Sunday, March 31, 2013

The end of school


Class dismissed 

The city plans to close lots of schools 

Mar 30th 2013 | CHICAGO |

From the print edition

THE news that parents had been dreading came on March 21st. As many as 54 of Chicago’s 681 schools have been earmarked for closure. Most of them are doing poorly, need costly repairs, or are undersubscribed: they are part of a system with more than 100,000 empty desks across the city. If the proposals are all approved by the Board of Education in May, the result will be one of the largest closures of schools ever seen in America. It will affect around 30,000 pupils.

 The municipal agency that runs the city’s schools faces a $1 billion deficit for each of the next three fiscal years. Although shutting schools is unpopular, it would help the agency, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), to save $43m a year. The policy, under discussion for some time, was the subject of negotiations during a teachers’ strike last year. []

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Organising Americans

After the election of Barack Obama, it was something of an open mystery what his organisation would do with itself, and I was told in the immediate aftermath that it was far too early to say and that it was being figured out. We've seen the group Organising for Action emerge from the ashes and get involved in federal and state issues, it has expressed an interest in immigration and gun control.

Although it does not have at its fingertips the massed forces that it was able to draw together to fight the 2012 election it looks as though it is going to be ambitious. Its latest email to supporters, a few hours ago, stated: "No one has ever done what we're trying to do: restore the balance of power to ordinary people by countering the special-interest groups with the most powerful grassroots movement ever built."

One of Mr Obama's legacies may be, then, to create the world's largest community action group in history--which is basically what he started out doing. For a youngish politician who has peaked rather early in life, one has to wonder what he will do next. Wouldn't it be ironic if he ended up back where he started--inside a grass roots activist organisation?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Brothers Emanuel

I had only 500 words to review this charming little book, so quite a lot was left out. The first thing to say is that this is not a book about Rahm specifically, it is a family memoir by his older brother Ezekiel. It contains a series of lovely little anecdotes about their childhood, about their traumas and triumphs, their hopes and dreams. In so far as it is analytical it tries to answer the question of how the three of them grew up to be such high-performing, alpha males.

If you are looking for a penetrating book about Rahm Emanuel, this is not the book for you. But if you want to glean some interesting little details about this life, it is a fun read. You can see the roots of Rahm's politics which come from the activism and left-leaning nature of members of his family. His mother founded a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality in her neighbourhood and held meetings at her home. She also took her boys along to the many civil rights protests she attended.

Like many Jews of the time who were part of a distrusted minority group in 1960s Chicago, she was attuned to the racial stigmitisation of the era and determined to do something about it. (Indeed Rahm's mother reminds me a little of my aunt June Finer who was a doctor in Chicago around the same time. She joined the Medical Committee for Human Rights, and travelled to the deep south in the 1960s to provide medical support to the civil rights movement there. The story of the doctors who did this (many Jewish) is recounted in the book The Good Doctors.)

But I digress. The point is that Rahm grew up in a politically articulate, and passionate, family. He was not one of those kids who trained to be a lawyer and then thought that it would be a good career move to get into politics. Politics was baked into him at an early age and he has carried this with him through life. And it was never inevitable that he would be a politician, he started out with a great love of ballet--inspired by the lessons that his mother took all three boys to as part of their cultural education.

I also get a sense from the book that Rahm did particularly well at politics because he was so adept at extracting money from donors. Reading an account of their dinner-table debates, with all the swearing and liveliness, one cannot help connect this to the man who freely expresses irritation with those who ask what he sees as silly or bad questions. In this context it is worth remembering that this is a man who comes from a family where a debate about the film "The Deerhunter" ended in a family brawl.

One interesting revelation is that Ezekiel says the brothers are culturally Jewish but do not believe in God. I was surprised by this but after talking about this over lunch with another Jewish relation she insisted this is actually perfectly normal--and that many highly educated Jews feel this way. She told me they adopt Jewish customs and heritage, observe shabbat and happily attend synagogue. But do they believe in a big guy in the sky? Absolutely not, she told me. 

There are no answers in the book to the question of how the son who railed against authority now copes with being in charge. As the memoir moves on to their older years it focuses far more on Ezekiel's journey through life. The politician who once protested with the civil rights movement will now face similar tactics as the unions in Chicago try to fight plans to close many of the under-occupied schools in Chicago. The tactics may be the same but the issues could not be more different. The problem that school closures are tackling is tied to the facts of demography rather than racism, parents have voted with their feet and moved their children from so many of Chicago's schools in the past few decades that too many are expensively half empty.  School closures happen all over the country. The reason so many are now needed in Chicago is that the job has been put off for so long. Rahm's greatest challenge as a politician will be to haul the city's schools from the rut they have been in here since he grew up.


Brothers in arms 

Raising three remarkable children 

Mar 23rd 2013 |From the print edition

Rahmifications of childhood Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family. By Ezekiel Emanuel. Random House; 274 pages; $27.

THE youth of the three brothers that is described in “Brothers Emanuel” is interesting because one of them is Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff and a leading figure in Democratic politics. Rahm is the middle sibling. The eldest is Ezekiel, a medical ethicist and vice-provost at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of this memoir. The youngest is Ari, a Hollywood agent and the role model for the character Ari Gold in “Entourage”, an American television series.

They grew up in Chicago in the 1960s—before supervised playdates, constant communication and fears of abduction. They explored their neighbourhood and even spent entire days on the beach alone. The alternative was to allow them to conduct their raids, sneak attacks, skirmishes, mock battles and combat missions indoors. Close in age, their wild play resulted in some bloody wounds including the loss of four teeth and the removal (fortunately temporary) of four fingers from two different brothers. [More...]

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A curious American row about early education

Nursery education 

Winning grades 

Americans argue about the need for early schooling 

Mar 23rd 2013 | CHICAGO AND NEW YORK |From the print edition

“WHAT part of the book is this?” asks the teacher, pointing to the binding. Twenty children of three and four answer: “The spine!” The instructor then asks, “Where is your spine?” and all the little pupils point to the right place. They arrived at eight this morning at Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, and were given breakfast. Later they will have lunch and take a nap. Although there is plenty of time to play, they spend much of their day learning letters, numbers, vocabulary and even manners. Marilyn Joseph, who heads the early-learning programme, says they want to make poor children as ready for school as those from better-off families. [More...]

A piece written and reported by Rosemarie Ward and myself.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

North Dakota by the numbers


Formation pressures

Booming North Dakota by the numbers 

 Mar 16th 2013 |From the print edition

IN 2012 North Dakota produced more crude oil than any other state except Texas. Between 2011 and 2012 production there increased by more than 250,000 barrels a day (b/d). By November last year almost 22m barrels of oil a month came out of the ground—outpacing the traditional petroleum-pots of Alaska, California and Oklahoma. About 33,000 wells will be drilled over the next 15-25 years, 5,000 of them in the next two years. [More...]

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

More eco-porn

Rockhopper penguins, G Harris

Seriously, what is not to love about two vast new marine protected areas in Patagonia, one of the most beautiful places on the planet? The Wildlife Conservation Society tells me that Isla Pingüino Coastal Marine Park and Makenke Coastal Marine Park have been established recently by the country's National Congress.

Red-legged Cormorant in Puerto Deseado Patagonia. G Harris

A pair of Imperial Cormorants in Punta Leon Patagonia. G Harris.

Friday, March 08, 2013

A matter of style

Journalists at The Economist have recently been issued with our new Style Book. It comprises 184 pages of rules, orders, guidelines, suggestions, warnings and worldly wisdom. I've been dipping into it every day and I was particularly struck by this passage describing the history of military euphemisms and how they have been introduced to neuter social outrage.

"Worse can be expected when politicians try to justify a war. “They make a wilderness and call it peace,” wrote Tacitus nearly 2,000 years ago, quoting Calgalus, a British chief whose people had been beaten up by the Romans. Orwell was equally acute in pointing out 60 years ago how terms like transfer of population and rectification of frontiers put names on things without evoking mental pictures of them. Friendly fire, body count, prisoner abuse, smart bombs, surgical strike, collateral damage have been coined more recently with the same ends in mind. Thus in Britain the War Office and the secretary of state for war became the Ministry of Defence and the defence minister. In due course nuclear weapons became nuclear deterrents – unless they were held by bad people. The Reagan administration spoke of its airborne invasion of Grenada in 1983 as a vertical insertion. The butchers of the Balkans produced ethnic cleansing, and the jihadists of al-Qaeda have offered sacred explosions in place of Islamically incorrect suicide bombs. The Bush administration, with its all-justifying war on terror (prosecuted with the help of the Patriot Act), provided more than its fair share of bland misnomers. Its practice of enhanced interrogation was torture, just as its practice of rendition was kidnapping, extraordinary rendition was probably torture contracted out to foreigners and its self-injurious behaviour incidents at Guantánamo Bay were attempted suicides. Some of those who now advocate a military attack on Iran refer to it as the kinetic option."

Thursday, March 07, 2013

I only took a brief trip out to the Cook County Forest Preserve with Heidi Garbe of the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation but it was well worthwhile to see coyote prints all over the snowy ground. The Coyote Project here is looking to understand more about the urban coyote, and its impressive but quiet invasion of the metropolis.

Urban coyotes 

Dogged persistence 

The coyote is quietly conquering urban America 

Mar 9th 2013 | CHICAGO |From the print edition

ON A snowy trail that cuts around the trees is a neat line of paw prints which look as though they were made by a domestic dog. But Heidi Garbe, a research scientist with the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation, can tell that they were made by a special kind of dog: Canis latrans, the coyote. Its footprint is more oval and its tracks more linear than those made by any household pet.

Around 2,000 coyotes are reckoned to live in Chicago and its suburbs, and it seems likely that the animal is thriving in many other built-up parts of the country. Once restricted to the south-western United States, it spread across the continent during the 20th century and more recently made its way into large metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Boston and even New York. In 2010 a particularly intrepid specimen was caught in a parking lot in Tribeca, a trendy neighbourhood in Manhattan.

In Chicago, the Cook County Coyote Project has been trying to understand how the species is conquering the metropolis. Part of the answer is that the coyote is clever, extremely adaptable and reproduces quickly. They are opportunistic eaters and will eagerly consume rabbits, rats, Canada geese, fruit, insects and family pets. They may also be filling an empty niche for a top predator that was once filled by wolves. [More...]

Enter the dragon

Another futile attempt to highlight the possibility that trade bans can sometimes fuel, rather than prevent, the trade in an endangered species. I keep writing about this, lots of people find it upsetting and get cross with me. And the fact is: I'd like to be proven wrong but I have a sinking feeling that I am not.


Trade protection 

Mar 5th 2013, 16:54 by N.L. | CHICAGO AND J.P. | LONDON 

THIS month the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will turn 40. From March 3rd to 14th delegates from 178 countries are gathering in Bangkok to review the treaty, which regulates the sale of wildlife and allows for a global ban in the trade of a species when it is threatened with over-exploitation. One of the subjects on the agenda is whether such bans work.

Trade bans are controversial. They can be effective in stabilising population numbers. This happened with the African grey parrot, for instance. But evidence abounds that sometimes they may do more harm than good. On March 1st Duan Biggs, from the University of Queensland, in Australia, and colleagues wrote in Science that legalising trade in rhino horn may be essential to ensure survival of the species. Last year Kirsten Conrad argued in Tropical Conservation Science that a trade ban, combined with a confluence of other forces, may create a “perfect storm” to accelerate the demise of the elephant, rhino and tiger. [More...]

Saturday, March 02, 2013

A tale of two bridges

New PPP bridge; WVB East End Partners
This is a cute little story I wrote last week about two new bridges over the Ohio River. One will be privately financed and maintained, the other will be bought the traditional way. Both, though, will be built and designed by the same company. Any bets on which bridge will be in better shape in 40 years? This natural experiment may help answer this question.

Building infrastructure 

A river runs through it 

A natural experiment in infrastructure 

Mar 2nd 2013 | CHICAGO |From the print edition

IN 1969 Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon; the Boeing 747 took its maiden flight and the states of Indiana and Kentucky set their sights on building a new crossing over the Ohio river. Planners wanted a better connection between southern Indiana and the city of Louisville in Kentucky. Yet federal and state governments are notoriously slow to make such investments so it is not surprising that it has taken America four decades to reach a point where construction is imminent.

The plan, now known as the Ohio River Bridges project, calls for two new bridges. One crossing will be in downtown Louisville and the other will be slightly out of town. Construction is expected to begin this summer and they should both be open by 2016.

Good reasons abound for building both of the new crossings: they will improve regional mobility, generate jobs, improve access to markets and make transportation more efficient. But one of the unusual aspects of the plans is that the states of Indiana and Kentucky have unwittingly created one of the world’s best natural experiments for testing two methods of procuring infrastructure.

The downtown bridge is being built by Kentucky and the other, known as the East End crossing, is being built by Indiana. Yet while Indiana has legislation that allows for public-private partnerships (PPP), Kentucky does not. So the downtown bridge will be procured the traditional way, and the East End crossing will use a PPP. [More...]

Friday, March 01, 2013

An update on Detroit


Motoring towards disaster 

Mar 1st 2013, 20:35 by N.L. | CHICAGO 

"THERE is probably no city that is more financially challenged in the entire United States." So says Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan, in reference to Detroit. Today Mr Snyder announced plans to have an emergency manager take over the city.

Detroit can appeal, but on March 12th the governor is likely to appoint a new boss who will supersede the city’s elected officials (their authority will be suspended). He will have the power to cut spending, alter labour contracts and sell city assets. This is nothing new for Michigan—five cities are already under state oversight. Detroit, though, would be the largest. [More...]