Happy About Keystone? Have A Look At What Makes You Happy

by John Weckerle

President Trump’s revival of the Keystone pipeline has been celebrated by a wide variety of people, largely on the bases of the supposed jobs that it would somehow magically create, and the benefits that it would somehow mystically bestow on – well, the good, hard-working people who get those jobs. The claims of job creation have been debated ad-infinitum and, for all intents and purposes, it’s fairly apparent that the jobs in question would be short-term construction jobs associated with installing the pipeline, and a small number of pipeline maintenance positions. Given that the oil transferred from Canada would be processed using existing refinery capacity in the southern U.S., job growth in the U.S. as a result of the pipeline would appear relatively small and relatively short-term.  Of course, jobs associated with extraction would be located at the tar sands deposit that would feed the pipeline, and those tar sands are located in Alberta, Canada.

According to this MSN photojournalistic article  (and we very strongly suggest that our readers read the article and go through all the stunning images), Canada’s little operation is likely to consume up to 54,000 square miles of pristine wilderness, and the photography in the article gives a very good depiction of what the area will be turned into. For perspective, 54,000 square miles equates roughly to the size of the States of New York and North Carolina. Not only would the scar left behind by this profit-inspired effort be visible from space, it would likely be visible from the moon, Mars, Krypton, and Vulcan.

We will leave our readers the space to consider their support (or the opposite) for this pipeline, but we will say this: the idea of leaving a large-state-sized hole in Nature for the purpose of lining a relatively small number of people’s pockets seems repugnant to us. Congratulations to all those who have supported the Keystone Pipeline – at least now you have had a good look at what you supported.

A Stocking No Longer Full Of Coal

by John Weckerle

It has been some time since we published an article.  There is a reason for this.  After reading an article in which a West Virginia interviewee stated that he voted for Donald Trump because he believed that his state’s coal economy had been decimated under the Obama administration, we decided to dive into some research on the coal industry, what makes it tick, and what’s making it wind down. We downloaded production statistics, read dozens of articles and government publications, created some fairly complex spreadsheets, and generated a couple of dozen graphs, looking at trends at the national, regional, and state levels, finding some things we didn’t expect and that we found very interesting.

Then, earlier this week – just after we began writing the actual article – somebody (ahem) decided to sign an executive order.  The national media pounced, and suddenly nearly all the results and findings we had generated – that the decline of the industry has been going on for decades; that it is the result of market forces such as decreased demand, ascendancy of competing products (natural gas, renewables, etc.) to a much greater extend than regulatory pressures; and that the jobs are never coming back – were suddenly all over the airwaves and the web. As recently as this morning, MSN Money reported that the entire coal industry employs fewer people nationwide than the Arby’s fast food chain.

This was a bit discouraging, and highlights the challenges faced by those of us with very small writing staffs. Nevertheless, we did gain one insight that we haven’t seen prominently discussed in the national media: even if the coal industry does rebound nationally, West Virginia’s likely won’t, nor will most of the eastern U.S. coal industry.

Our first major source was the United States Energy Adminstration’s (EIA’s) Coal Data Browser which, among other things, provided us with coal production data from 25 coal producing states spanning 15 years (2001 through 2015). We saw this as a promising range of data, because it incorporates nearly equivalent segments (in terms of years) from two Presidential administrations – eight years from the administration of George W. Bush (2001 through 2008) and seven years from Barak H. Obama’s administration (2009 through 2015). As most would expect – at least those who pop in and read our articles once in a while – we were delighted to find that we could download the data, load it into a spreadsheet, and see where the information might lead us.

To understand the market trends within the United States, it is important to know how the EIA defined (at least until recently) coal producing regions (we’ve added the 2015 coal production to give a sense of scale):

  • Middle Atlantic – Pennsylvania; 50,030,833 tons
  • East North Central – Illinois, Indiana, Ohio; 107,437,449 tons
  • West North Central – Kansas, Missouri, North Dakota; 29,139,231 tons
  • South Atlantic – Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia; 111, 469,038 tons
  • East South Central – Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee; 78,656,669 tons
  • West South Central – Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas; 40,228,355 tons
  • Mountain – Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming; 477,417,852 tons
  • Pacific Contiguous – Washington; no data
  • Pacific Noncontiguous – Alaska; 1,177,390 tons

One thing that surprised us was the prominence of the Mountain region in terms of overall production. Previously, when we thought of coal, we thought of Eastern states, especially West Virginia and Pennsylvania. In fact, the Mountain region accounts for more than half the nation’s coal production, and Wyoming alone produced nearly 42% of the nation’s coal in 2016. The next largest output does come from West Virginia, which in 2015 commanded just under 11% of U.S. production.

We examined the data from a variety of angles, and fairly quickly determined that where declining coal production is concerned, all regions – and all states – are not necessarily created equal. Overall, production in 2015 nationwide was about 231 million tons less than it was in 2001.  Of this, 88 million tons of production were lost in the South Atlantic region (including West Virginia, whose production decreased by about 67 million tons), and the East South Central region was right behind, losing about 78 million tons of production (the lion’s share of which was lost by Kentucky at 72 million tons). The Mountain region was next, with production dropping by about 34 million tons, and the Middle Atlantic region, containing only Pennsylvania, saw production decrease by 24 million tons. Following were the West South Central region (decrease of 10 million tons), West North Central region (decrease of just over 1 million tons), and Pacific Noncontiguous region (decrease of about 337,000 tons). The East North Central region saw an increase of nearly 12 million tons, with Illinois’s gain of 22 million tons (a 66% gain compared to 2010) offsetting Indiana’s and Ohio’s losses.

Wait a minute…gains? If, as some people assert, Federal policy was responsible for the decline of the coal industry, one would expect that the industry would decline evenly, with perhaps a greater impact being seen in Western states where there might be more impact from banning coal mining from Federal lands. However, during the 15-year period, Wyoming’s production actually increased by 7 million tons, and its market share grew from 32.7% to 41.9%. During the same period, West Virginia slid from 14.4% to 10.7% of the market; Kentucky’s market share plunged from 11.9% to 6.8%; and Pennsylvania dropped from 6.6% to 5.6%. At the same time, Illinois’s share of the market grew from 3.0% to 6.3%; Montana picked up a little over a percent with an increase in production of 2.7 million tons; North Dakota picked up half a percent; several other states saw smaller gains in terms of market share even with production decreases; and Mississippi and Montana reaped smaller percentage gains with production increases of about 2.5 million tons each.

What gives? Why are some states faring better than others? To our eyes, it looked as if there might be an issue of variations in cost, so we decided to go hunting among the coal price data. There we found some interesting trends – while coal prices have fluctuated substantially even over the last few years, in every data set we examined, there was a substantial difference in price, and for the most part the hardest-hit states were those with the most expensive coal. In all cases, for example, the cost of West Virginia’s coal was 4 to 5 times higher than Wyoming’s and North Dakota’s, 3-4 times the cost of Montana’s, and in 2015 was nearly twice the cost of coal from Illinois.

A little more searching turned up some interesting sources of information, including a year-old USA Today article that outlines some of the factors contributing to the decline of the coal industry: lower costs in the West, the decline in exports, slowing of the Chinese economy, the decline in use for energy production (with an attendant increase in natural gas use), liabilities associated with restoration, bankruptcies, and more. An article by ClimateNexus.org provides a graphic depicting reported coal-fired generator retirements from 2012 to 2016, showing a major cluster of shutdowns surrounding those states with the greatest losses in coal production and market share. That article also discusses a variety of other industry-related trends that are of interest: China’s pledge to end the growth in carbon output, India’s strategy to increase its domestic coal production, and continued expansion of competing industries, including natural gas, solar energy, and wind energy. The article also discusses investor risk and divestiture, and discloses that the losses of large mining companies (including coal and oil drillers with assets of $50 million or more) in 2015 were greater than the profits made by the industry since 2007. Health costs and issues associated with high executive compensation are also discussed, as is the Miners’ Protection Act introduced by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

The mediocre news is that domestic coal production has been more or less stable over about the last year. Projections for the next year, depending on the source, run from small decreases to small increases, based on speculation that natural gas prices will experience a moderate increase. We’ll see how this plays out.

The future of the coal industry does not seem to be in doubt – it seems certain that the decline will continue, and economies in the eastern United States will be the hardest hit. The future of coal country is far less certain. On the one hand, the current administration seems focused on perpetuating the illusion that coal jobs will return someday despite the obvious reality that they will not. At the same time, the administration – and Congress –  appear bent on dismantling the programs currently benefiting those hit hardest by reversals in the coal industries, and in other industries nationwide. On the other hand, coal country, like other areas affected by shifts in the economy, is populated by hard-working people with hopes, ideas, and passions of their own, and these are the best hope for creating new enterprises and renewed growth. What should the people of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and elsewhere do? Having been on the wrong side of economic development, your editor hesitates to offer any suggestions – because in the end ideas that come from the outside of a community are perhaps of less value of those that come from within. That having been said, we’ll close with a link to a TED talk by someone who, by his own account, also started off on on the wrong side of the subject, but learned from that experience and developed a different way of helping people pursue their passions in business – Dr. Ernesto Sirolli.

 

 

 

A Belated Happy St. Patrick’s Day

by John Weckerle

A day late, we find it fitting to provide messages from the current and former leaders of Ireland. Happy belated St. Patrick’s Day!

ALEC and US, Part V: A Tale Of Two Legislators

by John Weckerle

In our most recent American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) article, we indicated that we had sent an e-mail to our local State Representative, Jim Smith, and Senator, James White, containing several questions inquiring into whether they had ties to ALEC and, if so, what those ties involved. Not surprisingly, we received a response from Mr. Smith the following day, and are providing his answers verbatim here:

  • Are you a current or former member of ALEC? “No, I’m not now or a former member of ALEC.  I will go further to say that I will never be a member.”
  • Have you attended any ALEC-sponsored meetings or events? If so, when, how many and what was the focus of the meeting (s) or event(s)? “I told you years ago (probably 5 or 6) that I attended a dinner during the legislative session that was sponsored by ALEC.  I remember numerous legislators from both sides of the aisle being present and don’t recall any particular legislation being discussed.  That was the only ALEC-sponsored event that I’ve ever attended.”
  • Have you participated in any of ALEC’s task force activities? “No, I’ve never attended any ALEC task force activities.”
  • Have you introduced, sponsored, co-sponsored, voted for, or otherwise supported legislation resulting from ALEC’s activities? “I’ve never introduced, sponsored or co-sponsored any legislation that resulted from ALEC activities.  I can’t say that I’ve never voted for any that ALEC supported because my limited understanding of ALEC is that they support some things that fiscal conservatives may vote for.  But, I’ve never been asked by anyone to vote for a particular bill on behalf of ALEC.”
  • Have you received campaign contributions or other support from ALEC, its members, or its supporters? “I’ve never received a campaign contribution from ALEC.  However, I’m sure that some businesses that are members of ALEC may have contributed to my campaigns.  However, none of those contributors have ever asked me to support a particular ALEC-endorsed legislation.”

We appreciate the forthrightness in Mr. Smith’s response, as well as the brevity, as these articles go a bit long as it is. In terms of brevity, however, Mr. Smith has nothing on Mr. White who, like his predecessor and ALEC member Sue Wilson Beffort in 2012, provided no response at all to our questions. You just can’t get any more brief than that.

Having known Mr. Smith for years, we take him at his word with respect to a direct relationship with ALEC. He does raise some interesting points, though, in his responses to the last two questions. Mr. White’s non-responses may not indicate anything, although we’ll note that one out of two State Senators who did not respond to our ALEC questions was listed as an ALEC member – perhaps not a statistically significant sample, but it certainly gives us pause for thought. With that in mind, we ask the question – just how much interest are ALEC and its allies taking in our legislators, whether they themselves are interested or not?

In researching this article, we reviewed dozens of sources (in addition to those used in our previous article) in an attempt to track down information on ALEC member status of contributors :

We began by using the NIMSP database to gather information on the legislators’ campaign contributions beginning in 2010.  We copied the information into series of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and sorted it in a variety of ways to get a feel for patterns in the contributions, noting a substantial number of donations to both candidates from fossil energy and electricity interests, lobbyists, political action committees, and other candidates. We then used the sources above and dozens of others to assess which contributors could be reasonably reliably linked to ALEC. These are color coded in two spreadsheets, one for Mr. Smith and one for Mr. White, with yellow denoting corporate contributors listed in one or more sources as affiliated with ALEC, and salmon-color denoting corporate contributors that claim to have discontinued their relationship with ALEC but were members at the time the contribution was made. Legislators associated with ALEC were colored yellow.  Note that these are just the contributors that were listed in the sources we reviewed as directly linked to ALEC, or linked to ALEC through their national organizations; we cannot state as an absolute fact that any of them is a member, except for those listed on ALEC’s web site as listed in last week’s article. We caution our readers, however, that the list may be incomplete, and that there is a substantial similarity between the purported ALEC members and many of the other contributors on the two lists of contributors.  We did not count the contributions of members’ spouses, although there were quite a few of those. As the spreadsheets show: of the $107,813 in contributions listed for Mr. Smith, $26,225 came from ALEC contributors; of the $136,954 listed for Mr. White, $22,400 came from ALEC supporters. We again take Mr. Smith at his word, and have received none from Mr. White, but regardless of either gentleman’s interest in ALEC, ALEC appears very interested in them – as do people doing business in the same areas as the ALEC-related entities. Mr. White, for example, received $15,500 from the Oil and Gas general industry sector, including $7,250 from major multinational producers, the overwhelming majority of which came from out-of-state contributors. Similarly, Mr. Smith received $15,300 from the Oil and Gas sector, again nearly all of which came from outside the state, with $5,150 coming from the major multinationals. Mr. Smith and Mr. White received $6,850 and $4,125 from the Lobbyists & Public Relations business sector, respectively (we did not investigate the source of the money due in part to the sheer number of contributions and in part to difficulty using the NM Secretary of State’s web site, which appears to be having some problems running queries).  Mr. White received 51 contributions valued at $38,100 from outside the state (out of a total of 317), with Mr. Smith receiving 70 out-of-state contributions valued at $29,475 out of 334 total contributions. Mr. Smith fared better with the tobacco industry, collecting $2,050 to Mr. White’s $850, but trailed Mr. White in the Beer, Wine & Liquor sector – $1,600 to $2,248. Oddly, between the two legislators, we found only one $250 contribution from the Agriculture broad industry sector. Both gentlemen were also generously supported by the Gas & Electric Utilities sector, received contributions from the National Rifle Association, and were supported by Big Pharma, including Pfizer (both), Merck (Mr. Smith), and Abbott Laboratories (Mr. White) – all ALEC members.

Mr. Smith has received a total of $4,375 from ALEC-related New Mexico politicians, somewhat behind Mr. White’s $6,050.  In terms of their own contributions to other candidates affilliated with ALEC, Mr Smith has made a total of two contributions to two identified candidates, Nora Lee Espinoza and Janice Arnold-Jones, totaling $400.  Mr. White has made six contributions to three such candidates, totaling $2,150.

There are a number of reasons that ALEC members – and those who perhaps share their interests – would invest in our local legislators. Perhaps they are members of ALEC, or perhaps not. Whether they are seeking to directly influence them, supporting candidates who may be generally more friendly to their agendas and therefore more likely to vote for legislation favorable to their industry, or just seeking to maintain or expand the influence of a given political party, the fact remains that these entities are likely to be most concerned with their own interests and far less with those of New Mexicans. Mr. Smith has been up front about his non-involvement with ALEC.  Mr. White, on the other hand, apparently chose to follow the lead of his predecessor, ALEC member Sue Wilson-Beffort, and provide no response to our inquiry – and we suspect that this is likely somewhere in the ALEC member playbook, as it were. While we can make no statement of fact on the issue, it is hard to escape the impression that Mr. White is up to his armpits in ALEC.  Absent any statement on his part, we see no reason to think otherwise.

Given ALEC’s history of developing and disseminating self-serving legislation, we should be cautious, and vigilant, in knowing what we can about our legislators, the sources of their campaign funding, and how this may affect the future of our State. The denizens of New Mexico Central take a dim view of corporations and out-of-state politicians writing our laws for us, ESPECIALLY without the disclosure requirements that apply to lobbyists, and those who feel the same may wish to take a hard look at those who have been elected to serve them – as opposed to serving those who serve themselves.

The question then arises: how does one take that hard look? In our next ALEC-related article, we will provide a step-by-step description of how we gathered the information we needed to assess the issue. It took a long time to figure out – but once known, the process doesn’t take long.

 

ALEC And Us, Part IV: Corporate Influence In State and Local Politics

Editor’s note: This is the most recent in what is now an ongoing series regarding the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its influence of State – and now local – legislation and decision making. A list of web resources used to prepare this article, and two tables containing associated information, are presented at the end of the article.  

by John Weckerle

Back in 2012, New Mexico Central ran several articles on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC):

As the ALEC and Us article notes, ALEC was the involved in the drafting and passage of “Florida’s now-infamous ‘Stand Your Ground'” law. Further research into ALEC at the time revealed that the organization, which has often been described as a corporate-sponsored “bill mill,” is an association of industry associations, corporate entities, and State legislators that drafts industry-friendly legislation, then sending it to State legislatures via its legislative members and supporters for introduction, sponsorship, or other support.  The Nonprofit Information Networking Association article describes ALEC’s activities as follows:

ALEC drafts “model” state legislation for conservative members of state legislatures. The model legislation sometimes becomes law, such as  Arizona’s infamous immigration law. ALEC has also generated state resolutions against EPA regulation of greenhouse gasses, bills on privatizing public education, restricting public employee unions, and opposing state aspects of President Obama’s national health care reform.  Many of the ALEC-generated model bills are seen as industry-friendly, in part because corporations pay well for participation at ALEC conferences giving them access to state legislators.  However, despite its influence with many model bills, ALEC’s visibility with the public is limited and legislators often don’t disclose that the bills they are introducing come from ALEC. 

In our 2012 article, we listed New Mexico State legislators in the House and Senate who were identified by Sourcewatch as members of ALEC’s various task forces.  For some time after these articles were published (and certainly not as a result of those articles, as bigger fish were targeting ALEC), ALEC seemed to fall on hard times.  The organization’s web site was static for some time, and it seems that corporations were abandoning it in droves (last year, Enterprise Rent-A-Car joined and rapidly left ALEC following an outcry from its customers). ALEC has been accused in many articles as essentially being a lobbying organization masquerading as a charity (the entity is a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization), and its tax-exempt status has been challenged.

Since 2012, ALEC has reasserted itself as a force to be reckoned with, and seems as influential as ever.  As always, the organization seems reticent to publish its list of members; however, some information can be gleaned from its website, and we can now at least begin to identify its supporters. One of the most likely suspects is…

…You.

If you enjoy wine by Chateau Ste. Michelle, or smoke tobacco produced by Phillip Morris (both owned by Altria), buy your insurance from State Farm Insurance Companies, acquire cell phone services from AT&T, send packages or otherwise pay for shipping via UPS, purchase electricity through any of the nation’s rural electric cooperatives, or spend money in any number of states and municipalities, some amount of your expenditures is probably headed for ALEC.

At the end of this article, we are providing two tables we have compiled from information on the ALEC web site regarding the membership in its committees. Note that this is not the entire membership; again, the organization does not publish a comprehensive membership list, and it is likely that the majority of its members cannot be easily identified.

We believe that citizens have a right to know where the bills being introduced in their legislatures originate.  Accordingly, we have sent the following questions to our State Representative, Jim Smith, and our State Senator, James B. White:

  • Are you a current or former member of ALEC?
  • Have you attended any ALEC-sponsored meetings or events? If so, when, how many and what was the focus of the meeting (s) or event(s)?
  • Have you participated in any of ALEC’s task force activities?
  • Have you introduced, sponsored, co-sponsored, voted for, or otherwise supported legislation resulting from ALEC’s activities?
  • Have you received campaign contributions or other support from ALEC, its members, or its supporters?

We’ve requested responses by January 28, 2017, and will share what we receive with our readers – as well as the results of other research we are conducting into the matter.  We also encourage our readers to pose these questions to their State and local legislators (ALEC has created a subsidiary organization focusing on local government, the American City County Exchange (ACCE)).

Among the articles and resources we reviewed on this issue include (but are certainly not limited to):

ALEC Private Enterprise Advisory Council 
Affiliation  Member
American Bail Coalition Bill Carmichael
Exxon Mobil Corporation Cynthia Bergman
Peabody Energy Michael Blank
VISTRA Energy Sano Blocker
PhRMA Jeff Bond
Pfizer, Inc. Josh Brown
NetChoice Steve DelBianco
Guarantee Trust Life Insurance Company Marianne Eterno
UPS Mike Kiely
AT&T Bill Leahy
K12 Inc. Don Lee
Not specified (Americans For Prosperity) Frayda Levin
Not specified (Heritage Foundation) Stephen Moore
Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC Michael Morgan
Asian American Hotel Owners Association Chip Rogers
Altria Client Services Daniel Smith
State Farm Insurance Companies Roland Spies
National Federation of Independent Business Steve Woods
State Budget Solutions (ALEC) Bob Williams
Automotive Trade Association Executives Jennifer Colman

 

ALEC Task Forces
Affiliation Member Role
American City Council Exchange (ACCE)    
Mayor, Gulfport, Mississippi; Capitol Gain, LLC; Billy Hewes Real Estate; Former State Senator/Senate President Pro Tempore Billy Hewes Public Chair
Not Sepcified (formerly of American Bail Coalition Nick Wachinski Private Chair
ACCE Jon Russell Director
     
Civil Justice    
Tennessee State Senate Brian Kelsey Public Chair
Shook, Hardy and Bacon LLP Mark Behrens Private Chair
ALEC Amy Kjose Anderson Director
     
Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development    
Iowa House of Representatives Dawn Pettengill Public Chair
United Parcel Service Frank Morris Private Chair
ALEC Ben Wilterdink Director
     
Communications and Technology    
South Carolina House of Representatives Garry Smith Public Chair
National Cable and Telecommunications Rick Cimerman Private Chair
ALEC Jonathon Hauenschild Director
     
Criminal Justice Reform    
Oklahoma Legislature Lisa Billy Public Chair
Stop Child Predators Stacie Rumenap Private Chair
ALEC Ronald J. Lampard Director
     
Education and Workforce Development    
Utah State Senate Howard Stephenson Public Chair
Goldwater Institute Jonathan Butcher Private Chair
ALEC Inez Feltcher Director
     
Energy, Environment, and Agriculture    
Illinois House of Representatives David B. Reis Public Chair
National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association Jennifer Jura Private Chair
ALEC John Eick Director
     
Federalism and International Relations    
Oregon House Public Chair C. Gene Whisnant Public Chair
Americans for Tax Reform Lorenzo Montanari Private Chair
ALEC Karla Jones Director
     
Health and Human Services    
Georgia Senate Judson Hill Public Chair
Takeda Pharmeceuticals, U.S.A. John Schlatter Private Chair
ALEC Mia Heck Director
     
Tax and Fiscal Policy    
New Hampshire House of Representatives Ken Weyler Public Chair
Altria Client Services Amanda Klump Private Chair
ALEC Joel Griffith Director
ALEC Elliot Young Staff
ALEC Chritine Smith Staff
ALEC Ted Lafferty Staff
ALEC Kati Siconolfi Staff
ALEC/Center for State Fiscal Reform Jonathan Williams Director

 

 

Something Different In The City Different

by John Weckerle

Once in a while life provides an extraordinarily pleasant surprise, and we had such an experience last Friday while visiting friends in Santa Fe. Our friends had heard of an art exhibition called Meow Wolf, and we all decided to pay it a visit.

Meow Wolf is less an art exhibition than an immersive art environment. It is difficult to explain or describe. The experience is called the House of Eternal Return, and it consists of numerous environments (“rooms”) created by artists.  There are places to walk, crawl, climb, sit and observe, lie down and contemplate, and throughout there seems little or no prohibition against touching and otherwise experiencing the art.  The experience is surreal, exhilarating, relaxing, and stimulating all at once.

Unfortunately, we found ourselves caught without a camera because art exhibitions rarely allow photography, and the Meow Wolf website doesn’t come close to capturing the experience (in its defense, we’re not sure it would be possible to do so). As it turns out, this is not the case at Meow Wolf. Those wishing a sneak peak might consider taking a look at the photos on the Wikipedia page, but even these don’t truly communicate the experience.  This is an awe-inspiring, wonderfully immersive art experience, and we see it as perhaps one of the best things to do in Santa Fe and a reason in and of itself to visit the City Different.  Meow Wolf is closing from January 17 to February 2 for upgrades and “refreshing,” and we suspect we’ll be visiting soon after to immerse ourselves once again. We strongly recommend that our readers pay a visit, and make sure to give themselves at least a couple of hours to enjoy all that Meow Wolf has to offer.

Welfare: Stop Beating Up On The Recipients

by John Weckerle

It was with a certain degree of disappointment when, during a recent visit to Facebook, I saw that a friend had “liked” the photo above. Created by conservative blogger Bill Whittle, it was found in a repost from “Cold Dead Hands” on the Facebook page of John Jacobs, which appears to be dedicated to alt-right reposts. It is unusual for your editor to comment directly on such things, but this one was egregious enough that it begged for a response:

It’s disappointing to see a friend like a thing like this. It’s essentially inflammatory, lacking in any real factual basis, and has very little relevance with respect to what welfare really is and how it works. Painting people who are out of work as grifters, as this does, is entirely inappropriate and inexcusable. Welfare and other public assistance programs have helped a lot of people get back on their feet. There are cheats in any system, but stereotyping welfare recipients in this way is shameful and fundamentally false. People who post or “like” this sort of thing should perhaps consider how fortunate they are to make their way without welfare – and hope they don’t someday join the ranks they so enthusiastically criticize.

A couple of friends concurred, and then another user (Kathy Arnold, whose account also seems repost-heavy)  weighed in:

HELLO JOHN…..only 5-10%of people getting government assistance are disabled or abandoned children and veterans..the other 90-95%are able bodied………drug users, frauds, or just plain lazy,,i worked with HRS. DSS. DHS…FROM 1977,,,UNTIL I RETIRED IN 2014…I KNOW,,,,

An inquiry as to the source of this particular statistic rather predictably went unanswered, and so we decided to help Ms. Arnold out and do some looking around to see if we could either confirm the statistic and the characterization of welfare recipients, which we didn’t expect, or perhaps find some information to the contrary, which is what we expected.

We reviewed information from the following sources:

The references varied somewhat based on what specific programs they examined and the time frames in which the studies (or studies referenced in the article) were conducted.

The Berkely report examines participation and costs associated with major public assistance programs, including Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF, which many people typically refer to as “welfare”), Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as the food stamp program).  It discusses wage stagnation, noting that wages for the bottom 10 percent of the wage distribution were only 5% higher than they were in 1979, and that from 2003 from 2013 “Inflation-adjusted wage growth was either flat or negative for the entire bottom 70 percent of the wage distribution.”  The report goes on to note that 73 percent of the enrollees in major public support programs are members of working families.  Consider this table from the Berkeley report:

Program

Total Program Enrollment

Enrollment from Working Families Working Families’ Share of Enrollment
Medicaid/CHIP (individuals) 56,300,000 34,100,000 61%
TANF (individuals) 7,300,000 2,300,000 32%
EITC (families) 28,000,000 20,600,000 74%
SNAP (families) 29,000,000 10,300,000 36%

The report concludes: “When jobs don’t pay enough, workers turn to public assistance in order to meet their basic needs. These programs provide vital support to millions of working families whose employers pay less than a liveable wage…. Overall, higher wages and employer-provided health care would lower both state and federal public assistance costs, and allow all levels of government to better target how their tax dollars are used.”

The Census Bureau report, analyzing date from 2009 to 2012, provides a wealth of information, Worthy of note is that 21.3 percent of the population participated in at least one assistance program in 2012, up from 18.6 percent in 2009, with Medicaid and SNAP being the apparent major factors considered in the study.  Participation by people below the poverty rate was substantially higher than those above, and people below the poverty rate also tended to remain on assistance longer.  A higher rate of participation is seen for people under 18 years of age than for other groups. Single-parent households participated more than households with married couples, and household with a single, female householder participated at a much higher rate than others. Participation was estimated at 37.3 percent, 21.6 percent, and 9.6 percent for people who did not graduate high school, graduated high school, and had one or more years of college, respectively. Program participation was highest for the unemployed and those not in the labor force, but substantial numbers of full-time and part-time workers also participated.

We could go through this one article or report at a time, but we’ll summarize some of the other information we found.  Among the various articles and reports we found a great many other interesting trends.  Several sources indicated that perhaps 23,000 active military personnel receive SNAP benefits; that about 7 percent of veterans used food stamps in 2012; that about 23 percent of of households with at least one working adult received some form of assistance; and that about “60 percent of food stamp recipients who were of working age and weren’t disabled were employed while receiving benefits” (Politifact article).

In short, we found nothing that supports Ms. Arnold’s statistic or her assessment of the welfare-receiving population.  In fact, we find quite the contrary.  Low wages and income/wealth inequality represent a substantial contributor to participation in public assistance programs, and age and education also appear to play a substantial role.

We’ll close this article by reiterating our earlier point – it is shameful and dishonest to portray “welfare” recipients – many of whom are working but not making enough, and many of whom may not be able to work for a variety of reasons, as wealth-stealing parasites.  Public assistance provided to many of these people is for all intents and purposes going into the pockets of those who are not paying the legitimate cost of doing business in terms of wages and benefits – essentially socializing their costs while privatizing their profits. Perhaps we should focus on that problem rather than maligning those who are affected by it.

 

 

 

 

 

Albuquerque: Fractal Capital Of The World

Fractal Art: Positronica 1

“Positronica 1,” created with Mandelbulb 3D – available for free via the Fractal Forums website.

By John Weckerle

Today, we take a short break from our usual fare to give a “shout out” to Albuquerque, Fractal Capital of the World. The Duke City is home to the Fractal Foundation, an organization dedicated to spreading the word about fractals and their value in the areas of science, math and art. The Fractal Foundation presents two fractal-based planetarium shows at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science – First Friday Fractals and Fractals Rock – on the first Friday of each month. We’ve seen both shows, and in our opinion they are worth far more than the price of admission. Fantastic Fractals can be seen in the planetarium at the Pajarito Environmental Education Center in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Fractal Foundation conducts a variety of education and outreach activities, and the website contains a number of interesting fractal videos.

Readers interested in fractals should also take a look at the Fractal Forums website, which provides a great deal of information on fractals, fractal art galleries, and the free Mandelbulb 3D software.

When Belief Trumps Fact: Waging The War On Fake News

by John Weckerle

Throughout our history at New Mexico Central we have, at times, attempted to shine a light on what is now widely termed “fake news” when we see it (and when time permits) – and we will continue to do so as often as we can. In concert with this, we have long been fascinated by the factors that feed into what appears to be an insistence on the part of some people to believe things even when factual evidence is provided that disproves the concept in which belief is held. This phenomenon has never been more obviously present or widespread than it has in the year or so leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and in the months since.

In a Scientific American article titled How to Convince Someone When Facts Fail: Why worldview threats undermine evidence (originally published with the title “When Facts Backfire), Michael Shermer, author of the magazines Skeptic column (and also the founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine and author of The Believing Brain) discusses cognitive dissonance, which he describes as “the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts simultaneously.”  In the article, quotes a study by Brendan Nyhan (Dartmouth College) and Jason Reifler (University of Exeter) in which subjects were provided first with fake newspaper articles and then an article correcting the misinformation in the first.  After reading the correction, the subjects believed the initial article even more strongly. The researchers termed this “the backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.” The reason: “Because it threatens their worldview or self-concept.”

Dr. Shermer provides some fascinating information on this phenomenon in The Believing Brain, and many of the relevant concepts are discussed in his Ted Talk The pattern behind self-deception, which we highly recommend (along with his other Ted Talk, Why people believe weird things). In the former Ted Talk, as in the book, Dr Shermer explains “patternicity” – the “tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise” – and identifies two types of error – Type 1, seeing a pattern where there is none, and Type II, not perceiving a pattern that is real.  These are false positives and false negatives. Later, in the talk, he introduces the concept of agenticity, “the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency, often invisible beings from the top down.” Agents may include a number of concepts; some examples provided include ghosts, gods, aliens, intelligent designers, and government conspirators. He then addresses conspiracy theories, observing that many are believed even though they are shown to be false – while noting, of course that some conspiracy theories are actually true.

In the Scientific American article, Dr. Shermer provides a strategy for potentially changing at least some minds caught up in believing falsehoods – a strategy very much like the one New Mexico Central has followed, albeit admittedly sometimes less than perfectly. We have focused specifically, in many cases, on re-posted/recycled falsehoods that again fall into the category of fake news. What we have found, at least in a couple of cases, that directly addressing the re-posts some times results in a reduced frequency in their appearance, and in one case may have lead to a cessation. Nobody likes to be shown as purveying falsehood, and stopping fake news anywhere in the chain can only help, even if just a little. With two years to mid-term elections, we have a lot of work to do in the hope that perhaps voters will have better information on which to base their decisions than they did last year.

To that end, we have expanded into the “Twitterverse” and will be moving into Facebook, so we can find, follow, and potentially correct misinformation and disinformation as it is forwarded/re-posted. We hope that our readers, when presented with the inevitable e-mail forwards, re-posted articles, and similar communications containing fake news or misleading information, will consider sending us a link or forward them to editor@nm-central.com  and providing us with the source so we can follow up.

 

Electoral Integrity In The U.S.

by John Weckerle

In an op-ed piece published in North Carolina’s The Observer, co-designer of an approach used to measure the integrity of elections worldwide, presented a case for concluding that North Carolina is no longer a functioning democracy. The approach, according to Dr. Reynolds, was used as “the cornerstone of the Electoral Integrity Project” (EIP), a joint academic program operated by Harvard University in the U.S. and the University of Sydney, Australia since 2012.  Dr. Reynolds, an international consultant on democratic design and Professor of Political Science at the prestigious University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, uses the recent analysis by the EIP to make the case that North Carolina, with an electoral integrity score of 58 out of 100 in the EIP’s recent analysis of the 2016 U.S. election, ranks alongside Cuba, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone, and with respect to legal framework and voter registration, alongside Iran and Venezuela. He then examines non-electoral issues associated with the state. The article is relatively short and an easy read, and we recommend that our readers give it a few minutes.

The op-ed was picked up and reported on by a number of Internet news outlets, both mainstream and otherwise, but few if any provided links to the actual study.  A little searching brought us to two articles on the EIP website addressing the 2016 U.S. election: one containing the featured dataset, and another, Why It’s Not About Election Fraud, It’s Much Worse (referred to as “the article,” below), containing an analysis of the results. The latter article examines potential issues with the 2016, including fraud (noting that there was “next to no credible evidence for cases of voter fraud); suppression of voting rights (noting that there was evidence that stricter registration rights was clearer but that the magnitude of the effects is under debate); maladministration; and cybersecurity, among others.

The good news for New Mexicans is that our state ranks among the highest in the nation for electoral integrity, coming in fifth with a score of 73 out of 100 – only 2 points behind Vermont, which had the highest score. Our lowest scores were in the areas of electoral laws, district boundaries, voter registration, and media coverage.

The bad news for all of us is that, at least in terms of the parameters analyzed in the report, there are some serious potential problems with the way the U.S. electoral process functioned in 2016.  The article discusses the lack of substantive policy discussion, the role of fake news, false equivalency standards of journalism, and issues associated with party control of states. As discussed in the article:

In terms of campaign communications, the impact of fake news and Russian meddling in the campaign have both emerged as major issues of bipartisan concern after November 8th, despite some poo-pooing by Trump.

By contrast there are other broader issues about campaign media which should raise serious concern, as reports by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center have highlighted, including the lack of substantive policy discussion during the campaign, the false equivalency standards of journalism, and the overwhelmingly negative tone of news coverage.

Moreover the issue of gerrymandered district boundaries, regarded by experts as the worst aspect of U.S. voting procedures, was never seriously debated throughout the campaign. The practice ensures that representatives are returned time and again based on mobilizing the party faithful, without having to appeal more broadly to constituents across the aisle, thus exacerbating the bitter partisanship which plagues American politics. Gerrymandering through GOP control of state legislatures has also led to a systematic pro-Republican advantage in House districts which is likely to persist at least until 2022.  In 2016 House Republicans won 241 seats out of 435 (55%), although they won only 49.1% of the popular vote, a six-percentage point winners bonus.

The article also examines the influence of party dominance (Democrat vs. Republican) within states with respect to the parameters assessed, noting:

The results clearly demonstrate that, according to the expert evaluations, Democratic-controlled states usually had significantly greater electoral integrity than Republican-controlled states, across all stages except one (the declaration of the results, probably reflecting protests in several major cities following the unexpected Trump victory).  The partisan gap was substantial and statistically significant on the issues of gerrymandered district boundaries, voter registration, electoral laws, and the performance of electoral officials.

Noting that Mr. Trump won more states with electoral malpractices and Ms. Clinton won more states with better scores, the article states:

We do not claim, as we do not have sufficient evidence, that Trump won these states because of malpractices. But the correlation is clear. Thus, throughout the campaign, and even afterwards, it was Donald Trump who repeatedly claimed that the election was rigged and fraudulent. In terms of votes being intentionally cast illegally, the strict meaning of ‘voter fraud’, there is little or no evidence supporting these claims. But if the idea of integrity is understood more broadly, there is indeed evidence from this study that US elections suffer from several systematic and persistent problems –  and Donald Trump and the Republican party appear to have done well in states with the most problems.

Overall, the article, along with the associated publications, is very informative, and reveals substantial issues associated with partisan gerrymandering, campaign communications, campaign finance, and fake news/junk reporting. It ends with a caution, and one which we would do well to heed: “…countries which fail to reach a consensus about the legitimacy of the basic electoral rules of the game, especially those with deeply polarized parties and leaders with authoritarian tendencies, are unlikely to persist as stable democratic states.”

Pakistan and Israel To Nuke Each Other

by John Weckerle

Okay, not really, but we figured that the fake news enthusiasts out there would appreciate the title – and those who disdain fake news will very likely get a bit of a kick out of this story.

As reported by The Hill, “Pakistan’s Defense Minister Khawaja Asif tweeted, ‘Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh.Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too AH.'” This was in response to an “article” posted on AWD News which “Moshe Yaalon, Israeli Defense Minister” as saying “‘As far as we are concerned,that is a threat,if, by misfortune, they arrive in Syria, we will know what to do,we will destroy them with a nuclear attack.'” Moshe Bogie Ya’alon is actually the former defense minister.

We checked both gentlemen’s Twitter accounts and confirmed that Mr. Asif was correctly quoted by The Hill.  Mr. Ya’alon’s twitter feed is problematic; not only are most posts in Hebrew, which your editor has not yet learned, but they are posted as images (an apparent attempt to get around Twitter’s character limits) and thus could not be run through a translation app; we are therefore unable to assess any reaction Mr. Ya’alon may have expressed on Twitter to the idea of Pakistan’s involvement in the conflict with ISIS.

For those not familiar with Twitterspeak, Mr. Asif’s tweet more or less translates to “Israeli defense minister threatens nuclear retaliation presuming a Pakistani role in Syria against Daesh. Israel forgets that Pakistan is a Nuclear state, too, AH.” We find the final abbreviation to be perhaps the most amusing aspect of the story, perhaps even more so than the fact that Mr. Asif was taken in by the fake news story to begin with.  Those unfamiliar with this particular abbreviation may find an explanation here.  Apparently, the manners and decorum of international political discourse have taken a page from that seen during our recent electoral cycle.

U.N. Passes Resolution On Israeli Settlements In The Occupied Palestinian Territories

by John Weckerle

Yesterday, the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council adopted Resolution 2334 (2016), calling for an end to Israeli settlement in occupied Palestinian territory in accordance with past agreements and resolutions.  Reactions to the resolution have been swift, prolific, and predictable, with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan declaring it “a blow to peace” and the government of Israel decrying it as “shameful.” As reported by MSN here, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has threatened a reduction or suspension of payments to the U.N. and potential retaliation against members who supported the resolution.

Rather than wait for the alt-right blosphere/twitterverse to erupt and then challenge the rantings, we decided to take a direct look at the actual text of the resolution itself.  The text of the resolution is included in this announcement on the U.N. website.

The resolution begins by reaffirming eleven prior resolutions stretching back to 1967 and proceeds to reaffirm Israel’s responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention (Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, August 12, 1949).  It condemns “all measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character, and status of the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967.”  The resolution directly references the  Quartet Performance-based Roadmap to a Permanent Two State Solution (2003), which, among many other provisions, specifies a freeze on all settlement activities.

The resolution states that the U.N. Security Council “Reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace;” and “Reiterates its demand that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and that it fully respect all of its legal obligations in this regard.” It calls for immediate steps to prevent violence against citizens, including terrorist acts, and calls upon both parties (Israel and the Palestinians) observe international law and refrain from provocative actions. The resolution further calls upon the international and regional communities to intensify and accelerate efforts to achieve “without delay, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

There are a few things to consider with respect to the resolution.  First, it contains no provisions for sanctions whatsoever.  Second, as reported in the MSN article, it has been U.S. policy since the days of the Reagan Administration to oppose the establishment of these settlements. Third, the United States did not vote for the resolution, but simply abstained – effectively declining to veto it.

It is unclear why the expectation seems to be that we would veto it.  Israel has been been establishing these settlements and does not deny it, and these settlements are contrary to U.S. policy and international agreements to which Israel is a party. As an ally, Israel has reason to expect U.S. support in the event of a military attack, but it seems a little absurd to suggest that we should extend that support to protecting Israel from criticism regarding acts that are counter to our established policy and international accords. It is, perhaps, time for Israel to stand up for itself and its actions rather than have the U.S. do it for them, and to recognize that the U.S. is the only member of the Security Council not to vote directly in favor of the resolution.

We see nothing untrue or inappropriate in the resolution (and, in the end, very little if anything that could directly harm Israel), and the logic behind the outraged reaction to it is unclear. We suspect that it is more partisan or ideological in nature than substantive. As always, we suggest that people read the full text (rather than, or in addition to, stories about it) before reacting to it, or reposting/retweeting others’ opinions on the subject.

 

Into The Twitterverse

by John Weckerle

New Mexico Central now has a Twitter feed! It’s at:

@NMCentralEditor

Have Yourself A Deplorable Little Christmas (Shopping Experience)

by John Weckerle

It was with a certain degree of shock and disappointment that we read this article on MSN.com containing a video of a woman behaving very badly at a J.C. Penney store in Louisville, Kentucky.  Irritated by the addition of a couple of extra items to the order being checked out in front of her, this person entered into an apparently alt-right-inspired, ethnically charged rant against the two women whose items were being rung up.

J.C. Penney is seeking the two women accosted in the video with the purpose of reimbursing them for their purchase and apologizing for the experience.  Along with the Jefferson Mall management, they are also working to identify the foul-mouthed ranter, so that she may be banned from both the store and the mall for life. We suspect that the search will be short, given that her name and credit card number are probably on record after her purchase.

We understand that holiday shopping can be stressful, but there is no excuse for behavior like this.  If you’re feeling frustrated, just remember that everybody has a cell phone these days, including the denizens of NM-Central.com, and this is not the sort of national fame that anybody wants. So be good, for goodness sake!

A Picture Isn’t Always Worth Many Words

by John Weckerle

We continue to peruse the internet in search of local political commentary, and came across this post on Sandia Tea Party Official Internet Spokesman Chuck Ring’s blog.  With our curiosity in a state of pique, we decided to poke around the web and learn a little about the photograph contained within the post.

As it turns out, this image has reportedly been used in disinformation campaigns, including a posting of the photo by President Elect Donald J. Trump’s attorney in October suggesting that he had received an award from the NAACP.  We found this article from the Huffington Post to be very interesting.  The article points out that the award, correctly named the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, as well as the organization that awarded it (the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, or NECO) came into being as an outraged reaction to then-President Ronald Reagan’s decision to award the Medal of Freedom to 12 naturalized citizens.  NECO was formed by Mr. Trump’s real estate broker, William Fugazy, and Mr. Trump received the award in its first year.  We have found no specific reason for Mr. Trump’s receipt of the award.

According to the Huffington Post article:

Officially, the medal criteria are broad and inclusive: Winners should “uphold the ideals and spirit of America,” while “maintaining the traditions of their ethnic heritage.” In practice, the winners are mostly white Americans of European descent.

They certainly were the year Mr. Trump received the award; as reported by the Huffington Post and as documented in this New York Times article, only four of the 80 recipients that year were African Americans.

The NECO website states: “The Ellis Island Medals of Honor embody the spirit of America in their celebration of patriotism, tolerance, brotherhood and diversity.” It is perhaps rather ironic that, as the Huffington Post article points out, “At the time, Trump and his father held the dubious honor of having been the defendants in one of the largest-ever housing discrimination lawsuits, a case sparked by a Justice Department civil rights investigation that found the Trumps discriminated against prospective tenants who were black.” And it is perhaps even more ironic that the person dead-center in the photo posted on Mr. Ring’s site is none other than anti-gay activist Anita Bryant, whose name had by that time become synonymous with that particular form of bigotry.

We’ll leave it to our readers to form their own opinions (and, of course, post them here; unlike the Sandia Tea Party site and Mr. Ring’s, we allow comments) as to whether or not Mr. Trump is a racist.  We’ll simply observe that standing next to a civil rights icon in a photo doesn’t make one “not a racist” any more than standing next to an oak makes one a tree.

In closing, we note that the NECO website lists Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a past awardee.