Smoking and Drinking

Have you ever wondered about the disparity in the way the law treats alcohol, tobacco and marijuana?

As any police officer will attest, a nasty drunk is far more dangerous than someone zoned out on “weed.” As the scientific literature will confirm, tobacco is many times more harmful than marijuana. Not only has the belief that marijuana is a “gateway drug” proved bogus, but for adults, it is less harmful than either smoking or excessive ingestion of alcohol. (No one has ever died of a marijuana overdose, although if your preferred method of indulging is brownies, I suppose the resulting obesity might get you.)

People with addictive personalities will abuse whatever is at hand–alcohol, drugs, even glue. Should we outlaw glue?

The history of America’s war on drugs is too labyrinthian and too racist to recount here, and there are plenty of books and articles on the subject if you are interested in the whole sordid story. Suffice it to say that our mindless war on weed has made the once-profitable cultivation of hemp illegal, prevented study of marijuana’s medicinal value, and not-so-incidentally ruined countless lives (mostly African-American; black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though both groups use the drug at roughly the same rate.).

But attitudes are finally changing.

In 1969, according to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Americans thought the drug should be illegal; by 2015, that number had fallen to 44 percent.

After Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana, policymakers began to seriously consider a number of issues–especially pot’s potential to generate tax revenue.

Legalization raises a number of questions with policy implications. For example, how can it be taxed? In 2015, Colorado raised $135 million in taxes and fees from legal sales. Another important question: Will states that stop arresting people for selling or having marijuana save money on policing and reduce their incarceration rates? Some 620,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2014, according to the FBI; young minority men were disproportionately targeted. Will more children take to smoking weed? As laws relax and the stigma associated with marijuana recedes, people may use more.

A study from Australia suggests some answers to those questions. The authors looked at what consequences we might expect if marijuana were regulated like alcohol and sold to people above the age of 21. They extrapolated their analysis to include the United States, a country with similar cultural behaviors and economies. Here are some of their findings:

  • The U.S. could raise between $4 billion and $12 billion annually by taxing legal marijuana. These numbers are based on a tax levy of about 25 percent, which is what the state of Colorado charges.
  • When people have more access to marijuana (through legal and illegal means) more people use it.
  • Currently, 17 percent of Australians say they do not use cannabis for fear of legal repercussions; 90 percent of those say that access is not the reason.

Access is evidently not a problem for people in either country; several years ago, an American study found that teenagers in Maryland could obtain illegal marijuana (and other drugs) much more easily than they could obtain legal but regulated alcohol. Legalization and regulation similar to that currently in place for liquor stores would probably reduce today’s easy availability.

The authors determined that a tax rate of 25% wasn’t high enough to incentivize a black market. One of the (many) negative consequences of drug prohibition is the fact that it makes an illegal market profitable.

In the U.S., tobacco and alcohol interests have powerful lobbies, so those substances are legal even though they do far more harm than marijuana.

Just to be clear, I don’t advocate prohibition for any of these; we’ve seen how well that works. Substance abuse is a public health problem; it shouldn’t be a matter for the criminal justice system.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we based public policy on evidence and analysis, rather than moralism and money?

Uncharted Territory

If this political year feels unprecedented, it’s because it is. Even Nate Silver, oracle of the numbers, admits to its abnormality.

In a normal presidential election, both candidates raise essentially unlimited money and staff their campaigns with hundreds of experienced professionals. In a normal presidential election, both candidates are good representatives of their party’s traditional values and therefore unite almost all their party’s voters behind them. In a normal presidential election, both candidates have years of experience running for office and deftly pivot away from controversies to exploit their opponents’ weaknesses. In a normal presidential election, both candidates target a broad enough range of demographic groups to have a viable chance of reaching 51 percent of the vote. This may not be a normal presidential election because while most of those things are true for Clinton, it’s not clear that any of them apply to Trump.

Silver’s acknowledgement of the “not normal” elements of this particular election came in an essay in which he explored the possibility of a landslide for Clinton. We haven’t had any landslides for quite some time–since Reagan, to be specific–and one of the factors militating against one is the highly partisan divide of the American electorate.

These patterns [close elections versus those won by large margins] seem to have some relationship with partisanship, with highly partisan epochs tending to produce close elections by guaranteeing each party its fair share of support. Trump’s nomination, however, reflects profound disarray within the Republican Party. Furthermore, about 30 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning voters have an unfavorable view of Trump. How many of them will vote for Clinton is hard to say, but parties facing this much internal strife, such as Republicans in 1964 or Democrats in 1972 or 1980, have often suffered landslide losses.

An electoral college vote of 270 or more is all that is needed to elect Clinton. The value of a landslide–or anything close–is that it would sweep in down-ticket candidates. Conventional wisdom says a decisive Clinton win will give the Democrats the Senate, but it will take a massive sweep to wrest control of the extensively gerrymandered House.

A big win wouldn’t only give Hillary a legislative branch she could work with. It would also help Democrats chip away at the Republicans’ huge advantage in the nation’s statehouses. (We might even narrow the gap here in Indiana, where the GOP currently enjoys a super-majority.)

A girl can dream.

Given the intense hatred of Hillary Clinton that has been carefully nurtured by Republicans over the years, there is probably a ceiling to her support, even against the unthinkable disaster that is Donald Trump–a ceiling that will prevent her from winning a landslide. And while it does look unlikely that Trump can rebound from his self-inflicted wounds, the last thing we need in this bizarre election cycle is complacency.

If you’ve read this far, please check to be sure that your voter registration is current and correct–and stay healthy at least through November 9th……

About Those Captains of Industry…

I’ve been pretty hard on big corporations in several blog posts, and I stand by my criticisms of the behaviors I’ve identified.

That said, the Washington Post recently published an interview with Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, and it reminded me of the danger of political rhetoric–including my own– that oversimplifies and labels.

On the right, the villains are Muslims, immigrants–actually, pretty much anyone who isn’t a white Christian. On the left, it’s big corporations and rich people.

It’s not that simple.

There are certainly decisions that Apple and other corporate behemoths have made that I personally question, but in many ways, Apple has been a pretty exemplary corporate citizen. As the introduction to the interview notes, Cook has been credited with making the company more systematic, transparent, and team-oriented.

He has engaged on social issues more than most CEOs, writing op-eds on legislation that limits gay rights and making the extraordinary decision earlier this year to oppose the FBI’s request to unlock the San Bernardino killer’s phone.

Cook–like many other thoughtful businesspeople–understands that a focus on short-term profits can undermine the elements of corporate culture than are essential to long-term prosperity. (There’s that “self-interest properly understood” theme again…)

I also think that the traditional CEO believes his or her job is the profit and loss, is the revenue statement, the income and expense, the balance sheet. Those are important, but I don’t think they’re all that’s important. There’s an incredible responsibility to the employees of the company, to the communities and the countries that the company operates in, to people who assemble its products, to developers, to the whole ecosystem of the company. And so I have a maybe nontraditional view there. I get criticized for it some, I recognize. If you care about long-term shareholder return, all of these other things are really critical.

The lesson here isn’t about Apple, or Cook.

Those of us who deplore “us versus them” politics, who remind our fellow citizens that the American constitution requires evaluating our neighbors as individuals, rather than members of groups, need to practice what we preach.

Every corporation is not Koch Industries or Walmart. Every billionaire is not Donald Trump.

When Freedom Indiana was fighting efforts to marginalize the gay community, the most persuasive voices against bias were those of Eli Lilly, Emmis, Cummins and other large companies. When Costco demonstrates that better pay and employee benefits translate into higher profits, employers who would never listen to social “do gooders” take note. When billionaires like Nick Hanauer insist that the real job creators are consumers, and that only by paying workers more can we grow the economy, people listen who would never listen to me, or to other “pointy head” academics.

We need to work toward a culture that recognizes the differences between the responsible and the irresponsible; a culture that rewards good corporate citizenship, and shames the profiteers.

Prejudice is the tendency to paint with a too-broad brush; it is failure to draw appropriate distinctions.

Self-Interest Properly Defined

Here’s a question: if you lie on an employment application in order to get a job, and you do in fact get the job as a result,  was your dishonest behavior in your self-interest?

Most of us would probably say that the lie did advance your short-term interest, although there is a strong likelihood that long-term, simply as a practical matter, your dishonesty would come back to bite you. Thoughtful respondents might go further, pointing out that even when we “get away” with unethical behaviors, such actions tend to make us less aware of the effects of such behaviors on ourselves and others, and ultimately cause us to be worse people than we might otherwise be.

Being a deeply flawed human is arguably not in our self-interest.

Assuming you agree with this analysis of where self-interest properly lies, what can we say about corporations and other financially-interested parties that intentionally and knowingly create public doubt about climate change?

A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists didn’t ask that question, but it did explore the “organizational and financial roots of polarization.” (That’s academic-ese for the process of intentionally sowing doubt about settled science.)

Ideological polarization around environmental issues—especially climate change—have increased in the last 20 years. This polarization has led to public uncertainty, and in some cases, policy stalemate. Much attention has been given to understanding individual attitudes, but much less to the larger organizational and financial roots of polarization. This gap is due to prior difficulties in gathering and analyzing quantitative data about these complex and furtive processes. This paper uses comprehensive text and network data to show how corporate funding influences the production and actual thematic content of polarization efforts. It highlights the important influence of private funding in public knowledge and politics, and provides researchers a methodological model for future studies that blend large-scale textual discourse with social networks.

The entire article can be accessed at the link. Basically, it confirms that “uncertainty” is the desired outcome of expenditures made on behalf of fossil fuel interests. (I know you are shocked–shocked–to find that gambling is going on here.)

Many people excuse the efforts of gas and oil and coal interests to slow the development of renewable energy and green practices on the grounds that these companies and lobbyists are acting in their “self-interest.” I have heard people say that, although it is unfortunate, it is understandable that these companies  would try to protect their bottom lines.

It may be understandable (it’s also “understandable” that people steal things they want, or shoot people they dislike), but it is profoundly immoral. And as far as “self-interest” is concerned, delaying widespread recognition of an existential threat to the planet cannot possibly be in the “self-interest” of any of the planet’s inhabitants.

Many years ago, De Toqueville admired Americans for displaying “enlightened self-interest,” or “self-interest rightly understood.” As he explained it,

The Americans…are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.

Just like that lie on the employment application, climate-change denial in service of a short-term bottom line will eventually destroy the reputations of the liars. But in this case, the likely damage to millions of their fellow humans–including their own progeny– makes loss of reputation a pretty inadequate price to pay.

Apparently, It Isn’t Just Flint

Water, water everywhere…but not a drop to drink.

For several months, headlines about Flint, Michigan have documented a failure of government that is truly unforgivable. Whatever one’s preferred ideology about the proper size or function of government, only the most extreme libertarians or anarchists would argue that government has no responsibility to provide and maintain essential infrastructure.

In the wake of these disclosures, there has been public outrage and condemnation leveled at Michigan Governor Snyder and his administration. That condemnation is deserved. The outrage has reflected a belief that the actions of the administration were “beyond the pale,” that they were a rare and unacceptable deviation from the most basic duties of governance.

Or so we would like to think.

Megan Davies, North Carolina’s chief epidemiologist, resigned this week in the latest bit of drama over drinking water safety — drama that involves the state’s biggest utility and the administration of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Davies, who accused state officials of deliberately misleading residents, gives up her post of seven years and an $188,000 annual salary.

The story begins in 2014, when a Duke Energy power plant spilled 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River. The ash is a byproduct of burning coal, and it’s harmful to people and ecosystems, containing silica, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.

When the spill occurred, the state told residents that their well water was unsafe, and Duke Energy provided bottled water to those affected. When the state lifted that order, telling those in the area that the water was now safe to drink, a number of scientists working for the state criticized that move, insisting that the water was still unsafe. Davies has now resigned in protest.

There is still no order from the state requiring Duke Energy to clean up the coal ash deposits. This is corruption and it is potentially costing many lives and damaging the environment enormously.

For those of us who live in the Hoosier state, there’s similarly disquieting news closer to home. Think Progress recently reported that “An Indiana City is Poised to Become the Next Flint.”

In East Chicago, the problem is lead contamination in the soil.

Some environmental law experts say the national attention on Flint may have finally ignited action in East Chicago, where residents like Daniels finally learned the scope of the issues with their soil just two weeks ago. The EPA office responsible for East Chicago, Region 5, is the same one that oversaw Flint, Michigan’s contaminated water system.

But these are hardly the only communities with long-ignored contamination tucked into low-income neighborhoods.

The unfolding health emergency in East Chicago is a window into a larger environmental justice crisis playing out in neighborhoods across the country. And the historically minority, lower-income residents of the Calumet neighborhood will suffer the consequences.

Children exposed to lead at a young age can be left with severe brain damage, resulting in irreversible mental disorders, seizures, behavioral disorders like ADHD, and stunted educational growth.

These disclosures join a number of other signs that governments–especially at the state level–are not discharging their most basic responsibilities. In Indiana, unsafe bridges have also made the news. Nationally, Congress has yet to authorize funds for needed upgrades to the electrical grid. The neglected infrastructure list goes on.

A country that cannot maintain its infrastructure is a third-world country.

I can’t help thinking that this is what happens when a society’s dominant discourse constantly characterizes government as unnecessary, inept and corrupt. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When “good enough for government work” attitudes demean public service, government stops attracting the “best and brightest,” the people who want to serve, to make their communities better; instead, it becomes a refuge for second-raters seeking power or influence.

When I worked for the City of Indianapolis in the late 1970s, I was constantly impressed by the number of administration officials and municipal employees who cared deeply about doing a good job, who worked extra hours and took pride in improving their city.

At some point, when “government work” became a sneer, a lot of those civic-minded people left.

Instead, we have the Snyders, McCrorys and Pences.