Sunday, November 23, 2008

Barbara Fisher and the Benefits of Community Gardening

We have, for the time being, witnessed a merciful decline in the cost of food since last spring, when a confluence of factors triggered worldwide price increases. Yet as New Yorker financial analyst James Surowiecki writes, "the recent price drop doesn’t provide any long-term respite from the threat of food shortages or future price spikes...we’re still having a hard time insuring that people simply get enough to eat, and we seem to be more vulnerable to supply shocks than ever." For those who can afford it, paying more for food can be a good thing, particularly in the case of the U.S. Journalist and writer Michael Pollan notes in last year's essay "Unhappy Meals" that "Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation." Still, unstable food prices mean that more people have less to eat.

While there aren't any easy solutions to avoiding another food crisis, it's instructive that Pollan has been a strong advocate for domestic food policy reform, while also urging his readers to make personal changes in their eating habits. This combination of thinking structurally and individually is what I enjoyed about a recent post from Barbara Fisher's blog Tigers and Strawberries. Fisher is a leader of the local food movement, and in answering the question of what to say about food and farming with "one minute of [President-elect] Obama's undivided attention," she responds thusly:

"I would suggest that federal support for urban community gardens and farms could help the urban poor produce some of their own fresh food, and perhaps a program of tax credits for suburban and small town families who turn some or all of their yards to food production would encourage the middle class to not only produce some of their own food as well. Educational programs to help non-gardeners learn the skills needed to grow food, such as the current County Extension Agencies could be expanded so that there was more community outreach and involvement, as well as tying the Extension offices to public school Edible Schoolyard programs across the country.

"Americans really want to roll up our sleeves and do something to help make our country great again, and these sorts of self-help programs will get people moving in a positive direction again, as well as providing good, fresh food to people who may otherwise have no access to it at all. "

That first sentence--federal funding and tax credits for producing food locally--is particularly striking. Obviously, neither proposal would ameliorate the type of problems that Surowiecki identifies within the global food market. But with proper planning, they would allow citizens, regardless of economic status, to participate in the growing of their own food. As Fisher points out, such policies would have environmental and educational benefits; they also would provide a healthy source of food without the use of industrial farming's less desirable growing methods, such as heavy fertilizer and pesticide use.

While it's unlikely that we will see federally subsidized community gardens anytime soon, local governments can certainly promote local food habits without having to spend a lot. Terre Haute, Indiana offers a good example. Thanks to the efforts of many people (including my father Pat Martin, a city planner), Terre Haute opened its Community Garden to the public in April. The garden has several other sponsors in addition to the city (with Indiana State University being the primary sponsor); it asks members to donate a "portion of their produce" to a local food bank; forbids the use of pesticides, herbicides, inseticides, and fungicides; and, for this year's growing season, offered education programs and workshops related to gardening. Perhaps the only drawback is that the garden includes seventy-one plots, which limits potential participants.

So Barbara Fisher's idea is practical and more than feasible to implement, even if it will take a lot of approaches to, in her words, insure "good, fresh food to people who may otherwise have no access to it at all."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Update on Nebraska Safe Haven Law

Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman signed into law yesterday a bill adding a 30-day age limit to a safe-haven law that allowed 36 children — including teenagers as old as 17 — to be abandoned at state hospitals.

Hours after the Governor signed the law, which went into effect today, a 14-year-old California boy was dropped off at a Nebraska hospital. He will mark the last teen to be dropped off after the safe-haven law established an age limit.

The law was meant to prevent newborns from being dumped in trash bins or worse.

Hospital officials have described children crying hysterically as they pleaded with their parents not to leave them.

Five of the children have been from other states, including from as far away as Florida and Michigan. The law was not revised to preclude infants from other states from being dropped off.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Two Updates

The past two weeks I have written about Proposition 8 (here and here), and the week before these articles I had written on Nebraska’s safe haven statute (here). As new developments have arisen with both of these issues, I would like to take the time this week to bring these latest updates to the attention of the readers of this blog.

Proposition 8

Being reported today on this issue is the fact that the California Supreme Court has agreed to hear challenges to this recently passed ban on same-sex marriages. Three lawsuits have been filed in California challenging that the Plaintiffs’ civil rights have been violated with the passage of Proposition 8. Challengers to Proposition 8 also claim that the State had improperly bypassed the Court’s judicial authority by allowing voters to effectively overturn the previous California Supreme Court.

Arguments in the case are due by December 19, and responses are due by January 5, 2009. Oral arguments, at the earliest, will be heard in March. While this suit is pending, the Court has not authorized the continuation of same-sex marriages; allowance of such marriages will not be allowed unless the Court finds in favor of those opposing Proposition 8. During these hearings, the Court will also determine the validity of those marriages performed after the Court’s original ruling, but before the passage of Proposition 8.

Nebraska Safe Haven Statute

The Nebraska Legislature has reportedly voted 14-6 to send a newly worded safe haven statute for second approval. The language has been amended to set an age limit of 30 days for those children covered under this statute. Such language will create an age limit in Nebraska, the only state that had previously not set such a limit. The final vote on this language is scheduled for Friday, after which the Bill would go to the Governor who has already expressed approval for these changes.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why did Indiana go blue? (Part 2)

Another reason for Obama's Hoosier success concerns the evangelical vote. Spiritual Politics blogger Mark Silk notes that while the state's "evangelicals favored Bush by 77-22" in 2004, McCain won "by only 66-41 [sic; should be 31]." In contrast, evangelicals in Southern states generally broke for McCain by a larger margin than they did for Bush in 2004. (Mississippi's 90-9 split is the most extreme example.) Silk offers two different possibilities for this regional difference. The first:

"The most likely explanation for what happened in the South and Southern Crossroads is the persistence of racial prejudice in those regions. It's also the case that this is where evangelicals are most heavily organized and mobilized as Republican partisans. But in the Midwest, there is Obama's identity as a Midwesterner, and the common Midwestern religious sensibility that he appealed to, to take into account."

Silk also mentions in the comments section to his post that since "nearly 40 percent of mainliners answer yes to being born-again or evangelical could be that the differential has to do with large numbers of [Indiana] mainliners voting for Obama, rather than 'true' evangelicals."

Both of these possibilities deserve some context. There is a very, very strong correlation between church attendance and political voting patterns. Protestants and Catholics who attend church on a weekly basis are much more likely to vote for Republicans; those who attend church less, practice another religion, or are non-religious are more inclined to vote for Democrats. To demonstrate, here's a chart that compares this year's "pew gap" with that of 2004. The pew gap remained fairly constant from 2004 to this year, but Obama, crucially, was able to make up a little bit of ground. Since evangelicals typically are every-Sunday church attenders, they factor heavily into this overall equation.

Regarding Silk's second point, the standard exit poll determiner of an evangelical is someone who answers "yes" to the question of whether they consider themselves to be a "born-again Christian," as he alludes. In Indiana, this means that while voters from actual evangelical denominations (for example, Southern Baptists and Pentecostals) will answer "yes," there is likely also a significant percentage of voters from mainline denominations that will self-identify as evangelical (for example, Methodists). This means that while mainliners adhere to the "pew gap" pattern I mention above, they tend to be a bit more flexible politically (even in a relatively conservative state like Indiana). So if the percentage of mainliners within Indiana's evangelical vote was high for this election, then that would, in theory, present slightly more favorable conditions for Obama.

And this leads us to Silk's first point. With a larger percentage of "true" evangelicals in Southern states--evangelicals that identify more as Republicans, and who might have more issues with Obama's race--the evangelical vote breaks most heavily for McCain. Yet in Indiana, the communitarian religious impulse, combined with a higher possibility of mainliners voting evangelical, becomes more important. An instructive example appears in a post that Silk made in late April as the Jeremiah Wright fiasco was still unfolding. Silk notes that Obama had attended a service at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. The sermon he links to that St. Luke pastor M. Kent Miller had presented a few weeks before Obama's visit celebrates the church's "big tent congregation" and ability to overcome racial barriers through honest dialogue and collective worship.

Neither the evangelical vote nor Obama's spread-the-field canvassing offer a full answer of why Indiana went blue. Yet they both signify how Obama deserves credit for running a very strong campaign, as well as how his political and personal identify proved favorable to Hoosier voters.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Protests of Proposition 8 Continue Around the Country

With the defeat of California’s Proposition 8 in last week’s election, many continue to push to regain the rights they briefly had within the state. However, California is not the only state where such battles are being waged. A number of articles this week (here, here, here and here), point to one move towards actual achievement of these goals, but also to other moves that may or may not aid in achieving this right in other states.

In Connecticut, a judge on Wednesday issued an order allowing for same sex couples to marry within the state. Upon the issuance of this order, it has been reported that many same sex couples began applying immediately for licenses. With the passage of Proposition 8, there are once again only two states which allow such marriages – Massachusetts and Connecticut.

In Utah, supporters of same sex marriage arranged protests at Mt. Hope Church. Protesters in Utah have chosen mainly Mormon churches as these churches had spent millions of dollars in support of Proposition 8.

In New York City, a large number of protesters surrounded the LDS Manhattan temple in opposition to the temple’s involvement in the passage of Proposition 8. The article also mentions that a protest in all 50 states is scheduled for this upcoming Saturday (November 15, 2008).

Finally, in Michigan, protesters have also chosen to stage their demonstrations outside of a church. However, unlike the demonstrations in Utah and New York City, the demonstration in Lansing seems (based solely only on what is presented in the articles) to have gone a bit too far. It is reported that there were two groups – an outside group who held a legitimate protest, and an inside group. The troubling aspect of this protest is that the inside group apparently pulled a fire alarm, dropped leaflets and yelled at parishioners.

It is quite understandable that many were upset with the passage of Proposition 8 last week. However, demonstrations such as those in Lansing seem to be counterproductive to the cause. I doubt that the Connecticut judge would have been influenced by an angry mob gathered outside (or worse inside) the courtroom; instead, in Connecticut they chose to follow the proper procedures to attempt to have same sex marriages approved.

Protesters have First Amendment rights, and so I see little problem with the protests in places such as Utah or New York City. However, I am not sure that after-the-fact protesting will do any more than send a message of anger to these churches. And, once such protests are finished, the task will remain to attempt to legalize same sex marriage through proper legal channels. The more protests approach that of the scale in Lansing, the more difficult finding support through these proper legal channels may be.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Whales lose as Navy wins case over sonar

From the Wall Street Journal:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday lifted restrictions on the Navy's use of sonar in training exercises off the California coast, a defeat for environmental groups who say the sonar can harm whales.

The court, in its first decision of the term, voted 5-4 that the Navy needs to conduct realistic training exercises to respond to potential threats by enemy submarines.

Environmental groups had persuaded lower federal courts in California to impose restrictions on sonar use in submarine-hunting exercises to protect whales and other marine mammals.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The court did not deal with the merits of the claims put forward by the environmental groups. It said, rather, that federal courts abused their discretion by ordering the Navy to limit sonar use in some cases and to turn it off altogether in others.

A species of whales called beaked whales is particularly susceptible to harm from sonar, which can cause them to strand themselves onshore.

To read the full opinion, click here.

To read a transcript of oral arguments, click here.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Why did Indiana go blue? (Part 1)

One of the more stunning aspects of the presidential election returns came around 2:00 AM on Wednesday, when networks began calling Indiana for Barack Obama. Having grown up in western Indiana, I learned at a young age that Indiana always chose Republican candidates for president, despite the fact that Democrats are quite competitive at the state level. (The last Democratic presidential candidate to buck this trend was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.) This year was seemingly going to be no different.

So why did Indiana go blue? It's a bit early to ascertain a thorough answer, but at least two reasons are suggestive. The first emerges from Walter Shapiro's article "Turning Indiana Blue," which Salon published just over two weeks before the election. As Shapiro writes:

"...if Obama wins the state, more than anything it will be due to the best voter-contact operation Indiana has ever seen. Even Murray Clark, the Indiana Republican chairman, says with grudging admiration in his voice, 'Obama's done these things right. That's how he nearly beat Hillary in the primary...' "

"Finding Democratic voters in fast-growing suburban Hamilton County, just north of Indianapolis, seems as unlikely as spying a herd of giraffes frolicking in a mall parking lot. In 2004, Bush rolled up the kind of victory in Hamilton County that Vladimir Putin might envy--obliterating Kerry by 51,000 votes with a 74 to 25 percent margin. Yet Obama has two storefront offices in the county (among 44 offices statewide) and is running an aggressive canvassing operation. This unusual commitment of resources is not lost on the Republicans. 'Obama's campaign has targeted the Doughnut Counties'--local lingo for the eight counties that ring Indianapolis--'particularly Hamilton County,' says Clark, the GOP chairman. 'They are targeting upscale voters, particularly women.' "

And Obama's strategy of campaigning in McCain's political backyard paid off. CNN's county-by-county return map shows that Obama lost Hamilton County by less than 29,000 votes (or 38 to 61 percent). Considering that he won Indiana by less than 26,000 votes, this was an important tactical victory, and an example of what influential Indiana political blogger Brian Howey calls "the greatest political campaign in American history that played out vividly amidst Hoosier cities, towns, taverns and farms." Howey writes in a later article that Obama improved upon John Kerry's 2004 tallies in several other Republican counties as well, thanks to "an audacious, successful game plan that spread the field [in other words, across the entire state]." It also helped that Obama had huge margins in arguably the two most important Democratic counties: Lake County, next to Chicago (67-32, with a 71,000 vote difference), and Indianapolis' Marion County (64 percent, with a 105,000 vote difference).

Next post: Why the evangelical vote was so important.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Same Sex Marriages Dealt Setback in Tuesday's Election

While America has seemingly embraced change in electing Barack Obama the next President of the United States on Tuesday, voters in three states were apparently not ready to accept full scale changes to what many consider a fundamental right. Voters in California, Florida and Arizona on Tuesday voted to ban gay marriages within their borders.

In California, approximately 52 percent of voters approved Proposition 8, only months after the state’s Supreme Court had ruled in favor of allowing such unions. Although Arizona had rejected such a ban two years ago, bans against allowing same sex marriage won by larger margins than that in California in this past election in both Arizona and Florida.

For those in California, some question whether the marriages performed between the time of the state Supreme Court decision and this vote will remain valid. The state Attorney General has gone on record as saying he believes they will remain valid; however, it is expected that law suits and debate will ensue as to the legality of these unions. The actuality legality of these unions may not be determined for some time, as these battles continue.

Aside from expected legal battles challenging the validity of these California marriages, many in California have already announced their intentions to sue to block the ban. Some opponents of this ban have specifically stated that they would fight this ban through all available methods, even to the United States Supreme Court if possible. Some hope that this issue will eventually appear before the Supreme Court of the United States so that this issue may be resolved once and for all.

With the passage of these measures, along with the passage of a measure in Arkansas which prohibits gay men and women from adopting children, some are questioning the prospects of the ability to obtain overall acceptance of same sex marriage by more states in the near future. Although Massachusetts and Connecticut will still allow same sex marriage, and New York and Rhode Island will still honor such unions, forty states now have laws or constitutional bans on allowing such marriages. With the current trend exhibited by this past election, it seems uncertain that the number of states allowing such marriages will be increased in the foreseeable future.

What five months ago seemed like a great victory for same sex couples has now turned into a crushing defeat. While options do remain open for same sex partners (Massachusetts, Connecticut, civil unions and domestic partnerships), the acceptance and change hoped for does not seem forthcoming. Even as Americans await the inauguration of their first African American President and the promise he makes of change, they seem unable to accept the legal marriage of these same sex couples.

To read the New York Times article, click here.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Issue 5 and the Dishonesty of the Payday Lending Industry

Ohio voters will have no fewer than five statewide ballot measures to consider when they step into the voting booth tomorrow. While Issue 6's proposal of a $600 million casino project has become the most controversial (and costly) measure at this point, we still shouldn't overlook Issue 5 and its implications for payday lending reform. Although it has been less than six months since Governor Strickland signed House Bill 545, a rejection of Issue 5 will repeal the bill's 28 percent interest-rate cap. Consequently, payday lenders would once again be able to charge up to 391 percent interest on short-term loans.

Payday lenders and their supporters that are on the "no" side are primarily relying upon three arguments: 1) payday loans are the only viable option for consumers in need of short-term financing; 2) reform represents unnecessary government interference due to the creation of a database that records loan transactions; and 3) reform will cause lenders to shut their doors, leading to the loss of some 6,000 jobs statewide. As newspaper editorials and columnists around the state have documented, all of these arguments are (perhaps unsurprisingly) disingenuous:

--Cheryl Harris of the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes that the lenders' argument about viable financial options is really an effort to avoid describing how their loans actually work. The truth is that there are short-term alternatives--credit cards, bank and credit union loans, overdraft protection for checking accounts, credit counseling services--that are all better options than pre-reform payday loans. This comparison chart demonstrates why.

--Syndicated columnist Thomas Suddes dismisses the complaint over government interference by writing that "lenders themselves mishandle such data. Cincinnati-based Check 'n Go paid the state of Texas $220,000 in May because Check 'n Go 'exposed customers to indetify-theft [sic] by discarding records in easily accessible trash cans'--records such as borrowers' names, addresses, Social Security and driver's license numbers, and checking account information. It takes a lot to disgust Congress, but payday lenders did."

--Are payday lenders crying wolf when it comes to their claims that 6,000 jobs--their entire in-state workforce--will disappear. If Issue 5 passes, there is a distinct possibility that the industry will have to eliminate some jobs. But it's incredibly unlikely that the number will reach 6,000 because, according to Suddes and the Columbus Dispatch, over 70 percent of the state's payday lenders--1,149 out of around 1,600--have already applied for licenses as small-loans and/or second mortgage operators. Contra their own claims, they won't be vanishing from the state anytime soon.

When we add up the facts, the Dayton Daily News is correct to point out that what payday lenders are arguing is, in a word, "baloney."

UPDATE: Issue 5 has passed, with 63 percent of voters in favor.