The most important election no one’s heard of

I’ve focused a lot on the presidential election on this blog and in my social media posts. It’s easy to focus on because it’s something everyone is interested in. I also have said that state and local elections are more important. in support of that claim, here’s one for my Texas friends.

Do you know about the Texas Railroad Commission?

Some highlights, followed by the article link below:

“Despite its yawn-inducing name, the Railroad Commission is a powerful state agency that regulates the coal, oil, and gas industries. It approves permits for fracking, signs off on pipeline routes, grants companies the power of eminent domain, and oversees coal mining and cleanup. In a state that’s heavily dependent on oil and gas extraction to power state and local budgets, it has tremendous influence on the economy. The agency is governed by three commissioners who are elected to six-year terms. A Democrat has not served on the commission since 1994.”

“Over the last few years, the agency has faced increasing scrutiny of its regulation of flaring—an industry term for burning off excess natural gas when pipelines are already at capacity, or when that gas is deemed unworthy of the cost it takes to send it to refineries. The commission sets limits on flaring, but it also routinely grants long-term exemptions to operators who request one. The agency has granted more than 12,000 such exemptions over the past two years, allowing oil and gas companies to burn hundreds of millions of cubic feet of natural gas. That’s up from around 300 in 2010.”

“The Republican nominee has also been found in violation of state environmental and permitting rules more than 250 times by the very agency that he hopes to join. The Railroad Commission also fined him more than $180,000 in 2017, and he is battling a series of lawsuits that accuse him of fraud. (Wright’s campaign declined to provide Grist any comments for publication.)”

Free trade and social justice

It’s been a couple weeks, so I thought I’d share some thoughts.

Arguments I’ve heard:

1. Those who are left behind must not want it. All you need to succeed is hard work. Racism is not keeping minorities from succeeding.

2. We need to punish China. The only reason they are succeeding is because they are flouting the rules. Or the international rules favor them.

These ideas seem to be unrelated, but they are simply two expressions of the same idea: rules matter.

The assumptions underlying the first argument are a) that the rules for all Americans are the same and b) are applied the same, regardless of race. The argument we’ve been hearing louder than ever the last several months is simple: these assumptions aren’t true. Resolving the debate will require if that is the case and then how to rewrite the rules or how to apply them fairly.

The second argument makes this assumption: Americans are hard-working and rule-abiding, so they should succeed in manufacturing and agriculture. If we aren’t succeeding, then either the system is broken or other countries are cheating.

Considering these arguments and their assumptions in concert can help us identify potential problems.

In both cases you have two groups: whites and minorities; Americans and Chinese. In both cases you have a set of rules: the laws of the land and international trade rules. In both cases there is a problem: a portion of one of the groups is being left behind – in the first case, as demonstrated by lower education levels, lower incomes, lower wealth, higher incarceration rates, etc. of blacks and, in the second case, as demonstrated by the former manufacturing communities in the U.S. that have had high unemployment.

Are these problems caused by the rules or are they the responsibility of the groups themselves? Do blacks fail to graduate from high school because they simply aren’t working hard enough? Are plants shutting down because American workers are lazy?

The second question is one we all agree on: no. American plants are shutting down because it is cheaper to produce goods overseas. Companies move those plants overseas and American workers lose their jobs.

Why is it cheaper? Are Chinese workers simply willing to accept less? Are the Chinese cheating through government subsidies, IP theft, and other means? Perhaps the lack of worker protections makes it cheaper. Or perhaps the rules simply favor the Chinese. Perhaps the World Trade Organization is biased toward China for some reason and makes it easier for them to export goods.

While some of these things are true, another possibility is simply that the system is changing. For whatever reason – higher education levels, different sets of worker protections, differences in culture, different resources – compared to the U.S., China is simply better at producing manufactured goods. So, whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge, manufacturing jobs fail to return to the U.S. The circumstances that made the U.S. a manufacturing powerhouse in the 20th century no longer exist. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we will stop fighting the same battle every 4 years and we can make progress on real issues, like helping former manufacturing workers find new jobs or providing a social safety net so they don’t fall into poverty.

This shift in focus to the dynamic system can help us identify potential fixes to racial problems, too. Simply telling minorities, “Hey, we fixed the laws so they apply equally to you,” may not be enough. The circumstances that allowed whites to become, as a group, wealthier and better educated, are not the same for blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities. A black father today isn’t likely to be able to support his family of 10 children as a dairy and ice cream seller the way my great-grandfather did. Cost of living, education requirements for his children, and various other circumstances have changed. Perhaps our expectations for what he can accomplish on his own should as well.

Ye Shall Not Cast Him Out

For those of you who also suffered through The Scarlet Letter, you have my commiserations. I did not enjoy reading the book. Regardless, it’s a cultural touchstone and gives us a shorthand to talk about complex topics.

One such topic is America’s Puritan past, which heavily influences our dominate culture. The Puritans left us with a mixed legacy. They gave us an ideal to strive for – the idea that we could build a community that would be a city on a hill, a light to the world. But they also left us with a legacy of intolerance for those who do not fit neatly into whatever ideal we are seeking to achieve.

Continue reading “Ye Shall Not Cast Him Out”


Today is the last day to register to vote in Texas. You can do so here:


  1. Register to vote.
  2. Find your sample ballot:
  3. Research candidates, particularly state and local.
  4. Plan on how and where to vote.
  5. Go out and engage in your community. Voting is vital, but it’s not the only or the best way to effect change.

Voting should be easy and celebrated, rather than something we try to limit for a false sense of security. Regardless, it is still possible, particularly if you take time to prepare.