Sunday, July 20, 2014

Frayed border. Or 'fraid knot.

Just a quick rant on the border children.  Please, if you have an opinion on this, leave a comment.  I’m not an expert on any part of it, so please educate me.   But I can see what it looks like: a flood of refugees, as we have seen in this world in other places and at other times, fleeing from wars or disasters.  Only in this case, at this time and at the border of our country, there is a very large component of young people, mostly teenagers but also younger children, in this refugee population.

Here is the data.  (Always nice to start with the facts, don’t you think?)  Go ahead, take a look, I’ll wait.

Notice that in every sector except Tucson the “apprehension” of “unaccompanied alien children” has had a huge increase, but in one sector, the Rio Grande sector, it has been staggering: from 14,565 in 2013 to 42,164 in 2014 (which isn’t even over yet!).  That’s an increase of 189% so far and it will be far larger by the time the year is over.  But even that understates the problem, because there has also been an over 500% increase in that sector in the apprehension of “family units”.  These are people that seem to be traveling as a family.  But it’s more than possible that a very large number of these family units were not families when they started their journeys toward refuge.  Some “families” were probably formed rapidly as the border approached, so that the adults involved could have a better chance of staying here for at least a while.

Congress, of course, is going on recess.  But I’m tired of complaining about Congress.  Let’s discuss this among ourselves, and let them pursue their bewildered irrelevance at their leisure.  They are involved in a deep argument over whether this influx resulted from a 2008 law passed under George Bush or from a more recent executive action by Barack Obama.  Both of those may contribute, but to attribute the flood of refugees to either of those is just wrong: the cause of the flood is not a porous border or leniency for children.  The cause is that the life they are fleeing is enormously worse than the life they expect when they get here, and that life, the life faced by those few who are allowed stay, is no picnic.  They will be paupers, and illegal immigrants with no rights here at all.  And the journey they undertook to get that dismal chance was long and terrible. 

But what they left is overwhelmingly worse.  It must be worse, or why would they come?

There are several pieces in the Washington Post this morning on this, but there is only one that is required reading.  Oscar Arias (Nobel Peace Prize winner and twice President of Costa Rica) wrote this article on the Opinion page in the front section.  If I quoted as much of his comments as I’d like to I’d undoubtedly run afoul of some copyright law, but let me give you this much:

“The conservatives who oppose President Obama’s request for emergency funds for the crisis criticize him for dealing only with the symptoms and not with the ‘root cause’ of the problem. They are half right — but the half that’s wrong is very, very wrong. For them, the root cause is a lax immigration law, weak protections or insufficiently severe punishments. But no punishment, no wall and no army can solve this problem…If these children … are willing to risk their lives atop the infamous train through Mexico known as La Bestia (“the beast”), face the rape and abuse that many children experience during the journey, sell their possessions and their bodies, and give their life savings to unscrupulous smugglers, what else could possibly deter them? What can the United States do to these children that would be worse than what they are already suffering? And why is such a great country even asking that question?”

Yes.  They face certain danger, hunger and abuse on the road here, a high probability of rape, or of being sold into servitude, or of death.  They are leaving the country they know, the language they know, the customs and people they know, their families, their friends.  What punishment can we impose, what deterrent can we bring to bear, that is worse than what they are enduring to get here?  We can send them “home”, to face dangers that they think are even worse than the journey here.  And if we don’t make an anguish for them here that is worse than the one they are fleeing, they will continue to come.  This is basic economics: these people are making, we assume, a rational choice, weighing one set of risks against another, and will continue to make that same choice as long as it appears to be rational to do it.  

But it’s the last question in that list that haunts me.  Why the hell are we talking, and waiting, as though this were simply a dessicated debating point?  Why is a great country, this great country, my great country, asking that question?  There are tens of thousands of children who need help, who are desperate and alone in the world, facing poverty and legal limbo if they are allowed to stay and vastly worse poverty and violence if they are sent back home with no support and no help from the world.   

Arias goes on to say:

“The root cause of this crisis is not U.S. immigration law or the policies of one U.S. president. The root cause is the violence and poverty that make these children’s lives at home intolerable. The root cause dates to the parents and grandparents of the young people fleeing their countries today — our region’s ‘lost generation,’ those who were children and teenagers in the 1980s. Back then, two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — chose our region as a place to work out their disputes. They were eager to help Central America transform students into soldiers. They were eager to provide the weapons while we provided the dead.”

Does he sound bitter?  Maybe.  But he lived through that period; he was President of Costa Rica the first time from 1986 to 1990.  And his comments make sense to me.  But in truth it doesn’t matter much right now who we blame, or how far back the blame goes.  It doesn’t matter whether it is Obama’s fault, or Bush’s fault, or the cold wars, or the drug wars. 

What matters, for the moment, is the present tense, not the past tense or even the future tense; what matters is the human story, the many human stories, appearing on our side of the border every day.  They need shelter, and food, and medical care.  We know how to provide those; we’re probably the best in the world at that task.  Every time there’s a disaster anywhere on earth---tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes---our rescue teams and our Coast Guard and our National Guard, and our Marines, with all their ships and aircraft and trucks and ambulances, and thousands of eager young people who want to make a difference in the world, show up to help. 

I’d like to invite the President and the Speaker to please get their heads out of their darker and more political body parts.  But if they can’t manage that, maybe the rest of us can.  Let’s take care of those children.  We can assign blame, and choose what path we want to take to make the world harsher, and colder, and less human, when we’ve got the current flood of children cared for.

Or---once the immediate crisis is under control---maybe we can undertake the radical (from the root) solution everyone says they want.  But that won’t involve some fiddling fix to our immigration laws.  Since, as Arias argued above, nothing we can do here will make our border harsher or colder than the situation these people have left behind, why don’t we take the alternative path.  Instead of making things worse for them here, why don’t we work with the Central American countries they’re escaping to make things better for them there? 

Naah.  Maybe that’s a bit too radical.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Here's to burned burgers and other carbon based products

It’s July  4, 2014, Independence Day in the United States.  It’s appropriate to write something thoughtful about the history of the country, the meaning of the revolution, and all that---but it was a rebellion, and in that spirit I think I'll reject the cultural pressure to write about the whole 4th of July thing, and write about something else entirely.  I won’t even offer up an old family recipe for brioche hamburger buns or watermelon-wine sorbet or anything.   The Washington Post op-ed page is full of that stuff, so I’ll just link to Samuelson, which, astonishingly, I found worthwhile today, and to Gerson too, who is almost always worthwhile even when I completely disagree with him.

So yesterday I was grazing through the econoblogs and followed a link to this discussion of the carbon cycle by Dr. Peter Dorman, which I thought was interesting and unusual in a site called “EconoSpeak”.   The theory here is that emissions from gas-powered cars and coal burning power plants should not be considered “pollution” in a strict sense.  Really, he says that.   Here’s a quote:

“People whose actions move carbon into the atmosphere are not necessarily ‘polluters’.  We’ll see this later when we look at electric cars.  The fact that carbon goes out my tailpipe but not yours doesn’t mean that I am a carbon polluter when I drive and you’re not.  As you can imagine, this misunderstanding plays havoc with the industry that calls itself carbon accounting.”

His idea is pretty straightforward, actually, and captured in the line "carbon will find a path".  What this means is that once carbon is extracted from a safe sequestration far under the earth, it will spread itself out into the world, including into the atmosphere, no matter how it is used.  The carbon cycle will extract it from whatever use you put it to, use it, spill it, twist it, turn it upside down and inside out, and in the end some fraction of it will be contained in plants, some in animals, some in the (shallow, accessible) ground, some in the surface ocean, and some in the air.  Cars and factories are not the culprit: they are the most common direct path of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but not the ultimate source.  There is only one act in the carbon cycle that can be described as causing carbon pollution: extracting carbon from deep in the earth and adding it to the carbon cycle up here in the surface world.  The extraction of oil, coal, natural gas, or any other carbon-rich substance from deep isolation liberates it, and one way or another some of it will eventually enter the atmosphere, period.  Like melting water on a hilltop moves in rivulets and then streams, or soaks through the earth, or in sliding ice-packs that we call glaciers, by one path or another it moves downhill, carbon will move by one path or another to all the repositories it uses, including the bodies of living things, surface earth, surface water and the atmosphere.  Once freed from captivity in the deep earth, it will inevitably get to its various destinations in balanced proportions.  That’s the idea.

But if not through factory  or car emissions, how does it get from the surface in solid or liquid form into the air as a gas?  Well...the two most widely discussed atmospheric gasses that contain carbon are carbon dioxide and methane.   Biological sources account for significant amounts of the methane in the atmosphere. For example, one of the famous sources of methane pollution in the atmosphere is flatulence, the emission of excess carbon and hydrogen from the earth's 1.4 billion cows, or from its 7 billion people, or 19 billion chickens, or untold trillions of termites and methane producing microbes in the oceans, swamps and land fills.   So if it's true that "carbon will find a path", and if we eliminate factories and cars by, for example, taxing them out of existence, we haven’t solved the long run problem.  Carbon will just find its way into the atmosphere in other ways, possibly through increased (or prolonged) excretion of methane from animals.  It may take longer, but if he's right, then eliminating carbon dioxide pollution from factories, power plants and cars only means that we'll fart our way to global warming.  It might take longer but we’ll get there in the end.

Dr. Dorman didn't say this, but a fanciful vision I had when I read his blog post is that the release of new carbon from deep in the earth enables population explosions by providing the raw materials required to build new living bodies: all those new living things are built from carbon and that carbon has to be available.  More carbon, more plants, livestock, people and microbes---and more carbon in the air from biological emission sources.  Once we dig it up, it finds a way into the atmosphere, even if that involves using itself to build a lot more of us, and using us and our farms and waste dumps as a pathway into the air.

But that means that a carbon emissions tax on factories is the wrong approach: that just taxes the symptom.  What we need is a tax on the real source of carbon pollution: the extraction of carbon from deep isolation in the earth.  This would make gas and coal more expensive, and alternative energy sources more attractive, and would discourage carbon extraction into the surface world carbon cycle.

I'm not sure I completely buy the inevitability of it (there may be ways to re-sequester the carbon, to extract it from the air and capture it in a more or less isolated form), and reorganizing the emission sources away from factories, power plants and cars will at least slow the process, so I'm not really willing to abandon my support for carbon emissions taxes and subsidies for alternative industries that don’t push carbon directly into the atmosphere.  But the story has a strong logic, doesn't it?   Moving away from carbon fuels will slow things down, and so it’s a good idea for the “short run”---say, 50 years, or 100 years, or 1000 years---but to solve the truly long run atmospheric carbon problem we have to capture as much carbon back into a sequestered form as we liberate.  That “carbon cycle” also has to balance, or we have no long run chance to avert global warming.  So tax the source, and let the price mechanism induce a flood of ways to do without it.  And subsidize technologies that sequester carbon (artificial diamonds?) to extract the carbon from the system.  

The point of this notion is that it doesn't matter how we use the carbon once it's loose in the surface world.  What matters is that we need it, and where we get it, and how we can remove it from the whole system, not just from the air.


Happy 4th.