China’s Spy Balloon

The Daily Escape:

Zion NP in snow – January 2023 photo by Rich Vintage Photography

What is it about the Chinese balloon story? Why did the media and politicians go totally nuts about it? Here’s what  Damon Linker thinks:

Degraded American public life”. This is another example of Wrongo’s column yesterday about how we’re all living in our virtual vertical communities. The Republican political vertical immediately locked in, like a cat watching a laser pointer, to this mostly low-risk intrusion into US airspace by China. From Forbes:

“Talking heads on cable TV are up in arms about the Chinese spy balloon that was floating across the continental US, before it was shot down Saturday afternoon. Conservative commentators have insisted President Joe Biden should’ve ordered the balloon be shot down earlier and that a foreign balloon flying over US territory never would’ve happened under President Donald Trump. But it did happen under Trump…”

It happened under Trump at least three times.

The Pentagon says it was definitely a surveillance balloon and that China had the ability to maneuver it using external propellers. OK, if you’ve ever sailed a boat even in a moderate breeze, paddled a canoe across a windy lake, or bicycled on a windy day, you know maneuvering in high winds is very difficult. So how will a balloon generate enough power to overcome the prevailing winds at 60,000’? And the balloon doesn’t have an aerodynamic shape. So bottom line, you aren’t controlling the path of a balloon in any sizable wind.

A balloon actually sucks for spying. A quick look at earth.nullschool.net shows that the current winds at the specified latitude are running between 50-100 mph. No balloon with a propeller can plow through that. It’s likely that the propellers aren’t for propulsion, but for changing the direction that the antenna is pointing, so that it can phone home.

It’s possible that as the Pentagon says, the deceased balloon was gathering data on our defenses, but all nations do that all the time. So where’s our politicians’ and the media’s common sense? Their hysterical reaction is totally on brand, but as always, very depressing.

We have to hope the politicians and generals who control America’s nukes have better minds than our GOP politicians.

Let’s deal with the question about why Biden didn’t shoot it down over land. One issue was that the debris field when the balloon remains hit the ocean was seven miles long. One advantage of knocking it down where they did is that the ocean is only about 50’ deep off the Carolina coast. Imagine a seven-mile debris field spread across any American state: It would be a fantastic opportunity for souvenir hunting.

Back in 1945, before WWII ended, Japan sent thousands of bomb-carrying paper balloons via the jet stream towards North America. Only a small percentage of the balloons reached land. But six people, five of them children, were killed by one balloon that landed in Oregon.

There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story about a US Navy ship firing on a suspected Japanese balloon until they finally realized that they were shooting at Venus.

Bottom line, Biden and the US military showed professionalism and caution in tracking and attacking the balloon. The US military was able to jam the balloon’s instruments as it crossed America, while collecting information about Chinese intelligence gathering capabilities. They shot it down when and where the risk to civilian casualties and property damage was deminimis. From Robert Hubbell:

“But the ‘spy balloon’ did allow the Chinese military to glean one significant piece of intelligence about America—that Republicans are clowns who cannot be trusted to run the US military again.”

One Republican said Biden should be impeached. Several wanted to “SHOOT IT DOWN NOW”. Consider this tweet from Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC):

Does anyone believe the balloon threatened the lives of millions of American families? Or that Biden and Harris should resign? Wilson forgets to say that resignation would make House Speaker Republican Kevin McCarthy president. It’s just awesome how serious the Republican Party has become.

All of the hostile one-upmanship aimed at China over the balloon served to show that there is no downside to an American politician taking a hawkish stance towards China.

China remains a crucial trading and economic partner and competitor, but both Republicans and many Democrats are happy to take a battering ram to our relationship with China. And the media decided to work the Chinese balloon story rather than spend time talking about Friday’s blockbuster jobs report, or how unemployment reached a 50-year low.

That news wasn’t important or exciting enough when there was a Chinese balloon on the horizon.

America’s relationship with China has always been fraught. If you’re as old as Wrongo, you remember 1971’s Ping-Pong diplomacy, one of the first official contacts between the countries since before the Cold War.

You may ask, what’s happened since then? Well, the balls have gotten bigger.

Facebooklinkedinrss

Monday Wake Up Call – February 6, 2023

The Daily Escape:

Sea smoke, South Portland, ME looking towards Portland Head light – February 2023 photo by Benjamin Williamson Photography

On Saturday, Wrongo and Ms. Right went to a dinner party with friends and two generations of family. The after dinner talk turned to how quite a few of the kids and grandkids weren’t planning on having children.

We tossed around ideas about why they were unlikely to procreate, and somethings stood out. First, they see climate change as an existential threat that society is unwilling to solve, even though the technology already exists. Why bring a kid into that?

Second, society seems broken. Our group meant that we face simultaneous crises, layered on top of each other.  This situation involving simultaneous global challenges, for which we have few solutions, is called Polycrisis.

And a crisis in one global system can spill over into other global systems. They interact with each another so that each new crisis worsens the overall harm. The Polycrisis environment weakens every individual’s sense of security and their place in the world.

One impact that seems related to the simultaneous climate, health, economic and geopolitical challenges are the effects on children. The needs for special education and special services for the very young has never been greater in America. It’s forcing big changes in public school budgets across the country.

No one is really sure why this is happening.

Wrongo isn’t proposing a solution, just suggesting we need to think more about how the problems of declining birth rates, coupled with the growing issues our young children are facing, might be interrelated.

Noah Smith an economist, has an interesting newsletter about how we define community:

“In the past, our communities were primarily horizontal — they were simply the people we lived close to….Increasingly, though, new technology has enabled us to construct communities that I’ve decided to call vertical — groups of people united by identities, interests, and values rather than by physical proximity.”

Smith says that in the past few decades, Americans became disengaged from their local communities, hunkering down in their houses, and failing to interact with the people around them. That led to a well-documented decline in Americans’ participation in civic organizations, local clubs, etc. Our neighbors can also be stifling and/or repressive because they impose uncomfortable community norms on us.

We’ve always had Smith’s vertical communities: “the Jewish community”, “the LGBT community”, and many others. But in the past, an identity grouping wasn’t a true community. We all have identities that connect us with faraway people — other Irishmen, other Taylor Swift fans.

Prior to the internet, we couldn’t have much contact with them. These loose vertical communities weren’t efficient ways to exchange ideas. Before email, text and streaming video, getting the word out was very slow, and our horizontal communities would decide whether what we wanted to share was worthwhile.

Now, we’re no longer isolated. The internet brought us a world of human interaction: social media feeds, chat apps, and so on. Suddenly we’re surrounded by people through their words, their pictures, and their videos.

Now we organize much of our human interaction around virtual vertical communities. Former occasional connections became Facebook groups, subreddits and personal networks on Twitter. And like our small towns back in the day, vertical communities use social ostracism to punish those who deviate from consensus norms.

But vertical communities can’t provide things like public education, national defense, courts of law, property rights, product standards, and infrastructure that we all depend on.

These require a government to administer them. And governments are organized horizontally; mostly defined by lines on maps. But what if we socialize, cooperate, and fall in love with the people from our vertical community? What if we grow apart from the people next door and the relationship is irreparable?

We see this every day in America when citizens go to a PTA meeting and discover a bunch of strangers saying things that they despise.

Wrongo isn’t saying that vertical communities are another enemy. But they can and do exacerbate the polycrisis by making truth harder to see. And by making effective action more difficult.

If you doubt this, remember how powerful the anti-vaxx vertical was at the height of the Covid pandemic. Today’s vertical communities are strong enough to keep our government from getting much of anything done. How can we work together with neighbors when we share few common bonds?

America today is a predatory society. We predate on politics, ideas, values, and culture. Biden’s trying to change this, but can he succeed? How many of us are trying to help? Changing a society that’s this broken, one that’s moving deeper into vertical communities will be a very heavy lift.

Time to wake up America! What can we do to maintain what Lincoln in his first inaugural address said:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

To help you wake up, listen and watch the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 2022 cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” with Larkin Poe (Rebecca Lovell and Megan Lovell) on vocals and a fabulous slide guitar solo:

Sample of Lyrics:

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Just crying out that he was framed

Facebooklinkedinrss

Sunday Cartoon Blogging – February 5, 2023

Everybody was talking about the Chinese balloon: It’s spying on us, and if Biden had balls he’d shoot it down. Well, on Saturday, Biden did just that. The Airforce shot it down in the Atlantic off of the Carolina coast. Wrongo is sure that our military will recover the important parts of the balloon. Once we take a look at the technology that the Chinese are using, we’ll know why the balloon was sent over the US, and confirm whether it is a device for spying or not.

We need to view the balloon saga in the larger context of our relationship with China. John Dean has a good observation:

“I’m starting to see China as an enemy. I type those words, of course, on my Chinese-made HP laptop. I watched news reports of the balloon on my Chinese-made TV. The chair I’m sitting in may even be Chinese. The only thing I’ve bought recently that isn’t Chinese, I’m sad to say, is the Chinese food I had for dinner last night, but I could be wrong.”

Our current relationship with China is complicated by our dependence on them for much of our manufacturing. They also are a huge export market for US commodities. As China has flexed its muscles, they have become an economic and geopolitical competitor with the US. Our relationship with them will become much more difficult in the coming years as we wrestle to contain them geopolitically in Asia, while blunting their advances in the rest of the world.

Dean points out that our trade with China has provided them with the resources it is using to build its military force. We need to wake up and wean ourselves off of Chinese goods. Otherwise, we’re paying for two militaries, ours, and theirs. On to cartoons.

One plan for the Chinese balloon:

The new DeSantis school library:

Revised College Board AP course seems fine:

Economy’s too good for GOP:

Sad truth:

Facebooklinkedinrss

Saturday Soother – February 4, 2023

The Daily Escape:

Grist Mill, Brewster, Cape Cod, MA – February 2023 photo by Nick Haveran

Ah, Florida. Wrongo and Ms. Right will be making our annual visit to the land of DeSantis in late March to see family. Florida has always been a destination for older Americans who are tired of the -2°F with the windchill making it feel like -25°F that we had last night in Northwestern Connecticut.

Martin Edic in his Medium column has it right:

“Picture a…retirement community with rules set by a Homeowner’s Association or HOA. An idyllic place to see out one’s final years, undisturbed by the reality of the outside world.

And then a man is elected leader of your HOA and he becomes consumed by writing rules and dictating how you should live your life….Welcome to the State of Florida under Ron DeSantis.”

Historically, Florida’s population skewed older. But its demographics have changed, driven in part by a large Latino population that is traditionally politically conservative. The older voters and the Latino block have become fertile ground for wedge cultural issues like those put forth by its governor Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis has a vision for Florida: His vision says that slavery really never happened in the Deep South, but if it did, it wasn’t as bad as people in the North say.

But since that’s controversial, DeSantis has ordered the Florida educational system to eliminate curriculum that differs from his worldview: No black history. No recognition that gay and gender fluid people exist.

His vision is to lesson plan by state government. If DeSantis says slavery was not a legitimate issue in Florida history, then it wasn’t. If kids have questions about their sexuality or gender preference, make it illegal for them to learn about it. Also make it illegal to help them.

So it’s no surprise that as we enter Black History Month, DeSantis announced a proposal to all but remove both the teaching about that history and the descendants of those who survived it from Florida’s public schools and universities:

“Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday that he intends to ban state universities from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives….It really serves as an ideological filter, a political filter…”

In a press release about the legislation, his office called diversity, equity and inclusion programs “discriminatory” and vowed to prohibit universities from funding them. From CNN:

“The proposal is a top priority for DeSantis’ higher education agenda this year, which also includes giving politically appointed presidents and university boards of trustees more power over hiring and firing at universities and urging schools to focus their missions on Florida’s future workforce needs.”

DeSantis has seen his standing among conservatives soar nationwide following his public stances on hot-button cultural and education issues.

He announced his higher education agenda in Bradenton, a 15-minute drive from New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college where DeSantis has installed a new board with a mandate to remake the school into his conservative vision for higher education.

On top of all that, DeSantis wants to radically change the curriculum of Florida’s public education system:

“The core curriculum must be grounded in actual history, the actual philosophy that has shaped Western civilization,….We don’t want students to go…at taxpayer expense, and graduate with a degree in Zombie studies.”

Say goodbye to Black history, gender study, and any queer history courses in the state. And there’s also DeSantis’ criticism of the College Board’s new curriculum for its AP course in African American Studies.

DeSantis announced in January that he would ban it, because state education officials said it wasn’t historically accurate and violated state law that regulates precisely how race-related issues are taught in public schools.

That sent the College Board into edit mode, stripping much of the subject matter that had angered DeSantis and other conservatives:

“The College Board purged the names of many Black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory, the queer experience and Black feminism. It ushered out some politically fraught topics, like Black Lives Matter, from the formal curriculum. And it added something new: “Black conservatism” is now offered as an idea for a research project.”

The College Board’s revisions address most of the DeSantis’s objections. Why? Because the College Board makes most of its revenue from AP courses. From Popular Information:

“In 2019, the College Board made over $1.1 billion dollars in revenue, according to documents filed with the IRS. Almost half of this revenue came from “AP and Instruction,” and 40% came from “assessments” like SAT exams. In 2020, revenue shrunk to $800 million dollars. “AP and Instruction” now constituted the majority of revenue…”

For the College Board, right-wing criticism of the AP African American Studies course presents a financial threat. Assessments are dying: Compared to 2019, when 55% of colleges required test scores, only 4 % of schools had a testing requirement this past fall. So it needs more students than ever to enroll in its AP courses.

So much for the Republican’s vision of “limited government.” DeSantis’ objective is seemingly to provide White Floridians with a version of the past that they can be comfortable with, regardless of whether it’s true.

On to our frigid weekend here in the Northeast: It’s time for our Saturday Soother. Try to forget about the Chinese spy balloon slowly traversing the US, or why Nikki Haley thinks she has a path to the presidency.

Instead, put on a turtleneck and grab a seat by a window. Now, listen to Gustav Holst’s “The Planets – IV. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” which can mean gayness (sorry DeSantis) played in Royal Albert Hall in London at the 2015 Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki:

Facebooklinkedinrss

There Are No Partisan Facts

The Daily Escape:

Roaring Mountain, Yellowstone NP – January 2023 photo via Yellowstone NP. The steam vents are called fumaroles. With a limited water supply, the water in steam vents turns to steam and makes noise before reaching the surface.

Today let’s delve into the right-wing mind. Sadly we can’t go in too deep, because you know. Wrongo will try to connect the dots on a few ideas that three interesting people wrote about last week, First, the headline in Phillip Bump’s piece in the WaPo:

“There’s actually only one conspiracy theory: Democrats are evil.”

He’s writing about all of the online conspiracy theories surrounding the hammer attack on Paul Pelosi, and then generalizes from the specific:

“Last year, Pew Research Center found that 1 in 8 Republicans (12.5%) liked it a lot when their leaders called Democratic leaders “evil.” Another 16% said they liked it a little.”

So, 28.5% of Republicans think Dems are mostly evil. Bump offers the long laundry list of Democrat conspiracies propounded by Republicans.

  • For example, the 2020 stolen election shows that Democrats are dishonest and will do anything to retain power.
  • The “deep state” is out to get Trump and the Republicans. This leads to demonizing the FBI and CIA as liberals out to get Trump. This year, we can add the National Archives who just wanted their secret documents back.
  • These conspiracies have led the new Republican House majority to create a committee to look at weaponization of the FBI, DOJ and other agencies against Republicans.

Next, let’s look at recent polling on the economy. Matt Yglesias provides two charts that show the US partisan divide on the economy. First is how Democrats view their family’s economic situation over the past 8 years:

On Election Day (ED) 2016, 50% of Democrats said their family’s situation was about the same. On ED 2020, 50% said it was the same. After two years under Biden, it was 52%, so no change. On ED in 2016, about 32% of Dems said their financial situation had gotten better. That fell to about 10% by ED 2020 and is now about 23%.

Contrast that with what Republicans think now and what they thought on Election Day 2016:

From ED in 2016 when Trump won the White House until ED 2020 when he lost it, the percentage of Republicans who thought their financial situation was about the same went from 45% in 2016 to 55% on ED 2020, meaning that they were pretty satisfied with the state of the overall economy. But with Biden, that dropped precipitously to 21% in just two years.

Republicans who thought their personal financial situation had gotten worse stood at 47% in 2016, and just 10% in 2020. But in January of 2023, after two years of Biden, 74% say their financial situation has gotten worse!

But what really happened with the economy? Paul Krugman has thoughts about what we learn from watching only cable news: (brackets by Wrongo)

“Would you know that real gross domestic product has risen 6.7% under President Biden, that America gained 4.5 million jobs in 2022 and that inflation over the past six months, which was indeed very high last winter, was [growing at] less than 2% at an annual rate?”

How does Krugman explain the disconnect between actual economic data and perceptions? More:

“Partisanship is clearly part of the story….. 90% of Republicans said the national economy was poor. A longer view, from the Michigan Survey of Consumers, finds Republicans rating the current economy worse than they did in June 1980, when unemployment was above 7% percent and inflation was 14%.”

Welcome to the United States of Cognitive Dissonance.

There always has been cognitive dissonance in the world. It’s part of being human. But today, people sincerely love to complain and persist in wanting to see the bad side of everything. Egg prices are up? This economy sucks. All that Americans seem to be capable of seeing is the downside.

The country Wrongo grew up in is still here, but its culture has changed. As a member of the Silent Generation, Wrongo and most others wouldn’t have bet against the USA, or its people. But today, we can’t be certain. This dumbing down of American citizens has happened in rapid and spectacular fashion, and the fact-free perception divide is weakening our institutions. This will be extraordinarily difficult to bridge.

Wrongo has no silver bullet for fixing this, but a very basic way to start is to read up on the big problems. Speak up whenever you hear bullshit spewing. That takes courage, but it can’t go uncontested.

Attend your town meetings. Join groups that sponsor educational exchanges on issues. And vote. Vote in every election no matter how trivial.

Wrongo lives in a semi-rural town. When he overhears political talk, it can be staggering to learn what some otherwise smart people believe.

We don’t have to convert all of them, maybe getting 10% to land on the side of the actual data would create a permanent change in our politics.

Facebooklinkedinrss

Monday Wake Up Call – January 30, 2023

The Daily Escape:

Late afternoon, Mt. Baker, WA – January 2023 photo by jsmooth

Let’s take on a few key questions raised by the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of the Memphis police. Wrongo’s primary question is: “Is the life of a police officer worth more than the life of any other citizen?”

Police in the US are trained to see every interaction with the citizens that they are sworn to “protect and serve” as a potentially life-threatening situation. Their primary concern is to go home at the end of their shift, healthy and in one piece.

That level of fear encourages aggression. All police have heard stories of other officers shot as they approached a car, So they often are as tense as a solider in a warzone. And in an America that’s drowning in guns, that fear is well-placed.

When there’s a confrontation with a suspect, police culture focuses the cop on making the suspect comply with the cop’s initial order. And police culture tilts toward the use of physical force when compliance isn’t immediate.

Police culture is based in male bonding, and in an “us vs. them” mentality. Police culture brings with it a code of silence to protect even wrongdoers. Finally, police culture is reinforced by local police unions that are led by mostly older white men, who oppose any progressive change.

A second question is: “Where should we assign blame for continued police violence?” Sherrilyn Ifill’s newsletter has useful context. She asks if the failure of white people to effectively confront and contain the violence by white cops against Black people should be considered as a failure of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, as some pundits suggested this week.

She disagrees. You can read her piece here.

The BLM movement helped white Americans understand what systemic racism meant. It showed America how it impacted people’s lives through violence by police throughout the US. But to ask a Black political movement to change police culture which tilts conservative, White and military, places the burden on the wrong political organization. The correct place for managing this change is local city governments and their citizens. They need to take on the task of creating true civilian control over their local police forces.

The fact that the five officers charged in Nichols’s murder are Black complicates discussion of the role of race in policing. We’re used to cases involving White officers and Black victims. But this case makes it clear that there’s a larger issue at work: an entrenched police culture of aggression and dehumanization of Black people. It is as much the system and its tactics that fosters violence, as it is the racial identity of the officers involved in the brutality.

The NYT quotes Professor Jody Armour, a University of Southern California law professor:

“It’s not just a Black and white issue, but a Black and blue one. And when you put on that blue uniform, it often becomes the primary identity that drowns out any other identities that might compete with it.”

After the George Floyd killing by cops in 2020, Americans realized that police violence was a national and possibly an intractable problem. Various US states approved nearly 300 police reform bills after Floyd’s murder, creating civilian oversight of police, more anti-bias training, stricter use-of-force limits, and alternatives to arrests in cases involving people with mental illnesses, according to a recent analysis by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.

But as the NYT’s Charles Blow says, America caught Covid and then simply walked away before the work was done:

“Too many liberal politicians showed us that their commitment to legislation, and even language, to protect Black lives from police violence was polling dependent….They ran scared of being labeled woke or of supporting a “defund the police” ideology.”

More:

“Police unions also learned a lesson: that they could survive the most intense and coordinated denunciation of their practices they had ever faced and still dodge federal legislation to address the violence that happens on their watch.”

We like to say, “this isn’t who we are.” The evidence, though, is that this is exactly who we are.

Time to wake up America! Let’s ask why police lives should be worth more to our community than the lives of those they are sworn to protect.

To help you wake up, listen to the late Tom Verlaine of the band Television who died last week. Television’s first two albums, “Marquee Moon”, and “Adventure” were critical successes but didn’t sell. “Marquee Moon” is considered one of the defining releases of the punk era.

Wrongo and Ms. Right lived in a loft in lower Manhattan in the very late 1970s – early 1980s. Wrongo occasionally went to CBGBs, then the mecca of punk rock. Once, we had the Dead Boys entertain at a party at our lakeside weekend place. It’s tough to think that the icons of early punk music are now in their 70s.

There aren’t many videos of Television performing live. But here they are doing “Foxhole” from their album “Adventure”, at the UK’s Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978:

The band included Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, and Fred Smith on guitar, with Billy Ficca on drums.

Sample Lyrics:

You show me the war but the war’s such a bore.
In the line of duty, in the line of fire
A heartless heart is my proper attire.

Facebooklinkedinrss

Sunday Cartoon Blogging – January 29, 2023

By now, everyone has heard about the killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five former Memphis police officers. Some of you may have also viewed the video of Nichols’s beating by those officers. We won’t be linking to it on this blog, ever.

Wrongo will have more to say about this during the week. But for now let’s understand that this is due in large part to the US failing to get police reform.  There was a comprehensive package of legal reforms, called the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that passed the House in 2021 but could not break the Senate filibuster. On to cartoons.

Never forget that there are two Americas:

Congress is useless:

What we should mean when we say “Everything everywhere”:

What threatens school kids more?

Soon it will be on milk cartons:

Making good news into Fox News:

Facebooklinkedinrss

Saturday Soother – January 28, 2023

The Daily Escape:

Outside Mayfield, Utah – January 2023 photo by Robert Stevens

Wrongo read a review of two books on US agriculture in the New York Review of Books. The books are “Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It” by Tom Philpott, and “The Farmer’s Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm” by Sarah Vogel.

The review is written by Ian Frazier. This gives you an idea of his writing:

“We are eating a big hole in the middle of the Midwest and sucking up California’s ancient aquifers until the land collapses like an empty juice box. The awe that new arrivals from other countries feel when they see the bounty in a US supermarket is an illusion—more like what one might experience when stepping from a cold night into a nice, warm house where they’re burning the furniture. In short, we are plundering the natural sources of our food production and can’t go on this way.”

All of this is Big Agriculture’s doing. Corporate farming controls most of our agriculture, but it’s facing the challenge that American consumers can eat only about 1,500 pounds of food per person per year and the US population is only growing at about a half percent/year. But the investors behind Big Ag want more profit than supplying food to a slowly growing US population. So their strategy is to get Americans to eat more, and to find new foreign markets.

Philpott concentrates on just two of the US’s top food-producing regions: California’s Central Valley and the Iowa-centered Corn Belt.

The CA Central Valley constitutes about half of California’s cropland. Smaller farms concentrate on fruits while the large corporate farms mostly concentrate on nuts. Nuts are a highly profitable crop with low labor costs, but they need enormous amounts of water: To grow a single almond requires about a gallon of water.

Frazier says that almond groves cover about a fifth of the San Joaquin Valley and consume four times as much water as the city of Los Angeles:

“…I eat plenty of nuts myself, including almonds. Looking in the pantry, I see I possess the almond-growing equivalent of a few dozen bathtubfuls of California water.”

Philpott points out that TIAA, a leading provider of financial services owns a 40% stake in Treehouse California Almonds. The Farmland Index, which tracks the performance of agricultural investments, has outperformed the Standard & Poor’s index 11.8% to 9.6% in recent decades.

One problem with California’s Ag dominance is that it takes an increasing share of an increasingly scarce water supply. When irrigation water from snow and rain is scarce, as it has been for decades, farmers pump more of California’s groundwater. Nobody can say when the groundwater will run out because nobody knows how much CA has.

Turning to the Midwest, Frazier points out that the Corn Belt is one and a half times the size of California’s farming acreage. The Corn Belt uses so much fertilizer that it delivers a huge amount of polluted agricultural runoff via the Mississippi down to the Gulf of Mexico. Off of Louisiana, there’s a marine dead zone the size of New Jersey.

Huge companies dominate Midwest farming, from fertilizer and seed manufacturers to large and expensive farm machinery equipment. There is concentration in the companies that buy, process and ship the grain: Three companies: Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), and Ingredion control 87% of the US corn market. Four companies: ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Ag Processing handle 85% of the soybeans.

It is cheaper to raise pork in the US than it is in China because our feed is cheaper. Smithfield is the world’s largest pork producer and is Chinese-owned. AND, the 23 million hogs in Iowa along with Iowa’s other livestock produce as much excrement every year as do 168 million humans.

This data are called “fecal equivalent”. Iowa produces the same amount as the world’s eleven largest cities. Shouldn’t that be on Iowa’s license plate?

But the headline is that mid-sized and small farms are dying. Frazier says that midsize farms are too small to compete with the corporate farms in volume and price. OTOH, they are too big to be supported by the farmers’ outside income. In her book, Sara Vogel says the midsize farm is in danger of going extinct:

“In today’s economy [they] wouldn’t have a prayer.”

Frazier closes by wondering who in agriculture will work to save our environment. He concludes that Big Ag won’t try. A disturbing, but important article.

Time to take a break from politics and economics. It’s also time to ignore that inflation is down and an asteroid narrowly missed the earth. Instead, let’s relax with our Saturday Soother. Readers who are into football will spend their Sunday watching the NFL’s division championship games. That will probably include Wrongo. To kick off our weekend, listen to Alexandra Whittingham and Stephanie Jones perform “Helping Hands” by Sergio Assad. Assad is a Brazilian guitarist. We have featured Whittingham here before, but Jones is new to us:

Facebooklinkedinrss

Keep Your Politics Off Of My Economy

The Daily Escape:

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Kennebunk, ME – January 2023 photo by Eric Storm Photo

From the WaPo:

“The economy posted another consecutive quarter of steady expansion between October and December, with economic activity increasing at a 2.9% annual rate. Consumer spending contributed to the strong fourth-quarter showing, especially given the slumps in large parts of the economy, including housing and manufacturing.”

The latest GDP figures show we have a resilient but slowing economy. Some of the slowdown is intentional, brought on by the Federal Reserve’s aggressive increases in interest rates as a way to control our high inflation. The Fed raised interest rates seven times last year, expecting that higher borrowing costs would lead businesses and households to cut back enough to slow the economy and curb price increases.

That’s happened in the real estate market, and to a lesser degree, in manufacturing. WaPo quotes Joseph LaVorgna, chief economist at SMBC Nikko Securities America:

“You may see [growth] and think the economy is out of the woods, but that would be entirely the wrong read….There are a lot of variables that are all pointing in the same direction: There’s a housing recession. Manufacturing looks like it’s approaching recession. We’re seeing weakness in temp hiring. And it’s doubtful we’ve felt the full effects of all of the Fed’s rate hikes.”

So Biden can take credit for an excellent recovery so far, but many major banks are still forecasting an economic downturn this year. As Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG says: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Momentum has already begun to slow in response to rate hikes, but the bulk of the slowdown is yet to come….The Fed’s goal is to let growth stall out in 2023.”

So are we in for a bad downturn that will persist through the 2024 elections? It’s a possibility if we keep playing politics with the economy.

We need to let people know that inflation has been easing month after month while the unemployment rate has held steady at about 3.5%. The year-over-year change in the consumer price index peaked at just over 9% in June, and since then it’s fallen to just under 6.5%. Other inflation indicators like the producer price index (PPI) have trended lower from prior highs as well.

And the world’s biggest inflation scold, economist Larry Summers who has been saying for 2+ years that we need a deep recession to drive out high inflation is sounding less hawkish: (brackets by Wrongo)

“I still think it’s going to be hard…[but]…You have to recognize that the figures are better than somebody like me would have expected three months ago. It’s still a very difficult job for the Fed, but the situation does look a bit better.”

From prior experience, Larry knows how to prepare, cook, and eat crow.

Can the Democrats and Republicans get out of the way of our currently good economic growth? From Heather Cox Richardson:

“On Monday the Wall Street Journal reported that median weekly earnings rose 7.4% last year, slightly faster than inflation. For Black Americans employed full time, the median rise was 11.3% over 2021. A median Hispanic or Latino worker’s income saw a 4.8% raise, to $837 a week. Young workers, between 16 and 24, saw their weekly income rise more than 10%. Also seeing close to a 10% weekly rise were those in the bottom tenth of wage earners, those making about $570 a week.”

Overall, the economy seems to be on solid ground at least for now. But the average American probably doesn’t view it that way.

And who will the voter reward or blame in 2024? We’ve seen that the House Republicans want to hamstring Biden and the national economy by holding the debt limit increase hostage to budget cuts, possibly in Social Security and Medicare.

So the Dems countered by asking new Speaker McCarthy for a plan on what would be axed from the social services budget. Now, Roll Call is reporting that the GOP seems to be changing their strategy on the fly:

“House Republicans are mulling an attempt to buy time for further negotiations on federal spending and deficits by passing one or more short-term suspensions of the statutory debt ceiling this summer, including potentially lining up the deadline with the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.”

They’re trying to time the engineering of a debt default crisis to coincide with the government’s new fiscal year, thinking this creates a “mega crisis” of default/government shutdown that will bring Biden to agree to the egregious spending cuts the MAGAs want.

But this should help Democrats. First, Democrats will be able to point to the MAGA cuts as being far outside the American mainstream. Second, the GOP reckless attempt at hostage-taking will be on display just as the election season ramps up.

Are the wheels of the Republican clown car already coming off?

Facebooklinkedinrss

What’s The GOP Plan For Negotiating On The Debt Limit?

The Daily Escape:

Dream Lake, Estes Park CO – January 2023 photo by Rick Berk Photography

(Wrongo and Ms. Right send healing thoughts to friend and blog reader Gloria R.)

We’re all aware that House Republicans are refusing to lift the debt ceiling unless Biden gives them well, something? And Republicans still haven’t decided what they want. The GOP also wants a balanced budget, but they can’t say what should go, or what should stay.

From the WaPo: (Brackets by Wrongo)

“They [GOP] say they want to reduce deficits — but meanwhile have ruled out virtually every path for doing so (cuts to defense, cuts to entitlements, wiping out nondefense discretionary spending, or raising taxes).”

The fact that Republicans are up in the air about what to do highlights the likely Democratic strategy is against their threats about the debt ceiling. Again, from the WaPo:

“Sensing Republicans are on the verge of a blunder in their schemes to use the debt ceiling to hold the economy hostage and try to extract draconian spending cuts, the White House has developed a two-part response strategy.

Part 1: Lay out the simple argument that Republicans are recklessly inviting an economic meltdown even by talking about a possible default.

Part 2: Force House Republicans to put forward a plan on the table and watch as they struggle with the fallout.”

The Democrats along with Senate Minority Leader McConnell (R-KY) are daring Republicans to put forward a plan. Senate Majority Leader Schumer (D-NY) said:

“If House Republicans are serious about taking the debt limit hostage in exchange for spending cuts, the new rules that they adopted require them to bring a proposal to the floor of the House and show the American people precisely what kind of cuts they want to make….”

Everyone who follows politics knows that Republicans never take much interest in fiscal sobriety when their Party is in control. They agreed to raise the debt limit three times while Trump was in power.

It seems that Republicans are doing the Democrats’ job for them. They are asking for an economic catastrophe and seeking draconian cuts that their base doesn’t want.

Consider the Republican desire to reduce our deficits. They have pledged to balance the budget (that is, to have a zero annual budget deficit) within 10 years. But they haven’t laid out any plausible mathematical path for getting there. And of the current debt ceiling, 90% of it was committed before Biden took his job.

Some Republican House members want to cut military spending, an idea that both Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) are on board with. But others, including House Appropriations Chair Kay Granger (R-TX), have said defense spending cuts aren’t on the table. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL) said:

“We’ve got to get spending under control, but we are not going to do it on the backs of our troops and our military,”

Waltz thinks Republicans should focus on “entitlements programs,” such as mandatory spending programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. But the bi-partisan popularity of these programs makes them hard to cut.

And last Sunday, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) was asked to name one thing she was willing to suggest as a spending cut. She instead stated things she wouldn’t put on the table:

“Well, obviously no cuts to Medicare or Medicaid or Social Security….That’s a nonstarter for either side.”

Wrongo has repeatedly suggested tax increases which would help lower deficits, but Republicans have ruled that out.

Instead they’ve changed the House rules so tax cuts will be much easier to pass, and tax increases harder to pass. The House’s rules package now says that any increase in taxes would require a three-fifths vote (60%) rather than a simple majority as previously.

They’ve also proposed doing away with income taxes, payroll taxes, estate taxes and even the IRS itself in favor of a supersized sales tax that would provide most revenue to the government. Republicans would substitute a 30% sales tax on all purchases and in exchange, do away with income, Social Security and Medicare taxes.

That means workers would keep the gross amount of their paychecks. But it also means that buying everything from groceries to automobiles would be hugely more expensive. It also provides a big tax cut for the wealthy and businesses.

The result is a smaller tax burden for the highest earners and a bigger one for people in the middle.

Once you reject trimming entitlements or defense spending and bake in the cost of the GOP’s proposed tax cuts, you’re left with an additional $20 trillion hole in the Federal budget over the next decade.

OTOH, the White House is expected to release its detailed budget in early March. It will build on budgets it has released previously. Republicans want Biden to negotiate on what to do about money we’ve already spent.

Try doing that with YOUR creditors.

 

Facebooklinkedinrss