One man’s perspective on stories that matter. Look for these posts on ILSR.org and the landing page for my work, From the Desk of David Morris.
Table of Contents:
Decentralized Socialism, British-Style
States vs. Hospital Monopolies
Free Public Transit: An Idea Whose Times Has Come
Cities vs. Investor-Owned Utilities
Making Amends for Our Ill-Conceived and Racist Drug War
China Bans U.S. Scrap. Now What?
Decentralized Socialism, British-Style
Just before the general election in June 2017, public opinion polls had support for the Tories at 48 percent while Labour stood at 24 percent, George Monbiot reports in his new book, Out of the Wreckage. In local elections Labour had won the smallest share of the vote since full records began. The Conservative Party called a snap election in part because they fully expected to widen their parliamentary majority from 12 to over 100.
Then Labour’s draft Manifesto was leaked, presumably Monbiot notes, “with the intent of sabotaging the party’s campaign.” It had the opposite effect.
“The United Kingdom witnessed perhaps the most dramatic political turnaround in modern democratic history.” Labour won 40 percent of the votes and gained an additional 30 seats.
The Manifesto promised to end austerity and increase spending and nationalize key industries. This resonated with the British people. But resonating even more, perhaps, was the Manifesto’s decentralized perspective. The Economist thinks so too. In a fascinating editorial, it explains to its business readers that the big change in Labour’s thinking was not in fiscal or monetary policy but in structural change. They are taking head Maggie Thatcher’s narrative, which became the principle guiding much of British policy for the following decades, summed up by her in 1987 this way. “There is no society.” Labour is trying to rebuild society by emphasizing the “localization of economic control.”
“Labour therefore proposes a different sort of public ownership. Local authorities, trade unions and workers, all of whom are seen as more responsive than expert panels to local needs, would play a greater role in the management of services. “[N]ational state ownership of the grid and infrastructure of electricity and gas sectors could be combined with local, regional and community ownership,” the Manifesto notes.
The Manifesto points to Nottingham, a Labour run city that has created a not-for-profit gas and electricity supplier, appropriately named Robin Hood Energy, which also sells across the country under other councils’ local brands. Its prices compare well with those of private rivals. “We are reinventing the wheel of municipal socialism,” Steve Battlemuch, the councillor who sits on the firm’s board told the Economist.
But the showcase and proving ground for Labour’s new focus is Preston, a Labour-dominated city of 140,000 in northwestern England, the administrative center of Lancashire County. As Aditya Chakrabortty reports in the Guardian, in 2011 the financial collapse caused the collapse of a $1.2 billion massive downtown shopping mall the city fathers saw as the key building block in its economic revival. The city already had the highest suicide rate in England. And it faced the near halving of its revenue from the national government.
As Matthew Brown, then the council’s cabinet member for social justice, inclusion and policy and the architect of the policies it would soon adopt, noted, “You have to be clever in austerity.” In May 2018 Brown was elected leader of the council.
The city worked with the Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), based in nearby Manchester, to identify strategies capable of bootstrapping Preston’s economy.
An audit by CLES found that, of the $1.8 billion spent annually by major local institutions – including city and county governments, the university, the police force, the hospital and the housing association – only 5 percent went to Preston businesses; only 39 percent was spent in Lancashire county.
The city work aggressively to boost these numbers. In doing so it was assisted by a 2013 law that allowed public institutions in England to consider the social, economic and environmental impact of their contracting and commissioning.
Preston and Lancashire asked their anchor institutions to spend more locally and it helped tailor proposed contracts so local businesses could bid on them. “In 2015, Lancashire county council put a contract to provide school meals out to tender,” observes Chakrabortty in the Guardian. “That was impossibly large for local firms, so officers broke it into bite-size chunks. There was a tender to provide yoghurt, others for sandwich fillings, eggs, cheese, milk, and so on.” The result? “Local suppliers using Lancashire farmers won every contract and provided an estimated £2m boost to the county.”
The renovation of the town’s market and bus station was won by a family owned local building firm. The police have signed up local printing companies.
In 2018 the CLES found the six institutions had increased the proportion of their budget spent in Preston to 18 percent and in in Lancashire to 79 percent.
Since then the city has created a city-wide credit union, has encouraged the creation of cooperatives and has begun to use local pensions funds to finance local developments and are looking to create a municipal bank and energy company. New contracts require those bidding to pay a living wage.
Labour’s Manifesto sees Preston as a primary case study for “the development of ownership models which circulate wealth rather than extract it”. Labour’s shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who, the Economist notes, “has a tight rein over the party’s economic policy” praises Preston’s activism. “This kind of radicalism is exactly what we need across the whole country.”
Smart Cities, Barcelona Style
Spain’s financial and housing collapse, coupled with ensuing severe budget cuts, spawned an anti-eviction and anti-austerity grassroots movement that eventually morphed into a political force unaffiliated with any traditional party
On May 24, 2015 these movements gained victories in municipal elections across Spain, including in its three largest cities — Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia. They see cities as both the foundation of and a showcase for a new model of governance and development.
The Barcelona movement, Barcelona en Comú was instrumental in the election of Ada Colau, a former housing activist, as mayor. “On the day of her inauguration, Colau addressed supporters of all ages gathered on the cobblestones in Plaça Sant Jaume in Barcelona’s old town, thanking them for ‘making the impossible possible’. Some waved the tricolour of the Second Spanish Republic, which was declared in the very same square in April 1931; its egalitarian ideals buried in the rubble of the civil war five years later,” Dan Hancox writes in The Guardian.
The focus of the Barcelona en Comú movement is to make governance transparent, accountable and equitable and to expand both the public and the commons. Sophisticated technology is an important enabler. In a recent article in WIRED Thomas Graham describes how. We are “aligning the tech agenda with the agenda of the city” to create a new “social pact,” Francesca Bria, Barcelona’s Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer explains.
Its digital platform, Decidim, (“We Decide” in Catalan) enables participatory decision-making. “We used Decidim to create the government agenda. Over 70 percent of the proposals come directly from citizens. Over 40,000 citizens proposed these policies. And many more citizens were engaged in offline collective assemblies and consultations.”
Barcelona is recognized as one of the world’s premier smart cities, host to the annual international Smart City Expo. Barcelona en Comú wants to smarten up the smart city. “We want to move from a model of surveillance capitalism, where data is opaque and not transparent, to a model where citizens themselves can own the data,” Bria asserts.
As one example, Barcelona has redesigned procurement contracts to protect the public ownership of data and the data sovereignty of the individual. “(W)e have a big contract with Vodafone and every month Vodafone has to give machine readable data to city hall. Before, that didn’t happen. They just took all the data and used it for their own benefit.”
Barcelona’s Project DECODE (Decentralized Citizen-Owned Data Ecosystems) aims to develop a new open source, distributed and privacy-aware technological architecture. “Citizens can decide what kind of data they want to keep private, what data they want to share, with whom, on what basis, and to do what,” says Bria. Ultimately she envisions a “DECODE wallet that manages people’s decryption keys, with an interface that lets you decide that you want to give your transport data to the city, because you know that they can improve public transport with it — but you don’t want to give that kind of private data to an insurance company or an advertiser.”
Cities vs. Bitcoin Miners
In March 2018 Plattsburgh, N.Y. became the first U.S. city to impose a moratorium on new electrical hookups for those speculating in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. The same month Washington state’s Chelan County Public Utility District (PUD) adopted a similar measure.
For centuries the money supply expanded as miners, with picks and shovels, found new sources of gold or silver. Bitcoin is a fiat currency where the money supply expands as “miners”, with computers, solve increasingly difficult problems.
Writing in Politico, Paul Roberts explains how the system works. A payment/message is encrypted and broadcast to tens of thousands of “miners” on the distributed bitcoin network.
“Each miner then gathers your encrypted payment message, along with any other payment messages on the network at the time…into what’s called a block. The miner then uses special software to authenticate each payment in the block—verifying, for example, that you owned the bitcoin you’re sending and that you haven’t already sent that same bitcoin to someone else…each miner now tries to demonstrate to the rest of the network that his or her block of verified payments is the one true block… Miners do this by, essentially, trying to be the first to guess their block’s numerical password…As soon as a miner finds a solution and a majority of other miners confirm it, this winning block is accepted by the network as the “official” block for those particular transactions…This energy-intensive but extremely secure verification process results in the winning miner earning brand-new bitcoins.”
Every two weeks or so, the system automatically increases the difficulty of decrypting the password, which requires miners to use more computing power.
In 2017 cryptocurrency mining reached levels as frenzied as gold mining did in California in 1848 as the price of a bitcoin soared from $1,000 to $19,0000. Miners rushed to stake their claims (set up servers) in regions, here and abroad that offered the least expensive electricity. Plattsburgh and Chelan County are in such regions.
Plattsburgh declared its moratorium after two bitcoin operations caused the city to exceed its allotment of inexpensive hydropower generated by the New York State Power Authority, hiking some residential bills by as much as $300.
The Chelan PUD imposed a moratorium after receiving requests from would-be miners for a total of 220 megawatts in a county whose 70,000 residents were using barely 200 megawatts.
The amount of electricity used by cryptocurrency miners, according to a recent peer-reviewed study in Joule, is doubling every six months.
Roberts describes the fears of Washington residents and businesses that their immensely valuable low cost resource will be “inhaled by a sector that barely existed five years ago and which is routinely derided as the next dot-com bust, or this century’s version of the Dutch tulip craze, or, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put it in January, a Ponzi scheme.” One result would be far higher prices in the region.
Some jurisdictions are wondering if they are getting a raw deal. Plattsburg’s Mayor Colin Read, an economics professor, maintains, “I cannot think of another industry that …asks for so much and potentially returns so little to the local communities that support it.” A large paper manufacturer employing hundreds of workers might use less electricity than bitcoin operation that have few workers and pay little taxes.
The concern is not restricted to the United States. By the end of 2018 bitcoin miners may use more electricity than Iceland’s entire population of 340,000. Which has led government to question whether they’ve made a Faustian bargain.
States vs. Hospital Monopolies
Monopolization of hospitals and doctors services has been a key factor behind rising health care prices. Between 2010 and 2017 almost 800 hospitals and health systems were involved in mergers and acquisitions. Today more than 60 percent of hospitals are controlled by larger holding companies. About 40 percent of all hospital stays occur in health-care markets where a single entity controls all of the hospitals.
“In the San Francisco Bay area, the giant hospital chain Sutter has amassed such market power—up to 100 percent of the market for inpatient hospital services in Berkeley and Davis—that it forces health-care plans, including those run by large insurance companies and large employers, to sign contracts in which they promise not to steer patients to lower-cost hospitals,” Philip Longman reported in 2016 in Democracy.
In 2014 the United Federation of Commercial Workers & Employers Benefit Trust (UBET took on Sutter Health. UBET, which pays for healthcare provided to the employees of many Northern California unionized grocery companies and other retailers, sued Sutter under California’s anti-trust law.
In October 2015 a three-judge panel in the First District Court of Appeal ruled that Sutter Health could not require UBET to arbitrate the lawsuit. In August 2017 the class action was certified. The case is moving forward with fact discovery.
In November 2017 the California Superior Court in San Francisco sanctioned Sutter Health for deliberately destroying 10 years of evidence concerning its alleged anticompetitive conduct and overcharges. The court found that Sutter’s vice president and its in-house legal counsel had approved the destruction, despite a court order requiring Sutter to preserve and disclose its records in ongoing antitrust litigation.
In March 2018 the state of California sued Sutter as well, contending it systematically overcharged patients and illegally drove out competition in Northern California. In his 49-page complaint, Attorney General Xavier Becerra cited a recent study that found an inpatient procedure in Northern California that cost about $223,000, cost about $131,000 in Southern California. A caesarean delivery in Sacramento, where Sutter is based, cost $27,067, nearly double what it costs in Los Angeles.
If California and the UBET ultimately prevail, regulators, politicians and private companies in other states are likely to follow their lead and take on hospital monopolies in their states.
States vs. Drug Monopolies
In May, Vermont became the first state to legalize importing prescription drugs from Canada. Four other states — Colorado, Oklahoma, Utah, and West Virginia — have introduced similar bills. All intended to reduce out-of-control drug costs.
Patents enable pharmaceutical companies to charge astronomical prices. In theory, when patents expire other companies can manufacture lower cost identical generic drugs. In practice Big Pharma has been gobbling up these other companies. Writing for the Commonwealth Fund, Dr. David Blumenthal offers some flagrant examples of the abuse that results from the lack of competition: A six-fold price increase of the cardiac drug isuprel between 2013 and 2015, and an even more outrageous 90-fold increase in the price of the antibiotic doxycycline over the same period.
The state bills specifically open the door to drugs imported from Canada. Its single payer health insurance system, negotiates drug prices. One result is that brand-name medications are 40 to 60 percent cheaper there than in the U.S. As the National Academy for State Health Policy, an organization of state policymakers, points out, 40 percent of all drugs sold in the United States already are imported, as are 80 percent of the active ingredients used in US drugs. More than 30 Canadian manufacturers are FDA registered to sell drugs in the U.S.
The bills are patterned on model legislation developed by the NASHP.
The legislation allows a state agency to authorize one or more licensed wholesalers to purchase a limited list of drugs from a state-selected, licensed Canadian supplier. The medications must have been approved for sale to Canadian consumers by Health Canada, the equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They would also have to be identical to FDA-approved drugs.
The approved wholesaler would then sell the medications to retail pharmacies, private health plans, state prisons, and the state Medicaid program. These in turn would pass the bulk of the savings onto consumers.
Some state legislative efforts have gained bipartisan support. Conservatives may not like government meddling in markets, but as Utah’s Republican state legislator Norm Thurston, a conservative health economist and a sponsor of that state’s bill, told CNN, “Those outrageous cost increases are not the result of the free market.”
The 1987 Prescription Drug Marketing Act prohibits anyone other than pharmaceutical manufacturers from importing medications into the United States (although the federal government rarely prosecutes individual consumers who do so.)
A 2003 federal law, however, allows Medicare programs to import drugs under certain conditions, if certified by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees the FDA. Will HHS certify Vermont’s initiative? When asked, FDA spokesperson Lyndsay Meyer, told Healthline, “We do not comment on state laws.” But she then proceeded to make the Administration’s position abundantly clear by emailing a list of the FDA’s concerns about the safety of individual importation of medicines and pointing out that no HHS secretary has ever certified that importing drugs from overseas is safe and saves money.
Free Public Transit: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Free public transport may be an idea whose time has come — at least in Europe — one country at a time.
In January 2013, after a referendum approved by 75 percent of the voters, the city of Tallinn, population 420,000, capital of Estonia and birthplace of Skype and other technological innovations became the largest city in Europe to introduce citywide free transit.
Free transit was reserved for Tallinn residents. Tourists and non-Tallinn residents still had to pay a little over $2 a ride.
Tallinn was able to tap into an unusual revenue source to make up for the loss of the 30 percent of transit costs covered by ticket sales: Unregistered residents who live in Tallinn but pay taxes to another town where they had previously lived. There were 40,000 such unregistered residents living in Tallinn in 2012, Sulev Vedler reports in CityLab.
Free transit proved a powerful inducement for them to register in Tallinn, which then receives about $1200 per person as its share of federal income tax revenue. More than 10,000 people registered as Tallinn residents in 2013, nearly three times more than registered in 2012. The new annual revenues were almost as much as the lost fare box revenue.
Five years later Allan Alaküla, head of Tallinn’s EU office summed up the current situation. “So the city budget has gained, service quality has improved constantly and in the surroundings of Tallinn, the demand for public transport has increased…People in other parts of Estonia started to demand free public transport, too,” he told HuffPost.
National leaders have responded. On July 1st Estonian will become the world’s first free public transport nation.
In 2011, Dunkirk, located on the northern coast of France, raised by half a percent a tax on regional businesses to pay for the then-mayor’s pet economic development initiative: Doubling the capacity of a local sports arena at a cost of more than $300 million.
Which prompted Patrick Vergriete to run for Mayor in 2014 on a promise to use that money to make transport free for the 200,000 people on Dunkirk’s network.
In 2015, Mayor Vergriete launched free weekend service. Saturday ridership increased by 30 percent; Sunday ridership by some 80 percent.
In September 2018, Dunkirk will become the largest city in France to offer free transportation.
In 2015 and 2016 Germans were shocked to discover that VW, their largest car manufacturer had been dramatically understating the level of toxic tailpipe emissions. At the same time, the European Union, which estimated that this life-threatening pollution affects 130 European cities and causes about 400,000 early deaths, was finalizing a directive that will force cities to reduce these emissions or pay heavy fines.
In February, in a letter to the EU environment commissioner three German ministers wrote, “We are considering public transport free of charge in order to reduce the number of private cars.” The proposal will be tested by “the end of this year at the latest” in five cities across western Germany, including former capital Bonn and industrial cities Essen and Mannheim.
In the last few decades American cities experimented with free public transport, These experiments proved short lived. Except in Chapel Hills.
In 2002, Chapel Hill Transit, which serves both Chapel Hill and Carrboro with a combined population of 90,000, went fare free.
At the time, most of Chapel Hill Transit’s revenue was coming from the University of North Carolina’s paying for transit for its employees and students. The university agreed to pay a little more and Chapel Hill and Carrboro kicked in the rest to cover the 20 percent of the transit costs not paid by tickets.
“We look at it as a pre-paid fare program,” Brian Litchfield, interim director of Chapel Hill Transit, which serves both cities, told Eric Jaffe of CityLab in 2013. “The university is pre-paying for all their employees and students to ride. The town of Chapel Hill and Carrboro are pre-paying their fares via property tax and vehicle registration fee. So while there’s not a fare to get on the bus, it’s definitely not a free system.”
The program has been phenomenally successful. Ridership increased from around 3 million passengers a year in 2002, to about 7 million in 2013.
Cities vs. Investor-Owned Utilities
A century ago cities vied with investor owned utilities to see which ownership structure would serve as the foundation of our rapidly expanding new electricity system. The public was very much in the running. By 1920 more than 2600 cities owned their own electric systems. Today about 2,000 still remain. But by the late 20th century the vast majority of us were served by state regulated, private, profit-making companies that had a monopoly on the generation, delivery and sale of electricity.
Now, at least in California, the role of cities in our electricity future is once again front and center, a result of 40 year of federal and state policy and new technological developments.
I discussed some of these developments in my book Seeing the Light, In 1978 Congress ended the monopoly electric utilities had over power generation. The era of independent power producers (IPPs) began. The dramatic decline in natural gas prices in the 1980s gave IPPs a competitive edge. By 1990 they were building almost half of all new generation. In 1992 this new industry demonstrated its political clout when it convinced Congress to deregulate the wholesale market, thus allowing them to sell to other utilities. In the late 1990s, they persuaded almost half the states to take the next step: Deregulating electricity at the retail level, which allowed independent generators to sell directly to customers.
California was one of the leaders in retail deregulation. It forced its utilities to sell some 40 percent of their generation capacity to IPPs to encourage competition and deregulated wholesale prices while maintaining retail prices steady. The results were catastrophic. Energy traders took power plants offline for maintenance in times of peak demand to cause an artificial shortage. That allowed them to increase wholesale prices by as much as 800 percent. Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) went bankrupt. Southern California nearly did.
The crisis cost California $40-45 billion. Governor Gray Davis was recalled.
Alienated from both their state regulatory agencies and their utilities, Californians demanded a more transparent and accountable system. In 2002, the legislature responded by allowing cities and counties to buy electricity on behalf of their residents, a process called Community Choice Aggregation (CCA).
Incumbent utilities fought back. In 2010, PG&E, the largest electricity provider in California, spent $46 million on a ballot initiative to weaken the law. It lost. The first CCA, Marin Clean Energy launched that year.
By early 2018 there were nine active CCAs. Another dozen are in the works, including one covering Los Angeles County. The number could go much higher.
As the CCAs matured they’ve increasingly acted in a more proactive and comprehensive fashion. Dawn Weisz, CEO of Marin Clean Energy (MCE) maintains that CCAs “are building more renewable energy in California than the IOUs.” CCAs have contracted over $2.5 billion in new plant construction. They are also beginning to promote battery storage and electric vehicles and demand response and looking at offshore wind. In other words, they’re beginning to act more like major players, including accepting the responsibility for long term planning.
In 2017 regulators and the utilities recognized that the baby had grown up. In May 2017, the California Public Utilities Commission staff reported that by the mid 2020s more than 85 percent of retail load could be served “by sources other than the IOUs” and warned, “the CPUC’s top-down approach to regulation will be challenged.” CPUC’s President Michael Picker insists, “We are being deregulated from the bottom up and there is no real plan as to how it fits together.”
What Picker once described as “forced collectivization”, CCAs see as the development of a new model of electricity planning more responsive to the public and based on community choice.
For the first time in a century, at least in California, cities are again at the electricity planning table.
In 2018 the issue has been joined. In February the CPUC began requiring that CCAs act more like utilities by estimating their expected monthly peak load for the following year and becoming responsible for procuring enough energy to meet the grid’s need when energy demand is peaking. CCA members have always paid “exit fees” to the local utility to cover losses from previous investments that have proven uneconomical in the light of new trends in electricity consumption and generation, and they accept the principle. But PG&E has raised the fee twice and in April the CPUC opened a formal investigation into whether to adopt a different formula that will raise the fee even more.
The CCAs may welcome a formal investigation that allows them to demand utility data to justify its fees. Which will raise the question of who should pay for mistakes. Amel Ahmed reports in the Los Angeles Times that utilities have proposed and the CPUC has approved new power plants that “will produce at least 21 percent more electricity than California needs by 2020.” Who should pay the billions of dollars cost by these wrong-headed decisions?
Making Amends for Our Ill-Conceived and Racist Drug War
While much of the country debates whether to legalize recreational marijuana, elected officials in the 8 states and the District of Columbia that have already done so are debating how to alleviate the immense personal harm their laws have wrought.
A felony conviction can result in the loss of voting rights or access to food stamps and other public benefits. A misdemeanor conviction can lead to the loss of student financial aid or public housing or a job.
These lifelong penalties have been disproportionately borne by communities of color. A 2013 ACLU report found that “African-Americans are 3.73 times more to be arrested for possession of marijuana than Caucasians, even though both groups consume marijuana at similar rates.”
In November 2016, Californian’s legalized marijuana by approving Proposition 64. Those convicted of marijuana crimes can petition to have convictions reduced or erased. But doing so requires a daunting investment of time and money. Most jurisdictions responsible for the original arrests have been unwilling to provide the resources needed to make amends. As a result, the Drug Policy Alliance reports, as of March 2018, only 4,885 Californians had petitioned state courts.
Some cities are becoming more proactive. In January San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced he would dismiss and seal over 3,000 misdemeanor charges from as far back as 1975, while prosecutors would review and potentially re-sentence 4,940 felony marijuana possession cases. Asked by the San Francisco Chronicle why he is doing this Gascón responded, “We believe it is the just thing to do.”
His office is teaming up with Code for America to help automate the eligibility process and reduce paperwork. Code for America plans to share its software, Clear My Record with other California counties and hopes to help clear 250,000 marijuana convictions by next year.
Sidney Fussell reports on the process in Gizmodo, “Code for America’s algorithm searches criminal databases to find the codes associated with the specific marijuana charges being cleared under Proposition 64. From there, it checks qualifying conditions (those with violent felonies are ineligible, for example) and automatically fills out the necessary forms to file in court, which the DA’s office will then file, asking the charges be removed.”
In 2012, Washington voters legalized cannabis. In late April 2018 Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes filed a motion with Seattle’s Municipal Court to dismiss all charges and erase all convictions of misdemeanor marijuana possession that the city prosecuted during a 13-year period before marijuana was legalized.
Durkan sees this as “a necessary step to correct the injustices of what was a failed war on drugs, which disproportionately affected communities of color in Seattle.” She specifically notes how non-citizens have been “unduly burdened by these convictions, which can provide a roadblock to gaining citizenship, or in the worst case, can initiate deportation proceedings.”
While states like California and Washington are trying to make amends, other states continue to pile on. As of 2017, police were still arresting more than 2,000 people a day for cannabis related crimes, the vast majority for possession. In 2016, 116 people were serving life imprisonment sentences in Texas on charges of marijuana possession.
Cities vs. ICE
Cities cannot prevent the ICE from swooping in and arresting and deporting their citizens, but they can raise the cost of doing so. County jails are ICE’s point of access to local law enforcement, sheriff’s department policies matter a lot.
In 1996 Congress added section 287(g) to the Immigration Act, giving the ICE the authority to enter into formal agreements with state and local law enforcement authorities.
Originally, 287(g) programs were focused on criminals screened while in jail. But in 2006, Sheriff Jim Pendergraph of Mecklenburg County in North Carolina adopted a model in which officers went out into the community to find those who violated civil immigration laws. That model quickly spread to other communities. More than 15,000 people have been put in deportation proceedings in Mecklenburg County as a result of the 287(g) agreement
Almost immediately problems arose. According to a 2007 report, North Carolina police officers changed their behavior just one year after the program was implemented. “Law enforcement officers pulled over Hispanic-appearing drivers under the pretense of a traffic infraction, but with the intention of determining immigration status.”
In 2010 the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the program for “illegal racial profiling and civil rights abuses while diverting scarce resources from traditional local law enforcement functions and distorting immigration enforcement priorities.”
In 2011 participation of localities in the 287(g) program peaked at 72, but the growing evidence of abuse, led Obama to curtail its use. Only six new agreements were signed between 2012 and 2016. By March 2017 program participation fell to 37. However, immediately upon taking office Donald Trump issued two executive orders asking the Department of Homeland Security to aggressively pursue more 287(g) partnerships. Since then the number of localities participating has more than doubled. More agreements are in review.
In March 2018, 45 groups signed a letter calling on Mecklenburg County’s Sheriff Irwin Carmichael to terminate the county’s participation in the program because “a great majority of deportations under the 287(g) program are due to minor offenses…deporting fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, disrupting and separating families in the process.”
Carmichael refused their request.
On May 8th, Carmichael was handily defeated by 287(g) opponent Garry McFadden. Sue Sturgis, reports in Facing South, “Immigrant rights advocates credited Latino voters for McFadden’s victory.”
In Durham County’s Democratic primary, 287(g) opponent Clarence Birkhead defeated incumbent Sheriff Mike Andrews. Birkhead opposed honoring detainers, written requests for local jails to detain prisoners for an additional 48 hours to give ICE agents more time to take them into federal custody.
In Trump’s America how safe an immigrant is from deportation depends significantly on where she lives. In North Carolina the ICE is losing its ease of access to two counties with a relatively large share of unauthorized immigrants, lowering their risk of deportation. “The fortunes of an unauthorized immigrant,” a report from the Migration Policy Institute concludes, “are quite different in Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia, where the mere act of driving can result in arrest and deportation,” (because police routinely arrest unauthorized immigrants for driving without licenses they can’t legally obtain, and cooperate in turning them over to ICE) “than in California, Chicago, and New York.”
China Bans U.S. Scrap. Now What?
In 2017, China announced that by the end of the year it would no longer accept imports from 24 categories of solid waste, imposed a maximum contamination rate of 0.3 percent, effectively a ban, and declared its intention to “gradually halt the importation of solid waste that can be replaced by domestic resources: by the end of 2019.”
“These announcements “sent tremors through the American recycling community,” Neil Seldman, Director of ILSR’s Waste to Wealth Initiative, and I commented at the time, “About a third of all recycled materials collected in the United States are exported, 40 percent to China. China buys about 60 percent of our mixed paper, one of our largest single recycled materials, and almost 70 percent of scrap plastics other than PET.”
Between 1995 and 2016 China increased scrap imports ten-fold, from 4.5 million tons to 45 million tons, becoming by far the world’s largest consumer of scrap. In the same time frame U.S. cities dramatically restructured their recycling collection systems, shifting from ones based on households separating one or more categories of waste, to single stream systems in which all recyclables are placed in the same container and sent to a central Material Recycling Facility (MRF) for processing.
In 1995 only 5 cities in US had adopted single stream recycling. By 2005 29 percent of the U.S. population had. By 2010 this had increased to 65 percent.
Single stream is very convenient for collection and does tend to raise recycling rates, but it also dramatically increases contamination levels, from 1-3 percent up to 10-12 percent, sometimes reaching as high as 50 percent. High contamination forces Chinese facilities to spend more time and labor cleaning up the materials and disposing of the toxic residues. They finally said, enough! “We have kind of shot ourselves in the foot, in my opinion, by…opening up the single-stream curbside service,” Juneau, Alaska’s solid waste Coordinator Jim Penor told Cole Rosengren, reporter for Waste Dive.
The Chinese announcements sent the value of single stream recyclables into a tailspin. MRFs began warehousing bales of mixed waste and scrap plastics and soon ran out of storage space. Recycling rates fell. The cost of recycling soared.
In May 2018, Nashua New Hampshire’s Mayor Jim Donchess told the Union Leader the cost of the city’s recycling collection had soared to $82 a ton from $1 a ton in July 2017. That same month, Waste Dive reports, Douglas County became the first jurisdiction in Oregon to suspend all recycling services except for metals like tin and aluminum.
Seldman surveys four possible strategic responses to the Chinese initiatives. First, identify foreign markets where low labor costs make contamination more acceptable. This may offer only a short-term solution. In late May, Vietnam announced a temporary halt to accepting scrap plastic.
The second strategy is for MRFs to slow conveyor belts and hire new workers to improve the quality of materials but doing that can hike costs as much as $30 per ton. Which in turn could encourage communities to pursue a third strategy: reviving dual stream recycling. Marquette, Mich., for example, has done this successfully.
In the longer term, communities are seeking to create or recreate domestic markets for scrap. Some are focusing on organics, construction debris, glass and other materials that traditionally have domestic, often local markets. Others, like Minnesota, are actively looking to develop new domestic markets for mixed plastics and paper.
Waste Dive has been tracking the impact of the Chinese ban on all 50 states and the District of Columbia since late 2017. Its most recent update was on June 8th.
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