February 24, 2021

The Lone Star will not always shine if disconnected from the national grid

After the American Century

The Texas Blackout reveals the state's ambivalence toward the rest of the US. 

Texas liked to think of itself as a separate place, almost a country in itself. It is called the "lone start state" suggesting it can and will stand alone. Historically speaking, Texas was briefly a country that declared its independence of Mexico and then joined the US. It is the only state that ever came into the union in that way. 

These facts are related to the electrical blackout that it is now recovering from. Because Texas has been the only state to reject being a part of the national electrical grid. Instead, Texas electricity is regulated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Joining would mean that Texas would begin to buy and sell electricity across state lines, for example with Oklahoma or New Mexico. As soon as one engages in such interstate commerce, one becomes subject to regulation from Washington. As the Constitution puts it in Article 1, section 8, Congress has the power "to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states."   

Why did Texas wish to escape regulation? Because regulation means that profits cease to be the only consideration for energy companies. The production and transmission of energy is costly in itself, but Federal regulations demand that the technologies involved meet a high standard. Take Texas gas lines as an example. There are gas lines all over the United States, and those that are federally regulated must be well-insulated and meet other quality control standards. Texas state regulators knew that their gas lines could freeze and cease to function if it got cold enough, and indeed they were told about the problem in 2011 when they did seize up under a shorter cold snap. Windmills in Minnesota or Massachusetts seldom freeze up in the winter, but they did in Texas because it was cheaper not to weatherize them.

Why multiply examples? Texas energy companies did not need to invest in the best available technologies, because state regulators put profits ahead of performance safety.  And because the energy market in Texas is competitive, it would be startling if one or another company spent more money than legally necessary to produce and transmit electricity or gas, because that would put them at a disadvantage in the marketplace. 

Imagine if the same thing were true for automobiles. If Texas automobiles cost less because they had brakes that did not work well in cold weather, would that be a good idea? 

So what happens now? The citizens of Texas are suffering cold, water shortages from broken pipes, and much else. Fortunately, the Texas energy companies have saved up several billion dollars over the years and they are going to pay for all the damages. Wrong. They have not saved, and suddenly Texas feels it is definitely a part of the United States. They have asked for, and received a Federal bailout.  President Biden is sending 60 electricity generators, food, water, blankets, and meals to Texas. 

Strictly speaking, however, it would be only fair if Texas were told that no Federal funds would be handed out unless its utilities agreed to bring their technologies up to the national standard, and to have systems of reserve production like the rest of the country. Then Texas blackouts would be less frequent and less severe. But of course, this would be an inhumane thing to do, with 13 million Texans lacking water. So, Texas just became a big-time recipient of welfare. (So much for all the blustering and posturing about state's rights. The fact of the matter is that the so-called Red states, including Texas receive enormous sums every year from the Federal government, while the Blue states pay more in taxes than they get back. But that is the subject for another blog.)

There is a reason the US has a national gird - because like the states, energy systems are stronger if they work together. An electrical grid allows companies to trade electricity extremely quickly, because it moves at about the speed of light. If Chicago or Philadelphia needs more electricity, it can buy it from other systems on the same grid. If Houston or Dallas lacks power, however, they can only get it from within Texas. The Lone Star will not always shine, given the lack of a grid. 

Electricity has become too important to pretend that a state can go it alone without incurring massive problems. Hospitals need to keep those electrons flowing. Factories cannot function without it. Families, churches, pretty much everyone and everything needs electricity. When the lights go out, it is a universal crisis.

For a social history of blackouts, have a look at When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts 

February 14, 2021

Trump: Guilty but not Impeached

After the American Century

For more than two centuries, impeachment of a US president has never proven possible, due to the demand that two-thirds of the Senate must vote to impeach. This leads to absurd results. The leaders of both the Republicans and Democrats consider Trump to be responsible for the attack on the Houses of Congress. All the Democratic Senators and seven Republicans voted "guilty" but their 57 votes were nullified by the votes of 43 Republicans who said Trump was not-guilty. 

There would seem to be two solutions to the problem. One is to lower the percentage of the Senators who must vote for an impeachment. The percentage should not be lowered to a simple majority, for then the power could be abused by whoever won an election to cast out prominent members of the other party. Perhaps the law might be changed to a demand that 60% of the Senators vote to impeach, and that such a vote cannot consist entirely of members of a single party.

The other alternative would be to abolish impeachment, because in practice it has proven to be an unworkable mechanism for removing knaves from power. 

The chief effect of these impeachment proceedings seems to be on the Republican Party, which remains deeply divided. The US needs two fair-minded and internally democratic parties if it is to remain a functioning democracy. 

The Republicans rapidly have evolved toward authoritarianism during the last five years, and the failure of impeachment proceedings suggests their journey into a lawless wilderness of intimidation is not yet over. 

February 07, 2021

Intelligence briefings for Donald Trump?

After the American Century

   President Biden said two days ago that he did not think it wise to continue providing intelligence briefings to Mr. Trump, now that he is no longer president. Since it is well known that Trump did not regularly read those briefings when he was president, this seems wise. Look at the benefits:

     - it will save paper, which is good for the environment

    - an expert will not waste time shortening and simplifying reports down to Trump's level.

    - Trump's name will not be juxtaposed with "intelligence." This is the guy who, asked what books he would recommend, declared, ""The Bible blows them away. There's nothing like it, the Bible."

    - Trump will not accidentally or intentionally disclose sensitive information, such as his cures for  COVID-19 or his advice on wearing a mask

    - Trump can speak freely if he is not encumbered with facts. This will ensure that talk show hosts and stand-up comedians continue to receive fresh material.

    - Trump will not be able to use top secret information when investing in the stock market. Insider trading has become something of a Republican speciality. However, they should not be spoon fed insider information, but forced to find it for themselves. 

   - Trump cannot share information with his friends overseas (no names please! but some of them live in North Korea, Moscow, and Brazil.)

    - Trump can stay inside his bubble, where the crowds at his inauguration will always be the biggest in history, where his cures for COVID 19 will remain effective, where his presidency was really, really great, and where his bankruptcies and scandals do not exist. If he gets no briefings,then his self-delusions will remain unspoiled, and he will be a happier man.

Trump has always preferred his own facts to anyone else's, so why disturb him with expert opinions? 

February 02, 2021

The Deep Roots of the Divisions in 2021 America

After the American Century

The year 2020 was one of explosive tensions in the United States. An already polarized society confronted the COVID-19 pandemic, the massive unemployment that came with it, and widespread social protest in response to violence against unarmed Black men and women. It also was an election year, where billions of dollars were spent on advertising, much of it negative. What kind of America has emerged from this turbulence? 

To answer this question, I have written a book divided into three parts. The first three chapters examine different ways in which the United States is divided. I begin by examining the historical experience of the six generations of Americans alive in 2020. Each has faced different childhoods, defining moments, economic conditions, and international tensions. Those who grew up with the Cold War have a different perspective from those born before or  afterwards. People who listened to Frank Sinatra when young are not the same as those who grew up with the Beatles or with rap music.  

After surveying the generations, I turn to the gaps between social classes, which have widened since c. 1974. For 35 years before then. from 1939 until 1974) both the middle class and the working class experienced rising real incomes. This meant that more people owned houses, which increased in value, and these homes were filled with an ever wider range of consumer goods.  But after that wages at best barely managed to keep up with inflation, which housing prices soared.   

The rising inequality was not evenly distributed. Some cities, notably Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington DC, have boomed, while other cities have struggled, as their industries declined. Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, and many other cities lost jobs and population. In regional terms, the Pacific Coast, the South and Southwest grew, while much of the Middle West and the Northeast stagnated or declined. In all of the regions, moreover, rural areas lost population, and drifted toward the right-wing of the Republican Party, while urban areas became more Democratic. By 2016, this meant that Hillary Clinton won almost every urban county, while Donald Trump won in almost every rural county.

At the same time, tensions between races increased, because Black and Brown Americans were not willing to remain second-class citizens. Nor were gays willing to accept being defined as deviants or mentally ill. Through the courts they successfully fought for the right to be married and enjoy all the privileges that come with officially recognized family status, such as pensions and the rights of inheritance. Women likewise fought to gain full equality. All of these struggles upset conservative Americans who wanted to retain the racial and gender roles they knew from their childhood, and which they felt were the natural order of society. Evangelicals in particular resisted new gender roles, equality for racial minorities, and a multicultural society. These religious groups, as well as those who felt the pinch of economic inequality, embraced Donald Trump as their savior. 

The second section looks at the ways Americans traditionally have been united, notably through business, the media, religion, and civil religion. Yet all of these institutions have been weakened or riven with conflict in recent decades, undermining consensus. In the old industrial economy, steel mills, automobile plants, and oil companies remained dominant for most of the twentieth century. But by the 1990s this economy began to give way to an emerging digital economy. From c. 1920 until 2000 the largest corporations supplied oil, built automobiles, made home appliances, etc. But these companies stagnated or declined compared to Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Google, and biotech firms. The old analogue economy still exists, but the smart money is not invested in oil, steel, gasoline cars, or anything merely physical like coal, sand, cement, or wood. In the new economy, capital is invested in knowledge, as embodied in computer chips, software, data, algorithms, security codes, cyber currency, new drugs, vaccines, patented DNA, formulas, virtual reality and other almost intangible goods. Apple is worth more than General Motors; Amazon is bigger than any oil compnay. This new digital economy bewilders many older Americans but seems natural to the young. Moreover, this new economy only works for those with education beyond high school. There are fewer jobs on assembly lines and more behind computer screens. As late as the 1970s the semiskilled could earn a good living, but their wages declined after that. 

Religious differences are also pronounced in the United States. On the one side are the highly educated; on the other side are Americans whose ideas seem to be from c. 1875. Polls reveal that a majority of Americans believe in miracles (73%), in the virgin birth of Jesus (57%) and in the existence of the Devil (58%). Less than half believe in the theory of evolution (47%). Indeed, Darwin’s theory seems to have even less support than this number suggests, because only three in ten Americans definitely reject the idea that God created men and women in their present form, as described in the Bible. This belief in “creationism” is often accompanied by the idea that the earth is only 10,000 years old. No less than 69% of Americans say they either believe in creationism or they are “not sure.” These are people ready to vote for a populist like Donald Trump.

The polarization of Americans is just as evident in American civil religion.  Americans long had an honor-roll of sacred texts, battlefields, natural sites, and buildings that represented the nation. Some of these, such as the Statue of Liberty still play this role. But increasingly Americans cannot agree about which statues should stand in public squares or what texts should be honored. 

Likewise, some Americans, many of them in the South, cherish the Confederate flag carried by the rebels in the Civil War. After defeat, that flag of rebellion was seldom flown in public. However, it was revived and became a symbol of resistance to racial integration during the Civil Rights Movement. In South Carolina, the Confederate flag was raised over the state capitol in 1961 to commemorate the centennial of the first battle of the Civil War, which began in Charleston. It remained in use until 2000, when it was ceremoniously moved to a monument for Confederate soldiers. 

The Confederate flag came to symbolize states’ rights, resistance to the Federal government, and White supremacy. It was often sewn on clothing and worn as a badge of honor. It was prominently displayed by right-wing organizations, and it was seen at stock car races until 2020, when it was banned. Those who display the Confederate flag in 2020 are usually Trump supporters, and it was even raised again in South Carolina’s capital. Trump defended flying that flag as a form of free speech, saying that it represents not White supremacy but love for the South. Colin Powell, former Secretary of State under George W. Bush, strongly disagreed, arguing that the Confederate States of America “were not part of us and this is not the time to keep demonstrating who they were and what they were back then.” Powell, who is Black, concluded, “We have one flag and one flag only.” But when a mob attacked the Congress of the United States in January, 2021, many of them carried Confederate flags.

The third section of the book examines the institutional problems of the American political system, the divisive election of 2020, and the state of the nation in 2021. 

For more on the topics discussed in this column, see