Election time in Emeryville.

As you may know, Jon and I moved to Emeryville a couple months ago, after our four-year exile on the East Coast. Emeryville is a tiny city sort of between Berkeley and Oakland, just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco – just 1.25 square miles, with a population of about 10,000, so the local politics are really local. This year, out of five seats on the City Council, there are three on the City Council up for grabs and five candidates vying for them. So last night, in an effort to get to know the issues and the candidates, Jon and I walked down to City Hall to see the City Council candidates forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Berkeley Albany Emeryville.

The forum certainly raised a lot of issues for us to Google. I haven’t had time to research all of them yet, but some of the issues that intrigued me include the proposed Emeryville Center for Community Life and its financing, the ballot measure (Measure F) to recall the City Attorney, and the city’s Redevelopment Agency. There are two other ballot measures this year that I did not hear the candidates substantively debate: Measure C, raising the business tax rate, and Measure D, raising the business tax cap (that’s right – there’s a cap.)

If you want to find out more about the candidates and their stances – or about local elections in other jurisdictions – the League of Women Voters’ SmartVoter.org website is a good resource. The Secret News, a blog covering Emeryville politics, also has a very informative post on the candidates.

While I found the forum to be very interesting, and the candidates to be generally competent-seeming and articulate, I have to wonder how well they represent their constituency. For example, although non-Hispanic whites make up only 40 percent of the city’s population, all of the candidates – as well as the two City Council members not up for election this year – appear to be non-Hispanic whites. (According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Asian-Americans are the largest minority, at 27.5 percent, and African-Americans are 17.5 percent. Asian-owned firms also account for 13.9 percent of firms in the city.)

More importantly, there was a lot of griping about how Emeryville needed to better serve and attract families with children – for example, through more family-friendly housing. One of the candidates – I forget which – stated, as if it were completely uncontroversial, that residents with children simply made the community stronger. Michael Webber (who sort of does and sort of doesn’t know how to use Tumblr) propounded this view the most vehemently: he derisively referred to “yuppies,” “commuters,” and “loft-dwellers” as if they (let’s be honest, we) are nothing but parasites on the city.

Webber instantly lost my vote when he started complaining about my demographic, but let’s take the long view for a minute: why should any candidate for (or member of) City Council want to alienate the childless, yuppie, commuting, loft-dwellers [CYCL]? We are your constituency. I get the sense that there is a disproportionate amount of us! Why don’t you try to engage us? Neither Jon nor I asked any questions at the forum, but when we were talking about it afterward, Jon told me the question he was thinking of asking, and I think it’s a good one: Why should I (a CYCL) buy a house in Emeryville?

As renters contributing to this scourge of one-bedroom housing stock, I know our politicians don’t prioritize us because we don’t pay the property taxes that fund our city. But we do pay taxes indirectly through our rent, we live here, and, unlike our absentee landlords, we can vote. Moreover, many of us are likely to be considering buying a home in the future. If our politicians do nothing to serve us, what makes them think we’re going to want to invest in this city?

For some CYCLs, a deciding factor about buying a house in Emeryville would be schools: you might be childless now, but if you’re thinking of having children in the future, the city’s school system would certainly be something to take into consideration, and thus, it makes sense for the city’s politicians to focus on school-related issues.

But what if you decide not to have children? What then does Emeryville have to offer its residents (who are not burdening the city with extra demand for services)? The services and amenities are not fantastic: we currently don’t have a library – I think that’s supposed to be part of the new community center – so I have to ride my bike up to the Golden Gate branch of the Oakland Public Library. We have a decent outdoor pool which I am an enthusiastic user of, although the locker room is tiny and it closes in the winter. There’s not a lot in the way of cafes, restaurants, bars, art galleries, or parks.

Jac Asher was the only candidate who even began to address these types of concerns, by way of talking about strengthening public transit in Emeryville, possibly by linking the free Emery-Go-Round service with the West Oakland BART. That would be great! It seems that Ruth Atkin has been on the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and I think Emeryville has some great bike lanes and bike boulevards which a lot of people use. I’d like for 40th Street or some other route to the MacArthur BART be more bike-friendly. (Webber, apparently, thought the bike lane shouldn’t cross San Pablo because he didn’t see bikes on this stretch of road? That is obviously because it’s kind of a harrowing experience to ride there, what with the lack of bike lanes and all!) I’d also like a bigger, year-round farmers market, or at least more CSAs serving our community. And a dog park! Tons of us CYCLs have dogs – and nothing builds and strengthens communities like people walking their dogs – but we don’t have anywhere to take them for off-leash exercise and socialization.

I’ll stop ranting now. I just get exercised, you know, after having seen what local democracy looks like.


After Fukushima.

It seems like, once the reactors were stabilized, the Fukushima disaster faded from the public eye almost instantaneously. I couldn’t remember the last time I had thought about it, until I came across Evan Osnos’ excellent article (subscription required) on the disaster and its aftermath in the October 17 issue of the New Yorker.

Among other things, the article highlights the regulatory dysfunction that catastrophically crippled Japan’s nuclear safety regime. It seems that regulatory capture is at least as much a problem in Japan as it is here in the United States, if not more so. I was also struck by how egregiously Japan’s government appears to have mishandled the situation; its lack of transparency seems only to have bred deep distrust of the government among the people.

I am less of a nuclear energy skeptic than your average environmentalist — my dad and several relations and family friends worked as nuclear plant engineers when I was growing up, I visited nuclear plants as a kid, and my uncle continues to work at Indian Point. I always thought that, at least on the medium time scale, nuclear could be done safely. But Fukushima and its aftermath make me wonder if, regardless of the capabilities of science and engineering, politics and the profit motive make safe nuclear energy an impossibility.

Osnos’ article quotes a compelling speech made by the novelist Haruki Murakami in June, criticizing Japan’s nuclear policy in context of the country’s history:

This is a historic experience for us Japanese: our second massive nuclear disaster. But this time no one dropped a bomb on us. We set the stage, we committed the crime with our own hands, we are destroying our own lands, and we are destroying our own lives. …While we are the victims, we are also the perpetrators. We must fix our eyes on this fact. If we fail to do so, we will inevitably repeat the same mistake again, somewhere else.


Lack of competition in baseball rubbing mud.

Maybe everybody else already knew this, but I didn’t: every baseball in the big leagues gets rubbed with mud.

And not just any mud! It’s mud harvested from a particular spot, on a Delaware River tributary. It’s provided to MLB by a company called Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud.

Some quick Googling revealed that NPR also did a story on this back in 2009, where they reported that a 32-ounce container of rubbing mud cost $58 and would last a team for a season.

I bet you’re thinking what I’m thinking: why does America’s favorite pastime tolerate such an egregious monopoly? Don’t you think a little competition in the rubbing mud industry could result in lower prices? And what about Japan – where do they get their professional baseball rubbing mud from?


Angry Asian Man endorses SNL’s spoof of Japanophiles

Actually, I don’t know if “Japanophile” is the right term, but you know what I mean, right? Angry Asian Man calls it “the over-excited, obsessive (and often misguided) American fans that populate otaku culture.”

I agree with AAM that it was dead-on — and surprisingly complex, especially with the inclusion of the disavowing “Sensei Mark” character and “I’m not racist. My girlfriend is Japanese!” bit. I’ve found Saturday Night Live to be pretty tone-deaf (if not outright racist) on Asian/Asian-American issues on the past, most recently with its portrayals of China’s President Hu Jintao, so this is a marked improvement.


Biofuel crimes in a recession.

You know what they say about crime in a recession, right? That should apply especially for bioenergy in the time of peak oil and imminently catastrophic climate change, right? That’s my theory, and it’s supported by two recent pieces of anecdata: First, the rise in used cooking oil theft, at least in Arlington County, Virginia, where french fry grease apparently has a street price of $4/gallon. Second, straight-up fraud in renewable fuel credits.

Aside from the general novelty of biofuel-related crimes, these stories raise a couple of interesting issues. The article on cooking oil thefts highlights the case of of Greenlight Biofuels, which is apparently losing 5 to 10 percent of its business each month in thefts. Greenlight Biofuels apparently reprocesses the waste cooking oil into biodiesel, but the regional manager cited in the article also notes that the same used oil can be used in making animal feed, which he says pays more for oil than biodiesel refineries. If that’s true, then that means that all of the government’s various market interventions on behalf of biodiesel are not being very effective. From a general public policy perspective – even acknowledging the deleterious effects of biodiesel in terms of its effect on food prices, particulate matter pollution, and climate change – it seems to me that turning used vegetable oil into animal feed (supporting the highly destructive livestock industry) is not the desired outcome.

Of course, the other main lesson is that the renewable fuel credits system established in EPAct 2005 needs reform, but that’s not news.


Wear makeup, get promoted.

A new study reports that women wearing makeup are perceived as more likable, competent, and trustworthy, and the New York Times is on it. In other words, as the Times put it: “cosmetics boost a woman’s attractiveness.” The study was paid for by Procter & Gamble, who sells CoverGirl cosmetics, and designed and executed by researchers at Boston University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. I can’t wait to see how CoverGirl is going to harness this research to sell us ladies more endocrine-disrupting potions to slather on our faces!

This is real no-shit-Sherlock science, but I suppose it’s good to get it out of the way and established. But I’m surprised at the Times‘ treatment of it. The article barely gives the time of day to Stanford Law professor and author of The Beauty Bias (also major legal scholar on issues of legal ethics and gender) Deborah Rhode, describing herself as not a “beauty basher.” The article does quote the study’s lead author, Nancy Etcoff, saying:

“Twenty or 30 years ago, if you got dressed up, it was simply to please men, or it was something you were doing because society demands it,” she said. “Women and feminists today see this is their own choice, and it may be an effective tool.”

Yes, it’s true – many women and feminists do see getting dressed up and putting on makeup as their own choice, and they may use it as an effective tool to get what they want in society. But that doesn’t begin to address the point that it’s a choice that perpetuates a historically- and culturally-embedded demeaning of women’s value.

In fact, the article does kind of implicitly illustrate this point:

“I’m a little surprised that the relationship held for even the glamour look,” said Richard Russell, an assistant professor of psychology at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa. “If I call to mind a heavily competent woman like, say, Hillary Clinton, I don’t think of a lot of makeup. Then again, she’s often onstage so for all I know she is wearing a lot.”

Exactly. You almost certainly are never going to see Hillary Clinton wearing no makeup. The fact that this (male) professor of psychology doesn’t even realize that Hillary Clinton always wears makeup in public is why our society needs to stop this ridiculous beauty standards arms race.

I recently watched the trailer for the documentary Miss Representation, which looks like it deals with this issue pretty well:


The unpredictability of firm size and political clout: a case study in snakes.

The other day, Matt Yglesias disputed the idea that large corporations have too much political power, arguing instead about the disproportionate political clout of sectors made up of small firms which are geographically dispersed, like agriculture. Because of the over-representation of rural America in the Senate, that means rural priorities – like developing the ag industry – get special political attention.

In response, Mother Jones food and ag writer Tom Philpott pointed out that agriculture’s political over-representation is chiefly due to the American Farm Bureau, an agricultural trade group deeply connected with big agribusiness (think ADM, Cargill, ConAgra, and DuPont), and not so much with actual small firms (the family farms that the Farm Bureau purports to represent):

The Farm Bureau claims its 6.2 million “member families” make it the nation’s “largest and most influential general farm organization,” but there’s a math problem here: America has just 2 million farms, and 960,000 people who claim farming as their main occupation. “The vast majority of its members,” notes FWW, “are neither farmers nor necessarily advocates of the political platform that the Farm Bureau endorses on their behalf.” Instead, they’re just random insurance customers.

I don’t know if Philpott’s contention – based on a 2010 Food & Water Watch report – is an accurate characterization, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were – which would make it less surprising that politicians awarded such outsized influence to the interests of a powerful and monied national (or transnational) lobby, which may not be aligned with those of the legislators’ constituents. Of course, it’s also possible that legislators simply aren’t aware of how their constituents’ opinions might diverge from the interests of the large corporate lobbies.

In any case, this debate reminded me of the whole kerfuffle with regulating snakes, which I meant to blog about last month. When I was in law school, I interned for Senator Ben Cardin, working on matters related to the Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife. One of the bills that I helped prepare a hearing for was Senator Bill Nelson’s proposal to add the Burmese python, among other invasive snake species, to the list of species protected by the Lacey Act, thereby prohibiting their importation and interstate trafficking.

Not only is it absurd for the Republicans to mischaracterize the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed “injurious” finding as setting off a job-killing “regulatory tsunami,” it’s especially galling considering that Nelson’s bill would essentially have legislated that finding (and you’d think it ought to be uncontroversial even among today’s right-wing zealots that it is the role of Congress to skip the bureaucrats and legislate). Back when Nelson’s bill was percolating around the 111th Congress, I didn’t understand why it wasn’t a given that it would pass – I mean, how much influence could the exotic pet and reptile enthusiast lobby have? In what Congressional district(s) are snake-lovers clamoring for greater liberty in Burmese python trading? How big is the snakes-as-pets industry and how many people do they employ? (And how many people could instead be employed as customs inspectors and Lacey Act enforcement, with co-benefits for local ecosystems?)

The trouble is, as I found after a little recreational and fruitless research, this information is not readily available (because in whose interest is it to make that information available?) and so our hapless Congresscritters were not enabled to make the rational decision about adding the Burmese python to the Lacey Act. (On the other hand, the proposed rule notes [at 75 Fed. Reg. 11817] that local, state and federal entities along with universities have spent almost $3 million on studying and eradicating large constrictor snakes in Florida alone.) This information problem might be the root cause for the disproportionate influence of the fragmented and geographically disparate small firms who traffic in an uncharismatic and literally baby-killing invasive species.