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Coronavirus’s next victim: Big Meat

Americans are soon going to be eating a lot less meat — just not in the way environmentalists had hoped that would happen. Coronavirus has shuttered so many meatpacking plants around the country that the number of cattle and pigs slaughtered every day is down 40 percent. Farmers are euthanizing pigs by the thousand and trucking the meat to landfills to rot.

“The food supply chain is breaking,” wrote John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods Inc. in a full-page that ran in major newspapers on Sunday.

As far as his business is concerned, Tyson is right: The meat industry has never experienced a crisis like this before. It’s likely to lead to many long term changes: more scrutiny of the industry’s consolidation, more support for smaller meat companies, and a renewed push for mechanization. In the short term, it means two things: scarcity and higher prices.

“It’s going to cause price spikes somewhere downstream,” said Rich Sexton, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis. But the average shopper might only notice empty shelves rather than higher prices, because “big grocery chains don’t like to jack up prices, especially in times like this.”

By the last week of April, some 16 plants had been shut down. In response, President Donald Trump issued an executive order Tuesday to reopen meatpacking plants, provoking protests from unions and Democratic politicians who say that the order doesn’t do enough to protect workers from getting infected. “We are really putting workers in grave danger today,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut at a press conference on Tuesday. At least 20 meat-processing workers have died from coronavirus so far.

It’s all frightening enough that very serious people are warning of a collapse that could end in food riots. So is it time to panic-buy for real? How could we protect the people risking their lives to produce food? And could this crisis wind up breaking the grip of the few companies that control most of meat processing in America? Here’s our explainer for anyone who wants to get beyond their reflexive Trump-fury and search for solutions.

Would people starve if the meatpacking plants stayed closed?

After Trump announced his order, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa tweeted that “society is 9 meals away from food riots.” But, no, there are still plenty of calories to go around — even with farmers dumping mountains of potatoes and oceans of milk. Meatpacking plants are not an existential necessity, because humans survive primarily on grains; we are more seed eaters than beef eaters. The supply chains delivering bread, pasta, and rice are still working well because they rely on machines rather than virus-vulnerable human labor. And much more food is in storage.

“There’s still enough food, but it might not be what we wanted,” said Jayson Lusk, food economist at Purdue University.

What’s the argument for keeping these plants open?

Keeping even a few of the biggest meatpacking plants closed for more than a month could cripple every food business and farmer connected to them. And they are connected to almost everyone. The meat industry is shaped like an hourglass, with farmers at one end, eaters at the other, and a few enormous packing plants at the chokepoint. For example, just 15 slaughterhouses kill 60 percent of the pigs in America.

Purdue University

So the economists I talked to said it only made sense to find a way to get the plants running again as soon as possible.

Farmers are scrambling to find smaller slaughterhouses and meat packers, and those smaller businesses are benefiting, said Nelson Gaydos of the American Association of Meat Processors, which represents these smaller companies. “A lot of people are saying it’s like Christmas on steroids,” he said.

But the big boys are so enormous that the small- and medium-sized meat companies can’t make up for their losses. Imagine you ran a small slaughterhouse that killed 200 pigs a day from local farmers: That might sound like a lot, but you’d have to do that for 100 days to provide as much pork as one of the big plants butcher in a single day (Lusk did the math in a blog post).

Can the plants reopen safely this soon?

It’s tough to tell. Companies are giving workers masks, having them stand six feet apart, and putting up plexiglass barriers when they need to be closer, said Gaydos.

Democrats have said that the government should mandate worker protections rather than simply asking for good-faith efforts as Trump did in his executive order. “It is vital that we do everything we can to protect food supply workers,” wrote a group of Democratic senators in a letter to Trump. “Breakdowns in the food supply chain could have significant economic impacts for both consumers and agricultural producers.”

There’s only so much the government can do. Trump’s executive order releases meat companies from liability from worker’s lawsuits, and it overrules state and local authorities calling for shutdowns. But the president can’t force workers to come back to the job if they don’t feel safe.

How will this crisis change things?

A crisis exposes weaknesses. This one is revealing two major vulnerabilities in the meat industry: Its reliance on human labor and its concentration.

Henry Ford modeled his assembly lines after the disassembly lines he saw in meat packing plants. Automobile assembly lines grew more and more automated, while meat plants continued to rely mostly on dirty, dangerous grunt work. The experience of a pandemic could soon change that. There’s one slaughterhouse in Holland that is almost completely run by machines.

“There is going to be even more of a rush to automate farmwork and slaughterhouses,” Sexton said.

The hourglass shape of the meat industry is another vulnerability. This concentration of just a few giant meat companies is able to put inexpensive meat on the plate of people at even the lowest income levels in America, but it can’t nimbly respond to changes.

Concentration causes other problems, too. For instance, the meat behemoth JBS recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to a union for conducting a “multi-faceted corporate campaign” to “coerce” the corporation to make worker-safety concessions at a plant in Greeley, Colorado.

Of course, unions exist to coerce companies to give workers more money and better conditions. The fact that JBS views the union demands as an illegal breach, rather than business as usual, suggests that it is not used to serious challenges to its authority.

The number of slaughterhouses has fallen 70 percent since the 1960s, a result of bigger companies swallowing up the little ones to grow even bigger. But the pandemic has put these giants in the spotlight. On Wednesday, a bipartisan pair of Senators asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate meatpacking consolidation.

And maybe this crisis will lead politicians to lift some of the regulatory barriers that keep smaller businesses out, Lusk said.

What about the environment? At the moment, that’s an afterthought. The attention right now is focused on ensuring Americans have a steady supply of meat, not on prodding the industry to become environmentally sustainable.

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Coronavirus’s next victim: Big Meat

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Antarctica’s glaciers are melting so fast, you can swim in them. In a Speedo.

Even as someone who spends most of her time thinking about climate change, it’s easy for me to forget about the looming danger of changes happening at the bottom of the earth. But Lewis Pugh, a British endurance swimmer and ocean advocate, doesn’t want anyone to forget about the melting glaciers of Antarctica, and to get our attention, he decided to go for a swim.

On January 23, Pugh, who’s 50, became the first person to swim in one of the supraglacial lakes of East Antarctica. These are lakes and rivers that form on the surface of thick glacial ice as it melts from above. A study of supraglacial lakes in Antarctica published last fall found more than 65,000 of them at the peak of the summer melt season in January 2017. Most of the lakes were spotted on the ice shelf, the part of the glacier that hangs over the ocean and is not grounded on the seafloor, making it more vulnerable to calving (i.e., falling off).

In nothing but a swim cap and a Speedo, Pugh dove into water that was just above 32 degrees F and swam for 10 minutes. As he navigated the channel, a chunk of ice cracked and sent an ominous “boom” through the water.

“I swam here today as we are in a climate emergency. We need immediate action from all nations to protect our planet,” Pugh told the BBC. The stunt was part of a larger campaign to create a marine protected area in East Antarctica.

Kelvin Trautman

Kelvin Trautman

Kelvin Trautman

Pugh’s icy swim wasn’t the only first near the South Pole this month. Across the continent, in West Antarctica, scientists deployed at the Thwaites Glacier made the first observations of a pool of warm water melting the ice from below. Scientists drilled through the ice right near the “grounding zone,” the boundary between the part of the glacier that’s resting on the seafloor and the part of it that extends over the open ocean, forming a shelf. They measured temperatures below the ice of more than 2 degrees F above the freezing point of the seawater.

“The fact that such warm water was just now recorded by our team along a section of Thwaites grounding zone where we have known the glacier is melting suggests that it may be undergoing an unstoppable retreat that has huge implications for global sea-level rise,” said David Holland, director of New York University’s Environmental Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, in a press release.

The Thwaites Glacier, which is about the size of Florida, holds the rest of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet together. The collapse of Thwaites alone could lead to about 3 feet of sea-level rise. If you, like me, don’t think about melting glaciers nearly enough, here’s a helpful tool from NOAA that will help you visualize what your neighborhood will look like if that happens.

In addition to the temperature measurement, scientists also sent a camera down to the grounding zone for the first time and captured footage of the ice melting from beneath. “There are a few places where you can see streams of particles coming off the glaciers, textures and particles that tell us it’s melting pretty quickly and irregularly,” Britney Schmidt, a glaciologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told the Atlantic.

Antarctica’s glaciers are melting from above and below, like a Popsicle that you just can’t lick fast enough to keep under control.


Antarctica’s glaciers are melting so fast, you can swim in them. In a Speedo.

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Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing – Laura J. Snyder


Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing

Laura J. Snyder

Genre: History

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: March 16, 2015

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Seller: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

The remarkable story of how an artist and a scientist in seventeenth-century Holland transformed the way we see the world. On a summer day in 1674, in the small Dutch city of Delft, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek—a cloth salesman, local bureaucrat, and self-taught natural philosopher—gazed through a tiny lens set into a brass holder and discovered a never-before imagined world of microscopic life. At the same time, in a nearby attic, the painter Johannes Vermeer was using another optical device, a camera obscura, to experiment with light and create the most luminous pictures ever beheld. “See for yourself!” was the clarion call of the 1600s. Scientists peered at nature through microscopes and telescopes, making the discoveries in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and anatomy that ignited the Scientific Revolution. Artists investigated nature with lenses, mirrors, and camera obscuras, creating extraordinarily detailed paintings of flowers and insects, and scenes filled with realistic effects of light, shadow, and color. By extending the reach of sight the new optical instruments prompted the realization that there is more than meets the eye. But they also raised questions about how we see and what it means to see. In answering these questions, scientists and artists in Delft changed how we perceive the world. In Eye of the Beholder, Laura J. Snyder transports us to the streets, inns, and guildhalls of seventeenth-century Holland, where artists and scientists gathered, and to their studios and laboratories, where they mixed paints and prepared canvases, ground and polished lenses, examined and dissected insects and other animals, and invented the modern notion of seeing. With charm and narrative flair Snyder brings Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek—and the men and women around them—vividly to life. The story of these two geniuses and the transformation they engendered shows us why we see the world—and our place within it—as we do today. Eye of the Beholder was named "A Best Art Book of the Year" by Christie's and "A Best Read of the Year" by New Scientist in 2015.

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Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing – Laura J. Snyder

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Modoc – Ralph Helfer


True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived
Ralph Helfer

Genre: Nature

Price: $8.99

Publish Date: October 13, 2009

Publisher: HarperCollins e-books

Seller: HarperCollins

Spanning several decades and three continents, Modoc is one of the most amazing true animal stories ever told. Raised together in a small German circus town, a boy and an elephant formed a bond that would last their entire lives, and would be tested time and again; through a near-fatal shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, an apprenticeship with the legendary Mahout elephant trainers in the Indian teak forests, and their eventual rise to circus stardom in 1940s New York City. Modoc is a captivating true story of loyalty, friendship, and high adventure, to be treasured by animal lovers everywhere.

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Modoc – Ralph Helfer

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Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build "God’s Kingdom"

Mother Jones

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It’s Christmastime in Holland, Michigan, and the northerly winds from Lake Macatawa bring a merciless chill to the small city covered in deep snow. The sparkly lights on the trees in downtown luxury storefronts illuminate seasonal delicacies from the Netherlands, photos and paintings of windmills and tulips, wooden shoes, and occasional “Welkom Vrienden” (Welcome Friends) signs.

Meet the New Kochs: The DeVos Clan’s Plan to Defund the Left

Dutch immigrants from a conservative Protestant sect chose this “little Holland” in western Michigan more than 150 years ago in part for its isolation. They wanted to keep “American” influences away from their people, and their orthodox ways of running their community. Many of their traditions have lasted generations. Until recently, Holland restaurants couldn’t sell alcohol on Sundays. Residents are not allowed to yell or whistle between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. If city officials decide that a fence or a shed signals decay, they might tear it down, and mail the owner a bill. Grass clippings longer than eight inches have to be removed and composted, and snow must be shoveled as soon as it lands on the streets. Most people say that rules like these help keep Holland prosperous, with low unemployment, low crime rates, good city services, excellent schools, and Republicans at almost every government post. It’s also where President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos, grew up.

Sitting in his spacious downtown office suite, Arlyn Lanting is eager to talk about his longtime friend, who will begin confirmation hearings Tuesday to become the nation’s top-ranking education official. DeVos is married to Amway scion Dick DeVos (whose father, Richard DeVos, is worth more than $5 billion, according to Forbes) and is seen as a controversial choice due to her track record of supporting vouchers for private, religious schools; right-wing Christian groups like the Foundation for Traditional Values, which has pushed to soften the separation of church and state; and organizations like Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which has championed the privatization of the education system.

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos at a January rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan Paul Sancya/AP

But Lanting, a tall, 75-year-old businessman, investor, and local philanthropist, is quick to wave off the notion that DeVos has it out for traditional public schools. “Betsy is not against public schools,” he says. “She does believe that teachers in charter and private schools are much more likely to lead the way toward better education—the kind that will actually prepare students for our current times and move us away from standardization and testing. But Dick and Betsy have given money to public schools, too.”

Teachers Are “Shocked and Worried” About the Future for Kids and Schools

Lanting is a warm and generous host who’s quick to point out his favorite Bible verse, painted right there on his wall: “‘I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the Truth’ (3 John 4).” He and Betsy were both raised in the tradition of the Christian Reformed Church—a little-known, conservative Dutch Calvinist denomination whose roots reach back to the city’s founders. They went to the same grade school in the city’s parallel private school system, the Holland Christian Schools, which was first established by members of the church. Like many people I met in Holland, Lanting wasn’t a Trump supporter initially—he voted for Ben Carson in the primaries—but he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton, whom he calls “a professional spin doctor.” “Trump is much more likely,” Lanting says, “to bring Christ into the world.”

For deeply devout people like Lanting and DeVos, that’s no small detail, and education plays a key role in that mission. Since her nomination, DeVos hasn’t said much publicly about her views on education—or whether she plans to defend the separation of church and state in public schools. (DeVos declined Mother Jones‘ request for an interview, but a Trump transition team spokeswoman replied in an email, “Mrs. DeVos believes in the legal doctrine of the separation of church and state.”) However, in a 2001 interview for “The Gathering,” a group focused on advancing Christian faith through philanthropy, she and her husband offered a rare public glimpse of their views. Asked whether Christian schools should continue to rely on philanthropic dollars—rather than pushing for taxpayer money through vouchers—Betsy DeVos replied: “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…versus what is currently being spent every year on education in this country…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom.”

Trump’s Billionaire Education Secretary Has Been Trying to Gut Public Schools for Years

Said Dick DeVos: “As we look at many communities in our country, the church has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity…It is certainly our hope that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education.”

Although the DeVoses have rarely commented on how their religious views affect their philanthropy and political activism, their spending speaks volumes. Mother Jones has analyzed the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation’s tax filings from 2000 to 2014, as well as the 2001 to 2014 filings from her parents’ charitable organization, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. (Betsy DeVos was vice president of the Prince Foundation during those years.) During that period, the DeVoses spent nearly $100 million in philanthropic giving, and the Princes spent $70 million. While Dick and Betsy DeVos have donated large amounts to hospitals, health research, and arts organizations, these records show an overwhelming emphasis on funding Christian schools and evangelical missions, and conservative, free-market think tanks, like the Acton Institute and the Mackinac Center, that want to shrink the public sector in every sphere, including education.

The couple’s philanthropic record makes clear that they view choice and competition as the best mechanism to improve America’s education system. Overall, their foundation gave $5.2 million from 1999 to 2014 to charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but governed by appointed boards and often run by private companies with varying degrees of oversight by state institutions. Some $4.8 million went to a small school they founded, the West Michigan Aviation Academy. (Flying is one of Dick’s passions.) Their next biggest beneficiary, New Urban Learning—an operator that dropped its charter after teachers began to unionize—received $350,000; big-name charter operators Success Academy and KIPP Foundation received $25,000 and $500, respectively.

America’s Schools Desperately Need Black Teachers. Why Are We Driving Them Away?

Meanwhile, when it comes to traditional public schools run by the districts and accountable to democratically elected school boards—the ones that 86 percent of American students attend—the DeVoses were far less generous: Less than 1 percent of their funding ($59,750) went to support these schools. (To be fair, few philanthropists donate directly to underfunded public school districts.)

But the DeVoses’ foundation giving shows the couple’s clearest preference is for Christian private schools. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Magazine, Betsy DeVos said that while charters are “a very valid choice,” they “take a while to start up and get operating. Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.” From 1999 to 2014, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave out $2,396,525 to the Grand Rapids Christian High School Association, $652,000 to the Ada Christian School, and $458,000 to Holland Christian Schools. All told, their foundation contributed $8.6 million to private religious schools—a reflection of the DeVoses’ lifelong dedication to building “God’s Kingdom” through education.

Most people I meet in Holland tell me that it’s hard to understand the DeVos and Prince families without learning something about the history of Dutch Americans in western Michigan. In the mid-1800s, a group of mostly poor farmers, known as the “Seceders,” rebelled against the Dutch government when it tried to modernize the state Calvinist church, including changing the songbooks used during worship and ending discriminatory laws against Catholics and Jews. In 1846, an intensely devout Calvinist priest named A.C. van Raalte led several hundred settlers from the Netherlands to the United States.

Those who ended up in western Michigan overcame hunger and disease to clear thickly wooded, swampy land with much colder winters and deeper snow than their native Netherlands. In the city of Holland, they built a virtual replica of their Dutch villages. And just like back home, their church was essentially their government, influencing almost every part of farmers’ lives.

Ten years after first Seceders came to Holland, one-third of the Dutch community broke off from the Reformed Church of America and created the Christian Reformed Church. What really solidified this split were disagreements over education, according to James D. Bratt, professor emeritus at Calvin College and author of Dutch Calvinism in Modern America. Members who stayed in the Reformed Church of America supported public schools; Christian Reformed Church members believed that education is solely the responsibility of families—and explicitly not the government—and sent their kids to religious schools.

It was the Christian Reformed Church that opened Holland Christian Schools and Calvin College in nearby Grand Rapids. Betsy DeVos, 59, is an alum of both and was raised in 1960s and 1970s in the Christian Reformed tradition. (Her brother, Erik Prince, is a former Navy SEAL and the founder of Blackwater, the private-security contractor infamous for its role during the Iraq War.) During those years, that often meant growing up in a home that forbade dancing, movies, drinking, working on Sundays, or even participating in the city’s May Tulip Festival, with its Dutch folk costumes and dancing in wooden shoes. Holland Christian Schools’ ban on teaching evolution wasn’t lifted until 1991, according to Larry Ten Harmsel, the author of Dutch in Michigan. (DeVos left the Christian Reformed Church about a decade ago and has been a member of the evangelical Mars Hill Bible Church.)

When the 1960s cultural revolution rocked the nation, many members of the Christian Reformed Church—including Betsy’s parents, who would become one of the richest couples in Michigan thanks to Edgar’s automotive parts company—allied themselves with the evangelical movement. While the Princes would go on to contribute to some of the country’s most powerful far-right religious groups, like the Family Research Council, Betsy and Dick DeVos eventually focused on funding education reform groups and think tanks pushing for vouchers, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars through their foundation to organizations seeking to privatize education and blur the separation of church and state in public schools, including:

Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty: Betsy DeVos once served on the board of this Grand Rapids-based think tank, which endorses a blend of religious conservatism and unrestrained capitalism. It is headed by a Catholic priest, Fr. Robert Sirico, who has argued that welfare programs should be replaced by religious charities. In a paper titled “America’s Public Schools: Crisis and Cure,” a former Acton advisory board member named Ronald Nash wrote: “No real progress towards improving American education can occur as long as 90 percent of American children are being taught in government schools that ignore moral and religious beliefs.” The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation contributed $1,289,750 from 2000 to 2014, and the Prince Foundation donated at least $550,000.

The Foundation for Traditional Values: Led by former priest James Muffett, the organization is the education arm of Citizens for Traditional Values, a political action group whose mission is preserving “the influence of faith and family as the great foundation of American freedom embodied in our Judeo-Christian heritage.” On the website dedicated to Muffett’s seminars, a page devoted to a lecture titled “The Greatest Story Never Told” states: “There was a time when schoolchildren were taught the truth about the Christian influence in our foundations but no longer. Our past has been hijacked by a secular philosophy, and we have lost the original vision, ideas, and principles of our forefathers who gave birth to the greatest free nation the world has ever seen.” The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation contributed $232,390 from 1999 to 2014.

Focus on the Family: Both the DeVoses and the Princes have been key supporters of Focus on the Family, which was founded by the influential evangelical leader James Dobson. In a 2002 radio broadcast, Dobson called on parents in some states to to pull their kids out of public schools, calling the curriculum “godless and immoral” and suggesting that Christian teachers should also leave public schools: “I couldn’t be in an organization that’s supporting that kind of anti-Christian nonsense.” Dobson also has distributed a set of history lessons that argue that “separating Christianity from government is virtually impossible and would result in unthinkable damage to the nation and its people.” The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave $275,000 to Focus on the Family from 1999 to 2001 but hasn’t donated since; it gave an additional $35,760 to the group’s Michigan and DC affiliates from 2001 to 2010. The Prince Foundation donated $5.2 million to Focus on the Family and $275,000 to its Michigan affiliate from 2001 to 2014. (It also gave $6.1 million to the Family Research Council, which has fought against same-sex marriage and anti-bullying programs—and is listed as an “anti-LGBT hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The FRC used to be a division of Focus on the Family before it became an independent nonprofit, with Dobson serving on its board, in 1992.)

Meanwhile, the DeVos clan is perhaps best known for aggressive political activism against organized labor. A 2014 Mother Jones investigation revealed that the DeVoses had invested at least $200 million in various right-wing causes: think thanks, media outlets, political committees, and advocacy groups. In 2007, coming off Dick’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in their home state of Michigan, the DeVoses focused their advocacy and philanthropy on controversial right-to-work legislation that outlawed contracts requiring all employees in unionized workplaces to pay dues for union representation. Back in 2007, such a proposal in a union-heavy state like Michigan was considered a “right-wing fantasy,” but thanks to the DeVoses’ aggressive strategy and funding, the bill became law by 2012.

Right-to-work laws, now on the books in 26 states, have been a major blow to the labor movement—including teachers’ unions, the most powerful lobby for traditional public schools and opponents of charter schools (whose instructors often aren’t unionized). Teachers in Michigan are not allowed to strike; when educators in Detroit demanded a forensic audit of their district’s murky finances and protested classrooms plagued by mold, roaches, and rodents, they used sick days to make their point. A month later, Betsy DeVos wrote a Detroit News op-ed arguing that teachers shouldn’t be allowed to stage sick-outs, either.

DeVos in 1992 Detroit Free Press/Zuma

Which brings us back to Michigan, “school choice,” charter schools, and vouchers. Betsy DeVos has spent at least two decades pushing vouchers—i.e., public funding to pay for private and religious schools—to the center of the Republican Party’s education agenda, thanks in large part to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based think tank.

In the mid-’90s, Mackinac leadership suggested a long-term strategy on how to make the unpopular voucher policies more palatable for the mainstream America. Its then-senior vice president, Joseph Overton, developed what became known as the Overton Window, a theory of how a policy initially considered extreme might over time be normalized through gradual shifts in public opinion. Education policies were placed on a liberal-conservative continuum, with the far left representing “Compulsory indoctrination in government schools” and the far right, “No government schools.”

Charter schools became the main tool of voucher advocates to introduce school choice to public school supporters, with the aim to nudge public opinion closer to supporting tax credits to pay for private schools. Since about 80 percent of American students outside the public system attend religious schools, “universal choice”—or allowing taxpayer money to follow individual students to any private or public school—could eventually mean financing thousands of Christian schools.

In Michigan, Detroit has been at the heart of the charter push, which began in the early ’90s. In 1996, former Metro Times reporter Curt Guyette showed how the Prince Foundation, as well as the foundation run by Dick DeVos’ parents, funded a carefully orchestrated campaign to label Detroit’s public schools as failing—and pushed for charters and “universal educational choice” as a better alternative. While Betsy DeVos has not called for an end to traditional public schools, she has written about the need to “retire” and “replace” Detroit’s public school system and pressed for aggressively expanding charter schools and vouchers. (In 2000, Dick and Betsy DeVos helped underwrite a ballot initiative to expand the use of vouchers in Michigan and lost badly.)

Detroit’s schools—where 84 percent of students are black and 80 percent are poor—have been in steady decline since charter schools started proliferating: Public school test scores in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have remained the worst among large cities since 2009. In June, the New York Times published a scathing investigation of the city’s school district, which has the second-biggest share of students in charters in America. (New Orleans is No. 1.) Reporter Kate Zernike concluded that lax oversight by state and insufficiently regulated growth—including too many agencies that are allowed to open new charter schools—contributed to a system with “lots of choice, with no good choice.”

Statewide, about 80 percent of Michigan’s charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, a much higher share than anywhere else in the country. And two years ago, DeVos fought aggressively against legislation that would stop failing charter schools from expanding, and she and her husband were the biggest financial backers of the effort to oppose any new state oversight of charters.

“School choice” is now accepted by nearly two-thirds of Americans—although 69 percent oppose using public funding for private schools. Donald Trump’s signature education proposal calls for dedicating $20 billion in federal money to promote “school choice” to help families move away from what the he has called our “failing government schools” and instead choose private, religious, or charter schools. With most states under Republican leadership and some major charter school proponents signaling their willingness to work with the Trump administration, the stage is set for an aggressive push to lift state caps on charter schools (26 states have some kind of charter cap) and expand voucher programs (13 states and the District of Columbia have active programs). In 2008, then-DC Public Schools chancellor and staunch charter school advocate Michelle Rhee—whom Trump also considered for the position of education chief—refused to express support for vouchers. By 2013, she’d made her support public.

It’s hard to tell how many more charter advocates will support—or simply overlook—the inclusion of vouchers for private schools in “choice” policies, but one thing is clear: The prospects for an aggressive policy push for “universal choice”—including funding more religious schools with taxpayer money—have never been better.

Betsy and Dick DeVos and three of their children at Michigan’s Republican conventions in 2006 Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press/Zuma

On my last day in Holland, a retired public school teacher, Cathy Boote, is giving me a tour of the city she has called home for 37 years. Dressed in a black cashmere sweater and a white winter jacket, Boote is a self-described moderate Republican and teachers’ union member who went to public schools and later taught art in the nearby West Ottawa public school district. In her close to four decades of working in public schools, she saw how the decline of the automotive industry, and the hollowing out of the middle class, affected poor and working-class kids she taught more than any other factor. “When parents have to work longer hours, more jobs, and get paid less, there is more stress at home,” Boote reflected. “That means less time to read and do homework, more time spent watching TV and online rather than learning.”

“Betsy’s father, Edgar Prince, is considered the patron saint of Holland,” Boote says as our truck rolls over heated asphalt—a unique underground grid of tubes circulates hot water beneath the streets and melts snowflakes just as they touch down. It was Prince who helped bring this innovative system here, suggesting the heated streets in 1988 and forking over $250,000 to cover nearly a quarter of the cost. Like Boote, most Hollanders I talked to credit Prince’ vision for the city’s transformation in the ’90s to a tourist destination.

It was this business acumen, and a drive to take care of “our people,” that turned Prince into the wealthiest man in Michigan. In 1965, Prince left his job as chief engineer at Buss Machine Works after workers decided to unionize. He opened his own company that eventually specialized in auto-parts manufacturing and became one of the biggest employers in Holland. When Prince Automotive was sold for $1.35 billion in 1997, two years after his death, some 4,500 former employees received a combined $80 million in bonuses. “Most people here feel that you build your own family. You don’t need a union to build a competing family,” Boote explains, adjusting her glasses. “You treat your employees well and they don’t need to complain. Complaining, protesting is bad. You work hard and you don’t complain.”

Boote’s truck takes a sharp turn into the predominantly Latino section of town, with large, free-standing Victorian cottages, fenceless yards, and ancient trees. Most kids in this neighborhood go to public schools. In the two decades since school choice was implemented, white student enrollment in Holland’s public schools has plummeted 60 percent, according to Bridge Magazine. Latino students are now the face of the system, and 70 percent of all students are poor, more than double the district’s poverty rate when choice began. The Holland Christian Schools are predominantly white.

We leave downtown and drive along Lake Macatawa for about three miles before parking in front of a huge, castlelike mansion. This is Betsy and Dick DeVos’ summer home—a three-story, 22,000-square-foot estate that the Holland Sentinel once boasted was the the biggest in the city, if not the county.

As we look out at the stone-and-shingle house, Boote reflects on how most people around here—her family, Betsy DeVos’ family—grew up among proud Dutch immigrants who overcame deep poverty. DeVos went on to attend a small, elite, mostly white private religious school, and a similar college. She married into a rich dynasty.

“‘Look at us. God has given to us. I can fix this. All you have to do is be like me.’ You can understand how you might think that way, if you grew up here,” Boote says later, as we take one final glance at the mansion over its tall, iron gate. “If you come from the small, sheltered, privileged environment of Holland, you are most likely going to have a very limited worldview—including how to fix education.”

Holland, Michigan, in summer Craig Sterken/iStock


Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build "God’s Kingdom"

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Contact: Liam Bailey Learns the Hard Way

Mother Jones

Liam Bailey at home in Brooklyn. Jacob Blickenstaff

Thomas Bartlett and Martin Hayes

Aaron Freeman

Puss n Boots

Holly Williams

Ben Watt

Joe Henry

Gabriel Kahane

Jolie Holland

Rodney Crowell

Benmont Tench

Jill Sobule

Keith & Tex

Leyla McCalla

Declan O’Rourke

Michael Daves

Depending where you start counting, Liam Bailey‘s debut full-length album, Definitely Now, has been at least five years in the making. In 2011, the Nottingham-raised Brit was set to release a full-length on Polydor, produced by Salaam Remi (Nas, Amy Winehouse, Nelly Furtado). But his dissatisfaction with being molded into a pop product precipitated the album’s cancelation and a release from his contract. Bailey had previously put out two EPs on Amy Winehouse’s Lioness Records and a single on the Brooklyn label Truth & Soul, in addition to performing with folk-rock project The Accidental and the electronic music duo Chase & Status.

Definitely Now was finally released last week on Remi’s Sony imprint, Flying Buddha. Reviewed here by Mother Jones‘ Jon Young, it brings new energy to Bailey’s sound, adding crunchy rock-and-roll to his soul, folk, and reggae influences. I met with Liam at his current home, an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to talk about the evolution of his music. The following is in his words.

When you’re playing around and you don’t know anything, you’re fearless because you don’t know the rules that are there to be broken. It’s frustrating when I learn—the joy goes out of it. Once I’ve learned it, I get a bit scared about bending the rules, whereas when I didn’t know a thing, I’d go, “Fucking hell, I did that? It sounded really good!”

When I came to London, I knew how to play guitar, but I’d never played it live or anything like that. I’d been playing acoustic stuff and making it up as I went along. And because of that, things were very soulful and reggae-ish. When I started making records—I’d always been told in Nottingham: “You sound better over softer music, soul music”—I thought, maybe I’m just getting it wrong.

Anyway, I was proven right: I do sound good on rock and roll. It happened all very naturally. Before, when I was recording, I wouldn’t allow myself to do certain things because I felt there was an expectancy to do certain things. Instead of forcing myself to do what I truly wanted to do, I found it easier just to cut off and go with the flow.

This time, I’ve been very focused. When you’ve been released from a contract that you’ve worked since 16 to get, there’s three things you can do: Shit it, and go on back to Nottingham. Crack on and get on with it. Or just become a drug addict or an alcoholic. So I cracked on, albeit with a heavy lifestyle.

Once I went into recording, Salaam was like, “I like this heavy vibe, I like this; you’re angry aren’t you?” But even then, no one seemed to complain when I put the electric down and picked the acoustic back up to play the earlier styles of music.

To get on the radio in the UK, you have to follow a formula. It’s not rocket science: Make sure the chorus is in by the 50th second. You bring in your G, your A, then bring in a minor chord for the emotive feeling. You’ve got your bridge coming in by 55th second; going around the cycle. Preferably be in your middle eight bars by 1:50. Don’t worry if the melody isn’t as strong as the lyric and vice-versa; actually don’t worry if the song’s not too strong, we can just chuck strings on it and do the dynamic Teen Spirit thing. And bang! Radio One will like it, you’re on the radio. And try to have a gimmick if you’ve got one. It’s that easy.

I was glad I got a pack full of lionesses at Turn First Management. We just walked into Polydor and said, “What are you doing?” And they decided I was better relieved of the contract. I only saw it as a blessing over this last year. I was like, “Fuck, I’ve had five years of doing what I love, getting myself into trouble, getting out of trouble, having laughs, and now I’ve got a record I truly am proud of. That was such a brilliant feeling.

Before, I couldn’t look some of my mates in the eye and play them some of the music. There were about four good songs on the canceled record. My mom liked a couple of them. I couldn’t have turned to her and said, “Mom, I’ve walked into Polydor and I’ve quit.” Because where we come from, you don’t do that. You just don’t do it.

There was always something, just in the knick of time, to kind of bring me back in to my music. Because there was one point where I could’ve gone on a warpath and really severed ties in the business in blind rage. And if I’d have done that, it’s very, very likely you wouldn’t be talking to me now.

I can be the very emotive, emotional town crier. I remember as soon as it was kosher to do so, ringing people and telling them exactly what I thought of them and not giving a fuck. Some people respected that about me, some people were offended, because they take what they do very seriously. I was always dogged by this thought of “poor me, I’ve had to make a compromise on the song. Poor me, I better ring my dad and tell him how down or upset I am because I’m struggling to to get a song out. I’ll just ring him up during his 14-hour shift on a Saturday night.” Come on, it’s music! Somebody said to me, “If your life’s in danger, it’s not worth it.”

Throughout the disappointment, I remember being kept busy with touring with Chase & Status, I remember good friends, writing with them, writing on my own as well—and I’d just do some of that really shamanic stuff late at night with my guitar. And you wake up in the morning and just cross your fingers for dear life it sounds good. I remember times it was particularly upsetting for me and the people around me, but it was all part of the process of exorcizing demons. My dad has always said that I learn the hard way. And I do tend to learn the hard way.

If I ever get to the point I where I’m locked off creatively like I was before, I’ll fuck it off and get a job. I don’t want one, but it’s fine. I’d rather do that then go through what I put myself through unnecessarily.

Certain times I was thinking, you know, this could be my only shot, my last shot. In a positive way, mind. I might not get another album. I’ve got to smash it. I can’t be going, “Oh, I wish I’d done that. I wanted to do that.” I wanted to get the acoustic in, the folksier side of what I love, and I wanted to get in fucking rock and roll!

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Contact: Liam Bailey Learns the Hard Way

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Hagel suggests vague support for continued military use of biofuels

Hagel suggests vague support for continued military use of biofuels

One of America’s great soap operas is being performed live right now on Capitol Hill. It is scripted, predetermined, poorly acted, rarely interesting, predictable. Ladies and gents, the nomination hearings of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense.

Yesterday afternoon, we noted that Hagel, if OK’d by the Senate, will step down from his board position at Chevron. We suggested that this also meant Hagel would forget his years of fossil fuel advocacy, cleaning his slate on energy issues. Because that’s how it works.

Apparently, we were either right — or Hagel read and responded to our snark. Probably the latter. From The Hill:

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), President Obama’s nominee for Defense secretary, is backing a controversial ban on military purchase of alternative fuels that have higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil-based fuels. …

Hagel also backs military programs to expand use of biofuels in defense operations, but he argues large-scale use should only occur when the fuels are cost-competitive.

Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy

We’ll parse this out. The first paragraph above relates to a ban authored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), meant to limit Defense Department investment in alternative fuels that — from extraction to refinery to combustion — create more climate pollution than conventional fuels. The targets of this measure are fuels like liquefied coal or tar-sands-based diesel. Hagel opposes using those fuels.

The second part is trickier. There’s been an ongoing debate over the role of biofuels in the military. The Navy in particular has embraced biofuels enthusiastically, recognizing that renewable, domestic sources of fuel provide a long-term tactical advantage. Allies of fossil fuels on the Hill — like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) — suggest that such investment is a bad idea. Their primary argument is that biofuels are more expensive to purchase, allowing opponents of their use to make standard oh-my-gosh-the-federal-debt arguments against them.

In responding to written questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hagel wrote: “It is prudent for the department to engage in tests and demonstrations that confirm defense equipment can operate on a range of fuels.” The Navy is exploring how to use biofuels in part to figure out how to make the costs work over the long term, which means spending more now to have fuels with which to experiment. Hagel’s answer suggests that he supports a continuation of that practice.

As Politico notes, energy and climate may not come up during Hagel’s confirmation hearings.

“Compared with … things like Iran, Israel policy, defense sequester, any number of other things, I would say this is probably further down the totem pole than all of those,” Andrew Holland, a former Hagel energy aide now with the American Security Project, tells [Politico]. “I’d be surprised if there’s a lot of questioning about this.”

So we’ll keep our fingers crossed, hoping that the soon-to-be-former Chevron board member who is dumping his stock due, in part, to the company’s contracts with the government will advocate for a robust exploration of non-fossil-fuel-reliant military options. We’d ask a question about it at the hearings if given the opportunity, but we’re not cast members in this particular show.

Update: During today’s hearing, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked about investment in alternative fuels. Hagel repeated that he thought researching such fuels made sense, but also echoed concerns about cost. In other words: nothing new.

Philip Bump writes about the news for Gristmill. He also uses Twitter a whole lot.

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Sea-level rise could be way, way worse than we already thought

Sea-level rise could be way, way worse than we already thought

Petrov Stanislav

Could your city look like this in 2100 (assuming it hasn’t

looked like this already


It might be time to buy that dry suit you’ve had your eye on — or start saving up for a submersible.

“Glaciologists fear they may have seriously underestimated the potential for melting ice sheets to contribute to catastrophic sea-level rises in coming decades,” reports The Independent. Here’s more from NBC News:

Melting glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland may push up global sea levels more than 3 feet by the end of this century, according to a scientific poll of experts that brings a degree of clarity to a murky and controversial slice of climate science.

Such a rise in the seas would displace millions of people from low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, swamp atolls in the Pacific Ocean, cause dikes in Holland to fail, and cost coastal mega-cities from New York to Tokyo billions of dollars for construction of sea walls and other infrastructure to combat the tides.

“The consequences are horrible,” Jonathan Bamber, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol and a co-author of the study published Jan. 6 in the journal Nature Climate Change, told NBC News. …

The estimates are higher than the controversial figures in the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of up to 23 inches (59 centimeters) and higher than the unpublished estimates being prepared for the next IPCC report, said Bamber, who is a review editor for that document and has seen the estimates.

Add this to the growing pile of sobering sea-level studies, along with recent ones about how western Antarctica is warming three times faster than the rest of the world and polar ice sheets are melting three times faster than during the ’90s.

Oh, and that one about how historic sea-level rises have been linked to volcanic eruptions.

Lisa Hymas is senior editor at Grist. You can follow her on





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