We had the future, then came the car

Writing for Crosscut, Leonard Garfield:

By 1890, Seattle’s streetcar system was electrified, linking and creating neighborhoods throughout the city.

Among the first successful routes: the Seattle Electric Railway line from industrial South Lake Union to downtown, built under the guidance of 28-year-old Luther Griffith and completed in just five days. In the following decade, streetcar lines to Ballard, Greenwood, Rainier Valley, West Seattle and other “streetcar suburbs” criss-crossed the city.

By the early 20th century, the streetcar system had scaled, consolidated first by the precursor to Puget Sound Energy and then acquired by the City of Seattle in 1918. By 1936, the city’s Municipal Street Railway system operated 26 electric routes, powered by the nation’s first municipally-owned hydroelectric system.

The parallel growth of a network of street railways – connecting Seattle to Tacoma, Renton, Everett and other population centers – put a seamless transit system within easy and affordable reach of nearly every Puget Sound resident.

At the same time, Seattle built two major rail hubs: King Street Station in 1906 and Union Station in 1911. They served thousands of passengers and handled enough freight to catapult Seattle to the largest economy in the Northwest.

But it wasn’t just about rail. Other civic innovations targeted different ways to increase mobility and economic growth through transportation.

The dramatic leveling of the city’s hills allowed the city to easily expand the transit system – while city engineers lay a complementary network of boulevards and bike paths (built with the upcoming century of growth in mind). And on the water front, civic engineers began building the Lake Washington shipping canal in 1911, which aimed to connect the region’s growing industrial economy with Pacific trade.

In each instance, Seattle leaders bet on the efficacy of engineering and the value of transportation innovations.

An electrified transit system facilitating rich and poor alike. What happened?

The rise of the automobile, federal investment in a national interstate highway system, and the growth of suburbia combined to render Seattle’s pre-War transit system less cost-effective and, for many politicians of the time, less attractive.

The emphasis on highways made short term economic sense: the extraordinary financial burden of maintaining the existing interurban rail system had vexed both the city and private operators almost from the beginning. By the early 1940s, the last streetcars had been pulled from service, scrapped and often replaced by trackless trolleys and buses.

The damn car!

I recently saw Elon Musk introduce battery storage (Powerwall and Powerpack) to an enthusiastic audience. He mentioned, somewhat in passing, that 100 million cars and trucks are produced each year across the globe, which is now home to two billion automobiles.

Since the mid-1930s, Seattle destroyed its urban, rail-based transit system in favor of individual cars and paved roads, inducing populations to scatter far and away from downtown. The result for us now is an antiquated, polluting, clogging car culture that drives a fossil-fuel-based economy, without which there would be no Mariners telecasts.

In response, Seattle is desperately seeking a solution it already had 75 years ago. And you think humans are smart.

The Supreme Court giveth…then taketh

Lest we run amok with zeal over the Supreme Court’s rulings on the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage, huge victories to be sure, the Supremes reminded us that a conservative majority has no problem with a filthy, dangerous atmosphere or with states killing criminals.

In separate 5-4 decisions, the Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency exceeded its authority by imposing limits on fossil-fuel plants’ greenhouse gas mercury emissions and that states can use chemicals to execute criminals, even though such drugs have been linked to horrifyingly botched end-of-life events.

On plant emissions, the Clean Air Act authorized the EPA to impose restrictions, provided they were “appropriate and necessary.” One would think that the scientific consensus is sufficient to satisfy the criteria: greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise exponentially, leading to accelerated planetary warming and extreme weather events mercury poses risks to the environment. Siding with the purveyors of filth, the Court majority, led by Antonin Scalia, dismissed the science in favor of process. Here is the New York Times:

…The challengers said the agency had run afoul of that law by deciding to regulate the emissions without first undertaking a cost-benefit analysis.

The agency responded that it was not required to take costs into account when it made the initial determination to regulate. But the agency added that it did so later in setting emissions standards and that, in any event, the benefits far outweighed the costs.

The two sides had very different understandings of the costs and benefits involved. Industry groups said the government had imposed annual costs of $9.6 billion to achieve about $6 million in benefits. The agency said the costs yielded tens of billions of dollars in benefits.

Regarding executions, the Times wrote:

Lawyers for the Oklahoma inmates, with the support of experts in pharmacology and anesthetics, said midazolam, even if properly administered, was unreliable. They pointed to three executions last year that seemed to go awry.

In April 2014, Clayton D. Lockett regained consciousness during the execution procedure, writhing and moaning after the intravenous line was improperly placed. In Ohio in January 2014 and in Arizona in July, prisoners appeared to gasp and choke for extended periods.

Justice Alito wrote that the inmates had failed to identify an available and preferable method of execution or made the case that the challenged drug entailed a substantial risk of severe pain.

It did not occur to the majority in each instance to consider the larger picture—that global warming mercury pollution is bad and must be arrested and that killing people to prove that killing people is wrong. Such considerations have nothing to do with the law, sayeth the Supremes.

UPDATE (June 29, 2015):

Dave Roberts, writing for VOX, judges the EPA opinion “pointless.” Read his piece to discover why.

Well, that’s just the market talking

CEO compensation continues to rise, as does the gap between the very wealthy and the Rest of Us. No news here.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, executive pay is now 303 times as high as the average worker’s wage, a bit below the peak of 376 registered in the year 2000. Apologists want you to believe that such compensation simply reflects market forces; demand for superior talent outstrips available supply. You don’t buy that?

EPI tracked CEO compensation and stock market prices, using the S&P 500 Index. Here is what the institute found:

CEO and S&P

And this is what the institute said:

The alignment of CEO compensation to the ups and downs of the stock market casts doubt on any explanation of high and rising CEO pay that relies on the rising individual productivity of executives…

So, ladies and gentlemen, why isn’t your pay tied to the stock market rather than “the market”? Could it be that you have no political power to alter the status quo? Could it be that you summarily reject unions and the notion of worker solidarity? Worse, could it be that you actually worship the filthy rich and dream of becoming one of them.

Only in your dreams, I’m afraid.

The pope has spoken. So…

Pope Francis promulgated an encyclical on climate change and its impacts on the poor, especially. The document, delivered to the world’s Catholics, is both conservative and radical in its concept and temperament. Conservative, in that Francis invokes the Bible and past theologians to found his critique of capitalism’s excesses on long-standing moral precepts. Radical, in that Francis develops root causes of climate change and how it is and will continue to wreak havoc on at-risk populations across the planet.

Alas, popes speak and nothing happens. From Pacem in Terris and Laborem Excercens to Populorum Progressio and, now, Laudato Si, the Bishop of Rome condemns and implores. Yet, the matters of concern worsen. And if capitalism’s excesses are  the common cause, the critiqued economic system continues to accrete, depositing “filth” as it enriches a few at the expense of the many.

I fell away from the Church decades ago; my “soul” was never in it. The Church, after all, is for believers, those who hold that God exists, created the world, and somehow inheres in that creation, perhaps guiding and cajoling the faithful in their daily lives. Yet, I appreciated then and now the Church of my youth as an innately moral institution with something to say that is profound and provocative. It sits both within and without society, calling upon ancient verities to expose human shortcomings and, it always hopes, provide a pathway to redemption, in this world and, it believes, the next.

Of course, the usual suspects, the captains of industry and reactionary minds, quickly dismissed the pope and his encyclical. Such reaction is altogether predictable and historical. In the U.S., an entire political party rejects the very premise of Laudato Si, that humans are causing the planet to warm with untold consequences for earth’s most vulnerable.

Ironic, indeed, that a majority of Supreme Court justices and a significant plurality of Republican presidential candidates call themselves Catholic. They feel emboldened to follow their “conscience” in ignoring anything the popes write in opposition to their controlling political ideologies.

These same conservatives applaud the Church’s actions against the doctrinally permissive religious on issues of sex. Suppose the Vatican were to see fit to excommunicate Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas for his egregious policies against the poor in Kansas? Same with Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, or any of the Catholic Supremes who give license to corporations’ wealth extraction and sanction capital punishment, a punishment falling disproportionately on the nation’s poor?

If the Church wished to send a message, that would be a start.

Journalism, where art thou?

Investigative journalism involves three basic parts. First, a reporter collects his documents…But that’s just step one. Step two is finding sources who can discuss the documents and what lies behind them…And third, a journalist goes to the target of his allegations and gives the target a chance to respond. One may do this for legal reasons, but also because there may actually be reasonable explanations for odd-seeming occurrences, and the reporter is not only obliged to be accurate but also doesn’t want to wind up discredited [emphasis added].

— Michael Tomasky, writing for The New York Review of Books

More to follow in subsequent posts.

Guns kill

I know, not exactly a revelation. Yet, the Texas legislature just passed a law that permits the carrying of guns on state college campuses; and if you can carry, you can/will use—eventually. Give me an A, professor, or else?

About two-thirds of gun-related deaths are suicides. This article in Vox suggests that without guns, fewer deaths would occur.

Imagine that.

Where’s my billionaire?

If I gave a college commencement address, I’d like to believe it would follow the lines of Tom Engelhardt’s imagined speech before a “campus of [his] mind.” Of course, no one would invite me to do so, and I’d probably be escorted off the stage or platform before I reached paragraph two.

Among the many sobering remarks of Engelhardt’s virtual address:

Being on the sidelines, it turns out, is an expensive affair.  The question is: What are you going to do so that you aren’t there, and in debt, forever?

Of course, there’s a simple answer to this question.  Think of it as the [Marco] Rubio Solution.  You could each try to find your own billionaire.  But given the numbers involved and what you don’t have to offer in return, that seems an unlikely option.