The Senate doesn’t have to be the place where progress dies

Photo by Harold Mendoza on Unsplash

The framers of the Constitution had a lot of good ideas, but maybe the Senate wasn’t one of them.

The Senate made sense two centuries ago. In an era where voting was extremely limited and the populace was ill-informed and uneducated, a “cooling saucer” for the impulses of the general public seemed like a good idea to the likes of James Madison. The structure of the Senate made sense, too. Since the balance of power between states was of utmost importance in the 1700s, it was vital for each state to be represented equally.

But things have changed! Now, we…

The British nobleman who killed thousands of animals in an unprecedented spree

A pile of bison skulls, 1892 (public domain)

Nowadays, our billionaire egomaniacs build spaceships for themselves. But in the nineteenth century, well before space travel, how could a self-centered plutocrat indulge his impulse for wastefulness? Let’s not tell Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson about the example of Sir St. George Gore — the eighth baronet of Gore Manor in Ireland — who managed to make his mark by spending three years in the American West slaughtering everything in sight.

Gore — no name was ever so fitting — came to the US in 1854 in the midst of a craze among British nobles for hunting American bison. After…

What can COVID teach us about another slow-moving disaster that requires collective action?

Photo by Matteo Jorjoson on Unsplash

It’s happening again.

We’re the richest country in the history of the planet, one that was declared most ready to face a pandemic just before COVID hit. Unlike most of the world, we’ve had vaccines widely available to us, for free, for months. And yet… not enough of us did the very simple things that would have brought this disaster to an end. We are now watching ICUs fill up with people who didn’t have to die this way, but will anyway.

This is our fourth wave of COVID in the United States. The disease has killed over 600,000 Americans…

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Republicans have been pushing to ban the teaching of critical race theory in American schools, seeking to ensure that students are taught a more “patriotic” curriculum and version of history.

Elementary School

Current lesson: Students discuss what a society is, and who lives in their community.

Patriotic replacement: Students learn that there is no such thing as society, just cold, economic self-interest.

Current lesson: Students learn that the American flag has 50 stars and 13 stripes to represent the states and the original colonies.

Patriotic replacement: Students learn that the flag has twelve black stripes, plus one blue stripe to represent how kick-ass the police are.

Current lesson: Students discuss how people may have different value systems.

Patriotic replacement: Students learn that when you impose your values on others it is “freedom,” but when others impose their values on you it is “oppression.”

Current lesson: Students look at how laws and punishments have changed throughout history.

Patriotic replacement: Students learn that law…

It’s here, and it’s very dangerous

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

We’ve had trouble coming up with the words to describe what’s happening to the planet. Terms like “global warming” and “climate change” are too vague and mild. They allow professional obfuscators like Fox News’ Jesse Watters to pretend that it will be easy to adapt to slightly warmer temperatures, so what’s the big deal?

In reality, climate change, the climate crisis, the climate catastrophe — whatever we call it — is devastating the natural world and killing people right now. If we don’t do something about it, the climate crisis could kill you in all sorts of ways. …

Planned obsolescence hacked our psychology and filled our landfills

General Motors’ 1929 Oakland Sedan (CC 2.0)

In the capitalist system we have designed for ourselves, companies and people (who are, tellingly, called “consumers”) have specific roles to play. The company is supposed to design new things, and then stoke our desire to purchase them through advertising. And we are supposed to buy, buy, buy.

In this system, one of the worst things a company can do is to make a cheap product that lasts a long time. If they do, where will the year-over-year growth come from? Corporations have learned that it is far better to sell you variations of the same thing over and over…

Can we leverage petty international competition for the good of the planet?

A replica of Sputnik I in the National Air & Space Museum (public domain)

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched a metal ball no bigger than a beach ball into earth orbit. It couldn’t do anything more than transmit a steady beep via radio. Sputnik wasn’t much, but it changed the history of the world.

One of the biggest impacts of Sputnik was in the United States. Leaders in American politics, industry and education were determined that the USSR should not be allowed to win the space race. They transformed American society so that capitalism would win the technological contest against communism. …

Why states don’t incentivize doing the right thing

Photo by Charlotte Stowe on Unsplash

Yesterday, we received the license plate registration notice in the mail for both of our cars. The bill for our gas-powered SUV was about $66 — normal and expected, no big deal. The bill for our plug-in hybrid (PHEV) was quadruple that — $266! Why? Because, in my dumb state of Ohio, hybrid and electric car owners have to pay an extra fee, supposedly to offset the gasoline taxes we aren’t paying.

This is a superficially understandable policy — after all, gas taxes pay for roads and other infrastructure that EV and hybrid drivers use, too. It makes sense that…

Authoritarians are rarely comfortable with the study of history

This guy’s not a fan of historians (photo by Gage Skidmore)

The authoritarian wing of the Republican Party has recently seized on the teaching of history as a culture war issue. The anti-”critical race theory” movement has all of a sudden taken up much of Fox News’ air time and has turned once-sleepy school board meetings into screaming matches. A teacher — maybe the first of many — was recently fired for having his students discuss racial inequality in America.

This may seem odd at first — after all, the rise of STEM subjects over the last few decades has made history seem like an afterthought in American education. But Donald…

And other wild plans for “peaceful” nuclear-weapons use during the Cold War

The Sedan test in Nevada, 1962 (public domain)

In 1953, eight years after the United States had obliterated two Japanese cities with atomic weapons, President Dwight Eisenhower envisioned a world where nuclear weapons — since 1949, in the hands of the Soviet Union as well as the U.S.— could be used for the benefit of humankind. In his “Atoms for Peace” speech, he imagined a future in which:

The United States would seek more than the mere reduction or elimination of atomic materials for military purposes. It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. …

George Dillard

Illuminating forgotten corners of history and using them to think about the present. Shorter entries at Write me: whfacts at gmail.

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