Friday, March 20, 2015

The war on common sense

My favorite Senator (don't get me wrong, I can't stand either of them, but Rand Paul is absolutely @#$%^& nuts) has taken a bold, creative approach as he pretends to "fight the good fight" and "save coal." He's decided to paint it as a "state's rights" issue. Mitch is a master politician, I've always given him credit for that, and he definitely understands the importance of good marketing. Framing this as "don't let the big scary Federal government boss you around, governor!" allows him to divert attention from the facts surrounding the issue, namely:

  1. Presidents don't control energy markets. There are actually 9,000 more coal miners working in the US today than the day Obama took office, they're just not working in Kentucky.
  2. Coal has been a dying industry in Kentucky for all 30 years that Mitch has been in office, so apparently the "war on coal" started with Reagan.
  3. The biggest reasons we have a dying coal industry are a) the coal in Kentucky is harder to extract than in other states, so it's not price competitive on the open market b) fracking has dramatically dropped the price of natural gas, which I can use to run power plants that are MUCH cleaner than coal plants. 
  4. Coal fired power plants actually do pollute the air
  5. Wind tends to not respect state borders - pollution made in one state will carry to whatever neighboring state the prevailing winds blow towards. 

I know the GOP these days is fiercely anti-science, but let's review some quick facts. When you burn coal in a power plant, that's what's called a "chemical reaction" and it creates these wacky things called "by-products." Specifically, you end up spewing hydrogen sulfide, CO2, Mercury, and Arsenic into the air. These things are each bad on their own, because they either poison people or the atmosphere or both. There's a reason you don't walk into a bar and say "I'd like an Arsenic and Mercury on the rocks, please."

The courts have ruled that the federal government can regulate air pollution because it's a matter of interstate commerce. New Jersey can't just throw whatever pollution it wants into the air, knowing it will fall on New York, and claim "state's rights!" If you've ever worked in a cubicle and had to smell someone else's nasty lunch leftovers they're eating at their desk, you understand this concept (and how unpleasant it can be). Well, pretty much anything that crosses state borders is in the domain of the federal government, and that includes air. So the EPA has limited how much CO2, Arsenic, and Mercury you can spew because otherwise some states would be the asshole office mates that stink up the whole place.

Mitch isn't denying that coal is being killed by market forces. He's not denying that coal pollution is bad for people and for the environment. What he's pitching to various governors is that they should ignore the EPA rules (and even giving them a legal framework for how to make that case) because big bad tyrant Obama is trampling on states rights by trying to regulate interstate commerce, something the constitution explicitly authorizes the federal government to do. Basically, he's saying who cares if there's an actual health and environmental hazard here, we need to make a stand for state's rights. Idiot.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Politicians + Curriculum = Disaster

One topic that has been in the news lately is the trend of state legislatures wanting to dictate school curricula that align to a particular political ideology. If that sounds like a terrible idea, that's because it is. I love a good political debate as much as the next former PolySci major, but the place for that debate is in coffee shops and on facebook, not in our classrooms where it affects our kids. Period.

In addition to the usual suspects for curriculum debate (sex education and evolution), there are two newcomers these days: history and climatology. Here is a summary of recent history on the matter.

Issue #1 - NGSS: Next Generation Science Standards. 26 States collaborated with the National Science Teacher's Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science to develop these standards. This process was supported by wacky left-wing organizations like GE and DuPont. The goal is to provide students with world-class, benchmarked science education. The lightning rods here are evolution and climate change. The standards were finalized in 2013 and have since been formally adopted by 13 states (including Kentucky, home of the Creation Museum) and Washington D.C.. A GOP legislature in Wyoming explicitly prohibited the adoption of these standards, though that "ban" is in the process of being reversed. West Virginia adopted them, but modified them to include their own fairy-tale explanation of climate change. After much public outcry, WV backtracked and adopted them as written. Michigan tried to ban them, thanks to Republican State Representative Tom McMillan.

For review, 97% of climate scientists agree that the Earth is getting warmer AND that this warming is "very likely" caused by human activity. That number comes from a review of "21 years of peer-reviewed scientific papers published on global warming and global climate change, culminating in a 2013 report that found that more than 4,000 paper abstracts authored by almost 10,200 scientists stated a position on human-driven climate change. More than 97 percent of the time, the position was that humans are contributing to a global rise in temperatures." Most of us see something like that and think, ok, that's settled. It takes someone with an axe to grind and/or a penchant for conspiracy theories to look at data like that and say "wait a minute, I smell a hoax."

Enter Wade Linger, an independent on the WV Board of Ed who thinks this is all a crock. Wade is a living proof point for a 2013 study that explains why conspiracy theorists don't trust science. People like Wade think that these 10,000 scientists are part of a vast conspiracy on the topic. They're making this up because it's in their best interest - it gives them something to study, it's job security, if they weren't studying global warming they'd all be unemployed. People like Wade seek out like minded individuals and come up with their own theories of climate change.

These people are almost never trained climatologists, or if they are, they're in the 3% who say this is all a scam. One such climatologist, Willie Soon, was recently outed for having accepted $1.2 million from the fossil fuel industry as compensation for his articles talking about how this is all a hoax. Since 2008, Soon received more than $800,000 from ExxonMobil, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the electric utility Southern Company Services Inc., one of the nation's largest operators of coal fired power plants. They create an echo chamber to reinforce each others' views. You can find people who don't believe in climate change. You can also find people who believe in aliens. In fact, statistically, there's considerable overlap.

Newsflash: West Virginia is coal country. If humans cause climate change, the coal industry becomes even more of a villain than it already is. Wade doesn't want to teach WV kids the truth, because it would mean badmouthing the state's biggest industry. Either that, or he's right, and NASA + 97% of scientists are wrong. If you are a parent who lives in West Virginia, you ought to be scared to death that Wade is setting a curriculum for your kids based in fairy tales rather than facts.

I'm picking on Wade, but he's just one example. Other states have their Wades, with various reasons for actively promoting the notion that 97% of climate scientists are full of crap. Heck a US Senator brought a snowball to the Senate floor last week to say "see, I've got a snowball here, therefore global warming is a hoax." You can't make this stuff up. These people must not be allowed to set education policy (or energy policy!).

What we're really talking about here is something between propaganda and brainwashing.  Let's review definitions, I don't want to be accused of exaggerating. Propaganda is "information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view." Branwashing is when you "make (someone) adopt radically different beliefs by using systematic and often forcible pressure." That's exactly what these people are doing when they promote a curriculum that goes against the consensus of experts. We've got new science standards here that could help us compete better in the global economy, and a hand full of yahoos in 3 states are trying to ban them.

Issue #2 - evolution. You'd think this one was settled with the Scopes trial 90 years ago, but far from it. 13 states are allowed to teach creationism AS IF IT'S ACTUAL SCIENCE. If you want a religious education for your kid, by all means get one, at a private school or at Sunday school. Use of public funds to promote a religious agenda is illegal. Use of public schools to promote "the bible = science" is just plain wrong. You bible beaters ok with me teaching your kids the Qu'ran and the Torah and calling it fact? Didn't think so. We're all entitled to our beliefs. None of us is entitled to force our beliefs on someone else's kid.

True, evolution is a theory, and that word has a specific meaning to those of us who like science. Einstein's theory of relativity is still just that, a theory. Same with plate tectonics, the theory that continents were at one point joined in a single land mass. There is observable evidence to support them though, and they are both widely accepted. To less-religious people like myself, teaching that the world is 6,000 years old is as absurd as teaching that we get lightning when Zeus throws a lightning bolt. Sure, a lot of Greeks believed that, but then we learned stuff and realized that's completely bogus.

Issue #3 - sex education. Really, I could just say, see Issue #2 above. Sex education is something that varies widely across the states. As of January 1st of this year:

  • 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools teach sex education (20 of which mandate sex education and HIV education)
  • 33 states and the District of Columbia require students receive instruction about HIV/AIDS.
  • 19 states require that if provided, sex education must be medically, factually or technically accurate. 
  • 37 states require sex education that includes abstinence, 26 of which require that abstinence be stressed as the best method. 

Statistically though, we know that states which stress abstinence have the highest birth rate. States which promote comprehensive sex ed, including education about contraception, have the lowest rates. If we agree that teen pregnancy is a problem and something we want to reduce, we can't logically allow states like Mississippi to continue promoting abstinence as the "best method" when we have an abundance of evidence demonstrating that approach DOESN'T WORK!!!

Issue #4 - US History. This one is a real head scratcher until you review the definition of propaganda: biased information used to promote a particular political cause. There is a movement in this country, exclusively among Republican politicians, to re-brand the teaching of certain chapters in American history as un-patriotic. Basically, they want to only tell kids that America is awesome and it's totally the best country ever, we can do no wrong. Any account of US history that talks about oppression or exploitation is misleading and has a liberal bias.

AP History has been around since I was in high school, so it's old. It's a way for good students who like to work hard to earn some college credit before they even get out of high school, while taking an in-depth look at US history. Republican legislators in Oklahoma, Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Georgia have all attempted to either eliminate or change the AP History curriculum. The two commonalities among all these cases are 1) they are led by the Republican party, a private organization with a specific political agenda and 2) the complaint that AP history fails to sufficiently emphasize the notion of "American exceptionalism," which is basically the notion that America is extra super special.

These debates are being falsely framed by Republicans as issues of states rights; "keep the big bad federal government out of our schools!" This couldn't be further from accurate, but as you've hopefully learned by this point, accuracy is not a goal of the GOP. I have no problem with states setting their own education standards, quite the contrary, I think that's appropriate. The problem I have is with states who want to make up their own facts, and politicians who want to use curriculum as a way to promote a particular agenda. In some cases here we see both of those - a politically motivated promotion of non-facts. And yes, I'd be equally upset if the Democrats were doing this. The fact is, they're not.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Republicans create budget deficits and hurt kids

The title really says it all. As the media begins to spew talk of the 2016 election cycle at us (ALREADY?!), let's review some recent examples of the differences in the parties when it comes to fiscal responsibility. If you think Republicans fix budgets, you're just plain wrong. If you think tax cuts spur economic growth you're also wrong. There's simply no evidence to support either point. I can, however, show 6 examples of Republicans cutting taxes where the result was a ruined budget AND zero economic growth, often where the state education system is ruined in the process.

Sam Brownback, Republican governor of Kansas: cut taxes, resulting in a $278 million budget shortfall, which he's going to address by not spending money on infrastructure, cutting education spending, and further depleting the state's already under-funded pension plan. He inherited a budget deficit of $60M, so he's increased that 400% in just four years; impressive! 71 of the state's 105 counties have had to raise property taxes to pay for things the state used to cover.

Bobby Jindal, Republican governor of Louisiana, inherited a $1 BILLION surplus from his predecessor, cut taxes 6 times, and now has a $1.6 BILLION deficit. The icing on the cake is that he's actually also made cuts to healthcare and education (Louisiana is known for its spectacular public schools ... oh, wait). Meanwhile, he subsidizes Duck Dynasty to the tune of $330,000 per episode with taxpayer dollars, and has paid Wal-Mart, yes Wal-@#$%^&$-Mart $700,000 from the state coffers to subsidize the construction of their stores in the state. I guess those numbers are pretty small when you compare them to the $1,600,000,000 deficit, but "come on, man?!"

George W. Bush inherited a $128B surplus from Clinton's last budget, and left Obama with a $1.4 TRILLION deficit. Three big reasons for this include: 2 rounds of tax cuts, 2 unfunded wars, and the passage of a Medicare prescription drug benefit without providing any funding mechanism for how to pay for it. That last part could effectively be re-named "the best thing that ever happened to big pharma, because it guarantees them access to old people who need lots of drugs, while simultaneously forbidding Uncle Sam from ever negotiating with them on pricing."

Scott Walker, Republican governor of Wisconsin cut taxes until he had a $1.8B deficit. He tried to cover it up by cutting... education spending.

Tom Corbett, Republican governor of Pennsylvania, cut $1.3B in taxes (corporate and income), now faces a $1B budget deficit, and ... decided to cut education spending.

 During Chris Christie's tenure as New Jersey's Republican governor, their credit rating has been downgraded not once, but twice. He's proposed two massive tax cuts that have been thwarted by his legislature. He's trying again this year.

But by all means, let's vote GOP, because they're all about "fiscal responsibility."

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Old and the Useless

It's like the young and the restless, except for Congress. What we've seen this week is a preview of coming attractions from a GOP majority in Congress. Rather than addressing a very real issue facing this country (immigration, including a refugee crisis), they've done nothing but posturing, pontificating, and basically being a bunch of windbags.

We're a nation of immigrants. When the Europeans arrived, they treated the ACTUAL locals like shit, giving them lovely new diseases, killing them by the thousands, and ultimately "relocating" them to "reservations." Every group that arrived here has very quickly taken the position that, wherever the next wave of immigrants is coming from, "THOSE people are going to ruin the place so we have to keep them out!" The English and Germans fought to keep out the Irish and Italians. Today it's the Mexicans we have to keep out. "Build a wall!" At various points in our history we've treated Africans, Asians (in particular the Japanese, but the Chinese too, and today the Indians) and other groups pretty awful, so the angry old white people who who are throwing fits today about "those damn Mexican illegals," are actually just carrying on a long tradition of xenophobia and racism. Way to go.

But none of that is in the news. CNN and Fox can't be bothered to review actual history, as their viewers are too stupid and it's too boring so it doesn't sell commercials as well as talking about the controversy of the President's actions and the ongoing narrative of "us versus them." Right. When can we move on from this and recognize that Americans don't neatly fit into "A" versus "B" categories? We're a diverse people with a wide range of values and perspectives, and opinions, yet the media invariably oversimplifies everything into liberals versus conservatives, GOP versus Dems, regardless of how inaccurate that portrayal is. Those words don't even have meaning anymore - conservative didn't used to be a bad word. Some guy called me a libtard this week. Libtard.

Some news outlets have at least noted that Obama is far from the first president to take executive action on immigration. At least 4 other GOP presidents have also issued executive orders on the matter, but ask any ignorant Faux News fan and they'll be happy to tell you how all of those other examples are completely different and unrelated to what Obama the Emperor Tyrant is doing today. But one point where even the most ignorant of conservatives can't argue is this: John Boehner promised comprehensive immigration reform last July, and he's failed to deliver. He couldn't even get his own party to agree on a House bill. President Obama is absolutely grandstanding here, but he's also taking action in a situation where Congress has absolutely failed to preform its duty. For the President to NOT act in the face of the immigration crisis we're seeing today would be awful.

Here's what the GOP still doesn't get: old, white, xenophobic, ignorant, racists are dying. That doesn't describe all Republicans, by any means. It does describe a number of them though, and they still exist in numbers sufficient to help the GOP win state and national elections, SO LONG AS the GOP continues to say and do the right things to keep them happy. Boehner takes his cues from Ted Cruz on that, make no mistake. Here's how those people think: all Mexicans are terrible people here to take American jobs WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY signing up for all our welfare programs AND committing election fraud. Since that's completely inaccurate and represents a fundamental misunderstanding of, well, everything (economics, geography, criminology, who actually commits election fraud, the fact that Americans are too lazy to work the manual labor jobs that immigrants are taking - just ask Alabama farmers what happened when they kicked 'em all out a few years back), the GOP has to stay away from any logical way to deal with the border crisis.

So rather than take a compassionate, logical stance on immigration, one that could win them some votes with one of the fastest growing demographic groups, the GOP will propose building a wall and putting landmines at the border, and busing those immigrants already here back to Mexico (even though many of them in the current crisis come from Central America). Rather than passing a bipartisan bill to address immigration long term, they will instead focus all their efforts on suing the president and holding the budget hostage until he agrees to undo whatever he's just done. Then they'll go about their tired old mission of repealing Obamacare. There are 21 million Hispanic voters in this country. There are 10 million people who have health coverage thanks to Obamacare. So, by all means, let's sit back and enjoy the circus as the GOP throws out 31,000,000 votes in the next election to placate the Yosemite Sam contingent from Texas and Arizona.

Monday, November 17, 2014


Today I got to "go to work" in my old hometown of Chicago. I only lived here for a couple years, but it's a city that gets in your blood. I'm not sure if that's because of the freezing wind off the lakefront that seems to blow through your veins, or from the unique grease content within a Chicago hot dog (or perhaps a Portillo's Italian beef sandwich) that clogs up your veins. Either way, if you live here for any length of time, it becomes part of you.

Walking to work in the Loop, you can't help but notice a sense of productivity and commerce that seems almost tangible among the locals. Chicago has always been known as the city that works, the city with broad shoulders, and I think that's a sentiment that spans the economic classes here. Take a stroll down California street in San Francisco's financial district, and you'll see plenty of bankers and barons of industry going about their day, don't get me wrong. San Francisco just has a completely different feel to it though. Sure, it's California, but the "hippie" element is less noticeable among the skyscrapers. It's just more relaxed. When Chicago wakes up every morning, it's got shit to do. I love Lexington and the high quality of life we enjoy there, but there is something to be said for the industriousness of Chicago.

I'm working at the HQ offices of a large consulting firm here; a firm with which my current employer does a lot of business. It's also a firm where I applied to work several times and was politely ignored. So coming to work this morning, in this building, I had a pretty big smirk on my face. Today, you see, they invited me. I'm the presenter. I'm the expert giving advice to their experts. No one in the room knows about this dynamic, but it's caused me to reflect back on all that has passed between now and then. The last time I had a job in this town was 13 years ago. They were a different company, I was a different employee, but Chicago hasn't changed a bit. I love that.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Is Mitch Really Helping Kentucky?

Now that McConnell will be serving 36 years in the Senate, and the coming 6 as majority leader, I think it's reasonable to expect that he delivers the goods for Kentucky. I mean, a Senators #1 job is to serve his state, right? Can we at least agree on that?

Don't get me wrong, I don't think there's any chance Mitch will actually do that. He will serve himself first, the GOP 2nd (gotta stack the deck for your party in the next election, right?), and the Commonwealth will be a distant 3rd if it's on his list at all. I was wrong once though, and it could feasibly happen again. How will we know?

I propose defining a list of metrics to measure McConnell's next 6 years. Since his party controls Congress for at least the next two years, we can expect great things right? My GOP loyalist friends are already making excuses of course for why Boehner and McConnell will fail to accomplish anything; that Reid will be obstructionist and Obama will veto everything. To this I say, tough shit? Turnabout is fair play? They want it both ways - they claim that the Democratic losses in the midterms mean that the American people strongly support the Republican agenda and are revolting against these socialist Democrats. If that's true, then getting a 2/3 majority to override a Presidential veto is no problem, right? After 30 years in the Senate, even I will give McConnell credit for being a master of parliamentary tactics - you want to tell me he can't out maneuver dopey old Harry Reid?

So what can a Senator do for his home state? Send pork of course, and I'm sure there will be plenty of that. It's easy to track though - he's sent $1.5 Billion home since 2008. Good think Republicans are the fiscally conservative party. Here are the metrics I propose:

  1. Kentucky unemployment relative to other states and trend over time - I think we can all agree that Kentucky needs economic growth, and these first 3 are a pretty standard measures of that.
  2. Kentucky poverty rate relative to other states and trend over time - same as above
  3. Kentucky per capita income relative to other states and trend over time - same as above
  4. Kentucky health relative to other states - McConnell promised to rip out Obamacare root and branch, stating (incorrectly) that Kynect is just a website. If he's going to mess around with our health care, then isn't the health of our citizens a fair metric by which to judge him? 
  5. Number of coal miners in Kentucky - Like #3, this is one Mitch brought on himself as it was a key campaign point of his that he would fight Obama's war on coal and save coal jobs. 
McConnell took office in 1985 when there were 29,000 coal miners in Eastern Kentucky. That number had dropped to 12,000 BEFORE Obama was elected, but yeah, Mitch is totally a champion for coal. It's those obstructionist Democrats who have kept him from taking action on coal for his first 30 years in office. Now that he and Boehner are in charge, look out! We're due for a coal revival any day now! Maybe he'll bring back whale oil too - those fishermen have been out of work since President Polk launched his infamous "war on whale oil" back in 1846!

I'll post a first draft in the coming days.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

How did the GOP just spank the Dems?

Some people would have you believe that there is a simple answer to this: Obama sucks. While I disagree (I'm still rating him "average"), I'm also smart enough to know that sucks is a subjective term. Some people believe he sucks, and will continue to do so. The people who think he sucks weren't going to vote for Democrats anyway, and Obama wasn't on the ballot. This was a big victory for the GOP any way you slice it; even bigger than the RNC expected. Hell, it was even bigger than Nate Silver, my favorite data scientist, expected. So, objectively, what happened? My summary is as follows:

1) The party of the sitting president loses mid terms, that's just a fact. The average loss is 25 House seats and 3 Senate seats (since FDR). Those numbers jump to 30 and 6, respectively, when the sitting president is a lame duck. As of the time I'm writing this, the Dems lost 7 Senate seats, and 12 House seats, so, technically, their losses were favorable (LESS than average).

2) The GOP candidates did an amazing job of saying "my Democratic opponent is basically a mini-Obama," a tactic that clearly worked well with independents. There is strong evidence that they really upped their game in terms of big data analytics-driven messaging.

3) Democrats did a terrible job of distancing themselves from the President.

4) Millenials absolutely don't care enough about politics to vote in mid-terms, which skewed the results towards the GOP. Basically, old, white conservatives showed up to vote.

5) New voter ID laws absolutely discouraged voting, particularly among the young and minorities. This is exactly what the 18 GOP legislatures intended when they passed these laws. If you still think this is about protecting the integrity of the vote rather than about stacking the deck in favor of the GOP, you're stupid. You really think it's a coincidence that ONLY GOP states have passed these laws? Problem is, it's already backfiring on the GOP - these same laws prevented a lot of old people and veterans from voting, who would've voted GOP. The turnout for Presidential races is different, and this will bite them in the ass (either in the courts or in terms of baby boomers unable to vote) eventually.

6) The "war on coal" rhetoric resonated spectacularly well. This is funny, because my GOP friends hate the Dems "war on women" rhetoric. Eisenhower promised equal work for equal pay back in 1956, so I'm sure the GOP will get right to that when McConnell & Boehner take over.

7) The Romney factor - the Dems also picked some really bad challengers. I genuinely believed that Alison Grimes would fight harder for the average Kentuckian than 30 years in DC Mitch McConnell (a list of his top donors all but confirms this), but I also watched her give a speech. She was awful.

Personally, I think that #3 was the wrong strategy, as it played into the hands of the GOP (see point #2). I think a "hell yes, I support the President" strategy would have been far more effective IF they picked the right talking points. He ended Bush's unfunded wars and gave the finger to the health insurance companies - I've been wanting to do that to mine for years. He's also got stances on social issues that true Libertarians have to support (marry whomever you want, YOUR religion has no place in OUR government or MY doctor's office...). He's got a moderate stance on immigration, where the GOP has to pander to its "shoot 'em at the border!" Tea party wing.

College educated, middle-class whites >30 who voted for Obama in 2012 were the biggest demographic that the Dems lost. I'm disappointed in Obama, but guess what, I voted for W twice and he disappointed me too. I still wouldn't go back and vote for the other tools who were on any of those 4 ballots.