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Posts published in “Stapilus”

The lone farmer and the ponderosa


This column first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle on January 14..

Here’s a recipe for concentrated depression:

The embattled and seriously troubled Klamath Basin, a center of social and environmental pathologies for two decades and more, facing a future, three decades hence, where climate change could make conditions far worse.

You could spin a dystopian novel from that. Or you could tell a more optimistic story. In a project the Klamath Falls newspaper, the Herald and News, released last week, it did both, in the form of a pair of short stories. (It was funded in part by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Environmental Solutions Initiative.)

It did more than tell stories. It also suggested ways out of the area’s bitter water and environmental conflicts while painting a specific picture of what a climate changed future actually may look like. The report showed that how people respond to the coming changes could make a vast difference.

Much of what we hear about climate change sounds theoretical: A temperature change of a couple of degrees (doesn’t sound like a lot) or an iceberg cleaved off in Antarctica. What about where I live?

The Klamath report got specific about that, about wildfires - of which last summer’s immense Bootleg Fire, just east of the Klamath area, was only a foretaste - major weather swings, frequent severe drought years, and hotter summers.

The Klamath River Basin seems ill-prepared for any of this. The drought year 2001 was a turning point, when the Basin’s water supplies dropped enough that conflicts involving irrigators, environmental interests, nearby tribes and others exploded, and the area has been on edge for years since with little relief in sight. It has attracted outside attention which often has added to the area’s troubles.

So what might happen in the next two to three decades?

The newspaper project outlined the current situation and then, out of many plausible possibilities, sketched out a couple of fictional but fact-infused scenarios.

One was “lone farmer.”

It begins in an upcoming drought year (maybe this one), as water is shut off or severely limited to many users, and anger rises to a flashpoint. Agitators - apparently connected to out-of-area provocateurs like Idahoan Ammon Bundy - seize the Klamath system headgates and open the water to the irrigation canal. But there’s little water, and the incident is the last straw for the feds, who cut off environmental and assistance for the area. Diminished water both on the surface and in local aquifers leaves fish dying, vast acreages of crops unwatered and houses by the hundreds without running water. Many of the endangered species in the area become extinct. Local farmers become endangered too, nearly all selling out to an international corporation which takes over almost all the area’s farm land. Only the local tribes remain, a significant political or legal factor, though after ongoing environmental hardship and the loss of fish runs, many tribal members move out of the area. Wildfires like the massive Bootleg Fire recur. The area's population falls by a third or more, as farm families move out of the area or to a corporate-built residential community.

The second story, “lodgepole and ponderosa,” led with this: “Young people are hard at work restoring and protecting the Klamath Basin’s wetlands, forests and waterways. Despite intensifying climate change impacts, a 30-year effort has put the basin on a path toward resilience."

The climate change assumed in both stories is the same. But in this one, a different trajectory is sketched for the next decade on the local and federal levels. Nationally, “The Interior Department establishes a climate corps program for each watershed in the Western U.S., inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps created a century earlier." Locally, a new cooperative agreement between the various interests in the area - agricultural, tribal, residential, environmental and others - evolves a series of compromises on water and land use. The local group acquires some water from the federal government under an agreement on how it will be used, and water use in many places changes.

The end result is happier than in “lone farmer”: More local control, more prosperity at least for local businesses, and more local people, albeit with close discipline needed on everyone’s part.

The report suggested that, “The Klamath still has the ingredients of a successful watershed: Land, water, plants, birds, fish and people who care deeply about their homes and communities. But those things must be intricately connected in order to survive.”

The two scenarios seem to suggest as much.

State of the campaign


Usually something - a new idea, a major policy initiative, an area of interest - jumps out when a governor delivers a state of the state address.
In Idaho Governor Brad Little’s state of the state address last Monday it was this: The most overtly campaign-oriented SOS I’ve ever heard.

Little does have a serious campaign challenge coming up in the next few months, and not only for himself but also for his political allies who will be waging a possibly bitter battle against serious opposition in the Republican primary.

In his speech to the legislature and to the state, Little seemed more than aware of this: That reality seemed to dominate him. He was almost two-thirds of the way through the speech before he began to deliver what sounds like the heart of a normal SOS. And that was in a relatively brief speech, by far his shortest SOS, and only about two-thirds as long as last year’s. (Brevity ordinarily is a virtue, but you do need to get the job done.)

Why do I say this? You can start with the references to the Biden Administration. Throwing a quick hit of shade in the direction of a presidency of the other party isn’t something new; governors of both parties routinely do a bit of it. But ordinarily, it’s just a quick side jaunt. The subject at hand, after all, is supposed to be the state of the state.

But Little went much further than the norm in the first two-thirds of his speech, over and over and over: “While President Biden divides Americans in his attempts to elevate the role of government in citizens’ lives … Biden’s polarizing vaccine mandates … as Bidenflation surges … while President Biden continues to dismiss the catastrophe at the U.S.-Mexico border … President Biden’s flawed border policies … Biden’s inaction as inflation swells under Biden’s watch … With Bidenflation exploding.”

And there were the traditional “DC is awful” remarks, but again more of those than usual: “While D.C. is digging the country into a $29 trillion hole … While D.C. continues to crank out onerous new regulations … While D.C. wants to raise taxes on all citizens.”

All of which would have fit in well enough at a Republican Lincoln Day dinner (which circuit is just getting underway), but a state of the state is supposed to be a report about the condition of the state and recommendations for the future, a slice of governing, not campaigning. Little got to some of that, but at the tail end of the speech.

There was another element to this speech that seemed unusual for its obviousness.

These speeches almost always have an element of self-congratulation, reports of conditions going well and efforts by the speaker that paid off. Usually governors go out of their way to throw some praise at the legislature as well; this speech contained not much of that. (Nor did it get around to a lot of significant problems in Idaho - from housing affordability to the notably high Covid-19 death rate to widespread attacks on education - but many governors ignore such things in their SOS.)

Little’s self-praise included some larger elements (economic and regulatory, mainly) but keyed off a statement in which he cited people he knew who influenced him, and then this:

“Leaders give people confidence and show the way through humble strength. Leaders go through life with a spirit of service. Leaders listen. The voice of a leader is effective, not just loud. Every day I endeavor to live up to the example of my mentors. That is what the people of Idaho deserve from their Governor, and it is what they deserve from all those elected to public office.”

So in putting a label on his legislative proposals, and making the linkage unavoidable, he said, “My plan is called LEADING IDAHO.” (The caps are his.)

It was a speech underwritten and delivered on behalf of Idaho’s taxpayers - who do include non-Republicans as well as party members - suitable for framing at the next Lincoln Day dinner.

The campaign is on.

(photo/Idaho Ed News)

What to watch for


This column first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle on December 29.

In 2022 many of Oregon's biggest stories will be political: A new governor, two new members of Congress (the first change there in a decade) and more.

What those changes look like, whether simply of personality or of wholesale direction, may flow from some of the other developments we see in the months ahead.

Where is Covid-19 headed, for example?

The clock struck 2022 on an ominous pandemic note, with a new variant faster-spreading than any before it. Covid-19 is marching on with no obvious end in sight.

Oregon is one of the best states for suppressing per capita infections, and hospitalizations have dropped in recent months even with the new omicron surge. That has happened partly because masking and vaccination regimes go on, surely into the primary election season and maybe into the general election as well, even if sweeping lockdowns do not. The anger on one side about any restrictions, and the anger on the other side about those protesters, is likely to continue and maybe grow. How will people react to this on their ballots?

The early months of this year may see a U.S. Supreme Court decision dramatically changing the rules on abortion, and most states probably will see a legislative - and maybe ballot issue - response to that. Oregon’s response may end up being little change in the current state laws, but the debate likely to erupt this spring may spin off many side effects.

The last couple of years have been challenging in other ways. As many people - around the country, and many around the state - view their largest city, Portland has become not just weird but ungovernable, hazardous, even (some will say) a burned-out, razed-to-the-ground shell. Last January an economist from Lake Oswego, Bill Conerly, wrote in Forbes magazine, that in Portland “continued violence and vandalism have combined with high housing costs, homelessness and poor community leadership to raise the question: how long before this city dies?” Some reality: Portland is not dying, and it doesn’t resemble the caricature its critics are so quick to employ. But image and perception are important. What will Portland’s leaders do in coming months to change that - and ease back some of the city’s real problems, in public safety, housing and elsewhere? It will be an election subtext.

So might the Greater Idaho movement, which plays off antipathy to PDX. An actual state boundary change isn’t in the cards - the barriers are too high - but the movement does provide a visible (and maybe substantive) counterbalance to the Portland metro sensibility. If the secessionists are able to achieve some visibility in the coming legislative session, what effect might that have on the elections ahead?

The legislature too, albeit operating in a short session, could affect the campaign seasons ahead. It may have done some of that already in its quick December session, passing emergency rental assistance and drought and law enforcement assistance as well, a package balanced between metro and rural areas. If the upcoming session continues along that balanced line - if it does - a cooling effect could be felt in Oregon politics.

There are some other reasons a cooling off could happen. Oregon’s economy, for one example, has been faring well.

The new congressional and legislative maps for the next decade are set now, but there’s a chance here too for decompression: Another run at the proposal that this state do what most of its neighbors have in creating a bipartisan redistricting commission. This year - shortly after the old plan is done and well ahead of the next one - would be the ideal time for action on it, and the best chance for its advocates.

This still leaves the question of how Oregon politics will develop in its most pivotal year for more than a decade.

The answers are not obvious.

As the year begins, the probability is that the governor’s office once again (as it has every time since 1982) will go to the Democratic nominee. But there are plausible scenarios to the contrary, and you can develop reasonable arguments for any of at least three Democratic contenders winning the nomination. (Sounds like a future column …)

The holders of Oregon’s fifth and sixth district U.S. House seats are a far from settled question as well.

Whoever they are, they’ll have to run against the backdrop of Oregon, a place perceived as mired in frustrating times or making its way toward sunnier days. The battle between those perspectives will likely tell us what kind of headlines we see in 2022.

Rendered redundant?


In Idaho, general elections have been rendered nearly irrelevant for most offices because enough Idaho voters reflexively vote Republican (or in a few neighborhoods reflexively Democratic) , whoever the nominee and whatever the nature of the opposition. With rare exceptions you can say the decision was made half a year earlier, in the primary election.

There is now an effort afoot to render the primary election meaningless as well. Who then, if this happens, would effectively appoint Idaho’s public officials, instead of the voters?

That would be a collection of several hundred Republican Party functionaries - members of local and regional central committees, which in many places have become increasingly extremist.

This weekend, the state Republican Party will hold a winter meeting and consider a rule change intended to allow candidates to appear on the Republican primary election ballot only if they receive sufficient support from their Republican central committee.

The idea, being promoted most strongly through the Bonneville County GOP group, is legally iffy, and former state justice and attorney general Jim Jones said that if the party approves it, his advocacy group would “take a serious look at going after it in court.”

But it’s already prompted a fierce internal debate.

On New Year’s Day, Trent Clark, a former Idaho Republican chair (and currently a party regional vice-chair) compared the proposal to something that would fit neatly into the structure of the Communist Party in China (citing a rule change made there last fall). “Just as in China, this gives a handful of party insiders a veto over which names can be printed on the ballot,” he said on a Facebook post.

He went on: “Changing how candidates get onto ballots serves only one purpose: Pod-people don’t trust Republican primary voters. Fearing they cannot sell their candidates to the thousands who vote in Republican primaries, they hope to claim power by winning a few dozen votes on a county or legislative district central committee. It is tempting for Democrats to watch this disaster with grim delight. And, yes, such a power grab by central committees would inevitably cause a GOP implosion. But not overnight and not without significant damage to both public trust and representative government.”

That post drew a heavy and passionate response on both sides.

Here’s one of the critical responses (in his version this was in capital letters): “Im ashamed of the idaho ruling class ...we no longer enjoy a representative form of government in Idaho. When a select handful of rinos or, to be blunt communist sympathizers control all legislative proposals, your tax dollars, money without audits, we the people are in deep trouble folks. Only a small handful of our legislature are constitutional conservatives.”

Apparently, according to many of Clark’s critics, the Idaho Republican ballot, and its officials including the majority caucuses in the Idaho Legislature, have been infiltrated and overrun by Democrats - and extremist socialists at that. Another respondent: “We currently have several republican representatives with voting records left of Bernie Sanders and this is not ok.” (Their names were not noted.)

Who knew Idaho was such a liberal state politically?

Few states in the nation are as dominated politically by extremely rightist political officials and organizations as is Idaho, which leads you to wonder if some new dynamic is taking place: The farther right you go, and the more thorough your power dominance, the more your advocates come to think they’re losing control to the (nearly non-existent in Idaho) forces on the far left. (From my observation in Portland and Seattle, there doesn’t seem to be a counterpart dynamic on the left wing in those places.)

This isn’t about “liberal” or “conservative,” whatever those words mean any more. This is about power, And concentrating it ever more narrowly in the hands of a small group of ideological activists.

All other Idahoans need not be consulted.

Watch carefully what the Republican Party officials do, or don’t, with this.

Wavering in ’22


As we stand at the top of another year-long ski run (snow at last!), we can portend a few things.

Such as better - fingers crossed - snowpacks and water levels than last year. Maybe. It's iffy. A month ago the indicators were pointing toward a parched 2022, and a wet couple of weeks isn’t enough to change the picture entirely. Still, the snowpack levels consistently across Idaho’s basins, as mostly they are across the west, are holding up decently, for now.

You'll notice a lot of weasel words in that forecast. More will follow as we hike across more political terrain. (Count them if you like, but as the Idaho State Police would say, don’t make a drinking game out of it.)

We do know positively that 2022 will be an election year, probably one of larger-than-average significance for Idaho: It could see the upending of a long-dominant Republican establishment.

Or not, or maybe there’s a mixed result. We’ll get an answer to that in May, before the year is half-done. In the meantime, what direction the state will take is not, as matters sit now, locked in place.

That means it could be affected by things that happen between here and there. Let’s review.

First comes the Idaho Legislature, which convenes in about another week. We have a good idea of what to expect there, partly since the membership is mostly unchanged from last year, and partly because many of the members told us in the oddball session just a month ago just what they wanted to do. They largely got the reply then that most of their proposals could wait until the regular session, so we should not be surprised to see those ideas return then. Whether those ideas, or how many of them, will pass is something we don’t yet know. (Also, how much ink does the governor have in his veto stamp?)

What do these legislators want to do? First, limit or combat any steps by either governments or other organizations, businesses included, to oppose the ongoing spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The odds are not many of them will succeed, but some probably will, and they will stand in stark contrast to the absence of traction of any measures that would try to fight the disease that so far has killed more than 4,200 Idahoans and sickened more than 320,000.

On that subject, in the months ahead we can expect to see Idaho, and other like-minded states, again becoming a national pandemic hotspot. The higher vaccine resistance in Idaho, than in states to its west and south, is likely to be reflected in more pandemic headlines like those of the last two years.

What else might the legislature do? Don’t be surprised if abortion returns as a major topic, coming just ahead of a major U.S. Supreme Court decision affecting Roe v. Wade. As with the pandemic, numerous ideas - on the abortion-restricting side, of course not on the pro-choice side - are likely to surface.

The legislature will be in the happy position of having stronger than expected tax revenues available. It could use some of that money to expand funding for areas - infrastructure, education, health and others - that have been shorted in the past. It probably won’t. Mega tax cut proposals are likeliest to make out well. Property taxes, which have been rising and where specific calls for adjustment really have been called for at local levels, are the subject of many complaints at the local level, but since local governments rather than the state tend to get more of the blame for those, legislative traction sometimes is hard to grasp.

Also worth watching: After last year’s near-perpetual session, will the legislature hold a normal-length session this year? If there’s an attempt to keep the session going past the primary, will that have an effect on the primary? Will it affect the primary results? (Doubtful, but some challenging candidates may take creative use of the opportunity.)

We’ll see, by mid-year, a few other things too. We may also get a sense of how the wildfire season will affect Idaho this time. Idaho has been relatively lucky in recent years in having mostly smaller and scattered fires, but conditions remain ripe for something much bigger and more destructive. We may see whether Idaho housing prices, which exploded in recent years, start to stall, and whether the economic growth, selective inflation and extremely low jobless rates persist.

It may not even take until this time next year to know. Or not.

Jordan Cove and the snap decision


This column first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle on December 29.

Snap decisions, so often prized, are not always the best. Sometimes the inefficiencies of government and regulation can lead to the right result.

Consider the recently defunct - after half a year of suspended animation, and a dozen years of regulatory limbo - the Jordan Cove Energy Project.

Go back a generation or slightly more and you’ll encounter a lot of discussion about the energy crisis in the Northwest, how our accelerating use of energy is outstripping our production of it. News stories were full of plans for development of nuclear plants (with attendant financial catastrophe) and coal-fired production operations. A new federal agency, the Northwest Power Planning Council, was set up (based at Portland) to develop strategies for coping with the power gap and developing more.

Times change. There’s a good case now for scrapping the council (now called the Northwest Power and Conservation Council ans which, okay, just got a new member from Oregon, long-time legislator Ginny Burdick). And the region is floating along quite well with existing power sources.

We don’t need to do, in other words, what we once thought we needed to.

In 2007 two Canadian groups, Jordan Cove Energy Project and the Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline, started regulatory applications to import natural gas, which was then in short supply, from Asia. (The controlling partner most recently has been the firm Pembina.) The plan was to ship compressed gas across the Pacific Ocean to a terminal at Coos Bay, and then send it by pipeline to points east. Natural gas prices then were high enough that the business model appeared to work.

The region would get new jobs, as always much appreciated at Coos Bay. The downsides were partly environmental and partly the result of running the pipeline through private as well as public lands: Property owners were hit with the prospect of eminent domain proceedings seizing land and houses.

All of that might have happened if regulation had been super-efficient. It was not.

Initial federal approval did come in 2009, and the wheels started to turn, but opposition grew and proceedings thickened. During that time, natural gas production in the United States picked up, and prices fell.

The market changed so much that not only did the original business model no longer work, but the backers of the project in 2013 asked for permission not to import but rather export natural gas. The energy needs of Americans were no longer a driving consideration, and fewer jobs probably would have been opened.

The project refused to die until the wheels came off this year. After the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its permission to go ahead, subject to Oregon state approval, Oregon turned thumbs down. Last month, when FERC asked whether the company still planned to pursue the pipeline, the Jordan Cove consortium threw in the towel and said it would withdraw its application.

Jordan Cove has advocates. Scott Lauermann of the American Petroleum Institute said the withdrawal was “yet another unfortunate example of a much needed U.S. energy infrastructure project being terminated due to unnecessary regulatory delays.”

A commonplace line of argument these days - and yet. Imagine that, back in 2007, the project had been hurriedly approved. What would have been the end result?

We wouldn’t have any more natural gas, not in the United States, since by the time construction was done the market would have forced export of the product (the direction Pembina turned toward anyway).

But we would have had more environmental damage and, a number of people (including Representative Peter DeFazio) said, it would have been one of the biggest carbon emitters in Oregon, putting more pressure on everyone else to meet carbon goals.

Others have pointed out additional environmental problems: “Dozens of animals and plants listed under the Endangered Species Act are threatened by this proposal, including iconic coho salmon. The pipeline would have to cross steep mountainous terrain that poses excessive landslide risks, while the terminal is proposed in an area at-risk of severe earthquake and tsunami damage.”

Property owners in and near the planned pipeline routes haven’t easily been able to sell or improve their property. Close to a third of homeowners in the planned pipeline area refused entreaties to an agreement to sell, a strong protest. Today, those owners are in better shape.

Sometimes when we move too fast we can jump too far ahead of our needs, and be bitten by the solutions we adopt.

Book report


What follows are some reflections on 10 of the books I read for the first time this year - not necessarily the 10 best, or those I enjoyed most (though I recommend all on both counts) but the 10 that left the strongest impression, that drew my attention back weeks and months after I first consumed them. Not all are new, though some were, but they all (with one exception) were new to me this year. Collectively, they made up for me some of the better parts of 2021. This was, if nothing else, another good year to kick back and read.

They're listed here in alphabetical order (by author name), not preferential ranking, which would be too problematic for books as different as these.

Jessica Bruder - Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017). "Surviving" is the key word here. This is a portrait of a new American subculture, one of people - retirement age mainly but not entirely - who can no longer afford decent housing, owned or rental, and in most cases have run out of housing options altogether; so, they take the road. They work at temp or short-term jobs (at Amazxon warehouses, forest lands, wherever they can find something to bring in a little money) and clump together in vans, RVs or even cars in low-cost places to stay. Many approached it with the hope of finding a freer, more open life; many of them discover something else, something much harsher, a side of America most of us would rather not acknowledge. Written plainly and mostly unemotionally, it was one of the more haunting reads I've had in recent years.

Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, Jason Stanford - Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth (2021). And no, I did not include this just to tick off the state of Texas. There is a broad message here about how and why historical mythologies develop. Especially the why; the Alamo was not quite so big a deal in Texas (where it still is in fact a very big deal) until people began to figure out that emphasizing the central role of slavery in the development of Texas (specifically, its detachment from Mexico) was not especially good PR. For me, once I absorbed the fact (as I had not before reading this) that slavery was abolished in Mexico about four decades before it was north of the border, quite a few historical developments fell into place. Useful history, useful commentary, presented entertainingly. Little wonder certain power people in Texas just hate it.

David Graeber and David Wengrow - The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). Many people may read this as a counter or even a rebuke to among other books Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, and the authors (one of them now deceased) might not have had a problem with that, since they took on several keynotes of the GGS approach to broad human history. Take a step further back and you find those books, and others, working together: Each contributing large chunks to a very large puzzle. That puzzle lies in working out of the contours of how human beings got from where they were 100,000 or so years ago, to now - and to what extent those developments, in broad strokes, were inevitable. The Graeber and Wengrow addition to this discussion centers on the useful idea that human development was hit and miss, trial and error, and that we had and still have the ability to construct our societies in different ways. Every attempt at "big picture" human history I've seen has been married somewhat by authorial biases, and this one is no exception (Graeber was a long-time outspoken anarchist). But this is one of the most useful pieces of analysis about our history anyone has developed in years. So long as you read it in context ...

Mark Harris - Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008). America, and the world for that matter, changed enormously in the sixties, and this book offer an unusual and smart way of approaching that - why the changes happened, the nature of them, and what in many cases did not change. The book's discipline was to focus on the five movies that were Oscar nominees for 1967 (Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? and, oh yeah, Doctor Dolittle) and work through how they came to be, the sometimes surprising connections between those and other movies (and other developments at large), the debates and arguments over them during and after production, and what all that says about the changes of that day. The movies themselves are interesting enough (well, except for one) but the depiction of the world around them will stick in and broaden your mind more than you might expect. A good slice of history.

Elizabeth Kolbert - Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future (2021). Considering the subject - the impact, often negative but sometimes positive - of human beings on their environment, you might be expecting a doorstop-sized tome. It isn't; Kolbert's approach here is to report carefully on several specific case studies (widely varied, from Asian carp to Icelandic gas recycling to the fate of the coral reefs) and then, without overreaching, draw lessons from them. I like the approach, because it allows the non-specialist reader to more easily absorb a complex subject. I also appreciated her attitude; much of the book relates of course to climate change, but she is neither as dogmatic nor as gloomy about it as you might expect; she seems to take a well-informed middle road with some room for hope, sometimes in unexpected places.

Hervé Le Tellier (Adriana Hunter, translator) - The Anomaly (2021). The news reports around this book centered on how it was a massive bestseller in France, where its author lives. But it also deserves strong bestseller status in the United States (where it is mostly set); it is absorbing in some of the same ways the TV series Lost (at its best, and to which it has been compared) once did: You couldn't be certain where this thing was going, or even what genre you were reading. In the end, as the novel's title seemed to suggest, it was a genre-buster about blowing iup expectations, even our most human and basic expectations. Getting any clearer than that would constitute a spoiler, which you really should avoid in reading this book. Which, if you're interested in mind-twisting but highly readable stories, you really should.

Peter Maass (translator) - Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil (2011). People who live near industrial oil plants or other facilities most of us would rather be located far from where we are, frequently offer the argument that "it smells like money" - there's a big economic benefit, and our jobs and society wouldn't be here otherwise. Maass' book, thoroughly reported from around the globe, is an immensely powerful takedown of that argument, at least as applies to oi extraction and production. In case after case he shows what has happened in places where oil development came to town in a big way, and what happened during and after - very little of it good, and that's leaving aside the environmental considerations (which he touches on as well). I'd be fascinated to see a rebuttal to this, but I find it hard to imagine a good one.

David Unger - The Mastermind (2016). As I started reading this I was expecting something on the order of a caper or swindle novel, one set in an unusual location, Guatemala City. The setting was as expected, and in fact much of Central America - and its view of itself from the inside - was expertly delivered. (Don't let the author's name throw you; he lived there for many years.) The story was plenty suspenseful, but the book title was somewhat ironic, and just how ironic we could discuss. The tale of a wealthy businessman, based around a real incident involving the Guatemalan government, is worth the read, but so is the psychological suspense, and the human question of what is and isn't worth giving up, and for what.

Isabel Wilkerson - The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (2017). Most people who have read much American history know that in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, millions of Black residents of the south headed north and west, largely in search of better opportunities and escape from Jim Crow. That is, many of us know this as a matter of demographics and social trends, but not more specifically: How the migration worked, what pressured many people not to go, what the migrants found when they reached their destinations, what varied stories were involved in this massive movement. Telling it all would be beyond the scope of any single book, but Wilkerson gives this epic story its due by focusing on a few individual lives, and the details of what happened. Nearly an oral history, it is one of the most affecting works of history I've read in recent years.

Lawrence Wright - The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006). I passed on this one, despite its glowing reviews, for years because I thought: "I've read all kinds of stuff about Al Quaeda and 9/11; what more is there to know that's worth knowing that we're going to see in publication?" Wright's answer to that is compelling: He tells in remarkably complete fashion the story of where the terrorist organization came from and what it aimed to do, and the environment it developed within. I thought I couldn't have been surprised by much of what was here; I was wrong.

The fightin’ 6th


When Stephen Colbert hosted his satiric political talk show some years back he often profiled a congressional district somewhere around the country, describing its particular characteristics and enthusiastically declaring it the “Fighting 17th!”. Or whatever it was.

Built into the gag was the idea, often valid, that a given congressional district actually has specific and unique character apart from the red-blue political. It would be a place where people have something in common, and maybe have a shared history.

That would be difficult to find anywhere a brand new congressional district is being formed, as one will be this the coming year in Oregon.

That new district, owing to population growth reflected in the 2020 census, will be the 6th. (As for the politics, in 2020 the new 6th’s precincts voted about 55.2% for Joe Biden and 42.1% for Donald Trump.)

Some of Oregon’s districts - referring here to those just created for the next decade - do have a nature that allows for an easy shorthand description. The 2nd district is easy: the vast wide open and mostly arid spaces of eastern and part of southwestern Oregon, primarily agricultural economically. (Geographically, it is one of the largest congressional districts in the country.) The 3rd is almost as easy: A central Portland urban area with some Columbia River frontage to the east. The 1st is more split between central city and suburbia (in Washington County) and more rural river and Pacific Ocean frontage. The 4th includes the smaller Eugene and Corvallis urban areas together with more thinly populated areas southwest to the ocean. The first is heavily Republican, the other three clearly Democratic.

The remaining two districts are more complicated, and they will be at least in theory the most politically competitive (which makes them unusual nationwide).

The revised 5th district, which has run from south Portland to below Salem with an arm reaching west to the Pacific, will include most of its old core area but lose Salem and the coast and swing its arm instead across the Cascades to pick up the Bend area.

The brand new 6th district will run from southwest Portland with a slice of Washington County, south through Yamhill, and include the Salem area. The new 6th, then (somewhat like the 5th), will include three distinct pieces: The Portland metro piece (on the southwest side, including Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood); Yamhill and Polk counties, which include rural areas and small and mid-sized cities, and the Salem area, a mid-sized urban area with an identity distinct from the other two.

Most of the land area will be in Yamhill and Polk counties, but more than two-thirds of the votes will come from urbanized Washington and Marion.

This is a geographically coherent area (Highway 99 runs like a string through the middle of most of it, except Salem) but most people here probably won’t think it fits together.

The northern reach near Portland, where almost half of the people live, think of themselves as Portland metro people and may be a little discomfited jostled in with those non-urbanites. This region will have a large chunk of the population, but less than half - not enough to control outcomes.

Salem and Keiser together have a little more than 200,000 people, and will make up a little less than a third of the new district - fewer than the Washington County area, but also enough to make a big difference.

And the Yamhill and Polk County areas (except for the piece of Salem within Polk) see themselves as separate from either Portland or Salem. Yamhill and Polk together have almost 200,000 people, but about 25,000 of those Polk people are in West Salem. Smaller-town Polk and Yamhill make up about a quarter of the new district.

These are three distinct constituencies, and all have enough people that a candidate will ignore any of them at their peril.

That can be a good thing. The new 6th isn’t likely to be a district encouraging or even allowing (in its representative) much extremism of any sort. The need to work with varied constituencies may lead to a respect for compromise.

If the 6th becomes a “fightin’ 6th,” that may be because it holds its low-level fights on an internal and low-key basis, and rewards representation that’s steady and stable. Maybe that’s an optimistic view, but it’s what the numbers and geography seem to say.

And another year


When a year ago the realization came that the year 2020 was done, over, celebration swept all over: We were, we said, finally past that rotten patch.

We were making an assumption that things would be a lot better in 2021.

They are, some of them, to a point. But our biggest problem remains unchanged. Here’s a piece of what I wrote a year ago:

“When former legislator Luke Malek (who said he plans to run for lieutenant governor in 2022), said he wants to ‘work together to solve problems rather than divide people.’ Such a quote only a few years ago would have seemed so anodyne as not even meriting mention; wouldn’t everyone think that? But in 2020, that Malek quote, coming in a time when anger, suspicion and division have become overt political strategy in some places, almost seems like a daring reach.

“As we arrive at 2021, we have had a year in which division - physical division, social distancing - has become a common fact of life, and something nearly all of us want to change and at least greatly reduce in the year ahead. As we do that, as we see each other face to face a little more once again, might that mean we reconsider some of our divisions? Might we be a little more willing to listen, a little less determined to find dark motives, conspiracies and even evil in people who are simply different from us?”

A year later, too many of us still are not. (Malek, by the way, has ended his race.) Socially, many of us are stuck on an anger- and ignorance-driven hamster wheel, mindlessly building up energy to be used for nothing good.

The dominant social story of our lives has been Covid-19, as prominent on front pages and in newscasts as it was the last time we hit this point in our solar orbit.

A year ago we were taking deep breaths after a bitter campaign season. The new year brought riot and insurrection at the national capitol, with ongoing defenses (as well as prosecution) of that and of the debunked idea that the presidential election was somehow stolen.

In Idaho, the case for a better 2022 runs thin. Idaho’s key quote this year was “When do we get to use the guns?” - meaning specifically, against fellow citizens. And that was just a leading indicator. 2021 was the year factions of legislators decided, well, that’s a long story and a sad one. It was the year I wrote this: “How do you progress in Idaho politics today? Trash everyone and everything around you, claim you’re being conspired against at every turn, act with supreme arrogance and contempt for the law and even common courtesy, and cash the checks and welcome the supporters.”

After 2020 and 2021, is there reason to hope we will become a more responsible citizenry, and our elected officials as a whole more concerned with our well being than with the outrage of the day?
Not much. But it doesn't have to be that way.

A few months ago I ran across a half-century old flyer promoting a “Code of Fair Campaign Practices.” The page asked candidates to pledge they would talk about issues and candidate records “with sincerity and frankness,” to “condemn the use of personal vilification, character defamation” and tactics to spread them, appeals “to prejudice based on race, sex, creed or national origin” and false information; and repudiate support from anyone who does those things.

Not that campaigns and candidates back in those days were beacons of innocence. But candidates and backers who did act this way often paid a price, sometimes the price of defeat. The price was imposed by us, the voters and citizens who expected a decent standard of their representatives.
That could happen again, if we crank down our anger and cynicism.

It’s not out of our control. It’s up to us. That’s the message for 2022.