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This Week’s Canvas: Something is Burning

August 11, 2017

Returning to the fight to find something smart to read and we’re keeping our cool. No easy feat given the climate change report leaked recently suggests it’s nothing but record-setting high temps from here on out. Maybe devastation is the new black. Let’s see what we can figure out about how we got here.

North Korea WTH (also DJTWTH)

Is there anyone with more than WTH to say about the escalating war of words between North Korea and President Trump? I thought that was the only rational response until NYT’s new(-ish) podcast, The Daily, came to my rescue. The show’s host, Michael Barbora, interviewed former Secretary of Defense William Perry and asked much smarter questions than mine. Listen to the episode, “What a 1999 Meeting with North Korea Tells Us About Today” and have more context for this debate than most all of your friends.

Rolling Stone offers a timeline of events in the region while The Atlantic walks through four options of what might happen next. Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Sudan University in Shanghai, sees little hope for negotiating a deal with China:

Shen also dismissed the notion of a mega-deal between China and the United States, less because it wasn’t feasible than because the goal of such an agreement would be futile. North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program is “impossible to stop,” he told me, “just like it was impossible to stop American nuclear weapons, impossible to stop Chinese nuclear weapons, impossible to stop Israel’s nuclear weapons, Indian nuclear weapons, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.


Poverty Forever

Several outlets have run headlines suggesting the White House is quietly accomplishing many things while everyone else waits for the next presidential tweet to drop. All the policy headlines seem to add up to making it harder and harder to be poor. In an opinion piece for Time, Wes Moore writes “The War on Poverty Has Become a War on the Poor.”

This nation needs a battle plan so our poor citizens can fight their way into prosperity. Instead, after decades of inconsistent policies and disparaging rhetoric, the 45 million Americans living in poverty today are more vulnerable than at any point in this nation’s history.

And the vulnerabilities keep stacking up. Check out The Hill’s report that 81 institutions working to prevent teen pregnancy just learned that their five year grants would be cut off after receiving only three years of funds. The U.S. has a maternal mortality rate higher than any other developed country in the world and complications of unplanned pregnancies is one of the reasons. Then there’s “gutting” the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development as cities across the country face affordable housing shortages. Housing is harder to find, there’s little help available and the plan is to cut more.

If I had more time I’d dig up that quote about, “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers…”


The State of the Opioid Crisis

All the speculation over whether or not President Trump would declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency sent me looking for more information. I know it’s bad and people are suffering but I didn’t know what to make of this particular decision. Last February, Frontline took on the question, “How bad is the opioid epidemic?,” and effectively drew a chalk outline around the answer.

By Frankie Leon

One statistic that I had to read and re-read and still don’t quite understand:

12 states have more opioid prescriptions than people

If you read the previous section on poverty, you might be able to predict the states that made the list: Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma… There seems to be a trend but it’s also more widespread than you might think, cutting across demographics and geography.

The Washington Post then answered the question of what a declaration of emergency makes possible. Mostly, more money. States and localities can use the federal government’s Disaster Relief Fund to cover drug treatment and overdose-reversal medication. It could also make it easier to navigate around federal regulations that make it more difficult to get treatment.

If the current crisis is causing death rates comparable to the AIDS epidemic, maybe we should ask how we can improve our response rate this time. That requires federal funds and a strategy. I imagine I’m not alone in feeling this is the right answer even if I am unsure about what strategy would be the most effective. And when I say I “feel” it, I’m telling you that I still experience a wave of sadness whenever I hear a Prince song and am reminded of his loss. Casual attitudes about our prescription habits have delivered people deeper and deeper into a situation that quickly spirals out of their control.

It’s time to confront what we think we know about addicts and people who die from drug overdoses. They look more like us and our family members than we might imagine. The Science of Us has a treatment plan for all of us and it’s a doozy.

Combating the stigma of addiction may require a two-pronged approach, one that requires open discussion about mental-health issues on a policy level, while also forcing us to address our individual prejudices. Recognizing and stopping addiction when it happens is about being more aware and staying connected to one another — and this applies as much to our homes as it does to the communities we live in.

Want to fight fires? Find a way to connect with the people in your community. Follow those ups and downs like you watch what your high school friends are up to on Facebook.

This Week’s Canvas: Complications–in Taxes, Health Care and Hope

Three themes from the week ending May 6th, 2017

The push to make 100 days matter dumped a whole lot of headlines on everyone this week. It was tempting to stick with Star Wars socks and not so fun facts about the Civil War for this round.

Too Simple Math

A single-page tax plan from the Executive Branch has everyone talking about what’s missing. The specifics are scarce and the math doesn’t add up. The Boston Globe offers a nice rundown of the proposition under the title, “We’re a Typical Family. What Would Trump’s Tax Plan Mean for Us?” The paper’s answer for this average family is largely a matter of wait and see. There’s another group of Americans, however, that can get to the final answer without further explanation:

For the rich, the gains are very clear and very valuable, including reducing the top income tax rate, eliminating the alternative minimum tax and estate tax, and cutting capital gains.

A certain Minority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives calculated that the proposal would have offered a $30 million tax cut for Donald J. Trump in 2015. Politifact found that Nancy Pelosi got the math right. Bloomberg points to the necessity of the claim that the tax plan will pay for itself through economic growth. The math doesn’t add up but the politics do. Creating a deficit likely to exceed a 10 year window would require 60 votes to pass the Senate with permanent reform. Then there’s that whole question about the deficit and whether or not anyone is ever serious when they talk about balancing the budget or requiring budget-neutral legislation.

If you need to win at cocktail chatter this weekend, borrow this phrase from Bloomberg writer Peter Coy: Trump’s plan “violates what’s known as the transversality condition.” If you haven’t already had too much to drink at that point, you can add, “which says that debt relative to the size of the economy cannot grow to infinity.” Be sure to turn and walk away for another drink before there’s a follow-up question.

A Matter of Life or Death

If you usually skip late-night TV, you might not have known who Jimmy Kimmel was until this week. After a brief absence from the show, he returned to the stage to share his family’s story about his newborn son born with a heart defect. He also made a powerful statement about questions of life or death and our obligation to one another:

We were brought up to believe that we live in the greatest country in the world, but until a few years ago, millions and millions of us had no access to health insurance at all. You know, before 2014, if you were born with congenital heart disease, like my son was, there’s a good chance you’d never be able to get health insurance, because you had a pre-existing condition. You were born with a pre-existing condition…

If your baby is going to die and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make. I think that’s something that whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that, right?

With their “4 Big Changes to Health Care in the Latest GOP Bill,” Fivethirtyeight puts pre-existing conditions at the top of the list. Real people are using the hashtag #IAmAPreexistingCondition to share their own stories of medical uncertainty. An excellent post by Olga Khazan in The Atlantic suggests stories like these, “of people in dire need of health care might be the thing” that makes it impossible to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Hope Forward

While others were running the table with tax cuts and health care legislation, the Obama Presidential Library made its first appearance this week. It’s aspirations match the namesake with Obama telling the Chicago Sun-Times that it would be a place to “train the next generation of leadership” who will “take up the torch and lead the process of change in the future.”

About that future, this will be the 14th presidential library managed by the National Archives and Records Administration but will mark a new way forward in many ways:

Other aspects of the center speak to the former president’s ideals and legacy. Its proximity to transit, parklike setting, and promise of eco-friendly construction nod toward his environmentalism. His plan to invite artists like Chance the Rapper and Spike Lee to teach kids about the arts reflect his love of music, film, and children. His desire for a center that “looked forward, not backward” echoes the entire point of his presidency.

Situated in an urban area, the new site has an opportunity to connect with people beyond the academics one finds on college campuses. It will also be the first “fully digitized” presidential library. A historian at Oklahoma State University who spoke  to (linked above) thinks this all adds up to thinking Obama has forgotten the “core function of a presidential library, which is to house the documentation of a president.” This understanding of a presidential library’s purpose has been especially significant since Watergate, the scandal that prompted the “Presidential Records Act of 1978.” It requires Presidents to make most of their documents public within five years of leaving office.

This potential  gap between physical documents and electronic copies is a question for the future. It might create confusion or inconvenience for investigative citizens but it might also make possible a new hub for civic life in Chicago. A couple of other question require considering the distance between words and deeds sooner rather than later. There’s the question of taking public park land, a gift to Obama, rather than buying land for a presidential library and that “$400,000 speech” that has everyone offering an opinion.

Looks like creating a space for “building consensus and community” is an expensive proposition.



This Week’s Canvas: Counting, Courting and Creative Opposition

Three themes from the week ending April 29th, 2017

What’s 100 days?

There’s some truth that this is an arbitrary marker. FDR planted the flag as he took office picking up the pieces after the Great Depression. He wanted the American people to know he was on the job and it’s a marker we’ve observed ever since. Trump isn’t the first to feel the pressure so why should we forego the ritual and the fun?

With a particularly apropos approach, The Telegraph turns to the new President’s Twitter feed to reflect on his first 100 days. It appears that he has been getting up earlier in the morning. The New York Times had some fun sharing their Opinion pages with readers who offered their own assessments of the administration’s fresh start. A Senior Lecturer in History compared the flurry of activity this week to her students’ rush to complete unfinished assignments at the end of a semester.

Five Thirty Eight offers more measured reflections on the moment with  10 lessons from 100 days, including a reminder that “Trump isn’t the only story.” The Monkey Cage answers that reasonable account with more reasonableness, pointing to the two factors a President needs to turn up the fire on first 100 Days: a congressional majority and a national emergency (or other call to action).

The problem for today’s Republicans is that the social and economic context is relatively calm. There is no recession, bank crisis, terrorist attack or war. An election by itself is not enough. A 100-days legislative binge would have been astonishing.
–David R. Mayhew, The Washington Post

Whose Court is It Anyway?

While political observers watch for every wink, nod or nudge suggesting congressional Republicans have grown weary of President Trump, judges across the country are saying as much. Chief Justice Roberts issued an “oh come on!” in response to an attorney defending the administration’s rationale for deporting naturalized citizens. Justice Kennedy added his own remark, “Your argument is demeaning the priceless value of citizenship.”

For a look back at the trouble with the travel ban, revisit Washington Post’s “Federal Appeals Court Rules 3 to 0 Against Trump on Travel Ban.” That saga alone might explain the President’s willingness to look at breaking up the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals but another court has now blocked his Executive Order cutting off federal funds to “Sanctuary Cities.” The courts’ decisions keep returning to this idea that sounds familiar: limited government.

Writing for the New York Times, Adam Liptak observes that partisanship and precedents get tricky given that, “Trump’s Losing Streak in Courts is Traceable to Conservative Judges.”

The Trump administration’s losing streak in courts around the nation has in large part been a product of precedents established by conservative judges in the Obama era. It turns out that legal principles meant to curb executive overreach are indifferent to the president’s party.
–Adam Liptak, New York Times

A Swarm of Scientists Strike D.C.

Earth Day shared the stage with the March for Science last weekend. While you might think activists should have these public marches down to a science by now, this was a remarkably different kind of march. Maggie Koerth-Baker writes that “there haven’t been many protests that addressed the repetitional concerns of a single occupation.” Results still depend on convincing legislators that science is something people care about when they vote.

The nearest match for the potential of the moment involves angry farmers who marched to Washington in the 70’s (and released goats on the capitol steps!). The audience for silly signs and viral videos aside, the March for Science has provoked discussion about science as the “secret sauce of Western civilization,” and its ancient opponent, fear.

The very existence of science is disruptive—because the tool is designed to undercut belief, to challenge both the sacred and the prosaic. The aim of science is disprove the comfortable assumptions of life, not to reinforce them. And since the time of Galileo, it has been seen as a threatening interloper to those in power and to everyday living.
–Clifton Leaf, Fortune

Leaf also points to the antidote for fear: creativity. We’ll add civics. 😉