Saturday, March 03, 2018

Democracy Geeks

Image: HOTLITTLEPOTATO for Wired magazine.
From Schoolhouse Rock and whatever amount of civics classes have survived the regimes of high-stakes testing in our schools, many of us have gained the impression that in the United States, voters choose their politicians. If we have a more sophisticated understanding, we understand that the first draft of the Constitution disenfranchised most of the population, but that amendments expanded the franchise, first by race and then by sex. We might remain (rightfully) cynical about the manipulation of voters and by the insidious advantages of incumbency, but we think of the general direction of influence to be:
voters --> politicians
Frequent readers of this blog will know that I have written quite a lot about the pernicious effects of gerrymandering, a way of manipulating district boundaries to gain partisan advantage, so that the selection process is reversed:
politicians --> voters
I encourage those with curiosity and perhaps insomnia to browse all of my gerrymandering posts (this link is chronological and will include this post).

More importantly, though, I want to point to two outstanding resources about the brilliant people -- teams combining mathematical, statistical, legal, and geographic expertise -- who are fighting back. And it is a fight, especially in Pennsylvania, where some state legislators are defying courts at all levels, setting up a constitutional crisis that borders on a coup d'état in my opinion.

The first of these is the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group at Tufts University, led by Dr. Moon Duchin (shown left). I learned of the group when our BSU Department of Mathematics arranged for her recent visit to our campus. She took time out from a very busy day of working with the governor of Pennsylvania to present a talk entitled Math, Data Algorithms, and Voting Rights. She explained her group's very sophisticated approach to the problem of demonstrating that a given pattern voting districts is unfair in a statistically significant way.

She is an ideal spokesperson for this work; in just an hour she presented her group's approach in a way that was simple enough that students with no prior background in the subject understood her, but sophisticated enough that I now understand the problem at a much higher level. And I can tell that there is a lot more to learn! Writer John Winters of our own University News team in turn did an excellent job of capturing the key ideas of her presentation in the article I cite above.

For me, the greatest take-away from Dr. Duchin's talk was the idea that mathematicians can generate millions of alternative districting maps and compare any given map to that population of possibilities. This method definitively identifies schemes that are contrived for partisan benefit. We also learned that the benefit is up to 2x a party's actual vote share. That is, the theoretical maximum number of seats a party can gain by manipulating the maps is two times their share in the population. A party with a 30-percent share of votes can win 60 percent of seats, and a party with 50 percent or more can get ALL of the seats.

This leads to an excellent article that explains the Pennsylvania situation in some detail. Wired journalist Issie Lapowski's profile of The Geeks Who Put a Stop to Pennsylvania's Partisan Gerrymandering is a cogent lesson on the interactions of geography, history, politics, law and mathematics in this sordid and important story.

The Fraught Fifty

Map by Neil Freeman, 2012
Click to enlarge
When Neil Freeman's imaginative map of the United States was first tossed over my digital transom last week, I noticed the names of some of the larger areas. I was aware that he had divided the territory in such a way as to make them all equal in population. But I mainly noticed the names of some of the larger imagined states, such as Ogallala, and was immediately put in mind of other continent-scale efforts at regionalization, including the famous Nine Nations of North America.

Although the names he applies to the map reveal a profound understanding of what geographers call sense of place, Freeman began his project with something more practical in mind: addressing a somewhat subtle aspect of voter suppression. On his presciently-named blog Fake is the New Real, he explained the iterative process by which began to define his states, and goes on to describe some of the detailed considerations. Although he insisted that the map is primarily a work of art, he was careful to provide a very cogent, geographically-informed list of advantages and disadvantages were the map to be adopted.

I learned of the map from a much more recent article by blogger Josh Jones, who discusses the map in the context of more recent conversations about gerrymandering. Together, the two writers provide a lot of thought-provoking observations about the reasons for the original two-senator-per-state rule and about its implications for presidential elections. Their work exemplifies geography in plain sight -- a reality that seems so simple that it escapes notice, but that is in fact deeply complicated and even fraught.

Crunching the As-Is Numbers

I had long ago been introduced to the idea that the disparate size of the states results in wide disparities in the degree to which residents of each state are represented in the Senate. Relative to Californians or Texans, for example, residents of Wyoming have a much greater likelihood of having met a senator in person, and they certainly have a greater likelihood of gaining the attention of a senator's staff members.

It was not until reading Jones' article that I realized that with a few minutes on a spreadsheet, I could quantify the effect of these disparities on the representation by party. Some academics dismiss Wikipedia as a resource, but for this exercise it was perfectly appropriate. I looked up the current membership of the Senate, which lists members in a tabular format that was easy to copy into a spreadsheet. Those wishing to check on this list after end of this year will need to check the permanent entry for the 115th Congress, but the current list can always be used to update this exercise. Ambitious and curious readers could even work their way backward through previous years to get a sense of how the patterns I have quantified may have changed over time.

The spreadsheet is available to view, and is entitled Is the Senate -- In Effect -- Gerrymandered? I use the phrase "in effect" because the imbalance I describe does not result from gerrymandering in the widely-understood sense of manipulating the boundaries of voting districts to gain disproportionate representation. Nor does it fall into the more widely-used sense in which experts use the term: the manipulation of other aspects of voting regulations to gain partisan advantage. So the situation lacks the element of intentionality that we see in such notorious cases as are currently being contested with respect to seats in the House of Representatives.

So what is the imbalance like? It turns out that the two major parties tend to represent states of different sized populations. Each represents some big states -- Republican Texas but Democratic New York and California. Each also represents some very small states -- Wyoming Republican and Rhode Island Democratic, for example. Quite a few states of various sizes have split representation in the Senate -- Colorado, South Dakota, and Vermont, for example. This was the situation when I lived in Maryland years ago, and I think it can have real benefits for voters and for the decorum of the legislature.

In aggregate, though, the fact that one party tends to dominate states with smaller populations means that residents of those states have relatively greater representation in the Senate. In the spreadsheet, I allocated the populations of each state to the party of its senators, splitting the population evenly in those 1-1 states. The result is representation of 141.4 million residents by Republicans and 173.1 million residents by Democrats.

Because there are fewer Democrats than Republicans in the Senate (45 versus 53), each Senator represents a very different number of residents -- 3.8 million versus 2.7 million on average. Even more dramatically, the two independent senators represent just under a half million residents each.

What does this mean for policy, and for the idea of government of, by, and for the people? In practical terms, it means that a minority party has majority representation in both houses of Congress. Because votes in the Electoral College are allocated according to the allocation of these seats, the diminished influence of voters from large-population states directly affects presidential elections as well.

Lagniappe: DC & PR

These calculations do not include citizens in two major jurisdictions who get no Congressional representation at all -- my home town of Washington, D.C. and the internal colony of Puerto Rico. With 646,000 and 3.7 million people respectively, these unrepresented areas are equivalent in population to quite a few of the smaller states. Lack of representation has resulted in decades of annoyances, inconveniences and humiliations for the citizens of D.C., and has recently become a matter of life and death for citizens of Puerto Rico.
When this design became available, the mayor gladly sent me a sample.
To this day, the political affiliation of driver can be ascertained with some certainty by whether or not they use this tag. The slogan, of course, refers to a bit of a set-to we had in Boston in 1773.
A non-partisan approach to the rights of these citizens would result in statehood, and this would likely diminish the partisan imbalance currently found in both houses. It is for precisely this reason, however, that statehood will likely not be granted to either colony in my lifetime.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Coffees of Tea Island

As I mention quite often in this space and elsewhere, the greatest advantage of teaching is that I get to keep learning from my students. (Sadly, some of my colleagues are not very open to this, but those who enjoy teaching are.)

In this case, I asked my honors coffee students (yes, that is a thing!) to read an important BBC article entitled The Disease That Could Change How We Drink Coffee. It is about roya, also known as coffee leaf rust, also known as one thing that might motivate some people to pay attention to climate change. We had discussed the disease in the context of my Coffee Bellwethers TED Talk, and I decided this article would be a good way to delve further into the topic.

Being a habitual user of open-ended questions, I did not ask them specific questions about the article; rather, I asked the students to write questions that the article led them to ask. Several of the questions had to do with the differences between Arabica and robusta coffees, which BBC reporter Jose Luis Penarredonda dubs "Beauty and the Beast." As the name suggests, most people -- expert and otherwise -- prefer the flavor of Arabica, which comprises about 70 percent of world production. Robusta, though, is the hardier plant, resistant to higher temperatures and to many diseases and pests. Robusta can be grown at lower elevations -- which is how it made Vietnam the world's second-largest producer of coffee -- and has about double the caffeine of Arabica. As climate changes in coffeelands, we can expect the 70/30 advantage of Beauty over Beast to decline, along with average quality.

Another question was based on a student's careful reading of this passage, in which she noticed one word that I had glossed over:
If left unattended, the disease can have dramatic consequences. In the late 19th Century, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and other countries in Southeast Asia were the major exporters of coffee in the world. In a matter of decades, the disease meant they practically stopped growing it.
The word is "practically," which should have signalled to me that the narrative I have shared is not quite right. I took a strong interest in the teas of Sri Lanka -- whose former name Ceylon is almost synonymous with the beverage -- when I was working on a book about tea a few years back. Alas, I never completed the book, but in the process I learned a bit about the relationship between tea and climate change, and I even managed to attend a tea hosted by the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States.
During this time, I learned about the roya infestation of a century ago that Penarredonda describes in the BBC article. Arabica plantations all around the Indian Ocean and into the southwestern Pacific region experienced the blight, which could only be abated by the large-scale clearing of coffee trees. Throughout much of the region

Friday, February 23, 2018

A Modest Proposal

(With apologies to Jonathan Swift.)

In a hail of bullets, students at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were thrust into the role of activists. Within hours, it became clear that they were to become the most determined, effective, and articulate public citizens we have seen in our country in a very long time.

The fact that they were responding to a terror attack in our most politically benighted state made their achievements all the more remarkable. They drew attention to Senator Marco Rubio's misplaced priorities more effectively than anybody of my generation has done, shaming him into endorsing a reduced limit on ammunition magazines. They caused the famously inflexible Gov. Rick "Skeletor" Scott to make a small concession on the question of whether someone too young to buy a Bud Light should be able to buy an assault rifle. The even convinced the president of the United States to speak out in favor of universal background checks, so that terrorists would no longer be able to hide behind private gun sales, and a ban on bump stocks. It remains to be seen whether any of these statements were sincere, and whether they will be enacted while Wayne LaPierre still walks the earth and signs the big checks.

But these young people moved the debate on gun violence, and were not intimidated by the scurrilous smear campaigns that predictably ensued. Politicians who are known to be on the industry payroll had the nerve to suggest that these young people were being paid to speak, as if watching the deaths of their friends and siblings and teachers were not enough. They watched as their state legislators ignored their pleas and their courage, voting down all relevant legislation before voting to codify the empty rhetoric of "thoughts and prayers" in the form of a clearly unconstitutional requirement to install "In God We Trust" signs in all of the schools of the Sunshine State.
Image: New York Times
All of this has me thinking about the voting age. When the Founders of our nation established ages for voting and for holding certain offices, they could not have foreseen the Baby Boomers. There have been more of us than any prior or subsequent generation, and we have made some pretty big mistakes. We have allowed voting districts to be gerrymandered to the very limits of mathematics, ensuring the repeated election of people who are not only unqualified for the jobs they hold, but in some cases not honest enough to hold any job I can think of.

We have allowed -- nay, encouraged -- those politicians to be ruled by the political fetishes of Grover Norquist, a privileged, unelected counter-patriot who somehow gained the allegiance of both major parties, resulting in broken infrastructure, unfunded education, declining life expectancy, and the increasing concentration of wealth.

The Parkland youth are setting an example of
civic engagement for all of us. 
In short, as a group we have had our chance at governing the country, and we have not shown ourselves very capable. If Lincoln is to have his wish that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth" we need to do something drastic.

Which leads to my proposal.

The 26th Amendment was passed in 1971, when Boomers were showing our political prowess and actually getting some things done (shortening wars, cleaning the environment, broadening civil rights). It lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18, though it left the maximum voting age in place, because the problem of a completely dysfunctional electorate was not foreseen.

It is time to lower the minimum again, and to impose a maximum. Some local elections are already open to 16 year olds, and I would support making that the minimum for federal elections. I think a maximum of 35 or 40 would be appropriate, so that people with a bit more life experience are included, while still avoiding the excesses of the Baby Boomers. At the very most, voting should not be extended to those born prior to 1965.

As for the age restrictions on federal office, I would lower the minimums by 5 years and make the maximum age double the minimum age. So, instead of:

  • Congress Critter: currently eligible from 25 until promised bribes and kickbacks have accumulated to ensure a seven-figure income for life
  • Senator: currently eligible from 30 through rigor mortis
  • President: currently eligible from 35 until golf or brush-clearing consumes every waking moment
... I would suggest:
  • Congressional Representative: 20 to 40
  • Senator: 25 to 50
  • President: 30 to 60 (but this would make me eligible, so we'd better keep this at 52 until the Boomers have aged a bit more)
Under this scheme, those of a certain age can participate, just as those under 18 do now. We can pose in photos when our children or students run for office, we can hold signs on street corners or stuff envelopes. Our financial involvement would need to be similarly limited: donating no more to a campaign than we can carry to a campaign rally in coins with our bare hands, like a kid donating their allowance.


Monday, February 12, 2018

The Gini Is Out of the Bottle

PRI journalist Jason Margolis reports that even with recently rising wages, the United States remains one of the world's most inequitable nations, by several measures.

The report alludes to two prominent measures of income inequality -- the Gini coefficient and ratios of executive pay to that of average workers. By either measure, the United States is either in poor company or in no company at all.

That is to say, a broad measure of income distribution puts the United States in the company of relatively underdeveloped countries -- certainly not any of the countries of Europe. And the stratospheric pay of CEOs compared to ordinary workers cannot be found anywhere in the world.

As other studies have found, sharp inequalities are bad for public health. In countries with highly concentrated wealth, increased stress and other factors mean that even the wealthy are less healthy than they would be in more equitable societies.

The problem in the United States, of course, is that "equitable" is immediately presumed to be the same as "equal." Lingering fears of the deleterious effects of Communism on gumption have resulted in generations of policy-makers -- and voters -- who chose wealth-concentrating policies at every opportunity, from the free-speech rights of corporations to tax and wage policies to the rules for organizing unions.
Hard work is no longer associated with prosperity or even with economic security.
The result is a society in which hard work is now completely disconnected from economic security.

Caveat: The report uses one common term to which I always object: unskilled labor. Use of the term reinforces the myth that executive pay is correlated solely with high levels of skill, discounting the effect of executives staffing each other's compensation committees. It also is used to justify such anti-worker nonsense as "training wages" in place of living wages by which work leads to dignity. Those who use the term "unskilled labor" should spend some time actually trying to do the jobs they think the term covers.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Ill Eagle

Library of Congress researcher Shameema Rahman discusses several failed efforts to count federal laws, and does not offer an estimate. Blogger Dave Kowal argues that there are "too many" and provides a rough estimate of 4,500 criminal violations, with thousands of additional laws throughout the U.S. Code. Neither writer estimates the number of state and municipal laws, but presumably they number in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

In other words, many things are illegal (adj.) in our country -- literally more than we can count. And yet ... and yet! There is one very narrow category of legal violations that will cause the perpetrator to be known as an illegal.

As if the word were a noun. It is not rape, murder, jaywalking, tax evasion, burglary, arson, or treason. People who do these things are described by very specific nouns usually ending in -ist or -er. But the perpetrators of these crimes are understood as distinct from the crimes themselves.

What is the exception? What is the one kind of crime so serious that its perpetrators are labeled as the crime itself? The answer of course, is the breaking of rules related to migration. Sneak across the border, and you are an illegalCross with a visa but violate its terms, and you are an illegal.

Not a trespasser or a paperwork-not-filler-outer, but an illegal (n.). The same does not apply, incidentally, to those who hire undocumented workers -- only to those who are undocumented.

If the economy is growing and unemployment is low, this is not such a big issue. But if an economy is shrinking, or if it is growing slowly, or if it is growing quickly but not providing jobs -- then perpetrators of these crimes are castigated as the illegals and become the target of ire, vitriol, and of course demagoguery.

Even so, during the 2016 presidential campaign, the far right invoked the specter of undocumented migrants who have committed other crimes -- such as murder -- as the focus of eventual stepped-up enforcement. But as Slate journalist Jamelle Bouie writes in ICE Unbound, the distinction between criminality in the narrow sense of being undocumented and criminality in the more common-sense sense of committing crimes against people or property is now guiding federal enforcement actions.

Even people who have documents and are required to check in with immigration agencies are now being arrested and deported, rending families apart. Perhaps this is why we do not hear the phrase "family values conservative" so much these days -- the hypocrisy would be too obvious, even on Fox.

Bouie mentions a sharp shift away from "border removals" -- which strict enforcement under President Obama had already sent into decline -- and toward "internal removals." He hints at one of the reasons for the shift, aside from ideology: many of the removals involve private prisons. With an Attorney General deeply invested in the prison industry and growing number of politicians using it as a source of donations, raids throughout the interior of the country are needed to keep the funds flowing to this sector.


What is often really at work in discussions of immigration is confusion between the notions of patriotism and nationalism. The positive kind of patriotism is something I remember witnessing in the days and weeks -- but not so much the months and years -- following the attacks of September 11, 2001. For a short while, people even in New England started driving more courteously. They treated neighbors more kindly, donated more to charities, and volunteered more in their communities. They even appreciated the outpouring of sympathy from people throughout the world that lasted from the time of the attack until the re-invasion of Iraq.

But in tough times the good energy of patriotism can easily cross over to the bad energy of nationalism, and the bankster-led economic meltdown of 2008 seems to have ushered in just that kind of bad energy. Searching for scapegoats, too many victims of financiers have turned their attention to "others" in their midst and seeking isolation from the "others" outside.
Source: Found online; I'm seeking the name of the cartoonist
Related Stories

As I mentioned several years ago on this blog, my old neighbors in Tucson have long recognized that migrants frequently die in the desert. While this seems to please some of my fellow citizens, others find the compassion to maintain life-saving water stations near the border. Attention has returned to these efforts as news emerged that some border agents have sabotaged water stations. In a recent interview, the Tucson section chief argued that this is against the protocols of the agency itself, and that many agents are actually trained in emergency medicine.

NPR journalist Claudio Sanchez recently reported that among hundreds of thousands of residents currently waiting for relief under DACA are almost 9,000 teachers. The deportations that were discussed during the 2016 presidential campaigns were to be of "bad hombres" who were threats to public safety. Caught in the dragnet, though, are military veterans, teachers, and others who live in and serve the only country they call home: the U.S. of A.

As the White House expands its anti-immigrant program from the "bad hombres" to all undocumented migrants to migrants from places he does not like, the consequences are beginning to emerge in the broader economy. As reported by Forbes journalist Chris Morris, California Crops Rot as Immigration Crackdown Creates Farmworker Shortage.

Writing for Common Dreams, Juan Escalante goes a step further. Citing the influence of white nationalists in the current administration, he plausibly argues that the DACA compromise now under discussion amount to a "racist ransom note" because it ties the fate of DACA applicants to a wish list of policies that would have the effect of whitening the population.

Roger Rocha, president of League of United Latin American Citizens, the oldest Latino civil rights organization, did support the administration's position in recent days, as he explains in an interview with NPR journalist Ari Shapiro. He withdrew his letter to the president, however, after significant backlash from members of his organization. In explaining his reasons for supporting the administration, it is clear that the administration positions have been shifting frequently. More troubling is that even in explaining points of agreement, he describes the Dreamer population as hostages to the legislative process.

Consent of the Governed

Extreme measures to limit the rights of migrants are part of a set of strategies by which politicians endeavor to select their constituents, rather than allowing the reverse to happen. Long-term resident of the country are -- clearly -- among the governed, and they are among those who pay taxes. Measures that unduly deny them citizenship and personhood run counter to the ideals of the original (and illegal at the time) American Revolution. We had a bit of set-to with King George, after all, about taxation without representation, and enshrined "consent of the governed" in our Declaration of Independence.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Hot Island Hotspot

Avery Island, Louisiana is very high on the list of places I have never been but to which I feel a strong connection. Since I started getting serious about chili in middle school, I have never been far from a bottle of Tabasco. One of the nice things about my three-year stint in the specialty food industry is that our packaging plant always had hundreds of thousands of tiny (1/8-ounce) bottles of the pepper-mash sauce, because we put one in every Meal, Ready-to-Eat that we packaged. When we had meetings in the office, it was often the case that every man in the room was wearing a Tabasco necktie, as we each had a small collection. I remember my boss there admonishing me when I returned from a meeting in New England and complained about the bland food. "What were you doing traveling up there without Tabasco in your pocket?" she scolded.

Its Louisiana home has loomed large in my imagination for years. Even though my parents have visited -- and they did bring me some nice gifts -- I have not yet been closer than a quick zip along Interstate 10 during our 1997 move from Texas to Massachusetts.

I recently learned a lot about the environmental geography of the island from a beautifully illustrated essay by Times-PIcayune journalist Tristan Baurick. As the title implies, his article Tabasco's homeland fights for survival in Louisiana against storms and rising seas is in part the all-too common story of a coastal community defending against the effects of climate change. It is also, however, a richer story of a family that has developed a complex relationship with its land for a century and a half.

The island is more of a hill, a salt dome that is one of the highest points along the Gulf coast, and that continues to provide not only a home for the production of Tabasco Sauce but also one of its three ingredients: salt. Its status as an island is as vague as the land-sea boundary of Louisiana itself, about which I wrote in Tough Shape a couple of years ago.

Image: Justin Secrist USDA
Baurick's profile of the island includes a biographical history of the family business and several stories about the good and bad results of its efforts in the area of wildlife management. It is one of several places where the South American nutria (a varmint similar to a groundhog) was raised for its fur. At a particular point in the 20th century, the economics of the fur industry and the mathematics of nutria reproduction made this a very tempting business prospect. Nutria are apparently adept at escaping confinement, however, and their rapid reproduction makes them quite an aggressive invasive species. The damage done to coastal wetlands -- including those the McIlhenny family have long tried to protect -- is incalculable. I first learned of nutria farming far from Louisiana, when I visited the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay. It gives the McIlhenny family a small bit of comfort to know that they were not the only culprits in the century-long nutria fiasco.

The family may have redeemed itself in the wildlife area with its efforts on behalf of the snowy egret, whose feathers were once in such demand that it was hunted nearly to extinction. It would not have been the first abundant bird to have been extirpated by overuse, as was the fate of Martha and the passenger pigeons. The family's introduction of egrets and its ban on hunting them in just its small Louisiana property is credited with the eventual restoration of the species.

At the time of this writing, an even more important "ark" for birds is under threat elsewhere on the Gulf Coast. The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge -- near my former home on the Rio Grande -- is currently threatened by hostility toward wild lands in general and a foolhardy plan to build a border wall in particular.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Blowing for Good

Graph: U.S. Energy Information Administration
In recent years, I have noticed wind turbines in a lot of new locations, and it is not my imagination that generation of electricity by wind has been increasing rapidly. A recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration confirms that wind is poised to overtake hydroelectric power this year, with each generating about 250,000 megawatts hours of electricity per day.

The report provides some interesting insights into the geography of renewable energy generation (note: some parts of the site label hydroelectric as separate from renewables, though geographers would consider it part of the renewables mix). Month-to-month changes in each are a combination of differences in built capacity and potential that varies with climatic factors. Because hydroelectric construction has all but ceased in the U.S. (most optimal sites already being in use), fluctuations in this sector have to do with season and secular trends in rainfall, snowmelt and evaporation. Winds vary seasonally, too, of course, but rapid expansion in infrastructure dominates the wind-power curve.

Overall electricity generation in the United is projected to remain remarkable steady at around 11 million megawatt hours per day. To me this suggests that conservation efforts are just keeping pace with economic and population growth, which is better than not keeping pace, but suggest that conservation alone will not lead to actual reductions in electricity-related greenhouse emissions.
Graphic: U.S. EIA
Although overall production is expected to continue at the same level, analysts expect two recent tendencies to continue: a gradual increase in the use of natural gas at the expense of coal and a gradual increase in still-small contribution of renewables, mainly wind.

Accountability versus Voter Suppression

Congress has finally gotten around to doing something about sexual harassment by its own members, but true accountability remains elusive. In an unusual act of decency, the usually unprincipled Speaker Paul Ryan named a commission to expose, among other things, the heretofore secretive practice of using public money to settle claims by victims.

The work of the commission soon exposed one of its own members, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA). It is not clear whether he simply hoped that the commission would not be bright enough to discover his transgressions, or whether he volunteered for the post in an effort to keep covering his tracks.

I first noticed the story because of Adam Peck's reporting on Meehan's convoluted rationalization, which included blaming President Obama's healthcare legislation. One phrase in Peck's report piqued my geographic interest, though. I decided I needed to learn more about his "heavily gerrymandered district to the west of Philadelphia." 

Pennsylvania's 7th District, which NRP reporting describes as "suburban Philadelphia" nearly surrounds the City of Brotherly Love, carefully avoiding its left-leaning neighborhoods. Encompassing carefully selected neighborhoods in five counties and in the direction of the four winds, the district is considered one of the ten most egregiously contrived districts in these United States.
Map: Ballotpedia
This contorted shape of District 7 is the embodiment of what is wrong with extreme gerrymandering, which undermines both the Preamble and Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which was written in a space encircled by -- and excluded from -- this particular district.
The story broke just as Pennsylvania's highest court joined a number of other courts around the United States in rejecting voting districts that have clearly been contrived so that politicians could choose their voters, rather than risk the reverse. As I have written previously, gerrymandering was invented in Massachusetts almost immediately after the Constitution was ratified. It has been employed by politicians of many stripes throughout the history of the Republic, but never with the sophistication that has been brought to bear by malfeasant geographers in recent years.

It is just one part of a multi-pronged approach to voter suppression that journalist Ari Berman writes is being used quite effectively in combination with dark money and voter-ID laws. Only in such an insulated environment would a person of Rep. Meehan's caliber have the audacity to run for re-election.


Voter suppression efforts are not limited to the drawing of boundaries, of course. In North Carolina, arcane rules about the composition of local election boards were designed to give incumbents an advantage in choosing who would likely show up to vote. The rules did not strictly exclude any particular voters, but a court agreed that they were contrived to push turnout in a predictable direction. The geographic argument here is subtle but persuasive -- see the bar charts in the map below, depicting driving distances to polls under different scenarios.
Image: Daily Kos
Still More...
Some of the worst examples. Maps: Washington Post

In a May 2014 article, journalist Christopher Ingraham wrote about some of America's most gerrymandered districts, and described some of the counterintuitive goals of what he called "crimes against geography." 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Billy Bragg's World

I sometimes hear it suggested that musicians and other artists should keep politics out of their work and "just" perform. More than once I have heard this from fans who have somehow heard their favorite musicians for years without ever listening to them. Music does not have to be about something, but quite often it is -- and quite often it makes a difference.

Billy Bragg
(LA Review of Books)
To start the new year, Boston radio journalist Christopher Lydon decided to reprise a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion he had had in 2017 with British troubadour Billy Bragg. Those familiar with Lydon's earlier program The Connection will be pleasantly surprised to hear that he now knows how to interview with a few deft questions. The result is Billy Bragg's Guide to the Music of Dissent -- a relaxed conversation about the relationship between music and social change, from the blues to punk to anti-fascism. In addition to uncovering a lot of interesting connections among musicians, Bragg offers thought-provoking ideas about the role of music listeners.

The discussion is based on Bragg's book Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, which is also the subject of a print interview with Scott Timberg of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Blog Ideas

coffee (19) geography (16) climate change (13) musica (9) Texas (8) education (8) Brazil (7) Mexico (7) migration (7) Massachusetts (6) US-Mexico (6) borderlands (6) deBlij04 (6) cultural geography (5) fair trade (5) food (5) geographic education (5) immigration (5) nicaragua (5) Arizona (4) climate justice (4) deBlij05 (4) music (4) politics (4) water (4) Bolivia (3) Boston (3) GEOG332 (3) GEOG381 (3) Managua (3) Obama (3) Safina (3) border (3) cartography (3) drought (3) libraries (3) pesticides (3) trade (3) unemployment (3) Alaska (2) Amazon (2) Bridgewater (2) Canada (2) Chiapas (2) China (2) EarthView (2) Economy (2) Environment (2) GEOG130 (2) Google Maps (2) Government (2) Hawaii (2) India (2) Lexington (2) Maldives (2) NPR (2) National Monuments (2) National Parks (2) Religion (2) Rio Grande (2) Taunton River Wild and Scenic (2) Tex-Mex (2) The View from Lazy Point (2) United States (2) Venezuela (2) africa (2) censorship (2) central america (2) chocolate (2) deBlij07 (2) deforestation (2) education reform (2) employment (2) environmental geography (2) film (2) global warming (2) islands (2) land protection (2) librarians (2) maps (2) organic (2) peak oil (2) refugees (2) sense of place (2) soccer (2) suburban sprawl (2) television (2) water rights (2) whales (2) ACROSS Lexington (1) Accents (1) Adam at Home (1) Alice (1) Alt.Latina (1) American Hustle (1) April (1) Association of american Geographers (1) Audubon (1) Aunt Hatch's Lane (1) BSU (1) Baby Boomers (1) Banda Aceh (1) Bay Circuit Trial (1) Bechtel (1) Beleza Tropical (1) Belize (1) Beloit College (1) Ben Linder Cafe (1) Bet The Farm (1) Bhopal (1) Bikeway (1) Bill Gates (1) Bill Moyers (1) Boeing 777 (1) Brazilian (1) Brazilianization (1) Bridge (1) British Columbia (1) Bus Fare (1) Bush (1) California (1) Cambridge (1) Cape Cod Bay (1) Carl Stafina (1) Catholic (1) Ceuta (1) Chalice (1) Chipko (1) Citgo (1) Climate risks (1) Cochabamba (1) Colonialism (1) Common Core (1) Commuter (1) Computers (1) Cuba (1) Cups and Summits (1) Dallas (1) David Byrne (1) Delaware Valley (1) Dunkin Donuts (1) EPA (1) Earth Day (1) Earth View (1) Easton (1) Elizabeth Warren (1) Emilia Laime (1) English-only (1) Environmental History (1) Ethiopia (1) Euphrates (1) European Union (1) Evo Morales (1) FIFA (1) Fades Out (1) Farms (1) Food Trade (1) Frederick Kaufman (1) French press (1) Fresh Pond Mall (1) GEOG 332 (1) GEOG 441 (1) Garden of Gethsemane (1) Gas wells (1) General Motors (1) Gini Coefficient (1) Girl in the Cafe (1) Google (1) Gordon Hempton (1) Gravina Island Bridge (1) Great Molasses Flood (1) Guy Lombardo (1) Hawks (1) Heart (1) Higher Education (1) History (1) Holyhok Lewisville (1) Homogenous (1) How Food Stopped Being Food (1) Hugo Chavez (1) IMF (1) Iditarod (1) Imperial Valley (1) Income Inequality (1) Indonesia (1) Iraq (1) Irish (1) Japan (1) Junot Diaz (1) Ketchikan (1) Key West (1) Kindergarden Students (1) King Corn (1) Kiribati (1) Latin America (1) Limbaugh (1) Love Canal (1) Luddite (1) M*A*S*H (1) MCAS (1) MacArthur Genius (1) Maersk (1) Malaysia (1) Malaysian Air Flight 370 (1) Manu Chao (1) Map (1) Marblehead (1) Mary Robinson Foundation (1) Maryland (1) Massachusetts Bay Colony (1) Math (1) Maxguide (1) May (1) Maya (1) Mayan (1) Mayan Gold (1) Mbala (1) McDonald's (1) Melilla (1) Mexicans (1) Michael Pollan (1) Michelle Obama (1) Micronesia (1) Military (1) Military Dictatorship (1) Minuteman Trail (1) Mongolia (1) Monsanto (1) Montana (1) Morocco (1) Mount Auburn Cemetery (1) Mozambique (1) Muslim (1) Nantucket (1) National Education Regime (1) Native Americans (1) New Bedford (1) New Hampshire (1) New York City (1) New York Times (1) No Child Left Behind Act (1) Norquist (1) North Africa (1) Nuts (1) Oaxaca (1) Occupeligo (1) Occypy (1) Oklahoma City (1) Oppression (1) PARCC (1) Pakistan (1) Pascal's Wager (1) Peanut (1) Pearson Regime (1) Philadelphia (1) Philippines (1) Pink Unicorns (1) Poland (1) Portuguese (1) Protest (1) Public Education (1) Puebla (1) Puritans (1) Quest University (1) Rachel Carson (1) Reading (1) Republican (1) Retro Report (1) Robert Reich (1) Rock Legend (1) Ronald Reagan (1) Rondonia (1) SEXCoffee (1) Safety (1) Samoza (1) Sandino (1) Sara Vowell (1) Save the Children (1) Scotch (1) Scotland (1) Seinfeld (1) Senegal (1) Sergio Mendes (1) Severin (1) Sharrod (1) Silent Spring (1) Sinatra (1) Slope (1) Somalia (1) Sombra (1) Sonora (1) Sonoran desert (1) Sonoran hot dog (1) South America (1) Spain (1) Stairway to Heaven (1) Storm (1) Suare Inch of Silence (1) Sumatra (1) Swamp (1) Tacloban (1) The Amazon (1) The Amazon Trail (1) Tigris (1) Tucson (1) Tufts (1) U.S Federal Reserve (1) U.S Government (1) U.S. economy (1) USDA (1) USLE Formula (1) Uganda (1) Unfamiliar Fishes (1) Union Carbide (1) Vacation (1) Vexillology (1) Vietnam (1) ViralNova (1) WNYC Data News (1) Wall Street (1) Walsenburg (1) Walt Disney (1) Walt and El Grupo (1) Ward's Berry Farm (1) West (1) Whaling (1) Winter Storm Saturn (1) Wisconsin (1) World Bank (1) Xingu (1) YouTube (1) agriculture (1) anthropocene (1) antitrust (1) aspen (1) aviation (1) banned books (1) bark beetle (1) bean (1) bicycle (1) bicycling (1) bike sharing (1) binary (1) biodiversity (1) bioneers (1) books (1) boston globe (1) cacao (1) cafe (1) campaign (1) campus (1) cantonville (1) cape verde (1) capitals (1) carbon dioxide (1) carbon offsets (1) carioca (1) cash (1) cashews (1) census (1) chemex (1) chemistry (1) chronology (1) churrasco (1) coffee grounds (1) coffee hell (1) coffee prices (1) college (1) compost (1) computerized test (1) congress (1) conservation commission (1) corn (1) corporations (1) countries (1) cubicle (1) deBlij06 (1) deBlij08 (1) death (1) deficit (1) dictatorship (1) distracted learning (1) distraction (1) drug war (1) earth (1) economic diversification (1) economic geography (1) election (1) embargo (1) energy (1) enhanced greenhouse effect (1) environmentalist (1) ethnomusicology (1) exremism (1) failed states (1) farming (1) financial crisis (1) football (1) forestry (1) forro (1) fracking (1) free market (1) free trade (1) fuel economy (1) garden (1) genocide (1) geography education (1) geography games (1) geography of chocolate (1) geography of food (1) geologic time (1) geotechnology (1) gerrymandering (1) global pizza (1) globe (1) green chemistry (1) guatemala (1) high-frutcose (1) home values (1) hospitality (1) housing (1) illegal aliens (1) income (1) interfaith (1) journalism (1) kitchen garden (1) labor (1) language (1) libertarianism (1) library (1) lingusitics (1) little rock (1) llorona; musica (1) maple syrup (1) mapping (1) medical (1) mental maps (1) microstates (1) mining (1) monopoly (1) municipal government (1) nautical (1) neoclassical economics (1) new england (1) newseum (1) newspapers (1) noise pollution (1) pandas (1) petroleum (1) piracy (1) pirates (1) poison ivy (1) police (1) political geography (1) provincial government (1) proxy variables (1) public diplomacy (1) rabbi (1) racism (1) real food cafe (1) remittances (1) resistance (1) respect (1) rigoberta menchu (1) rios montt (1) romance (1) roya (1) runways (1) russia (1) satellites (1) science (1) sea level (1) selva negra (1) sertao (1) sertão (1) sex (1) sex and coffee (1) simple (1) sin (1) solar (1) solar roasting (1) south africa (1) sovereignty (1) species loss (1) sporcle (1) sports (1) state government (1) sustainability (1) taxes (1) tea party (1) teaching (1) textile (1) texting (1) training (1) transect; Mercator (1) travel (1) triple-deckers (1) tsunami (1) utopia (1) vermont (1) vice (1) video (1) wall (1) water resources (1) water vapor (1) whiskey (1) whisky (1) widget (1) wifi (1) wild fire (1) wildlife corridor (1) wto (1)