Monday, May 30, 2016

Duck and Cover or Better Active Than Radioactive

Bert the Turtle in the 1951 classic nuclear preparedness film taught us school children to Duck and Cover in the event of a nuclear attack.
Image result for duck and cover

A decade later, President Eisenhower warned us of the power of the military-industrial-complex in his farewell address to the American people.

     "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial-complex. The potential for disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.... Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

Indeed we may well have that alert and knowledgeable citizenry to thank that we haven't already blown the world up with nuclear weapons.  As history professor Lawrence Wittner so clearly demonstrates in his eye-opening book, Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement. In this 2008 title Wittner notes the pressure that citizens around the globe have fashioned to bring us back from the brink of nuclear madness.

Cover of Confronting the Bomb by Lawrence S. Wittner
Courtesy: Stanford University Press

Let we think we have put all that behind us, last week Sen. Edward Markey took to the Senate floor  as the President (the Nobel Peace Laureate?)was visiting Hiroshima, to try and hold up the President's development of a new nuclear weapons, under the rubric of a nuclear 'modernization' program. (A shorter essay by him in the Boston Globe is here, or an even briefer report here.)

Markey bravely takes on the sitting president of his own party with a fervor rarely displayed in these highly partisan times. Markey has been a long time advocate for ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Last week he challenged the madness of the Obama approach along with the apparent hypocrisy from the pledge Obama made when receiving the the Nobel prize in Prague. He particularly goes after the nearly $1 Trillion dollar investment the Obama budget. In doing so he highlights a key component of this $1 trillion waste - building new nuclear weapons (modernizing) that would arguably make the use of nuclear weapons more 'thinkable'.

Cover for 

Nuclear Weapons: A Very Short Introduction
Courtesy: Oxford University Press

Joseph Sitacusa in his recent update to the Oxford University Press Nuclear Weapons: A Very Short Introduction notes that one of the chief effects "of the spread of nuclear weapons will be the proliferation of threats to use them, which will greatly complicate global security and in many respects be harder to undo.... The likelihood of mishaps along the way is only too real." (p. xvi)

Sen. Markey offered an amendment S.Amendment 4241 to SB 2943 the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 on Thursday to halt authorization of funds for the new weapons for the budget year 2017 that begins in October. As noted in his floor speech, he is pleading for at least some Congressional debate over the wisdom and consequences of going down this road.

If ever in our lifetime we are to stop the madness of nuclear annihilation we had better contact on Senators to support the Markey amendment in hopes that we might stave off not only the construction of new weapons of mass destruction, but to redeploy the huge waste of money that could be directed to addressing the challenges of climate and inequality. We need to act soon as the Senate will be taking up this spending bill very soon.

If this short blog doesn't move you from the comfort of your chair, please view Sen. Markey's message to his fellow senators last week. We're all in this together.

Friday, May 27, 2016

For What It's Worth

There is lots going on in the world of sports. There must be, as our local daily newspaper devotes more space to covering it than any other subject, seven days a week. Some of the most watched television are sports events. And it doesn't take a genius to recognize that there is big money to be made in it. Just look at the map of the 50 states that shows the highest paid public university positions below.

A former MSU colleague of mine now writes a penetrating look at the world of sports for a national online sports magazine. He continues to awaken me to issues I would easily miss regarding big time sports - professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey and major college football and basketball. So I chose to attend a talk he was giving on subsidies for college athletics last week for retired faculty. Indeed it was fascinating look at the money at play in college athletics. The subsidy issue is alive in large part because a couple of schools are in the process of deciding to either downsize their football program, or possibly eliminate it.

The hub-bub this has generated among fans and alums, especially those addicted to spectator sports, is not surprising given our culture's hunger for clashes between rivals. But as I listened to this talk and saw the various slides of data, saw a few video clips of sports pundits a few other questions arose in my mind about the role of sports, especially on college campuses.

When we first attempted a look at our campus sustainability footprint more than a decade ago one of the measures we looked at was the percent of the student population involved in intramural sports. Intramural sports are almost entirely team sports. At that time there was a slight 4 percent increase in student intramural participation between 2001 and 2005.  More than 13,000 team members were noted on a campus of about 45,000. That participation number is higher than actual distinct participants (some students play more than one sport).  A number that was thrown out during the discussion at the lecture by an attendee in the know, is that there are now about 750 student athletes on a campus of approximately 50,000 students. I don't have current numbers, but I see a major reduction in the number of softball and flag football fields available, the two team sports other than basketball that shared the highest number of participants, men and women.

If team sports are good for development of cooperation and 'team work' as professed you would think colleges would be more interested in involving more students in intramural team sports. When I was an undergrad decades ago, I played on an intramural basketball team. We lost more than we won. I remember one game where we were so over matched the score was like 75-15. Of course we were a bit despondent, we felt better weeks later when the team that decimated us won the intramural championship and later beat the varsity team in an annual contest. One lesson is that many excellent high school athletes are not up for the intercollegiate semi-professional regime. They are amateurs. The word comes from the Latin word for 'love'. Amateurs do something because they love it. They love the friendly competition and aspects of the games they play, but not all the baggage that comes with a much more regimented approach to the game.

While lavishly furnished locker rooms for football and basketball get all the attention, intramural facilities seem to be forgotten, save for the individual weight training and other machines du jour that dot our new 'fitness centers'. The fitness centers are more focused on individual activities like weight training, treadmills, and other equipment based solo efforts not the more social team sports. It would be interesting to see some studies that compare the subsidies and expenses for intercollegiate sports on campuses versus  subsidies for intramural sports. An even more interesting measure might be the per-student investment.  My guess is that the ratios would be similar to those between a typical CEO and their workers, or football and basketball coaches and professors of foreign languages.

I anticipate lots of defenses offered up for the extravagant subsidies for intercollegiate athletics - we need to attract the best athletes, the best coaches, so that we can make more money at the box office, with TV deals, sell more campus logo paraphernalia, etc. In fact just this week someone was crying that athletic directors at universities aren't being paid enough. But how this meshes with institutional mission is a stretch I can't make. It appears to be more about the institution's national branding than meeting what MSU's former longest serving president observed 50 years ago,

"If educators are agreed on anything, it is that the fundamental purpose of education is to prepare young people to be good citizens."

But another concerned washed over me as I listened to the Q & A session following the talk. Might this fixation we have on spectator sports be leading us down a path that unintentionally nurtures 'spectatorship' in our communities and our politics. If we're rooting for our Alma mater to always win, or worse, to wish our arch rivals always lose, are we building synapses around winning and losing, around competition as the only game in town? I sense something troubling lurking here, perhaps even sinister.

I love sports. From my earliest days I followed baseball, football, basketball and hockey with dedication. I played many as a kid, mostly the unorganized type, but also of the more regimented when young. As I noted I played intramural sports when I was in college and when I got married I was playing softball four times a week for various teams. As a faculty member I played on a few intramural squads over the years. At age 50, some of us formed a team to play softball in the city's over-50 league. We didn't win a game our first year, but the thrill of the game, the execution of a good timely hit, a fine catch or throw, was enough to celebrate afterwords over beer and brotherhood and bring us back for more, year after year. Winning a few games and actually tying for the league championship one year didn't hurt. Playing team sports is something I highly recommend

But there is something more troubling about big time college sports than just the subsidies that may be out of balance. There's something happening here. It may not be too clear yet (with apologies to the Buffalo Springfield), but it deserves the serious look of the kind that Frank Fear brings to light. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Who Is Stepping Up and Stepping Out?

Michigan Climate Action Network

The Michigan Climate Action Network recently called for the state to work toward a 100 percent renewable energy system by 2050. This aligns with the aim of the climate science if we want to stave off total climate disruption by the end of the century.  San Diego is aiming to meet that by 2035, San Jose by 2022, and San Francisco by 2020. Aspen, Colorado, Burlington, Vermont, Ithaca, New York, and Greensburg, Kansas have already done it. Our own Grand Rapids has a goal of 100 percent by 2020.

Meanwhile, back at the state capitol, our utility big boys have been spending millions to steer us away from renewable energy. With the friends they have lobbied and donated to in the Legislature they now are poised to put a stake through the heart of the state’s already met 10 percent Renewable Energy Standard. They lobbied hard against  a ballot proposal to increase the standard in 2012. The pending bill, SB438, removes any legal requirement to meet any standard, leaving it to the capricious market (which they largely control) to determine what should be accomplished. Who cares about the climate or the lost opportunity we are throwing under the bus? How interesting that the city in this state doing the best economically is doing the most with renewable energy.

Michigan Campaign Finance Network logo

According to a report earlier this year from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), our friends at DTE and Consumers spent millions in 2015 coddling the Legislature to redirect policy in their antiquated direction, $361,242 by DTE and $311,117 by Consumers Energy.  In addition, DTE made $307,170 in political contributions and CMS Energy, the parent company of Consumers Energy, $240,400. And of course, this all pales in light of the dark money behind the $2.5 million spent by Citizens for Michigan’s Energy Future, which isn't required to disclose donors but is suspected to be funded by energy utilities, on broadcast TV ads that aired in 2015. The likely biggest benefactors of this largess? “Gov. Rick Snyder, whose nonprofit and administrative account received $50,000 from Consumers; House Energy Chair Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton), who received $25,900; and House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant), who received $21,000. But, overall, the House Republican Campaign Committee received the most from the groups at $58,250” (MCFN). Lest we forget, that an increase to that meager 10 percent Renewable Energy Standard that we set back in 2008, met this year, was fought tooth and claw by these same energy behemoths, who spent $24 million to defeat it in 2012.

I am not optimistic that, given this cast of characters, we will see anything like a reasonable energy policy coming from this legislature or governor, who seem to see everything through some narrowly constricted short-term financial bottom line. So why should we wait? Let’s celebrate and support those enterprises, whether they be companies, non-profits, municipalities or colleges, that are aggressively investing in a renewable energy future while simultaneously reducing their overall energy footprint. What local enterprises are doing major upgrades to energy conservation and efficiency? Which are putting solar to use? How many are being transparent in the process?

We see that those enterprises that openly pursue a triple-bottom-line balance sheet--what Austrian economist Christian Felber calls a Common Good Balance Sheet--are more successful. The growing movement of funds into socially responsible business funds and those funds’ performance, coupled with the commitment of more and more global investors to adhere to the Principles of Responsible Investment, denotes more than a passing trend.

As I see new buildings going up, I wonder if we can expect that they will have rooftop solar?

Based on my own household’s investment in solar power, the DTE/Consumers 2012 futile expenditure to fight renewable energy could have powered an additional 1,600 homes for 20+ years. Let’s hear who are the renewable energy leaders in this community. Maybe City Pulse can feature them weekly as they do the Eye Candy of the Week. Meanwhile, contact your legislature and governor and let them know we need a real Renewable Energy Standard for our times – 100% by 2050. Let’s get starting now.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Enlightened Minds in a Darkening Time

It’s been more than a month since I finished reading two very insightful books, Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated (2008) and John Ralston Saul’s The Collapse of Globalism. I have been wanting to write about them but have felt mentally paralyzed by fear that I could not possibly provide an adequate synopsis of their depth of analysis of forces propelling us collectively forward towards some likely abyss. Even that sentence is misleading. While they each do indeed find much of concern in their analysis of our human trajectory, they are not without some hope. To write at such depth about our shared experience must require a deep emotional commitment to a better future.

I was drawn to each of these works by a similar driver – I just kept seeing reference to these titles and these authors in multiple other reads. At some unremembered tipping point and a visit to the library I pulled them off the shelves and brought them home to peruse.


Wolin, who passed away last fall at 93, was a Harvard educated political theorist. The subtitle of this book, which was awarded the Lannan Notable Book Award, Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism describes the thrust well – that the concentration of real power in our democracy has been captured by  the elites.

Unlike the Nazi’s, who made life uncertain for the wealthy and privileged while providing social programs for the working class and poor, inverted totalitarianism exploits the poor, reducing or weakening health programs and social services, regimenting mass education for an insecure workforce threatened by the importation off low wage workers.
…Employment in a high-tech, volatile, and globalized economy is normally as precarious as during an old-fashioned depression. The result is that citizenship, or what remains of it, is practiced amidst a continuing state of worry. Hobbes had it right: when citizens are insecure and at the same time driven by competitive aspirations, they yearn for political stability rather than civic engagement, protection rather than political involvement.

Inverted totalitarianism, Wolin said in an interview with journalist/author Chris Hedges in 2014, constantly “projects power upwards”. It is designed to create instability to keep a citizenry off balance and passive. Despite the strong critique, Wolin is a believer in the possibility of a true democracy.

            Although it would be na├»ve to suggest that democracy eliminates lying,       arguably its politics tends to encourage authenticity. A smaller political context is more congenial to nurturing democratic values, such as popular participation, public discussion, and accountability through close scrutiny of officeholders. A smaller scale brings with it modest stakes and a consequent scaling down of power, of expectations, and of ambitions. Precisely because public discussion, debate, and deliberation are fundamental to democracy, deliberate misrepresentation is more easily exposed.
            Democratic deliberations deepen the political experience of citizens, but they are time consuming; time is needed for the expression of diverse viewpoints, extended questioning, and considered judgments. When the pace of life is slower, there is “plenty of time” and a greater possibility of considered judgments and the likelihood of durability, of more lasting decisions, of a public memory.

It is no wonder that Democracy Incorporated received the Lannan Notable Book Award for 2008.

The Collapse Of Globalism: And The Reinvention Of The World

John Ralston Saul’s name kept popping up in places I was reading. The Collapse of Globalism: and the Reinvention of the World (2009 edition) is a relatively recent work from one of Canada’s leading public intellectuals.  At home in both the journalism, fiction, and philosophical worlds, Saul, who also serves as president of PEN International an organization of writers defending free expression, offers a penetrating  analysis which coupled with his penchant for expressive prose equals an inspiring experience. So much so, that I have now read two of his novels, other essays, and viewed several  lectures and interviews from recent years. One might for example take the opportunity to listen to one of these talks1 or talk2.  

As a review in The Guardian notes,

There have been countless books describing the rise of globalisation, but its decline, though hardly new, is much less familiar territory. This is the nub of John Ralston Saul's book. He dates the rise of globalisation from 1971 and argues that its central tenet is that "civilisation should be seen through economics, and economics alone". He depicts the rise of the ideology of free trade from the mid-19th century as a similarly mono-dimensional and economically fundamentalist phenomenon. There is much to commend his exposition of globalisation, or rather the ideology of globalisation, which he terms "globalism": it is informative, engaging and, above all, bitingly critical.

There are insights on nearly every page. Here’s an example. In addressing the corporate drive for privatization of public service and their penchant for getting bigger and bigger Saul suggests,

The challenge, therefore, is to develop a corporate growth strategy that has little to do with growth in the economy outside the corporation. Part of the solution has been to funnel this wealth into mergers and acquisitions, which permit corporations to become ever larger, but to no economic purpose. This process has been explained with particular originality by Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler: “In the late nineteenth century, there was less than one cent’s worth of mergers and acquisitions for every dollar of ‘real’ investment. Fast forward another hundred years and for every one dollar of ‘real’ investment there were over two dollars put into mergers.” The outcome, Nitzan and Bichler argue, permits the ever larger corporation to do four things at once: avoid creating new capacity, which would drive prices down; gain more control over the market by reducing competition; reinforce earnings, again by reducing competition; and reduce risk by narrowing markets and competition. This in turns gives them greater influence, indeed power, inside the nation-state structures, which again in turn gives them a greater influence over the designing of public regulations to protect their position by reducing competition.

These two enlightened minds offer a collective critique that, with the possible exception of Sanders, is an anathema to other candidates for the presidency or even any candidates for Congress from the two major parties. Regardless of who makes it into office in January, the powers that be will be using all of their largess to make sure we don’t consider what Wolin and Saul have made clear. Despite, the overwhelming imbalance of power between the elite and the citizens, these critics believe we could collectively confront that power and change the rigged rules. If we don’t, inverted totalitarianism will continue to gain more control over our lives.