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A Weblog of The Jackson Progressive

Trolly Rails on Capital Street

I wish we still had a light rail system in Jackson. These rails are at least 100 years old and they sustained an urban light rail system that was, well, civilized, to say the least. Now, there’s nothing left but some buried rails.

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Working in Downtown Jackson

After eight years, I am back downtown in Jackson, and it is a very different place, not just because Capitol Street is torn up, but because the overall atmosphere is one of negative resignation. Downtown has lost at least half of the people that worked here eight years ago. At lunch, the crowds are thin, even when it’s overcast and not too hot to go out. I am told that office space is at a huge discount, because everyone is moving north.

Clearly, the city is not doing something right, in spite of all the things that are going right. The International Ballet Competition ended last week and was a huge success for the city and the state. We have a new Federal courthouse and a commodious convention center. Capitol street is graced with an abundance of attractive buildings, some of them with a notable history.

But Jackson is economically on the ropes, and it’s always hard to pull oneself up when one is so far down. Part of our human nature is to move when things get bad, not stay and make them better. So very many people that ought to be leading the city have moved away and their business has followed them. Redoing Capitol street will do very little for the economic life of downtown; there’s no point in driving down Capital street both ways if there is no point in driving down Capitol Street, anyway.

Some of what needs to be done can’t be done here in Jackson. Forty years ago we had a number of factories in the Jackson metro area, but they are gone, the result of a deliberate policy of the Reagan administration to de-industrialize the nation and ship our jobs overseas. Mississippi competed with the rest of the nation by fighting unions and keeping wages low, but the technique backfired when it turned out that Mexicans, Chinese and other workers in undeveloped nations would work (or could be compelled to work) for much less. Fixing this will require changes in national policy, like making the dollar cheaper and requiring our trading partners to adhere to decent labor standarts. There are huge, politically-powerful forces, however that will resist real change, and right now they probably have the power to thwart reform.

There are a few things we can do for ourselves, however. Lumumba’s plan to encourage cooperatives shows a great deal of promise. We could at least partially implement a Georgist tax plan by raising property taxes on land and lowering them on improvements. We could begin a dialogue on education by discussing and debating just what our children ought to learn during their 12 years of public schooling. I vote for at least a year of economics and a year of probability and statistics the senior year.

Most of all, we need a common vision, a shared mental picture of what we want our city to be. It does appear to me that we are gravitating towards that goal, but it will happen faster if we do it consciously and deliberately. Let us begin.


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The Star-Spangled Banner

Amusing article on the national anthem from Slate Magazine:

Proudly Hailed

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Cannabis Wars - My 2 Cents

The controversy continues over the use of marijuana and whether it ought to be legalized, and under what conditions.

The latest is an article in the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Her study is essentially a meta analysis of previous articles. In other words, it does not seem to involve any new research, but consists of a sophisticated fusion of previous research results.

In my not-so-humble-opinion, the baseline for drug harm is logically alcohol. Alcohol is legal in the 50 states and its very real harmful effects have been documented for at least 4,000 years. Its effect upon brain development in adolescents is well-known. To be outlawed, the first test a substance should pass is that it is more harmful than alcohol.

According to Dr. Volkow, the adverse effects are:

• Approximately 9% of people who experiment with marijuana become addicted
• Cannabis withdrawal syndrome makes cessation of the drug difficult and contributes to relapse
• People who begin using marijuana as adolescents are two to four times more likely to become dependent on the drug than those who began as adults
• Marijuana has negative effects on functional connectivity of the brain, particularly if use begins in adolescence or young adulthood
• Marijuana intoxication can have detrimental consequences, such as motor-vehicle accidents 

I’m not an expert on addiction (I did work for a substance abuse education non-profit for three years, however), but this list looks interchangeable with the alcohol list. The quoted figure for alcohol addiction in the population is 10% so the addiction rate for cannabis, based only on the number of people who experiment with marijuana, would almost certainly be less for the entire population than the rate of alcohol addiction.

In short, there may be a case that cannabis is more injurious than alcohol, but it this is the strongest evidence we have, a convincing case against legalization—at least for adults—hasn’t yet been made.

The contingent that wants to keep marijuana outlawed has a huge constituency, however. The Mexican drug lords depend upon the drug war to keep the price high and to make it worthwhile to incur the expense and risk of smuggling contraband into the U.S. Law enforcement uses the drug wars to fill their coffers with Federal funds. Also, the abuse of the forfeiture law has enabled law enforcement to enrich itself with the property of citizens for which there is insufficient evidence to convict.

I am nearly 69 years old. I have watched the drug war since the 1960’s, and if the damage in lives, property, reputations and to our constitutional rights had not been so devastating, the history of this deeply misguided effort would be a comedy, rather than the tragedy it has been the entire time. Since the ‘60s, the authorities have been coming up with half-baked theories about the dangers of marijuana and if, after fifty years the best that a conscientious researcher can conclude is that the “Use of marijuana is linked with ‘substantial adverse effects…’” which on their face seem no worse that those of alcohol, a perfectly legal substance, it is high time to end this farcical tragedy called the drug war.
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Facebook's Experiments with You and Your Friends

Laurie Penny (Penny Red) is one of my favorite writers. Here’s her take on the recent revelation that Facebook has been manipulating your moods:

Facebook can manipulate your mood. It can affect whether you vote. When do we start to worry?

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Computers for Children - a Mixed Bag

I have always suspected that simply putting computers in front of children would not automatically increase their knowledge or raise their intelligence. Now, research is beginning to show that making computers and the Internet available to young children actually increases the gap between rich and poor. Here’s an article that confirms my suspicions:

EdTech: Who Benefits? by Annie Murphy Paul

There is simply no substitute for parental engagement and guidance.

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Pension "Reform" is a Form of Robbery

The state of Illinois is in the news because financial forecasts purport to show that it will not have enough funds in the future to pay all of its pension obligations. According to the Wall Street Journal, the pension will fall “nearly $100 billion short of what is needed to meet promised benefits.” It is impossible from the article and from most everything else that one reads to understand whether that hundred billion dollars represents money that needs to be in the pension fund at the moment or whether that hundred billion dollars represents the net present value of money spread out over the next 40 to 50 years. It also might represent the sum of the dollars that need to be spent on pensions without respect to discounting for the time value of money. We just don’t know.

Too often it seems that when politicians use the word “reform” it means that the state does not plan to fulfil its promises solemnly made years ago to employees coming into the system. Remember, that state employees took a smaller salary in return for the benefits provided by a pension system. They earned that pension, and the state promised them a pension for the remainder of their lives in return for many many years of loyal service. According to the Illinois Comptroller, “Pension benefits are a form of deferred compensation serving as a future payment for work that is currently being performed.” (See 5/11 issue of Fiscal Focus below at p. 9)

I suspect that the projections that are being used to calculate how much less employees should be getting are doctored in order to present the worst possible scenario.

Instead of trying to diminish the pensions of public workers who have already earned their pensions, we need to see how much additional monies need to be deposited into the pension fund over the next 40 or 50 years to keep it solvent and to maintain the payments level in terms of purchasing power. The state promised these employees a pension that would retain its purchasing power and now the state is being asked to foot the bill for some bad investment decisions that it made over the past 10 years, as well as negligent underfunding over many more years.

So far, the best figures I have been able to obtain are contained in the May 2011 issue of Fiscal Focus, a publication of the Illinois comptroller’s office, but they don’t answer the question of how much taxes must be raised to keep the state honest. The proposals to solve the problem all involve breaking the state’s promise and robbing their retirees of money they are legally entitled to receive. The idea that the citizens of Illinois might pay a bit more in taxes seems off the table, but the state itself has reaped the benefit of underfunding the pension fund and spending the money on something else.

Addendum 12/8/2013: Dean Baker points out that the shortfall in Chicago pensions amounts to 0.5% of the city’s projected income over the next three decades and 15% of projected city revenue. Read the article
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On Filibuster Reform: Good, But Not Far Enough

The Senate today revised its rules to allow a simple majority to confirm presidential appointments to the executive branch and federal judges below the Supreme Court level.

I think it's a good thing. I wish they had abolished the filibuster totally. It is a procedural device that allows a senator to ostensibly support a bill that he secretly opposes and knows cannot pass, even though a majority of senators ostensibly support it. It allows a senator to proclaim his support for a bill to his constituents and then vote against cloture, effectively killing the bill.

The House of Representatives often resembles a zoo, but one thing is certain: members of the House cannot hide behind the filibuster to kill a bill that they claim to support. Our senators need to be put into that position. Both Democratic and Republican majorities ought to be able to pass their bills, confirm their presidents' nominees, and then be forced to take responsibility for the consequences. The Byzantine rules of the Senate often prevent that from happening. The vote today was a move in the right direction.


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Draft Speech for Obama on the Killings Yesterday at D.C. Navy Yard

Imagining that I am President Obama’s speechwriter, here is what I would advise the president to tell the nation on the D. C. Navy Yard killings:

Fellow Americans: once again, I come before you in sadness and horror to address the wanton killings that occurred yesterday in the District of Columbia Navy Yard which has taken the lives of 12 innocent persons with no connection whatever to the killer.

I have been forced to make this speech too many times; indeed, just one such speech is too many. Today, however, will be my last speech on the subject, because there is nothing to be done about this killing and everyone should expect similar occurrences well into the future.

It ought to be obvious to anyone who observed the reaction and the aftermath to the killings in Newtown, that attempts to control the ownership and possession of dangerous weapons will come to naught. If there were ever a tragedy to have shocked the conscience of the nation into doing something about unlimited accessibility to semiautomatic weapons, that would have been it. There was much talk and little action.

We must finally come to terms with the reality that a sizable portion of the American people are opposed to measures that would reduce the carnage that annually destroys the lives of more than 11,000 people by homicide (2011), and even more through suicide, and that minority is sufficiently large and sufficiently committed that it can prevent even the most reasonable efforts to restrict the ownership of guns.

The simple fact is that too many of us love our guns more than we love our neighbors. When we rely on guns to secure ourselves from bad people the gun becomes the proverbial hammer and everything in the world becomes a nail. The killings are always caused by something other than the proliferation of guns, as the gun industry and its prime Astroturf and lobbying organization, the National Rifle Association, tell us everyday by their propaganda. For those of us who are not gun lovers, this obsession is clearly of pathological proportions. Proponents of unrestricted gun ownership have become resistant to facts and rational argument.

Consequently, we must accept the inevitability that nothing will change; more gunmen will attack schools and shoot innocent children and that more disgruntled employees will take out their frustrations upon their fellow employees and bosses with an AR-15 or worse. That more children will be killed playing with guns because trigger locks are not required to be placed on guns around children. That more girlfriends and boyfriends will be shot in anger because a loaded gun was at hand. That psychopaths will continue to find it easy to purchase guns at gun shows. None of these things can be helped, because while our society is literally saturated with firearms, the gun manufacturing industry is frantically seeking additional markets through advertising to previously peaceful and nonviolent demographics.

Therefore, and for the reasons I have just now given you, this administration will no longer have anything to do with gun control, other than signing a bill passed by the Congress. We have too many things to do that are actually achievable. Until I am presented with a gun-control bill to sign, you are on your own. Put your faith in Kevlar and hope for the best. Thank you.
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The Perennial Mr. Summers Is Back

Larry Summers, former secretary of the treasury under Bill Clinton, president of Harvard University, and Obama’s chief economic advisor, will almost certainly be Obama’s choice to replace Ben Bernake as head of the Federal Reserve Bank. The banking sector (Wall Street) is pressing hard on Summer’s behalf, because in the event of another crash, Summers will be far more likely to bail out the big banks than the logical appointee, Janet Yellen, a career Federal Reserve employee, now head of the San Francisco Federal Reserve.

Summers’s rôle in laying the groundwork for the 2008 crash has been well-documented elsewhere, as well as his hasty departure from Harvard, but all you have to know about Larry Summers is that he has favored the banks over the American people whenever there has been a choice. His economic beliefs are essentially neoclassical and his politics are slightly left-leaning neo-liberal. With Summers at the helm of the Fed, we are in big trouble.

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