Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mocking our elders

Last fall, my father had what's known as a "peripheral arterial graft," which basically means the doctors put in a whole new artery from the groin down past the ankle. As you can imagine, you end up with quite a scar. And this being my father, he was exceedingly proud of it.

A couple weeks after the operation, he was over at Canterbury Place (my mother's nursing home; she was still alive at this point), regaling three or four nurses with his surgical saga. Needless to say, the story was not complete without a display of the results, in their fullest extent. So my father, not being one to let propriety stand in the way of 32 inches of suture, unbuttoned, unzipped and dropped trow. 

Yes, he was wearing his boxers. And the only people around were the nurses, give or take a patient or two in the la-la land of advanced dementia. But still. 

When I asked him about it afterward, one of the nurses having filled me in with great amusement, he said, "But they're nurses! It was of medical interest!"  

All of which goes to explain why I had to riff on a certain well-known pun (featuring the future mayor of Portland) for Dad's birthday card: 

I hear the card was a big hit with the nurses. :-)

Kafka in Susquehanna County

Via the Guardian, I learn about some curious goings-on a couple hours' drive to the north of me:
Vera Scroggins, an outspoken opponent of fracking, is legally barred from the new county hospital. Also off-limits, unless Scroggins wants to risk fines and arrest, are the Chinese restaurant where she takes her grandchildren, the supermarkets and drug stores where she shops, the animal shelter where she adopted her Yorkshire terrier, bowling alley, recycling centre, golf club, and lake shore.
In total, 312.5 sq miles are no-go areas for Scroggins under a sweeping court order granted by a local judge that bars her from any properties owned or leased by one of the biggest drillers in the Pennsylvania natural gas rush, Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation.
Scroggins, it seems, has been something of a thorn in Cabot's side: Shooting videos of well sites,  confronting workers, reporting suspected health and environmental violations. But not overstepping her bounds: The article quotes the district attorney saying nothing she did was illegal. Then how is there a problem? In my experience,  when someone breaks the law, or even bends it too far, DAs in rural Pennsylvania are hardly shy about saying so.

Now here's the weird part:
The temporary injunction granted on 21 October does not require Cabot to identify or map the lands where it holds drilling leases, putting Scroggins in the bizarre position of having to figure out for herself which areas were off-limits. 
And not only that:
The company was not pressed to demonstrate the gas leases gave it the right to make such absolute decisions about access. "They have no proof that they had the right to exclude her. They didn't present evidence of leases that gave them the right to treat the property as their own," [Scroggins' lawyer, George Kinchy] said.
You may own your land free and clear, and Vera Scroggins may be your best friend, but if you let Cabot put a well out back, you can't choose to have her over for tea. Cabot's hissy fit trumps your free use of property you bought and paid for. (Yes, I realize that if you leased to Cabot, Vera probably wouldn't be your best friend. That's irrelevant.)

So let's review. A woman makes herself a pain in the ass to a gas company. Said company goes  to court, wins the unilateral right to ban her from 312.5 square miles of Susquehanna County (40 percent of its area) and doesn't even have to tell her which square miles those are. 

But wait, there's more.
[T]he company arranged for Tom Shepstone, a consultant who blogs at Natural Gas Now, to speak on its behalf. Shepstone said the injunction was overdue. ...
Cabot in court filings does not accuse Scroggins of violence or of causing harm to property, and she has never been arrested or charged with trespass. She has not chained herself to machinery, or staged sit-ins.
But Shepstone argued Scroggins had upset too many people to be tolerated. "I believe she is a public menace because what she does is she essentially trespasses not so much on property – though she does do that – but she trespasses on the soul of the community," he said. "She does not allow the people of this community any peace."
She trespasses on the soul of the community?! That's quite a theological insight, coming as it does from the company responsible for the water contamination in Dimock:
"Cabot had every opportunity to correct these violations, but failed to do so. Instead, it chose to ignore its responsibility to safeguard the citizens of this community and to protect the natural resources there," said [former DEP Secretary John] Hanger.
The Guardian says a hearing on a permanent injunction is scheduled for March.

I would like to say that what the Guardian describes is un-American. But given some of the stuff that goes on in America these days, I'm not confident that's the right turn of phrase.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The geography of flyover country

A couple of months ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a story about a new generation of large, high-tech distribution centers that companies are building to cater to online shopping. Here’s how the article begins (The bold at the end is mine): 
They are rising in farm country west of King of Prussia like giant garrisons positioned to deploy packages to shoppers up and down the Atlantic Coast: automated warehouses of herculean proportions aimed at moving online orders to people's doorsteps in just hours.
Philadelphia's Urban Outfitters Inc. is among a rush of titanic store-based retailers spending staggering sums to open online fulfillment centers closer than ever to customers, in a red-hot patch of Pennsylvania along the state's toll-free I-81 spine.

Ahem. Let’s have a quick look at Google Maps, shall we? (Click to enlarge.)

Point A is King of Prussia. Point B is the site of what will soon be Urban Outfitters’ new fulfillment center, now being built in greater metropolitan Gap, Pa. (pop. 1,931). Point C is Carlisle, the “red-hot patch of Pennsylvania” that the Inquirer is referring to, where distribution centers have indeed been rising like giant garrisons for decades now.
Gap, Pa., is right in front
of that plateau in Texas.
Note the way Interstate 81 heads northeast from Harrisburg to Hazleton and Scranton. Note that this is nowhere near Gap. I assure you, none of the 1,931 people in Gap think they are on the I-81 spine, or anywhere near it. Their most convenient access to said interstate is back toward Harrisburg, a good 55 miles west on Route 30.

And while both Gap and Carlisle are technically west of King of Prussia, I don't think anyone who lives in the middle of the state would think of lumping them together. It’s sort of like thinking of Los Angeles and San Francisco as being a short drive apart, rather than the roughly six hours they actually are.

Everyone has myopia about where they live, which is why everyone gets the joke in Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover. But understanding Urban Outfitters’ site choice involves realizing that it’s not on the I-81 spine, yet it still makes sense. (Thanks primarily to Route 30, which feeds eastward into the network of interstates around Philadelphia and all up and down the East Coast.) The Inquirer muddled the very geographic point that it should have gotten right. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

● You can get conservatives to love and liberals to hate, or conservatives to hate and liberals to love, the exact same policies, depending on how you frame them

● Charter schools in Texas are a Trojan horse for creationism

● Myths and misconceptions about Japan's economy. (I lived in the country for years, and I still believed Nos. 1 through 3 till this morning.) (Update: Link fixed.)

Video of the week: For Edgar Allan Poe and Dolly Parton.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The myth of ag as No. 1, part 2

From the Pa. Department of Agriculture's "Facts for 2013" media release:

Pa. Ag Snapshot: ... 
$1.7 billion in international sales, making agricultural products the state’s leading export.

Ahem. From

Pennsylvania’s Top 10 Exporting Industries for 2012
2012 Exports (US$)
2011 Exports (US$)
% Change
7.78 B
7.86 B
1% Decrease
Machinery, except electrical
4.87 B
Primary Metal Manufacturing
3.84 B
9% Decrease
Computers & Electronic Products
3.79 B
4.09 B
7% Decrease
Transportation Equipment
3.15 B
3.38 B
7% Decrease
Electrical Equipment, Applications & Components
1.86 B
1.73 B
4% Increase
Food Manufactures
1.75 B
1.53 B
14% Increase
Fabricated Metal Products, NESOI
1.65 B
1.49 B
11% Increase
Miscellaneous Manufactured Commodities
1.58 B
1.39 B
14% Increase
Minerals & Ores
1.40 B
2.96 B
53% Decrease

Also notice the delicate phrasing in the fact sheet: "1 in 7 jobs are related to agriculture."


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The myth of ag as No. 1

It’s Pennsylvania Farm Show week in Harrisburg, and that means it’s time to trot out what may be the hoariest bit of balderdash in state politics: the notion that agriculture is Pennsylvania’s No. 1 industry.

It’s not. It’s not even close. I suspect it lost that distinction around 1820. Nevertheless, here’s Gov. Tom Corbett at the Farm Show opening ceremonies Saturday morning:

“Every year we have an opportunity to gather in the arena here in Harrisburg to celebrate an industry that's part of the foundation of the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It accounts for $68 billion of our state's economic production and employs one in seven Pennsylvanians. Agriculture is Pennsylvania's number one industry,” Corbett said.

Corbett should amble over to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis website. There, he would discover that “agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting” accounted for $3.3 billion of Pennsylvania’s $600.9 billion economy in 2012, or slightly more than 0.5 percent.

Even if you use the “Market Value of Products Sold” in the USDA's Census of Agriculture, which is calculated differently, that only gets you to $5.8 billion – still less than 1 percent of state GDP. Compare with manufacturing, at $70.6 billion per the BEA, and you begin to see the problem. 

Nor does ag employ one in seven Pennsylvanians. If it did, that would work out to roughly 857,000 farmers out of our roughly 6-million-strong work force. How far below that are we? The Bureau of Labor Statistics counts just 5,700 people in “Farming, Fishing and Forestry Occupations.”

Actually that seems way too low to me. My guess is it omits a lot of owner-operators, migrant workers, and maybe family members who aren't paid wages. But even if you increase it by a factor of 10, you're still only at 57,000, or less than 7 percent of the supposed 857K. 

But how can there be so few workers, you ask, when the state has 62,000 farms (or as Corbett put it later in his speech, “62,000 Pennsylvania farm families who are working every day to bring their best to you.”)? Well, 21,425 of those farms sell less than $1,000 worth of goods, according to the Census of Agriculture. A full 38,850 sell less than $10,000 worth. That’s sales, by the way, not profits. Economically speaking, and regardless of how they may perceive themselves, those aren’t full-time farmers, those are people who farm on the side. And indeed, the Census of Agriculture says farming is the principal occupation of 28,751 of Pennsylvania farm operators, but a sideline for 34,412.

(Incidentally, 857,000 divided  by 62,000 equals 13.8. Do you really think the average farm in Pennsylvania employs 14 people? Since the average Pennsylvania farm is 124 acres in size, according to the ag census, that would mean we farm just 9 acres per worker. In 1890, ag labor efficiency already was 27.5 acres per worker. Today it's many hundreds.)

So how does the ag industry get to $69 billion and employing one Pennsylvanian in seven? Basically, by counting everything and the kitchen sink, and hoping no one calls them on it. Food processing, packaging, trucking, food preparation – it’s all “ag.” Then all of that gets elided via a little marketing magic (which apparently involves Canadians) into the notion that these are all old guys in coveralls riding tractors in a sun-dappled cornfield.

Just to be clear, I admire farmers, especially small-scale farmers. It’s hellish hard work, it’s 24/7, you're at the mercy of the weather, your banker and the commodities markets, and unless you’re one of the big boys, it doesn’t pay all that well. I’m hugely grateful they’re out there growing food for the rest of us while we soft-handed types peg away at our laptops at the office.

But there aren’t very many of them, and they’re not a big part of the economy. Sorry.

P.S.: Don’t believe me? Ask the Commonwealth Foundation. They’ll tell you exactly the same thing.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Taking pot shots at David Brooks

David Brooks
David Brooks has been a laughingstock of the left-wing blogosphere for a long time now, and with good reason. But he deserves an extra helping of scorn for last week’s column “Weed: Been There. Done That,” in which he accomplishes the singular feat of advancing his anti-legalization thesis by means of a personal history that entirely undermines it.

How so?

“For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I smoked marijuana,” Brooks writes. “It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together.”

And then what happened? He and his pals gradually realized pot can make you do dumb things in public. One guy, sadly, became an addict, but the others developed interests and pastimes that were more worthwhile than weed. In short, they grew up.

Notice what did not happen. Brooks and his friends were not arrested. They didn’t go to jail, or get put on probation, or have their futures permanently blighted. For all we know, the one who became an addict got to go to rehab, maybe multiple times. Maybe he’s in real estate now, or hedge funds.

Can you imagine any way in which adding the police, or drug courts, or a brutal black market in which cartels kill and torture to maintain market share, makes this story happier?

Yet Brooks apparently believes that the war on drugs helps make us moral:

Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.
In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

Even from Mount Olympus, it should be possible to have a more realistic impression of actual drug policy than that.

When some guy’s door is bashed in by DEA agents, and he’s flung on the floor at gunpoint amid a hail of profanities, he should thank government for subtly tipping the scale? As he is led away to begin his trek through our byzantine legal system, do the rest of us cheer, knowing how temperate, prudent and self-governing he is going to be afterward?

When poor black teens make the same immature choices Brooks did, and have their already slim chances of landing a good job shrink to nothingness, how exactly does that help them to be “the sort of person most of us want to be”?

On Brooks’ reasoning, Prohibition should have been a resounding public policy success. With the government removing the temptation of alcohol, America was that much freer to focus on Higher Things. Odd that what we got instead were speakeasies, bathtub gin and back-alley shootings in Chicago.  

Regulating addictive substances is always going to be a tricky business. I don’t especially want to see heroin ads during football games. But treating marijuana roughly the same way we treat liquor strikes me as a major improvement over the status quo. If David Brooks were being even minimally honest about the lessons of his own experience, I don’t see how he could fail to agree.                             

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

Dang, not a single blog post this week. So much for that New Year's resolution. Fortunately, there's the rest of the Internet to read. E.g.:

● "Paying for coke is equivalent to donating to the Nazi Party."

● Who is the worst philosopher? Tyler Cowen thinks it's Edmund Husserl, though he's charitable enough to present an opposing view

Video of the week: Heard a live version of this on WXPN this afternoon, so why not? Besides, watching a hobbit yodel prog-rock is a great way to kick off the New Year.