Republican States: Socialist Beneficiaries of Big Government Altruism?
October 2, 2011
I have written several essays about altruism, and about
conservative hostility toward altruism, particularly in the form of what
they call "big government." Conservative "red" states are upset that
they pay so much tax to the federal government. They loudly describe
federal taxes as burdensome. Many conservatives wish that their states
could just be left alone, and if this happened, they would be
prosperous. They clearly imply that the federal government is parasitic
upon them. Grover Norquist is famous for saying that he would like the
federal government to be so small that he could "drown it in the bathtub."
Ron and Rand Paul have similar sentiments.
Ideally, the federal government functions as a conduit of altruism, by
which the stronger states help to support the weaker states. Even
conservatives generally agree that people should help one another out,
but they refuse to recognize the role of the federal government in
helping that to happen. Of course, in reality, the federal government
has many abuses and inefficiencies, which progressives are as eager to
clean up as are conservatives.
But I invite you to examine the data for yourselves. In reality, the
"red" states are socialistically parasitic upon the taxes paid by the
"blue" states. The Democratic states are keeping the Republican states
alive. Here is how I reach this conclusion.
First, how does one quantify how red or blue a state is? I used the
percentage of the Congressional delegation (senators and
representatives) that are Republican as an indicator of how red a state
is. Currently, 61 percent of congressional representatives are
Republican. You can find a complete listing of congressional
representatives by clicking on an interactive map found at this website.
From this information source I calculated a "percent Republican" for
each state. Second, you can find out how much federal spending each
state receives, relative to the amount of federal income tax paid, at this website.
These data are from 2005. A value of 1.00 means that a state receives
the same amount of federal spending as its residents and businesses pay
in federal taxes.
The results are clear. The top 25 recipients of federal spending (of 50
states) are, on the average, 81 percent Republican; the bottom 25
recipients of federal spending are, on average, 42 percent Republican.
Another way of looking at the numbers is that 24 of the states whose
delegations are more than 61 percent Republican (the "Republican
states") receive more federal spending than they pay in, while only
eight of the states whose delegations are less than 61 percent
Republican (the "Democratic states") receive more federal money than
they pay. This clearly represents a siphoning of money away from
Democratic states toward Republican states. Some might call it
Of course there are many factors at work. Many of the Republican states
are rural and have low populations, which is an important determinant of
how much federal spending they receive. At the same time, I do not
think those states should be complaining. Without help from Democratic
states, funneled through the federal government, Republican states would
go bankrupt. Behold, altruism at work.
October 8, 2011
There is a long drought going on in Texas. It has already cost
the Texas economy over $5 billion. Governor Perry called for a day of
prayer back in April to try to convince God to bring an end to it. But
it is still going on.
But there is one good thing about the drought. It means that the bed of
the Paluxy River, just outside of Glen Rose (southwest of Ft. Worth)
has dried up and you can see the riverbed. The layer of rock exposed in
this riverbed was, 110 million years ago, a muddy intertidal zone of the
Gulf of Mexico. Dinosaurs walked through the mud and left their prints
in it. The mud dried and was covered by other sediments. The sediments
have all turned to stone. Erosion by the Paluxy River has worn away the
sediments above the dinosaur prints. There are few other places to see
this many dinosaur prints-there are hundreds of them. Other rivers, such
as the nearby Brazos, have already eroded through the layer; and the
print layer is underneath the hills nearly everywhere else.
Now is the time to go to Dinosaur Valley State Park and see the prints.
You can walk right into the riverbed and stroll alongside the dinosaur
prints. Not only is the river low, but paleontologists such as Glen
Kuban and Mike O'Brien have been clearing away debris so that the
footprints are clearly visible-for Glen to make casts of the prints, and
Mike to photograph them.
You can learn a lot about the dinosaurs by studying not just their
prints but their entire trackways. For example, several parallel
trackways show that the huge plant-eating Paluxysaurus dinosaurs were
moving in a herd. Also, some of the trackways of the medium-sized
carnivorous Acrocanthosaurus dinosaurs have prints far enough apart that
scientists can calculate that they could run up to 30 miles per hour in
So head on down to Texas, if you are anywhere close by. All during October, I will be posting blog entries and YouTube videos about this site.
The Quiet Stand of Alders: Wildfire and Recovery
October 25, 2011
The particular quiet stand of seaside alders (Alnus maritima)
that I had in mind when I started this website over three years ago is
found on the east bank of the Blue River in south-central Oklahoma, near
Highway 7. This past summer, a wildfire destroyed the entire oak forest
in this location. The fire was hot enough that it even burned the
alders that were growing in the water. (It also killed a lot of turtles,
their now-mummified heads sticking out of their shells in agony as they
cried out to the Turtle God who did not answer their entreaties.)
Eventually the entire forest will grow back. But since all of the trees
were killed, there is no source of new seeds. Some of the trees will
resprout; oaks, such as the post and blackjack oaks that dominated the
forest and the bur oaks that were along the riverbank, are particularly
good at resprouting. But I will not live long enough to see big trees in
this forest again.
The alders, however, have already begun to grow back. Even before there
was any rainfall, new green branches were pushing their way through the
ashes from the charred bases of what had been large alder clumps. They
have adapted to a cycle of destruction and regrowth. Usually the
branches are destroyed by floods, as nearly all of them were just four
years ago, but they can apparently also grow back after fire. It is
likely that, by next spring, the alders will be the largest trees in
So What Has Changed Since 2008?
November 1, 2011
My book Green Planet
went to press just before Barack Obama won the election. Just last
month, I received word that Green Planet would be reissued in paperback.
I wrote two paragraphs to update the last chapter, which was about the
politics of environmentalism. The editor wanted only a brief footnote,
not two paragraphs. So I will share the two paragraphs with you, to
remind you of how much, and how little, has been done since President
Obama took office.
"In 2009-2011, stiff partisan opposition from Congress prevented the
Obama Administration from making meaningful progress on reducing carbon
emissions, deforestation, erosion, or reform of agriculture. One
exception to this was Congressional approval of the 2009 "cash for
clunkers" program, which helped consumers to replace 680,000 old cars
with newer, more fuel-efficient models. The Obama Administration also
made some progress by circumventing Congress. In 2009, EPA Administrator
Lisa Jackson announced that the federal government would regulate
carbon dioxide as a pollutant. In 2011, the president announced an
increase in the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standard to
54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
"Many environmental organizations, however, have been disappointed in
the Obama Administration, particularly in its support of the Keystone
pipeline, which will bring millions of barrels of Canadian tar sands oil
into America. Meanwhile, consistent with global warming predictions,
there have been record heat waves in Russia and record floods in
Pakistan, and 2010 tied with 2005 as the hottest year on record for the
world. The 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf
of Mexico, producing the biggest oil spill in history, underscored the
dangers of continued reliance on fossil fuels."
As this summary indicates, many of us are disappointed in the progress
that has been made. This is not necessarily the fault of President
Obama, but it is clear that he has not taken environmental issues very
seriously. I certainly am not going to vote for whoever his Republican
rival will be. The most disastrous (in terms of the future environmental
survival of America) would be Michele Bachmann, who seriously said that
we don't need to worry about global warming because Jesus already saved the world.
She and Newt Gingrich still apparently think they are viable
candidates, but they have about as much chance as Pat Paulsen did in
1968 or Monty Paulsen does now. I do not know why Pat Robertson is not running, since he claims that his special protein shake has
given him superhuman vitality. If he can leg-press a ton, as he claims,
then maybe he can lift the national debt onto his shoulders and toss it
into the ocean. Under Rick Perry's leadership, we could embrace coal
and oil, and head gloriously into the twentieth century. So I will head
to the polls a year from now and vote for President Obama without
hesitation, and without enthusiasm.
A Revolutionary Vision
November 7, 2011
You can do it right now-you can get a telescope (for less than
$100) that is better than the one Galileo had. You can take it outside
on the next clear night (of which drought-stricken Oklahoma has an
endless number) and turn it toward the east where, after about 5:00 p.m.
local time, the planet Jupiter rises. It is unmistakably bright,
brighter than anything else in the sky except the moon and Venus. And
you can see the very thing that Galileo saw and that caused a revolution
in human thought.
In Galileo's time, the all-powerful Catholic church taught that the
Earth did not move (after all, this is what the Bible says, a fact
pointed out by modern geocentrists.
All of the stars, according to geocentrists, were on a transparent
sphere that rotated around the Earth. The sun, moon, and each planet had
their own rotating spheres. As astronomers studied the motions of the
planets, it became apparent that their movements could not be explained
by saying that they were simply bright spots on spheres. The geocentrist
model became more complex and clumsy to accommodate these observations.
Mikolaj Kopernick (Nicolaeus Copernicus) pointed out that the movements
of the sun, moon, planets, and stars made more sense if we assumed that
the Earth was the third planet that revolved around a central sun than
to assume the Earth to be stationary. Copernicus died before his work
was published, and the publisher made it clear that Copernicus's book
was simply an exercise in creativity and not intended to describe the
Galileo turned his telescope upon Jupiter and saw not only this planet
but also four of its moons. If he had just looked at Jupiter one time,
it would not have been a particularly revolutionary vision. He would not
necessarily have realized that the spots of light were, in fact, moons.
But he looked at it night after night and found that these spots of
light moved-they were moons of Jupiter. Jupiter was its own system,
rather than just a spot of light on a heavenly sphere. Now, Galileo
could have forced his observations into the model that the church
dictated. He could have said that the Jupiter-sphere had little spheres
within it that moved. But this finally got to be too much of a burden
for the old geocentrist model to bear. Galileo understood that Earth was
just a planet and, like the other planets, it revolved around the sun,
and some of these planets have their own moons, all moving around in the
vastness of outer space.
And Galileo said so. The church put him on trial and forced him to
recant his scientific discovery. In the ensuing centuries, everyone
realized that Galileo was right. Even the Vatican realized it; the
Vatican has its own observatory and astronomer. (The Catholic Church did
not get around to exonerating Galileo until the twentieth century,
however.) At least Galileo did not suffer the fate of Giordano Bruno,
who insisted that outer space contained an infinity of inhabited worlds,
over none of which the Pope had authority.
You can see what Galileo saw. But you have to look at Jupiter on more
than one night. You have to look at it enough times to see that the
moons are moving. Since they are pretty closely lined up along a plane
parallel to our line of vision, they look like they are just moving back
and forth. The moon that looks closest to Jupiter is not necessarily
the closest moon; it may be far away from Jupiter but look close due to
our line of vision. But at least you can see that the moons are moving
around Jupiter. Take a moment, when you have done so, to think about how
this very observation changed the way humans looked at the universe,
and at ecclesiastical authority.
Home Sweet Home
November 15, 2011
In the previous essay
I wrote about Galileo's observation of the moons of Jupiter. I
explained why it was a revolutionary observation. Galileo lived early in
the period of history we call the "Renaissance," which means "rebirth."
It was the time when ancient insights, e.g. from the Greek
philosophers, were rediscovered and appreciated anew. But the name
doesn't quite fit. They were actually discovering new things about the
world that Plato and Lucretius could not have imagined. What Galileo
saw, and what the explorers found in Asia and the New World, were new,
not a rediscovery.
These new discoveries required entirely new concepts. Many scholars
before Columbus knew the Earth was roughly spherical in shape; one Greek
mathematician had calculated Earth's circumference. But after Columbus,
everybody knew it. Galileo's observations required a new concept of
planets revolving around the sun and moons revolving around planets, and
stars at unimaginable distances.
The discoveries that make up the science of evolution have also required
entirely new ways of thinking about the universe. For example, the
decomposition of uranium into lead inside of zircon crystals shows that
the crystals, and the volcanic rocks that contain them, to be millions
or even billions of years old. The fact that our chromosomes contain
hundreds of dead genes that we do not use, and dead viruses that no
longer reproduce themselves, demonstrates that we had evolutionary
ancestors that used those genes and were infected by those viruses. But
creationists, and the politicians like Rich Perry who champion their
view, insist that God created those things just to trick us: God put
those lead atoms into the zircon crystals, and put fake genes and fake
viruses into our chromosomes, just to test the strength of our faith in
Rick Perry. Today, as in Galileo's time, the evidence for a scientific
view of the universe is so overwhelming that many religious people have
become desperate: they insist that scientific observations are
delusions, and that we must believe religious authorities in spite of
But we have to be willing to leave the home sweet home of ancient
religious ideas in order to accommodate all of our new scientific
observations. Some people have turned to atheism, while others have
managed to fit the new observations into an updated religious framework.
But the old home, in which the universe revolved around Earth and in
which God made everything, is gone.
There is another thing you can learn from looking at Jupiter through a
telescope, as I urged you to do in the previous essay. Jupiter is a mass
of poisonous gases, liquefied by cold temperatures, except at the core
where crushing gravitational pressure has turned them into solids. It is
an immensely hostile place. The moons are each hostile (to life as we
know it) in their own distinct ways. So are all the other planets. Outer
space itself, with its almost perfect cold vacuum, is the most hostile
of all. Earth is our Home Sweet Home and it is terrifying to me to think
of even visiting other places. Some people, like my wife and
webmistress, and millions like her, enjoy the thought of traveling among
the stars. (She travels among the stars the same way that Prince Henry
the Navigator in medieval Portugal explored the seas: without leaving
home.) But I am acutely aware that our tiny Earth is an island of
habitability in an unimaginable vastness in which a human could not
stand a chance of surviving for a moment. How passionately I love our
little green planet.
Beauty and Survival
December 1, 2011
I grew up in the county after which the disease tularemia was
named: Tulare County, California. The eastern part of the county reaches
into the Sierra Nevada, and includes the highest mountain in the lower
forty-eight: Mount Whitney. But the western part, where I grew up, was
flat, agricultural, and permeated with pesticides. Perhaps it was only
the pesticides that made tularemia rare by the time I lived there
(1964-1979). When you look at the San Joaquin Valley, in which western
Tulare County lies, from the Sierras, you can see a thick blanket of air
pollution; according to the American Lung Association, the
Tulare-Visalia-Porterville area is one of the ten most polluted urban
areas in the United States.
And yet, as I wrote in an earlier essay
(October 13, 2009), I was filled with a sense of beauty as I explored
the country roads and hillsides around my San Joaquin Valley childhood
home. I explored olive groves in search of flickers, and vacant lots in
search of meadowlarks and kestrels. I trespassed on federal property by
riding my bicycle along the Friant Kern Canal frontage road, and I
pretended it was a great river. Of course, I was aware, from my
infrequent but deeply appreciative visits to the Sierras, that there
were many other places more beautiful than the San Joaquin Valley. But
the feeling of beauty was still strong, and comes back to me whenever I
visit and breathe in the pesticide-laden dust.
It is part of human nature for us to believe, and strongly feel, that
the places where we grew up are beautiful. I had a student one time, in a
summer field botany course, who grew up in northwestern Kansas. There
are beautiful places in Kansas, but this was not one of them. I had just
driven through northwestern Kansas, including this student's hometown.
Many square miles of this region consist of huge wheat fields,
industrially farmed, and in which almost nobody lived. To me, it seemed
like the most boring place on the planet, sort of like the South Pole
but without the excitement. To this student, however, northwestern
Kansas was, in her words, "the most beautiful place in the world."
What is wrong with our minds, if I can think the San Joaquin Valley, and
my student could think northwestern Kansas, to be beautiful? Are we
humans deluded? Perhaps. But the sense of beauty that we experience in
our homelands is, I believe, a product of evolution. Throughout the
evolutionary history of our species, humans have experienced
tribulations, many of them at the hands of an implacable natural world:
drought, famine, flood. The only people who survived and passed on their
genes to us were those who loved the land they lived in, loved the
natural world, no matter how hostile it might have been. We are all the
descendants of survivors, who loved their homelands enough to learn how
to survive in them, and to passionately cling to life no matter what
happened short of death itself. "Biophilia," as defined by Edward O.
Wilson, is a love of the natural world; I refer here to a love of the
specific natural world, or cultural world, in which we lived as
Humans have emotional minds. Our motivations are based on emotions, not
on facts. Facts can convince us, but only when we enjoy the intellectual
feeling of rightness that comes from understanding the facts. We will
only save what we love. A love of nature, or at least of the natural and
cultural environment in which we grow up, seems to be an ineradicable
part of human nature, and it may be the only feeling that can stimulate
us to save the Earth from disaster. I can recite the facts of global
warming, and yet they leave me emotionally unmoved; but when I consider
the near certainty that global warming will kill the giant sequoia trees
of the Sierra
Nevada, global warming grasps my emotions and inspires me to take
December 12, 2011
Laboratory Earth: The Planetary Gamble We Can't Afford to Lose
is the name of a 1997 book by the late Stephen H. Schneider, one of the
pioneers of global warming research. His main point was that we are
performing a massive experiment on the Earth-let's inject a huge amount
of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and see what happens-but there is
only one Earth, and we are in trouble if the experiment doesn't work out
the way we would like it to.
A good experimental design would be to have an Earth in which carbon
dioxide increases, and a "control" Earth without a carbon dioxide
increase. This is, of course, impossible. But scientists have
experimental designs other than the traditional treatment-vs.-control
design. One of these is the ABA experimental format. First, during phase
A, you measure the baseline response of the system; during phase B, you
impose the experimental conditions; during the second phase A, you see
whether the system recovers to its original state. For such an
experiment, you don't need two Earths. The problem is that if we are in
the middle of phase B, we will have to wait for the outcome, which will
not help us now as we decide how much we should limit our carbon
Or do we have to wait? As it turns out, this exact experiment-an ABA
experiment involving atmospheric carbon dioxide-has already been done.
It happened 56 million years ago. It was the "Paleocene-Eocene Thermal
Maximum" (PETM). A large amount of carbon-about 4.5 trillion tons-was
injected into the atmosphere within a few thousand year time span. Most
of this probably came from the release of methane hydrate, which is a
frozen mixture of water and natural gas trapped underneath shallow seas.
Global temperatures quickly increased by 9 degrees F. Ocean water at
the North Pole was 74 degrees F. The carbon dioxide also acidified the
oceans, destroying tiny shelled organisms. The layer of ocean sediments,
56 million years old, shows this very clearly: before 56 million years
ago, there were many tiny shells, making the sediments white; abruptly,
the sediments turned dark.
The PETM, a "natural experiment" (one caused by nature, not by humans)
is closely analogous to the modern increase in atmospheric carbon. If we
burned all fossil fuels that yet remain in the crust of the Earth
(something that conservatives are hell-bent on doing), the net release
will be almost exactly the same: 4.5 trillion tons of carbon (equivalent
to about 16.5 trillion tons of carbon dioxide). In other respects, the
experiment would not be analogous. The Paleocene Earth, before the
carbon burst, was warmer than the modern Earth to start with.
Nevertheless, the changes imposed by the carbon burst-the B part of the
ABA experiment-are very instructive.
Massive changes occurred in the natural habitats of the Earth. In what
is now Wyoming, there were Paleocene forests of birch, sycamore, dawn
redwood, laurel trees, palms, and magnolias, which required moderate
temperatures and plenty of moisture. When the PETM occurred, these
forests were quickly replaced by forests of Copaifera trees, which grew
in drier, warmer conditions. During the Paleocene, they had grown a
thousand miles south of Wyoming. There was a sudden increase in insect
damage to leaves, perhaps because the additional carbon in the
atmosphere made the leaves less nutritious and the insects had to eat
more (this is what happens in experiments today). The leaves of PETM
forests, and the mammals, were smaller than those of earlier forests:
these are adaptations to heat and drought. It was a massive ecological
The good news is that the PETM did not cause widespread extinction. Some
species vanished, but others evolved. Ancient lineages of mammals
became extinct, but the earliest representatives of some modern lineages
of mammals such as horses evolved. The good news is that life on Earth
can respond to such changes.
Part of the bad news, however, is that it took the Earth 150,000 years
to recover-to get back to the A of the ABA experiment. The rest of the
bad news is that human civilization-particularly our ability to raise
food-could not survive such a disruption. Humans, but not human
civilization, can survive the modern version of the PETM.
So the experiment has been done. If you are one of those people who say,
"No need to worry about global warming; something survived the last
time," then you can relax. But if you get your food from the grocery
store, as I do, then there is plenty to worry about. I am reminded of
the movie WALL-E, in which the humans were so happy to get back home to
Earth even though it was barren and had exactly one little plant left on
it. There is no way those people could live on such a planet. The
question about global warming is not a matter of human survival, but of
the survival of a technological civilization of 7 billion people.
You can read more about the PETM in the article by Robert Kunzig in the October 2011 issue of National Geographic.
Warm Winter Thoughts
December 29, 2011
Dec. 22, 2011 6:17 p.m.
This Christmas has been one of the best for my family. As I write this, I
am at home with my wife, my daughter, and her boyfriend visiting from
France. We have just bought a small living Christmas tree (an Aleppo
pine). My daughter and her boyfriend will be starting the Christmas
decorations pretty soon. It is a cloudy, chilly day, but warm inside the
house, with the old cat asleep on the couch beside me. My daughter is
baking a chicken pot pie from scratch. We are playing German Christmas
choral music, which comforts us with words (most of which we cannot
understand) that God is taking care of the world. How could any
unpleasant realities intrude on this scene? If we could invent a Heaven
it would be something like this. My daughter and her boyfriend laugh,
like centuries of lovers before them.
This is the time when it is most difficult to admit the reality of the
perils that await the world. Already, at this moment, human activity is
using 1.4 times as much energy and natural resources as the Earth can
provide. The world population, at seven billion, is double what it was
when I was in junior high, and I’m not elderly. The world population is
expected to increase to nine billion by mid-century. This, by itself,
will increase our impact on the Earth by 30 percent. Maybe, just maybe,
we could make energy efficiency balance the needs of an increased
population, but it would take a much greater dedication to green
technology (enough for a 30 percent increase in efficiency) than the
world has ever demonstrated before. But none of that matters, because
billions of people around the world are demanding a higher standard of
living, the kind of life we Americans tell them that they deserve to
have. The rate of increase of per capita resource use in the world is
greater than the rate of increase in population. The per capita resource
use of the G-7 economic powers will increase; that of the BRIC
countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) even more; that of the N-11
(next eleven) countries perhaps even more. Even if the world population
magically stopped increasing, we would still continue to demand more
from the Earth than it can provide. This does not even include the
effects of global warming on agricultural productivity. Are the effects
of global warming overestimated a little? It hardly matters, compared to
the effects of two billion more people in a world in which many
billions are demanding a richer life. There is no way around it. Our
golden age of luxury will have to end.
This is because our world economy simply cannot continue to grow. This
is something that no political belief system in the world acknowledges.
Liberals and conservatives and communists all agree that we must have
growth in order to survive. We are about to discover that we can survive
The news in late December was mostly about how the two houses of
Congress had a showdown in which both political parties showed
themselves to be more interested in their own games than the welfare of
the American people. But it hardly matters. There is nothing that either
of them can do to keep economic growth occurring forever in a finite
As Dr. Seuss’ Gingrich discovered, a happy Christmas does not depend on
luxury. But most of us are going to have to find a way to be happy even
as we experience what for us will feel like catastrophic declines in
prosperity. Rich bank executives and Newt Grinch will continue to enjoy
conspicuous and boastful wastefulness, but most of us will be living
like Bob Cratchett’s family. I think we can still find happiness, but
only if we begin, now, developing the habits and patterns of thought
that will allow us to enjoy frugality.
Oh, by the way, happy new year. I’m going to have one. Mere happiness
will not make the problems go away, but unhappiness will not better
enable us to handle them.