The One or the Many

9 08 2020

It’s about ‘freedom.’ As the coronavirus pandemic continues to plague the United States more than any other wealthy country, by far, a New York Times story appeared in my local Minneapolis Star Tribune that purported to explain our big fail. The story is both informative and disappointing.

Let’s take a quick look at the numbers. America has lost 163,000 citizens to COVID-19, or 22.4% of the world’s total deaths. We have topped 5 million detected cases – 25.4% of the world total. And both those numbers are way out of proportion to the United States’ approximately 4 percent of the world’s population. And here is a measure of how the crisis is worsening in my home country. Over the past month, about 1.9 million Americans have tested positive for the coronavirus. That’s more than five times as many as in all of Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Australia combined. Those countries and regions have more than twice the US population.

The author of the Times piece, David Leonhardt, led a team of reporters who talked to scientists and public health experts both domestic and international. Their conclusion is twofold:

  • The United States faces unique challenges in confronting a major pandemic, largely because of its longstanding focus on individualism over government restrictions
  • The Trump administration has managed the entire crisis inconsistently and ineffectively, right from the start, continuing to this very moment

Fair enough, and the piece documents the myriad examples of misinformation, poor public messaging, terrible behavior modeling, technical ineptitude, and short-sighted, money-driven impatience that have characterized Trump’s strategy, if you can even call it that. But to me the most telling quote in the entire full-page piece is this, from Dr. Jared Baeten, epidemiologist and vice dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health:

“As an American, I think there is a lot of good to be said about our libertarian tradition. But this is the consequence: We don’t succeed well as a collective.”

Aha. Baeten nailed it, but that is about as far as the story takes that angle. Let’s take it farther. Alone among the world’s wealthy nations, the United States lacks a truly nation health care system. It’s piecemeal, based on the profit motive and labyrinthine private insurance, making access to care problematic for so many. And the patchwork nature of state and local health care networks makes information sharing challenging under the best circumstances, never mind a pandemic. So, what has Trump done? Made it all worse, naturally. In mid-July, the administration raised eyebrows all around when it directed hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and instead share COVID case information directly with Health and Human Services. The latter has been widely criticized as misused by the current administration to achieve political aims. Surprise, surprise.

This private vs. public, individual vs. collective tension is playing out in other ways in the current crisis. Why else would individuals be making a fuss in some cases, and causing confrontations in other cases, about the simple guidelines established by well-meaning, science-respecting public health officials?  In the grand scheme of things, how difficult is it to wear a mask in indoor public spaces, and outdoors when social distancing is not possible? And some go to extremes to thumb their noses at regulation and expert guidance. As I write this, about 250,000 “rugged individualists” have gathered in Sturgis, South Dakota for an annual rally of motorcyclists. Lots of partying and socializing. Masks optional and mostly eschewed. And that’s not the craziest of it all. Would you believe persistent death threats not just on America’s highest-profile disease expert, Doctor Anthony Fauci, but his adult daughters? Believe it. This is America. What the hell is wrong with us?

In one of my favorite books ever, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein documents how the rich and  powerful champions of plutocracy and corporatocracy capitalize on any crisis in order to perpetuate and enhance their power and wealth. After all, they are just following their free-market, neoliberal guru, Milton Friedman, who said “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

One idea ‘lying around’ in corporatist circles for decades has been to co-opt, and ultimately destroy, Social Security. President George W. Bush tried mightily in his first term to privatize the system, that is, to replace this monumentally successful public savings and benefits system with private investment accounts. What could possibly go wrong with that?  See the recent years of 2007-2009 for reference.

Now it’s Trump’s turn. The shameful standoff among House Democrats, Senate Republicans and the White House offers a side entrance into dismantling Social Security, and by god, Trump is trying to belly his way in. Mind you, this is probably not an original Trump idea, since he has had woefully few of those. But I digress. One of the ‘remedies’ packed into this hero wannabe’s executive orders on crisis relief is this: a payroll tax holiday. That is, employers and employees will not, for the duration of the dear leader’s order, pay into what amounts to a pension system for those who lack a true pension. Sadly, that includes a larger share of the workforce all the time.  What’s wrong with this? So many things.

For starters, it’s not working people and their employers suffering most from COVID-19. They still have jobs. This will do nothing for the unemployed. But worse, it further undermines the needlessly shaky Social Security system. Trump didn’t make it shaky all by his delusional, greed-drunk self. No, that’s been a bipartisan campaign of borrowing from the trust fund, temporarily reducing contributions and stubbornly refusing to apply the payroll tax to higher incomes. See here that the system as currently configured is solvent only until 2034. So what do you think months or even years of fund starving will do to this vital, collective, social program’s fortunes?  And I ask that based not just on self-interest – I reach full eligibility for benefits in less than two years – but in the interest of American society at large. No, I say that corporatists and plutocrats have always hated Social Security. After all, it was passed during the reign of that dastardly ‘socialist,’ Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (My personal favorite president!) Worse, under Social Security, there is no financial master of the universe, no hedge-fund guru, no banking titan, making a financial killing at the top, plotting ways to vacuum up more millions while the little people suffer the risks and bumps. Again, see 2007-2009 for what could go wrong if the corporatists ever achieve their longtime goal. Note though that all is not lost here. Even most Congressional Republicans are not so keen on Donny’s brilliant payroll tax idea. Do you think that has anything to do with the looming election?

Yet another example of the public/private tension playing out right now is Trump’s determined attack on the US Postal Service. The Postal Service is a proud example of what a country can do collectively, as a public service. It dates all the way back to 1775, when its first postmaster – Benjamin Franklin, my favorite of all the founders – took the post. It currently employs more than half a million Americans, and has provided living-wage employment, with benefits and pension coverage, for millions of workers during its long tenure. The pensions are now a problem, because they are underfunded, and are among the chief reasons for the Postal Service’s financial struggles.  And it was suffering before Devil COVID came along.

Trump’s ‘solution?’ Easy. Appoint a loyal supporter who imposes Shock-Doctrine-style austerity.  Oh, might that austerity interfere with delivery of election ballots?  Might that new postmaster general have severe conflicts of interest, namely be invested in companies that will benefit should the Postal Service be finally privatized?  Welcome to Trumpistan, where corruption is so rampant that it is pretty much routine. Business as usual. And should the Postal Service be replaced by for-profit businesses, it’s for the better, after all, right? Those businesses can all be run according to the modern American model. That is, with a head honcho CEO making millions, while driving down wages and benefits for the first-line workers, all in the name of boosting the stock price, further enriching wealthy shareholders. It’s the American way.  But one more thing. Isn’t it the height of irony that Trump’s prime motivation in this case seems not to be privatization on a grand scale, but rather, personal animus against CEO extraordinaire, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos? A president using policy to punish his ‘enemies?’ Again, par for the Trump course. I don’t know what if any editorial influence Bezos has on the major newspaper he owns – the Washington Post – but I celebrate the fact that the Post documents all of Trump’s falsehoods, be they deliberate lies or ignorant rambling.

What is the climate crisis, if not the epic struggle between ‘doing what we want’ and looking after the general welfare of the public and the planet, now and many generations into the future?  With the US poised to leave the Paris Climate Accord under “America-First” Trump, I shudder to think about how that crisis will worsen with four more years of Trump’s fossil-fuel-fondling senior officials.

This post has rambled a bit, maybe even more than usual. But I see all this as the classic choice between private and public, individual and society. It is not a binary choice. At the extremes, you get, on the one hand, all individuals doing pretty much what they damned well please. No concern for others required (see pandemic masks), no “job-killing regulation” (a favorite Trump term) and CEOs like Bezos, Elon Musk, the heads of the major transnational banks, etc., increasing their unlimited power. At the other extreme is conservatives’ hell – central planning, complete restriction on individual rights, a hobbled and moribund economy. There has to be a happy medium. The only question worth pondering is how to find and establish where that optimal point lies.

I never advocate for socialism in this space, and for a good reason. So many Americans hear that word, and think of Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and nowadays, Maduro’s Venezuela. But we do have many socialized services here in ‘libertarian’ America – public schools, public colleges and universities, street and highway maintenance, parks, water supply, wastewater treatment and on and on. And – oh yes, the US Postal Service.

Truth is, I believe there is no pure ‘ism’ that will work in the real world. That includes libertarianism, socialism, communism, capitalism. The only thing in my estimation that has any chance of preserving individual initiative while protecting the public good is a system of socially regulated free enterprise, supported by a vibrant democracy. You know, that quaint ‘one person-one vote’ idea embedded in the (amended) US Constitution. It’s something to think about and work toward in this era of ever-increasing attempts to restrict access to the vote and undermine the very essence of truth and fact.

So, what’s to do? Wear a mask where needed for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Individual rights do not extend to harming others. Respect expert opinion. Public servants like Fauci are dedicated to protecting the public good. Stop thinking of ‘collective’ and ‘socialism’ as dirty words. A successful society needs both individual rights and concern for all.

It would also help to avoid electing malignant narcissists. Seems obvious, but maybe not.

To quote a certain malignant narcissist, “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN





Meaty Matters

2 08 2020

Consider the marrot. As I don’t frequent Arby’s, I am not certain if this weird concoction is currently available, but I do know that the fast food chain introduced it just over a year ago. For the uninitiated, the marrot is a brilliant invention. Who needs real vegetables when you can fashion mock veggies from meat? If you followed that link, you read that the Arby’s brain trust insists the delicacy is not a joke, at least not entirely. But it looks to me like another swing at “triggering the libtards.” That is, righties doing deliberately outrageous things to broadcast their freedom to do what they damned well please, and libtards can go to hell with their sustainability/common good nonsense.

This makes me think of a trend that arose a few years ago on certain roads – “rolling coal.” That is, deliberately tuning the fuel-sucking engine of your behemoth truck so that it belches clouds of black smoke – preferably blocking the view of that environmentalist weenie in the Tesla or Prius. (Watch this guy’s public disservice video, in which he earnestly explains and demonstrates the “four stages” of rolling coal.) It also reminds me of Ford Motor Company’s deliberate plans to feed this nonsense. Just before the Great Recession of 2008-2009, Ford was planning to introduce a truck based SUV even bigger than the gargantuan Excursion. Scuttling that plan is at least one Great Recession outcome to be thankful for. Did you follow that Arby’s link to the end? If you did, you learned of another brilliant idea, at least on the drawing board – ‘moccoli.’ Heh, heh.

Why does all this matter? I see the same thing playing out with the current COVID-19 pandemic. This freedom fetish is a main reason driving the undeniable fact that the United Sates, among all wealthy advanced nations, has bungled the pandemic response. Just ponder current numbers – nearly 155,000 deaths in the US out of 679,000 worldwide.  And in cases, 4.6 million out of 17.8 million. Measures recommended by qualified experts (although often trashed by the faux expert in charge with his hunches and instincts and magical thinking) have become a political issue. In other words, refusing to socially distance and wear a mask is, for some science-denying ‘freedom fighters,’ just another way to ‘trigger the libtards.’ And by the way, if there is anyone who does not yet know that term, ‘libtard’ is a sort of contraction of ‘liberal retard.’ Deliberate defiance of health guidelines is clearly a main reason for the United States’ continuing inability to control the pandemic. And the incompetent, confusing and in some cases deliberately misinforming leadership at the very top enables such destructive defiance. Hey, they’re just ‘letting freedom ring.’ Right?

Thanks for staying with me on what has become a bit of a rant. Back to where I started. Meat. Some say it’s not a major part of our environmental problems. Except that it is. Consider this. The most recent numbers I have found say that the average American consumes 220 pounds of red meat and poultry per year. That amounts to about 10 ounces of meat and poultry per day, or nearly twice the USDA recommendation for protein from all sources. Forget for a moment that this simple reality is highly inequitable and unsustainable globally. That is, if all the world’s 7.8 billion people ate such a diet, we would quickly run out of planet. I want to focus on the fact that estimates show that over 90 percent of America’s livestock animals – for meat, eggs and dairy – live on factory farms. (Factory farm defined – a system of rearing livestock using intensive methods, by which poultry, pigs, or cattle are confined indoors under strictly controlled conditions.) Those animal confinements lead to a long list of ills. Here is a list I found at a young people’s political action site, dosomething.org:

  • A “factory farm” is a large-scale industrial operation that houses thousands of animals raised for food—such as chickens, turkeys, cows, and pigs—and treats them with hormones and antibiotics to prevent disease and maximize their growth and food output.
  • Animals are fed corn, wheat and soy that are grown through intensive industrial farming that uses large amounts of pesticides, which can remain in their bodies and are passed on to the people who eat them, creating serious health hazards in humans.
  • The beaks of chickens, turkeys, and ducks are often removed in factory farms to reduce the excessive feather pecking and cannibalism seen among stressed, overcrowded birds.
  • A typical supermarket chicken today contains more than twice the fat, and about a third less protein than 40 years ago.
  • 2 in 3 farm animals in the world are now factory farmed.
  • Confining so many animals in one place produces much more waste than the surrounding land can handle. As a result, factory farms are associated with various environmental hazards, such as water, land and air pollution.
  • The pollution from animal waste causes respiratory problems, skin infections, nausea, depression, and even death for people who live near factory farms.
  • Dairy cows typically live to their third lactation before being culled. Naturally, a cow can live for 20 years.
  • Hog, chicken and cattle waste has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states.
  • Egg-laying hens are sometimes starved for up to 14 days, exposed to changing light patterns and given no water in order to shock their bodies into molting. It’s common for 5% to 10% of hens to die during the forced molting process.
  • Worldwide, about 70 billion farm animals are now reared for food each year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted other problems with industrial agriculture – which, when you think about it, is largely set up to produce meat (i.e. the animals themselves and the plants grown to eed the animals). Though experts believe that the novel coronavirus jumped the species barrier in a wet market in China, after surviving and evolving in bats, those same experts warn that animal confinements present more opportunities for zoonosis. That is, diseases that leap from animals into the human population. Hence the rampant use of antibiotics to protect factory-farmed animals from disease. Those antibiotics, the same experts warn, can lose their punch with overuse as pathogens evolve resistance. And farm production is only part of the factory food chain. Meat packing plants have become well-publicized hot spots for viral transmission. The emphasis on speed and work in close quarters are the chief factors in the danger to employees. And that danger in turn is an equity issue – many meat plants are staffed by Hispanic immigrants and African Americans. Worse yet, as the Guardian reports, some information about outbreaks may have been suppressed.

Finally, meat production – particularly from industrial factory farms –is a major contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause human-generated climate disruption. As reported by Inside Climate News, the United Nations estimates that worldwide livestock production contributes 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s easy to see why. Check this site’s charts to compare the climate impact of various diet choices. The impact difference from meat lover to vegan is shocking. (Full disclosure – I have been a vegetarian for several years but have struggled with that last step away from eggs and dairy.) And, coupled with the direct emissions from industrial agriculture, the production of ever more meat is driving increasing deforestation, particularly in the Amazon.

So, what should individuals, communities and societies do? That is, the ones who are not rolling coal to drive over and pick up their quintuple bacon cheeseburgers and marrots. Eat less meat, and no factory farmed meat at all, seems an obvious choice. But solutions with the biggest impact require more than individual action, and some genuine, big-picture solutions could even involve humanely farmed livestock, which can be used to manage cover crops, and whose waste fertilizes the soil naturally.

Here are two takes on a concept that is gaining support. Regenerative agriculture offers the chance to transform our destructive, unhealthy, unethical industrial food system and, at the same time, make a major contribution to solving the climate crisis. Here is a definition of regenerative agriculture – “…farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.”

First take – You have to love this New York Times opinion piece, right from its title – “Soil Power! The Dirty Way to a Green Planet”. Here’s the logic:

“The earth possesses five major pools of carbon. Of those pools, the atmosphere is already overloaded with the stuff; the oceans are turning acidic as they become saturated with it; the forests are diminishing; and underground fossil fuel reserves are being emptied. That leaves soil as the most likely repository for immense quantities of carbon.”

Now for the exciting part. Following this path does not require whiz-bang, high-tech solutions that are “just 10 years away from being ready.” (Heard that one before?) Rather, it requires a return to long-abandoned agricultural practices of the past, empowered by modern science. Things like no-till farming, crop rotation, cover crops and incorporating nature while eliminating monocultures. This approach has the backing of experts like James Hansen, the NASA scientist who warned Congress about global warming – to little or no avail – way back in the overheated summer of 1988. The piece’s author, Jacques Leslie, quotes soil expert Rattan Lal. Mr. Lal, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, estimates that universal adoption of regenerative ag could sequester up to 25% of the world’s carbon emissions: “Putting the carbon back in soil is not only mitigating climate change, but also improving human health, productivity, food security, nutrition security, water quality, air quality — everything.”

When I read that New York Times piece, Rattan Lal’s name jumped out at me. You see, Lal was one of the featured speakers at the recent Climate Reality Leadership Corps virtual training conference, at which I mentored. Which brings me to my second take – a Washington Post interview with the founder of Climate Reality, former US Vice President Al Gore.

Gore’s focus in the interview is the already-spreading harm to the global food supply that human-caused climate change has wrought. After listing some of the most prominent examples, he offers a hopeful message in concert with what Lal has to say:

“We need leadership to completely refocus USDA to completely change the system of farm subsidies to stop the massive subsidies for crops that are not eaten by people, that go to bio­fuels, that go to animal feed. We should eventually work our way toward a system for compensating farmers for the buildup of soil carbon.”

It’s easy to see that Gore shares Lal’s enthusiasm for regenerative agriculture. In fact, Climate Reality’s ag initiative, Climate Underground, will hold a three-day virtual conference on the subject in October. I will be sure to attend and share interesting content. But the former VP is also enough of a veteran of political difficulties – after all, this is a guy from whom the presidency was stolen by a wrongheaded Supreme Court decision – to know that this sort of transformation of the food system is the heaviest of lifts. Asked about citizens’ role in forcing this necessary change, he had this to say:

“There’s a danger in focusing on consumer behavior. There’s a danger of giving the impression that the solutions to the climate crisis have to be shouldered by women and men who care enough about it to change their personal choices. They do. But as important as it is to change a lightbulb, it is way more important to change policies. And in order to change policies, we have to have new policymakers. So, the most important role that individuals can play is in taking their concern and passion for a better world into the voting booth and turning out in large numbers to overcome the dominance of our political system by big money.”

Get big money out of the system. There’s the heavy lift. But we have a chance this fall to sideline the swampiest of swamp creatures – unconvincingly disguised as a savior of the little guy – and send him to Mar-a-Lago or Moscow or Brazil or whoever wants him, then hold the new leader’s feet to the fire. Along with his team, who at least will not be rapacious, Trump-style destroyers. Is it November yet?

To close, another full disclosure. This proud libtard used to be seriously triggered by ignorant, willfully destructive, provocative behavior. I try these days to merely shake my head and understand there is no changing these types. But some days, it’s a struggle.

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN





Checking and Making History

26 07 2020

One line of analysis of the current coronavirus pandemic is to compare it with pestilence past. For well-meaning researchers, that can be an enlightening experience. Comparing infection and death rates with, for instance, the 1918 influenza pandemic, can provide some understanding of the gravity of the crisis. For those with another agenda – say, to downplay risks, ‘open everything up,’ second-guess the experts, it’s an opportunity of another kind. If you think about Rush Limbaugh braying on the air about how “It’s the common cold!” you catch my drift.

According to Johns Hopkins University, the current situation is this – the United States has suffered nearly 147,000 COVID-19 deaths, or about 22.8% of the global total of 645,000. When it comes to confirmed cases, the United States with 4.2 million has about 26.1% of the world’s 16.1 million. And remember, the US has about four percent of the world’s population.  The pandemic is definitely still in full swing, with numbers and percentages shifting rapidly for many reasons. Rates of new cases are up in many American states, while the virus is rapidly taking hold in places like Brazil, Mexico and India. As for that historical comparison, you’ll get a reasoned, cautious take in this article from The Conversation. As its authors (Mari Webel and Megan Culler Freeman) warn, “One virus’s pattern is not a prediction.” They also conclude that, based on the coronavirus’s lower rate of mutation (compared to seasonal flu viruses), “Future spikes in COVID-19 cases and deaths will very likely be driven by what people do.” Future consequences in a crisis will be determined by our choices? Sound like any other science-based crisis we’ve been trying our damnedest not to take seriously enough?

From so many perspectives, the climate crisis has transcended history already. That is, the history that has played out in the era of human civilization. For those of us who pay attention to these things, stories of unprecedented weather, portending rapid and lasting climate warping, just seem to arrive faster and faster. Just from the past week, here is a New York Times piece that explains how rapidly disappearing Arctic sea ice is expected to doom the overwhelming share of the estimated 25,000 polar bears. And the loss of most of what scientists call subpopulations means the entire species could be wiped out in this century. Some camps of what I call “denial-liars” like to ridicule stories like this, along the lines of “Extinction? There are 25,000 of them. What do you mean extinction?” And the talk of going extinct by 2100 feeds into another denialist narrative that says climate change, if it even happens, is a future risk. Actually, it’s playing out right now, at an accelerating rate. And not just for polar bears.

When you think of Siberia, you think ‘cold.’ Not so much, these days. During June, temperatures soared shockingly, smashing previous records, and averaging out to 18 degrees F. above long-term averages. The highest temps recorded surpassed 100 degrees F., most likely the first time the mercury soared past the century mark above the Arctic Circle. Another denial-liar canard, when faced with news like this, has been to say something like, “So it’s warmer in a bone-chilling place? Like that’s bad news?” Well, it is very bad news. If you followed that link, you read about the resultant devastating fires. And to add insult to injury, with a touch of bitter irony, the region is currently experiencing an environmental disaster caused by an escape of the commodity most responsible for the climate crisis – oil extracted in the cold, ecologically fragile North. Scientists say there is virtually no chance that such a shocking outbreak of heat in the Arctic could occur without the effects of human-caused climate change. Would you believe at least 600 times more likely? And this was no fluke. The unusual heat persisted in the entire first half of 2020. And then there is what is going on at the other extreme of the globe.  Scientists have detected the first known thawing and release of methane into the atmosphere. That’s a big problem since, over a 20-year period, methane has more than 80 times the warming potential of a similar release of carbon dioxide. If you followed that link, you read about scientists’ fears of tipping points. This reminded me of another image from one of the most memorable climate change books I have read – Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers. Flannery refers to a term coined by climatologist Julia Cole – “magic gates,” through which the climate passes, never to return. The book, already 15 years old, cites 1976 and 1998, both El Nino years, as times when air and water temperatures took quantum leaps. Since 1976, ocean temperatures in the western tropical Pacific have rarely dipped below 77F., in areas that, prior to 1976, frequently fell below 66F. Now there is a “magic gate” for you. It’s easy to imagine the giant slalom of ‘gates’ the world has traversed since Flannery published his important book in 2005.

And remember, one term for the climate crisis that is not used so much anymore (mostly because it gave obfuscation opportunities to cherry picking denial-lairs) is global warming. The term makes so much sense in the big picture. Think of the heat index – a measure of human discomfort that meteorologists calculate by combining the air temperature with a measure of the moisture the air holds –  either the dew point or relative humidity.  You hear it mentioned on weather reports – when it gets into the 90s, and especially when it exceeds 100, health warnings follow. In a training conference that I am currently mentoring for the Climate Reality Project, former Vice President Al Gore cited the highest heat index ever recorded – 165 degrees, in 2015 in Iran. A little research shows that reading has recurred in Pakistan this year, and an unofficial reading from Saudi Arabia, as far back as 2003, registered 178. For perspective, the minimum cooked temperature for poultry is 165F. Also, note that those record readings are far, far off the chart and into the danger zone in the heat index graphic linked above.

That’s a little background for this important story from the New York Times Magazine. It introduces the self-explanatory term ‘barely livable hot zone.’ Today, 1% of Earth’s surface earns that designation. By 2070? It could – and will if we do not take prompt action – reach 19%. Scroll down to see what that expansion will mean in parts of the world already suffering the largest share of climate change’s consequences. I hope you will at least scroll through the lengthy article, which includes a moving photo essay (by Meridith Kohut) as well. Anyone who thinks today’s most prominent climate-related refugee flights – from Central America towards the US, and from the Middle East and North Africa toward Europe – are serious, just wait. It’s only just begun if we don’t change our ways – as author Abrahm Lustgarten concludes:

“The window for action is closing. The world can now expect that with every degree of temperature increase, roughly a billion people will be pushed outside the zone in which humans have lived for thousands of years. For a long time, the climate alarm has been sounded in terms of its economic toll, but now it can increasingly be counted in people harmed.”

And now, onto another window – also in the news this week. That is, the prediction window for just how high global temperatures will soar if we continue with our greenhouse gas emissions. A new, widely (though not universally, of course) respected study, has narrowed the probability of the temperature range we can expect as the planet continues to warm. Noting that Earth has already warmed 2.2 degrees F. (1.2 degrees C.) since preindustrial levels, the study suggests a likely range of ‘ultimate’ warming of 4.9 to 7.4 degrees F. Needless to say, this portends a worldwide human, economic and biodiversity disaster. Remember that stated goal of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to contain warming below 1.5 degrees C.? Not at all likely, says this report. The authors determined a less than 5% chance of a rise of less than 3.6 degrees, but a 6 to 12% chance of a rise greater than 8.1 degrees. Concerned yet? Time to take action yet?

As the current Climate Reality training conference moves toward conclusion, we have heard the final part of Al Gore’s famous slide show, adapted for this virtual format. In the final segment, he explained how some solutions are at hand – mainly (in this version anyway) concentrating on the rapid growth in alternative, clean energy. Those solutions are part of the essential response, but only part. Last year, the IPCC issued a comprehensive plan for solving the climate crisis. We need all, not merely parts, of this plan.

  • Energy
    • Massive energy efficiency and conservation
    • Replace fossil fuels with low-and no-carbon renewables
    • Eliminate fossil fuel subsidies
    • Wealthy nations must assist poorer nations in de-carbonizing their economies
    • Put a price on carbon emissions
  • Short-lived pollutants
    • Reduce emissions of methane, soot and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)
  • Nature
    • Protect and restore Earth’s ecosystems
    • Restore forest land, and protect remaining forests
    • Provide up to one-third of emissions reductions needed by 2030 in order to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius by pursuing the full range of natural solutions
  • Food
    • Encourage plant-based diets
    • Pursue minimum-till and no-till agriculture
    • Drastically cut food waste
  • Economy
    • Curtail materials extraction and overexploitation of ecosystems, as driven by relentless pursuit of economic growth
    • Shift goals away from GDP growth and wealth accumulation toward prioritizing basic needs, thus reducing inequality
    • Build understanding that the economy is a subset of the environment; not vice versa (my wording, totally in keeping with the spirit of the report)
  • Population
    • Drastically yet humanely curtail the current rate of increase (net increase in human population of 80 million per year, or over 200,000 per day)
    • Make family planning services available to all
    • Achieve universal gender equality, including primary and secondary education for all, especially girls and young women.

A heavy lift? For sure. But it is an essential lift that grows heavier by the year.

Concluding remarks at the current training by Ken Berlin, President and CEO of Climate Reality, painted a grim but realistic picture. It’s this. Right now, the 2015 Paris Climate Accord is the best we have. Virtually all the world’s nations – including the pre-Trump-disaster US – pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, with a goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That’s the good (sounding) news. But the realistic news is this. Countries are not living up to their pledges. Not even close. Also, even if all those commitments were to be fulfilled, global temperatures would still rise 2.4 to 3.8 degrees C. So, Berlin says, commitments must be strengthened. The goals? Cut emissions 40-60 percent over the next ten years, on the way to that net zero at 2050.

Climate Reality is working to educate about the climate crisis, but also to support de-carbonizing change in all sectors, not just energy production. Perhaps most important, it is working to influence policy makers. It is by charter nonpartisan – but you don’t have to ‘get partisan’ to advocate for saving the planet. Climate Reality has launched a companion group – the Climate Reality Action Fund – focused on getting out the climate-friendly vote. Berlin in his closing statements reminded us that 70%(!) of the American public wants meaningful climate action, despite what our oil-drunk “leaders” continue to do. It’s past time to change that.

Here is an organization that I heard of recently, that deserves a look and your support. Vote Climate US PAC maintains a record of the climate-related policy positions and votes of national officials and candidates for national office. If you take a look, you will understand why I say, “Vote out every damned Zero!”

While there is history that may be used, wisely or nefariously, as guidance for managing the COVID-19 crisis, there is really no precedent for managing the climate crisis. It is an existential threat of our own making. We owe it to future generations to create and implement solutions.

I remember that every time I stand in front of a class of young people and tell them, when it is their chance to vote, to separate the candidates telling the truth about this important science from those selling magical thinking, fairy tales and well-funded lies. And vote accordingly. That way, their kids can study a history they can check and be proud of.

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN





The Roots of Pignorance

19 07 2020

The harvest is upon us.  Yes, I know it is just past July’s midpoint. No, I haven’t lost my mind. Yet.

We are reaping the bitter fruit of what we have sown in this country for many decades, but ever more energetically since 1987. To see what I mean, let’s take a look around at what is going on in America.

In the midst of a global pandemic caused by a novel zoonotic (transmitted from a wild animal) virus, we have an utterly uncoordinated, science-defying response at the federal level. It is led (I use the word ‘led’ recklessly, I know) by a proudly ignorant, self-dealing, uncaring demagogue motivated only by his “ratings.” Even the trusted professionals who have somehow managed to stay at their posts – think Anthony Fauci, Deborah Birx and Robert Redfield – are second-guessed, doubted, undermined and attacked. Sometimes by the faux-orange chief science denier himself, sometimes by key aides. On Tuesday, Peter Navarro, that anti-globalism trade advisor turned presidential hatchet man, wrote a highly controversial op-ed piece for USA Today criticizing Fauci.  The piece has since been pulled down, but you can read about the ensuing kerfuffle here. Why would Navarro pull a stunt like this? He might just be emulating his boss, i.e., the don. “Dr. Fauci is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes?!” Who is Trump trying to kid?!

With all the disorganization, confusion and contradictory pronouncements at the top of the regime, ignorance is empowered among the citizenry. Solid scientific advice says that wearing masks in crowds, and especially in indoor spaces, can be the single most important prevention step.  So how do we handle that? See Georgia. The governor (who, by the way as secretary of state stole the election in 2018) pays lip service to the mask idea. But sues the mayor of Atlanta for doing the right thing and mandating masks in public. See Louisiana. Behold the virtual  carnival of science denial and conflation of public health with “civil rights” at rallies and speeches by conservative Christian pastors. All sorts of ignorance are on parade there – masks as “medical tyranny,” conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and vaccines, attacks on the COVID-19 statistics (“fraudulent”). Watch the embedded video and say ‘Amen!’ with the supercharged, ranting Pastor Tony Spell as he exhorts his followers to fight for our “God-fearing Christian republic.” See retail establishments almost anywhere in America, both blue states and red, where front-line workers charged with implementing face-mask protocols are ignored, confronted or worse.

The entire country is paying a dear price for this selfish madness disguised as freedom fighting. The latest COVID-19 stats show that not only is the United States continuing to fail to gain control of the pandemic – matters are getting worse. As I write this, the world has reported 260,000 new cases of coronavirus in the last 24 hours. Of that record number, 70,000 were reported in the United States. That computes to 27% – an increase in America’s share of cases from the long-running 25%. As for the long-term totals, America’s portion of the global death toll is 23.2%. That’s down a bit, but could climb again based on current trends, fueled by selfishly idiotic behavior. Would you believe a “COVID party,” where foolish young people get together to deliberately contract the disease? Believe it. Also believe the fate of one of the idiot revelers.

With all this suffering and madness, any normal president would be laser-focused, engaged, trying his best to get the mess under control. Trump? No, what matters is how things look for his re-election prospects.  Why else would his spokesperson, and his secretary of education be calling for schools to reopen for business as usual in spite of the well-documented risks? Just listen to Kayleigh McEnany as she pronounces scientific evidence no barrier to no-holds-barred reopening. And here is Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, toggling a deer-in-the-headlights look with her familiar vacuous smile as she refuses to endorse the Center for Disease Control’s school-opening guidelines. Both of these two are also, of course, simply falling in line with threats from the don.

When Trump wants to get the word out to his ‘base,’ he generally leans on usually reliable Fox News. Imagine his surprise when Chris Wallace – who manages to do some legitimate broadcast journalism despite his employer – puts him on the spot, and good. There is much remarkable in this Fox video, as excerpted by Alternet. The most shocking thing is this – Trump actually utters the words, “I take responsibility.” Granted, what that means coming from this paragon of falsehood and fraud is anyone’s guess (20,000 false statements and counting), but I was astounded to hear him say it.

Here’s what else is remarkable. Trump tried to use this interview as a launching pad for the kind of bragging, blather and bullshit that those of us who paid attention back in the pandemic’s early stages watched, ad nauseam. (Actually, I found it sickly entertaining. Working with my partner, I had created a now-obsolete bingo/drinking game with squares featuring Donny’s favorite blasts – ‘king of ventilators,’ ‘bare cupboard,’ ‘184 countries,’ etc.) But Wallace would not let him get away with it. Trump does some of his usual song-and-dance numbers:

  • “We have more cases than any other country because we do more testing.”
  • “We’re causing ourselves trouble because we test so much.”
  • “A lot of our case shouldn’t even be cases – it’s young people with the sniffles.”
  • “We’re the envy of the world.”
  • “The World Health (sic) got a lot wrong.”

But the don of dishonesty hits the wall when he brags that he heard “We have one of the lowest mortality rates.” Wallace fact-checks him on the spot. If you wish to fact-check my post, go to about 50 seconds into the video. Wallace posts several charts, the first one showing that the US has the seventh worstCOVID death rate among a group of 20 key countries, as reported by Johns Hopkins University.  Trump’s response?  He consigns Chris Wallace to the burgeoning club of “fake news” journalists.

With this sort of defensiveness, truth-bending, bobbing and weaving, attacking the messenger, at the very top of our country, is it really any wonder that so many poorly informed citizens feel that they too know better than the experts?  That scientific fact is simply a way for elites to restrict their ‘freedoms?’ That any directions and advice from experts on a scientific topic, such as viral outbreaks and human caused climate change, is nothing but a hoax? Trump’s blatant, fact-defying ignorance and disinformation give license to fools in his base and beyond to do whatever the hell they want, no matter the effects on those they connect with and on society at large.

I mentioned ‘harvest’ in my intro today. It is indeed reaping time, and it is quite grim at that, but the cultivation has been a long one. I mentioned recently that I discovered the US Chamber of Commerce was active in 1925, arguing against the scientific theory of evolution in the Scopes Monkey Trial. That ‘debate’ of established science, and so many others, including epidemiology, ecology and climatology, continues today not just because of know-nothing fundamentalist religion – which is often rightly fingered as a culprit.  It is because powerful interests have spread falsehood, lies and bullshit freely in order to sway policy to their benefit.  And here is the bad news. As long as we live in a country where private gain – especially the profits of large, powerful multinational corporations – trumps (sorry!) the common good, this will continue ad infinitum.

I also mentioned 1987. That was when we had the boffo idea of eliminating the Fairness Doctrine. Congress sidelined it in the name of “free speech.” The Doctrine continues to be discussed, and its elimination lamented in some circles including this one, and for good reason. Here is a concise summary from the Washington Post in 2011 of its origins, purpose and decline. Under the Doctrine, broadcasters were required to:

(a) devote some of their programming to controversial issues of public importance and
(b) allow the airing of opposing views on those issues.
This meant that programs on politics were required to include opposing opinions on the topic under discussion. Broadcasters had an active duty to determine the spectrum of views on a given issue and include those people best suited to representing those views in their programming.

In other words, broadcasters had a regulated duty to inform the public. A properly informed public was judged to be in the best interests of the country. What a concept. How quaint. If you followed the link, you know that lawsuits began chipping away at the Fairness Doctrine as early as 1969, culminating in its 1987 repeal. That would be toward the end of the go-go, private enterprise is nirvana, government is the problem Reagan Administration.

When you compare those requirements with the propaganda and innuendo that today too often passes for news on outlets like Fox on the TV side (Chris Wallace notwithstanding), and especially the attacks and patent falsehoods that belch over the radio airwaves from the likes of Rush Limbaugh (“Coronavirus is the common cold, folks!”), it is easy to see how far we have fallen.

The spirit behind Fairness was a sound one. That is, an entity granted access to a public utility – the broadcast airwaves – had to behave in a responsible manner that supported the general good. What is possibly wrong with that? What exaggerated notion of “freedom” could possibly trump (Sorry, again!) a good-faith effort to build and preserve civil society?

Now, I know that the whole notion of ‘broadcasting’ has been revolutionized in the era of social media. Why, I could go on Facebook, without consequence, cite ‘evidence,’ and say that Bill Gates is trying to use a possible coronavirus vaccine to implant computer chips in us for tracking purposes, or that that same vaccine is just a stealth effort at population control, or that the whole pandemic is a conspiracy foisted on the world by Chinese scientists, assisted by Anthony Fauci and Barack Obama. (I’ve read all those tinfoil-hat tales lately.) There’s nothing anyone could do about that, except to justly ridicule or shun me. But when entire networks, day after day, are free to spew vitriol, lies and nonsense to a mass audience, what does that do to public discourse, the general knowledge level, and the common good?

We have our answer. Go back and look at those examples of those making the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically worse.  Not to mention the way those fact-denying fools are enabled by the empty-headed demagogue at the top and the sycophants in power positions below him who are afraid to challenge him, for fear of alienating his base. Donald Trump needs a lot more in-the-moment fact checking.

As I’ve said so many times, sending Trump off to Mar-a-Lago or another of his havens in November is not the solution to all our problems. But it is an essential first step.

One more thing before I go. For new readers of this blog, ‘pignorance’ is my coinage, a contraction of ‘pretend-ignorance.’ I use it to refer to powerful leaders and elites who pretend not to know something – that tax cuts for the wealthy won’t actually pay for themselves and never have, that humans really are destroying the planet with greenhouse gases, that COVID-19 really represents a public health problem that we have to manage before it manages us, etc. – in order to sway public policy to their liking. And almost always to their financial gain. I have long argued that such pignorance on their part is designed to persuade the genuinely uninformed to support those pignorance-driven policies. To benefit those very pignorant leaders and elites.

Sure is working well in the era of Trump, even though ‘pignorant’ rarely applies to him. You see, he does not have to pretend to be ignorant. He’s a natural at it. There’s nobody better at ‘ignorant’ than Trump. Believe me.

Here’s a favorite lawn sign I frequently pass by on my bike:

“Elect an adult in 2020.”

Amen.

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN





So Important, So Ignored

12 07 2020

undefined It may seem tempting to assume that everything that needs to be said about the biggest existential threat to human civilization has already been said, minds are made up, and that’s that. My recent experience tells me otherwise.

I am not talking about the coronavirus pandemic, though that continues to rage, particularly in my home country, which has catastrophically bungled its response, with consequences far worse than other wealthy countries. I am talking about the existential threat that I first recognized nearly 40 years ago – human-caused, global climate disruption. There is much more to say, and infinitely much more to do, in struggling to solve the climate crisis. I aim to do my part until I can do no more.

Three recent incidents reminded me there are not only many pignorant (pretend-ignorant) people who still need somehow to be convinced of the gravity of the situation.  There are even very smart, extremely well-informed people who are just plain not paying attention.  To the great detriment of those of us who recognize the threat and strive to do something about it. Not to mention the peril to the planet that sustains us and our fellow travelers, that is, the rest of Earth’s life forms.

The first two incidents occurred after recent music performances. As regular readers of this blog may already know, I am a musician – solo and with my two bands. As a result of the pandemic, all our indoor gigs have either been canceled, or have been judged by band members as too risky to put on. As an alternative, band members have been taking turns hosting short neighborhood concerts in back or front yards.  As a result, music lovers, curious neighbors and even passersby have been checking us out.  So, we make some new fans – people who might not head out to pubs and breweries where we usually play.

My Americana band has a name that is odd enough to prompt questions – the Lost Golden Toads. We happened upon the name one late night after hashing over and rejecting many other prospective monikers.  The wacky environment-obsessed guitar player – that would be me – was telling the story about the unfortunate fate of a creature of the Costa Rican cloud forest – the golden toad. This little guy lived in a certain micro-climate, with a long-established temperature and humidity range. As humanity continued to turn up the heat, the golden toad’s hospitable habitat moved up the mountains. Until there was no more mountain. And hence, no more golden toad. It turns out that this extinction story is a bit more complex than that – it involves fungal infections. But those too may be related to our messing with the climate. So many maladies are. Anyway, someone in the band called out, “That should be our name – the Lost Golden Toads!” We all high-fived, and the name has endured.

After two recent yard concerts, an accidental fan asked about the name. On the first occasion, our mandolin player, also an environmentalist, explained the story. The young man who had asked then went into his own explanation. Something like, “Yes, global warming is happening, it’s cyclical, it’s natural, it’s not us humans, etc.” At first, I thought he was being snide and snarky. No. We were looking at a thoroughly Windbaugh-ized dittohead who happened to like music. There is virtually no convincing these people, though on some occasions I have tried, mostly by paraphrasing back to them what they have said, mixed in with a few scientific facts. This time, I begged off. The second occasion was just this weekend. It was an older fellow this time – my contemporary. He asked the question. I told the story. His immediate response was, “Time for me to get another beer.” And he quickly walked away.

The third incident connects not with music, but another of my obsessions – the long-running game show Jeopardy! I am a lifelong Jeopardy! nerd. In the third grade, I would rush home for school lunch hour to watch the earlier version, hosted by the late Art Fleming. I even kept track of my right/wrong answers and my score in a notebook. Nerdy enough for ya? My nerdiness has not waned. In recent years, I have again started keeping track of my right/wrong answers, though without trying to calculate scores on the spot. In addition to rights/wrongs, I keep track of a special group – KO. That is, known only to me. For most shows, two to four answers fall into that category.

Right now, the show is broadcasting its annual Tournament of Champions – it’s the best viewing of the year for nerds like me. Among the 15 quarterfinalists is James Holzhauer, one of the biggest winners ever on the show. He’s the swashbuckling gambler who has his own style of play – try to find the Daily Doubles, and bet all his earnings, so he can build up an insurmountable lead over his hapless opponents. And the guy can do it – his knowledge seems to have no bounds, rivalling Jeopardy!’s all-time champ, Ken Jennings. In this week’s quarterfinal game that included Holzhauer, a single question fell into that KO category for me.

The category was The 2010s. The clue included a graphic. It showed a map of the Antarctic Peninsula. It went something like this: “Three times during the decade large sections of this ice shelf, named for a Norwegian polar explorer, broke off and drifted into the sea.” Holzhauer and the other male contestant in his game buzzed in with wrong answers – Amundsen? Nelson? The female contestant wisely stayed silent – she did not know. But I did – it was the Larsen Ice Shelf. Those incidents of melting and breaking were significant news items, but here were three broadly well-informed individuals, including a beast of a brainiac, who apparently were just not paying attention. Like too many of the rest of us. Which is kind of the problem.

Blasts by lying sacks such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Marc Morano (who famously refused to bet on climate science against Bill Nye) and Bjorn Lomborg, among others, aside, there is plenty of useful information out there. And it is not confined to science-explaining sites like my favorite, Skeptical Science. Just this week, Time Magazine ran an issue mostly devoted to climate disruption. Some critics of mainstream media accuse the publishers and broadcasters of ignoring the climate crisis.  Broadcast news could certainly do a better job of covering this all-important issue, but the information is there in mainstream publications for anyone who chooses not to ignore.

To Time’s credit, that linked cover story includes not just the alarming scientific facts, but connections with other related issues such as environmental racism, the climate effects of how we produce our food, ocean health and much more. This issue also includes commentary by the likes of Stacey Abrams, Oliver Jeffers, the Dalai Lama and many more. There is also a feature on an environmental activist group I want to learn more about – Extinction Rebellion. Time has managed to keep nearly all its content visible to all comers, including non-subscribers. No pay wall here, no doubt thanks to lucrative advertising deals. Just the same, I will absolutely renew my paid subscription.

I continue to do as much as I can to raise awareness and change policy. This week, I begin my second stint as a mentor to a new group of Climate Leaders, under the auspices of the Climate Reality Project. I have belonged to this group since my certification in 2012.  Climate Reality began with a small association based around Vice President Al Gore’s famed global warming slide show, and has since expanded to include more than 15,000 trained leaders around the world. Owing to the pandemic, this training will be entirely online. That creates new challenges, but also will allow it to be a massive undertaking – adding 10,000 new leaders, with another 4000 to follow next month.

Lest anyone think that Climate Reality is a one-issue organization, I can say from personal experience that it covers environmental justice, sustainable agriculture, energy conservation and even that third rail of environmental issues, human population growth. In other words, the program goes far beyond promoting all-tech solutions to the crisis. That recent personal experience comes from summer 2019, when I served as a mentor at the training conference in Minneapolis.

As a Climate Leader and a substitute teacher, nearly all the presentations and discussions I have led have been at schools.  That of course is not happening right now, and prospects for the fall are unsettled. But I will say that most students that I teach – mainly grades 4 through 9 – are fully aware of the climate crisis and want to do something about it. That contrasts with my experience with all too many pignorant contemporaries of mine. So that is hopeful sign for the future.

One particularly knowledgeable and influential young person is Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. She has spoken up in many forums to the powerful, arguing for not just clean energy, but a complete transformation of society. She was one of the commentators in that current Time issue. Her piece includes a few stark numbers and argues for transformational change. The commentary for some reason is not visible on the site, but here is a recent piece that includes a short video. And here are a couple of key excerpts from her current commentary, titled “No ‘green deal’ will be ambitious enough to save the planet”:

“If all countries where to actually go through with the emission reductions they have set as goals, we would still be heading for a catastrophic global temperature rise or at least 3 degrees C. above pre-industrial levels. The world’s planned fossil fuel production alone by the year 2030 accounts for 120% more than what would be consistent with a target or 1.5 degrees C. temperature rise. The numbers just don’t add up. . .

The climate and ecological emergency is not primarily a political crisis. It is an existential one, based completely on science. The science is there. The numbers exist. We cannot get away from them. Nature does not bargain, and you cannot compromise with the laws of physics. Either we accept and understand the reality as it is, or we don’t. Either we go on as a civilization, or we don’t. Doing our best is no longer good enough. We must now do the seemingly impossible. And that is up to you and me. Because no one will do it for us.”

Indeed. And I add – the time for pignorance is past. Time to un-elect any leader at any level who denies or ignores science, be it the coronavirus pandemic or the climate crisis.

That is your job, dear reader, and mine.

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN





This IS a Drill, Actually

5 07 2020

We can try to wish them away. Declare them banished. Pretend they don’t apply. But it’s no use. Scientific facts are stubborn. Resilient. Even when they are inconvenient. Even if they spoil our party.

On this July 4 weekend, when many of us Americans are more aware than ever of the freedom of social interaction we are doing without, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears that many of us have had enough of the isolation and deprivation, and are throwing caution to the wind. Just look at how the United States, alone among wealthy nations, continues to fail to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Here is a new map that tracks the pandemic’s severity throughout the world, country by country). On almost a daily basis, we are setting a new record for newly diagnosed cases. While more of these cases are among younger citizens (oldsters having largely taken expert warnings more seriously, and taken recommended precautions), that is no reason to relax or celebrate. Those 20- and 30-something revelers have contact with relatives, acquaintances and strangers of all ages. It is clearly a formula for more suffering and death, of which we maybe have not had enough yet. The US continues to lead all other countries by a wide margin, with 24% of the recorded deaths and 25% of the confirmed cases. And remember, the United States is home to about four percent of the world’s population. That continuing uncontrolled spread will undoubtedly keep the United States the epicenter of the outbreak for some time. We need to ask ourselves, why?

It is easy to see the situation is not helped at all by top leadership. Though Trump has recently paid lip service to the idea of wearing a mask, he has stubbornly refused to provide a positive example and wear one. The closest he has come is to tease/brag that he “looks good in a mask.” And his negative example when it comes to the simple matter of masks is just the beginning. He has just completed two Independence Day events where social distancing was not encouraged, and where he barely mentioned the health crisis. One can only assume that he has concluded that discussing the pandemic publicly will damage his “ratings,” hurting his chances for four more years of this glorious presidency. If you followed that link, you know that Trump suggests he looks like the Lone Ranger in the mask.  Well, that might be a pleasant change from his faux-Dirty Harry squint. So, if the “Lone Ranger” didn’t choose to encourage healthy responses to the pandemic during his July 4th rally speeches – one at Mount Rushmore, one outside the White House – what did he do?  That’s easy. Spread more divisiveness. It’s what he does best.

Although Trump has energized science denial in the US and  – in the case of COVID-19 – self-centered, dangerously unhealthy behavior, it did not start with him. The United States has always had a strong streak of magical thinking that defies scientific fact. Think back to 1925 and the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a substitute teacher – John Scopes – was found guilty of teaching evolution, which by then was already and established scientific theory. That particular battle – which sadly lives on in today’s America – was rooted in the old struggle between Bible-literalist fundamentalism and pragmatic, evidence-based science. And surely that divide contributes to the faithful certainty that some “open-it-up” protesters bring to their calls to end pandemic protection measures. Maybe you have seen this protest picture circulating? Poor kid.

But there is much more than Bible literalism at play here. Let’s face it, closing schools and much of the economy has been more than inconvenient. It’s been a crisis and a royal pain, even for those of us who do not have a friend or relative who has contracted the virus. You can understand people – and some very powerful leaders – who simply want to wish it away and “get back to normal.” But the virus has other ideas, and cares not for our economy and our comfortable, modern life. States where governors pushed ahead with vigorous reopening – ignoring carefully arranged plans for gradual, safe steps – have become today’s American virus hot spots. Think Arizona, Texas and Florida. Governors there and elsewhere have slowed or reversed hasty attempts to return to what passed for normal. Money, as usual, is the prime driver of the controversy around how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders are forced to weigh the economic costs of shutdowns and social isolation against the risk of overaggressive reopening.  Those risks are financial as well but are dwarfed by the public health risk – the human suffering and death that will surely follow if the cautions of scientific experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci are ignored.

Those immediate, palpable health risks – the 130,000 (US) and 532,000 (world total) deaths attributed to COVID-19 are the key difference between the COVID controversies and the continuing battle over the legitimacy of the science around human-caused climate change. And still, even with all that death and suffering, a significant portion of the public chafes at wearing masks and taking other precautions despite solid science that recommends those defenses. Is it any wonder that America, where corporations rule and “free speech” allows for the dissemination of all manner of lies, bullshit and propaganda disguised as fact, is the home of science denial in all three cases? That is, evolution, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic? Want proof of the long-lasting money connection? This excellent 2013 article from the Atlantic points out that the US Chamber of Commerce – that contemporary bastion of go-go climate science denial – was active in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Calvin Coolidge said that the “business of America is business.” For better or worse. Too often, worse. Here’s a telling coincidence. That Coolidge quote is also from 1925. That is, just four years before the crisis many are comparing with today’s pandemic and recession. That’s right, the Great Depression.

It’s tempting to give science deniers in all three cases a pass. That is, there is a certain portion of the public who only “believe” something they can see, feel, experience viscerally. In other words, the “Doubting Thomas” defense. I’m not buying it. Those same people will avoid undetectable poisonous gases and refuse to jump off a cliff. Gravity is, after all, “invisible.” And a certain portion of those deniers claim to be the most magical thinkers of all – literal believers in some or other organized religion’s hocus-pocus. So, I’m not buying the “must be visible to believe” alibi. It’s money that buys their “disbelief.” And the biggest money – the giant corporations and their titanic CEOs – can and do spend the most to cultivate such disbelief.

Back in the real world, I personally see a strong connection between the actual science of human-caused climate change and the current novel coronavirus pandemic. I have followed and done my best to act on the growing evidence of human-caused climate change since the early 1980s, at first based on my personal observations and then through reading and interacting with acknowledged scientific experts. I have often written in these posts how, the more I have learned, the more I have recognized climate science to be both fascinating and frightening. Just so with the science underlying the pandemic. Here are a few things I have learned.

I recently finished reading a prescient (2012) book by science writer David Quammen – Spillover. In witty, informative prose, Quammen takes us around the world, tracing the origins and consequences of various human health crises that all have one common denominator. That is, the pathogen causing the mayhem achieved a “spillover,” that is, jumped the species barrier from some form of wildlife into little old us humans. I highly recommend this book if you are at all scientifically curious. He traces many animal/human afflictions, including Ebola, H5N1 bird flu and, most extensively, AIDS. That last pandemic, which continues to this day, is arguably the most interesting and devastating (so far, anyway) instance of spillover. Quammen shoots down many AIDS myths in his work. Here are a few details:

  • Research revealed that the virus first jumped from chimpanzee to human in 1908, spreading slowly in humans until it burst out during the 1960s and expanded globally
  • It is caused by the HIV-1 retrovirus that must be spread by direct contact with bodily fluids (i.e., a healthy individual eating “bush meat” from an infected ape will almost certainly not transmit the virus
  • There is still no vaccine for AIDS, though treatments have improved

Today’s villain, COVID-19, had not yet spilled over when Quammen was writing, but its class of viruses – corona – gets ample treatment.  Of greatest interest is its highly effective means of replication. Unlike certain other viruses, coronaviruses replicate by means of RNA rather than DNA. This makes them much more vulnerable to mutation, and in some cases, causing peril for humans.  Vaccine researchers know this – how do you hit a constantly moving target?  And talk about inconvenient science – what is mutation but that damned evolution, in hyper-speed?

Here are a few other things I have learned from other sources, including two New York Times pieces. Alan Burdick recently explained how the virus that causes COVID-19 – called SARS-CoV-2 – has quietly replicated in humans since its own spillover in December. Here is a quote:

“There are hundreds of kinds of coronaviruses. Two, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, can be deadly; four cause one-third of common colds. Our coronavirus, like the others, is a string of roughly 30,000 biochemical building blocks called nucleotides enclosed in a membrane of both protein and lipid.”

Note that ‘common cold’ connection. When was the last time you were vaccinated against the common cold?  Right, never ever. In explaining how the virus can viciously attack some humans, but go undetected in others, Burdick goes on to quote a study in the journal Science: “The virus acts like no pathogen humanity has ever seen.” Still want to trash that mask in favor of magical thinking?

In the other New York Times piece, Apoorva Mandavilli explores just how easy it is to catch or avoid COVID -19.  Here are a few of her key points:

  • Research has not yet teased out how much exposure to the virus will yield an infection
  • The “virus load” carried by infected individuals does not vary by symptoms; that is, certain symptom-free sufferers may be just as effective spreaders as the obviously ill
  • Three factors seem key to aerosol (expelled droplets) transmission: proximity to the infected person; air flow; timing (i.e., length of exposure)
  • Experts say that the best defense against infection is two-fold – wear a mask and avoid crowded indoor spaces.

Damn, I guess I will have to avoid that next Trump rally, with its mass of cheering, shouting, unmasked humanity hanging on the Dear Leader’s every brag, boast and bray.

On the positive side of the mess, at least 160 vaccines are in various stages of testing and development. Also, two information resources have been revealed just this week, both frequently updated.  To see the severity of the outbreak in any country in the world, go here. Within the US, you can determine right now how things stand in your specific county. This map uses a color-coded system, from green (socially-distanced picnic, anyone?) to red (get to your bunker, fast!)

This week’s title is a reversal of climate activist Greta Thunberg’s oft-repeated slogan, “This is not a drill.” I am not contradicting Greta’s rallying cry. Far from it. Not long ago, Thunberg told world leaders and shakers at Davos a thing or two. And in fact, this week’s climate news is bleak. Heat continues in the far north (Siberia) and the melting accelerates as far south as you can go – Antarctica.

What I am saying is that this health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, is indeed a drill, or a test, for how the world in general and the United States in particular responds to a global problem. A problem whose solution requires cooperation, empathy and trust in scientific fact. A problem like that menacing monster of our own making, human-caused climate change.

The early results? Not so good. Some countries get passing grades. The US gets a dunce cap.

I certainly hope this is not what the true believers have in mind as “American Exceptionalism.”.

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN





Collateral Healing

28 06 2020

It is easy to see the damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Look no further than the authoritative Johns Hopkins University tracking site and you will see details like these:

  • Nearly 500,000 recorded deaths worldwide, with 25.2% of those in the United States
  • Ten million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, including 2.5 million in the United States

For a variety of reasons, America remains the epicenter of this pandemic. Politically motivated science denial at the very top of the country – in the person of Trump – resulted in a critically delayed reaction to the onset of the disease. What followed has been a series of careless missteps and disorganized communication, compounded by a pathetic excuse for a coordinated national health care system. And as much as Trump tries to “cheerlead,” as he has described his role, bragging about how his response has saved “millions and millions” of lives, it is also easy to see that the crisis is far from waning. Though things have stabilized in some of the hardest-hit states, particularly New York, other states like Texas, Florida and Arizona have been forced to back off from their premature push to “return to normal.”

The continuing crisis in the United States is not limited to those raring-to-go red states.  Overall, the United States is recording more new cases right now than at any time in the outbreak. This opinion piece by Minneapolis physician and professor Dimitri Drekonja sums up pretty well how the US has failed miserably when compared with many other nations’ management of the crisis. He notes continuing increases in cases while countries such as Denmark, France and New Zealand have drastically cut the number of new infections. And no, Donny, it’s not because the US is doing more tests.  Here is a quote:

“It’s time to acknowledge the obvious: many countries have risen to the challenge of bringing transmission down to a manageable level. The United States, with the world’s largest economy, the most advanced medical care (purportedly), and our ethos of American Exceptionalism, has not met the challenge. . . This is not something we can explain away: Everyone had the same task. Everyone had the same scientific studies to read and learn from. Everyone had the same tools. Some countries met the challenge. We have not.”

As bad as all this is, we can learn and improve from the crisis if we are smart enough. (Don’t hold your breath. I won’t either.) Planetary benefits have been noted since the virus took hold in the first quarter of 2020. Reduced economic activity has meant drops in global pollution – particularly greenhouse gases from industry and transportation. In my home region of the Twin Cities, traffic was drastically reduced beginning in the second half of March, and still has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. It is easy to see why. Citizens have largely followed stay-at-home guidelines, and sizeable swaths of the workforce who could work from home have been doing so. Here is where the “if we are smart enough” part comes in. If so many people can work from home during a health emergency, with no loss in effectiveness or efficiency, why not do it all the time? Saving the commute time is a bonus, on top of the reductions in emissions. I certainly hope discussions along those lines are taking place in organizations of all kinds. But because nothing is simple and straightforward – even an obvious lesson such as ‘less driving means less pollution’ – there are a couple of caveats here. First, emissions have indeed rebounded as portions of the world economy have reopened. Second, the pandemic has led to a crisis in mass transit. One tool that has been used to control emissions in many large cities has been to encourage commuters to take the bus or train rather than driving.  Being enclosed in a vehicle with other passengers is not exactly most people’s idea of health and safety during a pandemic, even with a mask on.  I never thought I would see the day when Twin Cities’ Metro Transit would discourage ridership, but that day is here as buses all display the “Essential trips only” message, and ask riders to board by the back door, with no fare collected.  The result?  More driving of personal vehicles.

Beyond the world of work and modes of transportation, the pandemic has upended our lives in ways large and small. In addition to being an unemployed substitute schoolteacher who hopes to get back at it in the fall, I am also a musician.  I earn some small income from public performances with my bands and solo. My bands recently canceled a scheduled show at a tavern where, despite their earnest efforts to create a safe environment, all band members agreed that the environs were just too risky. So, indoor band performances are dashed for the foreseeable future. We have begun rotating garden concerts, which have attracted small crowds of appreciative neighbors (and so far, not a single complaint!). As for solo, I am performing an outdoor show this weekend at a brewery where I have played regularly for some time. It’s in the fresh air – barring thunderstorms of course – and the managers have established solid social distancing guidelines. But outdoor music will not work in Minnesota beyond September. So, we are exploring collaboration via the Internet, and I am preparing to start doing solo Facebook Live shows.  In case you had not noticed, Internet performances by musicians have become all the rage. I encourage you to search for your favorites and support them with contributions. Unlike me, they depend on their music income for their livelihood.

If you have stayed with me through this weekly ramble up to now, I thank you for your patience. You are probably wondering what in the world my cover picture has to do with my post. Well, here it is. Just as our COVID-19 struggles stem from greed-driven science denial, so too does that looming monster of a global crisis, human-caused climate disruption. If you think that crisis is going away, think again. The temperature topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit in, of all places, Siberia last week.  It was hotter there than in Miami. Heavy downpours in the northern and eastern United States periodically threaten infrastructure. The latest is a dam burst in Michigan.  The cause? Thanks to all of our melting of polar and alpine ice, the atmosphere now holds seven percent more water vapor.  All of which brings me back to my cover picture.

Just imagine how much more greenhouse gas the world has spewed into the atmosphere because of our addiction to fossil fuels. And it’s not just their use that is the problem, but the government- enabled greed of an industry that has created a rigged system that encourages heavier and heavier consumption. The fossil fuel industry misrepresented its effects on the atmosphere and climate for decades. Activists and engaged officials continue to try to hold them accountable, but largely without results, so far.

But we can’t let Big Oil’s partner in crime, the shortsighted, greedy and downright silly American auto industry off the hook.  Greedy and shortsighted?  Yes.  Just when they had finally found the groove in recent years, producing well-designed, reasonable-sized cars to compete with high-quality imports from Japan, Korea and Germany, they virtually stop selling any cars at all in America. That’s right – if you visit a showroom, you will see that it is pretty much all SUVs and pickups, all the time. And why not, from their perspective?  Subsidies and unacknowledged externalities (i.e., the environmental damage caused by burning fossil fuels) keep the price of a tank of gas artificially low, encouraging the sale and use of big-profit behemoths. Speaking of my picture . . .

Take a good look. The “tiny” car on the right is an Oldsmobile Cutlass from the 1980s. When that reasonable-sized sedan was manufactured, it was considered a midsized car. The four-wheeled McMansion that dwarfs it is a new Chevy Suburban. You want silly? Here is the “weighty” transportation task assigned to the hulking, white Moby Dick that could moonlight as Goliath’s hearse. A petite lady docked her aircraft carrier, walked to a nearby candy shop for a small bag of bonbons, and then returned, climbed aboard and set sail again. Now there is silly. And just one example among millions of instances of transportation overkill, brought to you and the world by Big Oil and its partner, the US ‘auto’ industry.

Speaking of overkill and collateral healing, NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday carried a story of another benefit/lesson that has grown out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Less driving has cut another human impact on the planet – roadkill.  I was shocked to hear an estimate in that story that up to a billion mammals, reptiles and birds are killed each year on America’s roads.  Do the math. With about 230 million licensed drivers in the US, the average driver kills about four animals per year.  My experience tells me that is an awful lot of careless driving, since in all my years of driving I have killed two birds and zero mammals and reptiles. 

The optimist in me says the coronavirus outbreak is a great opportunity to rethink, reimagine and reconfigure virtually every way humans interact with each other, with the economy and with the planet. From health care for all, to traveling efficiently and  only when necessary, to respecting and protecting our fellow creatures, this is our big chance for not just collateral, but deliberate healing.

Let’s make the most of it.

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN





Handouts and Handovers

21 06 2020

undefined It’s not as easy as you might think, being a deadbeat like me.  You see, I am one of those sluggards who have not worked a lick since mid-March.  You know, the sorry souls that our great benefactors, Mitch McConnell and his stooge (for now), Donald Trump, are so concerned about.  We may be losing our work ethic, you see.  All this big government largesse threatens to make us soft and lazy.  Before you know it, we won’t want to work at all anymore.

Allow me to explain. The last day I worked in my profession – substitute teaching, specializing in middle school music, foreign languages, math and earth science – was on March 16, at a German immersion school in my hometown of Saint Paul. That was the last day of operation before Minnesota’s Governor Tim Walz shut down the schools because of the coronavirus pandemic. They have remained shut for the duration of the recently concluded school year, except for distance learning. That has meant no work for in-person substitutes like me.

Soon after my last day, I applied for and received state unemployment insurance, which pays about 40% of my full-time salary. That meager sum has been more than supplemented by the admittedly generous $600 per week booster checks I have received, plus the one-time $1200 federal stimulus payments (accompanied by a letter with the famous EKG-style scratched autograph of our Dear Leader). Do the math. This blogger is one of those freeloading profiteers, those sloths who are better off not working. The ones Mitch and Don are wringing their wrinkled, tiny hands over.

Does this economic boost make me yearn for more idleness? Not really. Truth be told, I am not so good at idle. I have put the non-work time to good use on other things – solo music, reading, working on my house, staying fit, etc. Have I welcomed this time away from work? To a point, yes, but only because it has allowed me more time to pursue those other things I mentioned. But I miss my work terribly. I love working with the kids, and I especially love the variety I get by traveling from school to school as needed. New day, new school, more or less. I also thrive on stimulating young minds as they learn and – hopefully – generate some long-lasting excitement in those specialty subject areas that I have so much enthusiasm for. And, oh yes, I confess that I miss my captive audience for fun. You see, I start each class of new students I teach with five minutes of comedy – impersonations of cartoon characters for the youngsters, and public figures (mainly movie stars and politicians, including Mitch and Don), for middle and high schoolers. They must guess who I am putting on. They almost always succeed, allowing me to celebrate how smart these kids really are. Those nervous politicos may be concerned about me losing my willingness to work; I fear that my stage act might go rusty.

Let’s be fair and give some credit where it is due. Boosting unemployment income is an area where the White House and Congress partnered, for once, to do the right thing. Stimulating the economy – putting money in the hands of workers – in response to a severe financial crisis is solid, theory-based economic practice. It could help head off something like another Great Depression. Is it enough? No one knows for sure, because the crisis is far from over. The United States continues to lead the world, by a wide margin, in the death, suffering and financial loss brought on by COVID-19. You will see at that Johns Hopkins University tracking site that the United States has suffered nearly 120,000 deaths, or nearly as many as the next three nations combined – Brazil, Great Britain and Italy. In confirmed cases, the US, with more than 2.25 million, has nearly as many as the next four nations combined – Brazil, Russia, India and Great Britain.

It’s easy to see that this crisis is nowhere near its end, and that key turning points loom. Despite rising case numbers in many states, the re-opening of many sectors of the economy is progressing. And there was adoration-starved Trump just last night, bragging and braying for his (not-so-yooge after all) crowd of unmasked admirers in Tulsa at his long-awaited and controversial return to rally mode.

The rest of the world is watching, aghast, as the United States continues to bungle this health crisis and suffer the consequences. Our floundering response, ‘led’ by a fact-challenged, science-denying chief executive, leaves other countries wondering if we have finally given up the fight. I recommend that you dig into this new Washington Post story. You will see all this:

  • A short video including comments from public health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who explain reality – the US is still in the first wave of the pandemic
  • A graphic chart showing that the United States has done a far poorer job of slowing the outbreak than the countries of the European Union
  • Details that explain the comparative success in Europe vs. the United States – respect for, and policy decisions based on, scientific fact

And here is the bitter irony. Germany, arguably one of the most successful responders to the crisis (8 percent as many deaths as the United States, despite having a total population that is 25% as large as America, and an overall older citizenry to boot), has largely based its strategies on research and recommendations from the best scientific experts from another country. You guessed it, the United States. Applied science has its benefits and costs. Some countries choose wisely. Other countries elect Trump.

But back to those turning points and finances. In addition to the question of what can open and how safely, those who rule us are now pondering further financial remedies for the slowed economy. I mentioned McConnell’s concern about unemployment payments discouraging work. Read about that here. You will also read in that short story genuine concern about digging a deeper debt hole in the case of another round of stimulus payments. That certainly makes sense. But when you consider the context, it’s just the latest, and one of the most blatant, examples of the bald-faced hypocrisy that passes for responsible leadership among legislators like McConnell. Remember – this is the guy who, with much fanfare, partnered with Trump and then-House Speaker Paul Ryan to pass a massive 1.5 trillion-dollar tax ‘reform’ bill in 2017. That’s the one Trump was bragging about last night that supposedly benefited working people, including his amassed ‘base’ faithful hanging on his every threat, ‘joke’ and insult. But it – naturally – benefited their chief constituency – large corporations and the super-rich. And lest anyone think that the current crisis has caused our leaders to suddenly see the light – namely, that income and living wages generally enjoyed by workers and life preservers for small business should be the main focus of relief efforts – they should think again. Controversy swirls around exactly who has received the greatest benefits – and even profited from – measures to rescue the economy. If this all looks like just the latest round of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, with the wealthy and corporations capitalizing on a crisis to enhance their wealth and power at the expense of the common good, there’s a good reason for that. Because that’s just what it is.

Here is a quote from that linked interview with Klein:

“The ‘shock doctrine’ is the political strategy of using large-scale crises to push through policies that systematically deepen inequality, enrich elites, and undercut everyone else. In moments of crisis, people tend to focus on the daily emergencies of surviving that crisis, whatever it is, and tend to put too much trust in those in power. We take our eyes off the ball a little bit in moments of crisis.”

The last thing that those with the most power today deserve during this crisis is ‘too much trust.’

Some have pointed out, rightly, that an alternative view of this crisis is that it has taught us that common-good measures long advocated by progressives – a real national health care system, paid sick and family leave, living wages, universal basic income, and on and on – not only are more necessary than ever, but can work.

I called this little piece “Handouts and Handovers” for a reason. When apologists for greed, big corporations and the wealthiest of the wealthy such as, for instance, McConnell, ponder “socialistic” interference in the economy – like the current rounds of stimulus spending – they indeed see these measures as handouts.  And the most extreme advocates for the wealthy and powerful, such as McConnell, when they suddenly go ‘fiscally responsible,’ go further in attacking all manner of public-good endeavors. They have their sites on the entire New Deal, and the Great Society. In other words, they would like nothing better than to weaken and destroy Social Security and Medicare, those damned, stubborn socialistic entitlement programs that poison the free economy.

Agents for the uber-wealthy and multinational corporations, such as (but by no means limited to) Trump and McConnell, have long denigrated as undeserved ‘handouts’ any and all efforts to soften the blow of laissez-faire capitalism. But Republicans and – to a disappointing degree – too many Democrats have since 1980 virtually ‘handed over’ to multinational corporations the rightful power of government to do the will and pursue the good of the people.

If we are to have any hope of managing the crises of our modern society – public health system disarray as exposed by COVID-19, systemic racism and unfairness as spotlighted by the righteous explosion of demands for justice following police killings of unarmed black men, and the daunting, existential crisis our industrial society has created with the climate, we need a different approach. The ballyhooed ‘free market’ will be powerless to solve these problems.

We need a new approach, on the scope and scale of the New Deal. It starts with sweeping away the corporatists like Don and Mitch, but it goes much further. We need the Green New Deal. We need to protect the vote, especially of disadvantaged minorities. We need to trash Citizens United.

Step One in restoring government of the people, for the people, by the people is scheduled for November.

Don’t miss your chance to help hand the power back over to the people. Where the Constitution says it belongs.

Oh, and don’t forget to wear your mask.

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN





Stop the Looting

14 06 2020

Many of my compatriots are throwing around the ‘F’ word. I have declined to do so in these pages, and will probably continue to refrain.  But I must admit that those who use ‘fascism’ to describe where America is headed under Trump do have a point.

All too often, some of us toss the F bomb at Trump or any other prominent leader we don’t like, without really knowing what it means. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this, so I did a little digging. First, here is what I found for a definition of fascism at Merriam-Webster:

“a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition”

Ask yourself. Does that apply to America in the era of Trump? Some of that definition certainly is relevant. Trump and his MAGA-hat crowd do indeed wave the banner of unquestioning patriotism, and he continues to stir the fires of white supremacy and racism, to cater to the darkest instincts of his base.  An opening reelection campaign rally on Juneteenth?  In Tulsa, Oklahoma, site of the greatest single destruction of an African-American community in American history – something you might call an American pogrom? Really?!

I think the most accurate way of looking at all this is that Trump has strongly authoritarian tendencies that he would dearly love to unleash in full fire and fury.  But there’s that damned Constitution, not that the ignoramus understands or even cares to learn what any of its words mean.  And then there is the business of the three coequal branches of American government, our institutions and protocols, etc. Just the same, Trump has made inroads, aided by fellow destroyers, of course, in damaging those institutions and ignoring those protocols.  

Back to that definition. Forcible suppression of opposition?  Well, yes, that’s happening on America’s streets in the continuing protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. But I think that’s where the traditional definition of fascism diverges from today.  As I have said many times, I think the root cause of so many, if not all, of the problems we face today can be traced to one thing. That is, the United States government has, since about 1980, dedicated virtually all its energy and power toward a single purpose – allowing massively wealthy, powerful corporate interests to pretty much do what they want. That has accelerated in the Trump era with deregulation at every turn, coupled with unjustifiable, massive tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and for US-based multinational corporations. Fever-pitch deregulation has had a profound, sure to be lasting, effect on the area I most often focus on – the environment.

In doing some quick research into fascism, I came upon an article in the Guardian from about a year ago that – I think – gets things just about right. Andrew Gawthorpe, a Netherlands-based expert on American history, writes that you can’t call Trump’s warping of America fascism per se, but that what he has done should serve as a warning of what true fascism could look like in modern America. I would add that we are lucky that Trump, the wannabe dictator unbound by the Constitution, is also a woefully unqualified, incompetent bumbler. Woe betide us should we elect a demagogue in the future who shares Trump’s proclivities but supercharges them with Machiavellian intelligence and strategy.

Gawthorpe points out that, for an American fascism to take hold in the future, a critical mass of Americans would have to surrender the freedoms and values that we too often take for granted. Just as he notes that a true American fascist state is unlikely, we should be alarmed at the support Trump has gained and held from his “besieged” base – almost exclusively white, including evangelical Christians, who see their powerful, majority status eroding in today’s rapidly diversifying America.  The following segment really caught my attention, since the author connects with my critique of modern American governance. That is, the steady expansion of corporate power.

“An American fascism would not only marry Christianity and ultranationalism through a shared belief in conspiracies aiming to destroy America, but it would also seek to retain the support of capital. Trump has demonstrated how to combine regressive economic policies with a populist image by attacking minorities and elites. Anyone promoting progressive economic reform is dismissed as a communist and hence as un-American – another one of the conspirators, and another reason to line up behind a strongman who will keep them out of power. This is why “the Squad”, who in the worldview of the right are both communists and America-hating brown people, are the perfect foil.

These are the raw materials out of which a future American fascism might be built. Such an eventuality is not only uncertain, but positively unlikely, especially in the absence of economic disaster, major war, or a devastating terrorist attack.”

(Note: the “Squad” he refers to is the progressive group in Congress led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was much more prominent in the news last year than she is now. But, just wait. Her time will come again, and not just because she is a favorite right-wing, corporatist target.)

Now remember, Gawthorpe wrote this for the Guardian nearly a year ago. In other words, nearly half a year ahead of the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying economic disaster.  As various parts of America reopen despite the continuing outbreak, the death toll here has now passed 115,000, by far the most in the world. (Although Brazil, also led by a science-denying, power-hungry demagogue, is gaining fast.) So how is Trump using the COVID-19 crisis to further his own ends?  Not to consolidate power in any traditional, let alone “fascistic” sense.  Who can forget that, when it comes to the crisis, he told us he “takes no responsibility?” No, it’s an opportunity to “let Trump be Trump.”  In other words, it consolidates his colossal corruption.  Oversight?  Accountability? No, that’s for “weak jerks.”

One commentator who has consistently decried the subversion of democracy and the growing inequality in modern America – without using the “fascism” label – is Robert Reich.  In this short video that starts with the protests following the Floyd killing, the former US Secretary of Labor calls out the real villains – billionaires and major corporations who have lobbied and bought their way to converting the US government into a machine that ignores the public good while lavishing all manner of benefits on them.

Everything that Reich points out in his Inequality Media video – the corporate lobbying, the unjustified tax breaks, the artificial suppression of wages, the way COVID-19 has attacked minority Americans way out of proportion to their share of the population – all contributes to the case that must be made. That is, to convincingly and resoundingly send Trump packing in November, along with his chief enabler and exploiter, Mitch McConnell, and his Senate majority.

Will electing Joe Biden president by itself solve these chronic problems of widening inequality and the trashing of the common good for the private interests of the uber-wealthy? Of course not. But Biden will, with proper pressure, surround himself with capable, competent, progressive (here’s hoping!) senior aides and Cabinet members. And his election won’t just stop the bleeding out of our democracy being perpetrated by Trump and his cronies. It will lay the groundwork for real, progressive change in the immediate future.

For instance, AOC is AOK.

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN





The Import-Export Business

7 06 2020

A major sales pitch in Trump’s “America First” bandwagon that he rode to the White House four years ago was this: change US trade relationships so that other countries could no longer “take advantage” of America. Trade deficits with many countries, most notably but not exclusively China, would have to be brought back into balance. The United States would no longer be the world’s patsy.

Trump campaigned on reworking the North American Free Trade Agreement – NAFTA. The new version – United States, Mexico and Canada Trade Agreement of USMCA – is one of the few campaign promises Trump has actually delivered on.

These multilateral trade agreements are generally sold to the public as keys to progress, as ways to remove trade barriers, as win-win steps for all concerned. The reality of course is something else. They grease the skids for further globalization, allowing major multinational corporations to amass profits by seeking cheap labor and avoiding environmental protections. As for the “wins,” well, the biggest of course is for the corporate execs and shareholders. Ordinary citizens – or “consumers” as we must be called – get a much smaller win in the form of somewhat lower prices on end products. This “win” buys public support, or at least non-opposition, to the global free trade agreements. But at what cost to local enterprise and the planet?

A news story this week – in combination with all the upheaval around the worldwide protests against police brutality, as well as the continuing global pandemic – raised this question for me – what is the United States actually ‘exporting?’ That is, what example are we showing the world by what we say and do? The New York Times story speaks volumes.  It seems that a diverse group of countries have the nerve to want to force global tech giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook to pay taxes on the revenue they earn from digital commerce. So, the United States is investigating this looming “barrier” to the smooth flow of tax-free earnings. The list of countries in our sights includes both wealthy and struggling nations: Austria, Brazil, Britain, the Czech Republic, India, Indonesia, Italy, Spain, Turkey and the European Union as a whole. It’s easy to see why this sort of conduct must be investigated and stopped – it interferes with the United States’ prime directive, i.e., clearing the playing field for the unfettered flow of untaxed capital, to the great benefit of billionaires and corporations. We’re doing a bang-up job of that, as you can see in this account of how many major corporations pay little or no tax – or in some cases thanks to the largesse of the Trump administration – sometimes are net recipients of “tax relief.”

It would be easy to miss a story like this in the maelstrom of high-speed news developments, but to me it is key.  It is the latest example of our ongoing campaign to “export” our system of laissez-faire capitalism to the world. This is a driving force in ever-growing wealth inequality, and a key front in the ongoing human struggle to completely exploit (and in the process destroy) the natural world.

When billionaires and global corporate giants game the system – with so much help from the US government of course – to avoid paying their fair share, the public good suffers. This is true in good times – the United States is the only wealthy nation lacking a true national health care system, mainly because we are told “we can’t afford it.” Although we could afford the nearly $2 trillion in tax “reform” that Trump and McConnell lavished on their wealthy enablers two years ago. But as we all know, those “good times” came to a crashing halt with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic. And when you combine the pandemic-spawned recovery costs with the immense hole the Trump tax heist dug, it’s easy to see that the public coffers are in dire shape. National health care? We will have to fight to preserve Social Security and Medicare!

Continuing the ‘export’ metaphor, what else is the United States sharing with the world? Various forms of conspicuous consumption, that’s what. We are currently enduring a reckoning when it comes to recycling.  Less developed countries – led by China – have refused to continue taking our discarded materials for recycling and reprocessing. You see, instead of developing systems of our own for dealing with our waste, the easier, ‘cheaper,’ way was to just ship the mess overseas and let someone else deal with it. Not so much anymore. And then there is what we have done with the auto industry. I was infuriated to see what has happened in recent years with the US Big Three. It’s a stretch to call these “car companies” any longer. After struggling, and ultimately succeeding, in learning to produce terrific reasonable-sized cars, they have almost completely shifted their output to pick-ups and the bloated battle tanks known as SUVs. Here’s a recent New York Times article that celebrates this “progress.” And while US vehicle manufacturers continue to sell actual cars overseas, the top-of-the line gas hogs have become status symbols in newly wealthy foreign destinations, like China.

China is the poster child of globalism. Back in 1972, when President Nixon began the US opening to China, we were promised lots of win-wins. Including democratization of China through exposure to western-style capitalism.  That sure has worked well, eh? In recent times, China has been Trump’s obsession. He has alternately bragged about his greatest trade deal in the history of this universe and any other possible universe (OK, so I exaggerated his brag, but only a little!), talked up how China would buy ‘billions and billions’ of dollars’ worth of American agricultural products, and pinned the blame squarely and exclusively on China for the global pandemic.

Often, there is absolutely no truth in Trump’s brags, lies and bullshit. But in the case of his attacks on China’s handling of the pandemic, there is a kernel of truth. And the whole truth is way more nuanced, and interesting.  Conspiracy theories (peddled by Trump and others) about a “man-made” virus aside, most scientists agree that the virus jumped the species barrier from some wild animal to humans, and then was able to spread rapidly from southern China. It spread first among the wealthy – the jet-setters – for obvious reasons of mobility. And the pandemic continues, even as cities here in the US and elsewhere are seeking out ways to tentatively re-open key parts of their economies and societies.

David Quammen’s Spillover provides all manner of insights into the phenomenon of zoonosis. That’s when a disease that has long plagued wild animals suddenly infects another animal – humans. In a key chapter (“Dinner at the Rat Farm”), he explores the “wet markets” of southern China, where wild creatures, captured alive, join processors of other wild animals that already have been killed, join standard domestic meat products, some already packaged and some still on the hoof or wing, join vegetable mongers and, well, you get the idea. Everything under the sun and the moon, and all for sale, cheek by jowl by blood by offal. He talks about an era of “Wild Flavor,” in other words, the celebration of eating any denizen of the animal kingdom, whether it slithers, swims, waddles or flies – as long as it can be caught and cooked. Sometimes, not even cooked. In this passage, Quammen quotes another author, Karl Taro Greenfield:

“Southern Chinese have always noshed more widely through the animal kingdom than virtually any other peoples on earth. During the Era of Wild Flavor, the range, scope and amount of wild animal cuisine consumed would increase to include virtually every species on land, sea or air.”

Quammen then follows up on Greenfield’s discoveries with his own commentary:

“Wild Flavor (yewei in Mandarin) was considered a way of gaining “face,” prosperity, and good luck. Eating wild, Greenfield explained, was only one aspect of these new ostentations in upscale consumption, which might also involve patronizing a brothel where a thousand women stood on offer behind a glass wall. But the food vogue arose easily from earlier traditions in fancy cuisine, natural pharmaceuticals and exotic aphrodisiacs (such as tiger penis) and went beyond them.”

Now think about that. Long-time traditions, superstition and magical thinking, drunk on barrels and barrels of western cash. What could possibly go wrong? What’s a little pandemic here and there? Think of zoonosis in the case of the SARS epidemic (the actual launch point for that part of Quammen’s exploration) and our current COVID-19 pandemic as just some of the “collateral damage” of globalization. Another metaphorical American export, gone wrong.

What about imports? Trump’s authoritarian instincts have been on full display as he fulminates in response to the continuing protests against police mistreatment of black Americans. Importing the techniques of tyrants past and present, he has exhorted governors and mayors to “dominate,” or risk “looking like a bunch of jerks.” He has threatened to use the US military to intimidate protesters into silence. But that threat, plus an outrageous publicity stunt, just may be his step beyond the pale, for which he will pay.

The publicity stunt in question was his abrupt exit from a brief press conference to walk with aides over to Saint John’s Church, near the White House, where, with his trademark pink-eyed Dirty Harry glare, he wordlessly held a Bible aloft. I was watching and was also speechless. We found out later that, in order to carry out this piece of ridiculous theater, he ordered the National Guard to teargas entirely peaceful protesters to get them the hell out of the way of his holy procession. Since then, prominent military leaders and even some Republican officials past and present have denounced the prevaricating wannabe strongman. They include General James Mattis, former Chief of Staff John Kelly, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Senator Mitt Romney and ex-President George W. Bush.  

There was a time when, even with its flaws, even with its mistreated minorities, even with its inconsistencies, the United States could credibly “export” democratic ideals. We had a system that worked, more or less. We cooperated with international bodies and lived by multilateral agreements. Citizens, even the richest, paid their taxes. Corporations pulled their weight and paid their share. We took the initiative to protect the environment. Government institutions like the post office, public schools and colleges and universities were respected and fully supported.

Beginning with the steady assumption of power by corporations and billionaires, starting with the Reagan years, that credibility has steadily withered. Under the ignorant, belligerent, demagogic, xenophobic Trump, it has melted into a sick joke. We look more and more like a giant banana republic.

Getting rid of Trump in November will not undo 40 years of corporate takeover. It will not solve all the problems. But it is an essential tourniquet to stop the bleeding. And day by day, that emergency treatment looks more and more likely.  Code Blue.

A closing word. It is difficult to stay optimistic these days, but I will continue to try. I hope to get back to my more comfortable “beat” soon – environmental protection and policy.  I am currently reading a lot around the concept of circular economy. More on that soon.

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN