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Immigration Reduces Deforestation

There's an interesting perspective on the "immigration versus the environment" question in an article just published in Human Ecology by Birgit Schmook and Claudia Radel*.

Schmook and Radel looked at what happens in the southern Yucatan -- where deforestation is a significant environmental problem -- when people migrate to the U.S. looking for work. The simplified version of the story they tell goes like this: In the 1960s, a new road through the area allowed lots of people to move in and take up farming, creating significant deforestation. The advent of neoliberal policies in Mexico -- the withdrawal of state subsidies and an emphasis on private activity in the global market -- led to increases in growing chiles for sale. Households who were successful in chile-growing had the money to pay for one or more members to migrate to the U.S., while those that were very unsuccessful were forced by their debt to look to work in the U.S. for sufficient funds to get back on their feet. Households with migrants saw an increase in their wealth and material well-being. They also generally experienced re-forestation, because relying on remittances was more profitable than farming, and the absence of the migrant decreased the labor available to the household. Households with migrants increasingly converted already-cleared agricultural land into cattle pasture (though they didn't necessarily own cattle to graze on it, at least yet), since that's less labor-intensive to maintain (it appears pasture and cattle are also subsidized in various ways).

I can't say there's any clear policy implication here right away, but it does add some new angles to the issue.

*The article is based on research from the Clark University-based SYPR project, which many friends and acquaintances of mine have been part of, though I don't personally know these authors very well.


Tempseifu -- the vegan answer to turducken

For Thanksgiving this year, I made tempseifu -- tempeh inside seitan inside tofu. I took many pictures of the process, but since Blogger doesn't allow you to do the "below the fold" thing, I'll just refer you to my LiveJournal.


Change Cows Can Believe In

I've been fairly lukewarm about most of Obama's cabinet picks so far, but I'd be quite happy if he picks Raul Grijalva for Interior.

Speaking of things that upset the beef industry, file this one under "I wish the things my opponents feared were true":

Ranchers should also fear an increasingly powerful animal rights lobby, Groseta said. Well-financed, these activists' primary mission is to destroy the country's cattle industry, he claimed.

"They want to take cattle off the land and beef off the plate," he said. "These folks are for real. They want to put us out of business."

Groseta extolled his fellow ranchers to join their local and national cattle associations. He said fewer than 10 percent of ranchers belong to such organizations, leaving them far outgunned on the financial front by groups like the National Humane Society.


Thoughts on Napolitano for Homeland Security

Rumor has it that Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano is Barack Obama's top pick to head the Department of Homeland Security. I've been generally opposed to Napolitano taking a position in the Obama administration ever since her endorsement of him started the VP speculation -- not because she wouldn't do a decent job, but because we need her here. If Napolitano leaves, GOP Secretary of State Jan Brewer takes over. While Napolitano's no super-progressive, her veto pen has been the only thing standing in the way of domination of the state by the super right-wing. And she only became more important after the election, when the GOP picked up Legislature seats. Further, she's term-limited in 2010, just when John McCain is up for reelection -- and several polls have shown she'd have a good shot at beating him.

I've been somewhat swayed by a line of argument that says Napolitano needs to quit while she's ahead. The Arizona budget has been ugly this past year, and will only get uglier in 2009, due to cratering tax revenues as a result of the economic crisis. There won't be a solution that makes anyone happy -- so whoever is responsible will be likely to find their political career at an end. Maybe, then, we're better off dumping this mess in the GOP's lap and hoping the Democrats can pick up the pieces in 2011.

But thinking more this morning, I actually sort of hope Napolitano gives up her Senate ambitions if she takes the DHS job. She has a decently centrist view of immigration, so there's likely to be some improvements with her at the helm. However, she has to know that if she runs for Senate, the GOP will deluge voters with ads claiming she supports amnesty. Fear of such ads, then, would be likely to make her take a harder line on immigration policy at DHS to prove her toughness. On the other hand, if Napolitano doesn't run, what Democrat would have any shot at the Senate? (For now I will fantasize about Senator Grijalva.)


Poor People Get Burned

Renee from Womanist Musings has written a piece that explores the different vulnerability of the rich versus the poor (and the white versus the black) to natural disasters. She discusses the material costs and consequences -- being poor makes it harder to avoid harm from the disaster, and the disaster perpetuates the material poverty. But she also makes reference to the costs and consequences in terms of status and dignity -- for example, the way the label "looters" was placed on Katrina survivors and contributes to ongoing assumptions about the nature and causes of inequality. This latter aspect is something that academic disaster researchers have not given as much attention as it deserves. Disasters don't just expose, reconstruct, and reinforce material structures of society -- they also become sites for reconstructing the narratives we tell about how our society works.

My concern with her article is the conceit around which the rich-poor contrast is framed -- she writes of the current southern California fires as the rich people's disaster and Hurricane Katrina as the poor people's disaster. Framing wildfire as a disaster that mostly affects rich white people is hardly unique to Renee -- but it is inaccurate, and tends to erase the fate of poor people and people of color in the urban-wildland interface.

The urban-wildland interface -- the landscape of housing close to forests where our most disastrous wildfires take place -- is home to the very rich and the very poor. The current fires are threatening Oprah's neighborhood. But they also destroyed 500 mobile homes. The TV and movie stars get attention, because they're already plugged into the networks by which their fates are taken seriously by the society at large. But what happens to those mobile home dwellers, who don't even own a piece of land to rebuild on and many if not most of whom have no insurance? The vulnerability issues that Renee raises with respect to Katrina victims apply in the WUI as well (see, for example, this paper by Niemi and Lee).

Framing wildfire as a rich person's problem makes it easy to cast blame (though Renee does not take this direction). One significant discourse that circles around the wildfire issue is personal responsibility. Those morons shouldn't build their houses so close to the trees! We need to make the full cost of their actions apparent to them, for example through differential insurance rates, and then leave them to their fate (Roger Kennedy's recent Wildfire and Americans is a good book-length and more sophisticated treatment of this perspective). As Renee notes with respect to poor and black New Orleanians, such assumptions about personal responsibility require you to assume a certain level of wealth and privilege that may not be applicable. Oprah had her pick of the places in the country to live and the types of houses to live in, but what about, say, a single mother priced out of living downtown and now burdened with the extra cost of a car to commute to her minimum wage job (or less, if she's undocumented), and without the resources to invest in moving up the social ladder out of her current vulnerable situation?

What this brings us back to is that we need to see vulnerability to disasters as a problem of social organization, not just of individual behavior. A full political ecology of WUI fire vulnerability is beyond the scope of a blog post like this, but it would incorporate factors like local government subsidies to development, housing policies that affect low-income people and mobile homes, car-centric development, the decline of traditional rural livelihoods, lack of feasible opportunities in cities, and the inability of certain populations to access emergency services and aid, plus historical and ongoing land management and climate impacts -- and their deeper causes in contemporary governance, capitalism, and race relations.

Feed Sheriff Joe moldy bologna for a billion years

Over at War or Car?, Neil Sinhababu has posted my calculation that we could feed Sheriff Joe moldy bologna for a billion years for the price of the Iraq war. I should note that, while as a vegetarian I would not ordinarily support purchasing bologna, since we'd be feeding him moldy bologna, we could buy expired packages that would just have been thrown out anyway.


Conservative Economics and the Lower Class

Ezra Klein has a long post about the perennial question of why poor (white) people vote for Republicans. He contrasts Thomas Frank's famous thesis that they're distracted by cultural issues with his own hypothesis that they're distracted by security issues. But like most discussion of this question, his post makes a crucial assumption -- that Democratic economic policies are better for the poor, and therefore poor people voting on economic issues will rationally prefer the Democrats. But I think this is an unjustified assumption. I've listened to my share of lower-class Republicans, and they emphatically do not agree with a strong liberal economic program. In fact, I've heard far more negative commentary from these folks about Democrats economic policies than about their cultural or security policies, far more worry that Obama was a socialist than that he was a Muslim. Joe the Plumber wasn't enough to win the election for John McCain, but he clearly tapped a strong vein of support for conservative economic policy among a significant portion of the lower class.

Sometimes this arises from believing that they themselves are -- or may soon be -- above the cutoff such that they'll be among the people that money is being taken from in order to be redistributed down the scale. But there's also a powerful moral component. Many poorer people believe that liberal economic policies (particularly raw money redistribution, which is the first one to come to mind for such voters) are unjust, even if they benefit from them. "I've always worked hard; I don't need a handout from the government" is the mantra here.

Imagine a political party ran on a "give Stentor Danielson a million dollars" platform. I would not vote for that party, despite its clear economic benefit for me, because I think such a policy is unfair. Lower-class (white) voters often think the same thing about liberal economic policies in general.

The Frank, Klein, and Danielson hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, of course. But liberals would be better off if they admitted the possibility that conservative economics can appeal to lower class voters, and therefore were willing to make a moral rather than just self-interest appeal.


Obama on Fire

Bill Gabbert points out that the Obama-Biden campaign put out a 2-page position paper on wildland fire (pdf). It's fairly general and not especially radical, but it does hit two key policy priorities that any reasonable fire policy ought to include:
1) Creating a dedicated funding source so that the Forest Service doesn't keep raiding other areas of its budget to pay for firefighting (thus inhibiting both pre-fire fire management and other types of forest management).
2) Focusing fuel reduction on areas closest to the wildland-urban interface rather than in the backcountry. This makes the fuel reductions more effective and reduces conflicts with ecological goals that could arise from large-scale mechanical thinning.
There are also a lot of references to involving the public and local governments, which is good but not concrete enough to merit a bullet point of its own.

The one big oversight I see is that the Obama-Biden plan doesn't directly address the core of Bush's fire policy (which was in turn the core of his environmental agenda) -- restrictions on environmental reviews and appeals with respect to fire mitigation projects. These restrictions were justified by exaggerating the problem of lawsuits by environmental groups holding up the Forest Service's work, and resulted in removal of accountability (see Vaughn and Cortner's book for a good analysis). Some of these restrictions were put in place by Congress through the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, but others can be altered by executive order. Obama's team has apparently put together a list of some 200 policies he will immediately set about fixing without needing to go through Congress, such as repealing the "global gag rule" on foreign aid recipients talking about abortion, and allowing California to enact stronger greenhouse gas policies. Hopefully the full list includes rolling back the appeal-limiting aspects of Healthy Forests.


Clever Bigotry

Slacktivist has an interesting post about the connection between (extreme for its social context) bigotry and stupidity. He points out that we usually think people start out stupid, and therefore buy into bigotry. But, he says, maybe the causality runs the other way:

Racism, bigotry and xenophobia are immoral, of course, but they are also, just as fundamentally, untrue. They areunreal. They provide a theory and a framework for living in the world that cannot be reconciled with the reality of this world. The person who chooses to accept that unreal framework is thus constantly forced to choose between unreality and reality, between the theory and the facts. To hold onto the unreal framework, they must continuously reject reality. And every time they do that, they get a little bit dumber.

It's an interesting point, but I'd push back on it in two ways.

First, I think it's easy to overestimate the correlation between bigotry and stupidity. I think we're drawn to examples of particularly stupid people among our ideological opponents (a group that includes the bigots, if we're anti-bigotry). Those people are easy to rebut -- indeed, their claims may be patently self-refuting. So we get the thrill of establishing the superior merit of our ideas, coupled with the communal activity of gathering together to mock someone we can all agree is hopelessly wrong. And they make great propaganda for our side -- look at what morons the other side is! On the other hand, the stupidest of our enemies are fascinating because of our failure to rebut them. Their stupidity is so obvious that we know that were we to make these refutations to their face, they wouldn't budge, because their ideology is in the grip of something divorced from logic. So we worry at them ineffectually. The upshot of all this is that we're subject to a strong availability bias when thinking about how stupid bigots are.

Second, I think the very unreality of bigotry's claims can require intelligence as easily as it can require stupidity. When you encounter contradictory information, you can take the stupid route and just tune it out. Or you can take the intelligent route* and find a clever way to integrate it without disturbing the core of your belief system. The worse your bigotry, the worse its clash with reality, and therefore the more mental gymnastics you have to execute to keep the latter from exploding the former. I suspect this is why we so often find ourselves saying "how could someone so smart believe something so stupid?" Perhaps, for example, a somewhat lesser mind than Isaac Newton's would not have been able to maintain the plausibility of astrology.

*You could argue that this kind of "mere cleverness" is not intelligence in the real sense of being the opposite of stupidity, but I think that route leads quickly to the No True Scotsman fallacy.


Election reaction

There's a lot of excitement out there on the left side of the blogosphere, but I can't quite get into it. Yes, Barack Obama won -- bigger than I had thought, but less than a lot of the DailyKos crowd had been pushing (so much for the polls being off because of cell phones, huh?). And yes, the Dems picked up a few seats in the House and Senate (and managed to defend Paul Kanjorski's seat -- can we get a real progressive to run against him in the 2010 primary? And can Lou Barletta's political career please please be over?) -- but only a few (so much for this being a wave or realignment). But then consider this:

  1. Arizona, California, and Florida all banned same-sex marriage. I'd expected Arizona to go down -- we've been getting deluged by homophobic mailings, and even the No On 102 ads had this desperate tone to them and didn't dare address the substance of the issue. But Florida (because of the higher threshold) and California (because it's California) I though would go the right way. Of the issues that are controversial in 2008, I can generally understand how someone can see things differently than I do, even if I think their conclusions are abhorrent and their logic fatally flawed. But I just cannot manage to respect the intellectual integrity of opposition to marriage equality.

  2. Sheriff Joe got reelected handily:
    Arpaio took Tuesday's results as a vote of confidence in his office's policies and swore nothing will change.

    "In fact, I might even do it more," Arpaio said of his immigration-enforcement policies, which have drawn criticism from across the country.

    Pinal County also has a new sheriff, Republican Paul Babeu. And while Babeu is no great friend of Arpaio (having tangled with him as a leader in the Chandler police department), I worry that their differences may be more personal than political.

  3. While Obama is certainly better than McCain or Bush, my money is still on him governing in a center-right Bill Clinton style (not, I should point out, that I would have expected any of the other Dem candidates aside from Kucinich and Gravel to do differently).

It's gonna be a long four years.


From the annals of Laughably Wrong

I've been ridiculously off-base in pretty much every election prediction I've ever made, but that's no reason to stop now. At the risk of jinxing it, I'm going to give the presidential race to Obama, 311-227 in the electoral college and 51-47 in the popular vote. I think he'll win all the Kerry states, plus NV, NM, CO, IA, VA, and OH. In the Senate, I'll say the Dems pick up 7 -- VA, NM, AK, NH, OR, CO, and NC. MN will fall short, and GA will go to a runoff with Chambliss ultimately prevailing. In the house, I'll say a net 20 seat gain, with the Democrats losing PA-11 (my old home district), but Kirkpatrick taking AZ-01 (my new home district) while all the other AZ house races go to the incumbent. Sheriff Joe will be reelected by a low double-digit margin, making him even more insufferable for the next four (?) years (the Pinal County sheriff race I can't make any prediction on). And defying my usual pessimistic instincts, CA will defeat Prop 8 by less than 1%.