A Burning

A Burning
By Megha Majumdar
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2020

Faced with a difficult moral choice, would you do the right thing?  What if doing the right thing might cost you your job or the chance of a promotion?   Would you do the right thing for someone you didn’t know very well?  What if their life was at stake?

A Burning, the debut novel by Megha Majumdar, tells the story of three people in contemporary Kolkata whose lives are braided together by chance, by the choices they make and by events beyond their control.

All three are trying to get ahead in life.  Jivan, a Muslim girl from the slums wants to make it into the middle class.  PT Sir, a physical education teacher, has discovered politics and is working his way up the ranks of a local political party.  And Lovely, possessing a vibrant personality and “half half” gender, takes acting classes and dreams of becoming a movie star.

Jivan is arrested and charged with terrorism due to a careless comment she makes on Facebook.  The other two are called upon to testify as character witnesses in her defense.  They’re reluctant to get involved, reluctant to engage with a notoriously corrupt justice system.  Will they do the right thing?  Even if it costs them their shot at power and stardom?

It’s summertime and I’ve taken a short break from non-fiction to read this novel.  I really enjoyed the writing in A Burning.  It’s well-paced and suspnseful. Majumdar has done a great job giving each of her characters clear and distinct voices.  You also get a vivid sense of the oppressive poverty, corruption, and discrimination they live under. I imagine Majumdar has drawn on her own experiences growing up in Kolkata. And that’s one reason it’s not exactly light reading.

For me the real impact of A Burning is that it calls on us to ask ourselves how we would act in similar situations.  Would we act at all?  Could we resist the pressures and the temptations?  Would we?

Hopefully, we’re not tested with life or death choices like the characters in the novel but even in small ways at school, at work, and in our communities, we have choices to make.  A Burning remidns us that our choices have consequences.

Have you read A Burning?  What did you think of it?  Any recommendations for similar books?

Thanks for reading.

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Homeland Security Was Destined To Become A Secret Police Force

Source: CNN.com

Masha Gessen, author of Surviving Autocracy (my review), writing about the Portland protests in The Nee Yorker on July 25, says,

“… we are watching the perfect and perhaps inevitable combination of a domestic-security superagency and a President who rejects all mechanisms of accountability, including the Senate confirmation process. “

He says it’s inevitable that the agency formed after 9/11 to hunt for individuals who might pose terrorist threats to the US is resorting to the tactics we’re seeing on display in Portland right now:

“These men represent a government agency born of fear. Their tactics are designed to engender an equal amount of fear in the people they see as their enemies. The secret police is always a terror-production machine.”

Full article at:

https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-dhs-was-destined-to-become-a-secret-police-force

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Surviving Autocracy: Can American democracy survive Trump’s autocratic transformation?

Surviving Autocracy
By Masha Gessen
Riverhead Books, New York, 2020

Most people in the US today have never lived under a dictatorship. Maybe we’ve heard stories from our parents or grandparents who immigrated from such places, but we don’t have personal experience with autocratic rulers. This is truly one of the blessings of liberty.

It also means we don’t always recognize autocratic behavior when it happens around us.

Russian-born author and activist Masha Gessen (they/them) does recognize autocratic behavior. They worked for over twenty years as a journalist and editor in Moscow, writing about the rise and reign of Vladimir Putin. They have been a vocal critic of both Putin and Donald Trump. Gessen has published eleven books. They’ve been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2017.

Surviving Autocracy is their latest book.  It’s a stark warning about Trump’s autocratic actions and ambitions.  Published in April 2020, it couldn’t be timelier.

Photo of Masha Gessen

Photo © Lena Di

An Autocratic Transformation

The central idea of the book is that Donald Trump is attempting to transform American democracy into an autocracy. He has come closer to achieving autocratic rule in his first three years in office than many people would have thought possible. Gessen examines how Trump has done this, and how we might still escape.

Gessen cites the work of Hungarian sociologist and politician Bálint Magyar who coined the term “mafia state” to describe Hungary’s post-communist government.  Magyar says that an autocratic transformation occurs in three stages: attempt, breakthrough and then consolidation.

It is difficult to know exactly when a country moves from one stage to the next, and there might not be one decisive event that signals a transition. The point is to resist such movement, and to reverse it whenever possible.

This idea of autocratic transformation forms the foundation of Surviving Autocracy.  Right now, Gessen says, Trump is in the attempt stage. The book traces how frighteningly far Trump has progressed, and how resistance has proved largely ineffective so far.

Contempt and Disdain

Trump shares many characteristics with autocrats like Putin, starting with contempt for government.

It’s very common for political candidates to campaign as outsiders, railing against the corruption or the incompetence of those in power, and vowing change. Trump was different, Gessen says. He campaigned on contempt for government itself, and that contempt continued even after he took office.

“Contempt for the government and its work is a component of the disdain for elites, and a rhetorical trope shared by the current crop of the world’s antipolitical leaders, from Vladimir Putin to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. They campaign on voters’ resentment of elites for ruining their lives, and they continue to traffic in this resentment even after they take office—as though someone else, someone sinister and apparently all powerful, were still in charge, as though they were still insurgents. The very institutions of government—their own government now—are the enemy.”  [pp. 17-18]

Casting government as the enemy enables the aspiring autocrat to justify ruling without the constraints and inconveniences of rules, procedures, traditions, and eventually laws.

Along with contempt for government comes disdain for excellence. If you are opposed to properly functioning government, why would you staff it with skilled and knowledgeable people?  Just look at the Cabinet Trump appointed, Gessen points out.  Many of them are completely unqualified for the positions they hold, and quite a few are opposed to the function and even the very existence of their departments.

But there’s a price to pay for Trump’s anti-intellectual disdain and his glorification of ignorance. There are times when we need people in government who are competent experts — such as during a pandemic.

“Trump had campaigned on insulting the government, and he himself was an insult to the presidency. But could someone so absurd, so evidently incompetent, be a true danger? … We could have imagined, but we could not have predicted, that a pandemic would render his arrogant ignorance lethal.”  [pp. 30-31]

Assault on Truth

It’s not news to anyone that Trump lies continuously, comprehensively and shamelessly.  He even lies about the weather. Why?

Americans were given the answer just a few days after Trump’s inauguration when his counsellor, Kellyanne Conway, was interviewed by Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press. It was during that fateful interview that Conway introduced us to the term “alternative facts”.

Gessen says,

“’Alternative facts’ was not a phrase concocted to justify or whitewash a lie—it was a declaration that the new administration reserved the right to lie.”  [p. 103]

Conway, as a surrogate for Trump, was asserting that holding power gave them the right to lie.

“Conway was defending a liar’s right to lie. There were no facts in her universe, and no issue of trust. There was power. Power demanded respect. Power conferred the right to speak and not be challenged. Being right was a question of power, not evidence. Conway was outraged that Todd would violate this compact by calling the president’s statements ridiculous.” [p. 105]

Gessen points out that Trump’s lies are different than ordinary lies that you and I might tell on occasion and which can easily be refuted with evidence, with truth.

“The Trumpian lie is different. It is the power lie, or the bully lie. It is the lie of the bigger kid who took your hat and is wearing it—while denying that he took it. There is no defense against this lie because the point of the lie is to assert power, to show ‘I can say what I want when want to.’” [p. 106]

We might not have recognized it at the time, but this interview marked the emergence of two realities; a fact-based reality where truth and trust matter, and an alternate reality where alternative facts hold sway and only power matters.

“[NBC’s] Todd was arguing that the president had a responsibility to the public to tell the truth; she was asserting that the president can say whatever he wants because he is president.“ [p. 108]

These two competing realities create tension and anxiety. Who should we believe and why?  Whose facts do we check and how?  How long can we keep this up?  Gessen says,

“In effect, it means that the two realities—Trumpian and fact-based—come to exist side by side, on equal ground. The tension is draining. The need to pay constant attention to the lies is exhausting, and it is compounded by the feeling of helplessness in the face of the ridiculous and repeated lies. … One way out of that anxiety is to relieve the mind of stress by accepting Trumpian reality. Another—and this too is an option often exercised by people living under totalitarianism—is to stop paying attention, disengage, and retreat to one’s private sphere. Both approaches are victories for Trump in his attack on politics.”  [pp. 110-111]

I think this is another reason Trump and autocrats like him despise experts. Their credibility and their truth help to sustain fact-based reality and to refute the alternate reality created by Trump and his enablers.  This explains recent attacks by Trump aids against Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. It’s no coincidence that these attacks started soon after polls showed that Fauci was the most trusted person in America on Covid-19, far more trusted than Trump.

In general the importance of language and the terms we use to describe politics and political actors is an important theme of the book.

Unfortunately, traditional media have not helped much, Gessen complains.  Mainstream media outlets continue to insist on adhering to journalistic precepts like neutrality and objectivity, both of which are completely unsuitable for the Trump era.  They single out The New York Times for particular criticism:

“By choosing to act as though in the war on reality it was possible not to choose sides, the Times—and with it, the American media mainstream—became, reluctantly though not unwittingly, the president’s accomplices.”  [p. 151]

Narrowing “Us”

Trump is a white supremacist president and he has been remarkably consistent in pursuing policies that seek to redefine “American” to include only people like him, Gessen says.  It started with the Muslim travel ban – though it took him three tries and a little help from the Supreme Court in Trump v. Hawaii. Then followed the ban on transgender people serving in the military, the cruel and inhumane treatment of refugees on the southern border, and ever-tightening restrictions on legal immigration and asylum seekers.

As Gessen puts it:

‘Trump, who in other areas had a way of lashing out, flailing, and withdrawing, was pursuing a sustained and consistent strategy on immigration. It had probably been articulated by someone else—someone actually capable of articulating a policy agenda—but it fit Trump’s spontaneously expressed desires and his instincts. It fit his concept of America. In it, a part of the population – native-born straight men of white European descent, like Trump himself—were the nation. Everyone else was an interloper.” [p. 174]

The result: we don’t even pretend to be a “nation of immigrants” anymore.

“In less than three years, the crudeness of the tweets, the speed of the news cycle, the blatant quality of the lies, and the brutality of official rhetoric had dulled American senses so much that Trump has successfully reframed America, stripping it of its ideals, dumbing it down, and reducing it to a nation at war against people who want to join it.”  [p. 161]

The Need for Moral Politics

Gessen notes that Trump has made some of his harshest attacks against people who hold some amount of moral authority or who criticize him on moral grounds. This includes veterans of the civil rights movement like representatives John Lewis and Elijah Cummings, and newly elected representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayana Presley who called for Trump’s impeachment months before Nancy Pelosi agreed to it.

That’s because,

“Autocratic power requires the degradation of moral authority—not the capture of moral high ground, not the assertion of the right to judge good and evil, but the defeat of moral principles as such.“ [pp. 201-202].

Moral principles are anathema to an autocrat like Trump because they represent a standard by which they can be judged and potentially found wanting.  No autocrat would willingly allow themselves to be judged or held to account or expected to meet any standard.  Like expertise, principles and the people who embody them represent a competing reality, and in fact a competing source of power.

I think this helps explain why Trump recently commuted the jail sentence of his longtime friend and political operative Roger Stone, and helped defeat Jeff Sessions, his first Attorney General, in the Republican senate primary in Alabama. Stone has been consistently loyal to Trump while Sessions placed legal principle above loyalty and recused himself from the Russia investigation.

People like Representative John Lewis who talk about morality in politics are aiming for “a higher note”, says Gessen.

“That higher note is a necessary condition of vision. [Czechoslovak dissident Václav] Havel, who conceptualized the “power of the powerless” as an entirely novel form of resistance, lived to lead his country. So did Mandela. Raw power can overtake moral authority, and perhaps today it is easier than ever before, but a determined effort to preserve ideals when they are under attack can serve as a bridge to the future.” [p. 204]

We’re in the middle of an autocratic attempt by Trump. The impeachment trial failed to reverse it.  Our next opportunity will be the November 2020 election. But even if Trump is defeated, we can’t just go back to a pre-Trump normal.

“Still, there will come a day when the Trump era is over. In the best-case scenario, it is ended by the voters at the ballot box. In the worst-case scenario, it lasts more than four years. In either case, the first three years have shown that an autocratic attempt in the United States has a credible chance of succeeding. Worse than that, they have shown that an autocratic attempt builds logically on the structures and norms of American government: on the concentration of power in the executive branch, and on the marriage of money and politics. Recovery from Trumpism–a process that will be necessary whenever Trumpism ends—will not be a process of returning to government as it used to be, a fictional state of pre-Trump normalcy. Recovery will be possible only as reinvention: of institutions, of what politics means to us, and of what it means to be a democracy, if that is indeed what we choose to be.”  [pp. 81-82]

Gessen ends the book by asking whether we will choose to re-elect Trump in November, forfeiting more of our freedoms to an autocrat and accepting greater inequality, or will we choose reinvention?

Cover of Surviving Autocracy

Unsolicited Feedback

Without a doubt, Surviving Autocracy is the most important book I’ve read this year.

The book is a clarifying lens through which we can make some sense of the last three and a half years. We should not expect a single book to explain everything. Yet even so, Surviving Autocracy provides compelling insights and a clear warning.

Gessen is not the first person to call attention to Donald Trump’s autocratic tendencies.  Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Trump “the first anti-democratic President in modern US history” in her 2018 book Fascism: A Warning which I reviewed here.  But Gessen’s twenty years of experience covering Vladimir Putin from Moscow uniquely qualifies them to call out the disturbing parallels between Trump and Putin and to understand the autocratic trajectory of the Trump Administration.

Plus, anyone who quotes Václav Havel gets an almost automatic thumbs up from me.

I admit at first, I was a little disappointed by the book. It seemed to be just another rehash of Trump’s cruel, stupid and corrupt actions. But then every so often, Gessen summed up a section or a chapter with a comment that shifted my perception and clarified the world.  It’s like looking at a photograph that doesn’t makes sense, and then someone tells you you’re holding it upside-down.

For example, like many people, I’ve tried to make sense of Trump’s pervasive lying.  I’d come to the conclusion that he just doesn’t care about truth or accuracy or facts. I still think that’s true.  But Gessen’s chapter titled The Power Lie brought this into focus. Trump lies are power lies. He tells them because he thinks being president gives him the right to lie.

The cumulative impact of these insights – and I’ve only touched on a few of them in this review – left me frightened at that degree to which Trump has succeeded in his autocratic attempt.

There is one question Gessen does not fully answer:  Given his arrogance, narcissism and incompetence, how has Trump succeeded in getting this far? Is it because his gut instincts lead him to bulldoze his way towards autocracy? Is he taking advantage of the weaknesses in our political system? Is he just a “useful idiot” for people around him who do possess clear policy agendas?  Gessen touches on some of these factors but does not completely resolve the paradox.

America has strong institutions, diverse media and a vibrant civil society. The country is also a federal system where States hold a lot of power. Yet none of these have succeeded in turning back much of Trump’s autocratic agenda. Impeachment failed. The Muslim travel ban stands.  Transgender people still cannot serve in the military. Yes, Trump has suffered some setbacks, but overall his autocratic attempt is making dangerous progress.  How far will he get?

Please read this book.  Before November.

* * *

Sincere thanks to What’s Nonfiction? for posting this review of Surviving Autocracy. I might have missed it otherwise!

Related Links

Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary
By Bálint Magyar

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White Fragility

White Fragility
By Robin DiAngelo
Beacon Press, Boston, 2018

“White Fragility” sounds like a paradox. How can whites be fragile when we’re supposed to be the largest and smost dominant segment of US society?

As author Robin DiAngelo explains it, whenever whites are confronted with racism, we become very uncomfortable and defensive. We resort to a whole set of emotions and behaviors like anger, fear, silence, and withdrawal that,

“… work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement. White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact, it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage.” [p. 2]

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism is DiAngelo’s highly acclaimed examination of this insidious method of social control and what we must do about it to make progress on racial justice.

Robin DiAngelo is an author, lecturer and Affiliate Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.  She’s been a consultant and educator on racial and social justice issues for over twenty years. Throughout the book she draws on her experiences working with government, corporate and non-profit organizations.

Photo of Robin DiAngelo

DiAngelo says that white people don’t see ourselves in racial terms.  We’re “just human.”  Everyone else belongs to a race.  And we like it that way. It means we’re dominant, we define the standards, we get all the advantages and privileges.  But it also means that most of us don’t understand racism at all.  We have a simplistic view that racism consists of individual actions by not-nice people, when in fact racism is a system.

DiAngelo quotes African American scholar and filmmaker Omowale Akintunde who says,

“For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and, in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them.”  [p. 72]

Most of us see racism in personal, good/bad binary terms, like this:  Racism is bad. I am a good person therefore I cannot be racist.  Accusing me of racist behavior is a direct attack on my moral character. It’s upsetting!  It’s intolerable!

And that reaction triggers the defenses of white fragility and shuts down all discussion.

But to understand racism as a system, and to understand how we benefit from it and are complicit in it, we have to see racism as something larger than individual behavior or character.

“The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic. To move beyond defensiveness, we have to let go of this common belief. “  [p. 73]

Early in the book, DiAngelo provides a set of useful definitions that I think are worth repeating here because they frame the rest of the book and lead us to a deeper and more systemic understanding of racism.

Prejudice: “Prejudice is pre-judgment about another person based on the social groups to which that person belongs. Prejudice consists of thoughts and feelings, including stereotypes, attitudes, and generalizations that are based on little or no experience and then are projected onto everyone from that group.” [p. 19]

We all have prejudices.  They’re unavoidable.  And they tend to be shared by the people in our social groups,.

Discrimination: “Discrimination is action based on prejudice. These actions include ignoring, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander, and violence.”  [p. 20]

Racism: “When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors.” [p. 20]

Laws and institutions turn prejudice into systemic racism.

White supremacy: “… the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white and the practices based on this assumption. White supremacy in this context does not refer to individual white people and their individual intentions or actions but to an overarching political, economic, and social system of domination. Again, racism is a structure, not an event.” [p. 28]

DiAngelo explores how white fragility reinforces white supremacy by closing off uncomfortable conversations and rendering change impossible.  She describes one powerful example of this in a chapter called White Women’s Tears.

“Whether intended or not, when a white woman cries over some aspect of racism, all the attention immediately goes to her, demanding time, energy and attention from everyone in the room when they should be focused on ameliorating racism. While she is given attention, the people of color are yet again abandoned and/or blamed.” [p. 134]

The self-reinforcing mechanisms of white fragility strike me as a daunting, even depressing, obstacle to progress.  How can we address issues of racism when even just talking about it triggers defenses that make change impossible?

The final chapter of the book contains strategies for having open and productive conversations about race without triggering white fragility.

Cover of White Fragility

This is the third book about racism I’ve read in the past year. The other two are How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (my review here) and So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo (my review here).

I learned different things from each of these books. Kendi focuses on the need to reform racist policies.  DiAngelo talks about how whites are socialized into both white supremacy and white fragility. And Oluo give guidance on how to engage in uncomfortable conversations about race.

However, they all have one message in common: Racism is a system of oppression; a web of laws, policies, socialization and discrimination.  It’s not just nasty people saying the n-word.  To understand the system deeply and to make progress in changing it, we must learn how to participate in those uncomfortable conversations.  That means accepting the fact that even though we may do our very best not to commit individual acts of racism, we white people still benefit from the system of white supremacy and we have the responsibility for changing it.

Yes, it’s important to speak up against individual racist actions, but as DiAngelo says,

“… we must also be careful not to use them to keep ourselves on the “good” side of a false binary. I have found it much more useful to think of myself as on a continuum. Racism is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society that I do not see myself escaping from that continuum in my lifetime. But I can continually seek to move further along it. I am not in a fixed position on the continuum; my position is dictated by what I am actually doing at a. given time.”  [p. 87]

Whites, myself included, need to help transform the protests of the current moment into lasting progress on racial justice.  But that requires us to move along the continuum to understand and confront our own roles in reinforcing systemic racism.

 

 

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So you want to talk about race

So you want to talk about race
By Ijoma Oluo
Seal Press, New York, 2018

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, and the nation-wide protests that followed, many white people, including me, have finally started to wake up to the depth and breadth of racism and injustice in our police forces and in society as a whole.

For those of us who want to learn more, there are plenty of articles, videos and books to choose from. One of the most frequently recommended books is So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo.

Oluo calls herself a “writer, speaker and Internet Yeller”. She was born in Texas but grew up and lives in Seattle. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Stranger. Oluo’s father is from Nigeria, and her mother is a white woman from Kansas.

Picture of author Ijeoma Oluo

Her book, So you want to talk about race, is aimed squarely at white people who want to know more about racial injustice and how to talk about it with Black friends and colleagues.

Think of it as an FAQ for white folks.  Oluo addresses questions like:

  • What is racism?
  • Why am I always being told to “check my privilege”?
  • Is police brutality really about race?
  • What is intersectionality and why do I need it?
  • I just got called a racist, what do I do now?

Each of the book’s seventeen chapters is devoted to answering one of these questions. I think the chapter on “What is racism?” is really important because it sets the framework for the rest of the book.

Oluo uses this definition:

“Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power.” [p. 26]

She says it’s not enough to talk about prejudice by itself, because if we do that, then combating racism gets reduced to a battle over sentiment – trying to convince individual racists to change their minds, to be nicer people. It’s critical that we understand racist behavior and racial oppression as part of a larger system. If we just focus on prejudice, then we won’t do the hard work of rooting out the systemic racism that’s built into our structures of economic and political power.

Throughout the book Oluo shines a penetrating light onto the systems of power and oppression that many of us white people either don’t experience or don’t even know exist.  This includes police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline, microaggression and cultural appropriation.

Oluo starts each chapter with incidents from her own life followed by a thorough exploration of the question backed by relevant research and statistics. Most of the chapters finish with suggestions or guidelines for how to discuss the question with people of color.

Cover of So you want to talk about race

Oluo writes with passion.  She reveals some of the pain, suffering, humiliation and anger she’s experienced as a Black woman throughout her life, and that countless Black men and women have experienced for centuries.

One of the greatest privileges that white people enjoy in the US is that we don’t have to think about being white. We don’t have to think about race at all most of the time. A lot of us are not even aware that our whiteness means anything. It’s our privilege to read about racism in books rather than experience it in schools, on the streets, at our places of work, or in the courts.  So you want to talk about race makes it painfully clear that racism is an ever-present, ever-oppressive fact of daily life for Blacks and other people of color.

The scope and complexity of the problem make it seem impossible to address. Where do we start?  How can we make even a tiny dent in a problem that has tortured this country for hundreds of years?

I think Oluo would say that we start by talking with each other, trying to understand each other better. Her book is a valuable guide to having those conversations.

But ultimately change only comes from action.  Oluo urges us to take concrete actions to end systemic racism.  The final chapter suggests ways we can all help do that.

Last year I read Ibram Kendi’s excellent 2019 book How To Be An Antiracist which I reviewed here. In the current moment, with protesters getting tear-gassed by armor-clad police, I realized I needed to learn more to understand the situation better and hopefully to act in some meaningful way. So you want to talk about race helped. It’s less academic and less philosophical than Kendi’s book, more a practical guide, and perhaps a little easier to read.  But they also have a lot in common especially the focus on understanding and dismantling systemic racism.

When you want to have a conversation about race, or even if you never do, you’ll be better informed and better able to act after reading this book.

Related Links

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man
A series of videos featuring former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho exploring similar questions about race and social justice.

Posted in Books, Law and justice, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gorsuch Surprises, Alito Spews, Scalia Haunts in Bostock v. Clayton County

The United States Supreme Court Building

On Monday, June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects homosexual and transgender individuals from job discrimination.

This decision has been hailed as a major victory for LGBTQ rights. It is. But it should have been 9-0.

So much has happened in the past week it seems like the announcement was a lifetime ago. Still it’s an important case so I want to take a deeper look. If you’d like to follow along, you can find the Court’s full written opinion at this link. Never read a Supreme Court decision before?  No worries, they really aren’t that hard to follow. A few years ago I wrote a little guide to reading them which you can find here.

The Court actually decided three cases together: Gerald Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, Altitude Express, Inc. v. The Estate of Donald Zarda, and Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They’re known collectively by the first case or just Bostock for short. In each of the three cases someone was fired either for being homosexual or for being transgender.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion for the majority of the Court. He was supported by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor and by Chief Justice Roberts. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissent which was supported by Justice Thomas. Justice Kavanaugh also wrote a dissent but I’m not going to discuss it here because it doesn’t add anything significant.

So you can look at this case as an argument between Gorsuch and Alito.  The entire thing boils down to how they interpret a single word: “sex.”

The Gorsuch Surprise

Justice Neil GorsuchA lot of people, myself included, were surprised that Gorsuch – a conservative and a Trump appointee – not only sided with the liberals on the Court but actually wrote the decision.

Gorsuch starts by stating the question before the Court.

“Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender.”  [Opinion of the Court, p. 2]

In legal terms the question is whether the firings violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in particular,

“Title VII’s command that it is ‘unlawful . . . for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.’” [Opinion of the Court, p. 4]

Everyone involved in this case agrees that sex is the only relevant characteristic here.

Gorsuch reasons that the firings do violate the Civil Right Act.  He says it is impossible to discriminate against homosexual or transgender individuals without simultaneously discriminating against them on the basis of sex. Imagine, for example, that an employer has two employees, both of whom are attracted to men.  One of those employees is female and the other is male.  Suppose they are functionally equal in all other respects from the employer’s perspective.  If the employer fires the man simply because he is homosexual, then the employer discriminates against him for behavior or traits that it tolerates in the female employee.

It doesn’t matter what the behavior or trait is, Gorsuch argues, the key fact is that the employer treats an employee of one sex different than it treats an employee of another sex.  That’s discrimination.

Alito Spews

Justice Samuel AlitoJustice Samuel Alito is having none of it. In a dissenting opinion running over 100 pages, he rebuts every element of Gorsuch’s reasoning. In a nutshell (can you fit 100 pages into a nutshell?), Alito’s argument is this: Title VII lists race, color, religion, sex and national origin as prohibited grounds for discrimination.  Sexual orientation and gender identity are not on the list therefore they are not prohibited.  Period.

 

To be fair, Alito is not saying that employers should be able to fire homosexual or transgender employees just because they are homosexual or transgender. He’s saying it’s not illegal to fire them because sexual orientation and gender identity are not explicitly listed in Title VII. And the Court cannot just “add” homosexuality and gender identity to the Title VII list by stretching the definition of “sex.” Adding to the list is Congress’s job, not the Court’s.

That’s why Alito says, in the very first sentence of his dissent,

“There is only one word for what the Court has done today: legislation.” [Alito dissent, p. 1]

The Ghost of Antonin Scalia

The disagreement between Gorsuch and Alito is fundamentally a disagreement about how judges are supposed to interpret the law. Ironically, both Gorsuch and Alito claim to be following the same theory, known as “textualism.”

Textualism says that interpretation should be based on the ordinary meaning of the legal text at the time it was written, ignoring intent or legislative history or any other factors not in the text itself.  Textualism and its close cousin originalism are the dominant theories on the Court today, especially among conservative judges. A competing theory of constitutional interpretation, known as the “living constitution,” holds that the interpretation of the Constitution should evolve to reflect current context.

That’s why Alito says that back in 1964 no one would have thought that “sex” includes sexual orientation or gender identity.

“… in 1964, it was as clear as clear could be that this meant discrimination because of the genetic and anatomical characteristics that men and women have at the time of birth.”  [Alito dissent, p. 4]

Therefore, the only way the Court can claim that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity are unlawful is if such discrimination

“… inherently constitutes discrimination because of sex. The Court attempts to prove that point, and it argues, not merely that the terms of Title VII can be interpreted that way but that they cannot reasonably be interpreted any other way. According to the Court, the text is unambiguous.” [Alito dissent, p. 6]

Yes, that is exactly the argument Gorsuch is making.

Alito accuses Gorsuch of betraying textualism and its most passionate advocate, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whose seat Gorsuch now occupies.  In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that Scalia haunts this decision and perhaps the Court as a whole.  Alito says,

“The Court attempts to pass off its decision as the inevitable product of the textualist school of statutory interpretation championed by our late colleague Justice Scalia, but no one should be fooled. The Court’s opinion is like a pirate ship. It sails under a textualist flag, but what it actually represents is a theory of statutory interpretation that Justice Scalia excoriated …” [Alito dissent, p. 3]

A pirate ship! Arrrrrgh! Gorsuch counters that the Civil Rights Act has already been interpreted broadly by the courts to protect characteristics not explicitly listed in Title VII, such as motherhood or sexual harassment of men. And even if Congress might not have imagined in 1964 that the Civil Rights Act would protect homosexual and transgender people, Gorsuch says that interpretation follows directly from the text of the Act.

“When the express terms of a statute give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest.”  [Opinion of the Court, p. 2]

So here we have two textualists duking it out over who is the true believer, who is the true heir to Antonin Scalia, In the process, they demonstrate the fallacy of textualism.  If two judges following the same textualist approach can come to diametrically opposing conclusions, then clearly interpreting the law involves more than just text.  Inevitably it involves the backgrounds, experiences, values, biases and personalities of the judges themselves. In other words, you can’t keep the judges out of the judging.

Meanwhile, people’s rights, their livelihoods and even their lives depend on the outcome of this empty academic debate. In the year 2020.

I’m happy with the outcome, but the whole spectacle is really quite disgusting.

By the way, it’s interesting to note that Alito’s dissent – that courts shouldn’t be legislating — is very similar to the dissent that Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in Obergefell v. Hodges, the same sex marriage case. Then in the minority, Roberts argued that the Court was stretching the definition of “marriage” to include same sex marriage in a way that only Congress could rightfully do under the Constitution. Yet just six years later, here is Roberts siding with the majority in a decision extending employment protection via a broader interpretation of the word “sex.”

Could it be that the Chief Justice is becoming more liberal? I doubt it, but the Chief’s concern for the legitimacy of the Court is well known. Perhaps he understood that a decision permitting continued LGBTQ discrimination would be so out of step with public sentiment that it could jeopardize the Court’s reputation. Maybe for Roberts legitimacy is even more important than textualism.

Trouble Ahead?

One dark cloud on the horizon is the interaction between this decision and religious freedom.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) gives religious organizations an exemption from many laws if they place an undue burden on the exercise of religion. So will churches and other religious organizations be able to claim a religious exemption in this case too? Will they still be able to fire LGBTQ employees just because they are LGBTQ?

Gorsuch explicitly leaves that question for another day. He writes:

“That statute [RFRA] prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless it demonstrates that doing so both furthers a compelling governmental interest and represents the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Because RFRA operates as a kind of super statute, displacing the normal operation of other federal laws, it might supersede Title VII’s commands in appropriate cases.

But how these doctrines protecting religious liberty interact with Title VII are questions for future cases too.”  [Gorsuch opinion p. 32, references removed]

That sounds ominous. It practically invites religious organizations, and probably companies like Hobby Lobby whose controlling shareholders claim to be devout Christians, to argue in court that hiring or employing LGBTQ people is somehow a “substantial burden” on their exercise of religion.

And since Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion in the Hobby Lobby case, you can expect him to be very sympathetic to that argument.

But if that’s cause for concern, I think there’s also cause for optimism. It seems very possible that this Bostock decision will become a model for striking down other discriminatory policies like the Trump Administration’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, or its recent announcement rolling back protections for transgender people in health care.

Still all that lies in the future. Today, it’s worth celebrating the Court’s decision that employment discrimination against LGBTQ people is against the law.

Man waving pride flag in front of Supreme Court building

Source: New York Times

Your Vote Matters

Neil Gorsuch is usually a reliable conservative on the Supreme Court. I don’t know enough about his background or his previous writing to understand why he decided in favor of protecting LGBTQ rights in this case. It certainly was a surprise.

But we shouldn’t have to rely on surprises like this for sensible progressive victories at the Court.

The next President will most likely get to appoint the successors of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, two elderly liberal justices.  If Trump and Mitch McConnell are re-elected, the US could have a 7-2 conservative majority on the Court.  I shudder to think what that will do to the laws of this country over the next 20 to 30 years.

We don’t vote for Supreme Court justices, but we do vote for the President who appoints them and the Senators who confirm them.

Do you want to preserve abortion rights?  Think we should have universal health care?  Want reasonable gun control laws?  An end to qualified immunity for police officers?  Do you want to preserve and extend minority rights?  How about a decent and compassionate immigration and refugee system?  Should there be limits on the power of the Executive Branch? None of this will happen with a 7-2 Court.

If you care about any of these things, get out and vote this November!

Related Links

To learn more about this decision, I recommend heading over to the excellent Strict Scrutiny podcast and listening to the episode called The Turd in the Punchbowl and the follow up epiode 2020 Bingo Card which goes into much more depth on the legal strategy behind this case.

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Good Economics for Hard Times

Good Economics for Hard Times
By Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo
Hachette Book Group, New York, 2019

Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics for their research into alleviating global poverty.  In Good Economics for Hard Times they take a look at some of today’s most hotly debated issues including immigration, global trade, climate change, and social programs.

Picture of Ester Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee

The book was published last year but got a big boost recently when Bill Gates added it to his 2020 summer reading list.

Good Economics for Hard Times is really a collection of essays.  Each chapter stands on its own and you can read them in any order.  Here are some of the highlights I found most interesting.

Immigration

Banerjee and Duflo make short work of debunking the pernicious myth that low-skill immigrant labor depresses the wages of native workers.

“… there is no credible evidence that even relatively large flows of low-skilled migrants hurt the local population … Indeed migration seems to make most people, migrants and locals, better off.”  [p. 13]

The real problem, they claim is that there is too little migration.  People don’t migrate enough between countries and even within them.  It’s scary; migrants often face high costs and uncertain job prospects at their destination.  They leave behind support networks of family, friends and culture.  As a result, most people only migrate under dire circumstances. The authors quote the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire,

“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark

you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay”

Those who do migrate tend to be risk-takers and entrepreneurs.

“It takes an ability to dream … or a substantial dose of overconfidence, to overcome this tendency to persist with the status quo. This is perhaps why migrants, at least those not pushed out by desperation, tend to be not the richest or the most educated, but those who have some special drive, which is why we find so many successful entrepreneurs among them.” [p. 42]

But mobility helps to even out standards of living across regions and countries so there are good economic reasons to encourage it through immigration and social support policies.  The authors are not blind to current political realities and they realize it’s extremely unlikely any governments will follow their advice on this.

Trade

The theory of comparative advantage is one of the most sacrosanct in economics, yet it is surprisingly difficult to prove empirically.  Economist have long recognized that trade creates winners and losers. The gains from trade are supposed to be sufficient to compensate the losers, but this requires government to tax and redistribute, provide retraining or facilitate movement to new regions and new industries.  In many countries around the world, especially in the US, this has not been done effectively.  As a result, many people have become hostile to international trade and globalization.  We are now entering a period of deglobalization.

Banerjee and Duflo point out that economies tend to be sticky.  Capital and labor do not move as quickly or as efficiently from one location to another or from one industry to another.  So the losers from trade often do not get re-employed.  Instead they stay in their communities which become increasingly depressed.

The authors are not anti-trade, but they do caution that the benefits of trade may take a long time to emerge, and that the costs may be more significant than free trade advocates admit.  They recommend enhanced adjustment programs that support mobility and encourage hiring or subsidizing the wages of displaced workers, especially older workers who may have more difficulty transitioning to new jobs or new towns.

Growth

The 30 years following World War II were a period of historically unprecedented high growth.  It came to a shattering end with the OPEC oil embargo of 1973.  Ever since, economists and politicians right up to Donald Trump have been trying to figure out how to get back to the glory days of high growth.

Surprisingly, it turns out that economists don’t understand growth very well.  Economists disagree on the underlying causes of economic growth and on the policies governments should implement to stimulate growth.  They don’t agree on whether it is even possible to return to high growth rates, or whether developed countries inevitably evolve into a more-or-less permanent low growth state.

“We don’t understand very well what can deliver permanently faster growth.  It just happens (or not).”  [p. 179]

In any case, the authors argue, it may be futile to focus on elusive high GDP growth. Instead perhaps we should focus on the overall well-being of the population, including health, education, a functioning court system and banking system, better infrastructure (roads, sewage) and livable cities.  Not only is that better for everyone, but if and when growth does catch on, countries or regions with these advantages will do better.

Banerjee and Duflo are unequivocal about one thing, however.

“In a policy world that has mostly abandoned reason, if we do not intervene we risk becoming irrelevant, so let’s be clear.  Tax cuts for the wealthy do not produce economic growth.”  [p. 177]

Social Programs

In the final chapter of the book, Banerjee and Duflo look at social programs, how they’re structured and how they’re perceived.

Essentially social programs can be arranged on a spectrum.  At one end are direct all-cash transfers such as Universal Basic Income or traditional welfare. In the middle we see contingent cash transfers where recipients must satisfy certain requirements, such as work or education, to continue receiving benefits.  Finally, there is non-cash aid such as food stamps or job training programs.

The problem with all of these programs today is that recipients are stigmatized.  Even though there is no evidence of significant abuse of social programs, “those people” are seen as lazy, incompetent or undeserving.

“The deep disregard for the human dignity of the poor is endemic in the social protection system.”  [p. 318]

Combined with a deep suspicion of any government program, the result is that even people who are eligible for programs often do not enroll.

“A social protection system that treats anyone with this kind of callousness becomes punitive, and people will go to great lengths to avoid having anything to do with it.  Make no mistake. This does not just affect some small sliver of the extreme poor that’s very different from the rest of us.  When part of the social system conveys punishment and humiliation, it is the entire society that recoils from it.  The last thing a worker wants when he has just lost his job is to be treated like “those people.”  [p. 319]

In the most compassionate writing of the book, the authors argue that we don’t have to run our social programs or treat our fellow human beings this way.  To deliver long term benefits, to treat people with dignity, social programs much change from being patronizing to respectful.

“What is common among a drought-affected farmer in India, a youth in Chicago’s South Side, and a fifty-something white man who was just laid off?  While they may have problems, they are not the problem.  They are entitled to be seen for who they are and to not be defined by the difficulties besieging them. Time and again, we have seen in our travels in developing countries that hope is the fuel that makes people go. Defining people by their problems is turning circumstance into existence.  It denies hope.  A natural response is then to wrap oneself into this identity, with treacherous consequences for society at large.”  [p. 322]

The book was written before the outbreak of COVID-19 but those words seem prescient when millions of people have been thrown out of work through no fault of their own.

Cover of Good Economics for Hard Times

Unsolicited Feedback

Banerjee and Duflo write from an economic perspective, but with humility and even occasional flashes of humor that I wouldn’t normally expect from a pair of economists.

They recognize that markets don’t always deliver the results that economic theory would predict.  One of the main reasons – this is a recurring theme of the book – is that economies are sticky.  People don’t move as quickly or as easily between jobs or regions as economists might like.  Even capital doesn’t always get redeployed from declining industries or locations to rising ones.  It turns out that people don’t always act for strictly economic reasons and Banerjee and Duflo are wise enough and compassionate enough to recognize that economics and politics must adapt to this reality if they are to truly serve their communities.

The book draws upon the authors’ own research and the work of dozens of other economists and theorists.  It’s laced with examples from India, Bangladesh, China, Peru and many other places around the world.  This was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book for me.  It was really refreshing to read a book that wasn’t exclusively focused on the so-called developed (and mostly white) world.

I was disappointed by the relatively light emphasis given to the environment.  There is a chapter on climate change – the authors favor a carbon tax like most economists – but it’s the shortest chapter in the book.  And the lengthy chapter on growth doesn’t really address the question of sustainability or whether we need to move to a no-growth or even a degrowth economy.  (For more on that, please read my review of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics.)

Nonetheless Good Economics for Hard Times tackles controversial questions head on, and often reaches unconventional conclusions.

Related Links

These two brilliant economists explain hot-button issues
Bill Gates’ review of Good Economics for Hard Times.

 

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Supreme Court Upholds Limits on Attendance at Church Services

Picture of the United States Supreme Court building

At about midnight last night the United States Supreme Court, in a 5.4 decision, upheld California’s restrictions on the number of people who can attend church services during the coronavirus emergency.   Scotusblog has posted the written decision.

The South Bay United Pentecostal Church, near San Diego, had asked the court to block enforcement of the Governor of California’s Executive Order restricting the number of people who can attend church services to 25% of building capacity or 100 people, whichever is lower.  The church claimed the Order discriminated against religious institutions in violation of the Constitution.

Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal members of the Court in denying the church’s request.  Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the dissenting opinion.

The Chief Justice noted that there was no evidence of religious discrimination because restrictions on church attendance were similar to those imposed on places of “comparable secular gatherings” such as movie theaters, concert halls and sports venues where “large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

Justice Kavanaugh claimed that the Order discriminates against churches because banks, florists, restaurants, grocery stores, laundromats and other “comparable secular businesses” are not subject to the same restrictions.  Roberts countered that these are “dissimilar activities” in which “people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.”

Roberts also noted that deciding when to lift restrictions during the pandemic is a “dynamic fact-intensive matter” best left to the elected branches of government.

Hopefully this puts an end to these ridiculous lawsuits.

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Together

Together
By Vivek H. Murthy, MD
HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 2020

You can die of loneliness.  It’s not just poetic sentiment, it’s a medical fact.  Research shows that lack of social connection is just as hazardous to life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Humans are social beings.  We are hard-wired for connection, and when we don’t get enough of it, our bodies send a signal as strong as thirst or hunger, a signal we call loneliness.

Yet in today’s hectic, individualistic world, we face an epidemic of loneliness and a yearning for connection.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy learned about this epidemic when he served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States.  Shortly after his appointment in December 2014, Dr. Murthy went on a listening tour to find out what health issues Americans were most concerned about, and how his office could help. He heard about well-known problems like opioid addiction, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy

But he also discovered an unexpected theme running through many of these problems: loneliness.

This finding led to years of research and interviews and ultimately to his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.

Together is divided into two parts.  The first part looks at the physical and cultural origins of loneliness and how it manifests itself in problems such as anxiety and depression.  The second part is about building greater social connection into our lives and teaching our children how to build connection into theirs.  Along the way, Murthy introduces us to a host of individuals, researchers and practitioners who have either struggled with loneliness themselves or tried to help others deal with it.

A few themes stood out for me.

First of all, loneliness isn’t something to be ashamed of.  Most of us experience it at various points in our lives.  For me, loneliness was most pronounced during and shortly after my years in college.  In fact, we all need connection: it’s baked into our DNA.  As a species, human survival depended on our ability to connect in groups, to share knowledge, stories and emotions.  Becoming separated, or exiled, from your tribe was usually a death sentence.  Loneliness is a physical signal, like hunger, that tells us to attend to our need for social connection.  And when we do connect, we feel it physically too, as relaxation and a reduction in stress.

Cultures differ in the degree of connection that is expected and provided.  Some cultures, Murthy says, are like tall, narrow bowls in which individuals are tightly packed together, constantly in contact and rubbing up against each other.  Other cultures are more like wide shallow bowls in which individuals can spread out and have fewer, less frequent interactions.  These days the bowls are becoming wider: we’re experiencing a growing culture of independence.

“I think many of us feel pushed by modern society to be more independent, even as, deep down, we crave the interconnectedness that our ancestors depended on.” [p. 61]

On the other hand, extremist religious or political groups often impose connection through suspicion, rejection and hatred of outsiders or “others.”  These are pathological cases where community is enforced to the point of oppression, allowing no room for debate or dissent.

Murthy also looks at social media which can be both a cause and a potential cure of loneliness.  It allows us to maintain connection with more people than ever before, but are those connections real or superficial?  And how do our kids navigate the pressures and temptations of social media while still learning how to build real-world friendships that, hopefully, last many years.  (I wrote a post on this topic called We Don’t Say Goodbye Anymore a couple of years ago.)

Murthy makes an eloquent case for the critical value of friendship in our lives, beginning with this quote from Mahatma Gandhi:

“With every true friendship, we build more firmly the foundations on which the peace of the world rests.”

Friendships bring us out of ourselves and allow us to both support and be supported by others.

“When our friends support us, they remind us that we are worthy of love, which makes us feel better about ourselves.” [p. 217]

And,

“… a profound side-effect of friendship is gratitude.  Gratitude for the opportunity to show vulnerability and still be loved. For the forgiveness of our flawed lives. For the shared trust and time together and the feeling of belonging, which is the ultimate glue that holds friends together.” [p. 218]

Together book cover

Unsolicited Feedback

Together is a heartfelt call to build connection and community in our lives.  I think Murthy does a fine job tracing the origins and the impacts of loneliness. I worry that our society, especially here in the US, has become so fragmented, even atomized, that Murthy’s suggestions for building greater connection will be overwhelmed by political and social forces.  Still the effort is worth it.

My one complaint about the book is that there are too many stories.  It’s great to bring dry research to life by telling stories about the lived experiences of real people.  But Together contains so many of these that they started to blur together for me, and I found myself glossing over them.

Together was published before the worldwide coronavirus outbreak. Yet the pandemic highlights many of the themes Murthy writes about.  Most of us around the world have experienced some form of lockdown or social isolation.  It’s a shared experience that illustrates Murthy’s claim that humanity is a “family of families.”  This experience has also shown us that we can’t take connection for granted, that we have to make a deliberate effort to reach out to family and friends.  That we need to reach out to family and friends.  I hope we take these lessons to heart as we bring the virus under control and figure out how to restart and rebuild our world.

Related Links

We Don’t Have To Fight Lonliness Alone
Episode of the WorkLife podcast hosted by Adam Grant featuring Vivek Murthy

A Social Prescription: Why Human Connection Is Crucial To Our Health
Episode of the Hidden Brain podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam featuring Vivek Murthy

The Epidemic of Lonliness
Aspen Ideas Festival 2017

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Solar power is becoming insanely cheap

The cost of solar power has fallen by a factor of 5 since 2010, and it will keep falling for decades to come.  That’s the gist of a May 14, 2020 blog post titled Solar’s Future Is Insanely Cheap (2020) from energy analyst Ramez Naam.

aerial photography of blue solar panels

Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

I’ll get to the highlights of the post shortly, but first let me take a moment to explain how solar energy prices are calculated.  Feel free to skip to the highlights if you’re familiar with this.

National, state or local utilities buy electricity from energy producers on behalf of their customers – you and me.  They sign contracts called power purchase agreements (PPA) lasting anywhere from 15 to 30 years for a certain amount of electricity usually measured in megawatt hours (MWh).

Wait! What’s a Watt hour?  Well it’s the way we measure the amount of power used by an appliance such as a fridge, hair dryer or laptop computer.  A typical laptop, for example, would use about 1000 Watt hours or 1 kilowatt hour (kWh) if you ran it continuously for a whole day.  A megawatt hour is one million Watt hours, but it’s a bit more convenient to talk about kilowatt hours.

If you take a look at your electricity bill, you’ll notice you’re being charged for the number of kWh you use each month. Here in the US, you probably pay between 10 and 15 cents per kWh.

Utilities pay a whole lot less since they’re buying huge amounts of electricity directly from the producers. Recent reports, like this one from Portugal, show solar electricity costs coming in under 2 cents per kWh.

It’s important to note that these wholesale prices refer to the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) which includes the cost to build and operate the solar energy farm over the life of the PPA.  This presentation from the US Department of Energy explains in detail how LCOE is calculated.

backlit bruno scramgnon fotografia dawn dusk

Photo by Bruno Scramgnon on Pexels.com

OK, with that background, here are some highlights from Ramez Naam’s post:

  • The cost of solar-generated electricity (I’ll just call it “solar” from now on) has dropped by a factor of 5 since 2010. Solar costs have been falling way faster than forecast.  In fact, falling costs have beaten some forecasts by decades.
  • Solar prices have been falling so quickly because of a roughly 30% learning rate. As we build more solar capacity, we get better at it.  This follows a pattern known as Wright’s Law.  For each doubling in total installed solar capacity, costs fall by about 30%.  This rate of decline will likely continue for many years,
  • Solar is now competitive with the cost of new fossil fuel generating plants. It’s cheaper to build a new solar farm than to build a new coal or natural gas generating plant in many parts of the world.  Again, “cheaper” here refers to the LCOE, which for coal is 5 to 6 cents/kWh.
  • By 2030 or 2035, solar will be cheaper than the operating costs of fossil fuel plants, as you can see from the graph below. It will cost less to build an entirely new solar farm than to continue running an existing fossil fuel plant.  This is “insanely, world-changingly cheap” clean energy.

Future-Solar-Cost-Projections-by-Year-to-2050-Naam-2020-1-800x487

Source: rameznaam.com

In most parts of the world today, there’s little reason to build a new fossil fuel plant.  In about a decade there will be no excuse to even operate existing fossil plants.

As Naam points out, solar isn’t a panacea.  The sun doesn’t shine at night.  In colder parts of the world, demand for electricity is highest in winter, but it’s sunnier in summer.  We’re going to need continued advances in utility-scale energy storage to tackle challenges like this.

But the stunning drop in the price of solar is a clear sign we can decarbonize electricity generation.  It also means electricity should be cheaper for everyone.

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