Political Dynasties and their Discontents

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Political dynasties have always been a big part of human civilization, and today is no exception.

In the United States, the rise of Donald Trump was at least partially a reaction to the dynastic, Clinton-vs-Bush election that only last year most Americans were expecting to get.

It was, after all, Jeb Bush’s candidacy that split the Republican establishment in two, preventing it from coalescing around a politician like Marco Rubio early on and thus leaving an opening for Trump to force his way into. Hillary Clinton’s high disapproval rating, similarly, could even leave the door open for Trump to become president, however unlikely and unappealing that may be.

Canada

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Former Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau wave at supporters at the University of Toronto, February 15, 2015 (William Pitcher)

North of the border, Canada has just elected Justin Trudeau as its Prime Minister, the son of Pierre Trudeau who was prime minister for fifteen years during the late 1960s, 1970s, and first half of the 1980s. One of Trudeau’s two opponents in the election had been NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, whose ancestors include the first and ninth Premiers of the province of Quebec.

Mexico

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Enrique Peña Nieto, presidential candidate for Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, waves to supporters in the city of Torreón, June 18, 2012 (Flickr)

South of the border, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto,who came to power in 2013, “is the nephew of two former governors of the State of México (the state in which Mexico City is located): on his mother’s side, Arturo Montiel, on his father’s, Alfredo del Mazo González“, according to Wikipedia.

East Asia

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping (right)

In China, the current General Secretary Xi Jinping, who is now thought to have amassed more personal power than any Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, is the first to come from the “princeling” class. He is the son of a prominent political figure, Xi Zhongxun, from the first generation of the Communist Party leadership. This distinguishes him from the other General Secretaries in the Communist era, including Mao Tse-Tung, whose parents were not prominent politicians and in some cases were actually quite poor.

Other top members of the current Chinese leadership are also “princelings”, most notably Yu Zhengsheng, who is the fourth-ranked politician on the 7-man Politburo Standing Committee (which is generally considered to be China’s top political body), and Wang Qishan, who is ranked sixth on the Politburo Standing Committee and may be one of the most powerful figures in China at the moment as he has been leading Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign . Wang is a princeling by marriage only: his wife is the daughter of Yao Yilin, who was a former Politburo Standing Committee member in the Communist Party.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is arguably the most powerful politician the country has seen in at least a generation as well. He too comes from a political dynasty. According to Wikipedia, “his grandfather, Kan Abe, and father, Shintaro Abe, were both politicians… Abe’s mother, Yoko Kishi,[3] is the daughter of Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960. Kishi had been a member of the Tōjō Cabinet during the Second World War”.

Meanwhile the President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of South Korea’s third president, Park Chung-hee. (Update: Park has since been impeached). (And in North Korea, of course, the Kim family’s rule is now into its third generation). In Singapore, the prime minister since 2004 has been Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Singapore’s modern founding father Lee Kuan Yew who served from 1959 all the way to 1990.

India

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Hillary Clinton, then America’s secretary of state, poses for a picture with Indian Congress Party leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi, July 19, 2009 (State Department)

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his often fanatically right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP party became in 2014 the first party in over three decades to win a majority government in a national election. Modi is not from a political dynasty himself, rather he is the reaction to the modern world’s most prominent political family of all: the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The Guardian wrote in 2007 that “the Nehru-Gandhi brand has no peer in the world — a member of the family has been in charge of India for 40 of the 60 years since independence.” The dynasty (which by the way is not related to the Gandhi) began with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-British prime minister from 1947-1964. Nehru was himself the son and nephew of significant political figures in pre-independence India. Nehru’s dynasty then continued with his only daughter Indira Gandhi (née Nehru), who was India’s prime minister from 1966-1977 and from 1980-1984, but was assassinated in 1984 by two of her own Sikh bodyguards in the wake of Operation Blue Star.

The dynasty was then followed by Indira’s sons Rajiv Gandhi, who was prime minister from 1984-1989 before being assassinated by the Tamil Tigers in 1991, and Sanjay Gandhi, who was expected to become prime minister but was instead killed in a plane crash. Rajiv’s wife Sonia Gandhi, meanwhile, is the leader of India’s powerful Congress Party and the mother of Rahul Gandhi, who lost to Modi’s BJP in 2014 but still finished with more parliamentary seats and far more votes than any other candidate in the election. Sonia likely would have run for prime minister herself, but cannot because she was born in Italy.

(Sanjay’s wife Maneka Gandhi, on the other hand, has jumped ship from the historically Gandhi-dominated Congress Party and joined the BJP instead; she is currently a cabinet minister in the BJP-led government. Maneka’s son Varun has also gone over to the BJP, serving as the youngest National Secretary in the history of the party and a member of the country’s parliament. However, Maneka and Varun both remain less prominent than the Congress side of the family, which is led by Maneka’s sister-in-law Sonia and Varun’s first cousin Rahul).

Arguably, frustration with the Gandhis directly paved the way for Modi, a man who was not even allowed to enter the United States prior to becoming president because he was allegedly involved in “severe violations of religious freedom” while serving as governor of the important Indian state of Gujarat.

Philippines

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President-elect Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines speaks with his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, in Davao City, March 6, 2013 (Malacañang Photo Bureau/Ryan Lim)

You may have also heard about the election of the Philippines ridiculous new president Rodrigo Duterte last week. Rodrigo’s father Vicente was a provincial governor of Davao province and a mayor of Cebu, one of the largest cities in the country. Rodrigo’s cousin was also a mayor of Cebu, in the 1980s.

The Duterte’s are hardly alone in their political dynasticism: according to Public Radio International, “in the Philippines, elections in 2016 will be dominated by dynasties. About two-thirds of the outgoing Congress are heirs of political families. The outgoing president is the son of Corazon Aquino, who led the uprising against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos after Marcos had her husband whacked for being a prominent political opponent. But the Marcos clan is back in the picture, with Ferdinand’s wife, son, daughter and nephew all running for different offices. Also running is the grandson of another president.”

Thailand

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Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra addresses the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, September 9, 2013 (UN/Jean-Marc Ferré)

In Thailand too there has been a political reaction against a political family, that of Thaksin Shinawatra (who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006 before being exiled by a military coup) and his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra (who was prime minister from 2011 to 2014 before being removed by decree of the Constitutional Court during the Thai political crisis in 2013-2014). According to Wikipedia, the father of Thaksin and Yingluck “was a member of parliament for Chiang Mai. [The Shinawatras are] a descendant of a former monarch of Chiang Mai through her grandmother, Princess Chanthip na Chiangmai (Great-great-granddaughter of King Thammalangka of Chiang Mai).”

Europe

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Prime Ministers Matteo Renzi of Italy and Mariano Rajoy of Spain speak during a European Council meeting in Brussels, June 25, 2015 (La Moncloa)

Europe, at least in contrast to Asia, does not have many political dynasties at the moment. This is, perhaps, in part because European political history was reset to a certain degree following the fall of the Soviet Union. Europe’s leading politicians, including Merkel, Putin, and Erdogan, do not come from political dynasties. Neither does Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (though his ancestors were extremely wealthy) or France’s President Francois Hollande. Italian Prime Minister Mattio Renzi’s was a municipal councillor, admittedly, but that does not really count. (Angela Merkel’s grandfather was, similarly, a local politician in Danzig). Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy’s family was fairly prominent, on the other hand.

That said, Europe is far from dynasty-free. According to the Economist, “in Europe family power is one reason why politics seems like a closed shop. Fifty-seven of the 650 members of the recently dissolved British Parliament are related to current or former MPs. François Hollande, France’s president, has four children with Ségolène Royal, who ran for the presidency in 2007. Three generations of Le Pens are squabbling over their insurgent party, the Front National (see article). Belgium’s prime minister is the son of a former foreign minister and European commissioner. The names Papandreou and Karamanlis still count for something in Greece.”

Syria and Egypt 

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Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and his family in the 1990s (Wikimedia Commons)

The Arab world remains full of political dynasties and reactions against dynasties, in contrast. In Syria both of these factors can be seen at the same time, as the civil war threatens to unseat Bashar al Assad, son of thirty-year ruler Hafez al Assad. (Bashar’s brother Bassel was initially supposed to take over from his father, but died in a car accident in 1994). In Egypt, meanwhile,the military government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is in some ways a response to the presumed attempt by an elderly Hosni Mubarak (diagnosed with stomach cancer in the same year he was deposed) to pass on power to his son Gamal, who had not served in the Egyptian military as Hosni Mubarak and previous rulers Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdul Nasser had done.

Saudi Arabia 

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Prince Muhammad bin Nayef speaks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh while Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir looks on, January 27, 2015 (White House/Pete Souza)

In Saudi Arabia, which is by far the largest Arab economy, a half-shift from one Saudi political dynasty to another may just be getting under way. Thus far in the history of the modern Saudi state (beginning around 1930), the country has been ruled either by founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud or else by one of his 45 or so sons, six of whom have become king, most recently King Salman who took the throne in January of 2015.

Last year, however, Salman removed his half-brother Muqrin (another son of Abdulaziz) from the office of Crown Prince, replacing Muqrin with their nephew Mohammad bin Nayef,  who would become the first king in the next generation of Saudi royals if ever takes over. He might never take over, though: many people now believe that is Salman’s own son Mohammad bin Salman, who is the Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, who is the likeliest to become the next king when Salman (who is 80 years old) steps down or passes away, even though Deputy Crown Prince is formally a lower-ranking position than Crown Prince – and even though Mohammad bin Salman is only 30 years old, which would be an extremely young age for a modern Saudi king.

If Mohammad bin Salman does become king over another prince like Mohammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia could in effect be moving from a dynasty of Abdulaziz to a dynasty of Salman. There are now fears that the political situation in the country could become quite messy if the other branches of the huge Saudi royal family try to avoid becoming sidelined from power as a result.

Iran

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Iranian president Hassan Rouhani speaks as parliament speaker Ali Larijani, Chief Justice Sadeq Larijani and the chief of the supreme leader’s office, Mohammad Golpayegani, attend a ceremony in Tehran, October 3, 2015 (Reuters)

Across the Gulf, in Iran, dynasties are not too big a factor within the current religious government. Recently the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini even was blocked from participating in elections. One big exception to this, however, is the powerful Larijani family, made up of five brothers in key positions in the government. It includes Ali Larijani, who is the Speaker of the parliament and a former member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and Sadeq Larijania, Iran’s Chief Justice.

Israel

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Labor party leader Isaac Herzog (left) and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (right)

A number of leaders in Israel hail from political families as well. Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who has now spent more time as prime minister (from 1996-1999 and now again since 2009) than any politician in Israel’s history apart from Israel’s founding  prime minister David Ben Gurion (who Netanyahu will soon overtake), is the son of Benzion Netanyahu. Benzion was a professor of history at Cornell University, an influential Zionist activist and magazine editor, and personal secretary to one of Israel’s most prominent founding fathers, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Bibi is also the younger brother of Yonatan Netanyahu, who was the unit commander of and only person to be killed during the famous Operation Entebbe raid in 1976, when 100 or so Israeli commandos rescued 102 hostages of a Palestinian airplane hijacking (compared to 3 hostages killed) from where they were being held in Idi Amin-era Uganda more than 3000 km south of Israel, and returned them safely to their homes in Israel and France.

Israel’s Labour Party leader Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, meanwhile, who won more than twice as many votes as any other Jewish party apart from Netanyahu’s Likud Party in the most recent elections of 2015, is, according to Wikipedia, “the son of General Chaim Herzog, who was the Sixth President of Israel from 1983 to 1993, and the grandson of Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1922 to 1935 and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1936 to 1959″.

The next largest Jewish political party after Labour and Likud is the Yesh Atid Party, led by Yair Lapid. Lapid is a former news anchor who is the son of Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, a former government minister, parliamentary leader of the opposition as recently as 2005, and radio and television personality.

Brazil 

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Brazilian Social Democracy Party leader Aécio Neves answers questions from reporters, May 28, 2015 (Agência Senado/Pedro França)

Leaving the Middle East, Brazils’ Aecio Neves, who in late 2014 very narrowly lost a presidential election to Dilma Rousseff (who may now be on the verge of being impeached herself), is the grandson of Tancredo Neves, who would have been President of Brazil in 1985 if he had not passed away before taking office. Roussef and her influential predecessor Lula da Silva are not from prominent political families, however.

Peru

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Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori campaigns for the 2011 election, December 7, 2010 (Flickr/Keiko Fujimori)

In Peru, the country is in the midst of a presidential election, which is a two-round system that began in April and will end on June 5.  Its leading candidate is former First Lady Keiko Fujimori, a daughter of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. Alberto exiled himself to Japan following corruption and human rights violation scandals at the end of his ten yeas in power in 2000, but was later arrested in Chile in 2005 and is now serving a prison sentence back in Peru.

Argentina

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President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina speaks in José Amalfitani Stadium, Buenos Aires, April 27, 2012 (Presidency of Argentina)

Argentina, finally, has just recently ended sixteen consecutive years of being presided over by a Kirchner, first by Nestor Kirchner from 2003 to 2007 and then by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner from 2007 until the end of 2015. The Kirchners were Peronists, a political movement of sorts that has dominated modern Argentine politics, which is named for another power couple, Juan Peron (president from 1946 – 1955) and his second wife Eva Peron, who was a significant political figure in her own right and nearly became Vice President. (Juan’s third wife Isabel Martinez de Peron, meanwhile, was President of Argentina from 1974 to 1976). The incoming Argentine president Mauricio Macri, who is replacing the Kirchners, does not come from a political dynasty, however. His father was just a humble business tycoon.

Complacency over Coal’s Collapse: Five Factors to Consider

American coal companies’ stock prices have crashed in recent years, in response to the triple-whammy punch that is the US fracking boom, the environmentalist movement, and the slowdown in the Chinese industrial economy. As recently as January of 2016, the Dow Jones US Coal Index had lost around 92 percent of its market value since mid-2014, more than 97 percent of its value since 2011, and more than 98 percent of its value since its all-time peak in 2008.

Coal stock index 10 Year
2008 highs over 700, 2011 highs at 500, 2014 highs around 150, 2016 lows at 12, today at 33.87

Now, it may be that coal really is finished as a major industry in the US, but there is no reason to be certain about this. The market’s plunge is arguably more a sign of investor panic than of rational valuation: coal still accounts for around a third of US electricity generation and close to 40 percent of electricity generation worldwide. The economic outlook for the coal industry does not seem to have collapsed to the extent the Dow Jones US Coal index might suggest.

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Energy mix in the US

world electricity production

1. Climate Change 

Burning coal is generally considered to be around twice as carb0n-intensive as burning natural gas. Carbon dioxide, however, is hardly the only culprit where climate change is concerned. Methane emissions are also a crucial component to climate change, for example, and industries like natural gas and meat production can be more methane-intensive than coal.

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US Methane Emissions By Source

Thus far the natural gas industry, food industry, and many in the US government have neatly sidestepped the methane issue, refocusing American public attention toward carbon dioxide. They have done this by using the “we need to protect the planet for the sake of our grandchildren and future generations” approach. Methane emissions, after all,  only contribute directly to global warming for a few years or decades at a time, whereas carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for many centuries.

The truth, though, is probably that this is deliberately misleading. Future generations may be perfectly capable of handling whatever climate change comes their way, or of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The really dicey climate change period is more likely to occur within the coming years or decades, when the world is not yet technologically advanced enough to protect vulnerable human (and animal) populations. Within such a time frame, emissions of gasses like methane can be even more impactful than carbon dioxide.

Today US methane emissions, measured in kilotons of CO2 (carbon dioxide) equivalent, are around ten percent as high as carbon dioxide emissions. Since the impact of each kt equivalent of methane upon global warming can be up to 80-90 times higher than carbon over the course of a twenty-year period, however, the overall effect of methane emissions can perhaps be worse for climate change than carbon emissions can.

Indeed, while the direct impact of methane fades over time, the indirect impact of methane emissions could remain for decades if they help to trigger a global warming feedback loop; for example, if it helps to cause sun-reflecting polar ice to melt, which could warm the planet and so cause even more polar ice to melt.

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Carbon dioxide emissions by country, in 2013. Admittedly, given the speed of America’s shale energy boom in recent years, it is possible that these numbers from two and a half years ago are already outdated to some extent

Thus, methane emissions arguably deserve more public attention and regulation. And if they are regulated, it may weaken the natural gas industry relative to the coal industry, as the gas industry in the US accounts for almost triple the methane emissions that coal does. Just this month, the US federal government has launched its first ever package of methane emission regulations for the oil and gas sector.

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Another greenhouse gas to consider in nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide emissions in the US are roughly 5% of carbon dioxide emissions, measured in kilotons. They only last in the atmosphere for 114 years on average. According to the EPA, though, “The impact of 1 pound of N2O on warming the atmosphere is almost 300 times that of 1 pound of carbon dioxide.” As with methane, it is agriculture, not coal, that is the main culprit of nitrous oxide emissions. Even most of the nitrous oxide emissions that come from the “Energy” sector labelled on this graph come from cars and trucks, rather than from coal-fired power plants.

Methane, which is the main component of natural gas, can also be captured and then stored or used to produce energy. Capturing methane from the natural gas industry, however, is extremely difficult to do, because the gas sector is diffuse, consisting of hundreds of thousands of wells spread across dozens of states as well as in offshore fields in the Gulf of Mexico. Capturing and making use of methane that is released from coal mines could perhaps be easier to do, since coal production is more concentrated than gas or oil. There are only about 1000 or so coal mines in the country, and they are located mostly in Wyoming or the Midwest.

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Another thing to note is that while burning natural gas is only a bit more than half as carbon-intensive as coal, much of the natural gas production in the United States comes  as a byproduct of drillers trying to produce oil. This means that US gas is actually more carbon-intensive than it seems, since it would not be produced as much if the US was not also producing so much oil, and oil (or gasoline) is more than three-quarters as carbon-intensive as coal is.

gas as byproduct of oil
http://www.etf.com/sections/features-and-news/5339-natural-gas-now-a-byproduct-of-oil-drilling-output-to-climb-as-long-as-oil-prices-stay-high
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Most coal in the US is bituminous or sub-bituminous

This also raises the question: will the price of oil in the US remain low? If it does, it is likely to result not only in a reduction in oil production, but also in natural gas production (again, because natural gas is frequently a byproduct of oil), which in turn could cause coal to become more competitive relative to natural gas.

Oil in the US is used mainly for transportation, so it is possible that the revolutions now taking place in the transportation sector – for example, Uber (and companies like Uber), UberPool, Zipcar, electric vehicles, hybrids,  e-commuting and e-commerce, using smartphone apps to make express busses finally become feasible, being able to watch a movie or do work on your smartphone or tablet while you are taking public transit or being carpooled,  and the development of self-driving vehicles  – could lead to such a reduction in oil use.

In the case of electric or hybrid vehicles, this could also lead to a major increase in electricity usage, potentially helping the coal industry at the expense of the oil and gas industry. And while electric cars may not soon be appearing in every driveway, it may not be too long before a widespread network of electric or hybrid Uber-esque vehicles and Zipcar-esque vehicles come into place.

If, moreover, self-driving vehicles do become a reality as well at some point, it could make vehicle-sharing services like Uber and Zipcar even more competitive, and could allow electric Uber vehicles and Zipcars to drive themselves to (and wait in line at) the nearest battery-charging station. This is an important factor, given that fully charging an electric vehicle often takes several hours.

Of course, many people think that coal is likely to lose out not only to natural gas, but also to alternatives like solar energy, which emit relatively little carbon dioxide, methane, or any other type of greenhouse gas. However, it is still not clear when or if industries like solar will be able to compete on a large scale with coal in developed economies like the United States.

Much has been made about the falling cost of solar panels They are often said to have become more competitive as a result of technological improvements, and are expected to continue doing so going forward. In fact there is an alternative plausible explanation about what has driven the falling cost of solar panels: government support in East Asia (especially China), Europe, and to a lesser extent North America. The solar industry may have benefited from attempts by governments in these regions to stimulate their slowing industrial sectors and reduce pollution at the same time.

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above: China’s solar panel statistics, 2004-2012

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If this explanation is true, then it is possible that the cost of solar panels going forward will not continue to fall as much as people now expect them to. Indeed, if China’s economy has the “hard landing” some fear it will, panel prices could even rise a lot as solar panel manufacturing output collapses.

Ultimately, though, climate change threats will continue to hamper the coal industry, unless at least one of two things happen. The first is large-scale carbon capture and storage. Though carbon capture and storage has been over-hyped in recent years , it cannot be ruled out entirely either. We will discuss this further below.

The second is climate change fatalism. If it becomes accepted that we already well past the point of being able to reverse global warming, then the priority could shift away from reducing carbon emissions and instead become achieving rapid economic advances in order to pay for the huge, global effort that adapting to climate change will entail. Ironically, coal could be employed as the cheap, plentiful resource used to spur such rapid economic growth. If this sounds a bit crazy, bear in mind that it is the approach that India and China are already implicitly (and at times explicitly) embracing at the moment. India in particular is still planning on building many new coal plants in an attempt to achieve economic growth.

Bangladesh, perhaps the most climate endangered among the world’s hugely populous nations, has resisted climate change fatalism. However if it runs out of hope that the world’s major economies will take the necessary measures to mitigate climate change, then it could end up getting on board with this philosophy too, since it desperately needs economic growth to lift its population out of the immediate poverty it faces.

Countries like Bangladesh have, in addition, been publicly toying with the unorthodox idea of purposely releasing gasses like sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere in order to deflect sunlight and thus reduce global temperatures. Indeed, certain industries already produce this effect over a limited timespan, due to the sulphur dioxide they emit. Such industries include coal-fired power plants and container shipping.

According to this article from the Guardian, the container shipping industry alone, over a five-year lifespan, may contribute a cooling effect significant enough to offset the warming caused by every car, bus, and airplane in the world combined. Still, this cooling effect diminishes over longer timespans as sulphur dioxide leaves the atmosphere, and, in any event, sulphur dioxide emissions also cause significant local pollution, such as acid rain.

2. Local Pollution

A lot of the most concerted pushback against coal has seemed like it is driven by fears of climate change, when really it is driven to a substantial extent by frustration with more local forms of pollution that the coal industry creates. In order for local anti-pollution activists to gain public support, they often, quite understandably, use climate change as a cover.

The threat of climate change alone, without local anti-pollution activism, has a more difficult time of creating meaningful pushback, because climate change is far less of an immediate and concentrated danger than localized pollution is. Pushback against local pollution, for example, historically played a significant role in causing American industry to outsource to places like China that were more willing to tolerate it. This is also, by the way, one reason why methane emissions have gotten off the hook compared to some other types of greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide: methane causes far less local pollution, even though its contribution to global climate change can be severe.

If coal can overcome its local pollution problem, then, it may be able to revive itself to some extent even in spite of the role it plays in global climate change.

There is a way that the coal industry may reduce its local pollution problem: disassemble and reassemble coal-fired power plants and relocate them to more sparsely populated areas, and largely mechanize the operation of coal-fired power plants and coal mining sites.

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The West is wide open
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US population density/major city map

The mechanization of the coal industry is already well on its way (see graph below) and will probably continue in the coming years as a result of the “robot revolution”. Moving coal-fired plants to less populated areas would of course be enormously expensive; it would require not just moving the plants themselves, but also the building of new electricity lines.

WV_Employment_vs_Production

Finding cheap routes to build electricity networks through is no easy task, nor is maintaining such electricity networks once they are already built. Plus, the longer the route, the more electricity is lost in transmission – and the routes would have to be quite long in order to locate the power plants in sparsely populated areas. Still, it could happen, if coal can remain cost competitive with other energy sources. More on this in the next section.

Local pollution is also a major reason why urban and suburban areas may start to use a lot of hybrid, electric, or Uberpool-esque vehicles, since conventional gasoline-powered vehicles create a lot of air pollution (and noise pollution) in areas in which lots of people live. Hybrids, if they can become cost-competitive with conventional cars, are ideal in this regard, as they typically cause air pollution only on rural or ex-urban roads where fewer people live.

If electric vehicles become common, it could boost demand for electricity (helping coal, potentially) and decrease demand for oil (helping coal by causing less natural gas production, potentially).

Finally, local pollution is most harmful in places where there are lots of physically vulnerable people; i.e. in densely populated countries where there are many young kids or senior citizens. The United States does not fit this description, as it is sparsely populated and most of its population is in the prime of their lives. The developing world, on the other hand, is often very young and densely populated, while Western Europe, Japan, and increasingly even China are old and densely populated. Pushback against local pollution in China in particular could cause some industrial activity – and its attendant demand for electricity – to relocate to North America.

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The countries that are by far the most densely populated on this list, namely India and Japan, have by far the youngest and oldest populations, respectively, among the world’s major economies.

3. Robots 

Robots could benefit the coal industry in multiple ways. First and most obviously, they are likely to cause American electricity demand to soar, because robots are often extremely energy-intensive to use and because they could lead manufacturing that in previous decades has been outsourced to countries like China and Mexico to be brought back to the United States.

The same is true in other developed economies, like  Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, which are already totally reliant upon coal and other fossil fuel imports to power their economies. In 2014, Japan and especially South Korea were the biggest purchasers of US coal, with the exception of the Netherlands (a European trade hub), Britain, and Brazil. East Asia is also the primary destination for more than three-quarters of Canadian exports of coal, which are split about equally between China, Japan, and South Korea.

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World’s largest coal importers. Source: Index Mundi

Indeed it seems like ancient history now, but prior to United States sanctions on Japan in the 1930s, Japan was getting around 60-80 percent of its oil imports from the United States. It is not totally out of the question that a somewhat similar pattern could re-emerge, with the US exporting fossil fuels to East Asia once again, as the US may want each of these countries to remain strong enough to “contain” China.

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These values adjusted for GDP size; they are not given in absolute terms. In absolute terms, China and Japan would be higher than South Korea and Taiwan in every case. Source: Future Economics

South Korea and Taiwan are particularly dependent upon energy imports (see graph above). And the United States is very approving of its alliances with these two countries because they help to “counterbalance” (to use another geopolitical euphemism) both China and Japan, which by most accounts remain by far the world’s second and third largest economies.

fossil fuel importers

For Japan, robots could particularly cause electricity demand to surge, given that Japan may need to use a lot of them to replace its rapidly aging, high income labour force. Japan’s other alternative thus far has been to outsource labour to countries like China and Thailand, however it is not clear how much Japan is willing to continue becoming dependent on these countries, and meanwhile millions of Japan’s domestic workers are approaching retirement age.

population-pyramid-of-japan-in-2015

A second way robots could help the coal industry is by causing electricity demand to rise overnight. One of the drawbacks of coal power has been that coal-fired power plants, unlike hydroelectric dams or, to a lesser extent, compared to natural gas plants, cannot easily ramp up and down their electricity production. This has meant that, like nuclear plants, they tend to over-produce electricity overnight, when the cost of producing the power is often higher than the price it sells for. However, since robots don’t sleep, they may drive up the demand for electricity at night. In addition to coal and nuclear, this may also help wind power, since it is often windier overnight than during the day. But it could hurt solar power.

Robots could perhaps also help allow coal-fired power plants to be moved to or built in sparsely populated areas where their local pollution will not be as bothersome, since robot-run factories may not need to employ many humans. This could also prevent new, long electricity lines from having to be built and maintained in some cases, as the power plant could be located right next to the robot-run industrial areas.

Robot-run factories and coal-fired power plants could also be constructed next to or near the coal mines themselves. This could be a big help to the industry, as coal has very high transportation costs because of how bulky coal is compared to other resources, for example oil, and because coal cannot be moved by pipeline. (Moreover, the transportation of coal often creates significant pollution next to the railways, roads, or barges it is being carried on).

energy density
Note: coal may be a lot less energy-dense than natural gas in gravimetric terms, as shown above, but not in volumetric terms: natural gas takes up a lot of space, since it is a gas

Lignite, in fact, which is used commonly in Europe, has such a low bulk-to-value ratio that in most cases it transported only extremely short distances, and often by conveyer belt. A lot of sub-bituminous coal, which is very common in the US, is not much more dense in its energy content.

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Given this bulkiness, coal could also benefit from robots that aid in the transportation sector: namely from self-driving trucks. Coal is often mined in mountainous areas, where building railways is difficult and expensive (railways cannot handle inclines or sharp bends easily, compared to roads). Building railroads to reach mines, or trucking the coal to the nearest railroad, can be an enormous expense. In the US and Canada coal mining also occurs in wintry and relatively remote locations, for example in northern Alberta or in the mountains of Montana and Wyoming, which can cause transport costs to be higher still.

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With self-driving trucks, however, you do not need to pay a driver wages or insure a driver against the event of injury in a mountain-road accident, which saves money, and self-driving trucks can work all night, which improves efficiency. In fact, even large trucks are often too large to use on mountain roads and tunnels (or if there are mountain roads capable of handling them, they are often very expensive to build and maintain), but with self-driving trucks it is possible to use small trucks instead because you don’t have to worry about paying drivers’ wages or insurance. It would otherwise take a lot more drivers to transport coal via small trucks compared to large trucks, since small trucks can carry much less coal per trip.

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Welch, West Virginia

Self-driving trucks could be a huge boon for the coal industry, then. Indeed, because many mining roads are privately owned by mining companies, they may be able to begin using self-driving trucks before normal roads do, since the biggest barrier to adopting self-driving trucks elsewhere may be public regulations.

Finally, robots and computer systems could help in the maintenance of long power lines, which could benefit the coal industry a great deal (and also benefit other industries, like wind power). Current methods of doing this are expensive, unwieldy, and often dangerous. This video may seem outdated, but many of the methods it shows are frequently still used today.

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Surface Mining, common in Wyoming

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And of course, there may also be plenty of opportunities for robots to increase efficiency in the actual mining of coal itself.

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America dominates in the most important category, “Anthracite and Bituminous” coal. Some of its main competitors, notably Russia and Australia, have their coal reserves located in extremely remote parts of the planet. Germany and Greece, meanwhile, antagonists of one another in the “Eurocrisis”, have something in common: they are rich in lignite but poor in coal. Germany gets around 25 percent of its electricity from lignite production and another 18 percent from coal. 
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US Coal production: much has moved from east of the Mississippi River to west of the Mississippi, from underground mining to surface mining, and from bituminous coal to sub-bituminous coal

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4. Developing Economies 

Many developing nations have embraced coal because it is cheap, but this process could slow or even reverse in the future. If it does, it could allow the US to pick up some of the coal slack that developing countries give up, since there is only so much carbon that the world can handle, and since in some cases it could lead manufacturing to relocate to the US. It could also cause the developing world to import more LNG or renewable energy sources from the US, pushing up the cost of those energies in the US when compared to coal.

First, as climate change fears rise, developing countries could begin to have to scale back on coal, whether because their own populations become worried (the developing world in general is more vulnerable to climate change than the developed world is) or because the developed world decides to slap carbon tariffs on their exports.

Second, local pollution in much of the developing world has become so intense that it may cause – and in some cases, is already causing – increasing pushback against coal.

Third, as was mentioned earlier in the article, robots could allow developed countries to “reverse outsource” their manufacturing industries, which would sharply reduce demand for energy in the developing world.

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Electricity use in China is dominated by the industrial sector

Fourth, if urbanization slows in the developing world – which it could, because of such “reverse outsourcing” taking away urban jobs, because of the spread of cell phone and Internet access into rural areas, because of urban air pollution becoming intense and undesirable, and because urban temperatures in developing countries are frequently extremely high compared to rural areas (particularly rural highlands) – then the developing world will demand energy sources that can be accessed in rural areas where there are little or no electricity grids: solar panels, diesel generators, small wind turbines, etcetera. But not coal, which is generally burned in big power plants to power cities and factories.

coal by country

Instability in the developing world might also benefit the US coal industry, allowing the US to increase its coal exports. If, for example, China falls into regional chaos like it did for decades prior to the Communist takeover of the country in the late 1940s, then it could put at risk some or many of the energy supply routes that link China’s energy-rich interior provinces (like Shanxi, Heilongjiang, and the “autonomous regions” of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia) to China’s major urban areas on the coast (like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Beijing-Tianjin, Taipei in Taiwan, and many  others).

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Coal Mining by Province
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Coal-fired power plants map — the region around Shanghai, which does not mine much coal itself (see map above) dominates

Shanxi and Inner Mongolia combined have accounted for more than 15 percent of global coal production in recent years. If China’s coastal cities cannot secure energy supplies from within China, they may turn to importing coal from countries like Australia and even the US instead. This may not be likely to happen, but it is a “black swan” possibility that is worth taking note of, given China’s historical regionalism and the enormous energy and coal consumption of China’s coastal provinces.

This is also true of other energy sources. China’s natural gas, hydro, and most of its oil production, for example, are also located in interior provinces like Heilongjiang, Xinjiang, Sichuan, and Yunnan. They are in fact often located extremely far in the interior, such as in the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, which produces a substantial portion China’s oil, natural gas, and coal.

Xinjiang has a deep ethno-religious divide between Turkic Muslim Uyghers and its more recent Han Chinese settlers, and has very difficult terrain that has historically made it prone to separatism, irredentism (with the Turkic Muslim populations of neighbouring, now-independent Central Asia) and “warlordism”. In Xinjiang, mountains cover an area larger than England and regularly reach heights higher than the highest Rockies. Much of Xinjiang is also covered by deserts or semi-deserts, and the region is so far inland that its capital city, Uruqmi, “has earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the most remote city from any sea in the world. It is about 2,500 kilometres (1,600 mi) from the nearest coastline”.

china gas provinces.png

china oil by province
China is the world’s fourth largest oil producer, trailing only Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Russia
china pipelines
China’s natural gas network is not extensive like the United States’ is. If a single line were to be endangered as a result of political unrest – for example, the connection to the cities of Guangzhou and Hong Kong, where much of China’s economic activity is located – China might have to look to imports of energy from abroad to make up the difference. This map comes from the US Energy Information Agency 
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Natural gas pipelines in the US

China has, similarly, also pinned hydro hopes on Tibet; a risky proposition given its intensely difficult terrain, remoteness, ethno-religious resistance to Chinese settlement and domination, and position as the source of most of India’s, China’s, and Southeast Asia’s live-giving rivers.

China’s energy imports come mostly, however, from Siberia, Central Asia, or from Oceania, Africa, or most often the Middle East (by way of the Strait of Hormuz, the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Malacca, and South China Sea). Should these supply routes be imperilled, Chinese coastal cities could be forced to import energy across the Pacific from the Americas instead.

indian-ocean-bases

13 percent of China’s oil imports comes from Angola, even, according to the US Energy Information Agency, more than from any country apart from Saudi Arabia (16 percent). Angola, apart from being a formerly war-torn country that remains full of material poverty and ethnic division, is located very far away from China, on the Atlantic rather than Indian Ocean coast of the African continent. For its oil to reach China, it must first round the southern tip of Africa, passing waterways controlled by Angola’s regional rival South Africa.

india-map-coalreserves
A somewhat similar thing could happen, theoretically at least, in India, the world’s third largest coal producer and fourth largest coal importer. Much of the Indias’s oil and gas is produced or processed in states like Gujarat and Rajasthan, while most of its coal is produced in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha, states which account for two-thirds of India’s coal reserves.
India_map_Naxal_Left-wing_violence_or_activity_affected_districts_2013
There is a close overlap between India’s Naxalite-Maoist insurgency and India’s coal producing regions. The exception is Assam-Maghalaya region, but this region, which is connected to the rest of the country by a narrow land bridge between Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan, has its own set of severe problems and insurgencies. Finally, you’ve got the Telangana-Andhra Pradesh complication.

It may also become more economical to have solar power harnessed in the developing world more than or instead of in the developed world. This is because in the developing world, peak energy may increasingly occur at the same time as peak sunlight: in order to power air conditioning for billions of people when its 30-50+ degrees Celsius outside. In the developed world, in contrast, air conditioners are already widespread, and in many places peak energy use occurs when the sun is not bright, for example to power heating units in the winter, or to power perennially overcast places like Britain or Seattle, or to keep the lights on during super-long winter evenings in Scandinavia, or perhaps eventually to power electric cars overnight.

The developing world may also be increasingly likely to use airplanes more often than the developed world does. This is an important point, as airplanes arguably contribute to climate change  more than all the cars on the world’s roads combined (at least, over a five-year timespan), since they emit lots of greenhouse gasses at high altitudes. Developing countries may need to use airplanes more because much of the developing world is located in areas where land-based transport can be difficult: in mountainous or hilly areas, in deserts, in the Tropics, in archipelagos, in rural areas, in conflict-prone areas, and in densely populated cities with terrible traffic jams.

The developed world, on the other hand, may even replace its own airplane usage with land-based transport in some cases, as a result of the technological advances occurring within the land-based transportation sector. Instead of flying from New York City to Florida, Sydney to Melbourne, or even London to Barcelona, people may take the train or bus instead (making use of the wi-fi on the train or the bus along the way, as well as the ability to use services like Uber and Zipcar to get around once they have arrived at their destination) or eventually even take a self-driving vehicle.

5. War

During World War Two, inter-continental weapons did not exist, so US shores were safe from attack (with a few exceptions). During the Cold War inter-continental weapons did exist, but the US was saved from attack by its massive deterrent of nuclear and conventional weapons.

Today, however, precision “smart-bombs” and precision cyber-weapons exist, putting the US at risk (in theory, at least) of a surprise attack on its military and industrial infrastructure. Because a large-scale precision attack would cause very few deaths by WW2 or Cold War standards – a factory could in some cases be destroyed overnight and kill only the night watchman, while cyber-weapons can disable an entire electricity grid without killing anyone – it could mean that an enemy country could be more willing to take the risk of launching such an attack. In other words, the technological advances that are making war less deadly may also end up making war more likely to occur.

The Pentagon is undoubtedly going to spend hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars to defend against and prepare for such a possibility. It has already done this in recent decades with its ballistic missile defence systems; however these might be inadequate on their own, as North America could simply be too big a place to protect in its entirety.

As the precision-weapons era matures throughout the militaries of the world, the Pentagon may decide to take the additional step of shielding US industry by clustering a few “mega-industrial areas”, capable of producing both military and essential non-military goods,  that it can then build more impenetrable defence shields (including “cyber-shields”) around. The idea will be that it is far easier to defend an area the size of a city than it is to defend an area the size of a continent. Other militaries around the world may do a similar thing.

The question is, then, if these military-shielded mega-industrial areas do become a reality, will it be coal that powers them?

It seems quite plausible that it will be. The main alternative, natural gas, is difficult to transport by truck, and natural gas pipeline networks and gas production sites could be vulnerable in the event of war, as could be electricity grids. Coal, however, can be transported by truck, and much of the coal production in the US is already concentrated in just a single state in the heart of the country, Wyoming. Moreover, coal can be stockpiled in enormous quantities, whereas gas is very difficult to store in large quantities.

toptwo

Oil could conceivably be used instead of coal, but the US has few oil-fired power plants, and oil would be needed in large quantities to power the many military vehicles and fleet of trucks the US would need to fight a war, so it would not necessarily be available to use for electricity production.

Other countries too might use coal if they decide to build military-defended mega-industrial areas. Many significant countries in the world have coal mines or coal reserves, yet do not produce natural gas or oil in as significant quantities. These include Germany, India, England, Turkey, Poland, and China, for example. Moreover, countries can build up huge stockpiles of imported coal, which they cannot do with natural gas.

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coal production by province

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A mega-industrial region of this kind, backed by the military, could perhaps also allow carbon capture and storage to finally become economically viable. Carbon capture and storage is a key component of mitigating global warming if fossil fuels are not going to be phased out, yet thus far it has been far from economical. But whereas it has not been achievable for a single power plant, if you cluster many power plants together in one area, it could maybe allow for the economy of scale necessary to make carbon capture more affordable.

If, finally, tensions between Russia and “the West” continue to deteriorate, or if the situation in Ukraine continues to destabilize, it might lead to European countries to have to turn to imports of energy from the Americas to make up for the natural gas and coal they would have to stop importing from Russia and Ukraine. This too could help to push up the price of US coal.

Conclusion 

I am just playing devil’s advocate here, of course.  I don’t actually have any idea what the future of the American or global coal industry will be. Still, judging by the fact that the Dow Jones US coal index has nearly tripled since the start of 2016 (though it still remains around 80 percent lower than it was as recently as mid-2014), I may not be the only one to be doing this.

Investors Aloud

Hello! I’ve made a new website, investorsaloud.com. It’s a bit of a work in progress at the moment, but please check it out anyway if you are interested. I hope you like it.

All the best,
Joseph

Fasten Your Snowbelts – Technology and the Great Lakes

Outside of the Rocky Mountains, most of the snowfall in the United State falls within the Great Lakes “Snowbelts”. So too does a significant portion of the snow that falls within Canadian cities. These Snowbelts are located, almost entirely, in Michigan, upstate New York, or Ontario:

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The Great Lake Snowbelts
US Snow Map .png
Source: USA.com; Portacup

In the map above, which shows average yearly snowfall in the more than 3000 counties of the United States, there are just 29 counties (according to my count) that receive 120+ inches of snow, 30 counties that receive 100-120 inches of snow, 50 counties that receive 80-100 inches of snow, and around 100 counties that receive 60-80 inches of snow.

13 of the 29 with 120+ inches of snow are in the Great Lakes Snowbelts (8 of the remaining 16 counties with 120+ inches of snow are in Colorado). 15 of the 30 counties with 100-120 inches of snow are in the Great Lakes Snowbelts (compared to 5 in Colorado and 5 in Vermont or Maine). 24 of the 50 counties with 80-100 inches are in the Great Lakes Snowbelts (compared to 7 in Colorado, 4 in Alaska, and 9 in Vermont, New Hampshire, or Maine). And about half of the 100 or so counties with 60-80 inches are in states which border the Great Lakes.

As you can see in the maps below, this has had a big impact on urban development within the Great Lakes basin. The largest cities, namely Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, and most of Cleveland-Akron, are located outside of the region’s snowbelts. Chicago, for example, gets only a third of the snow on average that Rochester, NY gets in any given year, and a sixth of what cities like Oswego, NY get.

great lake pop

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With the exception of Sault St Marie, each of these cities has a population of at least 100,000. Sault St Marie is the quintessential Great Lakes city, however; it is located around the place where Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan, the three largest great lakes, converge. It has a population of 75,000 on the Canadian side of the city and 14,000 on the US side. New York City, meanwhile, is obviously not on the Great Lakes, but I included it anyway to show as a comparison    …also, please forgive our misspelling of “Erie” on the graph above

There are, of course, some notable cities within the Great Lake Snowbelts. Buffalo, for example, which serves as New York state’s outlet on Lake Erie, was the 8th most populous city in the United States in 1900, and the 4th most populous city in the US that did not have an ocean port. (A year later, in 1901, President Mckinley was assassinated in Buffalo at the Pan-American Exposition). This was before the construction of the US’s road and rail networks stripped the Erie Canal, and thus Buffalo, of most of its economic significance. Today Buffalo is estimated to be just the 76th most populous city and the 46th most populous “urban area” in the country. It has recently had one of America’s fastest shrinking populations.

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Erie Canal

Erie, Pennsylvania, meanwhile, was the country’s 69th most populous city in the US in 1930. Erie once served as the meeting place for three separate American railway networks, which used different gauges as one another, before these networks were standardized during the middle of the 19th century. Today Erie is not even in the top 300 most populous cities in the US and is just its 183rd most populous “urban area“. It too has a fast-shrinking population.

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Rochester and Syracuse were the 22nd and 40th most populous cities in the US in 1930, respectively, but are now just the 103rd and 182nd most populous cities and the 60th and 90th most populous “urban areas”. Rochester and Syracuse serve as New York state’s outlets on Lake Ontario, just as Buffalo does on Lake Erie. Rochester is located 11 km inland from Lake Ontario and Syracuse 53 km inland, however, unlike some of the non-snowbelt cities on Lake Ontario like Toronto, Hamilton, and Kingston, which are situated directly on the lake.

Grand Rapids is listed as the 123rd most populous city in the US and the 70th most populous “urban area”. It is Michigan’s second largest city and serves as the state’s chief outlet on Lake Michigan. Like Syracuse, it too is located inland: it is 50 km upriver from the Lake. As you can see in the map below, Grand Rapids is the only place along Lake Michigan’s coast where the lake’s coastal lowland (the green areas on the map) extends relatively far inland.

great lakes
Note, by the way, how Lake Superior presents challenges to urban development: it is further north than the other Great Lakes, has snowbelts on both its eastern and its southern shores, and it has very narrow coastal plains overlooked by escarpments. The main Lake Superior port city of Duluth, Minnesota gets more snow (86 inches) than any other city in the state –  a lot more snow in most cases. (Minneapolis gets 54 inches). Thunder Bay, which is Canada’s primary Lake Superior outlet, gets 64 inches of snow.
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I forgot to add Syracuse, which should be second on this list: it gets 123 inches of snow on average, according to currentresults.com.

Cleveland’s numbers on the graph above are somewhat misleading. They are skewed upward because some of Cleveland’s suburbs, like Broadview Heights, usually get much more snow than Cleveland proper does. Akron, meanwhile, gets even less than Cleveland: just 47.4 inches of snow a year. Akron gets less than half of what nearby Erie in Pennsylvania gets. Pittsburgh, by the way, gets 41.9 inches of snow a year, on average.

eerie snowbelt

Outside of the big and medium-sized Great Lakes cities, there are places in the Snowbelts that get even more snow. Lake Ontario coastal towns in the area from Oswego (population: 18, 142) to Watertown (population 27,823), get well over 100 inches of snow a year. Marquette in Michigan and Owen Sound in Ontario do too. And even smaller places like Boonville, New York (population 2056), in the foothills of the Adirondacks, and Hancock in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (population 4596) get more than 200 inches on average. According to this source, Hancock is the snowiest city in the United States among cities or towns with at least 1000 residents, with the exception of Valdez, Alaska or Crested Butte, Colorado.

watertown to oswego
…assuming you don’t get caught in a whiteout

 

Why does any of this matter? 

The Great Lake Snowbelts have posed challenges for urban development thus far. Buffalo is by far the most populous snowbelt urban area, and even Buffalo is not a big city. And apart from Erie, Rochester, and Syracuse in the US or London, Barrie, and Sudbury in Ontario, there are no other Great Lake cities that get more than 70 inches of snow a year on average and have populations of at least 100,000. It simply has not made sense to grow a city in a place with so much snow.

Technology, however, could be a game-changer when it comes to dealing with snow and with snowstorms, which could in turn could give a boost to the economies – or real estate values – of this region. This is particularly relevant given that this is a region that otherwise has great assets, such as the Great Lakes and physical proximity to Manhattan, Toronto, Chicago, and other major North American cities. Indeed, even the snow itself can be an asset once its limitations can be overcome. Snowfall is not only beautiful, but also provides recreation (skiing, cross-country skiing, taboganning, etc.) and can help to prevent forest fires.

One technology that could help the Snowbelt is self-driving snowplows. It makes sense that self-driving snowplows should come into operation even before self-driving cars or trucks do, as snowplows are often in demand overnight, when few other drivers are on the road and labour costs are high. Snowplows drive and work slowly, meaning that plowing roads normally tends to be labour-intensive and that self-driving plows working overnight would probably not be as much as a safety hazard as faster self-driving cars might initially be.

Similarly, snow-clearing robots can help clear parking lots, sidewalks, and, most helpfully, rooftops. Rooftop snow can be especially damaging to buildings, and is often difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to clear.

Another technological change is e-commuting and e-commerce. If you do not want to commute to work following a heavy snowfall, you may now work from home instead, or from an office or co-working space near your house. And you may order your groceries directly to your house.

If you do not want to drive while it is snowing or has recently snowed, you may also soon be able to use an app like Uber or Uberpool to get around in a vehicle that can better handle harsh conditions.

And if you are driving, you can use tools like GPS and smarter cars to better handle snow. Today, driving in a road that does not have street lighting while it is snowing can be hugely irritating and dangerous; when you turn your headlights on the light ends up scattering off the snowflakes, making it nearly impossible to see. There is also often snow covering the surface of the road, making it difficult to see the barrier between your lane and the lane for oncoming traffic. You often have to drive extremely slowly, and even then can easily get your car stuck in a snowbank or suffer a car accident.

GPS can help you can quicker emergency response or roadside assistance. And technologists are working on tools to help cars and trucks navigate through heavy snowfall and help drivers to avoid getting into accidents when in rough, wintry conditions. Self-driving trucks travelling overnight could also help get trucks off the road during the daytime, and to save truckers the trouble and danger of having to drive through a snowstorm.

Now, a little bit more on the Snowbelt:

Nearly all the Snowbelt are in Ontario, Michigan, or upstate New York. The snowbelts in upstate New York and Eerie, Pennsylvania are strategically located at the “backdoor” to the Boston-to-Washington megacity (which you can see in the map below), and are similarly adjacent to the Toronto-to-Detroit (or, more broadly, the Montreal-to-Chicago) region.

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population density/major urban areas in the US

According to Accuweather, of the 10 snowiest “major” cities in the world, three are in New York state (Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse), three are in Canada (Saguenay in Quebec, St John’s in Newfoundland, and Quebec City), and four are in northern Japan (Sapporo, Aomori, Toyama, and Akita). Aomori gets the most by far: 312 inches, compared to second-placed Sapporo which gets “just” 191 inches.

In Canada, unlike the United States, the Great Lakes Snowbelts don’t dominate in the snowfall category, since places further north where the weather is colder often get more. French-speaking cities like Quebec City, Saguenay, and Sherbrooke, for example, get more snow than places throughout much of the Great Lake Snowbelts, mainly because they have very cold climates.

average snow in canada

St John’s, Moncton, and Cape Breton, on the other hand, which are in Canada’s Atlantic Maritime provinces, are actually relatively warm, yet still receive enormous amounts of snow. St. John’s,  which is the largest and snowiest of these three, is actually one of the warmest cities in Canada outside of British Columbia during the winter; its coldest month is February, when it averages highs of -1 degrees Celsius and lows of -9 degrees Celsius. But in return for this “balmy” winter weather St John’s also gets cooler summers than other Canadian cities: its average high in August is just 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).

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Finally, one last thing on Snowbelt snow patterns, from theweatherprediction.com. They can be highly erratic and different to forecast in advance:

“Lake-effect snow has been a forecaster’s nightmare from when maps were drawn by hand to the current days of computer predicted models. But no one computer can accurately predict the magnitude or severity of a lake- effect event with the same success as a synoptic event. To describe lake effect snow as temperamental would be a gross understatement. Often arranging itself in rogue bands of heavy snow, lake- effect can stop and start on a dime, and it can dump a foot of snow on one neighborhood and leave the residents of another wondering why the idiot meteorologist keeps breaking into Oprah about some kind of Lake Effect Snow Warning.

And in its unpredictable nature comes its beauty. One of natures precious wintertime treats, just the prospect of lake- effect snow strikes both fear and awe in the hearts of a forecaster. There are, however, trends. Subtle nuances that fade in the background to the untrained eye, but trends nonetheless. If nothing else, these trends offer a faint possibility that maybe, just maybe, Mother Nature may be following a game plan all along.

…Conditions [for lake-effect snow to form] are so difficult to achieve in one given place that lake effect only occurs in four locations on the entire planet: the southeast shoreline of the Hudson Bay, areas just east of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido, and of course, the Great Lakes.

Lake snows generate downwind of the Lakes. Sure, lots of people live near a Great Lake, but only a few lucky ones live downwind. Downwind though, is very much a relative term. One day, it takes a west wind. Another, a north wind. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Pace yourself. Meteorology follows from this point on.Read more here.

 

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Lake effect snow storm coats car in ice. Yikes.

 

The Return of the Atlantic

This article was written for an essay contest, so the style is a little bit different from others on this site. It was first written three years ago, when most people had not yet become bearish on the Chinese economy and politicians in the US were still talking a lot about America’s “pivot to Asia”. The essay discusses the possibility that the Atlantic regions – North America, South America, Europe, and much of Africa – will remain at the heart of the international system in the years and decades to come, for better or for worse.

Hope you like it!

Atlantic_Ocean_laea_relief_location_map

The Return of the Atlantic 

For nearly 500 years, the Atlantic Ocean was the unrivalled centre of the international system, connecting Europe to its expansive economic and imperial networks in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Transatlantic trade continued to exceed transpacific trade as recently as the late 1980s, while at the same time the transatlantic alliance against the Soviet Union remained the world’s most important geopolitical partnership. Indeed it seems incredible to recall now, but China, India, Indonesia, Korea, and Australia combined had a smaller economic output than West Germany in 1990.

Today, in contrast, the European Union and United States both import more goods from China alone than they do from one another, and the Cold War has been over for a quarter of a century. The Pacific has in many ways become the new centre of the world: it is home to the three largest economies of America, China, and Japan, is the highway for East Asian imports of commodities and exports of manufactured goods, and acts as a base for nearly 75 percent of US soldiers stationed outside of North America or Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, a majority of economists, politicians, and journalists believe that the continued economic growth of populous Asian countries like China, India, and Indonesia means that the centrality of the Pacific has only just begun.

In this essay we will argue that, even as it remains popular to herald the arrival of a “Pacific Century” (to quote a famous Hillary Clinton op-ed in Foreign Policy magazine), it will actually be the Atlantic that will become once again the centre of the international system, serving as the corridor of an expanding economic network that will incorporate Europe, the Americas, much of Africa, and to a lesser extent even parts of southern Asia. Transatlantic commerce is likely to once again exceed the value of transpacific commerce and, partly by doing so, it will help to serve as an organizing force in global geopolitics. We hope it will serve as a force for good in the world as well.

To be sure, while we view this Atlantic phenomenon as likely to be brought about by economic, cultural, and linguistic circumstances that are already actively or latently in place, we will also argue that, from a policy perspective, the political effectiveness and ethical utility of such a reinvigorated transatlantic relationship will depend on the extent to which efforts are made to reduce carbon emissions in developed economies, as well as on the extent to which efforts are made to provide honest and constructive assistance to struggling countries within the developing world.

The Pacific Moment

The rise of transpacific trade during the latter half of the 20th century occurred as a result of a unique set of circumstances. These were, specifically, the reconstruction of the Japanese economy following its destruction in the Second World War, the emergence of South Korea and Taiwan following their adoption by the United States as strategically-located allies in 1950, and the rapid growth of coastal Chinese states following their devastation during the Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War, and isolationist era under Mao, which occurred in an overlapping succession from 1927 until 1979. These four countries have caused transpacific commerce to soar in recent decades, with help from Southeast Asian success stories like Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia.

While this rising transpacific trade has certainly deserved the widespread public attention it has received, it has nevertheless served to overshadow a number of other key characteristics of the global economy, which instead highlight the enduring significance of the Atlantic Ocean. These include the fact that roughly 65 percent of both the world’s nominal economic output and private consumer spending are located in the Atlantic basin rather than in the Pacific basin; that more than 70 percent of the populations of North America, South America, and Sub-Saharan Africa live within the Atlantic basin rather than the Pacific basin; that the Pacific generally takes 2-4 times longer to cross widthwise by ship than the Atlantic does; that the quantity of transatlantic investment is estimated to be 5-10 times greater than transpacific investment; and that Indian and Pakistani trade and labour crosses the Atlantic, Mediterranean, or Arabian Sea far more often they do the Pacific.

The reemergence of transatlantic interactivity as a defining feature of the international system will simply reflect these enduring realities. In addition, it will be driven by a set of economic evolutions that are beginning to revive transatlantic trade relative to transpacific trade, as well as by the continued spread of modern communications and the emergence of African and Latin American economies, which are helping to increase the political and economic significance of the cultural, social, and linguistic affiliations that bind together the four continents of the Atlantic world.

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Transatlantic Connections

Atlantic regions share a number of important connections with one another. The first is cultural: unlike in Asia, the overwhelming majority of people in the Americas are of European or African heritage. Most have ancestors that arrived within just the past century or two. This could have increasingly powerful political and economic consequences in the future, particularly as the economies of Africa develop and as African populations in the Americas become wealthier and more empowered (most notably the 40 million US African-Americans, 28 million Afro- Caribbeans, 15 million Afro-Brazilians, and 80 million Brazilians who identify as being of mixed ancestry), such that it will no longer just be white Americans and Europeans engaged in the most significant transatlantic partnerships.

The second transatlantic connection is a social one, the result of technology increasingly allowing first-, second-, and even third-generation immigrants in the developed world to maintain relationships with family members, friends, and acquaintances back in their countries of origin. Crucially, immigrants in North America and Europe come overwhelmingly from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, or the Mediterranean basin. More than half of the foreign-born population in the United States arrived from Latin America alone, and there are about four times as many first-generation immigrants in the European Union from Africa or the Americas as there are from East Asia.

There are, in fact, already 2-3 million Latino-Americans living in Spain, and more than 50 million living in the United States. Africa’s emigration rate to both Europe and North America, meanwhile, has risen at a faster pace than that of any other region since 1980, and is likely to continue to do so as a result of the fact that the average birth rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is nearly twice as high, and the per capita income nearly twice as low, as that of any other part of the world.

Finally, and in our opinion most importantly, there are the transatlantic linguistic connections. Over 80 percent of the world’s nearly 1.5 billion native speakers of Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, or Arabic live within the Atlantic or Mediterranean basins; each of these languages is fairly prominent within at least three separate continents. English, moreover, is far more widespread in mainland Europe than it is in any other continent apart from North America (or Australia). Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Belgium are particularly proficient; according to some estimates, 60-90 percent of their populations are able to speak English In France, Italy, and Poland, meanwhile, the share of English speakers is estimated at 30-40 percent, which is still far ahead of countries like China, Japan, Indonesia, and even India.

In Africa, European languages are also spoken more widely than in most other areas of the world. This is partially the result of to the continent’s colonial histories, many of which ended as recently as the 1960’s or 1970’s. It is, however, also the result of Sub-Saharan countries tending to be linguistically diverse, such that their use of European languages as lingua franca remains common practice. Indeed, despite having the world’s lowest density of accessible schools, televisions, computers, and satellite dishes, English is already spoken by a greater number of people in Africa than in more populous India, both as a native language and as a secondary one.

French, meanwhile, is used by an estimated 90 million Africans, Portuguese by an estimated 20 million Africans, and Arabic as far south as the Sahel.24 In South Africa approximately 20 million people understand Afrikaans, a language that is for the most part mutually intelligible with Dutch. Over 85 percent of Africa’s English-speaking population and nearly all of Africa’s French-, Portuguese-, Arabic-, and Afrikaans-speaking populations live within the Atlantic or Mediterranean basins.

Also important is that over 40 percent of Africa’s population is under the age of fifteen. This makes it the world’s youngest region by a considerable margin: by comparison, only 15 percent of China’s population and 29 percent of India’s population are younger than fifteen. Children possess the ability to learn languages many times more easily than adults can, particularly if they have access to schooling, books, media, and modern communications.

Africa’s current generation of children might become the first to grow up with widespread access to such tools, which might therefore help African economies to develop and integrate with the other continents of the Atlantic world. This is also one reason why it would be wise from a policy standpoint for Europe and North America to immediately support economic development in Africa, since doing so would help African populations gain access to more education and information now while they are still young.

Shifting Trade Patterns

In 2013, Chinese coastal cities had an average nominal per capita income of roughly $20,000, nearly as high as those of South Korea and Taiwan. The median age in China is 37, about the same as in the US; in South Korea and Taiwan the median age is 40. These are no longer really “emerging markets”, in other words. Rather than experience another lengthy period of rapid economic growth that would continue to drive up transpacific trade, they will instead be undergoing various structural evolutions, as all maturing economies tend to do over time.

In the coastal areas of China, this evolution is likely to be from an economy oriented around exports of lower-end manufactured goods to an economy that exports value-added goods and services and is more reliant on the private consumption of its own population. Such shifts are natural for a middle-income economy like China to experience, but they may also reduce the quantity of China’s transpacific imports of industrial commodities and transpacific exports of manufactured goods.

Economic growth in the poorer interior provinces of China, meanwhile, or in the even poorer Indian subcontinent, is not certain to bring about the continued rise of transpacific commerce either. The emerging provinces of the populous Chinese interior are likely to trade mainly with coastal Chinese provinces and other countries in Asia, rather than with economies overseas. Today, for instance, in Sichuan and Henan, the two largest inland Chinese provinces, exports account for around just 4 percent of provincial economic output, almost nothing compared to the 47 percent of economic output that exports account for in coastal China’s two largest provinces, Guangdong and Jiangsu.

In addition, given the crowdedness of China’s coastal cities and ports, the interior provinces of China may also increasingly avoid using the Pacific in favour of the more direct “Silk Road” routes to Europe, or in favour of using Myanmar’s commercially navigable Irrawaddy River to directly access the Indian Ocean.The economic emergence of the Indian subcontinent, meanwhile, could perhaps lead transatlantic commerce to rise faster than transpacific trade, as India and its neighbours may partially succeed China in supplying cheap goods or services to consumers in the Atlantic world.

As they emerge, the Indian subcontinent and the Chinese interior will also be importing rapidly growing quantities of oil and gas from the the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and Russia. Indeed, India and Pakistan already receive roughly 75 percent of their oil and gas imports and an astonishing 30 percent of their imports of goods in general from the Persian Gulf. China’s interior provinces, meanwhile, get around 75 percent of their gas imports from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and 30 percent of their oil imports from Russia and Kazakhstan. These imports are likely to increase, not only because of India’s and China’s continued growth, but also because of their shared desire to consume less coal, on which they rely for an average of about 65 percent of their energy consumption.

This need to import large quantities of energy could lead to competition, rather than cooperation, between regional powers like China, India, and Japan, potentially undermining Asia’s ability to cooperate as a more coherent political unit. (In contrast, the Atlantic world consists mainly of synergistic relationships where energy is concerned: Europe is a net energy importer, South America and Africa are net energy exporters, and North America is not too far from reaching the “energy independence” it has long dreamed about). Moreover, because the European Union itself currently receives around 60 percent of its oil and gas imports from Russia, the Persian Gulf, or Central Asia, the increasing energy consumption of Asia may force Europe to begin importing much more energy from the Americas or western Africa instead, further boosting transatlantic trade.

Conclusion: Policy Framework

While the renewed significance of the Atlantic is likely to occur mainly as a result of the commercial, cultural, social, and linguistic factors discussed above, we believe that specific policy goals are nevertheless required to ensure that such a renewal occurs in a manner that is both ethical and politically effective on a global level. Two policies in particular may be advisable in this regard:

One is the implementation of per capita carbon emissions taxes. Such taxes would likely facilitate transatlantic commerce through the export of European energy-saving and clean energy production technologies to the emissions-intensive markets of North America, whilst simultaneously providing both Europe and America with a more responsible and defensible platform in climate treaty negotiations with industrialized Asian economies that have much lower per capita and historical emissions levels.

The other is increasing political outreach and economic assistance to struggling countries, particularly those within Africa. Africa contains many of the world’s greatest challenges if it is not constructively engaged with, and it also has a youthful and diverse population of more than a billion people, vast reserves of natural resources, and linguistic and social connections with Europe and the Americas. All of these qualities make it a necessary component of any revitalized transatlantic project.

Of course, each of these policies deserves much more focus than we have left to spare in this essay. Yet still we feel confident in saying that, if these two policies are diligently and honestly pursued, then the unexpected return of the Atlantic as the central corridor of the international system would not only become more likely to occur, but will also be much more welcome when it does.

Guest Post: Political Turnover Rate in the US

Here’s a guest post from VacuousWastrel, which I enjoyed reading. Hope you like it too.

Political Turnover Rate in the United States 

America is, like a lot of democracies, a two-party country, more or less. There’s one party, and then there’s the other party, and people tend to consistently vote for one or for the other and that’s just how it is and always has been. Nothing special there. As I say, it’s common. It reflects in part the simple plurality (or ‘first past the post’) electoral system, which privileges the two largest parties, but also to a large extent the social cleavages within the nation.

That’s why most countries (not all, but most) with multi-party systems in practice tend most of the time have those parties line up in two blocs – one of the left, and one of the right, although in individual countries local issues may also play a role in defining how the blocs see themselves, and how they compete. [Long-term additional parties or blocs likewise tend to reflect additional cleavages – regional parties that reflect differences in national or ethnic identity, for example]

As a result of parties being based on underlying cleavages, parties tend to be static: the same people, and the same places, keep on voting for the same parties, or their successor parties. There are parts of the UK that have voted Conservative (or, before that, Tory) every election since the 1830s.

But parties aren’t fixed in stone, and the biggest example of that is the US (perhaps in part because historically both major parties were broadly ‘liberal’ middle-class parties, more flexible than the labour parties, agrarian parties or religious parties, or even conservative parties, found in most other democracies). It’s well known that the US has gone through several different ‘party systems’, in which its parties had different names, or drew from different bases of support, or competed on very different issues. What that means on the ground is that areas have gone from supporting one party to supporting another.

And that, excuse the longwindedness, is what I’ve just been intrigued by. How far do you have to go back before all the states in the US voted differently from how they do now? How often has such a complete turnover occurred? How quickly does it occur?

This isn’t an academic study, it’s just me looking at some historical election results. There are ambiguities around the edges, mostly around how you define which parties are the successors to which earlier parties – I’ve taken an inclusive, common sense line on succession, because I’m interested in real changes in voting, not just party rebrandings. And for my purposes here, I’m defining a “turnover” or “transition” as a period of time from Year X to Year Y, inclusive, when every state had been admitted to the union by Year X had voted for two different parties by Year Y – which means that during that time, no states (other than those that entered the union during that period) remained loyal to a single party. And the turnovers that have occurred are:

 

1: 1789 – 1820: the Connecticut / Delaware Transition

This one is nice and clear cut: in 1789, every single state voted for Washington’s Federalists; in 1820, every single state voted for Monroe’s Democratic-Republicans. I’ve called this the Connecticut/Delaware Transition, because those are the only two states that didn’t vote D-R in 1804 – the country was, as it were, kept waiting for those two states to switch allegiance. Because these transition periods are about both change and continuity: change in that across the period all states changed their votes, but continuity because they are defined by the end of a state’s loyalty – in this case, Connecticut and Delaware voted Federalist every election up to, but not including, 1820. This example turns out to be commonplace: often transitions revolve around a big wave election like 1804, with just a few loyal states that are then picked off more slowly later on.

 

2: 1796 – 1860: the Virginia Transition

The one-party state established during the C/D Transition eventually broke down. And by ‘eventually’, I mean the very next election, in 1824, when four different candidates ran, all nominally as Democratic-Republicans – the two new parties, the Democrats and the National Republicans, were only formalised for the 1828 cycle. I’ve chosen to consider the Democrats as the successor party to the D-Rs – the Democrat Jackson was the candidate with the most votes in 1828 (though he lost the election when the House settled on his rival, John Quincy Adams, instead), and the self-declared ‘Old Republicans’, who wanted to restore the perceived traditional values of the party, eventually sided with the Democrats, rather than with the National Republicans.

This transition therefore represents the loss of dominance by the D-R/Democratic Party and the rise of a sequence of new parties – National Republicans, Whigs, and finally Republicans. Virginia was the final hold-out, voting the same way for 64 years, before finally voting for the Constitutional Union Party on the eve of the civil war – it would take until 1872 before they finally went the whole way and voted Republican.

 

3: 1820-1868: the Alabama Transition

This transition can be seen as an extension of the second: it exists because several states entered the union after 1796, including a couple that would prove faithfully Democratic for decades: Missouri and Alabama. Missouri finally voted Republican in 1864, when Alabama was in secession; Alabama joined it the next cycle. The period represents the transition to a Republican-dominant system after the civil war.

 

4: 1828 – 1912: the Massachusetts Transition

The third transition may have left the Republicans dominant, but the Democrats were able to recover, and even to pick off traditionally Republican states. The transition ended with the unusual election of 1912: with the Republicans split into two parties, the Democrats under Wilson were able to make sweeping gains, including finally grabbing the Republican stronghold of Massachusetts, which had voted Republican (and before that Whig, and before that National Republican, and before that for the Adams faction) since 1828.

 

5: 1836 – 1964: the Vermont Transition

In the middle of the 20th century, power swung dramatically backward and forward, with the Democrats scoring crushing victories in 1932 and 1936, and Republicans doing likewise in 1928, 1952, and 1956. But each wave broke against the shores of the same enemy strongholds: the Democrat south and the Republican northeast. The final breakthrough didn’t come until LBJ’s sweeping victory in 1964, which finally knocked out the Republicans everywhere except, ironically, the south, and Arizona.

In the short term, the shift of the southern states to the Republicans looked more striking – but the southern states had already all voted Republican before, mostly in the aftermath of the civil war. The real hold-out was Vermont, which had been loyal to the Republicans (etc) since 1836. Remarkably, the only reason which this transition was so ‘short’ was that Vermont in 1832 had voted for the Anti-Masonic Party – the state had never actually voted Democrat before.

 

6: 1876 – 1968: the Arkansas Transition

Here’s the one that symbolises the loss of the Democrat south. After the initial post-civil-war confusion, the south went back to being soundly Democrat until the time of LBJ. Many southern states flipped in 1964, but Arkansas lasted until 1968, when it voted for Wallace’s American Independents. It went the whole way and voted Republican in 1972, not quite making it to the century mark…

 

7: 1952 – 1996: the Arizona Transition

While all that business with the south and the northeast was going on, something else had changed: Arizona, which had swung to the Democrats with FDR, swung back in the high-water Republican election of 1952. It wasn’t pried out of their hands again until Clinton’s re-election in 1996 (and that was a one-off). It’s actually a slightly bigger deal than it might seem: the most loyal of Eisenhower’s states in the far west (that is, the only one not to vote for Johnson in ’64), even its temporary loss is emblematic of the gradual transition of those Eisenhower states from Republican to Democrat: Washington and Oregon switched in ’88, California in ’92, and Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico have all become active states again. Montana and Arizona have both toyed with the Democrats, leaving only Utah and Idaho as loyal Eisenhower states (since ’64). And I guess Wyoming.

 

8: 1968 – ? : the Western Transition

We don’t know how long this transition will last, but I’m guessing it may take a while. The interesting thing is that the Republican stronghold this time (and this transition will be a matter of eroding Republican support – the current Democratic strongholds weren’t established until later) isn’t, in historical terms at least, the South at all, despite popular perception. The Southern states have already betrayed the Republicans: en masse to vote for Carter, and then piecemeal to vote for Clinton.

Instead, the historical core of Republican support in this transition has been in the west: the Wilkie states (that emerged as a bloc voting for Wilkie and then Dewey against Roosevelt and Truman) of Kansas, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota, plus the remaining Eisenhower states of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Plus Oklahoma, which also swung with Eisenhower but doesn’t really fit. Plus Alaska, which didn’t vote until 1960, but can probably be considered an Eisenhower state. All nine states went Democrat for Johnson in ’64, but switched back in ’68 and have never looked back. Not until all nine have voted Democrat at least once will the current transition be complete.

 

Note: due to the way these transitions are calculated, for each starting year after one of the years listed above, there is a complete turnover by the end-point of the last-listed transition. Put plainly: the 1789 and 1792 situations were both completely turned over by 1820; the 1796, 1800, 1804, 1808, 1812 and 1816 situations were all turned over by 1860; 1820 and 1824 were both turned over by 1868; the elections from 1828 to 1836 were all turned over by 1912, and so on. And conversely, because the current unfinished cycle began in 1968, that means that 1964 is the most recent election outside this cycle – that is, since 1964 every state has voted both ways, but that is not the case since 1968.

From this we can calculate the slowest and quickest turnovers. The electoral map in 1836 was not completely overturned until 1964, a record 128 years of relative stability [other strongholds during this time included Alabama and Mississippi (minus some Reconstruction-era elections) and Georgia (minus a flirtation with the Whigs in the 1840s) for the Democrats, and Maine (again, minus some confusion in the 1840s) for the Whigs/Republicans]. At the other end of the spectrum, the quickest total turnover was between 1948 and 1968 – specifically, only 5 states didn’t vote the opposite way in 1956 and 1964, and two of those (West Virginia and Kentucky) flipped twice those eight years (the only three that stayed loyal through that crisis were North Carolina and Arkansas for the Democrats and Arizona for the Republicans). Three turnovers of less than 20 years were only narrowly avoided: only one state (Arizona) voted the same way for every election from 1956 to 1968, and only two states (Arizona and Massachusetts) voted the same way in 1964-1972.

 

Anyway, cut out some smaller overlapping transitions and this method gives you three grand cycles: 1789-1820; 1824-1872; 1872-1964; 1968-now. This takes us back to the beginning of this post, because those line up fairly decently with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd/4th/5th and 6th party systems (though this model has the 3rd starting a little later, once the system really gets fixed in place, rather than when the Republican Party is officially founded). Interestingly, the normal debate is about whether the 5th and 6th are really separate (and if so when the break occurred), whereas under these definitions that distinction is unavoidable, and the questions are really about the 3rd, 4th and 5th systems…

 

Bricks, Mortar, and Wireless Headphones

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Today, at the launch of the iPhone 7, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that the phone will not have an outlet for headphones. Customers will either have to use wireless Bluetooth headphones, or else buy a special pair of headphones that is capable of plugging into the outlet for the phone’s charger.

If the wireless headphone age really is about to get underway, many unforeseen consequences are likely to accompany it in the coming years. One industry that might, perhaps, be hit very hard by wireless headphones is the movie theatre business. While on the one hand it might be the case that wireless headphones could make going to the theatre more enjoyable – you no longer have to listen to other people smack popcorn or  whisper to one another noisily – on the other hand it could lead to vastly increased competition for movie theatres, as it could allow new movie theatres to pop up in unexpected places.

Let’s quickly look at two places this competition could arise from: sports bars and brick-and-mortar retail stores.

Sports bars could be a threat to matinées. Sports bars already have lots of big screen televisions, and in some cases very big projector screens, and in many cases comfy seats as well. They also have food and drink, and operate well under capacity during the daytime. Many also have basements or back-rooms with no windows, which can be made pitch-black even in the daytime. Some may try to turn themselves basically into little movie theatres during the day.

(Sports bars could maybe also be a threat to cable tv. One reason many people have been sticking with cable tv insted of “unplugging” and just using the Internet is to watch sports. Wireless headphones could make watching sports at a sports bar a more appealing alternative than it has been up until now, however, by shutting out other noise from the bar so that fans do not have to watch the game on mute while listening to loud drunk people around them. Now if only they could do something about those filthy bar bathrooms..)

The same is true of restaurants, though they do not have as many tv’s or as big tv’s as sports bars do, and though there are many restaurants that will certainly not want people coming in to watch sports or movies. Still, it is easy to imagine some of the less fancy restaurants trying to do this to entice customers.

The big move, however, could be at brick-and-mortar stores. These stores, even for giants like Walmart, are right now under severe threat from the online retailers, led by Amazon. It may not be long before even the grocery stores are under the same threat. These stores are desperately looking for ways to get customers to come to their stores — a desperation that is only going to increase in the years ahead.

One option they may have to attract customers is to put big movie screens in their parking lots or even inside their stores. In their parking lots, these could play movies at night when the lot is mostly empty of cars, or they could become a drive-in theatre. The screens could be put inside tents that could be easy to put up and take down, in order to block out light pollution and rain, or they could be used without tents. Given that parking lots will often be empty as more people turn to online shopping, they could have lots of room to do this.

The bigger brick-and-mortar retailers could do a similar thing inside their stores as well, which would be useful when the weather is bad and would block out light pollution. At the very least, they could allow their tv departments to play movies that children could watch while their parents shop. At the most, they could basically set-up movie theatres inside their stores, making use of wireless headphones to do so. In fact, just like how they are likely to have fewer cars in their parking lots as a result of online shopping, they are also likely to have more room inside their stores, as more of their own customers buy goods from them online and then swing by the store just to pick up what they have purchased.

And maybe to watch a movie, too.

With all this in mind, I do not think I would invest in a movie theatre company stock, like CNK, right now. If on the other hand you have any ideas of why people might instead go to the theatres more in the future, I would like to hear them, so please leave a comment about it below.

 

The Provincials — Image of the Day

the provincials

The graph above shows the size of countries’ largest provinces or states in relation to their  overall populations. So California, for example, is home to approximately 12 percent of the total population of the United States, whereas Ontario is home to 39 percent of Canada’s population and Punjab to 47 percent of Pakistan’s.

250px-Map_of_Argentina_with_provinces_names_en

The biggest standout here, though, is Argentina’s largest province Buenos Aires, which is by far the most populous of Argentina’s 24 provinces. In fact, the population of the province of Buenos Aires does not even include that of the “Autonomous City” of Buenos Aires – see map above – which is itself the fourth most populous province in the country. In Argentina’s presidential elections this past October, the two candidates were the leaders of the province of Buenos Aires and the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, respectively.

Below is a graph, made using data taken from Wikipedia, which shows the GDP sizes of the biggest provincial/state economies around the world, in nominal terms. It is led by California, which is thought to have an economic output of nearly $2.3 trillion these days, larger than all but seven of the world’s countries. Given the nature of this information, though, this graph should probably be taken with a decent-sized grain of salt.

nominal gdp

13 of the 34 provinces/states in the graph above are in the USA, 9 are in China, and 13 are in other countries. Germany and Japan both have 2, but they are the only countries apart from the US or China to have more than 1 province on this graph.

No Indian states made it on to the graph above. On the graph below, however, which shows the 34 most populous provinces/states in the world, 11 are from India, whereas California, the most populous US state, is ranked 33rd. 17 out of 34 on the graph below are Chinese, and 6 are neither Chinese nor Indian. This graph also shows the territory size of each province.

prov

Note the dominance of India’s province Uttar Pradesh. In fact, India’s five most populous states – Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal, and Madhya Pradesh (combined population: approximately 580 million) – border one another in a direct line, and Uttar Pradesh also directly borders India’s seventh most populous state, Rajasthan, as well as India’s most densely populated state, Delhi (India’s capital). In China and the US, in contrast, some of the largest states, notably California, Texas, Florida and Illinois in the US and Guangdong and Sichuan in China, do not border any of the other most populous states within their own country.

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In Germany, meanwhile, the fifth most populous state in the country, Hesse, directly borders all four of the most populous German states: North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria, Baden-Wurttemburg, and Lower Saxony. Hesse’s chief city is Frankfurt, a European finance and transport hub.

germany-regions-map-printable

Finally, in Brazil, the three most populous states, namely Sao Paulo (which is by far the largest), Minas Gerais, and Rio de Janeiro, directly border one another. Sao Paolo also borders the sixth largest state, Parana, while Minas Gerais also borders the fourth largest state, Bahia. The four largest Brazilian states are home to 48 percent of Brazil’s overall population.

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US Legal Immigration — Image of the Day

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most-common-country-immigrants-no-mexico

With all the disgusting Trump talk on the issue of illegal immigration that has been going on, the other main source of American newcomers – legal immigrants – is sometimes overlooked. The maps above were made by Giorgio Cavaggion, using data from the Department of Homeland Security of immigrants who “became legal permanent residents during the fiscal year of 2012.” That year over one million people in the US became Legal Permanent Residents. Here are 10 thoughts on the maps above:

1. Mexico Still Dominates

Even in spite of the big drop-off in immigration from Mexico to the United States (see graphs below), Mexico still ranks first in half of the states in the country. Only in the northeastern and north-central regions of the US, from Montana to Maine, is Mexico not #1.

2012-phc-mexican-migration-08aFT_14.12.26_BorderApprehensions

2. India a Strong Second 

India finished first in six states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and Virginia) and second to Mexico in twelve states (Washington state, Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina). This is a big increase from previous generations (see graph below).

Still, nearly a third of all Indian immigrants in the US live either in California or New Jersey. More than 25% live in San Jose, Chicago, or Greater New York City. Also notable is that India’s many regions are not represented proportionally in America. Rather, Indian states like Gujarat and Punjab are highly over-represented. Gujaratis, for example, account for more than 20% of Indians in the US, though they are only 6% or so of the population within India itself.

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Population pyramid of Indian Immigrants in the US
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Foreign-born Americans By Country of Origin. India still ranks far behind Mexico, and just barely ahead of various Pacific and Caribbean countries

3. Burmese in Fly-Over Country 

Burma (aka Myanmar) was first in Indiana and second to Mexico in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Iowa. This could be significant going forward, given that Myanmar may have finally begun to liberalize its political system and renew ties with the United States in recent years. Indeed, Myanmar has often been seen as one of Hillary Clinton’s primary achievements during her time as Secretary of State, so if she becomes president it could perhaps further impact the US-Burmese relationship. Since the mid-2000’s, though, most Burmese immigrants in the US have been from non-Burmese ethnic minority groups, like the Karen people.

4. Bhutan Surprises

I would never have guessed that Bhutan, a far-away Himalayan country of just 750,000 people, would finish first on this list in three separate states (Vermont, New Hampshire, and North Dakota). No other country, apart from Mexico, India, and the Philippines, was first in three or more states. And even the Philippines was first in just one of the Lower 48 states.

5. The French Connection 

Vietnam finished first in just one state, Louisiana, and the fact that it did reflects two different ways in which history continues to inform the present-day United States. First is the French connection: Louisiana and Vietnam were both part of the globe-spanning French Empire, a fact that seems to resonate today even though neither Louisiana nor Vietnam even speak much French anymore. Or maybe Vietnamese just enjoy New Orleans jazz.

Second is the American military: wherever it goes, people from that country tend to end up in the United States. The Vietnamese have now become one of the biggest non-Hispanic groups in the US apart from Chinese and Indians, as have immigrants from Korea and the Philippines where the US also fought significant wars during the 20th century.  Iraq too has seen its share of immigrants to the US grow over the past decade: on the maps above, Iraqis finished first in Michigan and second to Mexico in Tennessee and Idaho.

6. Cubans in Kentucky, Dominicans in Massachusetts 

One might have expected Cuba to finish first in Florida, but in fact Mexico took that honour, leaving Cuba in second. But while Florida was the only state where Cuba finished second to Mexico, Kentucky, surprisingly, was the only state where Cuba finished first overall. Massachusetts and Rhode Island, meanwhile, were taken by the Dominican Republic, which did not finish second to Mexico in any states.

Though Cuba and the Dominican were the only two Spanish-speaking countries apart from Mexico on either of the maps above, the United States of course also has a very large population from other Latin American countries. These did not finish first – or second to Mexico – in any states, however, because many live in Washington D.C. (Salvadorans in particular) or in major immigrant-rich states like California, New York, and Florida, or come from Puerto Rico which is not considered to be a foreign country, or have not yet become Legal Permanent Residents.

7. East Asia in the West 

This is an obvious one: immigrants from East Asian countries often continue to cling to the Pacific Ocean even once they reach the United States. Though Mexico still finished first throughout the entire US West Coast, the Philippines finished first in Hawaii and Alaska and second to Mexico in California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Oregon and Utah, meanwhile, were the only two states in which China was second to Mexico. India, though not a Pacific country, was second to Mexico in Arizona and in Washington state.

8. East Africa in the North

Of the ten states in the Lower 48 which directly border Canada, Mexico finished first in just two (Washington state and Idaho), Canada finished first in just one (Montana), Bhutan finished first in three, Somalia in two (Maine and Minnesota), and Iraq in one (Michigan). Another East African state, Ethiopia, finished first in nearby South Dakota. Ethiopia also finished second to Mexico in Colorado.

9. Filipinos in Coal Country

Outside of the offshore states of Hawaii and Alaska, the only state the Philippines finished first in was West Virginia. Outside of California, Nevada, and New Mexico, the only state the Philippines finished second to Mexico in was Wyoming. Today Wyoming accounts for approximately 40% of US coal production and West Virginia accounts for about 10% of US coal production. Both states produce considerably more coal than any other state; only Kentucky even comes close to  their level of coal production. Wyoming, West Virginia, and Alaska also have the highest per capita energy production of any states in the country.

10. China “Seemingly” Underrepresented

China, in spite of its huge population, only finished first in one state, and only finished second to Mexico in two states. This could be a bit misleading, though, since the state that China finished first in was New York. New York was the only one of the “Big 4” states (California, Texas, Florida, and New York) not to be finished by first in by Mexico, and, with the exception of Michigan, it was the only one of the fourteen most populous states in America not to be finished first in by either Mexico or India.

 

 

Texas: The Real Swing State 

There are, in a certain sense, three big political regions in the United States: the Northeast, the Southeast, and the Southwest.

The Northeast has a temperate climate, excellent natural harbours along the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes, and a long border with Canada. The Southeast has a sub-tropical climate, less-than-excellent natural harbours (excepting New Orleans), and no international borders. The Southwest has a semi-desert climate, an abundance of energy and mineral resources, and an extremely long border with Mexico.

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For the purposes of this article, the Northeast has five “core” states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. These states are geographically contiguous, and they have voted for the same party as one another in all six of the presidential elections since 1988 and in 23 out of the 30 elections since 1892. At least four of them have voted in unison in 27 of the past 30 elections.

If you subtract the smallest of these states, Connecticut, then at least 3 of the remaining 4 of these states have voted in unison in 29 of the past 30 elections. The sole exception to this was 1988, when New Jersey and Pennsylvania voted for George H W Bush while New York and Massachusetts were two of only ten states to vote for Michael Dukakis, who had been governor of Massachusetts.

Before that you have to go back 31 elections to see the Northeast vote split, when in 1892 Grover Cleveland won New York and New Jersey while Benjamin Harrison took Pennsylvania and Massachusstetes. While in those days the Democrats had been more popular in the south than in the north, the Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland had already been governor of New York, mayor of Buffalo, and President of the United States, and he was born and raised in New Jersey.

Today the five Northeastern core states account for 15% of US electoral college seats. New York and Pennsylvania, the most populous of the five, account for 9% of US electoral college seats.

The Southeast arguably has five core states as well: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. These too are geogaphically contiguous, and they have voted in unison during all four of the most recent presidential elections, 9 out of the past 13 elections, and 27 out of the past 34 elections — including, incredibly, a run of 17 elections in a row from 1880 to 1948. Other states like Arkansas could probably be included in this group as well, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll leave them out for now.

Today the Southeastern core states account for 8% of US electoral college seats, led by Georgia which is by far the largest of the five. As the population of the Southeast core is roughly half as large as that of the Northeast core, it often requires support from adjacent populous states, most notably Texas and Florida but also North Carolina and Tennesse (both of which are larger than any of the Southeastern core states with the exception of Georgia) in order to be electorally competitive with other regions.

The Southwest, in contrast, has just two core states, which are not geographically contiguous: Texas and California. These have not voted in unison since 1988, and have voted in unison in just 5 of the past 13 elections — twice for Reagan, who had been governor of California, twice for Richard Nixon, who had been born in California and served as both a Senator and a Congressman representing California, and once for George H W Bush, who had been Reagan’s Vice President.

This division has, perhaps more than anything else, defined modern American politics, as California and Texas are the most populous states in the country, accounting for 17% of the electoral college seats in a presidential election. By comparison, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada combined only account for 7% of electoral college seats.

During the past six elections, starting with the very first post-Cold War election of 1992, which also happened to be the dawn of the (ongoing) Clinton era, the Northeast core and California have voted for the Democrats while the Southeast core and Texas have voted Republican. This has occasionally left the presidency in the hands of populous areas  located on the fringe of the three political regions, such as Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Colorado, Virginia, Michigan, and upstate Pennsylvania. Not incidentally, this year’s Democratic National Convention will be held in Pennsylvania, while the Republican National Convention will be held in Ohio.

Ohio, currently the seventh most populous state in America, has voted for the winning president in every election since it voted for Nixon (who was beaten by Kennedy) in 1960, Hewey (who was beaten by FDR) in 1944, and Harrison (who was beaten by Grover Cleveland) in 1892. Ohio’s president-picking has been even better of late than that of Missouri, the “bellwether state”, which voted for all but one victorious president between 1904 and 2004 before failing to pick Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Florida has almost exactly the same successful record as Ohio since 1928, except that unlike Ohio it voted for Bush Sr., who was beaten by Clinton, in 1992, and for FDR to have a fourth term as president during the Second World War election of 1944. While today Florida has a population much larger than any state apart from California and Texas, it was only the 18th most populous state in 1950, and at the begining of the 20th century had a population barely larger than that of Rhode Island.

Illinois, in spite of being America’s fifth most populous state, has been less successful in getting its preferred candidates into the Oval Office. It did not vote for George W Bush in either of his elections, and voted for Gerald Ford rather than for a victorious Jimmy Carter in 1976. Many people, however, believe that Illinois was the decisive state in the election of 1960, the closest election of the 20th century. It has been alleged that Illinois’ vote was rigged in Kennedy’s favour that year.

Michigan has been nearly identical to Illinois in its voting patterns, with the exception of 1968 (Michigan voted for Hubert Humphrey rather than Nixon), 1948 (Michigan voted for Dewey rather than for Truman), 1940 (Michigan was the largest of just 10 states to vote for Indiana-born Wendell Wilkie instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt), and 1912 (Michigan was one of just seven states to vote for Progessive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt instead of for Woodrow Wilson). Today Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Florida account for 15% of electoral college seats.

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Source: Future Economics

The Break-Up 

The most significant modern shift in American politics has probably been in the Southwest. Whereas California voted for the Republicans nine out of ten times between 1952 and 1988, it has voted for the Democrats in all six elections since. Whereas Texas voted for the Democrats four out of ten times between 1952 and 1988, it has voted for the Republicans in all six elections since. And whereas Texas and California voted in unison seven out of ten times between 1952 and 1988 and fourteen out of nineteen times between 1916 and 1988, they have not voted in unison since. It is certainly more difficult now to imagine a Republican president hailing from California, as both Reagan and Nixon did, or a Democratic president hailing from Texas, as Lyndon Johnson did.

California’s shift has occured probably as a result of a demographic influx from Latin America, the Pacific rim, and other parts of the US. Texas’ political shift has been less distinctive than California’s, meanwhile; it went from red-violet to red whereas California went from nearly red to blue.

Texas’ solidification as Republican state may be partly due to economics and environmental politics. Whereas oil and gas production across much of the rest of the US plummeted during the 1980s and 90’s (including in California, where oil production has halved since 1985), oil in the Gulf of Mexico rose from under 15% of total US oil production in 1985 to nearly 45% of total US oil production by 2000. This left Texas, which also produces prodigious amounts of natural gas and coal, with an even larger role in American energy production, just as many Americans were becoming increasingly concerned with the ozone layer and global warming. As states were forced to choose a side in the environmental war, Texas’ allegience was an obvious one: it is with the Republicans.

The Bush and Clinton families may perhaps have played a role in the political shift in Texas as well. The Bush’s, historically a northeastern family, shrewdly put down roots in Texas during the 1950’s. George H W Bush became a Texas congressman and George W Bush would later become its governor from 1995-2000. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, was born in neighbouring Arkansas, and served as governor of Arkansas from 1983-1992 (remember when Hillary Clinton had a southern accent?) before beating George H W Bush in the 1992 presidential election. In that year Texas voted for a second Bush term, while Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, and Tennessee all voted Clinton.

The Clinton-Bush rivalry has continued in intensity since then, first because of the contested election between Bush Jr. and Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore (which occurred in the wake of Bill Clinton’s perjury scandal, which the Republicans at times tried to tarnish Gore as having been involved with), then because of Hillary’s 2008 anti-Bush primary campaign (before it became clear that Hillary’s true opponent was Obama, rather than just the legacy of George W.), and finally during 2015 when many thought that this year’s election would be Hillary vs. Jeb. Perhaps this Clinton-Bush, Arkansas-Texas dynamic has helped to sour the Texans on the modern-day Democratic Party to some degree.

Looking Ahead

The question now is whether or not the post-1980’s predictable electoral system will begin to change. Will the Republicans continue to dominate the Southeast, or will the Democrats make inroads there, solidifying their position in Florida and even moving into the Southeast core? The Southeast has certainly been changing in recent years; among the ten fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the US during the 2000s, eight were in the Southeast. The Southeast may also have seen growth among its white liberal population, as metropolitan areas like Raleigh, Atlanta, Nashville, Austin, Houston, and Dallas have all been among the fastest-growing American cities in the past decade.

Similarly, could the Republicans look to take back some Northeast (and Midwest) states that have been reliably Democratic-leaning since 1992? The Northeast too has seen some big changes; Pennsylvania, for example, is in the midst of a gargantuan natural gas boom that could perhaps help tilt the state towards the Republicans, assuming environmentalist voters finally tire of the Democrats’ somewhat cynical embrace of burning natural gas as a “transitional” substitute for coal and begin to pressure the Democrats to abandon their alliance with the gas industry. New York may have similar gas resources, but fracking there is prohibited for now.

Finally, could California and Texas reconcile?  Texas, now effectively serving as the Republican heartland, and California, now the Democratic heartland, actually have some commonalities. Both have large Mexican populations. Both are arid and sunny. Both have a lot of oil (especially if the Southern Monterey shale formation is viable, though even without it California remains the fourth biggest oil producer in the US). Both have substantial ties to Asia: California because of its Pacific frontage and sizeable Asian population; Texas because the port nexus of Houston-New Orelans handles by far the most bulk goods of any shipping region in America, making it an integral component of US-Asian trade. (Houston, in fact, has suprisingly become one of the top Chinese tourist destination in the US, a legacy of Yao Ming and later Jeremy Lin having played for the Rockets).

Texas and California are also the two most populous states, and so would benefit from electoral reforms that would stop the US Senate and US presidential election rules from continuing to over-represent small states like Rhode Island and Hawaii in favour of big ones like California, Texas, and Florida. Florida, to be sure, has commonalities with California and Texas as well: it is populous, sunny, and home to a large number of Spanish-speakers.

Texas and California, when combined with Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, have 24% of the electoral college seats in the US. Between 1928 and 1964 Texas and California voted for the same candidate in 9 out of 10 elections: 3 Republicans, 6 Democrats. Could it happen again? It seems extremely unlikely to this year, but the longer-term future is less certain. Indeed Texas, with its enormous population, its  20th century history as a purple state, and its position straddling both the Southwest and the Southeast, is in some ways arguably America’s truest swing state. It has simply forgotten how to fly.