Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What if Superman never left Smallville?

I was watching Superman 3 this morning (the one with Richard Pryor), and in the first part, Clark Kent returns to Smallville for his high school reunion. This got me thinking about the “brain drain” effect. The brain drain is defined as: the large-scale emigration of a large group of individuals with technical skills or knowledge.

The reasons usually include two aspects which respectively come from countries and individuals. In terms of countries, the reasons may be social environment (in source countries: lack of opportunities, political instability, economic depression, health risks; in host countries: rich opportunities, political stability and freedom, developed economy, better living conditions). In terms of individual reasons, there are family influences. Although the term originally referred to technology workers leaving a nation, the meaning has broadened into: "the departure of educated or professional people from one country, economic sector, or field for another, usually for better pay or living conditions"

Obviously Superman would be the pinnacle of a technically skilled person. It seems reasonable to infer that Superman may have never reached his potential as the most highly skilled crime fighting super hero in the universe if he had remained in his hometown of Smallville. He would have been relegated to helping people stuck in ditches, and putting out barn fires. Oh sure there would have been a drunken bar brawl he could have broken up here and there, but would he have been able to deal with the likes of Lex Luthor if he had not honed his skills in the big city of Metropolis? By moving, Superman was able to help millions instead of hundreds.

Much like Superman I have black hair, and have a desire to impact the world on a macro level. But what about my own proverbial Smallville? If I do not return at some point, who will save the people from their hunting accidents and river drownings?

Someday I will return, but not after I battle my own Lex Luthor. The problem is that it is hard to return to one’s hometown after living in the big exciting city where supervillians abound with plots to destroy the world. Hopefully, Superman will return to Smallville someday and become a reporter at the Smallville Gazzette. Then he can keep teenagers from tipping cows and steeling vodka as he reflects on how awesome he used to be.

Hopefully, after I have honed my own crime fighting skills I can return home to clean up my own Smallville, but in the meantime, I must remain in Metropolis in order to keep the world safe from terrorists, politicians, and American Idol.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Mining as sport

Jesse McKinley reported this week in the New York Times from the 33d International Intercollegiate Mining Championships in Reno, Nevada. Here's an excerpt:

Equal parts history lesson and he-man contest, the competition involves eight events, each tied to a bygone era of prospecting. There’s the high-pressure action of gold-panning, a concentration-intense test that involves finding flattened BBs (standing in for gold) in a can of dirt.

* * *

All of which, say organizers, is both exciting for students — an engineering-heavy group who come from as far as Australia to compete — and not as easy as it looks.

McKinley even attends to the female mining competitors. He notes, too, the practical angle on the competition--that it can help mining students get jobs. Gold mining, in particular, is seeing a resurgence due to the rising price of the element, with two California gold mines being revived this year.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

No toilet? No problem.

Just as a quick shout out– this post is in response to an article Professor Pruitt sent me – thanks for the great idea!

Several of the blog posts recently have centered on rural health, and the lack of resources and perpetual poverty that prevents access to proper health care. While this is certainly true and is a persistent problem that needs to be quickly addressed, it is also important to acknowledge the several NGOs and other organizations that are aiding rural health initiatives. This post will discuss two campaigns in Cambodia and India that are targeting rural health care for women one individual at a time.

Cambodia’s history is one of blood and war. The country, itself, is still seeking to rebuild and much of development aid comes in the form of foreign assistance. The lack of development is also based upon a lack of Cambodia’s government to properly implement the aid to rural areas that need the money. In order to combat this inefficiency and to afford health care to a country that needs it, the Women’s Health Center in Battambang provides assistance to impoverished women in the area. (Full disclosure: I have a close friend who worked for the center for two years). As stated in this interview, the goal of the Center is threefold: (1) To educate the women on reproductive health; (2) To initiate friendships with the women in order to foster trustworthy relationships; and (3) “To encourage a community of non-violence and respect for women in Cambodia.” These three goals allow these women some measure of control despite their susceptibility to poverty, violence, and lack of education. More importantly, the relationships that are cultivated with these women encourage more than just friendship or reliability, but the actual ability for these women to go see doctors, understand their bodies, and ultimately get the health care they deserve.

In a similar vein, India’s campaign titled “No Toilet, No Bride” ensures the basic right to public toilets for women in the state of Haryana. Haryana, a state in Northern India, is one of the wealthier states and is one of the most economically developed – however, much of the state is still rural. The campaign, initiated by Haryana’s government began four years ago and is a way to ensure that women are afforded this basic right. The campaigns slogan goes as follows: “I won’t allow my daughter to marry into a home without toilets.” While this may strike you as funny, which it is to a certain degree, it should only be laughable considering the fact that these women only have access to 132 public toilets compared to the 1,534 available for men. The lack of toilets impedes women’s ability to work (if you’ve seen North Country, you’ll understand) and more importantly women’s safety. In addition, in a recent study by a nonprofit organization, a lack of toilets for girls in schools does play a significant role in high drop out rates. Thus, providing toilets, sanitary napkins, and a campaign for these women provides a voice and hopefully some credible change. In the end, the gift of a toilet can become the gift of dignity in these women’s lives.

It consistently amazes me that small things like toilets, doctors, and dignity remain a mystery to so many women around the world. By affording these rural women the opportunity to understand their bodies, to aid them in rural health, and to foster relationships, these organizations and campaigns are taking a definitive step to enabling these women to have the same benefits that I inevitably take for granted.

"Splittsville, R.F.D."

That's the promotional blurb on the front page of the print edition of today's New York Times for a story on the rise in divorce and single-parent families in rural America, a phenomenon documented most recently by the 2010 Census. Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff report from Sioux County, Iowa, population 32,069, a county they apparently selected for this feature because it has seen one of the steepest rises in divorce rates since 1970. According to the 2010 Census, divorce has risen seven fold during this 40-year-period, though that figure is made less shocking when you consider that the divorce rate in Sioux County was especially low in 1970. (The journalists put the 1970 Sioux County figure in context by calling it commensurate with the national divorce rate in 1910).

Tavernise and Gebeloff explain how an urban and suburban phenomenon has gone rural:

The shifts that started in cities have spread to less populated regions — women going to work, gaining autonomy, and re-arranging the order of traditional families. Values have changed, too, easing the stigma of divorce.
Prof. June Carbone at the University of Missouri-Kansas City is quoted extensively in the article. She explains the phenomenon by reference to economics and culture:

In the bottom ranks, men have lost ground and women have gained. ... A blue-collar guy has less to offer today than he did in 1979, [thus creating] a mismatch between expectation and reality.
Carbone posits that more women are leaving these marriages--in part because they can. But this is not to suggest that rural women are typically well off.

Since 1990, class has become an increasingly reliable predictor of family patterns, Professor Carbone said. College-educated Americans are now more likely to get married and stay married than those with only a high school diploma, a change from 20 years ago, she said, when differences were much smaller.

Tavernise and Gebeloff note that a significant aspect of the rural-urban gap is educational. While one in three city dwellers has a college degree, only one in six rural residents does.

Read more about single-parent and other vulnerable families in rural America here, here, and here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Pondering globalization

Globalization, whether good or bad, has certainly transformed the world. Globalization can be defined in different ways, but it is fair to say that the term encompasses processes by which trade, investment, technology, and culture flow freely between nations because of the elimination of protectionist barriers to trade and capital flows, such as tariffs. A 2008 Paul Krugman post shows the pervasiveness of financial interconnectedness between nations as a result of globalization since 1995. And in the documentary “Morristown: In the Air and Sun, director Anne Lewis shows the effects of trade and labor liberalization on both American and Mexican workers, including the devastation NAFTA inflicted on Mexico’s corn growers by flooding the market with artificially cheap American corn (artificially cheap due to American farm subsidies). The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan explained back in 2004 that while freeing up the corn market may have made sense in an abstract economic sense, but can be devastating in reality.

Of course, the economic theories that support globalization often seem to make some sense. In the case of the Mexican corn farmers, some would argue that Mexico is actually better off; America can grow corn more cheaply, so Mexico should just buy cheap corn from us so they can focus their economic activities on other more efficient sectors. In actuality, it seems as though NAFTA has not really helped Mexico all that much, with growth at a slow 1.6% per year and job losses outpacing job gains, according to some researchers. But it is unclear whether the problem was just with NAFTA specifically or free-trade in general.

I often find myself very confused about whether globalization is a good thing in the long run because tracing economic policies to their effects is difficult, and because of the argument that protectionist policies in one country lead to a downward spiral of retaliation by other countries (but even this is debated). It seems like you can always find “experts” who have diametrically opposed views on whether a particular economic or financial policy is good or bad. (The Cato Institute for example, claims that “study after study has shown that countries that are more open to the global economy grow faster and achieve higher incomes than those that are relatively closed.” I have a hard time believing that when I look at Mexico, but I’m sure the Cato institute could muster a reply.) I also find that trying to formulate informed opinions about matters of trade policy and international finance to be a demoralizing enterprise because it just takes so much time and effort- more than most people can probably afford to expend. Unfortunately, as economic issues dominate our day to day lives more and more, the importance of an informed polity is higher than ever.

Even if it may be too difficult for most of us to investigate these issues on our own, hopefully federal regulators can be watchdogs on our behalf. The Dodd-Frank law tasks the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to more closely monitor financial markets, which is a good thing, but House Republicans want to make cuts in the CFTC budget in spite of its new responsibilities, while the CFTC is requesting an increase. I believe a refusal to fund oversight of Wall Street is only asking for a repeat of the malfeasance that led to the current crisis.

Of course, closer regulation of our financial markets may help stabilize markets at home, but it may not be of much help to citizens of countries like Ecuador. Although the matter is a few years old, I happened to be reading one of journalist and author Greg Palast’s books, which discussed World Bank policies regarding investment in Ecuador’s energy sector (The section of the book was taken from this Nation article in 2005). Palast claims to have received a copy of “confidential” World Bank 2003 Structural Adjustment Program Loan conditions for Ecuador, which provides that Ecuador must pay 70 percent of any oil price spike related profits to bondholders, while keeping only 10 percent for “social services.” Ecuadorians must also pay double the prices paid by American citizens for electricity, which is unfathomable given that per capita GDP is about $3,000.

I had planned to write my entire post about Palast’s claims, trying to see if I could substantiate them, but I couldn’t. The World Bank doesn’t publish its loan terms, or at least doesn’t make them easily accessible. Searches for “Ecuador” and “World Bank” in the archives of the New York Times and Washington Post turned up a few articles about the rise of “leftist” leadership in Ecuador, such as this 2007 Times article noting that Ecuador does not actually benefit much from high oil prices (not bothering to explain why of course), and a mild request in 2004 that the World Bank advance its mission of reducing poverty. There certainly weren’t any articles directly related to the loan conditions imposed on Ecuador. Without any transparency from the Bank, and any mainstream media interest in the topic, the concerned citizen is left to make his or her best guess as to what is really going on behind the scenes. Maybe that’s all part of the plan. Either way, it’s disheartening.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Good" Appalachian jobs in danger of disappearing

With a headline like this, "Ohio Town Sees Public Job as Only Route to the Middle Class," it's no wonder that this was one of the most emailed stories in the New York Times yesterday. The report says that the economy is so bad in southeastern Ohio--that's Appalachia, of course--that people scramble for public sector jobs that pay better than the $5.25/hour minimum wage. The public jobs also provide benefits, a real boon in this area where "[d]ecades of industrial decline have eroded private-sector jobs here, leaving a thin crust of low-paying service work."

And to be clear, when journalist Sabrina Tavernise says "middle class," she is referring to what most of us think of as lower middle class. Her story features Jodi and Ralph Taylor, a janitor and a sewer manager. Ms. Taylor, age 37, earns $9 working at Gallipolis Development Center (GDC), well above the wide range of minimum wage jobs she held before getting the GDC job in 1996. Neither of the Taylors has a college education. Nor can they afford to send their sons to college; both have joined the military. Yet together the Taylors earn $63,000 a year which, Tavernise reports, "puts them squarely at the middle point of earnings for American families, and higher than the $50,000 earned by the typical Gallipolis family."

The story's dateline is Gallipolis, Ohio, population 4,042, county seat of Gallia County, population 30,837, just across the state line from West Virginia. Tavernise further describes the socioeconomic milieu as one in which fewer than a fifth of adults have a college degree, one-third live in poverty, and prescription drug addiction is rampant.

Needless to say, people like the Taylors are nervous about what a bill to chip away at the strength of Ohio's public-sector labor unions will mean for them. They're worried about slipping out of the middle class. Ms. Taylor is quoted, "We’re not living in any rich, high-income way. What are they wanting? For everyone to be making minimum wage?”

Tavernise provides more context:
Wages at the bottom of the labor market have stagnated since 1970, with inflation gobbling up gains made over the years. The federal minimum wage buys a lot less today; it represented just 38 percent of the average hourly wage for private, nonsupervisory workers in 2010, down from 47 percent in 1970, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The story is one that is starting to attract increased academic attention. Indeed, it's one I've been writing about for several months now: the broad and fuzzy line that separates the middle class from the working class from the poor is getting more blurry than ever. We increasingly hear the term "Missing Middle," and it appears that more of Ohio's middle class (and presumably Wisconsin's) are now in danger of going missing.

This map shows counties that the U.S. government (via USDA ERS) designates "federal/state-government dependent." While Gallia County is not so designated, neighboring Meigs County and one other county in Appalachian Ohio are.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An Inconvenient Choice: stay poor or stay sick?

For me, the terms “smog,” “particulate matter,” and “air pollution” all bring to mind images of the bustling city, urban factories, and gas-guzzling SUVs in bumper-to-bumper traffic on giant freeways. I imagine that many urbanites see the same imagery when they think of pollution, which might explain why urban areas receive the majority of pollution-related monitoring systems and health assessments.

The health and environmental impacts of air pollution in rural places, however, are often overlooked. When we think of rural areas, we think of clear, pristine skies and bright green hillsides—places where people breathe easy, and where we can go to escape the grime of the city. However, these idyllic visions of the countryside are often more myth than reality, as rural areas often get both the secondary effects of air pollution from the cities, as well as the primary effects of pollution from rural industrial activities such as mining and drilling. The fact that urban-based policymakers are overlooking rural pollution can be problematic for rural residents, as they may be suffering from the effects of air pollution and yet not getting the health assessments and treatments they need.

For example, the New York Times reports that last week in Pinedale, Wyoming (population 2,087), State officials declared an “ozone alert” and warned residents not to spend too much time outdoors, as air quality was expected to deteriorate drastically over the weekend. Residents and local environmental experts explained that their beloved county was prone to air pollution because of its geography, a high-altitude valley that creates an atmospheric inversion, acting like a “lid on a pot” that locks in pollutants, and because of its economy, which is primarily based on natural gas drilling.

Although the existence of rural pollution may be shocking for their urban counterparts just 180 miles away in Salt Lake City, Utah, Pinedale residents are no strangers to ozone alerts. Yet, residents also say they would never leave their town, and would not want to change their drilling-based economy. As one resident said, “If poor air quality is what I have to live with, then that’s a choice I make.” Another resident, whose house is a mere 300 yards from a gas well, reminded readers that interfering with the drilling industry is simply not an option in Pinedale. “It’s our livelihood,” she said.

Furthermore, despite the ozone alerts and anecdotal evidence of pollution-related health symptoms such as a high incidence of asthma and other pulmonary conditions, a Pinedale medical clinic director admits that even he is unsure of the link between health risks and the drill rigs. Apparently the town is considered too small for a valid scientific study.

Without the proper implementation of health assessments and treatment programs, rural residents are put in the harrowing position of having to choose between their livelihoods, often based on heavily-polluting industries, and their health. In Pinedale, residents don’t even see it as a choice at all. This no-win situation would not be acceptable to policymakers in urban areas, and it should not be acceptable in rural places either.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Somewhere to hide

One of my favorite scenes in any movie, ever, is the culminating moment in 1994's The Shawshank Redemption in which Red (played by Morgan Freeman), recently released from prison, meets his friend Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) in the small Mexican coastal town of Zihuatanejo (2005 Population: 104,609, but its population boomed from 6,000 or so in the 1990s).

Pictured in the film as an idyllic, small town where Andy fulfills his dreams of buying a small house on the beach and a boat on which he can take tourists out on the crystalline blue waters of the Mexican Pacific Coast. Zihuatanejo was the place Andy insisted Red meet him after Red was released from prison in Maine.

Andy fled to the town after escaping from prison--after being wrongly convicted for murder. He took with him the money he laundered for the prison administrators, who had earned it through less-than-acceptable means and then used Andy's skills as an accountant to hide it from the government. As an escaped convict, Andy knew that if he were to make it down to such a small, rural, halcyon Mexican town like Zihuatenejo, he would be free to live out his life without worrying he would be caught and sent back to prison. In a way, Andy used the wide open space of the beach in rural coastal Mexico to hide from his previous life in the United States.

It seems that many people use rural places--where anonymity or fresh starts can be relatively easy--to hide from their past. On March 10th, the New York Times reporter William Yardley reported that a Boston gangster, Enrico Ponzo, who disappeared in 1994 after he and 14 others were indicted on federal racketeering charges, was brought in by Federal Marshals on February 7th of this year after living as a rancher in Idaho for the past decade.

People in the town where Ponzo--who went by Jeffrey John Shaw--lived knew that he wasn't from there, and that he had no previous experience with ranching when he arrived.
The accent from back East and his inexperience with cattle gave him away quickly as another newcomer reinventing himself in the West. 'He wore bib overalls and straw hats,' said Brodie Clapier, a neighbor and a longtime rancher. 'People did wear bib overalls here — in the 1930s.'
Rural communities often see newcomers, either former city-dwellers or other people seeking work or a new beginning, in their communities. The lack of governmental regulation seems like a great reason for criminals, such as Andy Dufresne or Enrico Ponzo, to move out to the country and hide in plain view. As described in the article, Ponzo was heavily involved in his Idaho community, and his friends in Idaho were absolutely stunned when Ponzo's true identity as a hardened leader of organized crime was revealed.

Ponzo was not hiding in the country; federal marshals, through undisclosed means, learned of Ponzo's location and surveilled him for only one week before taking him into custody.

And yet, the popular perception persists that rural places are safe places. Safer, surely, than cities like Boston, from which Ponzo came. It seems much more likely that one's neighbor in a rural place is a child molester, even if he lives much further away, than the person in the apartment next door in the City. There is obviously no lack of press coverage about people like Ponzo being brought to justice, and yet the perception persists.

While we may never know how many people who have mysteriously disappeared from law enforcement over the years have just been the victims of crime, it seems likely that a few, if not many, have managed to escape to relative obscurity and safety by moving in to small, rural, insular communities. While Ponzo surely missed some of the creature comforts easily accessible in Boston (such as, pizza delivered at 3am), he became completely enmeshed in his new identity and still identifies himself as a rancher from Idaho, despite being outed as "Enrico Ponzo," rather than "Jeffrey Jay Shaw."

And one must wonder how federal marshalls actually tracked him down. Was it newly expanding broadband internet that tipped them off? Or Shaws notoriety in his Idaho community? We may never know.

Military Town, USA

The United States spends an astronomical amount of money on defense. In 2010, the military budget represented nearly 6% of GDP. That accounts for 19% of the federal budget, 28% of tax revenues, and 40% of total spending on arms worldwide. Despite Mark Twain’s warning against “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” these numbers really only point in one direction regarding our country’s allocation of funds between guns and butter. When you’re spending six times more on defense than China, you’re spending a lot.

In general, then, it’s reasonable to suggest that we spend too much on our military, and this reasonableness only increases during a budget crisis. Jim Wallis and Pete Stark have both argued that any cuts in federal spending must extend to the Department of Defense. Congressmen Barney Frank and Ron Paul agree, adding a bipartisan flavor to the argument. Indeed, the Secretary of Defense himself has already announced considerable reductions in the Army and Marine Corps.

I take no position in this blog on the wisdom of reducing defense spending – or even of scaling back from the expansion associated with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the moment, I simply wish to make a point about the potential impact of defense cuts on rural and small-town America.

Tom Green County is one of the relatively sparsely populated, largely rectangular counties that constitute the region west of Dallas and San Antonio. The county seat is San Angelo, a city whose population (91,880 as of July 2008) belies cultural and psychological touchstones that make it feel more rural than urban. This is West Texas, after all. On the southeast side of San Angelo is Goodfellow Air Force Base, where many airmen receive training before taking on jobs in intelligence. Beyond the military personnel stationed at Goodfellow, many civilians work on the base in positions ranging from food servers to administrators.

Goodfellow is easily the largest employer in San Angelo and all of Tom Green County. With 4,990 employees, it provides jobs to roughly twice as many people as the area’s second largest employer. San Angelo is a military town, with businesses going out of their way to cater to their uniformed clientele.

In short, the military industrial complex is not limited to weapons manufacturers and mercenaries. For every Blackwater, there is also a San Angelo. In this and many other places, military installations are the foundation in the economies that have grown around them. Removing or shrinking a base may thus have an effect similar to closing the saw mill or coal mine that once defined a rural community. Even when the best policy is shutting down that mill or mine, we create whole new policy challenges in the aftermath.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami and rural Japan

Many of us have been glued to coverage of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan over the last week. The images coming out of the country are both devastating and amazing, in the sense that they are a reminder of nature's force. Having spent time living in Japan, and being from California, I have experienced my share of earthquakes, but I cannot wrap my head around what a 9.0 magnitude earthquake would feel like, not to mention a tsunami. While there are so many facets of the tragedy in Japan that are mind-boggling and heartbreaking, especially with the developments at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the juxtaposition of a couple of images has really stuck with me: (1) the video of the Tokyo skyscrapers swaying during the earthquake, and (2) the before and after photos of the countryside in the Tohoku region of Japan.

The way buildings in Tokyo withstood the 9.0 Tohoku earthquake, is evidence of the advanced engineering Japan is capable of. After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, a significant amount of money was put into retrofitting old buildings and researching ways to protect structures during earthquakes and tsunamis. There have also been significant resources pumped into construction projects throughout rural areas of Japan, much of it receiving criticism as being poorly allocated.

Earthquake and emergency drills are also commonplace throughout Japan and serve as another indicator of the preparedness that Japan has strived for. Having lived in a coastal town in Wakayama prefecture, well south of the affected areas of the Tohoku earthquake, I can speak to the construction on many of the roadways I traveled, as well as to the drills (in addition to earthquake drills, there were also extensive drills to prepare for a school shooting situation). One of the precautions taken in coastal towns, are large concrete boulders (shaped like jacks) lining the shores. Viewed as an eyesore to many, they serve to hold back waters during typhoons and mild tsunamis.

Setting aside views on the aesthetics of the construction and arguments over the management of money, a recent New York Times article explains how the strict building codes and numerous drills saved lives in Japan. Clearly, from the evidence, Tokyo withstood this recent earthquake incredibly well. However, the bulk of the devastation hit more rural locations. As the article explains, while money has been pumped into stabilizing some buildings, many of the older structures in rural areas, are made of light wood, not strong enough to withstand strong earthquakes let alone large tsunamis. I don't know whether stronger structures would have withstood the fast-moving waters of the tsunami, or the extent of the earthquake damage prior to the tsunami, but the reality is that entire towns and villages were swept away and it appears that a large amount of the affected areas were rural farming communities. The disaster in Japan in not the type of natural event that a country can completely prepare against. That said, watching images of the city and the countryside, it is difficult not to wonder whether the same attention to building codes and infrastructure in cities was being paid to the rural areas of Japan.

An Associate Press article brings attention to another consideration in the aftermath of the quake and tsunami -- the impact on Japan's already declining population, specifically the population of rural Japan. Much of rural Japan is older. Part of this is due to the migration of young people from the countryside to the cities. Time will tell what the effects on the population will be (which until very recently was declining), and for now we can just hope that the nuclear situation becomes stable and the millions of dollars in aid reaches those most in need. What is clear, and what has been reported widely, is that the Japanese are a resilient people and hopefully this tragedy will bring people together and they will grow stronger as they rebuild.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXVI): Woman sentenced to 20 years in boyfriend's death

The March 9, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times leads with the headline, "Guilty plea to murder; 20-year sentence." The story tells of 36-year-old Kerry Breedlove's guilty plea to second-degree murder in the shooting death of her boyfriend, 39-year-old Shannon Price, in December, 2009. I wrote about this crime earlier, here and here. The woman's trial, initially set for December 2010, was continued until this month so that her public defender could find an expert to testify that she "suffered from Battered Women's Syndrome." This news story does not report the results of that effort, only that the defendant pleaded guilty to the lesser charge. Breedlove will be eligible for parole in 5 years. Once released, she must begin reimbursing the county for the $5000 it has paid to house her in the Boone County Jail since her arrest. She will also be liable for $200 in court costs. Almost two years ago, another woman, this one aged 34, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for killing her husband in the heat of a domestic dispute.

In other news, a front-page story reports that two 18-year-old Harrison residents were arrested in a meth house bust in the community of Liberty, in the far northwest part of the county, near the Madison and Carroll County lines. A third person escaped the bust by fleeing on foot, but he has been identified as 38-year-old Richard Dacheff III of Green Forest.

The third big front-page story regards a public meeting about how to raise revenues to better support county functions--particularly the Sheriff's Office, which suffered deep cuts in the 2011 budget recently passed by the Quorum Court, the county's governing body. The Feb. 16, 2011 issue of the paper had reported that the sheriff's office "suffer[ed] the bulk of the effect of a $45,000 reduction in anticipated revenues in 2011." The Sheriff announced then that he would likely have to lay off two of the county's six deputies and that he might not be able to "meet the constitutional requirements of his job," including "following directives from the judicial courts within the county."

A letter to the editor in the March 9 issue suggests that the new Republican county judge (chief administrative officers) and the Quorum Court made deep cuts in the budget of the Sheriff's Office, while maintaining funding levels to the County Clerk and County Assessor, because the Sheriff is an Independent while the other two county officials are Republicans. The author of the letter, R. C. Horn of Western Grove, self-identifies as a Republican but asserts that the Quorum Court should have cut funding to the Assessor and Clerk and let them turn to volunteer help to make ends meet, rather than causing the Sheriff's Office to bear the brunt of the shortfall. I note the contrast with 2008, when the Sheriff's Office, along with the road fund, was the only county department not to be hit with a spending freeze.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Invoking rural values and virtues to defend farm subsidies

Those are two issues that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack brought together this week in a conversation he had with Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein. The dialogue between the two appears to have been prompted by a column Klein wrote about Edward Glaeser's new book, The Triumph of the City (subject of this earlier blog post). Klein's post book mostly waxed poetic about cities and said little about rurality. But Klein closed his column with this:
[I]t would of course be political suicide for President Obama to say that part of winning the future is ending the raft of subsidies we devote to sustaining rural living. And the U.S. Senate is literally set up to ensure that such a policy never becomes politically plausible.
I find it interesting that this little jab in particular got Vilsack's back up because, frankly, so much rural bashing goes on in the media. (See posts here and here). Maybe it was the mention of subsidies that did the trick, evoking Vilsack's ire. Klein referred to subsidies in relation to "rural living," but Vilsack may have read it as regarding farm subsidies because he talked about the latter in his response.

In fact, Vilsack responded with various arguments about the value of rural places and, in particular, rural culture. Here is part of Klein's report of what Vilsack said to him:
I took it as a slam on rural America. Rural America is a unique and interesting place that I don’t think a lot of folks fully appreciate and understand. They don’t understand that that while it represents 16 percent of America’s population, 44 percent of the military comes from rural America. It’s the source of our food, fiber and feed, and 88 percent of our renewable water resources. One of every 12 jobs in the American economy is connected in some way to what happens in rural America. It’s one of the few parts of our economy that still has a trade surplus. And sometimes people don’t realize that 90 percent of the persistent poverty counties are located in rural America.
Interesting data and arguments, no? In summary, Vilsack
  • stood up for the needs of persistent poverty counties.
  • argued that we should value rural places because they supply a lot of soldiers (Vilsack subsequently argues that this phenomenon is linked to rural culture)
  • pointed out the significance of agriculture to the American economy
  • claimed rural America as the source of "food, fiber, and feed," as well as "renewable water resources."
The first item in the list there struck me as rather disingenuous because the USDA's budget is so disproportionately devoted to agriculture. As a fellow blogger pointed out last week, the USDA includes a Department of Rural Development, but its budget comprises a tiny part of the USDA's overall budget. I wish Vilsack and the USDA were as concerned about persistent poverty in rural America as the comment suggests, but I don't see evidence to prove it.

I also found of interest Vilsack's argument that the disproportionate number of rural folks doing military service is related to rural culture. Vilsack said:
They send their children to the military not just because it’s an opportunity, but because they have a value system from the farm: They have to give something back to the land that sustains them.
Again, I find this interesting, but not convincing. Call me cynical, but I think many young rural folks join the military because of lack of other opportunities. This is not to say they are not patriotic--just that there's more to the disproportionate rate at which rural kids are the proverbial cannon fodder than patriotism.

On the other hand, I think Vilsack was spot on when he said, "And small-town folks in rural America don’t feel appreciated." I have written about that here.

Klein, on the other hand, struck me as an arrogant urbanite, as when he replied to Vilsack's comment about persistent poverty: "Are 90 percent of the people in persistent poverty in rural America? Or just 90 percent of the counties?" Is Klein suggesting that we shouldn't care about the links between place and poverty just because relatively few people are affected? Is he saying that rural people--especially poor rural people--aren't worthy of government attention and assistance? If we look at sheer numbers, of course, urban areas will always look more important and more worthy of our concern and intervention. But doesn't every person count? I am reminded of Martha Nussbaum's assertion that "problems cannot be ignored or postponed on the grounds that they affect only a small number of people." (Frontiers of Justice, p. 100)

Here's another recent piece about farm subsidies and their downsides, this one by Mark Bittman of the New York Times. In his call to change, but not end, agricultural subsidies, Bittman leads with this powerful paragraph:
Agricultural subsidies have helped bring us high-fructose corn syrup, factory farming, fast food, a two-soda-a-day habit and its accompanying obesity, the near-demise of family farms, monoculture and a host of other ills.
He goes on to argue that farm subsidy funds could be more sensibly spent to:
• Fund research and innovation in sustainable agriculture, so that in the long run we can get the system on track.

• Provide necessary incentives to attract the 100,000 new farmers Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack claims we need.

• Save more farmland from development.

• Provide support for farmers who grow currently unsubsidized fruits, vegetables and beans, while providing incentives for monoculture commodity farmers to convert some of their operations to these more desirable foods.

• Level the playing field so that medium-sized farms — big enough to supply local supermarkets but small enough to care what and how they grow — can become more competitive with agribusiness.

Bittman contends that spending this way could "encourage the development of the kind of agriculture we need, one that prioritizes caring for the land, the people who work it and the people who need the real food that’s grown on it."

Sounds like a win-win to me. Here's a related story about a new generation of youngish farmers oriented to small farms and sustainable practices. They sound like just the sort of folks I'd like the USDA to be supporting, not least in order to make the fruits of their labor affordable to those outside the upper middle class.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Population loss and gain in the Ozarks

The Newton County Times reported a few weeks ago on what the 2010 Census tells us about changing demographics in the county. The Feb. 16, 2011 headline is "Census: County lost 3.2%," and the story indicates that the county's population dropped from 8,608 in 2000 to 8,330 in 2010. The 2005-2009 ACS estimate for the county, at 8,311, was surprisingly close to the 2010 actual count.

The 2005-2009 ACS estimates for the county's two incorporated areas were less accurate. Jasper's population fell from 498 to 466 between 2000 and 2010, though the 2005-2009 ACS estimate put it at a much lower 357. Western Grove's population fell from 407 to 384 between 2000 and 2010, while the 2005-2009 ACS estimate has indicated a 20% increase, to 518.

The only neighboring county whose population also fell was Searcy County, which dropped less than 1%, from 8,261 to 8,195. Other surrounding counties saw relatively robust growth:

Pope County: a rise of 13.4% from 54,469 to 61,754
Johnson County: a 12.1% rise from 22,781 to 25,540
Madison County: a 10.3% rise from 14,243 to 15,717
Boone County: an 8.7% rise from 33,948 to 36,903

Data for neighboring Carrol County, which had a 2000 population of 25,357, was not provided. Carroll County has experienced an influx of Latina/o immigrants in the past few decades, and I would be surprised if its population fell between 2000 and 2010. Its 2005-2009 ACS estimate was 27,321.

The differences among these counties may be explained by their economies. Newton and Searcy counties are persistent poverty counties with very small populations, while surrounding counties tend to be micropolitan and to have more robust and diversified economies. Surrounding counties are also more likely to be economically entangled with even larger and more prosperous neighboring counties, in some cases serving as exurbs to metropolitan areas such as those in Washington and Sebastian counties.

This story also indicates that Newton County's participation rate in the Census was particularly low, at 60% for the entire county and 67% for the city of Jasper. This low participation rate, the story notes, results in a significant loss of federal funding for "schools, parks and other public facilities." Sadly, this may reflect the locals' distrust of the government.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Handling dog poop, from a ruralist’s perspective

Having grown up in the unincorporated areas of Humboldt County, I always saw dogs as having certain natural freedoms. Chief among those natural rights was the right for canines to poop wherever they deemed necessary. I was never aware of any special rules governing dog poop in my town. As a child attending my elementary school, accidentally stepping in dog poop during recess twice a year was almost like a right of passage. I think that growing up I chalked it up to just another way one learns to pay attention to one’s surroundings. If you don’t watch where you’re going, you might just step in shit, literally. Similarly, leashes were really only for big scary dogs like Dobermans or Rotwilers. Most dog owners in my area, including myself (back when my Labrador “Bo Bo” was still alive) viewed leashes only as means to get said dog from the back of the pickup to the park entrance. And when my dog had to poop, he did it, usually in an appropriately chosen spot such as in the weeds or somewhere else located off the main path.

You can imagine my surprise when I moved to San Francisco and witnessed one of the weirdest human behaviors I had ever seen. People were walking their dogs down the street with a plastic glove on one hand, a leash in the other, and a plastic baggie in their pocket. I watched in amusement as these people waited anxiously for the dog to do it’s “business” so they could eagerly scoop up the warm poop with their free hand for collection. The dog owners would then hang on to their little present until they found a public trashcan or in some instance a special receptacle made for dog poop collection. “Dumbfounded” is the only word that can accurately describe my reaction to this bizarre urban ritual. These people must really, really, want a dog in their life, I thought.

I can remember a stand-up routine where the comedian was elaborating on the same basic scene. I will do my best to paraphrase from my hazy recollection of this part of the routine:
If an alien race suddenly landed on earth and the first two earth beings they encountered, were a man and a dog. A big dog was leading a man on a leash. Every once in a while the man stoops over to pick up the dog poop with his hand. Who do you think the aliens would assume was in charge of the world, the big hairy beast leading the way, or the little pink man who is in charge of doo-doo collection?
The longer I lived in San Francisco, the more I realized how commonplace this behavior was. In fact the San Francisco Municipal code states that:
It shall be unlawful for any person owning or having control or custody of any dog to permit the animal to defecate upon the public property of this City or upon the private property of another unless the person immediately remove the feces and properly dispose of it. 
It shall be unlawful for any person to walk a dog on public property of this City or upon the private property of another without carrying at all times a suitable container or other suitable instrument for the removal and disposal of dog feces.
Upon comparing the Municipal code of rural Crescent City California, I saw that it was similar in the first part, but did not contain the language about the “suitable container.”

Then I thought about the town in which I grew up. There is no municipal code, because our town is unincorporated. I have never heard of anyone receiving a citation or a ticket over dog poop. I believe that the reason for this discrepancy is obviously the spaciousness of rural towns compared to that of the city. In a city people must already watch out for numerous hazards as they walk down the street without having to worry about stepping in doo-doo. It makes sense, but then why all the dogs? It’s funny to me how people who hold themselves as being so sophisticated are the first ones to volunteer pick dog crap off the sidewalk with their hand. As for me, I don’t think I need a dog in my life that bad.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Another post about post offices

Others have blogged recently (here and here) about the trend to close small, rural U.S. Post Offices around the country. A much older post about the topic is here. Not surprisingly, I am very sympathetic to communities' desire--even need-- to keep their post offices for more reasons than the opportunity to buy stamps and dispatch packages. These post offices are community gathering places, especially where local schools, grocery stores, and gas stations have closed.

I was somewhat surprised to read in a recent issue of the Newton County Times that Newton County, my home county, (still) has (just) 11 post offices. (This item is part of the paper's series: 52 Reasons We Love Newton County). S0, 11 rural post offices serve a county with a population of 8,330 (in the 2010 Census, down about 3% from the 2000 Census, when it was 8,608) and a population density of 10.5 persons per square mile. That is one U.S. Post Office for about every 760 residents. That may may seem like a lot of post offices for not very many folks, but bear in mind that the county covers 823 square miles, leaving a lot of territory for some patrons to cover to reach a post office.

The communities of Compton, Deer, Hasty, Jasper, Marble Falls (previously Dogpatch!), Mount Judea, Parthenon, Pelsor, Ponca, Vendor and Western Grove currently have post offices. Four of these communities also have schools: Jasper, Western Grove, Deer, and Mount Judea. Only Jasper and Western Grove are incorporated entities; none of the other post offices is linked even to a Census Designated Place. Sadly, some of these 11 post offices may soon disappear under the U.S. Postal Service's 10-year plan to respond to declines in mail volume.

One of the most interesting things about this little feature in the Newton County Times is its mention that the county has had as many as 50 post offices since the first was established in 1827. That's right: 50! I don't believe the county's population has ever been significantly greater than it is now, which suggests that the per capita rate of post offices has been higher in the past. To be clear, not all of these post offices were ever open at one time.

In any event, reading through the history of which communities had post offices during what years sheds light on when the various communities waxed and waned. Jasper, the county seat, has had a post office since 1843. Some post offices were open only for a few years during the the 1880s, e.g., Cold Mountain (1879-1881); Beech Woods (1867-1881); and Cave Creek (1855-1895). Some places went from having a post office to having a "Rur. Sta."--whatever that is. One of these was Boxley, home to the famous Boxley church, which had the Boxley Post Office from 1883 to 1955 but then the "Boxley Rur. Sta." from 1955 to 1969. There was a post office at Pruitt from 1925-1975, when it became Pruitt Rur. Sta. and survived another five years. Pruitt is on the Buffalo National River, and I remember when the old post office building by the Hwy. 7 bridge there became the Pruitt Ranger Station--and the "town" itself dried up. I was intrigued to see that Ryker, a wide spot in the road (with an extensive junk yard on either side) on Cave Mountain, which I stumbled upon last year, once had a post office: 1891-1937.

Some of the more recent closures of county post offices include these:

Bass: 1902-1998
Ben Hur: 1908-1975
Cavecreek: 1895-1973 (presumably the successor to Cave Creek, noted above)
Cowell: 1902-1955
Fallsville: 1883-1955
Low Gap: 1952-1970
Lurton: 1916-1967
Mossville: 1889-1981
Mount Sherman: 1934-1955
Murray: 1884-1961 (followed by Murray Rur. Sta. 1961-1963)
Nail: 1915-1989
Piercetown: 1946-1955
Redrock: 1884-1955 (preceded by Red Rock: 1875-1882)

I've included a photo of the post office at Ponca. I also have one of the post office at Parthenon, but it looks just like the one at Ponca, so there's no reason to post both. Presumably like some others in the county, they are relatively recent, government-issue, modular buildings that replaced the earlier ones with local character and charm. My personal favorite was the old post office on the square in Jasper, where Scenic Hwy. 7 bends. The building was made of massive stones, just like the courthouse across the street. It featured a huge window that separated the room with the postal counter from the sidewalk outside. Sadly, that historic building was destroyed when a new brown brick post office was built in the 1970s, a few blocks away.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Fracking and its environmental consequences

Fracking--the extraction of natural gas from beneath the earth's surface--has been very much in the news in recent days. Indeed, it's been on the minds of we law and rural livelihoods folks for some time. A student wrote about it here in the fall of 2009.

This week, Ian Urbina did a two-part series on its environmental consequences in the New York Times. The first was headlined, "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells' Tainted Water Hits Rivers," and in it Urbina describes why hydrofracking has become more widespread in recent years and how it works:

The gas has always been there, of course, trapped deep underground in countless tiny bubbles, like frozen spills of seltzer water between thin layers of shale rock. But drilling companies have only in recent years developed techniques to unlock the enormous reserves, thought to be enough to supply the country with gas for heating buildings, generating electricity and powering vehicles for up to a hundred years.

* * *

But the relatively new drilling method — known as high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking — carries significant environmental risks. It involves injecting huge amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, at high pressures to break up rock formations and release the gas.

The second story, "Pressure Limits Efforts to Police Drilling for Gas," reports on the lax federal regulation of oil and gas waste, dating back to the 1980s. That lax regulation has carried over to this era of increased natural gas extraction, and it results in a double standard among industries. Urbina illustrates his point:
Coal mine operators that want to inject toxic wastewater into the ground must get permission from the federal authorities. But when natural gas companies want to inject chemical-laced water and sand into the ground during hydrofracking, they do not have to follow the same rules.
Both of Urbina's stories note concerns about the impact of the fracking waste on water supplies--especially city water supplies.

In addition to these environmental and water waste disposal issues, concerns about geological stability have also arisen in relation to hydrofracking. Going back a month or so, the New York Times has given quite a bit coverage to an "earthquake swarm" in north central Arkansas, near a place named Guy, population 557. The Times published this story back in early February. The headline speaks the proverbial volumes about the insignificance of rural places--until things start to go clearly awry there (especially when the things going awry might have an impact on urban places--that is, diminish energy supplies): "A Dot on the Map, Until the Earth Started Shaking." In it, Campbell Brown reports on the thousands of earthquakes--all of them quite small--that have struck the Guy area since early fall, 2010. Brown observes that the Guy "earthquake storm" has been "followed by the Guy media swarm, with reporters pouring in through the surrounding orchards and cow pastures to ask residents what the quakes feel like." Brown observed in the early February story that the "only documented damage is a cracked window in the snack bar at Woolly Hollow State Park."

But that was as of a month ago. On March 1, a larger quake struck Guy, one measuring 4.7 on the Richter scale. It was the largest quake in Arkansas in 35 years. (Bear in mind that the New Madrid fault runs through northeast Arkansas, but not near Guy).

Turns out, hydrofracking may be the cause of the quakes. The rush to drill for natural gas in the so-called Fayetteville shale--which encompasses the Guy area--intensified a few years ago. Now, because of this latest quake, the State Oil & Gas Commission yesterday asked the companies doing the drilling to close the wells used for the wastewater byproduct of the fracking.

I'm especially keen to know if good science will ultimately establish a link between the quakes and the hydrofracking. (An apparently related story out of California is here; another quake was recently recorded nearby). As for the consequences of fracking waste in our water supply and other environmental harms, I can only hope that the federal government steps up to the plate soon with appropriate regulation.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Missing the bus

Countless words can describe the recent uprisings in the Arab world. Historic, exciting, sobering, tragic, triumphant; all are fitting. But, without intending to diminish the cultural and political significance of these events, I must say that another apt term is “expensive.”

Libya may be heading towards a civil war, and although the troubled nation is not a major supplier of oil to the United States, the market uncertainty and attendant speculation has pushed the price of oil back over $100 per barrel. Gasoline is now $3.29 per gallon on average, up from $3.11 only a month ago, and we may see prices hit $4 per gallon if unrest spreads more broadly in the region, according to the New York Times.

A people's right to self-determination should not be denied in the name of cheap gas. But it is important to consider the impact of gas price increases in the context of rural places and their unique vulnerability to high fuel costs: longer commutes, lower incomes, and greater ownership of inefficient vehicles such as trucks and SUVs.

Of course, the solution is simple- rural people can just take the bus to work right? We have all probably heard arguments that Americans need to follow the European model and embrace public transportation. But, as Paul Krugman noted two years ago in an article titled Stranded in Suburbia," public transportation "faces a chicken-and-egg problem: it's hard to justify transit systems unless there's sufficient population density, yet it's hard to persuade people to live in denser neighborhoods unless they come with the advantage of transit access."

If Dr. Krugman is correct, and public transit is hard to justify in suburbia, it must be doubly difficult in rural areas. According to the Federal Highway Administration, some 38 percent of the nation's rural residents live in areas without any public transportation, and less than 10 percent of federal spending for public transportation goes to rural communities. 28 percent of rural counties that do offer public transportation only do so on a limited basis.

Unfortunately, any significant creation or expansion of rural public transportation networks is unlikely. The current House budget bill would cut transit programs by more than $1 billion. The Senate Democrat bill would maintain our current investments in public transport, but eliminates $150 million from a program that funds new transit services. And efforts by individual states to expand programs are probably not forthcoming given their collective budget problems.

As lamentable as this situation is, not everyone is frowning. Exxon Mobil for example recently posted a fourth-quarter earnings surge of 53 percent, which followed earlier reports of "soaring profits by fellow oil giants Chevron and ConocoPhillips," as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Exxon reported $9.25 billion in profits last quarter, a level not seen since the third-quarter of 2008, where profits totaled $14.83 billion.

Seems a little unfair. Is there something we can do? Well, it's too late to emulate Norway, where the government is the majority shareholder in the country's two oil companies (and where, coincidentally, people have the highest living standards in the world), so how about a windfall tax? I realize that would be socialist and all, but can't Big Oil share some of those sweet Libyan uprising profits with the rest of us? I think I even remember a senator from Illinois who promised a windfall tax if he became president. Oh that's right, he changed his mind after he was elected. But Mr. Obama said that was just because prices had returned to below $80 per barrel. So now that they're back up, the President will push for the tax again right? Nope, prices hit $80 per barrel last January and we haven't heard a peep.

So it looks like everything has turned out pretty well for the oil companies and their wealthy executives. But they forgot one thing. If the rural poor can't afford to drive to work, who will clean their resort hotel rooms?