235 (21 October 2015)

Welcome to week 235!  The articles below caught my attention this week.  Please note that what are intended to be relatively objective “briefs” are preceded by dashes (——–), whereas additional material or relatively subjective comments are preceded by asterisks (********).  The links to articles preceded by [SR] require a subscription to be read in their entirety, although complete articles may frequently be found by an Internet title search.

(13 October 2015): “America: A Welfare Nation” (http://daily.jstor.org/america-welfare-nation/)

——–“The mayor of Lewiston, Maine recently made headlines when he called for the state to publish the name and address of anyone receiving welfare benefits.  The idea of publicly shaming people for receiving government assistance is not new.  But when these stories do arise, we rarely stop to think about what we mean when we say someone is ‘on welfare.’  In 1983, Mimi Abramovitz tackled that question head-on in a paper provocatively titled ‘Everyone is on Welfare.’  Almost 20 years later, she updated the paper for the new millennium.”  Through a wide-ranging discussion that includes the “fiscal welfare” system that especially benefits “wealthy and upper-middle class households, subsidizing investors and owners of large homes” she concludes that “the low visibility of the kinds of welfare that aren’t aimed at poor people has protected them from ‘the stigma, hostility, and cuts that have come to be regular features of programs for poor people.’”

********Given the recent events surrounding the former owners of the Waking Life Espresso coffee shop in Asheville, I found the recognition of public shaming to be of current, local interest.  Public shaming—I’m reminded of scarlet letters and such—is part of the invisible handshake, i.e., social and historical factors that affect human behavior.  Also noteworthy is the attention drawn to the “visibility” of benefit.  The argument seems to be that there is a direct relationship between visibility and stigma, that is, the greater the visibility of benefit, the greater the stigma.  This is likely worth further thought drawing upon the articles by Mimi Abramovitz linked to the article.

(14 October 2015): “How Monkeys Became Big Business in Florida” (http://www.bloomberg.com/features/2015-florida-monkey-farm/)

——–Just north of the Everglades, Hendry County of Florida has become a center for raising monkeys for medical research.  The prominence of the county in the trade is a result of the insight of Paul Houghton, who is the owner and ECO of Primate Products of Redwood City, California.  “In 1998, after many years in the monkey business, several spent overseas, he was looking to build a large, isolated farm somewhere in the U.S.  Breeding monkeys alfresco, which is much cheaper than doing it indoors, requires consistently warm weather.  South Texas is one possibility.  South Florida is another.  The Florida Keys would be ideal, but Houghton knew folks there had long ago soured on monkey breeders.”  Given that the Keys were ruled out, Houghton just drew a line north, which hit the Everglades, then Hendry County.  Houghton’s “640-acre site usually houses 1,000 to 1,200 monkeys . . . The company doesn’t sell monkeys to collectors or zoos.  It only does business with biomedical researchers.  Houghton is absolutely committed to the work his company does, which he sees as a “battle against human disease and suffering.”  People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), however, has a very different perspective.  Senior laboratory oversight specialist Alka Chandna says “activists have a good chance of snuffing out the monkey trade in Hendry County.  And whatever PETA can do to squeeze the supply chain, she says, will help the group’s overall mission, which is to end the use of all animals in laboratory science.  If you can disrupt the availability of lab monkeys, s argues, the cost will increase, ultimately creating more economic incentive for scientists to develop alternate methods of developing medications.”

********In its investigation of monkey farming in Hendry County, PETA made use of an undercover worker to videotape the operations of Panther Tracks, a company owned by Houghton.  It resulted in the film Inside the Hub of the Global Monkey Trade.  I was unable to confidently identify PETA’s movie, however the article includes a seven-minute Bloomberg video that provides images of the animals and the facility in which they are housed, as well as statements by a variety of people involved in monkey farming and its critique.  You can find the website for PETA at: http://www.peta.org/.

(15 October 2015): “Justices Delve Into Electricity Markets and Class-Action Demands” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/15/business/justices-delve-into-electricity-markets-and-class-action-demands.html)

——–On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard a case “concerning the federal government’s authority to regulate energy markets,” a case “at least partly driven by power companies concerned about their profits.  The case, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission v. Electric Power Supply Association, No. 14-840, involved complicated economic questions that seemed to test the limits of the court’s expertise.”  As noted by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, “We’re not electricity regulators . . . It’s pretty touch and technical.”  The case involves “a regulatory approach known as ‘demand response,’ which encourages electricity users like schools, hospitals and shopping centers to reduce consumption at peak times in exchange for price breaks. . . . The main legal question in the case was whether the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had overstepped its authority by intruding into retail markets.”

********As the article notes, intrusion into retail markets seems to be key.  Combined with this is the difference between federal regulation versus state regulation.  This should provide an interesting and potentially important ruling when it is finally made.  Certainly, with our federal system of governance, there is a potential for 50 states to conduct “experiments” from which all might potentially learn.  On the other hand, there are usually gains to be made from an appropriate standardization by federal regulation.  In the article Justice Antonin Scalia is quoted as saying “I like deregulated markets.”  Perhaps he was indicating that he likes markets with a smaller degree of regulation, as opposed to an unregulated market.  In relation to this distinction, Robert Reich’s recent book Saving Capitalism, Part I, chapters 2 and 4-8 are useful.  There he notes that the five building blocks of capitalism are: property, monopoly, contracts, bankruptcy, and the enforcement mechanism.  The invisible foot—legal and political factors—can only be escaped in abstract societies.

(17 October 2015): “Schumpeter: Professor Dr Robot QC” (http://www.economist.com/news/business/21674779-once-regarded-safe-havens-professions-are-now-eye-storm-professor-dr-robot)

——–“In 1933 . . . two British sociologists, Alexander Carr-Saunders and Paul Wilson, wrote a book celebrating the professions.  They describe them as ‘stable elements’ in a turbulent world, which ‘inherit, preserve and hand on tradition’ . . . [and act as] centres of resistance to crude forces which threaten steady and peaceful evolution.’”  The professions do this through “high barriers to entry.  They routinely limit their recruitment to people with degrees. . . . But today these islands of security are being battered as never before.”  According to Richard and Daniel Susskind, the authors of The Future of the Professions, “the most important source of instability is information technology . . . Machines are challenging the professions’ two most important claims to being special: their ability to advance the frontiers of knowledge and their exclusive licence to apply their expertise to an unordained laity.”  Although the Susskinds predict an eventual “dismantling of the traditional professions” they “probably take their case too far.  They ignore the fact that, as people get richer, they choose to spend their surplus wealth on human touch.”

********The full title of the Susskinds’ book is The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts (http://www.amazon.com/Future-Professions-Technology-Transform-Experts/dp/0198713398/).  The summary paragraph above reminded me of the expression “high tech, high touch.”  As it turns out, social forecaster John Naisbitt has a 1999 book by that title, High Tech High Touch: Technology and Our Search for Meaning (http://www.amazon.com/High-Tech-Touch-Technology-Meaning/dp/0767903838).  The author of “Schumpeter” is certainly correct that hybridization is the future of the professions, and presumably the educational organizations that educate them.  Few, if any, organizations will opt for one extreme or the other.  As always, the question is “What is the ‘best’ mix?”  That mix will vary from one organization to another depending upon mission and the invisible forces at work.

********While traveling this last week I had the opportunity to view and use the Amazon Echo, which “connects to Alexa, a cloud-based voice service” that can “provide information, answer questions, play music, read the news, check sports scores or the weather, and more—instantly.”  For a variety of factual questions, one can simply state, “Alexa, did the Toronto Blue Jays win today?” and the answer comes forward quickly.  It sort of feels high tech and high touch.  You can learn more about the Echo at: http://www.amazon.com/Amazon-SK705DI-Echo/dp/B00X4WHP5E/.  All this is reminiscent of the recent movie Her, which you can read about at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1798709/.

(17 October 2015): “China’s left-behind: Little match children” (http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21674712-children-bear-disproportionate-share-hidden-cost-chinas-growth-little-match-children)

——–“Over the past generation, about 270m Chinese labourers have left their villages too look for work in cities.  It is the biggest voluntary migration ever.  Many of those workers have children; most do not take them along.  The Chinese call these youngsters liushou ertong, or ‘left-behind children’.  According to the All-China Women’s Federation, an official body, and UNICEF, the UN organization for children, there were 61m children below the age of 17 left behind in rural areas in 2010. . . . This is a blight on the formative years of tens of millions of people.  Alongside the expulsion of millions of peasants from the land they have farmed and the degradation of the country’s soil, waste and air, this leaving behind is one of the three biggest costs of China’s unprecedented and transformative industrialization.”  Of those 61 million children, slightly more than half were living with one parent, while 29 million were left in the care of others, usually grandparents; “about 6m were being looked after by more distant relatives or by the state.”  Beyond that, 2 million children were left to “fend for themselves.”

********As noted in the article, the Chinese hokou system makes it difficult to move families, as many of the state-provided benefits, such as schooling and health care, are tied to particular localities.

(17 October 2015): “Selling cannabis: Mother of all highs” (http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21674771-determined-push-win-over-moms-under-way-mother-all-highs)

——–Those hoping to take marijuana “mainstream know they have to get mothers of their side.”  As Jazmin Hupp, the head of Denver’s Women Grow society, “Once moms are on board, that’s it.”  Her exclamation explains “the recent surge in products such as vegan wee bonbons, cannabis kale crisps, cannabis spiced almonds and ‘high tea’.”  The way to get mothers on their side is “to emphasize the health benefits of the weed.”

********Along with the problem of marketing marijuana to mothers, growers have a need for banking services, which have been hard to come by.  According to Bloomberg Businessweek (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-10-15/finding-a-place-for-cannabis-cash), “Of the more than 7,600 banks and credit unions in the U.S., only about 220 accept cannabis cash.”  As a response to this situation, Anthony Rivera Jr., a graduate of Harvard Business School, has proposed developing an American Indian banking system.  “His organization, CannaNative, is trying to link tribal leaders from the 566 sovereign Indian nations, which aren’t subject to U.S. banking laws, with finance professionals and legal marijuana businesses.  The goal is to use the expertise gained from decades of managing casinos to create banks or credit unions to tap a market the big banks won’t touch—the legal pot industry’s estimated $3 billion in annual revenue.”  You can learn more about CannaNative at: http://www.cannanative.com/.

(20 October 2015): “As Conservation Cuts Electricity Use, Utilities Turn to Fees” [SR](http://www.wsj.com/articles/as-conservation-cuts-electricity-use-utilities-turn-to-fees-1445297729)

——–“Electric utilities across the country are trying to change the way they charge customers, shifting more of their fixed costs to monthly fees . . . many utility companies are seeking to increase their monthly fees by double-digit percentages . . . The utilities argue that the fees should cover a bigger proportion of the fixed costs of the electric grid, including maintenance and repairs. . . . Utilities in at least 24 states have requested higher fees, according to the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago, which opposes some of these increases.”  According to Bradley Klein, a senior attorney, that result of fee increases is that “low-use customers pay more than in the past, and high-use customers pay less.”  Decreased electricity use has posed a problem for some utilities.  Tanya McCloskey, the acting head of Pennsylvania’s Office of Consumer Advocate, notes: “the more dollars they [they utilities] collect through a fixed monthly charge, the less their revenue fluctuates from weather or recession or other things.”

********I don’t know if North Carolina is one of the 24 states in which electric utilities have requested higher fees.  You can learn more about the regulation of public utilities at: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1627222928.  The Table of Contents of the book can be viewed at: http://shop.americanbar.org/eBus/Store/ProductDetails.aspx?productId=215103.

********On the subject of regulation, Bloomberg Businessweek has an article on mapping America’s waterways (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-10-15/mapping-america-s-disgusting-waterways).  It turns out that the Freshwater Trust, a Portland, Oregon nonprofit, is mapping America’s waterways with the help of technology provided by Google.  The Trust’s CEO, Joe Whitworth, “is pitching the federal government on a system of offset credits for water pollution akin to the carbon offsets traded among utility companies and other industrial polluters.”

********With geography in mind, this is a good place to note Colin Woodard’s 2012 book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (http://www.amazon.com/American-Nations-History-Regional-Cultures/dp/0143122029/).  As the title suggests, it divides North America into eleven regions, each with its own predominant culture.  In doing so, it draws upon two earlier works:  The Nine Nations of North America, by Joel Garreau, and Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, by David Hackett Fischer.  Woodard takes the historical approach of Fischer to arrive at a more nuanced statement of the nations than provided by Garreau.  Woodard provides an overview of his book, applying it to violence-related issues, in Tufts Magazine (http://www.tufts.edu/alumni/magazine/fall2013/features/up-in-arms.html).  He notes that “the incidence of violence, like so many salient issues in American life, varies by region. . . . To understand violence or practically any other divisive issue, you need to understand historical settlement patterns and the last cultural fissures they established.”  Something to think about in the run up to the 2016 elections.

May you have a good week!

Bruce

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