Stuck in the Midst of a Pandemic

So at this moment, I should be in post-surgical pain. I had elective surgery scheduled for this past Tuesday. But, on Monday afternoon as I was preparing my convalescent room with supplies, I received a call from my surgeon’s office saying they needed to delay my surgery for two weeks. I asked whether it was due to COVID, but all the surgeon’s representative would say is that he would not be performing surgery on the day I was scheduled. I can assume the delay was indeed COVID-related. Here in West Virginia, we are late to everything, including the Omicron variant. Watching the daily numbers, I see the exponential rise in case numbers as it was at the beginning of the pandemic. It is irrelevant whether my postponement is due to a lack of beds due to COVID, or a lack of staff due to contracting the illness. It truly does not matter. What matters is that I am still in a state where those who are vaccinated are almost in the minority. We still have nearly half of the population who have not availed themselves of the readily-available vaccines.

There is no doubt those who refuse vaccination are prolonging the duration of the pandemic. And many of those who refuse to be immunized have the audacity to insist upon their right to treatment via monoclonal antibodies. Imagine. For someone who has done their research and chosen not to inject themselves with a preventive serum, they seem to insist a course of transfusion via IV is preferable? Of course, they can now claim to be discriminated against, since one of the criteria used for determining suitability of treatment is supposedly race. The Republicans, led by Governor DeathSantis now can combine two of their favorite complaints, anti-vax sentiment conflated by racial animus. Thus the realization that the monoclonal antibodies Florida relied upon, no longer work against Omicron landed upon the Governor’s deaf ears. It’s all a plot, politically motivated, part of the globalists work aimed at getting rid of the true Americans and replacing us all with – wait for it – other humans.

It is more and more apparent that the true motivation for much of the Republicans in this nation is racism. That is why they are so dead set against any sort of program designed at fostering equity. It doesn’t matter whether it is equity in medical treatment access, or equity in economic programs, by gum we elected a black man as President and all semblance of racism in this nation vanished immediately. So why do we insist upon talking so much about it now? All the resentment stored up in the Archie Bunker minions is being released now, and what’s more, that group has the fire power to overwhelm those of us who don’t seem to acknowledge the existential threat felt by white conservatives.

If only those who claim to be conservative actually fit that mode. But hypocrisy trumps political belief, and thus you have those who can claim to be offended by one comment calling a Fox reporter a dumb son of a bitch, exclaiming that statement is the worst example ever of dealing with the press, and ignoring the thousands of examples of the former President calling all of the press “The enemies of the People.” Meanwhile somehow all of the evangelical Christian community cling to the vision of seeing their savior on earth easily passing through the eye of a needle. Who needs camels anyway? So my surgery is to be postponed for two weeks. Maybe by that time, the surge in caseload will finally ease, and I can slip into and out of the hospital without acquiring a viral coating. Maybe it is a blessing I do not have to go into an environment saturated with virus. But I really feel for those who don’t have an option, those who have emergency conditions. At a minimum they will find themselves waiting longer than they should until they can have their condition treated. The worst case, and you see those cases daily, is they end up dying from a condition that could have been treated if the hospitals were not crawling with those who have insisted upon their right to bodily integrity, regardless of the effects on others. Let me just say. The effect on others is additional death and suffering. Seems acceptable to you? Of course, if you’ve gotten this far, you have an attention span greater than that of a fruit fly, so you probably are not the person who this screed is complaining about.

Supply Chains to Nowhere

For decades, manufacturers worked diligently to “right-size” their supply chains. By right-sizing, this meant lean manufacturing, or just-in-time manufacturing, so the inventory costs for raw and semi-finished materials were as close to zero as possible. Entire college degree programs were predicated on supply chain optimization, and for several decades, this approach seemed to be extremely successful.

Until. Until the pandemic caused untold upsets within the carefully crafted supply chains. Now it was not possible to get raw materials just in advance of the need for these materials in the manufacturing process. Now it became worthwhile to invest in inventories, since reducing inventory costs is meaningless when you cannot produce product. Manufacturers are having to take a much more holistic view of inventories in terms of ensuring continuity of operations. See what impact the microprocessor shortage is having in multiple manufacturing supply chains? Vehicle manufacturers have resorted to completing vehicles except for the electronics, and storing those vehicles locally until the computer chips are received and the vehicles can be completed. All of this extra work and extra inventory reduces the profit margins manufacturers have. The price the ultimate consumer pays goes up. And inflation, the dragon we thought had been vanquished, rises from his cavern and lays waste to all he surveys.

We had banished inflation due to several factors. But I believe the most important of these was the opening of the entire world as a potential source for finished products. Now it was possible to source goods from anywhere in the globe, and we had labor cost arbitrage playing out in all of the Fortune 500 companies. It simply cost a lot less to outsource manufacturing operations to other countries, and when you add in the reduced regulatory costs, we outsourced a lot of our pollution as well. American consumers didn’t care. All we cared about was receiving goods at the lowest possible cost. Thus we decided we didn’t need small-scale vendors for all of the items you could get from a big box store. A single store like a WalMart can replace dozens of small retailers, and we saw this happen in many, many towns across the US. Add the convenience of the internet in there, and it is no wonder the growth story of Amazon further drove consolidation of retailing.  Many pathways to the middle class were smashed along the way as Americans voted with their dollars.

The pandemic, though, caused the pool of consumerism to be overwhelmed by tsunamis. Shortages began to appear, and a public unaccustomed to any type of shortage, soon became attuned to things like delivery schedules to stores. Restocking would occur, only to be overwhelmed by those who stocked up in bulk when that was never their habit in the before times. Soon people noticed lengthening delivery times, and those promises often were violated as deliveries fell further behind. Auto dealer lots became dusty vacant parking lots as the effects of these disruptions appeared at the local level.

When the worker at the bottom of the pyramid saw what was happening, they realized the balance of power was shifting between employer and worker. The growth of the warehousing and delivery businesses offered an opportunity to increase an individual’s wages substantially. Once that happened, the restaurant and other service industries found it difficult to rehire a work force once they began to reopen. It was amusing to see the Republicans blame labor shortages on overly generous government benefits. Of course, the actions of the Republican governors were to end pandemic unemployment programs, which had minimal effect on labor shortages. It is good to see so many folks who believe in the intrinsic laziness of the citizenry, where any attempt at using the tax system to foster equality must be quashed in favor of more tax cuts for the wealthy. Some things just don’t change.

So the dragon of inflation once more is circling overhead, threatening to burn everyone and everything in its path. It is surely an unpopular view to say that we are seeing prices creep upward and it is totally justified. Yet if you look at what we’ve bought over the last 40 years, we did buy a lot of low prices. Our behavior demanded low prices. We viewed it as our right to always have everything we wanted, at our beck and call, and to never have to wait for anything. What we didn’t see was that this change in behavior was leading to the development of an underclass of workers who just couldn’t make it on their wages. If you look at a distribution of incomes across the country, you see a bulge around $20-30,000 per year. The largest number of households fall within that class. If you work full time at $15 / hour, you barely reach the $30,000 plateau. Hard working folks just found it impossible to get by on their meager wages. Since the average household income is over $60,000, it means there’s a lot of folks on the extremely high end of the scale to balance out those earning $15 per hour and less.

We have gone through amazing times with this pandemic. Perhaps it is enough to cause us to examine our own habits, and realize that the lowest price sometimes cost a lot more than buying local. You do see some examples of paying more voluntarily. The growth of organic produce and organic food choices is one area where people pay more in order to benefit themselves, and also the environment. But the same people who buy organic, will order items from Amazon, and not think at all about the impact of their ordering on the rest of the world. Maybe it is time for us to realize that low prices are not the most important part of our lives.

Would it be too much to expect people to change their habits to enable money to stay within their community, instead of enriching some global institution? Yeah, I think it is. That is why I expect politics to devolve into further blaming the current administration for all of the rise in prices. Just like we expect instant gratification for all of our purchases, we insist on flawless execution by our government and thus we always take the easy way out.

Human Evolution in Real Time

One of my projects has been to make it through Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Even though I am not finished with it, I can appreciate what I am seeing in society at present. I am seeing evolution in action within the human race. In the response to COVID, it is apparent that humanity is divided between those who believe in science, and those who steadfastly deny science. The ones who believe in science are those who have accepted the medical miracle of mRNA vaccines, and are current with their inoculations. Those who deny science are the portion of humanity who refuse to accept a vaccine, even when a close family member is in the ICU on a ventilator due to COVID infection.

As such, we should expect differences to show up in the death rates between the two sides of the debate. Those who are vaccinated should have a lower rate of death than those who have failed to avail themselves of the opportunity. And so, humanity will have a slight tendency towards favoring the reproductive success of those who believe in science. Evolution has been captured in real time.

Of course, many of those who do die of the virus are past their reproductive period in life. The disease still overwhelmingly kills those who are older. But when you hear about someone being taken in the prime of life, someone with young children, then it is possible that the genes of those who deny science won’t proliferate as much as they would have.

Within the US, the sentiment towards vaccine refusal is highly correlated with other traits. Apparently those who object to mask mandates in schools also believe in the infallibility of the American story. We as a nation can do no wrong, we have never done wrong, and those who would indoctrinate our precious children with uncomfortable facts that contradict this set of beliefs are evil, and must be opposed vociferously. Thus it is we see school board meetings becoming contentious, and efforts are made to elect those who have the right political perspective. After all, children should be shielded from anything that might make them think. They must swallow the snake oil nostrum of American superiority, and manifest destiny. But I digress.

One thing apparent is the lack of people to understand and accept uncertainty. Their expectation is that experts should be required to have absolute answers at all times as this pandemic unfolded. Their resistance received a boost when the experts at the CDC changed their recommendations over time. You still hear that the experts were against mask usage at the start of this pandemic, and therefore we should still not wear masks. Never mind that the CDC experts were trying to ensure masks were available to health care providers, and due to neglect of the public health over the decades, inventories of protective equipment at the beginning of the pandemic were tragically low. Our worship of low inventories and just-in-time delivery left us woefully unprepared to deal with the surge in demand for basic PPE (as a chemical plant employee, I was aware of Personal Protective Equipment. Most in society had never even considered such matters). So when the CDC took stock of inventories after the initial surge, it was apparent that masks would be available to most of the population. They changed their recommendation to wear masks in public places. However, the die had already been cast for many folks. They insisted that professionals were against masks initially, and therefore masks were of no use.

Similarly, as we learned of the nature of COVID, we learned transmission is mainly through airborne exposure. The fanatical trends towards decontaminating anything from outside the home slowly went away. There are still remnants of this in the public space. Condiments are still unavailable at many restaurants due to the fear of cross-contamination from an infected individual. And it is also obvious that in public facilities, the long-term trend towards energy efficiency made it more difficult for buildings to meet the air exchange recommendations in schools and other public buildings. Most schools built in the past 50 years don’t even have windows that can be opened, so making HVAC systems more robust will mean energy costs for these public facilities will increase.

Many of those who have resisted vaccines care not at all for any of these issues. In fact, many resisters still insist the entire concern about this novel coronavirus is not merited. After all, most colds are coronaviruses, and we don’t shut down the economy for colds, do we? For those who are so withdrawn from reality, it is not possible to realistically convert them away from their beliefs towards new ones that contradict their entrenched positions.

So instead what we are seeing is a slight tendency towards higher survival for those who are more accepting of advances in science. If you continue this trend for several generations, maybe in the 24th century mankind will be more accepting of advances in science instead of insisting God provides all of the natural immunity anyone needs. One can hope that something good can come from the tragedy we’ve all been living through.

Looking Back One Year

First floor plan for the US Capital as of 1997

It was the Sunday immediately before the inauguration in 2017. A fellow church choir member totally misread my leanings and said, “I’m sure glad we’re about to have an alpha male as President.” I don’t remember the exact words I said, but I left no doubt that I believed we were about to undergo rule by an Epsilon man, someone who was as far from alpha as it was possible to get.

Shortly after the inauguration, this choir member left our church. It may have been related to a dispute about him playing his bagpipes for a service intended to honor Ireland, but no doubt his disillusionment at finding himself in an ideological isolation ward was a piece of his motivation for leaving.

How did this nation get into the situation where so many were bamboozled into believing the bully in the White House represented the apex in evolution? Why is it that serial business failure and serial philandering were converted to symbols of strength and resolution? I guess PR is capable of overcoming just about any fault if the opposite is proclaimed often and loudly. At least there were enough credulous people to blindly support anyone who promises to bring back things the way they were, and they managed to overcome the will of the majority and install their favorite.

What is worrying is those who were on the short end of the stick in 2020 are feverishly working to prevent the “wrong” election results in the future. Wrong is defined as any election won by the liberal faction of the electorate. Supposedly the followers of Donald Trump are insistent upon attempting to reverse the course of history in order to bring us back into an age where women and minorities knew their places, and only right-thinking, alpha males glom onto the levers of power and wrench society back into its former trajectory.

So now any attempt at teaching facts about race and how it has affected the history of the US is viewed as brainwashing of innocent children in public schools. Never mind that most of the white population in the South withdrew their precious children from public schools back in the 1970’s when a challenge to white supremacy was made by integration and busing. Most of the children who were educated in religiously affiliated southern schools never gave up their view of their own superiority because they never had to face diversity. They now insist their children could not ever learn any facts about their country that were not passed through the John Wayne filter, lest it give their children distress.

One of the great benefits of living in the United States is the inclusion we offer. That inclusion is often far too gradual for the benefit of the original immigrants, yet it is true that the work ethics of immigrants often greatly exceeds that of native Americans of the correct race. Why is it so many restaurants are founded and staffed by immigrants? Small businesses form the springboard into the middle and upper classes, a path still largely unavailable to those in countries who provide these immigrants. We’ve had a little bit of exposure to a country where the flow of immigrants is suddenly cut off. The staffing shortages at many service industries is a taste of what life would be like without new residents filling the jobs deemed below the dignity of “true Americans”.

Supposedly this country gave away our manufacturing jobs in the previous decades. The anger of those who believe they are owed a living at a now rusted-out hulk of a factory is palpable, and helps to fuel the grievances of Trump nation. Nowhere is it acknowledged that the decline of international conflict allowed for money flows across borders, and it was the necessity of showing a profit which drove manufacturers to abandon the high wage and high regulations of this nation in favor of less restrictive and less expensive locations. If those who bemoan the current economic environment really wanted to improve their lot, they would mount an attack against those in the system who benefit from high return on investment. But instead, they have been coopted into believing an attack on the wealthy represents an attack on them, and thus they universally believe higher taxes equals communism.

It is the need to wave the cultural flag that drove the mindless hordes who attacked the Capital on January 6 of last year. So many of those hordes have now adopted an attitude of “we did nothing wrong. We were invited into the building.” The media facilitators go along with this farce, leading to a self-reinforcing do-loop of inane insanity. So when the House committee goes public with their hearings and report, it will make not a whit of difference to those who are fully invested in the fake universe they live in. No minds will be changed. No momentum will be gained by those who still view reality as something we have to adjust to. Well, now the reality we live in includes a minority who refuse to accept facts, and have proven a propensity to violence aimed at imposing their will onto those who disagree with them.

Will those of us who see the events of January 6, 2021 as symptomatic of a grave infection in the body politic of the US, be able to hold off the crazed minority aimed at domination of the US? Only if we are willing to share our perspectives across the political spectrum, so that those in the minority really do believe they are on the losing end of the arc of history.

I’m Agin It!

High tide pushed about a foot of water inland where Lockwood Drive and Broad Street converge on Monday, Sep. 21, 2020. Matthew Fortner/Staff Journal & Courier

With due respect to Time Magazine’s person of the year, they should have made the person of the year a composite image of an ‘aginer’. Someone who is against anything and everything that hints of progressivism. Vaccines that use science to prevent or moderate infections from COVID? Agin it. An extension of the child tax credit? One person may use that to buy drugs, so I’m agin it. Coming up with a way to provide incentives to use renewable energy? When God gave us all of these fossil fuels to mess up our nest? I’m agin it. Fossil fuels were good enough for my parents, they will always be there to fuel our needs.

In a way, the reason so much was packaged into a single bill was due to the intransigence of the “Aginner” party. After 10 years of total opposition to any legislation proposed by Democrats from Republicans, the Democrats recognized they had a brief window of opportunity to enact their priorities. Thus, all of the desires bottled up were packaged into a single bill, and this unwieldy device tottered through the legislative process.

But for some unexplained reason, legislators still seem beholden to Grover Norquist. Instead of admitting the faults with the trickle down philosophy governing our tax system, we seem to forget the days of balanced federal budgets coinciding with tax increases in the late ‘90’s. I still remember the wringing of hands on CNBC when they were worried about the impending dearth of treasury bills for those who needed an ever-increasing stream of debt instruments.  Of course, those tax increases were swiftly reversed during the reign of W. And thus we’ve had a string of deficits extending from the early years of this millennium to as far ahead as the eye can see. It is amazing the resistance to raising taxes which exists in our ruling class.

So we in this country value capital over labor. That is why the preference for capital is so entrenched in our tax code. I might actually be in favor of a flat tax, if it treated income from capital the same as income from labor. And if the rate were set so that it did balance our expenditures, and we were forced to change the rate annually to account for differences in spending rates. Like that will ever happen!

Meanwhile, we just keep on keeping on, leaving future catastrophes to overwhelm us in their time. Social Security being imbalanced? Well, as long as we have those fictitious bonds in the federal lockbox to balance the spending, we can continue to inflate the money supply to send money to seniors. (Full disclosure – I receive a Social Security benefit at the upper end of the benefit distribution). Climate change costing us more and more? Just let insurance cover the effects, don’t worry about the cause. All of those people living in poor countries on the margins of the seas? They never have mattered, so why worry about them now.

Ah, but those poor rich people in Miami Beach. Time to worry about blue sky flooding, where inexorable sea level rise is reflected in salt water intrusion under the expensive beach front properties. Even Governor DeathSantis is worried about flooding in Florida, enough to propose hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen the state’s infrastructure. But none of this liberal ideology sticking its camel’s nose under the state’s tent. No, this will be good ole concrete and drainage systems that will stop the sea’s rise in its tracks.

Miami. Charleston, South Carolina. Virginia Beach / Norfolk Virginia. The locations where clear sky flooding are the harbingers of sea rise to come in this country. Still, it is apparent that Republicans will continue to thumb their nose at the true causes of sea level rise, and instead choose to spend billions and billions of dollars to fight a vain and ultimately losing battle against the inexorable enemy of the sea. Meanwhile, an attempt is being made to make the national flood insurance program reflect the costs it incurs in dealing with not only tropical storm flooding, but increased floods upstream from unprecedented storms like my state of West Virginia suffer. The areas that flooded in West Virginia 2016 and Tennessee in 2021 were not highly flood prone areas, but when you are dealing with available moisture, a few degrees of dew point rise can unleash feet of rain in single storm events. So what will happen when the flood insurance premiums rise? The howls unleashed will cause legislators to force the federal agencies to rescind the increases, and one more cost will be amortized across the entire population of the nation.

It is very likely that control of the US Congress will revert back to the Republicans after the 2022 elections. What we’ve seen to try to counter that reversion is a flurry of legislation to attempt to alter the trajectory of this country, since the Reagan administration set the people against the Federal Government. As long as one side of the political spectrum only sees evil and laziness in the lower income brackets, we will continue to have policies that favor the fortunate few instead of policies aimed at improving the lot of the many who find themselves at the lower end of the income distribution. We seem destined to continue our trip into plutocracy, where those who are the true beneficiaries of government policies, convince the masses that cultural issues are all that matters, and it is the Godless liberals who are the true enemies. One wonders how long this misrepresentation of Biblical principles will continue. But in the famous words of H. L. Mencken, “No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people”.

Even one hundred years ago, the foresight of this sage stands out as describing our current situation perfectly. One may ask, who is the Mencken of today? And would anyone listen to that person and heed their words?

The Fight For Women’s Rights Goes On

It was 50 years ago that I took part in Cornhusker Boys State. Got myself elected to the legislature, too. I was told I could co-sponsor up to 3 draft bills already to go. So, this wanna-be liberal chose to sponsor bills to legalize abortion, outlaw capital punishment, and raise legislative salaries (in Nebraska those salaries were so low they encouraged bribery among the elected). Sounds pretty unrealistic for a high school junior. Unfortunately, I never got to add my voice to those few who were in favor of these positions while sitting in the legislative chamber, since I suffered a shredded knee ligament from a touch football game, and underwent surgery instead of arguing in favor of these bills. 50 years later, and the knee which suffered its first indignity will soon (COVID permitting) undergo replacement surgery as I suffer from arthritis.

Still, I was encouraged when 2 years later, the Supreme Court stamped its imprimatur on the abortion debate with the Roe v. Wade decision. For my entire adult life, I’ve seen women in the United States able to exercise autonomy over their own bodies due to this decision. It seems difficult to believe, but we are likely in the last year when this bodily autonomy is an unfettered right. We are about to back into the time when the state exercised its autonomy over all of its residents, and imposes its will against the will of a majority of the inhabitants of the nation.

Since the early 1970’s, there has been substantial change in society. Back then, the social stigma associated with an out-of-wedlock birth was severe, with many middle-class high school girls disappearing for several months while the deed was done. The social stigma has lessened, if not altogether vanished. But somehow we still have victims of rape and incest who will soon be forced to serve as indentured servants to the state, so as to ensure God’s will be done. This is especially true for the minor girls who may not be aware of their condition before their bellies swell. Everyone knows it is divinely ordained that girls are mandated to bring incestuous offspring to delivery, so that the abuse cycle can begin again.

I laughed at Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s inane pronouncement upon signing his state’s draconian 6-week limitation on abortions. You know, the one where he said women didn’t need to worry about rape, since his state was going to imprison all rapists. What a jerk! It is difficult to understand how his ilk has obtained the reins of power in his state, since he is so clueless. But it is consistent with the twisting of the American electorate towards the extreme right which has accelerated in the time of Trump. What those of us who believe in thinking for ourselves must keep in mind is that fully half of the population is below average – whether it be in strength, IQ, or any other measureable trait. If you can consistently appeal to the below average population and offer them dream fulfillment, then you can overwhelm any appeals to rationality. It is much easier to fall back upon emotion than to require thought from your supporters.

My last post had the title of Two Steps Forward, One Back. Unfortunately, in terms of social cultural warfare, we are swiftly heading in reverse, and seemingly have forgotten how to move in a forward gear. We seem bound and determined to institute a theocracy on this nation, in order to meet the rabid desires of the most vocal enemies of secularism. Unfortunately, we have seen where this type of religious conflict can lead. How many of the conflicts of humanity have been instigated by those who believed their side was divinely inspired, and thus had God’s blessing upon their endeavors. To those whose view of Christianity involves sending Christmas tweets out with their fully armed families asking Santa for ammo, a pox on you and your kin. I seem to remember an admonition to turn the other cheek to the aggressor, and forgiving your enemy not 7 times, but 70. All of the good news from the Gospels seems as though it were seed scattered across rocky ground when the current breed of Republicans trample it underfoot.

It is one thing to complain about the current political situation. It is quite another to do something about it. That is why this year I will be mindful about the charitable contributions I make, seeking not to “own the conservatives”, but instead, live what I believe is a truer sense of a Christ-centered life. And that will include a contribution to Planned Parenthood.

Two Steps Forward, One Back

Well, we now know. You can get a southern US jury to convict white folk for murdering a black If and Only If:

  • You have a video showing the conflict
  • You have a defendant who contradicts his original statements to police on the witness stand
  • You can engage the attention of the entire nation on the case

But unless you have all of these conditions, you may find it difficult to bring miscreants to justice. Before the emergence of the first condition, the existence of the video, there was literally zero desire for the judicial system in the region to even charge those who hunted down Ahmaud Arbery. Literally, it took the publicizing of the video and the outrage it generated to overcome the inertia of the local justice system. But if you combine this verdict with the one in Charlottesville, maybe you can share some optimism about the effect of race on the justice system

At nearly the same moment though, we discovered a right to self-defense for anyone who wants to appoint themselves as a junior lawman, carrying a cool military-style assault weapon. Those individuals (if they are white) can strike out with impunity, causing multiple deaths, and all that is needed is to claim the right to self-defense. One more example of the types of incident we can expect now that we’ve reached supreme saturation in weaponry amongst our citizenry, many of whom  believe weapons are necessary to advertise masculinity. If you believe Kyle Rittenhouse is a hero, then you, too, may be suffering from antifa derangement syndrome.

So we stumble into the last month of 2021. Hard to remember that a year ago, the first mentions of a vaccine for COVID made an appearance in the media. And those of us who were gathered around a table at Thanksgiving were thankful that an end to this pandemic appeared in sight, thanks to an advance in biotechnology just ready for implementation. Alas, we should have known things weren’t that easy. Politics got in the way of people reaching for the solution to our pandemic, and soon it was evident a significant portion of the population was gonna be agin’ the vaccine, because it was:

  • Scary, new technology
  • Something the evil government was in favor of, so we’ve gotta be opposed to it
  • Addressing a fake problem brought up by the fake news. All of the deaths attributed to the virus were actually due to other causes, but the hospitals called them COVID-related in order to claim those government payments
  • Something Fox news was against, so we’ve gotta be against it to.

So we find ourselves now in a bifurcated country. One half has gotten vaccinated and reached out for a booster shot. One half keeps discounting the vaccine and is positive the vaccine will kill those who take it within a few years due to blood clotting. Besides, the virus is not worse than a normal case of the flu, but if I get it, I’m sure this remedy with zero anti-viral properties will protect me. As I’ve said, it is not normal to see evolution in action, but we are seeing it with so many folks refusing the vaccines, thus exposing themselves preferentially to death from the virus. A few more generations of this, and the surviving populations will consist mainly of science believers, instead of science deniers.

Where we find ourselves on the science continuum is likely where we are on the spectrum of belief around racial justice. What the Republicans are able to do is instill fear into the population, and they do it through pithy statements that gain traction among the portion of the population who is wanting others to do their thinking. It is easier to blame the “others” for all of our ills, when it really is a long series of choices we have made which leads to our fate.

We in the United States are blessed by many things. Primary among them is the ability for us to have evolved independently of the wars of Europe. Especially after WWII, we were able to adapt our undamaged industrial infrastructure to supply the rest of the world. We assumed that these times, when America was Great, were our due for saving the rest of the world from tyranny. And we developed our mythology, especially with the growth of television to spread these myths across America like a knife spreading white mayonnaise. For a substantial portion of the nation, they came to believe this abnormal situation was the norm. So when a politician today claimed to be able to restore this sense of magnificence, this population portion glommed onto it and clung with desperation.

All the while, the rest of the world moved on independent of our desires. A nation in the east grew into a great economic power, eventually taking many of the low-skilled manufacturing jobs Americans viewed as their birthright. Europe settled down into its typical mode of squabbling nations, with the veneer of the European Union (EU) still working to keep active conflict from emerging. Still, squabbles result in separations, and now the first nation has peeled off of the EU, with more waiting to see if the separation is successful before plotting their own secession. And then there’s those southern continents. Whatever are we to do about them, with their teeming hordes wishing to grab onto their own version of success. Many view the US as their destination of destiny, since opportunity is viewed as scanty in their own region.

The America First contingent believes the US can stand on its own, and bring back those days of splendid isolation. If we could just rerun the cold war, without the military entanglements it brought, we could do things right. Thus we see the call for a wall, symbolically separating this nation from the rest of the globe. One administration used the appeal for a wall as its ultimate goal, and the failure of it to be realized during Trump’s term only meant that globalists were able to sabotage the work of true Americans.

When you hear globalists, it is amazing how many times you also hear the name of George Soros. The worn out anti-Semitic tropes have undergone a renaissance under the last administration. By expressing support for supremacists and nationalists, and not decrying statements intended to incite racial violence, the political leaders on the right in the US seek to bring back those days when nations could wall off a section of their population and inflict horrendous punishments on that section. In that desire they are actually joining an internationalist movement, with authoritarians in many countries who try to isolate and destroy minority groups. Seems like the attitudes of the 1930’s are back in vogue.

War on Crime – We All Are Victims

So after 40 years of “tough on crime,” it’s come to this. In addition to the military-industrial complex, we have the penal system / financial complex as something to worry about. We now have perverse incentives in place to continue the expansion of incarceration as the answer to all of our societal problems. It makes perfect sense to keep building new facilities whose sole purpose is to enrich the corporate investors, who enable governments to pretend they are addressing their crime problems by locking up miscreants for longer sentences. All in the name of being tough on crime, which politicians love to tout to their voters.

In the October 15 issue of Science Magazine, there’s an outstanding summary of current research and trends in the social sciences regarding incarceration in the US. They show how the past 40 years of tough on crime has ignored secular trends on reduced crime rates (yes, homicide rates for the last couple of years have gone up). Instead, the incarceration rate keeps going up, and we are building a class of people who find it impossible to function in society after they are released from prison. Imagine you are someone convicted of a crime, maybe through a plea deal you took to prevent the possibility of being locked up for a much longer term if you decided to exert your constitutional right to a trial. You then find it impossible to qualify for almost all jobs, since the background check screams ex-con as soon as you apply. You try to comply with the terms of your release, but you find yourself falling behind on the requirements to pay all of the assorted fees heaped upon you because you were convicted of a crime. Sooner or later you find yourself unable to comply with all of the requirements, and you end up violating a term of your parole, thus triggering your re-incarceration.

The articles in Science describe how the penal system / financial complex views the poor and the convicted as sources of revenue. Whether it is a system of fees you are responsible for which greatly exceed the restitution amount, or whether it is a requirement that you pay for your own incarceration, or whether it is the ungodly fees you face to use the telephone in a prison where the phone is just another profit center, it certainly seems like the system is stacked against you.

At the same time, attempts at reducing the crimes police and the justice system respond to are causing societal upheaval wherever they are tried. Take the example of San Francisco, where organized shoplifting draws no enforcement activity, but the stores subject to the shoplifting are responding by closing locations. Choosing to minimize unlawful activity can have unintended consequences of greatly increasing said unlawful activity, and then the politicians can say, “See? Liberal approaches don’t work. Lock them up and throw away the key!”

Overlaid on all of this is the war on drugs which has been going on since the 1970’s. Many of the people in prison or subject to re-incarceration ended up with multiple strikes from small scale drug offenses in the past. Trying to separate out those who do represent a threat to society from those who were caught up by drug enforcement in the past is difficult. Therefore, the response from the politicians is often the same. “Lock them up and throw away the key!”

The articles in Science show the folly of using the same techniques as we’ve tried for the past 40 years and expecting better results. Now we have a vested class who have a financial incentive for maintaining the status quo. Many locations which were graced with the construction of a new penal facility, are now dependent upon the jobs these facilities provide. Especially since these are often the only jobs replacing manufacturing jobs, which have disappeared over the decades. All in all, we face a much more difficult task at trying real reform of the justice system, since so many locations and corporations are dependent upon the money provided by the penal system.

So what is the answer to really reduce crime while making it possible for those caught up in the prison system to find their way out and become productive citizens again? That is a good question. First, we need to agree on this as an objective of our justice system – we want people to emerge from prison ready and able to become productive citizens. If we agree on that as a real objective, then solutions begin to appear. Chief among these is to reduce the incentive to make prisons profit centers. Privatization of penal facilities is not good, since the dollars saved by the taxpayers, ends up getting eaten up by encouraging recidivism.

Let’s face it. We do not want a society where violent activity is tolerated. But that means we want equity for all, not just those who happen to fall afoul of the justice system as it is currently configured. There is plenty to be said about racial preferences in traffic stops, which is the entry point for many into the judicial system. When all races use drugs in roughly the same proportion, yet one race is disproportionately singled out for possession, something is not in balance.

Many who believe themselves to be conservative patriots will discount the findings in Science as namby-pamby pabulum presented by liberals to denigrate the feelings of True Americans. Yet it is becoming more difficult to ignore the consequences of our “tough on crime” approach, when so many people are being swept up in the maelstrom that is our justice system. Perhaps an outcry for change will only be heard by the politicians when more White people are caught up in the system, which must show a perpetual increase in inmates to justify the investment made in facilities. It would be a shame that our politicians do not believe the evidence already in front of their eyes, but when everything is viewed through a racial filter, it is not surprising.  

Seasons Change, and So Did I

Summer’s hold lingered on this year. Even in mid-October, we were able to enjoy our outdoor living room and had morning coffee along with the newspaper outside. But as the calendar turned to November, the mornings turned to frost. We finally had a killing frost, so the last of the basil and peppers and tomatoes turned to a wilted heap of formerly living matter. This year, though, our beech nut tree was prolific in its generosity to wildlife. So much so that earlier in the summer, we lost several large branches off of the beech full of nuts. The forester we use said it was actually the weight of the nuts causing the limbs to give way. So it was not a surprise for us as we sat outside in the early evening to see a family of deer grazing on the bountiful nuts littering our lawn.

Beech nuts are small. Only a few calories per nut, and you have to peel the triangular shell back to release the nut. Deer don’t worry about the extra roughage from the nuts, though. They just keep eating the whole thing, then depositing the remains as fertilizer on our lawn. We have learned to live with our four-footed neighbors, since we swapped out our flowers to deer-resistant varieties over the years. We do get to see sights like this year’s fawn trying to aggressively nurse from its mother. My guess is that the doe had already dried up since the fawn quit trying to nurse as abruptly as it tried to start.

This is the season of the suicide squirrels. You see their squashed carcasses decorating the roads all over this area. As you drive, you are likely to see a squirrel begin its dash across the street, then suddenly turn to go back to the safety of the grass, only to reverse course again and continue across the road. Many is the time when I’ve discovered how good my brakes are, by stopping before our car adds to the seasonal slaughter. Of course, we got to watch a squirrel score a touchdown at a recent Marshall game. The squirrel raced across the field, crossed the goal line to the delight of the student section, then eventually retraced his steps and left the stadium with humans in pursuit. Wildlife on the field is a common theme right now, though. This past weekend we were graced with the sight of a fox at the Arizona State – USC game. And I just saw footage of a moose running across the field at South Dakota State, although no football game was in progress. It is that time of year.

Photo by Zachary Hiser

Later falls and lessened tree color. Are these signs of global warming? As the statistician in me says, individual anecdotes do not a trend make. Still, one has to wonder when summer-like warmth extends later, and later into the year. Some trees still haven’t changed colors, like our cherry tree in our front yard. The only thing we can do is watch the trends, and report as appropriate. See, no one remarks when the expected happens. We only talk about it when our expectations are not met. In the case of the extended summer, it was unexpected, but welcome. Only when I reflect upon the weather do I realize that this is not normal. I am not accustomed to not needing a jacket in the middle of November. But I can enjoy it, for as long as it lasts.

Only a month ago. Now just a memory in green

Make West Virginia Great Again!

So this is what it’s like being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Here in West Virginia, we are being blackmailed into continuing the use of coal for electric power generation until the year 2040, regardless of the economics. And we are going to pay dearly for the privilege of using the dirtiest fossil fuel extracted from the earth in the most damaging way possible. How is this possible? Let us say when we selected a coal baron as Governor, we accepted his appointments to the Public Service Commission (PSC). And when a position came open in the 3-member commission, the Governor filled it with the recently-retired head of the WV Coal Association.

There are three large power plants run by Appalachian Power in the state of West Virginia. These plants sold power throughout West Virginia, and also to Kentucky and Virginia. All three plants face the need to upgrade their sludge handling facilities by 2028 in order to meet EPA regulations. The Kentucky and Virginia PSC’s refused to accept their portion of the costs for upgrading the water treatment facilities, so it fell to the WV PSC to make its decision. To no one’s surprise, they approved the half billion-dollar upgrade, along with the requisite costs for the utility to not only offset its investment cost, but enable Appalachian Power to earn a return on the incremental investment. The PSC stated their rationale for approval as: “Direct employment at the Plants, use of West Virginia coal, state, county and local taxes related to operating generation plants and related employment in businesses supporting the Plants and the coal industry cannot be discounted or overlooked.” I can’t wait for the first shipment of Wyoming coal to these plants, justified solely on cost. Lower cost will eventually out trump any other justification.

When I moved to West Virginia in the late 1980’s, a point of pride in the state was the low cost of electricity as it was totally dependent on coal generation. Since those days, a revolution in energy generation has occurred. Natural gas availability has increased exponentially, and the cost of renewable energy has plummeted. At the same time, the deep thick veins of coal have mostly played out in the state, and the coal industry has resorted to the extremely destructive and disruptive practice of blowing off the tops of mountains in order to expose the relatively thin veins of carbon remaining. So now we suffer from periodic explosions causing rock to rain down from on high throughout our coal fields, and then suffer from the exposure of virgin rock to the atmosphere where every metal present is leached out into our streams. All for the pleasure of allowing our neighboring cloud factories to vent their excess heat into the atmosphere.

Much has been written about how coal has held this state captive for over a century. Coal mines, and coke ovens, have plagued us ever since industry began to exploit this resource. Of course, you wouldn’t want it extracted in your back yard, since the act of extraction just may make your yard and house uninhabitable. But we are still held in thrall to the large utilities and their subservient governmental regulators, all under the massive oversight offered by our oversized Governor. It makes sense that the state suffering from rampant obesity should select an exemplar of this trait to be its leader.

So while the rest of the nation learns how to adapt periodic energy sources into a system which can handle volatile energy demands, this state will muddle along with the power system of the last century. Once more, West Virginia is insistent upon remaining a vassal state to the rest of this country, and ensuring our subordination for multiple decades to come. A state looking ahead would try to market the flattened mountains as opportunities for solar farms, since the soil won’t grow useful plants due to the dearth of organic top soil. No, instead we will continue to permit the desecration of our lands in order to fulfill our need to pay obeisance to the gods of coal.

Do we deserve to be last in almost every economic category within these states? It would seem so, since we appear destined to race backwards rather than face forward and try to improve. The state has changed from a progressive labor enclave, into yet another southern US state where the Republican party staged a takeover. Law after law is enacted aimed at hamstringing the labor movement, many straight from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) playbook. It makes you believe the legislators have no individual capacity for thought, they have to outsource it to ALEC. But those are the facts on the ground, and we have to deal with the unfortunate circumstances we find ourselves stuck in.

It may be that all politics are local. What is unfortunate is that the local variant of politics in this state consists of denigration of education, followed by an insistence on wishing for an economic rescue from the economic gods of the past, instead of realizing the facts on the ground have changed, and no longer will we thrive if we refuse to look beyond coal. There is a reason why the coal extracting regions are among the poorest in the world. Only when you think coal is the only resource you have to share, will you accept the degradation it brings. Here in West Virginia, we think we only have coal to offer to the rest of the world.