Now For Something Different

I spend a lot of time on this blog bemoaning the negatives–and there are certainly plenty of negatives to bemoan and warnings that really must be issued and heeded. But it is also the case that–along with the seeming avalanche of threats and reminders of our collective deficits, many good things are occurring.

I get a weekly newsletter titled “Good News for Humankind,” which helps me balance out all the Bad News for Humankind. (I think the actual title is Spark of Genius, and I don’t have a link–but I assume a Google search will lead to a subscription opportunity.)

The most recent newsletter reported the following items:

Nepal has now become the first country in South Asia to recognize a same-sex marriage,  after issuing a formal recognition of a marriage from 1997.

The U.S., Czech Republic, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Iceland, Kosovo and Norway all formally joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance. The Alliance was launched in 2017 by the U.K. and Canada. The new members have committed to not developing new unabated coal power plants and to phasing out existing unabated coal plants. I hadn’t previously encountered the term “unabated” in this context; according to Dr. Google, it means “the use of coal, oil and gas without substantial efforts to reduce the emissions produced throughout their life cycle.”

In other good news for the environment, a court of appeals in Brussels ordered Belgium to cut its planet-heating pollution by at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030. Evidently, as of 2021, Belgium had cut its emissions by a bare 24%. The court rejected government arguments that minimized the importance of the country’s efforts, arguing that Belgium’s impact on the climate crisis was limited by its small size.

More good news for the environment–and for drivers–comes from a very promising experiment in Detroit. Detroit became first city in the United States to install a wireless-charging roadway. The experiment will begin with the use of a Ford E-Transit fitted with a receiver to gather data; that is part of a five-year pilot project intended to perfect the technology “in real-world settings” and to study its potential for public transport applications. The report said that there are also plans to open the electric road system to the public within the next few years.

Other “good news” items:

Massachusetts became the fifth state  to make prison calls free.

“Ensuring that individuals in state and county prisons can keep in contact with their loved ones is key to enhancing rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, and improving community safety,” Governor Healey said in a written statement.

There are also positive stories from the Good News Network. A small sample of items having an environmental impact:

In the Bay Area of California, home of San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Clara County, and Silicon Valley a famous Pacific resident is heading home for the holidays—up newly-cleaned creeks to spawn.

Who could have thought that the cradle of 21st-century civilization, with its problems and advancements, would have space for wild river ecosystems capable of supporting salmon runs?

But here they are, reports KTVU, as large as 30 pounds, as long as 35 inches, running up the Guadalupe River Watershed by the hundreds.

Google may be defending against anti-trust accusations, but the company with a former “do no evil” motto is also doing good.

An advanced geothermal project funded and developed by Google has begun pumping carbon-free electricity onto the Nevada grid to power the company’s data centers there.

Geothermal energy was once confined in theory to areas of geothermal activity, but if one drills deep enough, there’s extreme heat from the planet’s core essentially everywhere to be harnessed to make steam and drive turbines to create carbon-free electricity 24 hours a day when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

For this reason, Google made an early bet on this enhanced geothermal technology, and partnered with the Utah-based Fervo Energy, which uses drilling techniques from the oil and gas industry to create a first-of-its-kind power plant in Nevada.

GNN reported that initial tests in July showed that the technology was working, in which the hypothesized 3.5 megawatts were indeed being delivered.

When I am particularly depressed by political turmoil and climate change, I try to remember that there are thousands of people around the globe who are working to understand and hopefully solve our most pressing problems. We owe them not only our gratitude, but our own efforts to improve our political and natural environment–beginning with our votes for sane lawmakers next November.


A Truly Alternate Reality

You’d think that sweltering temperatures, raging fires, the pending collapse of ocean currents, and multiple other signs would convince the dubious holdouts who continue to deny the reality of climate change.

As Time Magazine recently reported, you’d be wrong. Instead, extreme weather is actually fueling the crazy Right.

Rather than climate extremes forcing skeptics of climate policy to “get with the program, “conservative backlash around the world to climate policy may have also reached a fever pitch.”

In the U.S., former President Donald Trump has turned electric vehicles into a major attack line targeting President Joe Biden. In a late June speech, he called Biden’s policies “environmental extremism” and claimed they were “heartless and disloyal and horrible for the American worker.’

As the article notes, it is abundantly clear that partisanship matters.

A 2020 paper in the journal Nature Climate Change pointed to a clear dividing line in the U.S. Extreme weather tends to reinforce the link between climate change and weather effects in Democratic and/or highly educated communities—and less so elsewhere.

This dynamic means that extreme weather may actually be creating an opportunity for conservatives to cater to their base. As heat waves or flooding raises the specter of climate change for certain groups, others can use it to raise the specter of the costs of climate policy to rally their most loyal supporters who are primed to oppose it anyway.

It’s relatively easy to dismiss Trump’s rantings on the subject (okay, on any subject), but for most rational individuals, it is simply inconceivable that political operatives would ignore the dangers of climate change in order to play on the ignorance of their supporters–a strategy they must know increases the very real threats to humanity. (Perhaps none of them have grandchildren…)

Inconceivable or not, according to a story in the Guardian, that strategy is deliberate.

An alliance of rightwing groups has crafted an extensive presidential proposal to bolster the planet-heating oil and gas industry and hamstring the energy transition, it has emerged. Against a backdrop of record-breaking heat and floods this year, the $22m endeavor, Project 2025, was convened by the notorious rightwing, climate-denying think-tank the Heritage Foundation, which has ties to fossil fuel billionaire Charles Koch.

Called the Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise, it is meant to guide the first 180 days of presidency for an incoming Republican president, writes Dharna Noor. Climate experts and advocates have criticized planning that would dismantle US climate policy. The guide’s chapter on the US Department of Energy proposes eliminating three agency offices that are crucial for the energy transition, and also calls to slash funding to the agency’s grid deployment office in an effort to stymie renewable energy deployment, E&E News reported this week.

The plan is nothing if not thorough; electing a Republican President who would implement it would be nothing short of suicidal. 

The part of the plan dealing with the Department of Energy (which would also hugely expand gas infrastructure) was authored by Bernard McNamee, formerly a senior advisor to Ted Cruz. McNamee previously led the far-right Texas Public Policy Foundation, which fights environmental regulation.

Another chapter focuses on gutting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and moving it away from its focus on the climate crisis. It proposes cutting the agency’s environmental justice and public engagement functions, while shrinking it as a whole by terminating new hires in “low-value programs”, E&E News reported. The proposal was written Mandy Gunasekara, who was the former chief of staff at the EPA under Trump.

Efforts to undermine existing environmental safeguards aren’t limited to Rightwing think-tanks. GOP members of the House continually attack federal climate funding in their spending bill proposals, putting numerous governmental functions at risk.

Earlier this month, the Clean Budget Coalition– – composed of more than 250 advocacy groups – warned that Republican representatives were slipping restrictions on climate spending into the government’s annual spending bills, bills that must be passed before current funding expires on 30 September to avoid a government shutdown. This week, the coalition found that House Republicans had added additional “poison pills” to spending bills, including ones that target environmental funding.

The ragtag group of Republicans running for President are echoing this insanity–none more enthusiastically than Indiana’s “gift” to the nation, Mr. Piety Pence.

Pence–a longtime climate-change denier who (fortunately) has about as much chance of being President as I do–recently unveiled an economic proposal that includes eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency and reversing President Biden’s efforts to curb the impacts of climate change.

This Republican attack on sanity raises the stakes. Voting Blue is no longer “just” about fighting racism and homophobia, regaining women’s autonomy and protecting democracy.

It’s not hyperbole to say it’s about protecting life on Earth.


Let’s Talk About Federalism

Ah, federalism! In the abstract, “laboratories of democracy” and a component of those “checks and balances” the Founders established.

Two hundred plus years later, a mess.

Very few students came into my classes with an understanding of the term or the multiple and often confusing ways in which federalism operates in the 21st Century. (That confusion was clearly shared by the author of a recent Washington Post essay who didn’t seem to understand when state-level prosecutors like Bragg can charge violations of both state and federal laws in a single prosecution. In all fairness, however–as I so often told my students– it depends, and it’s complicated.)

Actually, in addition to gerrymandering, the Electoral College, the filibuster, and the number/ terms of Supreme Court Justices, it’s also past time to revisit and revise the divisions of authority between state and federal governments.

Our relatively strong federal government was founded in reaction to the serious and multiple problems the country experienced under the Articles of Confederation, which gave states far too much authority.  In recent years, however, we seem to have forgotten about the very negative consequences of government fragmentation that prompted the Founders to establish a strong central government.

Obviously, not all policies need to be nationally uniform–there are plenty of areas where local control is appropriate. However, questions about who is entitled to fundamental rights–and what those rights are–isn’t one of them, as the patchwork of approaches to reproductive freedom that’s emerging is likely to demonstrate. Forcefully.

The (belated) application of the Bill of Rights to state and local governments was meant to establish a floor–to ensure that a citizen moving from say, New York to Indiana, would not thereby experience a reduction of her fundamental rights as an American citizen. Justice Alito’s evisceration of the substantive due process clause is–among other incredibly negative things– a step back toward the fragmentation of the Articles of Confederation.

The need for substantial national uniformity isn’t confined to civil liberties. Over the 200+ years of American statehood, the need to rationalize and unify large areas of the law gave rise to the work of the Uniform Law Commission; that body developed the Uniform Commercial Code– a comprehensive set of laws governing all commercial transactions in the United States. It has national application, but it isn’t a federal law–it had to be adopted by each state’s legislature.

As the Commission’s website explains,

Uniformity of law is essential in this area for the interstate transaction of business. Because the UCC has been universally adopted, businesses can enter into contracts with confidence that the terms will be enforced in the same way by the courts of every American jurisdiction. The resulting certainty of business relationships allows businesses to grow and the American economy to thrive.

Commerce is hardly the only area where uniformity is desirable and/or necessary. Federal action in the face of a pandemic would certainly seem to qualify, and before the incompetence and massive ignorance of the Trump administration, the federal government largely directed public health responses to threatened outbreaks.  A lot of people died as a result of Trump’s decision to leave COVID response to the states.

I won’t even address the insanity of leaving gun laws to the states in a country as mobile as the U.S.

Then there’s the environment. ( Air and water don’t stay in Indiana.)

The Indiana Capital Chronicle recently reported on efforts by Indiana lawmakers to give the General Assembly power over decisions that are currently left to state agencies  staffed with experts who implement state and federal environmental laws— a move that  would put Hoosiers’ health and environment in jeopardy.

A sweeping, 54-page amendment was added last week to the administrative rulemaking bill, which additionally seeks to put lawmakers in charge of new pesticide regulations and prevent state environmental regulators from making stricter coal ash rules than federal ones.

Indiana’s legislators already believe they know more than doctors; now they think they’re experts in environmental science. Given their consistent subservience to the state’s utilities, passage of this bill would be a huge step backwards.

No serious student of governance believes that, in a country as large and diverse as the United States, all decisions should be made at the federal level. The question with which we should be grappling is “which responsibilities are properly federal and which matters are properly left to state or local governments?” .

What laws need to be uniform if we are to be the United States of America, rather than a haphazard collection of Red and Blue fiefdoms?

I’m willing to leave zoning decisions up to local municipalities, and a substantial portion of criminal justice measures up to the states. When it comes to guns, the environment or fundamental rights, not so much…


Following The Money

It was never about improving education.

I’ve posted several times about the World’s Worst Legislature’s continuing assault on public education–an assault defended on grounds that research has soundly debunked. An article from yesterday’s Indiana Capital Chronicle pulled back the (already pretty sheer) curtain on those legislative justifications.

Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston maintained Thursday that virtual charter schools deserve equal funding as their brick-and-mortar counterparts and denied that a virtual education company he consults for would unfairly benefit from an increase in taxpayer dollars proposed in the state budget

The for-profit Stride, Inc. operates seven Indiana-based virtual public, charter and private schools, according to its website and as reported by the School Matters blog. 

Indiana virtual schools like Stride currently receive 85% of the per-pupil state funding that goes to “traditional” public schools. Funding would increase to 100% under the House Republican budget proposal that’s now under consideration in the Senate. 

That means virtual schools stand to get a significant funding boost. For instance, Union School Corporation’s enrollment is almost all virtual, and it will see a 30% increase in total base funding in the first year of the budget. By comparison the statewide average increase in base funding for all school would be 6%.

Based on its current student enrollment, Stride stands to win big, as well — to the tune of some $9 million.

Can we spell “conflict of interest”?

According to the report, Huston is one of at least 15 state lawmakers who provide “professional advice and guidance” to private businesses.

Huston started TMH Strategies Inc. last year, a little more than a month after his high-profile departure from a six-figure role at the College Board, according to his latest statement of economic interest.

He listed his consultancy’s current clients as Fishers-based tech company Spokenote, as well as Stride, Inc. — a for-profit education management organization that provides online curriculum to homeschooled kids and other schools. 

Lest we be tempted to give these lawmakers the benefit of the doubt–lest we be inclined to believe them when they claim to ignore the financial interests of their paying clients when legislating, we need only look at the involvement of a familiar name .

The President of Schools at Stride, Inc. is Tony Bennett — former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction before he was defeated in 2012 by Democrat Glenda Ritz.

Huston left Cisco Systems, Inc. in 2009 to serve as Bennett’s chief of staff at the state education department. But he returned to the company in 2010.

The Associated Press detailed Huston’s involvement in the 2012 sale of a $1.7 million Cisco videoconferencing system to the IDOE that officials later determined was a waste of taxpayer money.

Bennett also contributed $15,000 to Huston’s campaign account since 2020.

Many of you will remember Bennett. During his single term as Indiana’s Secretary of Education, he was touted as a “national leader in the Republican effort to overhaul public education.” After his defeat by Glenda Ritz, he was hired as Florida’s Education Commissioner by then-Governor Rick Scott, a post he was forced to resign when the AP reported that while serving in Indiana, he’d changed the state’s evaluation of a charter school founded by a prominent GOP donor.

As a former teacher–I started my professional life as a high school English teacher and later spent 21 years as a college professor–I have multiple reservations about virtual instruction, not to mention the state’s ability to confirm attendance figures reported by such schools. But even if those concerns can be addressed,  virtual schools don’t incur overhead for brick and mortar school buildings–they don’t pay for utilities, janitors and maintenance. They don’t provide school lunches or transportation. Why should they receive the same per-pupil dollars as schools that do incur those expenses? 

I guess the answer is: because they were savvy enough to hire the right “consultant.”

The assault on Indiana’s public schools has been unremitting and enormously damaging, but in Indiana, education isn’t the only policy area where deep pockets are more persuasive than logic, evidence or the public good. 

Again, the Capital Chronicle has the story.

Environmental activists decried the legislative process for two bills Thursday, saying they clearly benefited some of the state’s most powerful while harming the average Hoosier… 

On Wednesday, a House environmental committee opted to add controversial wetlands language to a Senate bill on sewage systems. Because the topic was unrelated and no notice was given, opponents had limited opportunity to give public testimony — a critical part of the legislative process. 

Meanwhile, the state’s biggest utility – and frequent campaign donor – Duke Energy already called upon a court to review a crucial ruling less than 24 hours after the House passed and Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill to recover “unexpected” additional costs from customers.

Gee–I wonder why Indiana ranks 43d among the states in education–and why we’re the most polluted…


Some Encouraging News

Despite my constant negative rants, I have always considered myself an optimist.  That optimism, struggling though it is, leads me to believe that the current cycle of racist backlash and the frantic efforts to turn back the clock by Christian Nationalists is beginning to abate.

Granted, those efforts still pose a considerable threat, but there are signs that the war on modernity is slowly losing ground, and we need to acknowledge them.

What was once a political party with a reasonably cohesive agenda is coming apart. For example, the GOP climate change deniers trying to keep companies from investing or otherwise doing business with environmentally and socially “woke” enterprises are angering longtime Republicans whose businesses are responding to reality–not to mention the demands of  environmentally and socially responsible customers.

Other indicators:

Polls of the electorate show that a majority of young voters identify as Democrats, and that the crazed antics of Congressional Republicans have begun to turn off older voters.

Calls for higher taxes on the obscenely undertaxed wealthy are growing.

The ubiquity of cell-phone cameras has brought increasing urgency–and potency– to the longstanding calls to reform policing and address racism.

Foundations, not-for-profits and others have recognized the danger to democracy posed by local “news deserts” and have been sponsoring new efforts at local journalism intended to remedy the dangerous dearth of information that has resulted.

And in the wider society, we may be seeing less resentment of “elites”– defined as educated Americans. I was particularly relieved to come across this article in Axios about an increase in the number of students studying the humanities.

The pro-STEM movement has gutted high school and college humanities programs — but there’s some evidence of a post-pandemic revival afoot, Jennifer A. Kingson reports.

Why it matters: In academic circles, humanities’ decades-long decline is blamed for the proliferation of falsehoods on social media, crass political discourse, the rise in racism and the parlous state of democracy (not to mention our etiolated vocabularies).

Driving the news: When the University of California, Berkeley, reported an uptick in humanities majors this academic year, there was elation — and shock — at the prospect of a trend reversal.

The number of first-year Berkeley students declaring majors in the arts and humanities — which includes English, history, languages, philosophy and media studies — was up 121% over last year.

The number of high schoolers applying to Berkeley with the intention of studying humanities was up 43.2% from five years ago, and up 73% vs. 10 years ago.
Some other schools — such as Arizona State University and the University of Washington — have also seen a rise in students declaring humanities majors.
What they’re saying: “Students are turning to the arts and humanities as a way to make sense of our current moment,” Sara Guyer, dean of Berkeley’s division of arts and humanities and director of the World Humanities Report, told the university’s news service

Why do I believe that study of the humanities and liberal arts is so important?

“Paradigm” is one of our contemporary, and overused, buzzwords, but it is an appropriate word to use in connection with the importance of the liberal arts, because the liberal arts give us the paradigm we need if we are to function in an era of rapid change.

We inhabit a world that is increasingly global and–despised as some people find the term and the reality it describes–multicultural. A familiarity with human history, philosophy, literature, sociology and anthropology prepares us to encounter, appreciate and survive in that world.

The liberal arts teach us to be rational and analytic in an increasingly irrational age. They teach us to be respectful not just of results but of process–to understand that “how” and “why” are just as important as “what.”

Most important, from my perspective, the study of the liberal arts is based upon a profound respect for the importance of genuine human liberty. The life of the mind depends upon the freedom to consider any and all ideas, information, points of view. It cannot flower in a totalitarian environment. Technocrats can live with Big Brother, but poets and philosophers cannot.

It may be trite, but it is nevertheless true that learning how to communicate and learning how to learn are the essential survival skills. If all one learns is a trade–no matter how highly compensated the particular trade might be–he or she is lost when that trade is no longer in demand. But even if that never happens, lack of familiarity with the liberal arts makes it less likely that an individual’s non-work life will be full and rich.

There is a difference between learning a trade and acquiring an education. That difference is the liberal arts.

So–modest as they may be–harbingers of positive change….