Saturday, March 25, 2017

Above It All or Each Other

Just a day apart, I saw these two sets of juxtapositions. The first is two adjacent tweets about our Dear Leader:

But enough about him.

The second was from the Star Tribune as I was shaking apart the sections to discard the sports pages:

I laughed out loud.

Friday, March 24, 2017

You Are Not Alone

I have not been reading mentions of the adult man who got a light (or no) sentence for raping a 12-year-old girl (and I'm not linking to any stories about this here). But that prompted a friend on Facebook to post this. She is an adjunct professor of sociology and women's studies in the Boston area:

All these discussions about an adult man getting a pass for raping a 12-year-old girl inspired me to ask two of my classes today at what age did the women in the class first get sexually recognized by an adult man, whether it was comments, touching, cat calls, or so on.

Even I was chilled to find that collectively the average age was TEN! And everyone of them had a story about a creepy friend's or boyfriend's dad. Wake up, world, and stop fetishizing little girls!
These were predominately white, upper-class girls. The discussion today made clear that they had never even talked about it with each other before. Collectively, all the girls felt like they must've done something and were shocked to find out they all have the same stories of dads at friend's houses or a little boyfriend's daddy and they all felt they must've been leading on these grown men going as far back to age 10. Our culture is so fucking broken.
The fact of their experience is sickening, but the silence that surrounds it is almost as troubling. You don't even know that it makes sense to talk about it because no one talks about it.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Moment of Rationality

Only a few days ago, I noticed that all three of the op-eds in the Star Tribune that day were from a conservative point of view, and I wondered what was happening with our supposedly "liberal" paper, the one that gets called the Red Star by our farthest Right community members.

Today, I would classify the three op-eds as one progressive and two that are hard to categorize, but the seven letters to the editor were all progressive, which may be a record.

They covered three topics: the National Endowment for the Arts, a proposed fee on electric vehicles, and public transit.

The NEA letter took the form of a cartoon, and was in response to an earlier cartoon that belittled the NEA:

The electric vehicle letters made excellent points about how the many real costs of gas-powered vehicles are not covered through taxes or any other fees, that EV owners already pay more through registration fees than do owners of gas-powered cars in gas taxes, and that it's stupid to tax the thing you want (cleaner-energy vehicles) instead of the thing you don't want (dirty energy).

The public transit letters pointed out that people from outside the metro area benefit from public transit when they visit (helping them avoid traffic, parking fees, and unfamiliar roads), that light rail works really well for a wide range of people (with strollers, bikes, wheelchairs, not to mention legs), and that raising the gas tax 5 or 10 cents would barely be noticed in the usual fluctuation of gas prices.

I suppose the letters will swing back tomorrow, but it was nice to have a moment of rationality with my morning tea.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Poor Old Pumpkin

It has been one of those days where my best idea for a blog post is to go into my photos and pick one more or less at random.

So here it is, my October pumpkin some time in November:

Yes, we have squirrels. Why do you ask?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Wrong Turn If We Want Happiness

The World Happiness report has just hit the streets, and the U.S. has fallen to 14th place. The top five spots are overwhelmingly dominated by Scandinavian countries, with Norway number one.

The Washington Post reports some of the background of how the ratings are done. While they start from a type of self-report, the results are analyzed using six variables:

  • income
  • healthy life expectancy
  • having someone to count on in times of trouble
  • generosity
  • freedom
  • trust, which is measured by the absence of corruption in business and government
What's up with that declining rank for those of us in the U.S.? Well,
Americans...have been reporting declining happiness over the past decade, according to the report. While the United States has improved in two of the six variables used to calculate happiness — income per capita and healthy life expectancy — it has suffered when it comes to the four social variables. American citizens are reporting less social support, less sense of personal freedom, lower donations, and more perceived corruption of government and business.
Note that our declining happiness dates back to the to the Bush years, before the crash in 2008. It didn't improve during the Obama years. It has been so notable that the report includes a special chapter called Restoring American Happiness, written by Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs.
“This American social crisis is widely noted, but it has not translated into public policy,” Sachs wrote. “Almost all of the policy discourse in Washington DC centers on naive attempts to raise the economic growth rate, as if a higher growth rate would somehow heal the deepening divisions and angst in American society. This kind of growth-only agenda is doubly wrong-headed.”

Sachs told Reuters that President Trump's policies will only make things worse. In his preliminary budget, released last week, Trump has indicated plans to gut several federal agencies and slash spending on foreign aid, including to the United Nations.

“They are all aimed at increasing inequality,” Sachs told Reuters. “Tax cuts at the top, throwing people off the health-care rolls, cutting Meals on Wheels in order to raise military spending. I think everything that has been proposed goes in the wrong direction.”

The United States, he concluded in the report, is looking for happiness “in all the wrong places.”

“The country is mired in a roiling social crisis that is getting worse,” Sachs wrote. “Yet the dominant political discourse is all about raising the rate of economic growth. And the prescriptions for faster growth—mainly deregulation and tax cuts — are likely to exacerbate, not reduce social tensions. Almost surely, further tax cuts will increase inequality, social tensions, and the social and economic divide between those with a college degree and those without.”

Monday, March 20, 2017

Missing a Smile

I cut all kinds of slack to people who have to be photographed in public all the time. Imagine if every which way you looked all day long might be frozen fall time and thrown up onto the interweb? I don't psychoanalyze Melania or Michelle for what they do or don't do with their faces moment by moment. I can't imagine being under that much pressure.

But there's one less-important-than-all-the-other-things thing about President Turnip I will never get used to, and it's his inability to smile naturally:

This is about as close as he gets to a smile, and... really. What is that face? He looks like a proud five-year-old.

Whereas Barack Obama...

That man knows how to smile and make it look natural, whether it is or not. Sometimes it's bigger, sometimes it's smaller, sometimes no teeth show, but it always looks like a smile. A human thing.

One more thing to miss these days.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Random Tab: Bullying

I have something approaching 100 tabs open. No time to go through them. So for today, here's one picked at random: How being bullied affects your adulthood, from Slate.

The article is from June 2016, so that gives you an idea how behind I am.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

My Motto for the Age and All Ages

You're sitting in a meeting and suddenly you realize the mug in another person's hand says this:

And you stop the meeting to take a picture of it.

That was me yesterday.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Driven Out, Not Sent Packing

The story is bad enough: an African American couple and their three foster children moved into a house in the Twin Cities exurb of Delano only a few months ago, and over the weekend found their home burglarized and vandalized with unprintably racist graffiti and spray-painted messages like "get out."

This post is not about what happened to the family, which you can learn from reading the story linked above. My question is: What headline would you put on that news story, if you were the Star Tribune?

I'm not sure exactly what I would have done in their place, but I know it wouldn't have been worded the way the Star Tribune folks did it here:

The threats "sent them packing," the headline tells us. Sent them packing.

Have you ever used that phrase? I don't think I have, and the only appropriate headline usages that come to mind are sports-related. ("The Yankees sent the Twins packing, 12 - 2.") It's not meant to be used for something serious.

The original phrase, of course, comes from Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1, when Falstaff says to Henry about a visitor waiting to see him, "Faith, and I'll send him packing."

Some definitions I've seen: to send away ignominiously; to dismiss someone, possibly rudely. I'd even go so far as to argue that it implies a lack of preparation by the one who is sent packing. They were no match for the victor, the words imply.  

It's a phrase that speaks from the point of view of the winner, which in the case of this news story means the racists who damaged and defaced a family's home. It's inappropriate to use in this headline.

The story does refer to the fact that the family members are packing their belongings to move out of the house (to an unnamed suburb that is more racially diverse than Delano, home of our post-Michele Bachmann Congressional Rep. Tom Emmer). But I sincerely hope the headline writer wasn't trying to use word play in the headline for such a serious story.

As if to acknowledge that the main headline wasn't quite right, the jump headline read like this:

Switching the verb to "drive from" is much more of a factual rendering.

The headline on the Star Tribune website reads like this:

Nobody's been sent packing in these other two headlines, and I hope that in the future only baseball teams are sent packing in the Star Tribune.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Have a Seat

The agony of the Turnip budget is too much to deal with. So instead for today I have some chairs and a table:

They seem like a normal set of four chairs and a table (maybe if the photographer was standing on a step ladder), until you realize the scale:

I am a sucker for miniatures.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Hello and Goodbye to Winter

We had a little snow storm on Sunday night. About four inches. Just enough to make driving bad and improve the looks of the place. It won’t last, though, because it’s sunny and the temperature is going up every day. It’ll be 50 by Friday.

On Monday, I took the Green Line train to downtown St. Paul for the Metro Transit meeting, and saw this on the platform:

Out here in Minnesota, we’re saying what I think may be a last goodbye to winter, while the East Coast (including my hometown) got 30+ inches of snow, and there’s going to be an insane heat wave in the West.

It's so good to know that climate change and climate disruption are all a figment of my imagination.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Metro Transit's Structural Deficit

At first, it might seem reasonable: our local public transit system, Metro Transit, is projected to have a $74 million deficit in 2018. Right now the general bus and light rail fare is $2.25 during rush hour and $1.75 during off-peak hours, and it last was increased (by $.25) in 2008. That’s 10 years between fare increases, so fares haven’t kept up with inflation. Why not raise fares to make the numbers work?

But it’s not reasonable. Metro Transit has made big improvements in service since 2008 and ridership has increased substantially, too. More money is coming in than ever before from riders. The idea that fares should pay for most of public transit's cost is retrograde thinking in a world where we need to use way less carbon and get people out of cars. And cars are subsidized in all sorts of ways that are not acknowledged.

Unfortunately, our transit system is funded largely by fees paid when people buy cars in Minnesota, and the number of people buying cars is going down, which is causing the deficit. You see the problem there? We (and the biome) want people to stop driving cars, but Minnesota is funding the thing that replaces cars with a fee on cars. It makes no sense. It can't work in the long or even short term.

The column at right shows the current projected deficit. MVST is the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax.

Several scenarios

I learned all of this at a meeting of the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Committee yesterday where they were considering fare increases. The committee and then the full council will likely vote on several scenarios for increased fares:

  • $.25 added to all fares
  • $.25 added to regular bus and train service, $.50 added to express and Metro Mobility
  • $.25 added to regular bus and train service, $1.00 added to express and $.75 to Metro Mobility
Ridership losses for each of those changes were given at the meeting and ranged from 5 to 8 percent depending on the type of service. But revenue increases with the fares, of course, so it nets out to a higher dollar amount.

An alternative (or additional) funding mechanism, which would make these changes unnecessary, would allow counties to add a half-cent sales tax. That would generate close to $300 million dollars and close the funding gap, and also make transit less reliant on car sales for its funding. But our state legislature has so far been opposed to allowing counties to tax themselves, in keeping with their general preemption mindset of telling local governments what to do.

I support the sales tax approach. Transit should be funded through the broadest base possible, and in my opinion should be free to end-users, as it is in places like Talinn, Estonia. A significant portion of the cost of operation goes into collecting fares in the first place (think of the IT costs of running a stored value card system, for instance). But if we can’t get rid of fares altogether, they should be kept as low as possible and low-income folks should receive discounted fares.

A little good news

On that point of discounting fares, there were two pieces of good news in the proposal:
  • One option proposed would make Metro Transit’s recent TAP experiment (Transit Assistance Program) permanent. I’m not sure of its extent in this permanent scenario, but the pilot program gave $1.00-per-ride passes to low-income people, and obviously that would help offset fare increases.
  • Another option proposed would eliminate the peak surcharge on non-express routes for seniors, youth, and people with disabilities: they would pay their reduced fare (currently $.75) at all times.
When ridership decreases, where do the riders go?

A 5 percent decrease in bus and light rail riders equals 2.5 million people a year, or almost 7,000 a day (365 days a year) or more than 9,600 a day (using only business days, when most transit use occurs).

Where do those people go (or not go)? How many of them instead drive a car or take a cab or Uber and add to pollution, carbon dioxide, and congestion? How many are kept from doing necessary daily activities and lose jobs or other social connections they need?

As several members of the public said in testimony before the committee, public transit is our mobility. One woman with epilepsy said she can’t drive even if she wanted to. What is she supposed to do?

If the fares go up, Metro Mobility (Metro Transit's service for people who can't use regular bus service because of disability) rides are estimated to decrease by 142,000 riders in 2018 and 213,000 in 2019. That saves a lot of money because Metro Mobility’s subsidy is very large, and the number of people using it is going up as our population ages. The amount of revenue netted from the fare increase on Metro Mobility is only about a third of the amount saved by cutting out riders. So there’s a big incentive to increase Metro Mobility fares and push away riders. A negative, contradictory incentive.

Met Council staff reported they have already carried out a Title VI analysis of the proposed increases. They say the proposals won’t have a disparate impact on low-income people and communities of color, but that sounds like self-serving math to me. It just means the number of people with more income who don’t ride transit is within some predetermined "acceptable" range when compared to the number of people with less income — but the impacts are not the same. The more-well-off people will drive a car instead or take a taxi or Uber (or maybe pay more money for the bus and not really notice it), but the poor people will have their mobility impaired or have more money taken from them, which they needed to use on something else. Taking $.25 five days a week from a person who makes $20,000 a year is not the same as taking $.25 from someone making $75,000 a year, obviously. How is that not a disparate impact?

The sign I brought along.

Service cuts

All of these fare increases net out to just $15 million in new revenue—which obviously isn’t a large percent of the projected $74 million deficit, so what kind of service cuts are they thinking about to make up the rest of the money hole? That was not covered in the meeting.

I am actually more afraid of service cuts than I am of a $.25 fare increase, and you already know how much I hate the idea of the fare increase. Both are bad and together they create a death spiral for a transit system, but service cuts are a bigger contributor to the death spiral than fare increases.

In testimony, local activist Mel Reeves called on the Met Council to rally the public to pressure the legislature in support of transit funding through the sales tax. A committee member responded that we (the public) need to tell the legislators our stories of the effects fare increases and service cuts have on us.

One committee member asked how much ridership would have to increase to make up for the deficit, and staff promised to have that information for the committee's next meeting. I don’t think that’s realistic to expect, though, especially if service cuts are part of the picture.

Convincing a Republican-majority legislature to fund transit outright, when they have gotten it into their heads that transit is a special interest, is a no-win proposition. Our best bet is to persuade just enough members, through personal contact with people from their districts, to allow the special sales tax.

That's not in any way an easy thing to do, though. (These are the same people who won't give a hearing to a bill introduced by their own Republican colleague to stop health insurers from overruling doctors in ways that harm patients... he now uses a wheelchair because of these practices and knows whereof he speaks.)

I am not hopeful, but I'll be there to fight for transportation for all.

These stickers were passed out to transit supporters.


Interesting facts:
  • Only 10 percent of other transit systems around the U.S. have a peak/off-peak fare differential. Metro Transit is very interested in simplifying its fare structure so it's more understandable, and I think that’s a good idea.
  • I learned what Transit Link is: a service available in the suburbs (in places where there is no regular bus service). Riders call by phone to arrange service. A trip less than 10 miles is $2.25 each way; between 10 and 20 miles is $4.50 each way, and more than 20 miles is $6.75 each way. ADA-certified riders pay a maximum of $4.50 per direction. It has limited hours compared to regular buses: 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Monday through Friday only. The cost and subsidization per mile is very high (almost $20 per passenger).
  • Light rail has the lowest subsidization ($1.84 per passenger). Second lowest is on urban local buses ($3.16) and third lowest on express buses ($3.86). Suburban local buses are subsidized $5.22 per rider, but even that sounds low compared to Northstar Commuter Rail ($18.31), Transit Link ($19.92), and Metro Mobility ($23.94). The idea of subsidy sounds value-free, but is actually value-laden. It doesn’t take into account that transit riders (at least on the high-density services like buses and light rail) are taking a significant number of vehicles off the streets and highways, which means less traffic and a faster trip for everyone else.

The full presentation by Met Council staff can be seen here.