The Future In The Past

They opened a coal mine in Pennsylvania last week.  It’s the first new coal mine opened in the area in as long as people can remember.

The Corsa Coal Company decided to open the Acosta mine, located about 60 miles south of Pittsburgh, last August.  It made the decision to open the mine because demands for metallurgical coal used by the steel industry, and cuts in coal production in China, have caused the prices for such coal to skyrocket.  Metallurgical coal is a special kind of coal, distinct from coal used for other purposes, and represents about 5 to 10 percent of the coal industry.

1024x1024Even though the decision to open the mine came before the last presidential election, President Trump has touted the opening of the mine as reflective of the new approach taken to coal in his administration.  Corsa’s chief executive said that Trump’s election has made the whole coal industry more optimistic.  He said “The war on coal is over,” and added that “Easing the regulatory burden, lowering taxes, stimulating infrastructure spending, balancing out the interest of economic growth versus environmental policy — it’s very good for coal.”  Corsa believes that if it can keep its costs low, it can compete with any company in the world in coal production.

I view the opening of a new coal mine in Pennsylvania with mixed emotions.  The past practices of the coal industry have left real scars in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or West Virginia, both on the landscape and, in some instances, on people.  At the same time, I am happy for the people of rural western Pennsylvania who have been desperate to find work and some cause for optimism.  It’s no surprise that the new mine has been bombarded with hundreds of job applications for the 100 positions that will be created, and that the mine is being praised as a lifeline for the local economy.

It’s odd that, even though we have moved well into the 21st century, the American economy is still looking at things like coal mining — work that has been going on for centuries — as a element of future job production.  I just hope that the coal industry has learned from the past as it moves forward into the future.

Adam West And The Age Of Innocence

I was sorry to read about the death of Adam West — known to everyone over a certain age as Batman — this past weekend.  West, who was 88, died after battling leukemia.

adam-west-and-burt-ward-i-010Hearing about West’s death made me think, of course, about the Batman TV show that was enormously popular when I was a little kid.  The word that inevitably is used now to describe the show is “campy,” but really it was more about innocence.  Batman was just like a comic book of those days brought to life, with every punch marked by a Pow! or Whammo!, with characters who weren’t dealing with any “real-world” problems, and with a hero who constantly lectured Robin, the Boy Wonder, in an avuncular way, instructing him all on the platitudes about brushing your teeth and eating your vegetables and being a patriotic citizen that we kids were hearing all the time at home from our parents and grandparents.

Sure, the show was played with a wink, and usually Batman gave Robin the benefit of his wisdom as they were using a rope to walk up the side of the wall in an obviously fake way, just before some famous person put their head out of a window in a silly cameo appearance — but the fact is that the platitudes still got stated on network TV by a hero who apparently meant every word, the hero always escaped from whatever devilish contrivance the Joker or the Penguin or the Riddler put him into, and in the end truth and justice and the hero prevailed . . . and nobody really got hurt beyond taking a few punches to the jaw, either.

The show worked because the theme song was cool, the Batmobile was cooler, and Adam West played Batman right down the line, delivering his homilies and interacting with Commissioner Gordon and even the Catwoman with straight-faced earnestness — presaging the career of Leslie Nielsen playing hilarious deadpan characters in Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies.  West was perfect for the Batman role, and that West was able to impassively act the part was particularly impressive when you consider that he was romping around in an embarrassingly tight superhero costume and cape.  It couldn’t have been easy being Batman, but West pulled it off — and even more remarkable, when you think about celebrities of the modern era who will do just about anything to get attention, he never dissed the show or made fun of it, even after the show had long since ended.  To the contrary, West seemed legitimately appreciative, at least publicly, that he had a chance to be a star and a hero to little kids during those long-ago days.

It’s unimaginable that a show like Batman would ever get made these days, because network executives would insist on complex characters struggling with inner demons and the violence would be much bloodier, and scarier, and deadlier, and Batman would never give Robin the kind of lectures that the Boy Wonder got back in the ’60s.  It’s understandable, I guess, but it’s too bad, too.  There’s something to be said for innocence, and a hero who thinks it’s important to mention dental hygiene now and then.

Primate Rights

A New York state appeals court has rejected a request to issue a writ of habeas corpus to free two chimpanzees who are kept in cages — one in a warehouse in Gloversville, New York, and the other in a storefront in Niagara Falls, New York.  The writ sought to have the primates moved from their cages to an animal sanctuary.

article-2034439-0dbb7fa500000578-543_306x338In the case, the New York courts were presented with expert evidence “that chimpanzees exhibit many of the same social, cognitive and linguistic capabilities as humans and therefore should be afforded some of the same fundamental rights as humans.”  In a nutshell, however, the court of appeals concluded — correctly, in my view — that the fact that chimpanzees exhibit some humanlike characteristics is simply not enough to make them “persons” in the eyes of the law.  The court reasoned that “[t]he asserted cognitive and linguistic capabilities of chimpanzees do not translate to a chimpanzee’s capacity or ability, like humans, to bear legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions.”  And, the court added, the flip side of personhood would mean that chimpanzees could be held criminally accountable for killing or injuring humans — something that has not been done, obviously, because chimpanzees do not have moral culpability for such acts, nor do they have the capacity to understand the proceedings against then or to assist in their own defense, which is what courts typically look for in deciding whether a defendant is competent.

You can read the court of appeals decision here.

Although I think the law cannot recognize primates like chimpanzees as “people,” with all of the rights of people, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be afforded some rights, beyond being viewed as mere property.  The court of appeals’ decision summarizes expert evidence that indicates that chimpanzees have an impressive array of qualities that we associate with thinking beings, such as “recognizing themselves in reflections,” “setting and acting toward goals such as obtaining food,” “communicating about events in the past and their intentions for the future, such as by pointing or using sign language,” “protecting others in risky situations, such as when relatively strong chimpanzees will examine a road before guarding more vulnerable chimpanzees as they cross the road,” “making and using complex tools for hygiene, socializing, communicating, hunting, gathering, and fighting,” “counting and ordering items using numbers,” “showing concern for the welfare of others, particularly their offspring, siblings, and even orphans they adopt,” and “resolving conflicts” and “apologizing.”

At some point, we need to ask ourselves — do creatures that exhibit these kinds of qualities and characteristics really deserve to be put into cages at the whim of whoever purchases them?

Tattooed Nation

Bloomberg reports that about one third of adults in America now have tattoos.  That’s right — fully 30 percent of the people walking among us every day are sporting ink, somewhere, and that number includes about half of the “millennial” generation.

dennis-rodman-tattoos-5This news will not come as a surprise to anyone who is observant about our modern world.  Go to any local eatery, and you’ll notice that the young person waiting on you will have an elaborately designed sleeve, or a neck stamp.  Watch an NBA game, and you’ll see multiple examples of the cover art on Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man come to life, sprinting up and down the court and throwing down thunderous dunks.  Sit in a subway train, and you’ll observe that when the 40ish businesswoman sitting on the other side of the aisle crosses her legs, she displays a Chinese or Japanese symbol on her ankle.  In America, the ink is clearly flowing, and it’s pretty much everywhere.  The Bloomberg article reports that the increasing popularity of such “body art” has made tattooistry into a thriving industry that generates an estimated $1 billion annually, primarily through cash sales at individual tattoo parlors.

The tattoo phenomenon is one of those cultural changes that has happened so gradually you don’t really notice it — until you reflect on it, and compare modern times to earlier years.  Once, tattoos were rare and basically reserved for aging sailors, ex-convicts, Ivy Leaguers like George Schultz, who famously had the Princeton tiger tattooed on his keister, and outrageous personalities like Dennis Rodman, who displayed a lot of ink when he wasn’t wearing a wedding dress.

Now tattoos are ubiquitous.  That doesn’t mean I’m going to get one, however.  The idea of paying somebody to puncture my skin and ink up the dermal layer underneath gives me the willies.

But I wonder:  What’s next — serious facial and body piercings?  Maybe Dennis Rodman is more of a cultural trendsetter than we ever suspected.  That’s kind of a scary thought.

Politicized Diets

Recently I ran across an interesting article dealing with governmental diet instructions.  It noted that much of the nutrition advice that Americans have received from their government over recent decades has turned out to be dead wrong — and in fact may have contributed to the obesity epidemic that you see whenever you go out in public.

The article focuses on the national dietary guidelines released in 1980 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the forerunner to the current Department of Health and Human Services.  The guidelines targeted fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol as villainous substances to be avoided and drummed into American heads that low-cholesterol, low-fat foods were better for your heart and your health generally.  As a result, the article posits, food manufacturers started churning out “low-fat” and low-calorie offerings that Americans bought, thinking they were eating healthy.

dfe6c7a7569e69d9568a402ff1a01e74But the government’s conclusions about our eating habits and their effect on health turned out to be erroneous. Research has determined that fat and cholesterol are not, in fact, harmful, and the “low-fat,” high in carbohydrates foods that Americans have been munching on may instead have helped to produce vast problems with obesity and diabetes — problems that did not exist in 1980, when the government report that triggered it all was released.  One British cardiologist contends:  “The change in dietary advice to promote low-fat foods is perhaps the biggest mistake in modern medical history.”  And other results have indicated that diets that go in the opposite direction from the government’s instruction, with dieters looking to eat meats and eggs and limit carbs instead, are effective in reducing weight.

How did the government turn out to be so wrong?  Some researchers believe that it was because, back in the ’60s, sugar industry lobbyists funded dubious research that linked fat and cholesterol to heart disease and downplayed the adverse health effects of sugar and carbohydrates.  With the nudging from the lobbyists, the government bought the sketchy results, issued its report, and started the country on the road to flabbiness.  In short, politics helped to put us on the wrong dietary road.

If you’ve lived long enough, you begin to reach a critical mass of alarming governmental declarations that have turned out to be wrong.  It’s one of the reasons why the credibility of our governmental institutions among the American public has dropped to an all-time low.  The conclusion that modern America’s obesity epidemic is a self-inflicted problem caused in part by really bad governmental advice isn’t going to help.

When Taxpayers Hit The Road

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on Connecticut — the state which for some time has had the highest per capita income of any state in the union.  Now Connecticut is running into problems with its budget.  The problem?  It has jacked up taxes to the point that its biggest taxpayers, both corporations and individuals, have decided that it just makes sense to move.

leaving-connecticut-1170x514Aetna, a Connecticut institution since 1853 and one of the state’s largest employers, announced this week that it is moving.  General Electric has fled to Boston.  In May the state reduced its two-year revenue forecast by nearly $1.5 billion and has projected a 6 percent drop in income-tax revenue for 2017 and 2018.  Income-tax collections declined this year due to lower earnings at the top, as many high earners have moved to lower tax states.  Sales-tax revenue is forecast to fall by 9 percent, corporate-tax revenue is estimated to drop by 7 percent, and state pension contributions, which have doubled since 2010, will increase by a third over the next two years.  This confluence of bad news leaves Connecticut with a $5.1 billion deficit and three recent credit downgrades.

Is it a coincidence that all of that has happened after Connecticut raised its top individual income tax rate, payable by those who earn more than $500,000 a year, from 5% to 6.99%?  Is it a coincidence that, in the last five years, 27,400 residents have moved to no-income-tax Florida?  Their departures have depressed economic growth in Connecticut and, since high earners also tend to be high spenders, has also depressed home values and sales-tax revenues.

And here’s the kicker:  Connecticut is talking about issuing “revenue bonds,” backed by its shrinking income tax revenues, to try to reduce its borrowing costs and close its budget deficit.  In case you’re interested, that’s something Puerto Rico tried, too — and look where Puerto Rico ended up.

It’s a pretty simple lesson:  while people may not always be rational economic actors, if states keep raising taxes and taking large chunks of your income year after year, at some point taxpayers are going to go to a place where they get to hold on to more of what they earn.  Connecticut is now learning that lesson the hard way, and no-tax states, like Florida, are reaping the benefits.

Confirming That Standards Still Exist

I’ve always considered Kathy Griffin to be an unfunny, no-talent hack who always seems to be willing to do or say anything in a desperate bid to get some attention.  Calling her a “comedian” is an insult to people who have a legitimate sense of humor and make people laugh for a living.

So it was no surprise to me that Griffin did something stupidly provocative — in this case, posing for a photo with a mock-up of a bloody, severed head of Donald Trump — in a bid to try to remain “edgy” and in the news.   The fact that anyone, even a pathetic attention grubber like Griffin, would think that posing with the severed head of the President of the United States was funny, tells you something about how out of touch some people can be with prevailing human sensibilities.

mqdefaultWhat’s encouraging, though, is the reaction to Griffin’s photo.  She was universally criticized by everyone, left and right, liberal and conservative, irrespective of whether they support Trump or think he’s the worst President ever.  Griffin also was, not surprisingly, removed from gigs and jobs, including participating in the CNN New Year’s Eve show that I’ve never watched, because someone who thought, even for a second, that that kind of photo was funny is obviously so lacking in judgment that she’s capable of doing or saying other things that are grossly inappropriate.

The broad condemnation of Griffin’s ill-advised publicity stunt shows that we still have some standards of propriety in this country.  To be sure, drawing the line at posing for a photograph with the President’s head may be a low bar, but it’s nevertheless nice to know that the bar is still there.

When Griffin realized that she crossed the line and was being subjected to withering criticism by just about everyone, she issued an apology of sorts, asking for forgiveness, calling herself “a comic” and saying:  “I cross the line. I move the line, then I cross it. I went way too far. The image is too disturbing. I understand how it offends people. It wasn’t funny. I get it.”  You wonder, though, whether Griffin really does “get it” — and in fact she and her celebrity attorney are supposed to hold a press conference today where they will explain the “true motivation” behind Griffin’s bloody Trump head image, and “respond to the bullying from the Trump family she has endured.”   That’s right:  Griffin apparently is claiming that she has been “bullied” because the Trump family harshly criticized her callous and outrageous stunt.

Trying to reposition yourself as the victim is a classic, last-ditch tactic when you’ve done something so colossally wrong-headed, so it’s no surprise that Griffin is trying it.  It will be interesting to see whether anyone lets Griffin get away with it, when in reality she has only herself to blame for her witless, self-inflicted injury.