Quality Of Life

In a post a few days ago, I considered the GOP’s current definition of “crime”–noting that, to Republicans,  breaking federal rules is no longer criminal, and locally, “crime” only happens in Blue cities and states.

It’s another example of the widening perceptual gap between urban and rural Americans. City folks are increasingly Democratic; rural inhabitants increasingly Republican/MAGA.

Ideally, the decision where to live wouldn’t be viewed as political. Some people like owning tracts of land and being close to nature; others (like your truly) appreciate the energy generated by density and diversity. It is–or should be– simply a matter of individual preference.

Of course, it’s never that simple. Public policies matter.

There are measurable reasons that some places in America attract people, while others are emptying out. (Ironically, Red state culture war policies inflict the most damage on rural areas where residents are most supportive of those policies– anti-abortion laws have accelerated the departure of all doctors, not just ob-gyn practitioners, and educational vouchers hurt public schools in rural areas where thin population cannot support private alternatives).

For those who have a choice, the decision where to live often depends upon the perceived “quality of life,” an assessment of the amenities that make a city or state attractive to a majority of potential businesses and individuals.

Michael Hicks recently shared what the data tells us about that question.

Hicks began by noting that most of Indiana (and the Midwest generally)  is in economic decline. Projections are that more than 50 Hoosier counties will experience a declining population through 2060.

A dozen counties will be projected to grow faster than the nation through 2060. The remaining 30 or so will be projected to grow more slowly than the national rate—a pattern known as relative decline. Indiana and the Midwest will still be prosperous, in a global sense. But, relative to most of the nation, the coming decades will see us slipping farther away from the nation.

Research has identified the characteristics of places that do continue to attract residents.

Growing places almost always have most of the same positive attributes. Their schools are good and attractive to families, they are safe, their residents are better educated than average, and they have growing housing stock with good public infrastructure. Growing places enjoy recreational options, both private and public. And, there are few barriers to employment or starting a business, such as restrictive occupational licensing or heavy regulatory burdens

Research tells us that–duh!– when people aren’t moving to an area, it’s because they don’t wish to live there.

The primary reason people don’t wish to live in a place is that it doesn’t have the neighborhoods they want. The reasons for not moving to a place are as varied as human interests. But, for the median family, the common factors are that schools aren’t sufficiently good, crime is too high or infrastructure is too decayed.

That research also tells us that policymankers’ preferred emphasis on “economic development”–luring businesses–is misplaced. As Hicks notes,

No matter how successful a community is at luring new factories and warehouses, unless you can attract their highly paid workers to your town, it will have no lasting effect. If your business attraction efforts make your community less desirable for people, it will actually weaken your local economy. It is a costly business with inherent risks.

In the post-COVID world, people are increasingly mobile, making business attraction less important. Here there is some new policies. Some places are trying to attract remote workers through financial incentives. It is possible someone will figure out a magic incentive. However, the evidence I’ve seen suggests that fundamental conditions such as good schools, safe neighborhoods and recreational opportunities trump financial incentives every time.

Hicks stresses the importance of local government. I absolutely agree–in theory. Unfortunately, in Indiana, municipal governments are severely constrained by our retrograde state legislature.

In Indiana, cities and towns don’t have anything remotely like home rule: It took three legislative sessions to get permission to vote on a local tax to fund adequate transit. When Bloomington tried to ban plastic grocery bags, the legislature passed a bill divesting local governments of authority to do so. Education policies are dictated by a General Assembly determined to privatize public education. For years, dollars for street repair have been doled out based on “lane miles,” irrespective of the difference in traffic counts/wear and tear–a lane on a little-used county road gets funded the same as a lane on a traffic-choked Indianapolis thoroughfare. And efforts to address the number of guns on city streets run headlong into the resistance of “Second Amendment” fanatics in the Statehouse.

Those few among our legislative overlords who understand what Hicks is saying don’t care.


When Does Consistency Matter?

We’ve all heard the quote–attributed to Emerson–decrying “foolish consistency” as the “hobgoblin of little minds.”

The phrase requires us to distinguish between the sort of consistency that signals a thoughtful intellect and the “foolish” consistency that Emerson disdained.

I have recently concluded that the distinction is critical to a proper evaluation and interpretation of today’s partisan political arguments.

Many of us still remember the critique of John Kerry when he was running for President; he was widely mocked as a “flip flopper” because he’d changed his position on some issue. I no longer recall what the issue  was, but I do recall his entirely appropriate response, which was along the lines of “when I encounter facts of which I have previously been unaware–when I learn more about a subject–I change my position to accord with those facts.”

When scientists discovered that disease is caused by germs, and entertained the possibility that smallpox hadn’t been sent as a punishment from God, as many had thought, that inconsistency led to the development of medicines and vaccines. Human progress requires the recognition and correction of error. “Consistency” in such matters would merit Emerson’s scorn.

On the other hand, right now, one of the thorniest problems of American governance is the large number of elected officials–almost all Republicans– who absolutely refuse to change or reconsider their beliefs even when faced with credible contrary evidence. Their stubborn refusal to modify their positions even after those positions have become logically and factually untenable is a perfect example of Emerson’s “foolish consistency.” (No one can call them “flip-floppers”!)

When ideologues refuse to rethink or reconsider mistaken positions, the resulting incoherence is  arguably worse than the temporary confusion that often accompanies necessary change.

Ideological rigidity and a refusal to recognize how hypocritical their resulting messages sound is an obvious trait of  today’s GOP.  Ironically, in their refusal to rethink  or reconcile incompatible articles of faith, Republicans  are struggling to apply a totally incoherent political philosophy to issues that really do require  a measure of intellectual consistency.

A few examples will illustrate that incoherence:

  • Free markets are good because they expand choice. Individual choice is an integral part of freedom and a public good–unless, of course, we are talking about women’s reproductive choice, because that’s bad.
  • Religious folks should be allowed to act on the basis of their sincere beliefs, even if those actions disadvantage other people. But those accommodations shouldn’t extend to adherents of non-Christian religions or to liberal denominations that permit abortion.
  • Parents should be given the right to exercise very broad choices when it comes to how they raise and educate their children–unless, of course, mom wants to take Junior to Drag Queen Story Hour at the local library, or give Junior’s teenage sister free reign to read whatever might be on those library shelves.
  • Parents should be trusted to do what’s best for their children–unless they’ve decided to work with medical professionals to help their children cope with gender dysphoria, or manage transition.
  • Business owners should be free of  heavy-handed government regulations; after all, those owners and managers know best how to create jobs, serve their customers and make a profit. But government shouldn’t allow them to factor “woke” concerns about inclusion and the environment into their business decisions.
  • Welfare programs just encourage dependency; hard-working taxpayers shouldn’t have to support people who can’t or won’t make it on their own. But those taxpayers definitely should continue to fund the huge annual subsidies that further enrich profitable corporations and obscenely profitable fossil fuel companies. That’s not welfare, that’s economic development.

In all fairness, there really is a consistency lurking beneath these surface incompatibilities: theocratic consistency.

If we approach those examples from the perspective of a Christian Nationalist, the seeming disparities become far more cohesive. The lawmakers and pundits who hold these otherwise inconsistent positions are operating out of a theocratic conviction that they should have the right to impose their “sincerely held” religious beliefs on everyone else–after all, they are the “real” Americans, listening to the “real” God.

Even the clear influence of money in all this  has a theocratic element–U.S. policy has always been influenced by a corrupted version of Calvinism–the belief that financial success is evidence of moral righteousness, and that poverty is a sign of God’s displeasure.

Speaking of hobgoblins….


Money Over Sanity

Before the presidency of Donald Trump and the rise of the MAGA/QAnon crazies, I would sometimes need to search for a good example of bad public policy to discuss in my classes. Indiana supplied many of those, but if even the Hoosier state lacked an appropriate case of WTF, I could always depend on Texas.

An article from the New York Times I read a while back suggests that it isn’t only the Texas governor and legislature, or Texas’ outsized influence on textbook selection. The state evidently supplies all manner of nefarious actors seeking to shape federal policies in ways favorable to their bottom lines. The organization profiled by the Times operates beneath the radar, in a far too successful effort to protect fossil fuel companies from those silly laws intended to save the planet.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation is an Austin-based nonprofit organization backed by–and serving the interests of– “oil and gas companies and Republican donors.

With influence campaigns, legal action and model legislation, the group is promoting fossil fuels and trying to stall the American economy’s transition toward renewable energy. It is upfront about its opposition to Vineyard Wind and other renewable energy projects, making no apologies for its advocacy work.

Even after Democrats in Congress passed the biggest climate law in United States history this summer, the organization is undaunted, and its continued efforts highlight the myriad forces working to keep oil, gas and coal companies in business.

In Arizona, the Texas Public Policy Foundation campaigned to keep open one of the biggest coal-fired power plants in the West. In Colorado, it called for looser restrictions on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. And in Texas, the group crafted the first so-called “energy boycott” law to punish financial institutions that want to scale back their investments in fossil fuel projects, legislation adopted by four other states.

The article also notes that the organization spreads misinformation about climate science, producing  YouTube videos, sponsoring pundits to appear on Fox and Friends, and social media campaigns. The message–aimed at lawmakers and the public–is that a transition away from oil, gas and coal would harm Americans.

They have frequently seized on current events to promote dubious narratives, pinning high gasoline prices on President Biden’s climate policies (economists say that’s not the driver) or claiming the 2021 winter blackout in Texas was the result of unreliable wind energy (it wasn’t).

Foundation personnel travel widely in order to encourage lawmakers in various state to punish companies trying to reduce their carbon emissions. It sponsors an initiative called Life:Powered, that makes what the organization calls “the moral case for fossil fuels.” The basic argument–which doesn’t seem all that moral–is that “American prosperity is rooted in an economy based on oil, gas and coal.

The article quoted the chief executive of an Austin-based trade group for renewable energy companies, who pointed out that the Foundation, whose members spent decades advocating for offshore oil drilling, oppose offshore windfarms. It opposes subsidies for renewables. (Last time I looked, the government continues to subsidize fossil fuel industries to the tune of 20 billion dollars annually.)

They’re for looser restrictions on fracking and drilling, but greater restrictions for solar and wind. This organization exists to defend fossil fuels from any threat to their market share.”

On Thanksgiving, Jason Isaac, an executive at the group, tweeted “Today, I’m thankful to live a high-carbon lifestyle and wish the rest of the world could too. Energy poverty = poverty. #decarbonization is dangerous and deadly.”

The article goes on to describe the various ways the amply-funded Foundation influences policy and protects the financial interests of fossil fuel industries.It’s a textbook example of the way monied interests drive American policy.

There are several issues here, the most obvious of which is how these people can sleep at night. An overwhelming scientific consensus warns that continued reliance on fossil fuels threatens the Earth. Perhaps they don’t care about other people, but presumably many of them have children and grandchildren…

Less obvious, perhaps, but equally confounding ,is the ability of this organization and others like it–organizations that are pursing equally dangerous and/or dishonest goals (ALEC comes to mind, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of others)– to wield dramatically disproportionate influence in America’s legislative bodies.

Ordinary citizens lack the resources to hire lobbyists, make significant campaign contributions and otherwise mount effective responses to these organizations. Worse still, the stealthy ways in which these organizations influence policy keeps most of us ordinary citizens from recognizing their existence or understanding what they are doing and how they are doing it.

It’s fashionable these days to attack capitalism, but America no longer has a genuinely capitalist economic system; it has corporatism— control of government  by large interest groups.


Send In The Robots

Don’t bother; they’re here.

Along with all the other causes of social upheaval–political polarization, Russia’s increasingly unnerving nuclear threats, escalating climate change, global inflation…the list goes on…the displacement of millions of workers by automation is getting closer and closer. Maybe–as yesterday’s post suggested–this is just the start of a brave new economy. Or not.

It has always been a mystery to me why workers in and out of unions have focused all their attention and anger on off-shoring, the movement of factories to countries with lower labor costs and the ability to evade rules protecting the environment. That movement has clearly disadvantaged American workers, but it pales in comparison to the steady, seemingly inexorable march of the machines–a march they’ve basically ignored.

When I was young–admittedly a very long time ago–attendants pumped our gas. In offices, rows of secretaries typed documents for lawyers and managers, using carbon paper for the copies. Clerks checked people out at the grocery store, and we paid with cash we got from a teller, not an ATM. The list goes on. And on.

Most of us don’t think about those those clerks and secretaries, bank tellers and gas station attendants who have been replaced by automation, but that is actually what robotics looks like–not like Data or even R2D2.

Consider Flippy.

Flippy is the robot described at the link; it is making the French fries at White Castle .

The fryer station is hot and it’s dangerous. It’s frequently where workplace accidents occur. It’s also where the drive-through gets jammed up at night with people waiting on their loaded fries and chicken rings.

So Miso let Flippy keep his jaunty name but re-engineered him to start dipping fries. White Castle bought in, installing Flippy in a Merrillville, Ind., location and then several others around the country, with the aim of having 100 over the next few years. Jack in the Box execs zipped up to Pasadena for a demo.

Fries are just the beginning. Miso Robotics–the company that came up with Flippy– is developing a coffee forecaster-maker-pourer for Panera. It has also begun work on Sippy, a drink fulfillment robot that pours, seals and labels beverage orders; Sippy has already been ordered by Jack in the Box .

Then there’s Chippy, which will soon be frying and seasoning fresh tortilla chips at Chipotle.

The robots, with their articulated arms, multiple cameras and machine learning, excel at those mind-numbing tasks restaurant workers have to repeat again and again. And they aren’t sniffy about working the graveyard shift.

“We realized for a robotic solution to be a real solution for our customers, it had to have a really high customer return on investment. Which meant it had to take a meaningful amount of labor off the table,” Bell said.

As various companies test and perfect these automated substitutes for workers, it’s easy to see their appeal. Robots work 24/7, don’t need breaks, don’t shirk when the boss isn’t looking, don’t argue with (or sexually assault) co-workers, don’t get sick or require benefits.

They are also currently pricey–although as production ramps up, prices will undoubtedly come down.

But now — with restaurants facing a protracted labor shortage and robotic technology becoming both better and cheaper — restaurant brands are doing new math. How long before an initial technology investment pays off? How long will it take to train human employees to work alongside robot co-workers? And, ultimately, how many restaurant jobs will be permanently commandeered by robots?

It is that last question that will challenge policymakers. I’ve posted previously about the likely disruption when self-driving cars and trucks are safe enough to take to the roads. Millions of Americans currently make their living driving everything from big rigs to school buses to Amazon delivery vans to taxis, Ubers and Lyfts. It is highly unlikely that a significant number of those people will be able to retrain and find alternate employment.

Fast-food establishments currently face a different labor landscape, of course.

If robots are cheaper and more efficient, experts wonder, will the more than 3 million entry-level fast-food jobs be ceded to robots entirely in the future? For now, the thorny problem is there just aren’t enough humans who want to do the work.

According to the National Restaurant Association, 65 percent of restaurant owners still say finding enough workers is a central problem. In the Great Resignation, prospective hospitality workers were being lured back with the promise of fancy fitness club memberships and 401(k) plans.

Whatever happens to restaurants, automation won’t stop there.

In addition to earning our daily bread, most of us derive substantial meaning from our jobs. What will happen when those jobs are gone? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t have a clue.


Red States, Blue States…

The battles over abortion are highlighting some previously under-appreciated differences between life in Red and Blue states. Those differences include health outcomes as well as economic circumstances..

As Jennifer Rubin summed it up in the Washington Post, 

 If you live in a red state, your risk of getting and dying from covid-19 is higher than in blue states. On average, your life span is shorter, your chance of living in poverty higher, your educational attainment lower and your economic opportunities are reduced relative to blue-state residents.

There are–as Rubin also acknowledges– policies being pursued in Red states that are increasingly persuading people to decamp and live elsewhere:  If they have a choice, “diverse” workers–LGBTQ+ folks, women and members of minority groups with skills needed by high-tech businesses– frequently choose to live in places they find welcoming, or at least safe. (As we saw when Indiana passed RFRA, unlike Republican politicians, local business enterprises understand that they are significantly disadvantaged in unwelcoming states. Low taxes– accompanied by a corresponding lack of public amenities and a poor or mediocre quality of life–simply aren’t enough to attract either new business or the skilled workforces on which those local enterprises depend.)

Red states like Indiana that have participated in the unremitting right-wing attack on public education tend not to produce the educated workforces that appeal to companies looking to relocate. Those disadvantages have produced the significant differences between Red and Blue state economies. As the Brookings Institution has reported,

To be sure, racial and cultural resentment have been the prime factors of the Trump backlash, but it’s also clear that the two parties speak for and to dramatically different segments of the American economy. Where Republican areas of the country rely on lower-skill, lower-productivity “traditional” industries like manufacturing and resource extraction, Democratic, mostly urban districts contain large concentrations of the nation’s higher-skill, higher-tech professional and digital services.

Many of these differences have been apparent for years–and as the Brookings report noted, they have recently been accelerating.  But that’s not all. As Rubin writes,

And then came the abortion bans. Thousands, if not millions, of women of childbearing age might reconsider their residence if they want to avoid the potentially life-threatening bans — or if they simply want to be treated like competent, autonomous adults.

There are signs the reality of forced-birth laws are registering with those most affected. Reuters reports: “The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide has some students rethinking their higher education plans as states rush to ban or curtail abortion, according to interviews with 20 students and college advisers across the country.” While the evidence is anecdotal at this point, “in the wake of Roe’s overturn, college counselors said abortion has figured prominently in many conversations with clients, with some going as far as nixing their dream schools.”

Lest you be tempted to “pooh pooh” the effect of Dobbs on the college choices of talented young women, I have an example close at hand. My granddaughter–an excellent student–immediately removed Texas’ Rice University–an otherwise highly desirable school– from her list of schools to consider. She’ll attend the University of Chicago, in Illinois, a pro-choice state.

The Times reports that blue-state governors have begun “depicting their abortion rights policies as a business advantage, reinforcing the appeal of the wealthier and more progressive states that many businesses opt to call home in spite of their taxes.

In fact, multiple data points confirm that, among other things, the GOP’s cult ideology decreases life expectancy and keeps many women out of the workplace. It also contributes to the “brain drain” that sends a state’s college graduates to places with more educated populations and a higher quality of life. And if you don’t think any of this really makes a difference in individual life prospects, Brookings will disabuse you of that belief

With their output surging as a result of the big-city tilt of the decade’s “winner-take-most” economy, Democratic districts have seen their median household income soar in a decade—from $54,000 in 2008 to $61,000 in 2018. By contrast, the income level in Republican districts began slightly higher in 2008, but then declined from $55,000 to $53,000.

Underlying these changes have been eye-popping shifts in economic performance. Democratic-voting districts have seen their GDP per seat grow by a third since 2008, from $35.7 billion to $48.5 billion a seat, whereas Republican districts saw their output slightly decline from $33.2 billion to $32.6 billion.

Retrograde public policies have real-world consequences. And those consequences are substantial. Indiana has long suffered the economic and health results of an unhinged and provincial legislature, but it’s about to get much, much worse.