Wilted Flowers & Faded Glory

I am going to try to say something profound here. But I am going to start with an example that may provoke some push-back. So, kind reader, please bear with me.

I have a hangup about old musicians who keep churning out songs and performing when they are long past their prime. People who know me have heard this ad nauseum. And exhibit A has always been Bruce Springsteen. I’m not saying, nor have I ever said, that Bruce has never been good. There are people who say he’s always been awful. More than a few, in fact, though scrutiny reveals they mostly come from Philadelphia. Anyway, I’m not one of them. I think Bruce at his best was phenomenally good. Bruce deserved his place on the list of “next new Bob Dylans” — a tag that has defined a series of performers over the years as most likely to yield a collection of songs equal in impact to those of Dylan. Other “new Bob Dylans” have been Steve Forbert, Jim Carroll, and Courtney Barnett. Bruce at his best has been urgent, compelling and real.

As a parent, one always wonders if he has done a good job. My four daughters are all wonderful people, but I figure that is mostly to their credit and my wife’s and not to mine. One occasion I can recall and feel I did good was when I showed the following clip to the girls, saying here’s an artist at the pinnacle of his form:

 

 

And a week or so later, I walked into the room and one daughter was watching the clip again, soaking in the fervent ardor of the performance from 1978. But that was 1978. Bruce in his later iterations is pretty crappy.

And now the datasaur as the data to prove it.

Recently, New York Magazine writer Caryn Rose ranked Springsteen’s songs — all 314 of them — from best or worst. As you would expect, the exact rankings can be niggled over. There are some songs I’d place higher or lower than she did, but not by much. She puts Born to Run at #1, where it absolutely must be. She puts The Promised Land at #5, which shows nice taste. I would have liked to see Prove It All Night higher than #18 and Downbound Train higher than #84, but neither is worth a quibble. The crabby old punk rock lady, as she calls herself, shows throughout that she’s well informed and has nice sensibilities. Only rarely does she show any deficiencies, as when she ponders what’s a dynamo and why does Bruce want to meet a girl in the fields behind one. (A dynamo is a power plant). I submit that Rose’s rankings are, if not definitive, then at least authoritative. I can add some value and insight by organizing the songs and albums in order of their release. Here is the chart:

bruce

 

What you see is all of Springsteen’s albums with substantial new material in order. First comes Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. from 1973, and last is The Ties That Bind from last year. (These aren’t all his albums — there are lots of live albums, greatest hits packages, box sets, bootlegs and collaborations in addition to these.)

Anyway, the vertical line for each album shows the range of best and worst songs on the album. The middle dot is the average ranking for all songs on the album, but that isn’t too meaningful. The highest dot in the chart signals #1 is and that is the song Born to Run off the 1975 album Born to Run. The lower a line or bar descends, the lower-ranked is the song represented. And short line means all the songs on the album are ranked consistently.

Bruce’s first album was a juvenile effort, and it ranks middlin’. But then he found his stride and his next three albums in the 70s were all just . . just. . . Bruuuuuuuce! It’s not just that the good songs were really good — even the filler songs stand the test of time and still rank among his best ever. Three more very good records followed in the early 80s, capped by the popular monster Born in the USA from 1984.

And then…

In the past when I groused that Bruce has been too sub-standard  for too many years, I had it in the back of my mind that maybe I wasn’t hearing enough of his new stuff. Well, Rose has listened to it all. And she confirms what I have supposed, and what the chart illustrates. Bruce has spend the past 30 years writing songs that are none of them as good as the songs he wrote in the 70s. You might think that as a guy aged, he’d slow down on stage but would write more profound lyrics and better tunes. That is what Mark Knopfler has done. But not Bruce. It is not simply that nothing since ’84 has been as operatic as Jungleland or as ebullient as Rosalita. Rose makes evident that once you get past the top 100 or so songs, Springsteen’s oeuvre isn’t particular good at all.

 

140. “Leap of Faith,” Lucky Town. The melody is a little cloying, and combined with all of the mixed biblical allusions (the Red Sea, the holy land, Moses, parting waters, and Jesus all make an appearance), this track isn’t as strong as the rest of Lucky Town.

165. “Rendezvous,” Tracks. Listen to the studio version on The Promise and you’ll understand why it never made the record. Compared to the bright verve of the live version, this just didn’t cut it.

200. “Gave It a Name,” Tracks. Springsteen liked this Human Touch outtake so much that he re-recorded it for the box set when the master couldn’t be found. It’s still definitely an outtake, though. The idea doesn’t feel sufficiently formed.

 

Cloying. Isn’t as strong as the rest. Just didn’t cut it. Definitely an outtake. And these “faint praise” reviews are for songs in the middle of the pack. You can see for yourself what Rose has to say about the bottom of the pile. She’s by no means totally negative, either. She notes that song #142, The Wrestler, won a Grammy for 2008. But she still maintains it deserves no better than that position. And this oughtn’t to be controversial. The album called Tracks is a warmed-over treatment of songs that weren’t good enough to go on The River and other earlier albums. (Bruce is a prolific songwriter! You gotta give him that.)

Those songs weren’t good enough to be on a Springsteen album in 1982, but they were good enough to be on a Springsteen album in 1998. Bruce sold those left-overs, rejects and retreads as if they were his sincere best effort. And then he almost immediately released another album called “18 Tracks” containing a cheaper assortment of the same left-overs, rejects and retreads. When The Clash found themselves wondering what to do with a backlog of not-their-best work that fans might nevertheless like to hear, they issued the 3-disc set Sandinista! at the price of one record. Where lies integrity?

One of the anti-Bruce articles I linked above suggests that the Beatles and David Bowie were better than him. I think that is ridiculous. But good Bruce is a whole lot better than now Bruce. Consider the following two lyrical samples:

 

Everybody’s got a hunger, a hunger they can’t resist,
There’s so much that you want, you deserve much more than this,
But if dreams came true, oh, wouldn’t that be nice,
But this ain’t no dream we’re living through tonight,
Girl, you want it, you take it, you pay the price. (Prove It All Night, 1978)

 

I’m workin’ on a dream
Though it can feel so far away
I’m, working’ on a dream
Our love will make it real someday (Workin’ on a Dream, 2008)

 

In 1978, Bruce understood that even if you have to pay the price and you’ll never get all you deserve, livin’ through the night is better than just dreaming. He was great because he understood — and conveyed in song — that life is fleeting and opportunities should be seized. In 2008, Bruce was peddling the poison he had himself rejected 30 years earlier.

And getting really, really rich doing it. Note that commercial success has nothing to do with the argument of the quality of Springsteen’s songs. To say, as Rose has done, that his later stuff is consistently much worse than his earlier songs in no way precludes Bruce from selling them. And that actually leads, finally, to my point.

Imagine a beautiful bouquet of fresh flowers. Now imagine how, after a few days, the pedals will begin to fade and wilt and how eventually the bouquet will lose its beauty entirely. When that happens, you will throw the flowers out. And doing that doesn’t mean that you have no appreciation for beauty. If the flowers were a gift, it doesn’t mean you didn’t appreciate them. It just means you can differentiate between what they were and what they are now. But maybe we aren’t as clear about that distinction in other areas.

Take the example of Chinese cuisine. When Ralphie’s family eats their Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant in the denouement of A Christmas Story, it is the final exotic twist of a child’s surreal memory. Up through the end of the 90s, a Chinese restaurant was apt to have white tableclothes and serve rum drinks ion flutey glasses. They were at least one step upscale. Today Chinese buffets serve the lowest of low-brow comfort food. And there are more of them than ever before.

I think probably there is some impulse that compels us to stay loyal to things long past their “best by” date. John Prine (also a “next new Bob Dylan”) sings of a grandfather who “voted for Eisenhower ’cause Lincoln won the war,” meaning he maintained a political loyalty for the GOP for 96 years irrespective of what Lincoln’s party did after him.

I have already written a piece arguing that the American system of governance is no longer what the founders intended, and probably doesn’t deserve our continued fealty. If we would make the choice, I think we’d choose a really representative republic that maintained individual rights and achieved the common good. I think we’d get the government we want. But just as we cling to the wilted bouquet and the faded rockstar and the downgraded restaurants and the contemporary evangelical churches and the stale bread and a hundred other things, we think it is our duty not to choose.

What’s Wrong with America is What’s Wrong with the Constitution

If you woke up this morning and realized you haven’t prepared for Constitution Day, fear not. Constitution Day websites abound, and they’ve got you covered.

 

Here’s constitutionday.com. Under a banner of smiling people waving flags, the site links to the text of the Constitution, the text of all amendments to the Constitution, and profiles of the founding fathers. Another link takes you to a gift shop where you can buy Constitution DVDs and books.

At apples4theteacher.com you can get printable classroom activities to help kids learn about Constitution Day.

Your next stop might be the Daughters of the American Revolution site, which insists on a week-long celebration rather than a single day. According to the DAR, the Constitution, “[S]tands as a testament to the tenacity of Americans throughout history to maintain their liberties, freedoms and inalienable rights.” Here you’ll learn that celebration of the Constitution began in 1956 after the DAR successfully importuned President Eisenhower. Not to be outdone, the Library of Congress website says the Congress started official observation of Constitution Day in 1952, or in 2005, depending on which proclamation you credit.

And finally, there’s the website of the National Constitution Center. Here you can take the citizenship test immigrants must pass during the naturalization process. Could you pass it? (I did.) You can also take a “Which Founder are you?” quiz. (I’m James Madison.)

For the benefit of readers who are foggy on September 17th and aren’t going to click the links, Constitution Day is devoted to remembering America’s foundational law. On this day in 1787, delegates from 12 states (Rhode Island boycotted the ceremony and didn’t sign until 1790.) approved the new Constitution after a restive months-long debate. The country had been self-governing for eight years, but the original Articles of Confederation had proven weak and unsatisfactory. The Constitution we celebrate has been amended 27 times but is the same basic law that was adopted 229 years ago. Or 227 years ago: it wasn’t until 1789, when the states had voted to accept the constitution, that it took effect.

But those Constitution Day celebration sites lack introspection. Something as important as our nation’s foundational law, and as historic as the US constitution, deserves a more thorough and serious critique. And if nobody else will do it, the datasaur will!

 

The Constitution begins with a lofty and thrilling 52-word preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Fine words. And the United States has had the good grace to credit the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of Iroquois Indians, from whom the ideas derive. But the document doesn’t sustain the lofty tone for long. Immediately after the preamble, the Constitution descends into tedium. There is nothing inspired or heroic – just rules for the president, the Congress, and the courts. There is quite a bit about apportionment of representation for small and large states. Much of the Constitution is off base (“The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand”). Some of it is shameful (Slavery was condoned and each slave counted as “three fifths” of a person). Some of it is goofy (“Pensylvania” is misspelled. The final few lines are a word soup of errata better suited to a first draft of a junior high school group project than to a hallowed “testament to the tenacity of Americans throughout history.”).

Once, the world admired the US Constitution. Other nations patterned their laws after America’s. That is no longer the case. Since at least the end of World War II, other countries have grown less likely to base their laws on our Constitution. Professors David S. Law and Mila Versteeg documented this trend in their 2012 New York University Law Review article, The Declining Influence of the United States Constitution:

 [T]he world’s constitutions have on average become less similar to the U.S. Constitution over the last sixty years. [A]verage similarity to the U.S. Constitution was higher in 1946 than in 2006. It is an unfortunate irony, moreover, that the onset of this decline roughly coincided with celebration of the Constitution’s bicentennial in 1987. Although the 1990s were a period of intense constitution-making activity during which American victory in the Cold War might have been expected to translate into American constitutional influence, this decade actually saw a noticeable decline in average similarity to the U.S. Constitution.

Law and Versteeg offer two explanations. First, other countries guarantee their citizens more basic rights than the US Constitution does. The right to work, the right to unionize and to strike, the right to an education, women’s equality, and limits on property rights all are explicit elsewhere but not in America. The second reason is a preference for the parliamentary system over America’s presidential executive. Historian Juan Linz proved in his 1992 Journal of Democracy article, The Perils of Presidentialism, that parliamentary systems are more stable. When Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared on Egyptian television in 2012, she urged that country to look elsewhere for good legal models:

I would not look to the US Constitution, if I were drafting a Constitution in the year 2012. I might look at the Constitution of South Africa. That was a deliberate attempt to have a fundamental instrument of government that embraced basic human rights [and] had an independent judiciary. It really is, I think, a great piece of work that was done. Much more recent than the U.S. Constitution: Canada has a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It dates from 1982. You would almost certainly look at the European Convention on Human Rights. Yes, why not take advantage of what there is elsewhere in the world? I’m a very strong believer in listening and learning from others.

Ginsburg was criticized back home for failing to direct Egypt to the US Constitution. But she probably wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t already know.

Professor Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas Law School is one of the Constitution’s most outspoken critics. In his 2016 book, An Argument Open to All, Levinson challenges readers to consider what freedom means:

Can we as Americans — or anyone elsewhere in the world – make informed and reflective choices about what is necessary for “establishing good government”? Or are we trapped by contingencies of “accident and force” – including what political scientists call the “path of dependence” generated by prior choices – that make a hollow mockery of claims to political autonomy?

Levinson’s syntax is difficult because he is borrowing phrases from The Federalist Papers – a series of essays written by James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton to elicit state support for the proposed Constitution. Those “paths of dependence” are limitations on future options caused by past decisions. In plain English, Levinson asks whether people are really free and self-governing if they are duty bound to accept pre-existing laws and practices. Americans dislike much in the Constitution. Are they free to change it? Or does the obligatory reverence for the Constitution plus very real procedural impediments overbalance the popular will?

Elsewhere Levinson shows how the constitutionally mandated composition of the US Senate thwarts majority rule. The founders agreed that the majority ought to settle most issues, but they created a system wherein senators representing a tiny share of the population routinely thwarts the majority. The Constitution doesn’t explicitly give anti-majoritarian power to parties, caucuses, committees or chairmen. But it allowed them to form and to grow more powerful at the cost of majoritarian democracy.

Writer Dylan Matthews, writing for The Washington Post during the 2013 government shutdown, highlighted the trend of increasingly adversarial politics and increasingly persistent social disaffection. He recognized that what’s wrong with America is what’s wrong with the Constitution:

[It’s] James Madison’s fault. It’s the Constitution’s fault. If you’re mad that American democracy has gotten to this point, don’t just blame Boehner or Obama or Ted Cruz. Don’t hate the players. Hate the game — and think about how to change the rulebook.

The Constitution was the work of extraordinary men. If we respect those men, we ought to heed what they said. And many of the founders were ambivalent about the Constitution. Benjamin Franklin did not “entirely approve of this Constitution at present.” No delegate was altogether happy with the result. They just wanted the convention to end. Charles L. Mee, in his book, Genius of the People, describes the process:

“[T]hey set about disputing with one another, wrangling, losing patience, lashing out, attacking one another, accusing one another of ignorance and inconsistency, or worse, of lack of principle and even treasonous intent; erupting in anger or simply picking up and leaving town altogether.”

Alexander Hamilton did indeed throw up his hands and return to New York midway through the convention. George Washington wrote to him, “I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of our Convention, and do, therefore, repent having had any agency in the business.”

John Adams, writing two years after Constitution Day, wrote, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

James Madison

James Madison worked harder than anyone to get the convention going, to keep the delegates focused, and then to convince states to ratify the result. But only four years later, Madison was expressing regret. Already by 1791, Congress was using the “necessary and proper” clause in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18 to expand its authority beyond what was intended. The rights of the states and the people, supposedly guaranteed by the 10th Amendment, have been curtailed repeatedly due to that vaguely worded phrase about congressional prerogative.

Leave it to Thomas Jefferson to deliver the greatest gut punch of all to the Constitution. Jefferson was ambassador to France and played no part in authoring and ratifying the Constitution. But when James Madison sent him a draft of it, Jefferson reminded Madison that any constitution ought to be short-term:

[N]o society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished them, in their natural course, with those whose will gave them being.

Jefferson was saying that, as a matter of principle, living people ought never to bind future generations to old laws. He suggested to Madison that the Constitution ought to expire automatically after 19 years, by which time half the living, voting population would have died and been replaced by a new majority. Jefferson was quick to dismiss the notion that future generations could replace a permanent constitution if they wished:

It may be said that the succeeding generation exercising in fact the power of repeal, this leaves them as free as if the constitution or law had been expressly limited to 19 years only. In the first place, this objection admits the right, in proposing an equivalent. But the power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be indeed if every form of government were so perfectly contrived that the will of the majority could always be obtained fairly and without impediment. But this is true of no form. The people cannot assemble themselves; their representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils. Bribery corrupts them. Personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents; and other impediments arise so as to prove to every practical man that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.

America did not adopt Jefferson’s idea that constitutions ought to come with expiration dates. Nevertheless, discarding and replacing constitutions is as American as apple pie. The 50 states have scrapped old constitutions and adopted new ones freely throughout the life of the Republic. At least 142 state constitutions have come and gone. Louisiana has had 11 state constitutions. Virginia and South Carolina have had seven constitutions apiece. Only 15 states use their original constitution.

Every state constitution is much longer than the US Constitution. Louisiana’s has 184,053 words, compared to the 4,543 in the US Constitution. The shortest, Vermont’s, contains 8,419 words. The states are subordinate to the United States, perform fewer functions, and are at most equally as old as the US. Yet the 50 states have found it desirable to re-write their constitutions, making them ever more detailed and explicit. The federal government, faced with the same challenges, has made 27 tweaks.

There is a conservative notion that we might “return” to the Constitution. This is silly, because how America is today, both good and bad, is according to the Constitution. If the government doesn’t do what it should, it is because the Constitution fails to mandate it. If the government does what it shouldn’t or allows what it shouldn’t, it is because the Constitution fails to prohibit it.

Article V of the Constitution provides for a constitutional convention if two-thirds of the states demand it. Michigan became the 34th state to petition for one in 2014. Nothing happened after that vote and an Article V convention of the states is not imminent. Some states have rescinded their vote, and some have reversed their rescindment. Several states want a convention to enact a single specific amendment — usually a conservative one such as a balanced federal budget, overturn of Citizens United v. FEC, deregulation of business, etc. They fear a “runaway convention” in which other people have opportunity to advance other goals. The first constitutional convention, incidentally, was also a runaway event. The delegates who gathered in 1787 expected to improve the Articles of Confederation. They talked themselves into a completely new document, and then they sold the country on it.

The founders had their own brilliance plus the untried social theories of John Locke, Edmund Burke and other important political philosophers. But they were in a bad mood and a big hurry. They were meeting in a stuffy hall in Philadelphia. They were eating boarding house cooking, missing their wives and children, and imagining their farms and businesses going to seed as the convention dragged on. They were eager to finish and go home.

Constitutional reform today has important advantages. There is a vastly wider knowledge of governance accumulated from the states and from other successful democratic nations. Most important of all – there is no rush. Social media empowers fact gathering and discussion at a more leisurely pace. The rising millennial generation is apolitical but socially conscious and tech savvy – just the combination needed to think and act outside the box. The debate about constitutional reform can be a multi-year, multi-generational process with millennials in charge. A new constitution can use the old one as a starting point, keeping everything that works well and changing what doesn’t.

What lies ahead for America, then, is either profound Constitutional reform (which, incidentally, would be an exercise in democracy and freedom!) or continuation on the current path. If there is fundamental change, the nation can move toward a fairer and more democratic governance that is truer to the nation’s ideals. If not, then justice, domestic tranquility, the general welfare and the other blessings of liberty will be as far away as ever, though politics will go on. As George Orwell might put it: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine an angry voter shouting, ‘Have you even read the Constitution?’ at a crass politician – forever.”

 

Explain This to Me, Please!

There is a solar-powered scooter with a camera trundling around on the surface of Mars. It is called “Curiosity” and since August of 2012 it has been taking pictures and sending them back to Earth. The most recent batch of pictures are “stunning” or “glorious” if you ask USAToday or Fox News. I would not say such things if I were them. The surface of Mars, as the picture clearly shows, is dismal, dry and forbidding:

 

 

[Source: Universe Today]

A few days ago, several sources, including Universe Today, reported that Curiosity is getting close to an RSL. Recurring slope lineae are dark streaks on the surface of Mars that are periodically observed by telescope and are thought to be a possible source of water, or as the more scientific sources have it, “liquid water.”

These recurring slope lineae are narrow, dark markings on steep slopes that appear and incrementally lengthen during warm seasons on low-albedo surfaces. The lineae fade in cooler seasons and recur over multiple Mars years. Recurring slope lineae were initially reported to appear and lengthen at mid-latitudes in the late southern spring and summer and are more common on equator-facing slopes where and when the peak surface temperatures are higher.

None of that proves there is water on Mars, though perhaps there is. Either way, NASA has resolved to re-route Curiosity to keep it away. There may be Earth bacteria on the rover, and they don’t want to contaminate the as yet unseen Martian flora and fauna.

Now, I hasten to say that taking measures to protect water, air and earth is a noble thing. I approve of NASA’s decision and I think it speaks well of humans that they act responsibly toward this distant planet. What I DON”T understand, is why humans don’t take better care of our own planet.

[Source: The Nature Conservancy]

I’ll take planet Earth any day.

Spend a few moments browsing with this New York Times interactive water quality dataset. You can choose a state from the drop-down menu, and then zoom in to your home community to see if there are any polluters near you. (I should note that the dataset is a few years old and evidently has not been kept up to date.) After studying it a while, I AM sure that it is a joke of one sort or another. I looked at Indiana and learned that the fourth worst polluter (judging on number of violations) is  . . . . wait for it . . . a catholic convent! The #1 polluter in Indiana is the small town municipal water system of Austin. Most of the large industrial enterprises across the state either are missing or are association with zero violations.

Better information on water quality is found at the US Geological Survey. The problems aren’t limited to Flint, Michigan. And water quality isn’t the only issue. Recently 14 members of the Standing Rock Sioux were arrested for trying to keep a pipeline off their land. Now, I’m aware that the pipeline would bring fuel to US consumers. I’m aware there are already lots of pipelines and that they are pretty safe. I understand  that wild animals scared by the pipeline are free to run wild in the other direction. I’m aware of all the reasons in favor of the pipelines. But if the land belongs to the Standing Rock Nation, the pipeline it should not be forced on them. (A federal judge decided earlier today to deny the Sioux’ request.)

Anyway, my question here is a simple one. How is it even possible that mankind looks to outer space with such fascination and hope, and yet so many people act with such disdain toward what is quite obviously the jewel of the Universe?

 

 

 

 

You’re all wet, California!

No matter how much data we have to consider and no matter how forcefully the data lead to a conclusion, we still do our thinking with words. The words we use filter the evidence. They shape the conclusions we draw.

A case in point is a recent Vox article about the California drought. Writer Brad Plumer interviews expert and author John Fleck, who runs a research center at the University of New Mexico.

The article is peppered with perky words that don’t belong in a story about resource depletion: adapt and thrive in surprising ways, a case for optimism, impressive ability to adapt, overcome water scarcity, remarkable adaptation, an amazing example of doing more with less resources, major conservation success, sophisticated work, adaptive capacity, lessons we can learn, fragile optimism.

Let’s be clear. There aren’t going to be any “surprising” ways to respond to resource depletion. The options are, 1) use less water or 2) use no water. And that’s it. If people were to begin immediately to use drastically less water, relatively more people may remain to live a curtailed lifestyle for relatively longer. If they resist immediate drastic change, massive collapse is imminent.

 

[Source: [ New York Times]

If we didn’t have Wikipedia or even the internet, we’d fall back on the World Book Encyclopedia and the Information Please almanac and the Statistical Abstract of the United States. We’d do fine without the internet. But there is no substitute for water. And California has, for a century, been sucking the water out of the entire west. The 1974 noir movie Chinatown hinges on a scheme to get rich by stealing water:

 

 

Chinatown is just a movie, of course. It is fiction. It doesn’t prove that Los Angeles or any other part of California has ever abused the water supply or taken more than its share. But, they did and still do.

 

 

Counterbalancing the perky Vox interview with John Fleck are a series of articles from the past couple of years up to last week showing the opposite.

Weather Underground ponders whether California is a “state of denial” where drought is concerned. A few weeks ago, local authorities across California announced an end to water conservation efforts that were costing urban water utilities money. The short term demand for profits compels those utilities to end conservation efforts despite continued evidence of a worsening problem:

The reality is that the drought is far from over and its effects will be far reaching: a recent survey has found that at least 66 million trees have died in the Sierra Nevada alone as a result of the now five year-long drought, portending a potentially catastrophic fire season ahead.

In a conservative publication called “WND,” writer Patrice Lewis suggests (as of March 2015) that serious, widespread efforts to conserve haven’t even begun:

When Gov. Jerry Brown declared an emergency in January and urged residents to reduce their water usage by 20 percent, a Water Resources Control Board survey found those savings haven’t been achieved anywhere in the state. “Overall, usage was up 1 percent in May compared to the average for 2011-13, driven by an 8.4 percent increase in coastal Southern California cities. The northeastern part of the state, a region stretching from Mono Lake to the Oregon border, saw a 5 percent increase.”

Blogger Twilight Greenaway notices that, while the official drought map shows less of the state in “extreme drought” than a year ago, still 100% of California is “extremely dry” or worse. Seventy-one percent of the state is in “extreme drought” or “exceptional drought.”

There are plenty of stories on the “state of denial” theme. And don’t think that the California drought is a looming crisis. It is a crisis that has already arrived in some places. Ground Zero for the California drought is a town called East Porterville in the central farming area near Fresno. In 2014, most of the private wells in the town went dry. People there have been living without water in their homes, or relying on black plastic water tanks set up “temporarily” in their front yards, or connecting to the city’s water supply (which depletes faster as more people tap into it) or leaving town.

What nobody is doing, it seems, is adjusting. The Mother Jones article linked above contains the following passage:

Glance at a lawn in East Porterville, California, and you’ll instantly know something about the people who live in the house adjacent to it.

If a lawn is green, the home has running water. If it’s brown, or if the yard contains plastic tanks or crates of bottled water, then the well has gone dry.

This town is in an advanced state of emergency. But people are still water their lawns. I just don’t see anything like the “impressive ability to adapt” that the Vox interview spoke of.

Now, it is important to show some sympathy. Millions of people have moved to California in recent decades thinking it was a good place to be. Nobody told them the California lifestyle was parasitic and unsustainable. Thousands of farmers and farm workers in California believe they must feed America. But there are people all across the country in places where the soil is richer and the natural rainfall abundant, who can feed America. (We won’t be eating almonds in the future, but there will still be plenty of good food.)

The “local food movement”  has growing coalitions in many states and stands ready to pick up the slack when California runs dry and John Fleck’s “fragile optimism” gives way to reality.

 

 

 

Spend Your Money

This isn’t topical, but I’ve been looking lately at consumer spending patterns as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS asks American households how they spend their money. After collecting thousands of cases, the BLS sorts those reports by income level, region of the country, education, and other factors.

It is useful to get a glimpse into just how different some people are from others. And the answer is — not very different.

The following chart compare the share of income spent on nine important categories by two groups of people. The blue bars are people who earn $50-thousand or less a year. They are not poor, but moderate-income households. The orange bars are people making $150-thousand, which puts them in the top 5%  but nowhere near the super rich.

Percentage wise, the two groups apportion similar shares of their incomes to most things.

[Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics]
[Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics]

The category with the greatest difference is insurance and pensions, followed by education. In both those cases, wealthier people spend more, but in simple dollars and as a share of what they have to spend. Offsetting that, moderate-income people spend more on housing, transportation and food. I think it is noteworthy that the two groups spend almost exactly the same on entertainment, clothing and cash contributions (donations to church, charities, the arts and other causes).

The chart only shows major categories of spending. If you go to the BLS site, you can see more detail. For instance, under the heading of “Food,” you’ll see that the two groups’ spending on grains, meat, dairy and vegetables are about parallel, with lower income people spending a slightly larger proportion on each of them. The only category of food in which wealthier people spend a larger share of their incomes in alcohol.

The two groups differ by about four percent in spending on housing. But under that heading, the moderate-income people spend four times as much on rented properties and the wealthier people spend more on mortgage payments.

 

There is one specific thing for which moderate-income people spend absolutely more money. That is to say, they don’t just spend a larger share, but they actually spend more dollars out of their $50k than the wealthier people spend out of their $150k incomes. What do you think that might be?

 

While you ponder that question, let’s move on to Entertainment. I have always been puzzled by the oft-repeated ideas that spectator sports is a major economic concern. The BLS data show that both groups spend around five percent of their incomes on entertainment. And that means all forms of amusement including pets, hobbies, equipment, and memberships. The part of that that goes to “fees and admissions” is less than one percent for the moderate-income group and about 1.5% for the higher-income group. And that includes all fees and admissions — museums, movies, and concerts, as well sports events. When you consider it as a share of all consumer spending, spectator sports is negligible. It is true that some millions of dollars are spent in and around a pro football stadium on a fall Sunday afternoon. But over a year’s time, that same community is going to spend more on kitty litter, guitar strings, bowling shoes and yarn than it spends on football.

I also wanted to note that clothing tracks pretty close between the two groups. When I looked at spending by other income brackets, I noticed that very poor people are apt to spend a whopping lot on baby clothes, but the same share for adult clothes. Maybe they’re too proud to dress their babies in hand-me-down clothing.

You may be thinking that I’m naive, and that you know people who spend way more than that on clothes. Well, yes, I’m sure you do. There are people who spend ridiculous amounts on frivolous things. But what these data show, and they show it with authority, is that not many people go to those extremes and that overall poor, moderate income, and wealthy people are pretty similar in their spending patterns.

 

OK. Back to the question. What is the single category of spending for which lower-income people spend absolutely more dollars a year than people making three times as much money as they make?

Eh. I was going to provide the answer in the form of a pictograph. But feet are weird.

The answer is tobacco. The lower income group spends, on average, $331 a year on cigarettes, cigars and “dip,” while the wealthier people spend only $304 a year.

And that’s not just blowin’ smoke!

 

 

 

The Alt-Right is All Wrong

Probably you read or heard about Hillary Clinton’s comments yesterday, linking Donald Drumpf with something called the alt-right. And probably — like me — you didn’t know much about the alt-right. Do yourself a favor and read the Vox explainer article about what the alt-right is.

Most of the news coverage described the alt-right as a social movement and an internet community that is racism and hostile to government. And that is right, so far as it goes. But there is another level to the alt-right. I read 10 different news reports after Clinton’s speech and most of them gave background on the alt-right. I also did a little bit of study of my own looking at the original sources of alt-right thought. But then I realized I don’t want to give them the clicks — and neither should you. They are bad people and they need to stay under their rock. Consider:

The purpose of government, in the view of neoreactionaries, isn’t to represent the will of the people. It’s to govern well, full stop. “From the perspective of its subjects, what counts is not who runs the government but what the government does.”

That is . . . anti-democratic. That is . . . an argument for tyranny. That is  . . . fascist. And some of these people  are pretty open about it:

Peter Thiel, the libertarian billionaire who co-founded PayPal and Palantir and was the first outsider to invest in Facebook,declared in 2009, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”

At first, it seems like statements like these are pretty fringe-y and are not representative of conservatism or the Republican Party. But very many Republicans support efforts to restrict voting, which is prima facie anti-democratic.

Hillary Clinton is a terribly flawed candidate for president. She oughtn’t to be the nominee of a major party. But she is nothing worse than a bad candidate. Her opponent — and the people he panders to, are really very wicked people.

That’s all. Now please go and read the Vox article.

 

Cherry Tree Lies

“Parson Weems’ Fable”, by Grant Wood

Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times did a nice job earlier this week of comparing Hillary Clinton and Donald Drumpf in terms of their honesty. By which I mean their lack of honesty. Both candidates lie a whole lot, he acknowledges. But not all lies are alike:

If Clinton declares that she didn’t chop down a cherry tree, that might mean that she actually used a chain saw to cut it down. Or that she ordered an aide to chop it down. As for Drumpf, he will insist, “I absolutely did not chop down that cherry tree,” even as he clutches the ax with which he chopped it down moments earlier on Facebook Live.

Readers may or may not recognize the “Did he chop down a cherry tree?” test of veracity as a trope that has long been associated with George Washington. Supposedly a youthful, energetic George took a hatchet to one of his father’s fruit trees and then later admitted doing so when his father asked. He might have blamed a servant or wiggled out of the situation some other way, but George was so virtuous that he couldn’t tell a lie even to save himself a lickin’. As the story goes, he father was impressed with George’s character, so he forgot about the vandalism and rewarded the candor. What a great lesson in virtue, boys and girls!

I was taught this tale as a historical fact. But it isn’t. A hack historian named Mason Weems — usually called Parson Weems — made the story up and put it into a biography of Washington that was a best seller in the early 1800s. Abraham Lincoln said the Bible and Weems’ Life of Washington were the most important books he had growing up.

How ironic is it that Weems valued truthfulness so highly that he made up a lie to illustrate it? Or, alternatively, that he though his didactic fabrication would compel impressionable young readers to do the right thing no matter the cost.  Serious historians might quibble. The popular story says that George cut the cherry tree down to the ground. A closer look at the actual text shows that Weems says George “barked” the tree — meaning he gouged the bark lightly. You have to make a choice between the actual lie, and the incorrect version of the lie.

 

Anyway, Kristof cites quantitative evidence that Drumpf is both a more habitual and a more outrageous liar. Politifact routinely compares what politicians say against known facts, and then rates those statements on a six-point scale. Here is the ratings for 236 of Clinton‘s statements:

 

[Source: Politifact]
[Source: Politifact]

And here is their review of 214 things Drumpf has said:

[Source: Politifact]
[Source: Politifact]

Clinton is not nearly good enough to deserve nomination to public office. And Drumpf is vastly and dreadfully worse than her. You can click on the links for both candidates’ names to see what some of their specific lies are. The six-point scale is actually pretty useful. Take, for example, the “Mostly True” category. An example is Indiana Governor and vice  presidential candidate Mike Pence’s claim that under his administration Indiana has the highest credit rating of any state in the US. Politifact gives it a “Mostly True” rating. It is true because Indiana has a Triple-A rating and no other state has a higher one. But it is only mostly true because 14 other states also rated Triple-A and because Indiana was rated Triple-A long before Pence took office. The statement is literally and specifically true. But if Pence means listeners to infer that Indiana is special or that he is responsible, then he is deceiving them.

It seems a pity that we’re driven to considering nuances of mendacity. But the cherry tree tale reminds us that we’ve never had very high standards of truthfulness where public figures are concerned. Instead of merely enduring the present bad situation with the hopes that we’ll get back to Parson Weems-type dishonesty in the future, perhaps we should think in terms of finally beginning to require the government to do its job right and tell the truth.

Can you dig it!