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Beverage Container Showdown: Plastic vs. Glass vs. Aluminum

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With summer winding down, it’s hard not to spend every waking (and maybe non-waking) minute outside. That means a whole lot of hikes, cookouts and outdoor fun. You’ve got a handle on green camping hacks and eco-friendly picnic essentials — now let’s zoom in on beverage containers.

Beverages are essential when it comes to outdoor soirees. When picking them out at the store, you’re faced with a few options: plastic bottles, glass bottles or aluminum cans. What to choose? The decision can be daunting for environmentalists. We’re here to give you the lowdown on which of these receptacles gets the planet’s stamp of approval.

Step 1: How They’re Made

We see beverage containers constantly — lining the shelves of the grocery store, filling coolers at BBQs, quenching a beachgoer’s thirst. Just how did they get there?

Plastic

Plastic manufacturing starts off with oil and natural gas. These raw materials are converted into smaller pieces called monomers, and are then chemically bonded together to create long chains, known as polymers. These polymers are the plastic you see in the form of water bottles, food packaging and much more.

To get to the crude oil and natural gas needed to produce plastics, we must head for the earth’s crust. However, oil and natural gas is buried beneath layers of bedrock — that’s where drilling comes in. Drilling for oil in our pristine oceans and fracking for natural gas in America’s West is destroying our environment.

Glass

Liquefied sand, soda ash (naturally occurring sodium carbonate), limestone, recycled glass and various additives make up the glass bottles we use to hold our beverages.

Using limestone prevents glass from weathering and is thus a valuable raw material for glass containers. The sedimentary rock is typically mined from a quarry — either above or below ground. In terms of the environment, limestone mining may contaminate water and contribute to noise pollution. Limestone mining can also destroy habitat for animals who live in their cave ecosystem and can form a permanent scar on the landscape.

It’s safe to say that the raw materials that go into making glass bottles are widely available in the U.S.

Cans

New aluminum cans are almost always made from bauxite, a mineral that the U.S. gets from mines in countries like Guinea and Australia. The mining of bauxite is harsh on the planet — raw bauxite is discovered by way of open-pit mining, essentially scraping a pit into the landscape and leaving environmental destruction behind. Bauxite mining contributes to habitat loss and water contamination, as well as a slew of other negative environmental impacts, like increased erosion.

Step 2: Transport

When getting from here to there, each container has a different footprint.

Plastic

The environmental cost of transporting plastic bottles can exceed even those of creating the plastic bottle in the first place. This isn’t always the case — it depends on the distance of transport — but it’s a throttling idea.

For short distances, plastic bottles have a low transportation footprint. They pack tightly — companies are definitely responding to greener consumers and are keeping sustainability in mind when designing the shapes of their bottles. They’re also very lightweight, meaning less fuel is consumed during shipping.

Glass

There’s one big, undeniable eco-unfriendly aspect of glass bottles — they’re heavy. The transportation of glass bottles requires significantly more energy than their lightweight counterparts. Glass is fragile, too, so they can’t be packed into a truck as tightly as aluminum and plastic can.

Cans

Americans love cans because they are small, lightweight and airtight. Turns out, the planet does, too. Their size means they save fuel — more cans can fit into a smaller space and their light weight means less gas to get them from point A to point B. Because aluminum isn’t particularly fragile, cans use less cardboard packaging when transported as well, meaning more room for more cans.

Step 3: Where They End Up

Empty — now what? Each of these containers is recyclable. Here’s how they match up.

Plastic

The recycling rate of plastics is actually quite low — in 2014, only 9.5 percent of plastic material generated in the U.S. was recycled. The rest was combusted for energy or sent to a landfill where its fate is uncertain — it can either find its way out and pollute our planet or sit there for up to 500 years before finally decomposing.

Glass

Glass bottles are 100 percent recyclable and an estimated 80 percent of recovered glass containers are made into new glass bottles. Once you toss your glass bottle in the recycling bin, manufacturers can have it back onto the shelves in a month. Plus, using recycled glass when making new glass bottles reduces the manufacturer’s carbon footprint — furnaces may run at lower temperatures when recycled glass is used because it is already melted down to the right consistency.

Cans

Like glass, aluminum cans are completely recyclable and are commonly recycled worldwide as part of municipal recycling programs. Aluminum cans can be recycled repeatedly with no limit.

In her book, The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard notes that we are currently recycling only 45 percent of cans. That calls for a lot of pit mining for bauxite to make new material. According to Leonard, more than a trillion aluminum cans have been trashed in landfills since 1972, when such records began.

And the Winner Is…

If they are made from 100 percent recycled material, aluminum cans should be your top choice when shopping for picnic beverages. Their low transportation footprint and ease of recyclability make them a winner.

However, the extraction of raw bauxite is detrimental to the planet. New aluminum cans are not eco-friendly.

Glass should be your pick if recycled cans are not an option. Glass bottles are made from relatively innocuous raw materials and is, like aluminum cans, completely recyclable. Their bulky size and transportation footprint is their downfall.

Plastic does have a small carbon footprint when it comes to transportation, but it’s tough to ignore the giant carbon footprint when it comes to extraction. Plus, the plastic that doesn’t end up in a recycling bin can be a huge pollutant in our environment, killing wildlife and contaminating ecosystems. With using plastic, the planet is ravaged.

Feature images courtesy of Shutterstock

Read More:
How Many Times Can That Be Recycled?
Which Is Better? Plastic vs. Glass Food Storage Containers
The Verdict Is In: Keep the Bottle Caps On

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Lauren Murphy

Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.

Latest posts by Lauren Murphy (see all)

Beverage Container Showdown: Plastic vs. Glass vs. Aluminum – August 11, 2017
Is Starbucks Doing Enough to Recycle Its Cups? – July 18, 2017
6 Simple Swaps for a Green 4th of July  – June 30, 2017

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Beverage Container Showdown: Plastic vs. Glass vs. Aluminum

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Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home – Rupert Sheldrake

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Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home

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Rupert Sheldrake

Genre: Life Sciences

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: September 21, 1999

Publisher: Crown/Archetype

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC


With a scientist's mind and an animal lover's compassion, world-renowned biologist Rupert Sheldrake presents a groundbreaking exploration of animal behavior that will profoundly change the way we think about animals–and ourselves. How do cats know when it's time to go to the vet, even before the cat carrier comes out? How do dogs know when their owners are returning home at unexpected times? How can horses find their way back to the stable over completely unfamiliar terrain? After five years of extensive research involving thousands of people who have pets and work with animals, Dr. Sheldrake proves conclusively what many pet owners already know: there is a strong connection between humans and animals that defies present-day scientific understanding. Sheldrake compellingly demonstrates that we and our pets are social animals linked together by invisible bonds connecting animals to each other, to their owners, and to their homes in powerful ways. His provocative ideas about these social, or morphic, fields explain the uncanny behavior often observed in pets and help provide an explanation for amazing animal behavior in the wild, such as migration and homing. Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home not only provides fascinating insight into animal, and human, behavior, but also teaches us to question the boundaries of conventional scientific thought, and shows that the very animals who are closest to us have much to teach us about biology, nature, and consciousness.

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Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home – Rupert Sheldrake

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Which Airline Kicks Off the Most Passengers?

Mother Jones

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With “involuntary deplanings” in the news, Nate Silver points us to some data that’s oddly intriguing. Here’s how often passengers are kicked off flights on the Big Four airlines in the United States. It comes via the Department of Transportation’s latest monthly report:

Delta overbooks at a far higher rate than any other airline. However, it uses an innovative Coasian auction system during check-in to persuade passengers on overbooked flights to give up their seats for cash payouts. As a result, it has by far the lowest rate of forcing people off of flights even when they don’t want to go.

By contrast, Southwest—which has been taunting United over the Dr. Dao incident—has a slightly lower rate of overbooking than the other airlines. However, they apparently have a pretty crappy system for handling overbooked flights, which gives them the second-highest rate of forced deplanings.

United, ironically, isn’t bad on this score. Their overbooking rate is about average, and their “involuntary deplanings” rate is quite low. Depending on how you feel about things, Delta would probably be your first choice on the overbooking front, but United is a solid second.

Like it or not, about 40,000 people a year are kicked off planes against their will. Some of them were standby passengers who knew this might happen. Some weren’t. Given those numbers, the interesting thing isn’t that United had to remove one of these folks by force. The interesting thing is that apparently it’s never happened before.1

1It hasn’t happened while cell phones were recording the whole thing, anyway.

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Which Airline Kicks Off the Most Passengers?

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Cacti, Foxes, Solar Panels, and Other Bids to Unmake Trump’s Wall

Mother Jones

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This story was originally published in Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Of all President Donald Trump’s promises, his signature wall along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border has drawn especially creative opposition.

Mexicans formed a human barrier in protest. Architects drafted a design for a powerful 1,000-mile energy-generating barrier outfitted with solar panels and wind turbines.

And then there’s Sarah Zapolsky and her friend April Linton, two Washington, D.C.-area social scientists. Their quaint concepts include a wall of cacti and a barrier of affordable homes.

But they had more in mind than quirky commentary.

Their ideas are part of a quiet, slightly subversive strategy. A bureaucratic pothole for the border speed bump. Call it guerrilla bidding.

The two women are federal employees who know something about government contracting—and how to potentially gum it up. Zapolsky, who gives her age as “old enough to know better,” works at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Linton, 56, is at the State Department.

Armed with an insider’s understanding of how procurement works, Zapolsky knows that the government must review and respond to legitimate bids and related questions. That can cause drag on the process—exactly their plan.

Approaching the deadline set by the Trump administration to submit “white papers” for 30-foot-tall concrete and “other” border wall prototypes, the two women prepared their pitches. On Tuesday, the agency pushed back its deadline for submissions a third time—to April 4.

Getting past the stringent requirements for competitive bidders—who must have completed within the past five years similar projects of at least $25 million—poses a challenge to their plot. In a nod to these unusual political times, the agency also made the uncommon request for details about prospective contractors’ experience with “politically contentious design-build projects.”

But that hasn’t discouraged Zapolsky and Linton from dropping rumble-strip questions on the agency, to which it is supposed to respond:

“Our design includes stovepipe cacti. Would it be okay to use fake ones for the prototype?”
“Could we build a wall of solar panels, which meets the proposed border wall requirement, sell the energy generated back to Mexico, and have that count as that country paying for the wall?”
“Prototype demolition: Does this refer to taking down the wall after it is built should the administration change and decide the Wall is a ridiculous idea?”

On Tuesday, Customs and Border Protection posted its responses to questions. The agency reposted a truncated version of one of Zapolsky’s questions: “Does this refer to taking down the wall?” Its response: “Yes, if the line item is exercised.”

One proposal for a border barrier would include fennec foxes to aid security forces. Gil Cohen Magen/ZUMA

Trump’s champions have complained of so-called Deep State defiance from within the federal bureaucracy to undermine his efforts. Zapolsky and Linton, who met while working at the Department of Homeland Security, swear to no such membership. Their resistance stems from their concerns about the impact a wall may have and how their taxpayer money is spent. The two are acting as private citizens, not public employees, they say.

“This isn’t ‘deep’ government,” Zapolsky said. “Never confuse dissent with disloyalty. I’m all about making this country remaining great. This (wall) isn’t the way to do it.”

Solicitation saboteurs

By law, these would-be solicitation saboteurs can’t work for the government and win a federal contract. But they’re not interested in getting a dollar out of the border wall design bids, which could total $600 million.

The goal is to draw a formal complaint on the agency request that could slam the brakes on the bidding process. The daughter of a “government girl” who opposed McCarthyism, Zapolsky took umbrage that Customs and Border Protection initially planned to give the public just four days to create and submit designs for a border wall.

“I was so annoyed that it had to be a big ugly concrete wall,” she said. “I had to do something, but it had to be something creative—and legal.”

Then it came to her: clog the system. She gave it a name—#ArtThatWall—and registered as an “interested vendor” on the federal contracting website, fbo.gov. She turned next to Facebook to share her strategy.

A wave of creativity streamed back: Bead curtains. Baseball diamonds every quarter-mile with Fenway-like Green Monster walls (which match the Border Patrol’s green uniforms). A giant line of theater stages; one version includes, at random intervals, actors performing the Act V “Wall” scenes from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Zapolsky’s 12-year-old son proposed building a wall out of Legos.

Zapolsky’s 12-year-old son proposed building a wall out of Legos. Reveal created a Lego model (not to scale). Andrew Becker/Reveal

With a nod to her current job at HUD aiming to end childhood homelessness, Zapolsky chose a wall of houses along the border. And, because, you know, barging through someone’s living room is rude.

Linton, who has studied immigration, saw the Facebook post and got busy, too. Her expansive “Beautiful Borders” vision is a wall of stovepipe cactus—which can grow to 30 feet. Landscaped with hiking trails and nearby interpretive centers jointly staffed by bilingual park rangers from Mexico and the United States, the wall would be patrolled by security forces aided by fennec foxes. The vulpine desert dwellers would have training “to identify the scent and body language of smugglers, terrorists and haters.”

“It’s big. It’s beautiful. Everybody will love it. Mexicans will build it,” a draft proposal ends.

As required, it offers a “concrete” solution.

If Zapolsky knows how many potential guerrilla bidders she’s encouraged with her Facebook call to submit designs, she isn’t saying. The two think they’ve already played a part, however minor, to stall Trump’s wall.

Caught off-guard by the level of what Customs and Border Protection deemed “industry” interest after its late February notice, the agency delayed its original March 6 target date to release its requests for proposal. About 725 construction companies, engineers, consultants and would-be vendors registered their interest in the project, Zapolsky and Linton included. The agency has outlined a two-month time frame to review and select winning bids with contracts to be awarded in early June, about two months later than first announced.

The women claimed the delays as a “joyful and respectful” but small victory, Zapolsky said, though what effect they had on the decision to push back the release of requests is unclear.

Customs and Border Protection declined to comment. Rowdy Adams, a retired Border Patrol agent involved in earlier fence projects, said Customs and Border Protection had no choice but to slow down with all the public interest.

“That’s why the brakes were pumped,” he said.

Linton waxed optimistic that, once submitted, their proposals might get some attention.

“Maybe somebody from DHS actually wants to hear from me,” Linton said before the agency posted the requests. “It feels like we’re winning and we haven’t even submitted our concept yet.”

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Cacti, Foxes, Solar Panels, and Other Bids to Unmake Trump’s Wall

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Inside the Carbon Tax Fight That’s Dividing Environmentalists

Mother Jones

This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Voters in a progressive Pacific Northwestern state could approve the nation’s first carbon tax next week, providing a much-sought victory to proponents of legislative climate action—and possibly a model for the rest of the country.

And yet the ballot measure is at equal risk of failing spectacularly. Not because of the usual oil and coal industry foes, or even because it includes the dreaded t-word. No, the biggest obstacle in its way: other environmentalists.

An unlikely array of local and national organizations have come out against—or declined to support—Washington state’s carbon tax initiative, which will appear on the ballot as I-732. Their concerns: That a revenue-neutral carbon tax wouldn’t raise money for investing in clean energy and communities, and that people of color didn’t get a fair say in crafting the policy.

Although the split became public last year, it’s only been in the last few months that a barrage of organizations have proclaimed their opposition. Washington Conservation Voters called the measure “flawed,” while Sierra Club Washington noted its members have “deep concerns.”

Infighting is not uncommon in the environmental movement, which actually represents a fairly large and loose coalition of diverse local, state, and national interests. But the carbon tax battle in Washington state appears to stem from a recent and fundamental shift: Following the lead of more community-minded activists, the nation’s most powerful environmental groups are attempting to change their emphasis from a largely white perspective to one that is more diverse and equitable. And that means a new approach to issues like climate legislation.

Many of those groups have come to the realization in recent years that they can’t fight climate change without including a broader range of people in their solutions. Attempts to remake policy so it is equitable and impactful has resulted in two main visions for how to approach climate action.

The tension between a narrowly focused environmental campaign and a newer approach that involves more consensus around a broader progressive agenda has been simmering for a long time. With I-732, it’s broken out into the open.

False starts have plagued the climate movement for years. The failed 2009 Waxman-Markey bill, which would have capped carbon emissions and created a national market for trading credits (hence the name “cap and trade”), sent the movement into existential soul-searching.

Since then, Congress has only become more hostile to climate action, meaning any successes have largely come at the state level or inside the White House. As Republicans at the national level have been less and less involved in a serious fight against climate change, the solutions have evolved without them.

Progressive states including California, New York, and yes, Washington have recently made significant strides on climate policy. Part of the movement’s post-Waxman-Markey strategy was to broaden the base of support for climate policy beyond a very white core—not by appealing to increasingly intransigent conservatives, but by listening to the people representing low-income communities and communities of color, which are disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate change.

“It isn’t just about reducing emissions,” said Green for All’s Vien Truong, who works on climate justice policy initiatives in California and other states. “It is that, but we have to move forward.” This includes bringing people to the movement who “feel the pinch of climate change” most.

Gregg Small of the Washington-based Climate Solutions noted that the cap-and-trade bill’s failure was a teaching moment. “We have to find a different climate movement going forward,” he said. “The climate community can’t do it on their own.”

Despite the recognition by many environmentalists that a new, more inclusive approach was needed, it was a divided effort that helped set the stage for the current battle in Washington state.

Two years ago, a new-school coalition of social justice and environmental groups that became the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy began working on a climate action proposal, gathering extensive input from community organizations.

But a smaller, grassroots-based climate group, known as Carbon Washington, got its carbon tax proposal on the ballot first. I-732 would phase in next year, tax carbon emissions at $25 per metric ton in 2018, and gradually ramp up over 40 years to $100.

What’s troubling some opponents is where that money would go: cutting the state’s sales tax by 1 percent, cutting taxes for manufacturers, and providing tax rebates to more than 400,000 low-income households. That’s allowed I-732 proponents to try to appeal to conservatives by calling it revenue neutral, but it doesn’t sit well with the Alliance-affiliated enviros.

Their four-page alternative proposal is murky on the details, though: It calls for a carbon “fee” that would redirect the revenue collected toward clean energy efforts, water quality improvement, and helping disadvantaged communities. It doesn’t cut taxes, and unlike 732, it establishes an absolute, though unknown cap on carbon emitted. The actual tax on polluters starts at $15 per metric ton, but is unclear on how it would ramp up over time. It promises some “compliance flexibility” for polluters yet doesn’t say what that entails.

Small, a chair of the Alliance, said his group was ready to put its proposal on the 2016 ballot but pulled its plans when 732 gained the signatures needed. Two competing ballot measures would likely have meant success for neither.

Carbon Washington met with the Alliance to figure out a compromise but moved ahead without the full blessing of the organizations that had fought hard to bridge justice and environmental concerns. In return, there are now a slew of environmental and social justice groups slamming I-732 for not doing enough to fight climate change, not managing to be revenue-neutral, and failing on equity.

The founder of Carbon Washington, Yoram Bauman, defends his group’s approach. “I think that underneath, there’s a philosophic difference in how to provide benefits to low-income communities and communities of color,” he said. “Their approach was to fund community-directed investment. They wanted a pot of money that could be controlled by local communities to reduce emissions, create jobs, and lower pollution in communities of color. Our approach was we wanted to put money back into the pockets of low-income households.”

Bauman says that if his group’s measure passes, small tweaks and improvements could be made by the state Legislature. But opponents say a flawed model is not a good place to start.

“Perfect shouldn’t be the goal,” Bauman argues. “I think folks who care about climate change need to support action on climate change. We don’t have many opportunities to take a swing at the ball, and there are serious questions about how many more years we want to wait.”

I-732 does have its share of supporters. Actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio, 28 environmental and energy-focused groups (including the Audubon Society’s state chapter), and dozens of Republican and Democratic lawmakers and economists have endorsed it. All this has lead to one very fractured environmental community.

The Seattle-based sustainability think tank Sightline Institute is neutral on 732 but still manages a good summary of the pro-side’s position in a lengthy analysis weighing the pros and cons: “Initiative 732 does exactly what the scientists and economists prescribe: It sets a science-based, steadily rising price on pollution,” Sightline writes. “The citizens’ initiative covers most of the state’s climate pollution, makes the tax code more progressive, and is administratively elegant.” Based on a Washington Office of Financial Management projection, the 732 carbon tax would raise $2 billion in fiscal year 2019 (4 percent of the state’s annual budget), which would go back to taxpayers in various forms.

Critics, however, remain convinced that 732 doesn’t do enough to fight climate change, nor does it address justice concerns. They also felt shut out of the process.

“We’ve got to get it done right the first time,” said Small, who was careful to make it clear that Climate Solutions is not opposed to I-732. “Effective carbon pricing needs to really do three things: It needs to put a meaningful price on carbon to drive down pollution; it needs to invest the money generated in clean energy solutions; and it should invest in those affected by climate change.”

A coalition of environmental justice organizations penned an open letter to the Sightline Institute, saying they took issue with the group’s analysis, arguing that it serves to “denigrate our perspective and profess to speak for the interests of our communities without our consultation or knowledge.”

“People who can actually begin to be part of the solution were hoping to be part of this clean energy future,” Green for All’s Truong said. “And this carbon tax essentially shut that effort down.”

Perhaps the most unexpected argument is that the tax won’t do the intended job of cutting emissions. Food and Water Watch issued a report claiming that the model for 732, a British Columbia carbon tax, “fails to demonstrate that it has reduced carbon emissions, fossil fuel consumption, or vehicle travel, as it purported to do.”

Technically, it would be possible to alter 732 in the Legislature down the line if voters approve it in November, but it’s politically unfeasible. Some environmentalists would prefer to work with what they have if it passes, but in a few cases, the critics would rather see no tax at all. Seattle public radio station KUOW asked Alliance member and OneAmerica activist Ellicott Dandy if she would regret her position against I-732 if no other carbon tax ever passed.

Her answer: “No.”

The latest polling shows a close vote. In an early October poll, 21 percent of voters were undecided. In a late-October poll from KOMO News/Strategies 360, that number is even higher, with 28 percent unsure how they will cast their ballot. How the undecided voters break makes all the difference for an initiative leading with just 40 percent of the electorate, and 32 percent opposed.

If 732 fails, the lessons for environmentalists will be clear: An approach designed to appeal to more conservative sensibilities—tax cuts, revenue neutral—isn’t going to help them bring in new voices on the left, who want to be heard and play a guiding role in the process.

“Carbon pricing is incredibly difficult and maybe impossible if people don’t come together,” Small said. “Other states will face similar types of dynamics here on the policy and strategy. I hope people learn from the painful lesson we have in Washington to, you know, work it out.”

Also read: James Hansen vs. Naomi Klein: State carbon tax splits national climate hawks.

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Inside the Carbon Tax Fight That’s Dividing Environmentalists

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Court’s CFPB Ruling Is Part of a Dangerous Trend

Mother Jones

Conservatives are thrilled about yesterday’s court decision regarding the CFPB. Here’s Iain Murray:

In a rare victory for the Constitution and American political tradition, the US Court of Appeals from the DC Circuit today found that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was “structurally unconstitutional.” The offending structure consists of an independent agency with a single, all-powerful executive director. The Court found that structure fell between two stools — an agency with a single head needs to be accountable to the President, while an independent agency needs to have internal checks and balances by having a multi-member commission format like the SEC and others.

This judgment echoes the arguments the Competitive Enterprise Institute and its co-plaintiffs have been making in a separate court case, where my colleague Hans Bader argued, “The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s lack of checks and balances violates the Constitution’s separation of powers. Its director is like a czar. He is not accountable to anyone, and can’t be fired even if voters elect a president with different ideas about how to protect consumers.

There’s no telling if this ruling will hold up on appeal, but if it does, the CFPB director will now serve at the pleasure of the president. This means that President Trump could fire Jeopardy champion Richard Cordray and instead install Apprentice champion Omarosa to oversee America’s financial industry. Luckily, it appears we will be spared that indignity.

I don’t expect this ruling to have a big impact in real life. Basically, it means that a new president will be able to install a new CFPB director immediately instead of having to wait a year or two for the old one to finish out her term. In the long run that’s likely to have a neutral effect on party control of the bureau. As for being able to fire the director without cause, that’s mostly hemmed in by political considerations anyway.

At a practical level, then, I don’t have much heartburn over this. On a more abstract level, though, it represents a disturbing trend from conservatives. In this case, their real problem with the CFPB is that they don’t want to regulate the financial industry at all. Likewise, their problem with Obamacare is that they don’t want to provide poor people with health coverage. Their problem with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is that they hate regulations that offend their business backers.

But conservatives can’t go to court on those grounds, and there’s nothing obviously illegal or unconstitutional about any of these liberal initiatives. So instead they contrive some other hair-splitting argument. The CFPB is too independent. The individual mandate violates a shiny new constitutional doctrine custom built just for Obamacare. The Clean Power Plan uses the wrong interpretation of the word “system.” These arguments vary in their legitimacy, but that hardly matters. Their goal is not legal brilliance. Their goal is to provide conservative justices with a facade they can use to overturn liberal legislation.

And it works, because these days conservative justices treat hot button cases—and, tellingly, only hot button cases—as a way to enforce their political opinions when they can’t do so through the ballot box. This is not a healthy trend.

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Court’s CFPB Ruling Is Part of a Dangerous Trend

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The Real Story of the Syrian Family Who Donald Trump Said Might Be Terrorists

Mother Jones

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Matt Chase

The couple who had panicked the nation’s right-wing politicians and pundits sits on a couch in a spartan ground-level apartment on the outskirts of San Bernardino, California. Thirty-two-year-old Samer is in a blue sweatshirt and jeans, lounging next to his wife, Sara. He has a round face and relaxed eyes; she is more angular, her eyes more direct. They’re both wearing ankle monitors. Ever since they were released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention two months earlier, they’ve kept a low profile. It took me weeks to contact them, and now they’ve agreed to tell their story. But they have some caveats: no real names, not too many details. They don’t want to stir up any more trouble than they’ve already been through.

Eight months before I met them, they were in Syria, on the phone with a smuggler. ISIS fighters were on the fringes of their small Christian village, firing mortars into it. Samer and Sara knew if the village fell there was a good chance they’d be abused or executed. There was no power, no work, and the price of food was punishing. Part of their home was blown up. Their little boys, two and five years old, were “afraid all the time,” Sara recalls. They almost never ventured outdoors. Of Syria, Samer says, “It is not a life.” So they decided to seek a new one—in America, where they hoped to join Samer’s parents and sister, who live in California.

The smuggler told them he could help, in exchange for everything they had—a valuable tract of land, the remains of their home, and all its contents. The smuggler’s network stretched across the globe, and he arranged to get them to Lebanon, then Turkey, where they waited three months before being supplied with expertly forged European passports—they won’t say which nationality—and plane tickets to Brazil. From there, they traveled north. The smuggler told them where to go, whom to meet, when to take a car, and when to fly. The passports worked at every checkpoint, border, and airport.

On November 17, Samer, Sara, and their two little boys walked across the Mexican border at Laredo, Texas, and turned themselves in to American immigration officials. Samer remembers, “I was so happy. I finally arrived here to have a safe life, a good life for my children.”

They didn’t realize they were stepping into a firestorm of anti-refugee hysteria. Four days before their arrival, ISIS-backed terrorists had attacked in Paris. After Samer and Sara entered the United States, the conservative website Breitbart proclaimed—falsely—that they and another Syrian family who had crossed with them were “illegal aliens” who had been “caught” sneaking into the country. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted a link to the story. Ben Carson said their arrival could be a sign that “our worst nightmare may be unfolding before our eyes.” Trump tweeted that they might be terrorists: “ISIS maybe? I told you so. we need a big & beautiful wall!” In the days that followed, more than 30 governors said they did not want Syrian refugees settling in their states.

Almost immediately after requesting asylum, Sara and the boys were put in one ICE detention center, Samer in another. They went through the extensive asylum interview process and were determined to have “credible fears of persecution or torture” in Syria. Within two weeks they were approved for release. ICE officials told Samer’s family in California to buy airline tickets for them. But the day before they were set to depart, Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook slaughtered 14 people in San Bernardino. ICE told Samer’s family to cancel the flights to California, and Samer and Sara were denied parole. The only explanation was a vague declaration of “law enforcement interests.”

During their weeks of detention, Samer was allowed to speak to Sara only once on the phone. The boys cried every night, asking Sara where their father was. As Christmas approached, the children had been held for nearly 40 days, despite a mandate that most migrant kids should be released after three to five days. “The look on their face is a look of terror,” their lawyer, Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, told me after visiting Sara at the time. “The look and the panic of a person pinned down on a hospital gurney.”

“I definitely thought America would accept me,” Samer told the Guardian. “If I had known that it was so terrible here I wouldn’t have brought my family.” On Christmas Eve, the family was finally released, reunited, and put on a flight to California.

That’s where I meet them two months later, in the warm and tidy apartment where Samer’s parents live. A cross hangs above the kitchen doorway. We drink tea in the living room as Samer and Sara lay out the terms for sharing their story. They’re wary: They don’t want to be back in the headlines, and they worry more press could endanger Sara’s mother and sister, still trapped in Syria. “They didn’t have a chance to leave,” she says. ISIS is still on the outskirts of their village.

They talk about life before the war, of their town—a small community speckled with trees and fields of crops. Sara doesn’t want to dwell on how the war has changed it. “The way the village looks is not important,” she says. “It is like all of Syria,” a landscape of broken concrete and twisted rebar.

Their troubles aren’t over. The asylum process, as Ryan puts it, is “designed so that people fall into the cracks, lose their cases on a technicality that would drive any sports fan nuts.”

But for now, Samer and Sara are piecing together a normal life. “My son started school,” she says, beaming. “Preschool. Just five years old, but he is a big boy. He is starting to learn English.” The boys, who have been playing in the living room, disappear into the kitchen and return proudly carrying potted flowers. “They bought this flower for their grandma,” Sara explains. Next they walk out holding a bag of peanut M&Ms with pleading eyes, grinning and squirming. They can play outside now. But not today. “It’s too windy!” Sara says with a laugh.

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The Real Story of the Syrian Family Who Donald Trump Said Might Be Terrorists

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Ask an Economist: Are Living Standards Higher Than They Used to Be?

Mother Jones

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So how are we doing these days? Let’s ask some economists. Their consensus, apparently, is that we’re way better off compared to the golden days of our youth, but not so much compared to more recent years. In fact, economists are split about evenly on whether we’re collectively better off than we were before the financial crash, which seems right to me. Roughly speaking, I’d say we’ve recovered to about 2007 levels, but haven’t yet surpassed them.

But this raises a question: Why do so many Americans think they were better off 30 or 40 or 50 years ago? There are several obvious possibilities:

Wages were rising back then. They may be higher now, but it’s steady increases that make things seem great.
Sure, we lacked cell phones and 500 channels and cancer cures back in the day, but we didn’t miss them because we never had them. The fact that we have them now doesn’t really make people think they’re better off.
On a related note, all the new stuff we have doesn’t really make us happier. If we grew up with it, it’s background noise. If we didn’t grow up with it, it’s just a complicated pain in the butt that we’re forced to keep up with even though we don’t really like it much. (Except for those 500 channels, of course. Everyone loves those.)
It’s basically cultural, not economic. A lot of people really were happier 50 years ago, but it had nothing to do with living standards. Whites didn’t have to compete with blacks or Asians. Men ruled the roost. Everyone knew their place. We didn’t worry about heroin epidemics. Etc.

It’s a funny thing about living standards. Take cars. They’re way better on practically every metric you can think of compared to, say, 1960. Cars today are faster, more reliable, more comfortable, more convenient, quieter, smoother, safer, and cheaper. And they come in way more varieties than they used to.

But do people like their cars today more than they did in the 60s? Probably not. We’ve gotten jaded. Cars were still kind of cool to the postwar generation. Today nearly everyone has a car and they’re just another possession. Our automobile living standard is far higher than it used to be, but our automobile happiness probably isn’t.

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Ask an Economist: Are Living Standards Higher Than They Used to Be?

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White Teachers Think Pretty Poorly of Their Black Students

Mother Jones

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Bob Somerby draws my attention to a new study about the effect of race on teacher evaluations of students. The authors took advantage of a large dataset that included evaluations of students from two teachers each. They then compared the teacher evaluations of each student based on differences in the teachers’ races.

The chart on the right tells the story. White students didn’t suffer from having a teacher of another race. Expectations of dropping out were the same and expectations of getting a college degree were actually higher. Hispanic students were modestly affected. Teachers of other races thought Hispanic students had a slightly higher chance of dropping out and the same chance of completing college.

But black students were enormously affected. Compared to black teachers, teachers of other races thought their black students had a far higher chance of dropping out and a far lower chance of completing college. Since the baseline expectation of dropping out was 31 percent for black students, a change of 12 percentage points represents a whopping 39 percent increase. Likewise, the baseline expectation of a college degree was 37 percent for black students, so a change of 9 percentage points represents 24 percent decrease.

The authors conclude with this:

The general finding of systematic biases in teachers’ expectations for student attainment indicates that the topic of teacher expectations is ripe for future research. Particularly policy relevant areas for future inquiry include how teachers form expectations, what types of interventions can eliminate biases from teacher expectations, and how teacher expectations affect the long-run student outcomes of ultimate import. To the extent that teacher expectations affect student outcomes, the results presented in the current study provide additional support for the hiring of a more diverse and representative teaching force, as nonwhite teachers are underrepresented in U.S. public schools.

Let’s ask all our presidential candidate what, if anything, they think we should do about this.

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White Teachers Think Pretty Poorly of Their Black Students

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The Staples Singers Will Revive You With These Gospel and Soul Classics

Mother Jones

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The Staple Singers
Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976
Stax/Concord

Not for gospel buffs only, the Staple Singers could make even a confirmed heathen feel blessed by the Holy Spirit. Featuring Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his children Mavis, Cleotha, and alternatively Pervis or Yvonne, the quartet evolved from local Chicago favorites to worldwide soul superstars over the course of a two-decade-plus run. Their sound drew its breathtaking beauty from the shimmering tremolo- and reverb-drenched guitar of Pops—a style his peers dubbed “nervous”—and the exuberant high harmonies of the four, with Mavis’ powerhouse voice adding a thrilling jolt to the mix.

The earliest recordings on this fabulous four-disc set capture the Staples Singers at their most visceral. The live 16-minute medley “Too Close/I’m on My Way Home/I’m Coming Home/He’s Alright” is downright hair-raising in its primal intensity. Curiously, the group’s interaction with the like-minded folk movement of the early ’60s resulted in some of their milder efforts in the form of a handful of Bob Dylan covers, although the lull was only temporary. Joining Stax Records in the late-’60s, they scored a series of secular-but-uplifting hits with foot-stomping songs like “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There,” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me).”

Pops passed away in 2000, but Mavis is still going strong today. In any case, Faith & Grace testifies to their illustrious achievements.

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The Staples Singers Will Revive You With These Gospel and Soul Classics

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