible multitude of "rare and fine" books in the store — no crap at all.


"Somebody should put prices on these books," noted this fellow dryly.

I then stumbled on a book I last read when I was twelve years old, no lie, on the trail actually, a great book, a classic, in the same edition I read almost fifty years ago. I could not suppress my astonishment, and actually had McMurtry price the book (which had just come in).


Well, to make a long story short, I was too shy to ask him all the great questions I had to discuss with this great writer, but I did ask him for direction on where to look for types of books, and did express my fandom, and did ask — in amazement — if he had read most or all of the books in his bookstore(s).

"Well, I have some books of my own," he said, and added, "I wouldn't say that I've read them all, but I've considered them."

And he encouraged me to do the same. Which I then did — for hours.

Thanks Larry.

Full Story »

Blogging the Pope’s Encyclical: Praise Be

Where do we start with a document as vast and thought-through as Pope Francis' "Praise Be?"

With listening, I think.

Try this, from the Vatican's translation into English, section 11:

If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

Offers an excuse to republish yet another awe-worthy shot from the US Dept of the Interior's Twitter feed…the Great Smoky Mountains, which, yes, are not "an object to be used and controlled."


Full Story » Comment (1)

The climate “pause” that didn’t refresh: Tom Toles

This month has seen a number of studies showing that the much-discussed "hiatus" or "pause" in global warming reported by the IPCC two years ago was a misreading of the data.

In the words of Nature:

“The bottom line is that the IPCC reported that the rate of warming was less in the last 15 years than it was in the previous 30–60 years,” says Tom Karl, the study's lead author and the director of the National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, North Carolina. “That is no longer valid according to our data.”

The analysis follows a raft of papers that seek to explain why global temperatures seemed to level off around the turn of the millennium. NOAA's updated temperature record still shows cooler observed conditions than those projected by most climate models for the same period. But Karl says that the warming trend is clear up to the end of 2014. That holds true even if researchers choose 1998, which saw extreme heat associated with an El Niño weather pattern in the tropical Pacific Ocean, as the starting point for such an analysis.

In other words, even if you cherry-pick the data, you still can't find the "pause." But Tom Toles can!


Tom Toles publishes more editorial cartoons on climate than anyone else and it's not close. 

Full Story »

Global warming gas tax fails to outrage Californians

Don't tell anyone, but the California plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is working. So writes business columnist Michael Hiltzik in today's LATimes. He begins by quoting the leading state official on the subject of air pollution.

"We think we do have a good story to tell," says Mary D. Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board.

The program's quarterly auctions of emissions allowances have gone on largely without a hitch. The program has fit in, as was expected, with other emissions reduction programs implemented under AB 32, the state's landmark greenhouse gas legislation, including mandates for renewable fuels sources for electrical utilities and emissions standards for new cars and trucks.

It has done so without a measurable drag on economic growth. The program generated $969 million in revenue for the state through the end of 2014, and is expected to generate $2 billion a year or more in the future. The money must be spent on efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Hiltzik also points out that before passage of Fran Pavley's AB 32, fossil fuel interests predicted gas price rises of 16 to 76 cents a gallon. An anti-tax campaign attempted to stir outrage about the program, making no apparent impression.

One positive aspect of the state's lengthening experience is that it has "drained away some of the fear-mongering" about cap-and-trade, says Severin Borenstein, an energy expert at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

Only a column could a newspaper editor get away with a headline like this:

Emissions cap-and-trade program is working well in California

Full Story »

Understanding Edward Hopper’s popularity — or trying to

In the New York Review of Books, the late poet Mark Strand ruminates on a great exhibit of Hopper's career, focusing on his remarkably graceful drawings, and the sadness that comes off his work:

Recent major exhibitions in London, Paris, Rome, and Madrid testify to the universality of [Hopper's] appeal. It couldn’t be just the way New York looked in the first half of the twentieth century or the dated look of hotel rooms, of people in offices, staring blankly or dreamily into space, that accounts for such interest.

Something lifts the paintings beyond the representational registers of realism into the suggestive, quasi-mystical realm of meditation. Moments of the real world, the one we all experience, seem mysteriously taken out of time. The way the world glimpsed in passing from a train, say, or a car, will reveal a piece of a narrative whose completion we may or may not attempt, but whose suggestiveness will move us, making us conscious of the fragmentary, even fugitive nature of our own lives.

This may account for the emotional weight that so many Hopper paintings possess. And why we lapse lazily into triteness when trying to explain their particular power. Again and again, words like “loneliness” or “alienation” are used to describe the emotional character of his paintings.


The answer, sez me, may be simpler: we see in his images his struggle to live in his work.

The fact is, being alone is central to the work of any artist striving for personal expression. Call it loneliness, call it individuation. Call it what you want, the fact remains: you can't find yourself trying to please someone else.

Full Story »

Enviro lawsuit challenges Ojai water system — for good?

A week or so ago I had the opportunity to write a story about a monster lawsuit filed against the City of Ventura, which allegedly is taking so much water from the Ventura River that it's threatening the endangered steelhead trout. The story for the Ojai Valley News began this way:

Last September, an environmental group filed suit against the city of Ventura for harming the Ventura River watershed, which includes lands in and around Ojai, by taking an excessive amount of water from the river.

The suit charges that the city diverted and pumped too much water from its century-old submerged dam and from pumps at Foster Park near Casitas Springs.  

The group, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, has long tasked itself with supporting the coastal waters such as the Ventura River, including the steelhead trout that once thronged it. It argues in its suit that the city harms the public trust by using so much water that the river dries in the summer.

This is a potential violation of the Article 10 of the California constitution, which requires that the water resources of the state be put to the fullest possible “beneficial use, of the people and for the public welfare.” 

The story went on to say that the city of Ventura responded with a "cross-claim," or counter-suit, filed against water agencies throughout the Ojai Valley, with the potential of filing more lawsuits against individual well owners, such as farmers, too. (This did not make the city popular with those agencies.)

That's interesting on a local level, but more interesting on a regional level, arguably, is the fact that this 700-page lawsuit could potentially mean a restructuring of water useage throughout the watershed. This turns out to have been the result of a big lawsuit years ago filed re: the Santa Ana River (from Riverside into Orange County) which, for complex legal and physical reasons, has become a model for water use and reuse in Southern California, as discussed in a recent story in the Los Angeles Times

The news here? The LA Times story had a "the sky is not falling headline!"

National headlines ask: "The End of California?" News stories track the diminishing snowpack and disappearing reservoirs, and a small fish in the Delta is scapegoated, almond growers and consumers are shamed and the mythology of Western resolve is questioned.

The crisis has led many to wonder whether the state has lost its historic resilience.

But the drama hides reality and for those who have studied California's long relationship with its water, the drought is serious but hardly a disaster.

"The sky is not falling," said Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California.

"We shouldn't be complacent, but we don't need to be panicking," said Jay Lund, director for the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. "Look at Mediterranean climates around the world — look at how many people they support, the economy they support, the agriculture they support — and you'll see that California does better than anyone else.

"If people are just now understanding that California can be a dry place," Lund said, "then we must have been doing something right in terms of urban water delivery."

The legacy of this drought, Californians deeply involved in water issues say, is that the state will adjust, as it always has following a dry period, and this time the adjustment will mean managing water across the state much like the Santa Ana River is managed.

What's interesting is that it took a lawsuit filed by a big agency — for Orange County — to create a new solution that led to an entirely new system for treating water, and unexpected benefits. 

The calamity that created the Santa Ana River Watershed Project Authority took place in a courtroom over the course of six years.

In 1963, the Orange County Water District, having measured a diminished flow of water in the Santa Ana River, filed a lawsuit against other districts upstream that had increased their diversions.

About 4,000 parties were named, and after the settlement in 1969, the four major water districts in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties decided to create an agency to settle their disputes. It would be less expensive than going back to court.

Further, this new legal entity made possible a host of new physical realities, which led to the resuse of water in a way that had not been possible before. Including "indirect potable reuse," aka "toilet to tap," which has been a huge success in, of all places, Orange County, as detailed in a recent NYTimes story

But for the purposes of this story, what matters is the suit that led to the big change in the first place. 

"If every drop counts, then you have to count every drop, and the state has been stunningly sloppy about how it measures water," [Jeff] Mount said. "One element of conservation is good accounting."

By counting every drop, the agency tracks how water is used throughout the watershed, and by tracking its use, the agency can ensure that the water is clean and safe to be used multiple times.

With its large reach, the agency can pull in funds from bonds, loan programs and the member districts, allowing them to develop an array of water sources they couldn't approach individually.

In addition, the water authority has helped develop new forest management policies in the San Bernardino Mountains to protect streams and drainage. It has helped fund desalination facilities in Riverside County that remove natural accumulations of salt. It has helped purchase land for the creation of spreading ponds in Orange County to revive the aquifer, and it has initiated studies of the chemical composition of its water, looking for trace impurities throughout the watershed.

If the sky didn't fall in Orange County, probably it won't fall in the Ojai Valley either. And maybe not CA.

Might take another six years — or more — though, to bring this idea to fruition for Ventura River. It's a surprisingly large watershed, as shown in this image from an Ojai Valley Land Conservancy newsletter.


Full Story »

A book that makes you want to get out and walk

Cheryl Strayed and her journey on the PCT have become so ubiquitous that (I hear) PCT hikers this year refer somewhat contemptuously to "Strayed gear" — all the crap you bring along out of ignorance and discard along the way.

A friend turns me on to a very different kind of book about walking, Robert McFarlane's The Old Ways. An astonishingly learned book: the author casually mentions that he's read "all" the old books about walking, and by God, I believe he has. As a reviewer for the Guardian notes:

Macfarlane is delighted to discover that the verb "to learn" links back etymologically to proto-Germanic liznojan, meaning "to follow or to find a track". The walking of paths is, to him, an education, and symbolic, too, of the very process by which we learn things: testing, wandering about a bit, hitting our stride, looking ahead and behind. That is the rhythm of learning in all kinds of disciplines and ways of life. Whether we are in the kitchen, the library or the laboratory, we are seeking out paths and deciding who to follow. So this is very much a book about learning. Macfarlane presents himself as a student in the ways of the land, taking lessons from those who have spent their lives negotiating particular kinds of path.

But that's not what makes the book special, I think, nor what has made it a bestseller. It's the beauty of his Macfarlane's prose. Here he describes walking the ancient Icknield Way, and falling asleep on a chalk hill:

I found my sleeping place at twilight, not far from the beacon's summit: a swathe of grass, the size of double bed sheet, overhung by a spreading hawthorn tree and hidden from the path by a ramp of gorse whose yellow blossoms lent their coconut scent to the breeze. A green woodpecker yapped in the distance. Planes flew past every few minutes, dragging cones of noise. Lichen glimmered on the trees. Three deer, black-furred roe does, stepped from the wood. One looked across at me, its eyeshine gleaming gold with the last light, then all three moved off westwards along the chalk tracks. As I was falling asleep, the image rose in my mind of white path meeting white path, a webwork of tracks that ran to the shores of the land, and then on and out beyond them.


A picture of the Ichnield Way…

Full Story »

USA: #1 in tax whining (Edward Kleinbard)

Perhaps the wittiest of panelists at yesterday's Ojai Chautauqua on income inequality was Edward Kleinbard, a USC professor of business and law, and author of the new book We Are Better Than This

At one point he put up this chart, in defense of his statement that the USA was "#1 in tax whining."


At another point he agreed with conservative William Voegeli, who pointed out that after winning the national election in 2012, the Democrats didn't have the nerve to follow through and raise taxes on the wealthy. Kleinbard called President Obama and Congressional Democrats "wussies" for promising not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year.

Full Story »