Random Musing


Sheila Navalia Onzere

June 19, 1977 – August 31, 2019

It is with a sense of incredible loss that I report the death of Sheila Onzere, HURDL’s research scientist. Sheila died yesterday in Nairobi, Kenya, after a sudden illness. She had been home, taking care of her mother and working some short-term contracts while HURDL waited for longer-term work to come through. The shock is overwhelming. I was messaging with her last week. Multiple members of the HURDL family were messaging with her yesterday morning. We were all talking about projects and plans in a future that now will not happen. None of us know how to process that.

Sheila came to HURDL in September of 2014. The lab had only existed for a little over 18 months when she joined. To that point, I had been the only non-student member of the team, but the amount of work we were doing had ramped up and it was clear we needed another professional to keep things moving. I put out an ad for a research associate, and narrowed the pool to a few candidates. I still remember the Skype interview with her – all the members of HURDL at the time, Kwame Owusu-Daaku, Tshibangu Kalala, and Daniel Abrahams, piled into my office and subjected this poor Kenyan woman, operating on a weak internet connection, to the full HURDL experience – questions followed by digressions followed by jokes followed by nobody listening to me at all. In retrospect, it was an ideal interview, as it presented the most honest picture of HURDL possible – and Sheila took the job. The lab and all its members were much better for it.

Sheila made us a better organization. She brought a Ph.D. in Sociology (Iowa State) to the lab (though this lab full of geographers will always claim her BA in Human Geography from Moi University was the one that counted), and with it substantial experience working with farmers both in the US and in Africa. But as much as her technical and academic skill, Sheila brought a sense of responsibility and enthusiasm to the work of the lab. Her willingness to always step in and cover something not only kept HURDL glued together, it helped establish the ethic that made the lab such a fun and interesting place to work. She was kind, generous, and very funny. Her laugh was infectious, a reward for anyone who could make it emerge. Even her sigh of exasperation (which I elicited plenty of times) was surprisingly kind and gentle. She was unique, perfect for HURDL and all the people that had the fortune to work in it while she was a part of the team.

A while back, commenting on the structure and organization of HURDL, someone told me that it ran more like a family than a formal organization. This was not meant as a complement, but a statement identifying an institutional weakness. I disagreed then, and I disagree now. That observation helped me understand what I loved about the lab and the people in it. We were, and are, a family. When the lab came to my house to eat and hang out, it felt like a family dinner. That feeling is what makes the day-to-day of the lab worth it. We’ve lost a family member, and we are mourning like a family. It hurts intensely, but that is because Sheila meant so much to all of us. I would not have it any other way.

In the New England I knew as a child, people commonly paraphrased Mark Twain’s famous line “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” This was true year-round, but when it comes to rapidly changing temperatures, winter really had its moments. Most years, there seemed to be a day in the middle of January when the usual freezing days would give way to one that reached 50 or 60 degrees F. This prompted everyone to go outside in shorts before returning to the layers of winter for another three months. Why everyone had shorts at hand in the middle of January in New England is a regional mystery that remains unexplained.

When it comes to temperature, New England has always been a pretty variable place. When I moved back, I assumed it still would be. But after returning and living in the region for a year, that variability started to feel odd. For example, I became acutely aware of the surprising number of December days that reached the high 40s or low 50s, mostly because there is no indoor track in Worcester so I train outdoors all year (a note to the city of Worcester: Seriously? Nine colleges and lord-knows-how-many high schools, all looking for somewhere to train and race, and nobody thought to build an indoor track? 1). While the temperature is still marked by significant and relatively rapid changes, these temperature swings seem more drawn out than I remember. Where my understanding of variable temperatures was formed around a world marked by a day or two of outlying conditions followed by a return to expected temperatures, in 2017 October averaged 57 degrees Fahrenheit for the month, wildly out of line with even the 2010-present average of 52.

NOAA defines extreme temperatures as falling in the upper 10th percentile (for warm temps) or lowest 10th percentile (cold temps) across the time for which records were kept. In terms of heat, the figure below shows the percentage of days where the daytime high meets this definition of extreme. It is important to note that in the chart these extremes are relative to the month in question. In December, an extreme high is a temperature above 51.1 F, while in July it is above 87.1 F. Both are significant deviations from the norm, but the human experience of each is quite different.

In fact, the number of days marked by extreme/unusual high temperatures, just under 43 per year, has not changed since my childhood. However, as the chart shows, the distribution of these extremes throughout the year has changed. September has seen the greatest increase in these unusually hot days, which contributes to the sense of a longer summer season. On the other hand, the average number of days with extreme high temperatures in January and February has not changed much. We still have unusually warm periods in those months, but their frequency and duration is similar to that I knew as a child. March, June, and August are marked by fewer such days.

There has been a more dramatic change in the patterns related to extreme cold days – annually, there are now 26 fewer unusually cold days than seen in my childhood. This decline is visible in every month. August has more than three fewer unusually cold days, a change that means that today we see one such a day every five years. Along with overall increased average temperatures, and a longer duration and larger number of increased temperatures, this makes for a summer that feels more consistently summery.

There are four fewer extremely cold days in December, and these days now occur less than once a year. This is both a staggering change, but also a marker of a past that is now gone. Part of my identity is based on my ability to shrug off really cold temperatures, an ability borne of being sent outside to play regardless of the temperature throughout my childhood. Who from my generation did not make the mistake of coming inside, using the bathroom, and washing their hands under hot water too soon? If you have not done this, it really shocks the nerves and feels like someone is jamming dozens of needles into your hands. Generally, you make this mistake once. My kids are big Star Wars fans, but unless they concentrate on outdoor play during February, the warming temperatures mean they will probably not be reenacting versions of the Hoth scene from Empire Strikes Back as frequently as I did with my friends, and probably complain more when it is cold.

In my head, this image of my childhood home is still what winter should look like

The wild swings in temperature I recall from my childhood also appear to have become less frequent. There is a reason most New Englanders my age or older have an innate sense of layering in their wardrobes. That said, there’s also something very New Hampshire about a nostalgia for the days when you’d start sweating in your snowsuit because you needed it when you first went out, but it had since warmed up into the 50s while you were outside.

“Hey kid, if you’re big enough to sled, you’re big enough to help shovel the driveway!”

To better understand this change, I looked for days where the high temperature either increased or decreased by 20F or more from the day before. The charts below show what I found – overall, it appears that we see fewer of these swings now than in the past.

Where once there was an average of about 18 days per year where the temperature was 20 F warmer or cooler than the day before, today there are fewer than 13 days. As with most other temperature-related conditions, the deep winter period of January and February is much as it was in my childhood. Nearly every other part of the year has changed. For example, it appears the swings in temperature that I used to associate with March are being displaced into April and May. While July, August, and September rarely saw such swings in the past, they have now disappeared completely. Again, summer is becoming more consistently summery. Where November and December were once ground zero for this sort of day-to-day temperature change, today the temperature in these months has become more stable than in the period from January through April. Those warm days in December reflect high temperatures relative to my memory, but it doesn’t get as cold in December as it used to. Those temperatures feel unusually warm to me, but relative to current conditions they simply don’t qualify as extreme.

Once upon a time, you had to pack sweaters and jeans for a Salsbury beach vacation because even in early August you were going to get one of those days…

Even contemporary daily temperature changes are less pronounced than in my childhood. The chart below shows that the average day now operates in a somewhat smaller temperature window than in the past – across the year, the difference between the daily average high temperature and the average low temperature has shrunk by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since I was a child. This trend is true in every month, but very pronounced in October and December. Most of this change can be attributed to the fact that daily average low temperatures are rising faster than daily average high temperatures.

Taken together, this evidence suggests that, at least when it comes to temperature, the New England of “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute” is going away. Since my childhood the weather has become a bit more predictable and a lot warmer. For a guy who prided himself on his resilience in the face of very cold and rapidly changing weather conditions, a resilience borne from a childhood outdoors in New England, this feels sad. It also challenges an identity I’ve carried throughout my adult life, which I lived almost entirely outside New England. I lived mostly in more temperate (if not tropical) climates. In those places I enjoyed being the New Englander, relatively unbothered by swings in temperature that made those around me complain. I took some pride in the ways in which my childhood had inured me to such discomforts. But now New England is warmer and, let’s be honest, just a little more boring when it comes to temperatures. My children are unlikely to develop quite the same sense of identity. Then again, this might be for the best. Compared to their father, they’ll be less insufferable when confronting cold or highly variable weather alongside those from warmer climates.

Notes:

  1. If you happen to have some capital laying around and are into track, I can help you spend it in Worcester – you are sure to make a mint, and I can stop freezing my ass off while trying to work out in January

This post, and those I will pull together for this series, are about my personal experience of climate change and its impacts on what feel to me to be extraordinarily compressed timescales. In each post, I’m going to talk through the differences I see, what the data say is happening, and what it means to me. For the first post, let’s start with something simple: temperature 1. More specifically, summer temperatures.

When I was a kid, neither of the houses I lived in had air conditioning. I’m not sure that any of my friends’ houses had air conditioning. Several family friends had pools, and we knew which ones got the most direct sunlight because those were the warmest ones…but swimming lessons at 9am could be really chilly, even in July. I have vivid memories of falling asleep to the enameled steel window fan in my room as it clattering away. I loved having that fan, because it meant that my window shade could not be fully drawn, and I would sit in front of the fan and look out through it at night, watching cars drive by and listening to neighbors outside (my parents put my brothers and I to bed early).  

This isn’t exactly the model of fan we had, but it is pretty close. I remember the metal blades of death. It was fun watching them shred paper, small pencils, any anything else handy. Who thought those were a good idea?

Moving back to New England, we bought a house with high ceilings and big windows, a perfect stack for creating cross-drafts and letting heat rise up and out of the house. We installed ceiling fans, and I figured if those weren’t enough we’d get some window fans and use the evening temperatures to keep things comfortable, just as my family had when I was a kid. My wife, who was raised in Louisville, went to college at the University of Kentucky (where we met), and lived with me in Ghana, Spain, South Carolina, and Washington, DC, thought this was insane and demanded we install some form of air conditioning. We settled on a few strategic window units, but after two summers it was clear that my plan would never work. Each year, in July, August, and even early September there were a lot of days where the daytime heated up enough that the cross-breezes in the house actually heated the place up, and evening temperatures were not low enough to really cool things off. I gave in, and we installed high-efficiency mini-splits (which can be used for heating and cooling – more on heating in another post).

In short, coming back to New England was not a return to the summers of my childhood, but a return to a different place, at least as defined by temperature. Climate data makes this perception concrete.

Since I was growing up, the duration of summer-like temperatures 2 has gone from an average of 121 days per year to 135 days. An increase of two weeks in just over 25 years is astonishing. Some of this increased duration is reflected in an earlier average onset of summer-like weather (when I was a child, this weather began, on average, on May 17th. Now the average onset date is May 12th). However, a greater portion comes from an extension of summer-like weather into September (the average end of summery weather has been pushed back from September 15th to September 25th).

This visual compares the average length and annual position of summer-like temperatures in Worcester between my childhood (1973-1991) and now (2010-present)

With regard to daytime high temperatures, the duration of the season is the main change to the structure of temperature. The average number of days above 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) has increased by 7 days per year. This means that Worcester today sees nearly a week more of summer temperatures each year than when I was growing up. While this is a remarkably rapid increase, this does not mean that the character of summer itself is changing. In fact, the distribution of temperatures within the season have remained relatively consistent. As the charts below show, in both my childhood and now roughly 56% of the days within the “summer-like” season reach 77 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. The average number of days in this season above 85 degrees Fahrenheit has crept up from 13.3 to 15, which means that whether as a child or today, 11% of my summer days get this hot. The average number of days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit has declined from 3.5 to 3, but in the scheme of things this is pretty steady, at around 2.5% of all days. In short, as the figure below shows, summer is longer than I remember it, so the distribution of heat and cold in the year has clearly changed. However, within summer the temperatures are well within the range of my prior experience.

The structure of daytime high temperatures has not changed much, if at all, between my childhood and the present

So why does it feel hot enough to require air conditioning? Well, part of it is the duration of the summer and the number of summery days. Another part is that minimum temperatures are also changing. A tropical night is defined as one where the temperature is at or above 20 Celsius (68 Fahrenheit). During my childhood, a typical year had around five of these days. Today, we experience an average of more than eight and a half such nights. Further, the frequency of tropical nights appears to be increasing – rapidly. During my childhood, there were three years (1973, 1979, 1988) with 10 or more tropical nights. Since 2010, there have been four (2010, 2012, 2013, 2018). Across my eighteen years growing up in New England, there were 89 total tropical nights in Worcester. Since 2010, a period half as long, there have been 77. Part of why it feels so hot is that there are a lot more warm evenings.

The gently increasing number and share of tropical nights per year.

My return to Worcester is not a return to the summers of my childhood as much as a move to a new place that I’ve never lived in before. Whatever my nostalgia for summers and window fans, my kids are already living in a different world – in July and August they usually sleep with their windows closed, unable to hear different nocturnal animals, people walking and talking on the street, the sounds of nighttime in summer. I’m not comfortable saying that what I had as a child is better than what they have. I’m a person who expects and accepts change in the world. But it is just that much harder to relate to your kids when they are natives of a different world than the one you grew up in, and if nothing else that fact nags at me.

Notes:

  1. A note on data for those who care: All the data in this post is taken from the weather station at the Worcester Airport, which has daily records since 1948 (I accessed all the data you see here through the KNMI Climate Explorer). To create a comparison periods, I took an average for all measures across my childhood in New England (1973-1991), and compared that to the average from 2010-2018 (though I moved back in 2015, only using 2015-2018 created a very small series for an average that might be heavily skewed by an outlying year).
  2. Here I am defining “summer-like” somewhat arbitrarily as the period between by the first day of the year over 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) that was followed by consecutive days of temperatures above 70 degrees and closed by the last day over 25 Celsius at the end of several consecutive days over 70 degrees. I am sure I could systematize this definition a bit more, but any changes to the calculations represented in this post would be at the margins, and not affect the larger narrative

Look, I know there have been lots of Star Wars and development posts/tweets (here, here, here), so I won’t belabor things. But forgive me a quick observation after seeing the most recent Star Wars: isn’t the continual construction of bigger and more powerful flying orbs of death by the bad guys (the Empire, then the First Order) a perfect metaphor for the sort of thinking that gave us the Millennium Villages?

Goal: Galactic Domination

Project 1: Star Wars: A New Hope

Logframe: Build giant Death Star space station, blow up a representative planet, watch galaxy cower in fear => Galactic Domination

Evaluation: Failure to address single design flaw results in giant space station destroyed

Outcome: Lack of Domination

 

Project 2: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

Logframe: Build bigger, better Death Star space station, everyone will remember the last one blew up a planet, and because this one is even bigger the galaxy will cower in fear => Galactic Domination

Evaluation: Fixed previous design flaw, overconfidence in tactics and shields failed to account for another fatal flaw, giant space station destroyed

Outcome: Catastrophe, Complete collapse of the Empire

 

Project 3: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Logframe: F*ck it, we’re making an actual moon/planet into an absolutely massive, sun-powered Starkiller base (rebranded to avoid stigma of previous Death Stars), blow up the entire Federation home system, watch galaxy cower in fear=> Galactic Domination

Evaluation: Pretty much the same flaw as with the second Death Star, with pretty much the same result: Starkiller base destroyed

Outcome: Still no domination

So, to summarize: we have a problem, we can’t seem to solve it, so we will keep plowing ahead with the same approach, but bigger and more expensive, because clearly it isn’t the concept that’s flawed, we just haven’t gone big enough!

 

Yep, sounds like a lot of development.

A very long time ago, J asked me to review his book Letters Left Unsent. I’ve long been a fan of J’s writing on his blog Tales from the Hood, and have had the fortune to meet him, hang out, and develop what passes for a friendship in an era where people living on different coasts, and constantly on the move, can stay in touch through various electronic means. All this by way of saying that this will hardly be an impartial review.

So, here is my one sentence review: If you are interested in going into development/humanitarian work, or know someone who is, you need to get a copy of this book and read it/give it to them.

This is not to say that you will enjoy every message in the book – actually, you or your prospective aidworker will likely hate whole chunks of it. The reason for this is simple: the book is hard – really hard. It’s not the prose, which is actually quite fluid. It is the content. The book contains some of J’s most unvarnished stories and writing, work that strips away the romance of the job, exposing it as just that: a job. In chapter after chapter, J demonstrates that development and relief work is a very important, rewarding job, but sometimes a job where the biggest impacts come not from handing some poor soul food, but in getting a spreadsheet right or from attending the right meeting. Further, these lessons are not delivered in a detached, objective manner that can be easily forgotten, but through personal stories that emerge as J points the keyboard at himself and his own experiences. This is no casting of stones at unnamed, straw-man others (something the world could use much less of). It is, at times, a brutal first-person account of the compromises, decisions, crises, frustrations, and rewards that this career brings.

To be fair, there are personal reasons why this book challenged me. First, I know J personally. This means that I know how seriously he takes this job, how hard he works, and how much he believes in what he does. This means I cannot dismiss this book as the work of a cynic or an anti-aid crank, and therefore when the stories and their lessons hurt, there is no easy escape route. Second, some of these stories hit pretty close to home. J and I live in pretty different parts of the aid world. I’ve spent the bulk of my career as an academic, with a brief stint as the employee of a donor. I don’t live for or between deployments, and I never really have. But I’ve been in donor coordination meetings for a major crisis (the 2011 Horn of Africa famine), and in reading this book, I was transported to days of watching terribly difficult decisions get made, measuring the toll the crisis took on people around me – and I still consider those experiences to be some of the tougher ones in my career. At the same time, I’ve spent an awful lot of time conducting fieldwork. In my early days as an academic, I would disappear into villages for months on end. In the pre-cellphone era, this tended to have a deleterious effect on my personal life. Some of the collateral damage from such travel that J describes marks my own personal history. In this book, I heard the echoes of some my own decisions, and my own consequences…

So, I am not J. But I know J, both in the sense that I know the author, and I know many of those in this field for whom he writes. From my perspective, his stories ring true, and the lessons they present are real. And I have my own reasons for feeling challenged by this book, but I suspect most aidworkers would experience similar feelings as they recognize themselves in this book. In the end, my personal biases and feelings don’t change what I think is the value of this book. It is an important illustration of the development/aid worker’s life that does not resort to pieties or broad brushes. Instead, it wrestles with the ambiguities of live in this career. Development work is hard. Humanitarian assistance is hard. It is thrilling and appallingly mundane. It’s malaria and spreadsheets. Mostly spreadsheets. We succeed. We fail. We keep going, trying to learn from both. But if you are headed into this field, into this career, you are headed where J has been. Only fools ignore history, even if it is not their own. Only a very foolish prospective aidworker will ignore this book.

I have nothing to say about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial. I’m not a lawyer, I’m not involved in the case, and this country has more than enough marginally-informed people offering opinions.  I’ll not add to that mess.

However, I was deeply moved by this piece by Questlove. In it, he lays out how even a successful, wealthy artist cannot escape the categorizations imposed upon him by the way our society reads his skin and size. His elevator anecdote says it all.  Now, some folks might think his experience is overblown, or maybe unique. I am absolutely certain it is not.

During my third year at the University of Virginia, I went to the Barracks Road Shopping Center with my teammate, Donald Scott.  I think Donald drove. I forget what we were going there to buy, or exactly what store we were in (grocery? department store?).  It was the middle of the day, and both Donald and I were wearing our athletic-department issued sweats (UVa issued really drab gray sweatshirts and sweatpants, totally generic and nondescript) because we were headed to practice later.  Donald was wearing a Raiders jacket over his sweats. Basically, there was nothing on us that indicated we were students, let alone student-athletes, at UVa.

We went into the store, and walked up and down the aisles.  After a couple of minutes, I started to feel…off. Something was weird.  I started looking around, and after a minute or two realized that we were being watched. Not in passing. Rather directly.

As potential shoplifters.

Now, I’d been in this store many times, usually by myself (it was within easy walking distance of our apartment – Donald and I were just being lazy by driving), often dressed more or less as I was that day. Nobody had ever watched me like this. Nobody had ever watched me, as best as I could tell, at all.  Donald was the variable.  In the presence of a 6 foot tall, 185lb black man in a Raiders jacket, I was converted from uninteresting to potential criminal.

For the first time in my life, for just a moment, I realized what Donald must have had to deal with every single day, in any number of settings, and I was horrified.  Yet I say “for just a moment” because, of course, I am white and of an upper middle-class background. I could go home, change into some nicer clothes, and come back without Donald and return to my previously uninteresting self.  I had an escape hatch. Donald had no escape. None of my friends and teammates who looked like Donald had an escape. This was their lives. Every day.

I’ve never gotten over that experience – the very brief window into someone else’s life, and the horribly oppressive feel of that life.  I didn’t know how to talk about this with Donald, with anyone. What can you say to someone – sorry your life is so obviously oppressive because of the social expectations attached to your age, race, and gender?  Reading Questlove’s piece today brought that all back for me. I still don’t know what to say. Except that what Questlove describes is real, and is horrible, and deserves to be taken seriously.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on South Carolina politics, and never on this blog (I had some op-eds in The State and the Sun News out of Myrtle Beach).  But there is an ongoing dustup in South Carolina politics that pretty much aligns with one line of my work in development – thinking about governance.  Development is plagued with people and programs that operate under the assumption there is a simple, straight line between democracy and good governance, or worse conflate the means (democracy) with the ends (responsive, transparent government).  This has led to many hilarious (read: sad) cases where development-donor sponsored work on environmental governance has focused on state-level capacity to write legislation and regulations on the use of the environment in places where a) the state has no capacity to actually enforce laws or regulations and b) where actual political legitimacy that might make such regulations work tends to rest at the local level, in the control of those who shape access to agricultural land.  And people keep wondering why all that work doesn’t seem to amount to much change on the ground?

Well, here in South Carolina we could learn a bit about our own governance issues from these various failures. The Speaker of the House here in SC, Bobby Harrell, has been under a cloud for some time regarding his use of campaign funds.  Jody Barr, an investigative reporter for local NBC affiliate WIS-10, had the temerity to actually start digging through records, asking for interviews, and then…wait for it…actually reported on the story.  And a bunch of people are shocked, yes shocked, that…Jody Barr would dare ask such questions.  Even if the Speaker’s spending patterns are really, really problematic. Like spending $54,812 of campaign money for memberships, dues, meals and receptions to two Columbia private dinner clubs. Or $54,834 on cell phones between 2008 and 2012.

Why, how dare anyone wonder how the Speaker ran up monthly campaign-related $1000 cell phone bills for four straight years? Or mention that the State Law Enforcement Division is, in fact, investigating this issue? That’s just so…impolite. Or something.

Now, the fact is that neither I nor anyone reading this (unless the speaker is reading) actually knows if any of these expenses are indeed fraudulent, or even pushing the boundaries of the letter/spirit of the law. It sure looks bad, but until SLED comes back with something, we all have to wait and see. Perhaps Mr. Harrell is just tarred by the brush of South Carolina’s painful, ongoing history of politicians who managed to enrich themselves, their families, or their friends via their office. Amazingly, quite often these actions were legal (see Haley, Nikki and nepotism), because for a very long time the state had very weak conflict of interest rules and laws (see Haley, Nikki – what do you mean I had to disclose my consulting work for a hospital, payday lenders, and an engineering firm with interests before the state? Nobody else does it, so why should I?*), and because governance in the State of South Carolina is staggeringly opaque.  This, it seems to me, is the point everyone here is missing, and it became clear to me today in a twitter exchange with State Representative Leon Stavrinakis (D-SC119). I don’t know Representative Stavrinakis personally, and I don’t have any personal issue with him.  But he popped up in my twitter feed when I noted that South Carolina has a remarkably opaque government at nearly all levels:

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 11.43.03 PM

 

My response, in which I was trying to point out that televising the end product of a long, informal process isn’t really transparency:

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 11.46.13 PM

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 11.46.25 PM

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 11.46.34 PM

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 11.46.44 PM

And Representative Stavrinakis replied:

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 11.43.26 PM

Which totally misses the point, and worries me greatly. If elected representatives don’t understand the difference between the structures of government and the actual process of governance, who does?  Look, governance isn’t only about the formal votes. A lot of stuff happens before those meetings and votes, including the drafting of bills, that are shaped by various informal meetings and conversations. This is the informal structure by which representative democracy really works. Not every representative can know everything about every subject. Here in SC, they don’t have the staff support to become fully informed, either (this is a major problem at the federal level as well).  So a lot of their decisions are going to be based on the opinions and ideas pushed through this informal structure.

This is not a problem in and of itself – James Scott (among others) has observed that basically all large formal structures rest on lots of unacknowledged informal structures – but in representative democracy this becomes an issue because not every citizen has access to this informal structure (leaving aside the attempted use of absurd voting fraud laws to exclude part of the citizenry from the formal structure). This means that not everyone can exert the same influence on their representatives, and not everyone who is represented can understand the motivations of their elected representatives and therefore make an informed choice at the ballot box in the next election.  So, when you say you are making things transparent by televising votes, you are just televising the end product of a long, opaque process.

That’s not transparency. That’s theater.

Now, there is no easy fix for this. But a very nice first step would be to require full disclosure of all meetings that our elected representatives take during the day: who did they meet with, and about what? This would include “incidental contact” at private, non-governmental events, because this is where a lot of the work of the informal network happens. Yes, that’s right, if Representative X runs into a registered lobbyist at a wedding, and discusses a legislative issue with that lobbyist at the reception, the Representative should disclose that. If the Representative runs into the officers of a company with business before the State, and they discuss that business, the Representative should disclose that. Some might see this as intrusive. I see it as the price of admission to representing constituents in a representative democracy. This disclosure rule needs to have teeth to punish those who “forget” to do this, and it all needs to be posted publicly.

Second, representatives need to publish full lists of their donors IN REAL TIME, again in a public place. And again, give the damn rules some teeth, as a lot of our representatives are skirting this requirement with no real consequences. Third, representatives should have to disclose absolutely all of their business and investment interests. If you don’t like it, don’t run for office. I’d accept blind trusts for investments, actually, but that doesn’t work for businesses.  And all three of these public documents should be easily searchable, so constituents can quickly find out to whom their representative is talking, and from whom they are taking money and earning a living. Constituents deserve to know exactly how different votes might affect their representative’s personal interests, and be able to weigh a voting record to see if the representative is acting in self-interest, or the interest of his/her constituents.

Now, these first two steps would serve to push responsibility back to the voter for who they elect. Sure, in theory the responsibility sits with them now, but how responsible can anyone be when it is impossible to actually figure out what motivates the people running for office? Of course, just creating a situation where the voter might finally know what, exactly, he or she is voting for doesn’t guarantee they will pick good people to serve.  But at least the electorate could only blame itself.**

There is a third step that is needed here, however: do something about self-policing. Until this gets sorted out, voters will continue to grow cynical and apathetic in the face of problematic behavior in the government. You cannot have each branch of the government responsible for self-policing, as the incentives generally run against actually punishing anyone (because nobody wants to be retaliated against later by having their legislation or projects blocked. See Haley, Nikki – entire legislative career***). Yes, I do understand the concept of separation of powers. But checks and balances are key to the functioning of American-style representative democracy, and self-policing is not a check on much of anything. Court officers do have to answer to the bar, and while that is a fraught process in and of itself, the fact is that South Carolina has a branch of government accountable to someone or something other than itself, and the world has not ended.  This suggests that the legislature and executive could probably survive a similar structure.  Actually, each branch needs this to rebuild its legitimacy in the eyes of the public. At this point, very few people expect the legislature to do anything about the behavior of its own members (and don’t bother parading one or two high-profile examples out to argue with me, those are sacrificial tokens and everyone knows it).  And this is because the government has failed at governance.  The citizenry is getting frustrated, because the government neither responsive nor transparent.

A final point: this is not a “size of government” issue. There is no necessary connection between opacity and size of government. You can have a very small, opaque government (I’ve seen this at work in towns back in New Hampshire) and you can certainly have big, transparent, and responsive government (most of Scandinavia, for example, though I’ve recently heard rumors about the Norwegian oil industry working to suppress government environmental impact studies that they don’t like through opaque means).  What I am arguing for here is agnostic about the size of government – transparency and responsiveness are the goals of a governmental structure, regardless of its size. Just continuing to shrink the state won’t fix any of this.  All that effort does is slowly reduce state capacity, which means that sooner or later we are one of those countries in the Global South with a government that no longer has the capacity to enforce its laws and regulations (or provide water, roads, healthcare, fire departments, or policing).  I’ve worked in such places for my entire professional life. Most of the people living in them either wish to see reforms that make the state more capable, transparent, and responsive, or are working, as we speak, to to these ends. Why are we trying so hard to trade places with them?

 

 

 

*No, really, that was the crux of her defense. And it worked.

**This is a depressingly likely outcome. After all, Mark Sanford (R-Appalachian Trail) is back in Congress.

***I bet you thought I had nothing good to say about Haley. See, I’m full of surprises!

A great deal has been written about the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, so much that I considered remaining a reader and observer without offering comment.  But the Swartz case has me thinking again about access to academic research. Not one academic author of those articles was negatively impacted by Swartz’s act (downloading millions of scholarly articles from JSTOR with the intent of posting them online for free) – the more easily accessible the article, the more likely it is to be read and cited…and that is why we write articles.  It seems to me that most people don’t understand the fundamental absurdity of copyright in academic publishing.

I quote from one transfer-of-copyright document I recently had to sign:

In order to ensure both the widest dissemination and protection of material published in our journal, we ask Authors to transfer to [Journal Name] the rights of copyright in the articles they contribute. This enables our publisher, on behalf of [Journal Name] to ensure protection against infringement.

The whole point of publication is to get people to read and use my ideas – the very idea of infringement is pretty vague here.  I do not receive a cent for any academic article I publish, so infringement won’t affect my income. Anyone who plagiarizes me and gets caught will lose his or her career – I don’t need copyright for that. So there is no reason for me to sign this document. But what the document leaves vague is the fact this is not a voluntary transfer – the journal will not publish an article without such an agreement, and without publications the typical academic will have a pretty short career.  In short, the average academic is forced to sign away their rights to their work if they want to have a career (no publications means no tenure).  I don’t care about my rights, honestly, except when my work then ends up behind a paywall, downloadable at $30 a pop, nobody who needs to access it (i.e. colleagues in the Global South, or even colleagues at most development donors) can access it. Somebody is making a lot of money of my work and the work of my colleagues (see this article too), but it isn’t me.

However, there does seem to be an out here, at least for employees of state institutions, or those whose research is funded is funded under a federal contract.  From the same agreement I just quoted:

I hereby assign to [Journal Name] the copyright in the above specified manuscript (government authors not transferring copyright hereby assign a non-exclusive license to publish)… [my emphasis]

While I am sure this is not how it was intended when written (it is a clause to allow federal employees to publish publicly-funded research), I wonder if those of us either employed by a public entity, either directly or under a contract, can invoke that status to shift our copyright transfers into “non-exclusive licenses to publish.”  This would remove the copyright infringement argument used against Swartz, thus making it easier to pull articles from behind paywalls into the public sphere.  In short, we need to stop transferring copyright to for-profit entities any way we can…but this needs to happen in a manner that doesn’t blow up everyone’s careers.  Until the senior faculty in each discipline decide to intervene and shift emphasis to low cost, open-access journals, this could be a useful first step.  And low cost can be done – see Simon Batterbury’s comment about the Journal of Political Ecology on the post in the last hyperlink.

In short, academics need to step up and start resisting an academic publishing machine that makes serious money off of our job requirements, but provides little in return.  If we do so, perhaps we won’t need folks like Aaron Swartz to liberate our work – we can do it ourselves.

In order to vote on Tuesday, I stood in line for nearly 2 1/2 hours, mostly because the folks in charge of elections in Richland County, South Carolina cannot seem to figure out 1) how to allocate machines to precincts appropriately/according to the law and 2) how to fix the machines when they (inevitably) fail.  If Cheryl Goodwin, Richland County’s Election Systems Coordinator, is correct, there were the same number of voting machines at work Tuesday as there were in 2008.  Yet somehow my precinct went from five machines in 2008 to three in 2012.  There were, according to news accounts, 18 technicians in the field working on Tuesday.  Yet they could not address the breakdown of machines across the county, nor the breakdown of machines in my precinct.  Precinct workers told me they called for help around 8am as one of the machines broke down.  By the time I left, around 11:15, no technicians had shown up.  The debacle actually continues…it seems they still cannot get all of the absentee ballots counted, and several local/state races and ballot initiatives are still in play.

As I tweeted yesterday, there are two kinds of problems: there are the unforeseeable/very low probability problems. If a meteor hits a polling station, I’m willing to give people a pass on that one.  Then there are the problems related to being poorly prepared or just unprepared.  You know, like the problems caused by misallocating voting machines and then failing to respond to calls for help from precinct workers for over 3 hours.  THESE ARE NOT THE SAME. The first type of problem is understandable and excusable.  The second demands that someone be held to account.  Not that anyone is going to stand up and take the blame here, though…

OK, so Richland County was a debacle.  But it’s not like people were still voting at 11pm.  Oh, wait…

But the thing that infuriates me the most is the way in which so many in the media excused this debacle – several times I heard folks on TV say things like “person X had their voting card torn up in the 50s, so standing in line for a while is really a small sacrifice.”  This is complete garbage.  All of those people who sacrificed to ensure that women/minorities/non-white-male-property-owners could vote did not struggle just so that those who came later could be subjected to voting conditions that would be embarrassing in many precincts in GHANA.  The whole point of that struggle was to enable those who followed them to vote easily and freely.  The simple fact is that a five hour line…or a three hour line…or a two hour line can effectively disenfranchise someone who cannot afford to take half a day or more off from work, or who does not have childcare at home that enables them to stand in line until after 11pm to vote.

So media, let’s be clear: nobody suffered or struggled in the past so that you could give Richland County Election Commission a pass on this shambles of an election.  The ghosts of those people are shaking their fists in rage at your invocation of them to excuse the effective disenfranchisement of many in the electorate.  Someone had best be held to account for this debacle.  The cause of the problems has to be explained and resolved. Only then will we be honoring those whose struggles brought us the diverse electorate we have today.

A colleague of mine entered the search “climate change” (in quotes) in Google yesterday . . . and this blog came up on the first page, the 11th overall hit.  Out of 108 million hits.  I have no idea how I did this, but I know that people pay big money to be a first page hit . . . must monetize!

 

Because these things change all the time, my proof is here:

 

 

Next Page »