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Electoral College Blues

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama

In the recent presidential election Donald Trump received the support of 45 percent of voters who have college diplomas, 37 percent of voters who have graduate degrees, and 35 percent of college-age voters. Trump won the presidency in spite of these relatively low numbers, however, because he is set to receive 57 percent of the votes within the electoral college.

Democratic voters are not at all happy about this. Many are now calling for the abolition of the electoral college, or at least, wishing that it was not so incredibly difficult to abolish. They are unhappy that both Donald Trump and George W Bush were able to reach the White House even after losing the popular vote.

I am sympathetic to this view, and if it were up to me I would agree to replace the electoral college with another type of voting system — though what system exactly would be best I am not certain about. That said, I would like to point out a few things to the Democratic supporters who have been discussing this issue of late, if only because I have yet to hear anyone mention them:

1) Obama lost the popular vote in the Democratic primary of 2008. He received roughly 0.7 percent fewer votes than Hillary Clinton received in that race, but won because he got 53 percent of the delegate count. This was not as large a margin as Trump’s 2 percent popular vote loss to Clinton, but it was greater than Bush’s 0.5 percent loss to Gore.

Granted, a primary is obviously not as important as general election, and involves many fewer voters.There is also the complicating factor of the several states which caucus rather than vote directly in primaries, as well as the fact that Obama was not on the ballot in Michigan. This has led some to claim that Obama would have beaten Clinton in a popular vote if there had been a fairer and more direct primary system.

All the same, it does perhaps speak a bit poorly of some of the Democratic supporters, who did not make such a fuss when Obama came to power after appearing to have lost a key popular vote. They do not even mention Obama’s popular vote loss now, even as they complain frequently about Trump’s and Bush’s.

(Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, did well in the 2008 primary in part by winning in the Rust Belt states and Florida, states which have now propelled Trump to electoral college success. Trump’s victory was the second time Clinton has won a key popular vote and still lost an election)

2) It is not at all clear that the unfairness of the electoral college is deserving of the huge amount of attention it has been receiving of late, when the unfairness of the voting system in the Senate is in certain respects enormously greater than that of the electoral college, yet by comparison tends to receive almost no attention in the national media.

Senators, of course, are not as important as presidents, but still, anyone complaining about the presidential voting system should probably also be complaining about the fact that tiny states like Rhode Island and Wyoming receive as much representation in the Senate as do giants like California and Texas.

George W Bush and Trump, after all, only lost their respective popular votes by approximately 0.5—2 percent, whereas California and Texas have nearly 40 and 28 million inhabitants, respectively, yet receive the same amount of representation in the Senate as do each of the six American states which have fewer than one million inhabitants, or the 14 states which have fewer than two million inhabitants, or the 20 states with fewer than three million inhabitants.

3) It is not clear that the Democrats would actually benefit from getting rid of the electoral college. While most Democrat supporters who want to get rid of the electoral college would like to do so because they feel it is unfair, rather than because they feel it hurts Democrats, some do want to change the system mainly because they feel it has been hurt their side during the Bush and Trump elections.

What is interesting here is that the Democrats have spent much of the past decade telling themselves that they are well-placed to win future electoral colleges because they have a “coalition of the ascendant” — notably, that they may be set to benefit from having young Spanish-speaking, black, and white-liberal populations continue to grow quickly within  swing states like Florida, Colorado, Virginia, or possibly even Georgia. Trump’s electoral college victory does not change this trend. What is more, Trump’s popular vote loss to Clinton may not prevent the Republicans from winning future popular votes by receiving high support from white voters.

Indeed, this recent election might, counter-intuitivitely, indicate that Republicans could be able to win the popular vote in the future because of white voters being willing to switch from Democrat to Republican, or because of Democrat voters staying home on election day. If, as hopefully will not happen, electoral politics continue to become more divided along racial lines, then it is not inconceivable that white Americans would remain a predominant voting bloc even if they eventually no longer account for a majority of the electorate.

Of course, it is probable that for the foreseeable future Republicans will continue to fare better in the electoral college than in the popular vote, a result of the fact that most Democrat voters tend to live within Northeastern or Pacific coastal cities, outside of typical swing states. Still, any Democrats who hope to somehow get rid of the electoral college in order to benefit their own party should, maybe, be a bit careful in making this a Christmas wish.

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In Politics, the Triple Crown is Even More Elusive

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Last year, the horse American Pharaoh became the first since 1978 to achieve the Triple Crown, winning in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. Having a single political party win all three branches in Washington, however — controlling the White House and Congress and having a majority of Supreme Court justices nominated by a president of your party — is even rarer. The Democrats last achieved it in 1969. The Republicans managed it for four and a half years under George W. Bush, but before then had not done it since 1931.

With the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year, however, both parties now have a shot at the political Triple Crown in the upcoming election. The Democrats can achieve it if they can somehow retake Congress, the Republicans if they can somehow retake the White House. Both Clinton and Trump therefore have a chance at making history this year. One of them could soon become a political stud, while the other (hopefully Trump) could be sent off to the glue-factory.

Democrats and Republicans

The last time the Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress (but, not the Supreme Court) was during a two-year span from 2009 until 2011, at the start of Obama’s first term. Before then, the Democrats had not controlled both branches of government at the same time since 1992-1994, and before that not since 1976-1980. They did not manage to control Congress at all between 1995 and 2007, and in 2007 and 2008 only controlled it narrowly with the help of left-leaning Independent senators Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have controlled both houses of Congress since 2015, and did so also from 2003 until 2007 and from 1995 until 2001. (The 2001 streak ended half a year after George W. Bush was elected when, in May of 2001, sitting Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican party to become a Democrat-leaning Independent). Before then, however, the Republicans had not controlled both houses of Congress simultaneously since 1953-1955, during the first two years of the presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

For a long time, the Republicans’ bane was the House of Representatives. For forty years, between 1955 and 1995, the Republicans failed to win the House even once. Yet they have reached the promised land since: they have won the House in nine of the past eleven elections, and today control the largest House majority they have had since 1928. Winning big in the House in the election of 2010, the first election following “the Great Recession, was particularly nice for the Republicans, as in 2011 the US had its once-a-decade redrawing of congressional district boundaries. The Republicans were therefore able to redraw four times as many districts as the Democrats were. Taking the House back is by far the main hurdle the Democrats will have to winning the political Triple Crown.

In contrast to the House of Representatives, the Senate and White House have not been kind to the Republicans of late. They have lost the Senate in four out of the past five elections and the White House in four of the past six presidential elections (or four of five, if you count the Bush-Gore-Nader election in 2000 as a wash). That they have staved off a Democrat Triple Crown during this period is only because they have enjoyed Republican-appointed majorities in the Supreme Court for decades. Their Supreme Court dominance has been legacy of having controlled the White House for 20 out of 24 years between 1969 and 1992, under Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush. By the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, only one of nine justices had been appointed by a Democrat president.

This huge Supreme Court majority was in part a lucky break, however. It was a result of Democrat Jimmy Carter (president from 1977-1981) having been one of just four presidents in US history, and the only one since the 1860s, not to get to appoint any Supreme Court judges. Clinton only appointed two in eight years, meanwhile, whereas Bush Sr. and Reagan together appointed five in twelve years and Nixon and Ford together appointed four in eight years. According to some Democrat supporters, this Court majority was not only unlucky but also, eventually, unjust, since it was the majority-Republican Court ruled that Bush defeated Gore in Florida during the 2000 election, which in turn resulted in Bush getting to appoint another two justices to the Court during his two terms in office.

Odds For 2016 

According to Nate Silver’s data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, Trump has roughly a 13 or 26 percent chance at beating Clinton (depending on whether you use their “polls-only” or “polls-plus” forecast). While FiveThirtyEight has not released their predictions for Congress yet, they have also explained why they see the Senate race as possibly being a very close one this year. They have said as well that for the Democrats to retake the House will require at least a Clinton landslide victory (defining landslide as a double-digit popular vote margin, which has not happened since Reagan, Nixon, or, for the Democrats, Lyndon Johnson) — and they have the odds of such a Clinton landslide at 35 percent or lower.

Historical Circumstances

It is clear that, in modern times, it usually takes fairly special circumstances to bring about a situation in which one party controls the Congress and White House at the same time. The Democrats did it for two years after the 2008 election because of excitement over Obama, disappointment with George W Bush (and Sarah Palin), the financial crisis in late 2007, and frustration with the Iraq War. The Republicans did it for a few years under Bush Jr. — during which time they also had a Supreme Court majority — but they only achieved this through the narrowest of victories over Al Gore in the 2000 election, and they may also have been bolstered by 9-11, which occured just over eight months into Bush’s presidency.

The Democrats, similarly, did it for the first few years of Clinton’s presidency, in the wake of the 1991 recession and Desert Storm, and with the help of Clinton’s political skills and a unique ticket headed by two Southern Democrats (Clinton from Arkansas, Gore from Washington D.C. and Tennessee). Republicans Reagan, Bush Sr., Ford, and Nixon never managed to have their party run Congress, but another Southern Democrat, Jimmy Carter, did so during all four of his years in office, which he came into in the election following Watergate and the end of the American Vietnam War. It probably also helped that, unlike Clinton’s – and even Obama’s – mostly feigned religiosity, Carter was in actuality a devout Christian.

Before that, though, one party controlling multiple branches of the government used to happen quite frequently. The Democrats dominated Washington D.C. during the eras around WW1, the Depression, WW2, and most of the post-WW2 generation, while the Republicans dominated the post-Civil War generation and the “Roaring ‘20s”, then took office again following Democratic president Truman’s waging of the Korean War and Democratic president Johnson’s massive troop surge into Vietnam. In the twentieth century, the Democrats had the political Triple Crown from 1939-1952 and from 1962-1969, while the Republicans had it from 1921-1931. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency was particularly impactful, not only because of the Depression and War but also because he had personally appointed eight of the nine judges on the Supreme Court by the time he left office.

That is all in the past though. For the 2016 election, going by the odds of FiveThirtyEight and by other predictions that have been made, there is perhaps a 10-20 percent chance the Democrats will win their first Triple Crown since 1969, and also a 10-20 percent chance that the Republicans will get their first Triple Crown since 2006. Clinton or Trump, then, could end up becoming the next American Pharaoh.

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The Blessings of St Catharines

If extremely high taxes on greenhouse gas emissions were to be enacted worldwide, which part of Ontario would be poised to lead in terms of population growth and economic development as a result?

My guess would be St Catharines-Niagara, which at the moment is Canada’s 12th most populous census metropolitan area (just ahead of Halifax-Dartmouth), home to approximately 400,000 people.

A low-emissions city should at least a few of the following five characteristics, all of which define Niagara. One, it should be easily accessible by barge, as water remains far and away the most fuel-efficient mode of transportation. Two, it should not have much suburban sprawl. Three, it should be located close to other major cities in order to create urban economies of scale. Four, it should have a mild climate: not too cold or snowy in the winter, not too hot in the summer. And five, it should have an abundant source of clean power — and ideally also the ability to store up its energy in order to assist clean but intermittent power sources like solar, wind, and run-of-river hydro.

1. Water Transport

St Catharines-Niagara is one of only two urban areas in Canada or the US to be situated on more than one Great Lake. (The other is Sault St Marie). It links Lake Ontario to Lake Erie via the Welland Canal, a canal 43 km long and, in most places, 100-150 metres wide. The canal has seven locks on its northern end and one lock on its southern end; it takes ships around 10 hours to cross in full. However it has a lock-free middle stretch that is close to 25 km long, next to the city of Welland (pop. 50,000). It runs perpendicular to the Erie Canal, the longest shipping canal in the United States, which links Niagara Falls and Buffalo to New York City and Lake Champlain via the navigable Hudson River, passing by Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany along the way.

LR Welland Canal Map

Canals, when they are not frozen in the winter, are in many ways the ideal form of water transportation. They lack the difficulties of rivers (bends, rapids, shallows, etc.) and seas (storms, tides, waves, etc.), and are not too wide to make building bridges or tunnels across them too expensive. According to the New York Times, “one gallon of diesel pulls one ton of cargo 59 miles by truck, 202 miles by train and 514 miles by [Erie] canal barge… A single barge can carry 3,000 tons, enough to replace 100 trucks”.

canal_map2

Erie Canal

As recently as the 1890s, prior to the modern age of highways, cars, and trucks, the Erie Canal allowed Buffalo to become the eighth most populous in the US and fourth most populous inland city in the US. And while Niagara never shared in Buffalo’s prominence (in part as it was too close to the US border for comfort; it was captured in the War of 1812, and became the refuge for William Lyon Mackenzie and his supporters during the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837-38), the adjacent city of Hamilton did. Hamilton was Canada’s fourth most populous city during the 1890s, and was about half as populous as Toronto in 1870. Today, in comparison, Hamilton is only around 13 percent as populous as Toronto.

As land transport became dominant, however, Hamilton found itself blocked in by the Hamilton Harbour (which until then had been the main source of its success) as well as by the Niagara Escarpment. Toronto, in contrast, has been able to expand barrier-free, now reaching to Lake Simcoe in the north, Oshawa and Clarington in the east, and Hamilton’s suburbs in the west.

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Niagara Escarpment

Admittedly, it is still quite expensive to build bridges across harbours or wide canals; they must be either high enough to let large ships pass below, or else be lift-bridges. The Welland Canal overall has two tunnels and ten bridges, all but one of which are lift-bridges. Given that the population of the region is split by the canal (St Catharines and Hamilton are to its west, Niagara Falls and Buffalo are to its east), these lift-bridges and tunnel crossings could lead to traffic bottlenecks if its population or economic activity were to experience growth.

St Catharins .png

This canal-crossing problem can be managed, however, by switching over from cars to public transit. Luckily for St Catharines-Niagara, such a switch which would be necessary anyway if greenhouse gas emissions were to be highly taxed.

Public transit, including new transit services like Car2Go, Uber, and UberPool, can allow canals to be crossed more easily via bridge or tunnel, by reducing traffic bottlenecks and by letting its passengers relax rather than drive when there are traffic bottlenecks. In addition, public transit can allow for easier canal crossings via boat, pedestrian bridge, cable car, or even ice-sled, by making transit available upon crossing. For the same reason, crossing canals will also become easier as parking apps like Rover and PocketParker become common (and if cars that come equipped with parallel parking sensors or can parallel park themselves become common), as people will be able to park a car easily on one side of the canal and then take public transit after crossing.

In the St Catharines-Niagara area, public transit will be similarly useful in helping to cross the Niagara River (which is one of the widest and, in places, the most treacherous rivers in southern Ontario), Hamilton Harbour (which has two bridges crossing it at present, and no tunnels), and perhaps even the 45 km Lake Ontario shortcut that separates St Catharines (and Buffalo) from Toronto.


2. Suburban Sprawl

St Catharines-Niagara, as well as the nearby urban areas of Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo, are among the cities with a relatively high population density in Canada. Kitchener-Waterloo and Hamilton have the highest population densities among urban areas in Canada apart from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, according to the 2011 census, while St Catharines-Niagara has the seventh highest population density (though this does not take into account the 50,000 people living in Niagara Falls, NY).

Niagara may be particularly well-placed to benefit if suburban sprawl in general is reversed as a result of eco-taxes. This is because many of the big cities around Niagara have had their suburbs sprawl away from Niagara during their recent generations of suburbanization. As a result, a reversal of this sprawl would bring people back closer to Niagara.

Toronto has sprawled north and to a lesser extent east, away from Lake Ontario and Niagara. Northern Toronto suburbs like King city, Caledon, and Whitchurch-Stoufville  tend have population densities that are far lower than in suburbs closer to the lake, like Mississauga, Oakville, and Oshawa — nearly 30 times lower in the case of Caledon compared to Mississauga. Indeed some of Toronto’s lakeside suburbs, particularly to its west (towards Hamilton and Niagara), are themselves among the cities with the highest population densities in the country. Toronto’s easternmost suburbs, on the other hand, like Clarington and Scugog, have relatively low densities too.

Buffalo’s suburbs sprawl away from the border with Niagara, meanwhile, and Detroit’s sprawl away from Windsor (which is 315 km from St Catharines). Cleveland’s suburbs away from Lake Erie,  mainly to the south and west. If, then, suburban sprawl gives way to urban re-densification, it could lead to population growth along the coasts of both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, which Niagara shares, as well as along the Buffalo and Detroit borders with Canada, which Niagara either shares or is at least not too far away from.

Another energy advantage of de-suburbanization is that it frees up land to be re-converted into farmland. This is important, as importing food is highly energy-intensive; food is much more bulky than most other goods, and also often requires refrigeration or freezing while it is being transported. This means that areas that are not suitable to agriculture — areas that include most of Ontario, as the Canadian Shield generally is not farmable in the economic sense — will not benefit as much from de-surbanization in an eco-tax world as areas that are best suited to be used for agriculture.  For Ontario, these areas are  Southwestern Ontario and adjacent lands of the United States.

3. Proximity to Major Cities

St Catharines is around 50km from Toronto by way of Lake Ontario and about 100 km from Toronto via land. To put that into perspective, Oshawa, Burlington, and Newmarket, all three of which are in the Greater Toronto Area, are around 45 km from downtown Toronto, and Barrie is around 85 km from downtown Toronto. St Catharines is also around 40 km from downtown Buffalo (and Niagara Falls is less than 30 km from downtown Buffalo), 65 km from downtown Hamilton, 120 km from Kitchener-Waterloo and from Rochester, 270 km from Cleveland, 300 km from Pittsburgh, and 320 km from Detroit, and 500 km from New York City and Washington, D.C.

Hamilton and Toronto

St Catharine’s proximity to the New York City-to-Washington “Megalopolis” is unique and, in an eco-tax world, could be economically significant. If you extend the Megalopolis all the way north to Boston, however, then St Catharines’ proximity is less unique, as Ottawa and Kingston are both closer to Boston than St Catharines is. That said, the population density of the area between New York and Boston is quite a bit less than between New York City and Washington, so it is not clear Boston really should be counted as part of the Megalopolis core. St Catharines is also around 40 km closer to New York City and 250 km closer to Washington than Ottawa is, whereas Ottawa is only around 160 km closer to Boston than St Catharines is. Only Kingston then, among notable Ontario cities, can be said to be closer in proximity to the Megalopolis than St Catharines is.

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pop dens

Population density, US

4. Climate

Niagara, because of its relatively southern location and the temperate effect of the Great Lakes that surround it, has a mild climate compared to most other cities in Ontario. It tends to be around a degree warmer than Toronto in the winter and a degree cooler than Toronto in the summer, and it is much milder than the weather in more northern cities like Ottawa or Thunder Bay. It is also located outside any of the Great Lakes Snowbelts, unlike, for example, Sudbury or Barrie.

average snow in canada

Niagara’s position next to the US border may also be significant, as eco-taxes could lead Americans to come north to where the climate is more mild, at least during the summer. The average annual daily temperature highs in Buffalo is 14 degrees celsius, compared, for example, to 29 degrees for Miami or 31 degrees for Phoenix. Cool climate zones may also end up using more eco-friendly energy for heating than hot climates do for cooling, because the weather gets coldest at night when there are typically surpluses of electricity available (including low-carbon sources, like wind, base-load nuclear, and run-of-river hydro), whereas it is hottest during the day when no such energy surpluses typically exist. Admittedly only seven percent or so of American households use electric heaters, but a high eco-tax could cause them to be adopted more widely. Plus, it is possible to stay warm using clothing and blankets rather cranking the heat.

The arid climate and diffuse population settlement in the US Southwest in particular leads to a high energy footprint. Any extended drought in the Southwest, for example, would necessitate water desalination, water treatment, or increased food imports, all three of which are extremely energy-intensive. The most extreme of these, Las Vegas, which is a gambling and tourism competitor of Niagara to a certain extent, relies on long-distance air travel, long-distance food imports, air conditioning during the day, and heating at night (the desert can get cold at night, after all).

Owning, renting, or Airbnb-ing a home or cottage in upstate New York or upstate Pennsylvania, in contrast, will help keep air conditioning costs down in summer. Moreover, because both are located in the Great Lake Snowbelts and Appalachia, these also be used recreationally during the winter. This may be an advantage too, given that eco-taxes will make it far more expensive to fly to the Rockies to ski, and given that aging Baby Boomers are going to be switching from downhill skiing to cross-country skiing. Similarly, eco-taxes could make Canadian vacationers who head south to escape the winter forgo flying to places like Arizona, California, and Mexico, and instead travel by train or bus to the US Southeast (and perhaps from there on by cruise or plane to islands in Cuba or the Bahamas). Such train and bus journeys will usually pass through Niagara.

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Great Lake Snowbelts

US Snow Map

US average annual snowfall map

5. Energy Production

In a world in which greenhouse gas emissions are highly taxed, it would no longer be viable for Ontario to import so many manufactured goods from Asia, since Asia is so far away and relies on burning coal to power its industrial activity. Ontario would instead have to manufacture more products locally, making up for its lack of low-wage labour by using machines, having foreign engineers and other skilled labour e-commute from afar, etc. Such industrialization, particularly as it will depend on machines to assist or replace human workers, will need a lot of low-carbon energy.

Niagara Falls hydro (not counting the American side of the border) accounts for around 5-6 percent of Ontario’s power generation capacity, but more than 7 percent of non-fossil fuel generation capacity and more than 20 percent if you also ignore nuclear power. Niagara accounts for about a quarter of all Ontario hydropower, and its dams also happen to be located far further south than the majority of other dams in the province or country, meaning that the energy and capital used to maintain Niagara’s dams (and to maintain the electricity grid infrastructure that is connected to them) tends to be less than it is for other hydroelectric facilities. Most of Ontario’s other dams are either located near to or north of Ottawa – far north, in many cases – while most of the hydropower in the country comes from central or northern Quebec.

In addition, the hydropower facility on the US side of Niagara Falls produces 25 percent more power than those on the Canadian side of the Falls; it produces more power than all but three other dams in the United States and accounts for nearly 60 percent of New York state’s hydropower (and New York ranks third in hydropower among US states). It also has a pumped storage capability that by itself is larger than the hydropower storage available in all of Ontario outside of Niagara, which is significant since hydro-storage remains the leading method of assisting intermittent energy sources like wind and solar. (Batteries are still not generally up to the job of storing energy in a cost-effective or eco-friendly manner, in spite of all the hoopla surrounding Tesla).

Niagara is, similarly, home to nearly all of Ontario’s pumped storage hydro capacity. Moreover, it is located relatively close to the pumped storage facilities across the United States (apart from the pumped storage in California,  but those have been under-utilized in recent years as a result of drought), not just those on the US side of Niagara Falls.

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Niagara is also, along with the rest of Southwestern Ontario and the adjacent Bruce Peninsula, home to most of the province’s wind power production and solar power potential.

While 60 percent or so of Ontario’s electricity comes from nuclear, people do not want to live in urban areas that contain nuclear facilities. In addition, more than half of Ontario’s nuclear power capacity is located directly on the coast of Lake Ontario, 30-60 km east of downtown Toronto, which means that, when you combine their output with that of Niagara’s dams (not even counting the US Niagara dams), the coastlands of western Lake Ontario account for more than 40 percent of Ontario’s non-fossil fuel power capacity and nearly 40 percent of Ontario’s overall power capacity.

If, finally, you look at natural gas storage – both underground storage and LNG storage – Niagara is also well-placed. Natural gas could be useful in assisting intermittent sources like solar and wind, because like hydro, but unlike coal or nuclear, a gas-fired power plant can ramp up and down energy rapidly in response to the wind suddenly slowing or the sun suddenly being blocked by clouds. Most US underground storage is surrounding Niagara, in a broad sense.

Storage07

In Ontario, which in contrast to the US has very little gas storage capability, much of the gas storage is around Sarnia, with potential further development in Goderich, both of which are not too far away from Niagara. Most LNG storage and peakshaving capacity, meanwhile — which, while smaller in scale than underground storage, is better for delivering gas quickly in order to assist wind or solar intermittency — is located mostly on the Northeast coast, much of it within New York state.

storage

lngpeakshaving

The gas pipelines that bring US gas to Ontario also mainly run through or near to Niagara. Ontario used to get its gas from Western Canada, but with the shale boom in nearby US states, particularly in Pennsylvania which has led the shale gas boom, the province has begun to use US gas instead. The shale boom has revolutionized the gas industry, and should it continue it may be likely to put the border areas of Ontario in a strong position relative to non-border areas, in terms of their energy economics.

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Guest Post: Babbit, by Sinclair Lewis

This is a guest post from the blog Occasional Mumblings. You can read the original here:

“I wish I could have written Babbitt” – H.G. Wells

Babbitt is an oddity for me: not only because it’s literary fiction, and social realism at that, but also because it doesn’t really need a review. It’s one of the iconic works of the 20th century. Its title became a common noun – you can still find it in dictionaries – and a word that symbolised one of the great social divides of the 1920s and 1930s. Babbitt was a bestseller: the tenth-best-selling book of 1922, and the fourth-best-selling book of 1923. It was one of five top-ten bestsellers by Lewis that decade, the most by any author of that era (tied with Zane Grey). Two of those novels hit number one, and another hit number two. Meanwhile, in 1930, Lewis became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; Babbitt was widely considered to be the book that won it for him.

In other words, you don’t need my review on this one. If you have any interest in literature, whether for historical or for artistic purposes, Babbitt should already be on your to-read list.

But since I’ve read it, I may as well say a few words for those who haven’t read it yet…

babbit

Babbitt is a 1922 novel by Sinclair Lewis, a thematic sequel-of-a-sort to 1920s Main Street, the work that had catapulted him to fame (Main Street has been described as the publishing sensation of the century, and ‘not so much a novel as an incident in American life’). Main Street was a dissection of the life of the American small town – so fundamental in its critique that Americans still use its title to symbolise ordinary people and small businesses; in Babbitt, Lewis moved his attention to the big city. In this case, the city is Zenith, a booming Midwestern town, and the focus is middle-aged Republican real estate broker George F. Babbitt, proud upstanding member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Athletic Club, the Boosters Club, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

The plot is, for the most part, non-existent. Rather than following a simple, coherent narrative, Babbitt meanders back and forth, displaying step by step haphazardly the breakdown of Babbitt’s world of certainty and contentment. Babbitt, you see, may be prosperous, successful, blessed with a wife, three children, a business, the respect of the community, and most importantly a motor car, but all is not quite well somehow. At night, he dreams of a beautiful fairy child, and in dark moments, he remembers that he always wanted to be a lawyer and a statesman – just as his friend Paul Riesling always wanted to be a violinist – and wonders how and why that never happened. He is, in short, in modern terms, a man on the precipice of a mid-life crisis.

This core conceit – a picaresque tale of the crisis of a frankly not wholly admirable and yet still pitiably sympathetic respectable man – is highly reminiscent of Cabell’s Jurgen, which I strongly suspect is not a coincidence given Lewis’ admiration for his contemporary. [Cabell’s works are namechecked in Babbitt, and I think a few of the lines are homages, or in-jokes for fellow fans]. But where Jurgen is a timeless flight of whimsy into fantasy, Babbitt is a work of pedantic social realism, rooted obsessively in its place and period. Lewis isn’t writing Babbitt just to tell the story of Georgie Babbitt: he’s telling that story at least in part as an excuse to write the first Great American Novel in the modern sense, a sprawling, encyclopaedic summary of the totality of American life in the 20th century. Or, at least, one chapter of the Great American Novel: later novels by Lewis would reach into areas George Babbitt couldn’t penetrate, such as the medical and academic subcultures of Arrowsmith, the fundamentalist revivalism of the banned Elmer Gantry, and the upper echelons of society (who spend most of the novel on tour in Europe) in Dodsworth.

The realism and observation of Babbitt are remarkable, and are the basis of the reader’s primary reaction to the novel. Most striking is Lewis’ decision to accurately reflect the contemporary patois of the American middle-classes, with a sensitivity that allows us to discern the changes between generations and the gradations between social classes. To the modern reader, however, the effect is nothing like what is intended. On the one hand, the constant barrage of “swell”, “slick”, “fourflushing”, “gee whillikins”, “gosh all fishhooks”, “takes the firebrick necklace” and “pep” is inherently ridiculous in the modern age – it probably was for Lewis too, but in an entirely opposite way (Lewis is writing about cool new slang that sounds silly and uncouth to his paternal ears, whereas for the modern reader anybody who actually says “gee whiz!” is hopelessly antique, quaint, postcard-picturesque). On another hand, the slang is intriguing, magnetic, interesting in the way a crossword puzzle or a mysterious photograph in a family album may be interesting: what in Lewis’ time was unprecedentedly real, lifelike, ordinary, to us has become alien and other (the way that the prefix “he-” is used as an all-purpose indicator of admiration and respect and manliness (sorry, he-manliness) is both disarmingly, charmingly quaint and at the same time subtly horrifying). The interest has been inverted. And there is also the unfortunate fact that between rampant he-slang, gradual but vital shifts in word usage, and changes in cultural and material life, there are occasionally moments of real puzzlement and confusion, and of unintended humour. These may tantalise; they may also distract.

More generally, the impact of Lewis’ he-realism has been blunted by the passage of time: we have nothing but the amazed testimony of contemporaries to reassure us that this picture he paints is indeed an accurate one: Lewis’ mirror of life has become (for those of us who are not professional historians) our only testimony to the nature of that extinct existence. As for the finer points Lewis makes, the subtleties that rely on our contextual knowledge, these are lost entirely in our ignorance of the past, in a way that more stylised, universalised classic he-novels are more able to sidestep. Oliver Twist does not rely on us knowing precisely the relative social status of a syndicated poet and a traction company land-purchaser, nor does it hope to pack a world of import into a short description by saying simply that a man looked like the sort of man who would work as a soda fountain clerk. What is the social significance attached to a 1920s realtor’s decision whether or not to let his manicurist apply protective nail varnish?

Yet after we have struggled through the shock of the old, what really hits us is how modern this all is, or how antique we all are. As Babbitt wanders through his world, from business meetings to domestic arguments, from evangelical preachers to over-eager, over-friendly episcopalian priests and to lectures by new thought gurus on cultivating the inner sun spirit, from derided old socialists to tub-thumping anti-immigrant he-populism, from celebrity culture to industry conferences, from worker’s strikes to the difficulties women have in finding employment, from teenage revellers to over-earnest young activists, to lower-middle-class guys who spend all week waiting to get hammered at the weekend, to ‘phone-fixated hipsters Bohemians (they have real he-names like ‘Capitolina’), to young girls looking for sugar daddies, from Republican primaries and the need for “a sound business administration” (Warren Harding is duly elected – a real swell he-President) to the way science is corrupted into the service of big business, from advertising jingles to learn-in-a-week-with-this-one-weird-trick-discovered-by-a-Zenith-housewife postal scams, from corrupt real estate deals to torturous suburban dinner parties… the world of Zenith is our world. The paraphernalia may have changed – more people have cars now, and fewer have maids, and these days we don’t have to go through the rigmarole of pretending to observe Prohibition (in the West, at least). But in all the important ways, Zenith feels modern in a way that other writing I’ve encountered of this era and before it just doesn’t.

Part of that may be Lewis’ unromantic realism, and his interest in depicting the way the world was going, rather than the way it saw itself or the way it had been. I think also that some of it is about place, not time. When I have read about the early 20th century, it has usually been the early 20th century of England – as in the recently-read Lady into Fox, for instance – a time and place that feel familiar yet very distant. How much things have changed, I thought. But the contemporaneous Babbitt makes me instead wonder how much that change has less been historical progress and more simply the rise to preëminence of America: the world, or at least the UK, has become part of America, an America little-changed from the America of Babbitt (just as, in fairness, the America of Babbitt still feels like a colony, like a strangely-warped province of the British Empire, still looking to London and its aristocracy for approval and guidance the way that people now look to America).

In fact, it’s all a bit depressing. Sure, some things have changed for the better. The position of women and of African-Americans (and Jews) has improved massively since the time of Babbitt: the treatment of women now reads as unpleasantly antiquated, while the treatment of African-Americans is positively cringe-worthy, to the extent that they’re present at all (Zenith is a northern city before the mid-20th century migration of the black population to the northern cities, and is clearly not very multicultural). That’s intentional – Lewis is writing a satire here – and Lewis would be overjoyed to see how much progress we have made in these areas, which were particular personal passions of his. The plight of women in particular is a common thread throughout his novels, and highlighted in 1917’s The Job (about the difficulties a woman faces in attempting to have it all and juggle both a working career and a family life) and 1933’s Ann Vickers (about suffragettes, progressives, abortion, women’s prisons and so forth). He turned explicitly toward race relations in one of his last works, 1947’s Kingsblood Royal, in which a respectable white man discovers he has African ancestors and, adrift and purposeless in life, begins to adopt an African-American identity and in the process provokes increasing prejudice from his white friends and family: the novel was rubbished as unrealistic by white critics (why would anybody want to suggest that there was still racism in America in the 1940s? Nonsense!), but praised by black intellectuals for its perceptive and honest treatment not only of racial prejudice but of issues of class, identity and ‘passing’ in black America.

[Kingsblood Royal was based on extensive research (all his novels reflect extensive research!) with the aid of the NAACP, and particularly of its president, the blond-haired, blue-eyed, white-skinned black man Walter White. White’s father, born a slave, once collapsed and was taken to hospital, where he received excellent care, because nobody could tell he was black; when they discovered that, despite his colouration he was ‘really’ a black man, they dragged him through a rainstorm to the Negro Ward instead – he died in the process. White would later go on to make use of his flawlessly European appearance in investigating and publicising over forty lynchings in the South: passing as black, he could persuade witnesses to talk to him, but passing as white he could avoid being lynched himself, and even at times joined up with KKK groups as an undercover agent. On one occasion, a lynch mob was indeed sent after him when the KKK discovered that there was ‘a black man pretending to be white’ in the area –he escaped because a helpful lynch mob enthusiast told him about the plan, not realising that White was in fact the black man in question. An acclaimed novelist, journalist, activist, and president of the NAACP for twenty years, he was eventually disavowed by much of the black civil rights movement, and disowned by his own family, for the sin of marrying a white woman (black commentators couldn’t agree on whether the marriage proved that he had always been a white man who had merely been passing as black, or just proved that he was a race-traitor, but neither interpretation was positive; the accusations from black and white alike that White was only ever a man who was, as one commentator put it, “negro by choice”, may be why he, apart from the pun, named his autobiography A Man Called White). None of this really has anything to do with Babbitt, except thematically… it just seemed like something people should mention…]

So, racial and gender issues have improved. It’s also true that the general… well, the babbitry has improved. The extent to which people were entirely and ruthlessly controlled by fashion and by public opinion. The same pressures that confronted Babbitt confront us now, but with more room for mercy and tolerance and heresy (at least, if you don’t count internet progressivism…). Part of that I suspect is the lingering effect of our encounter with fascism. Lewis is also known for his 1935 alternative-history novel It Can’t Happen Here, about an authoritarian regime rising to power in America, and reading Babbitt you can already see the groundwork being laid. In 1920, there already is a totalitarian control of civil society, Lewis tells us… it’s just disorganised. The Elks, the Boosters, the Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce, the Athletic Club, the Episcopalians, the banks, the newspaper barons… they have the power, they just aren’t united enough to use it. The structures are in place, they’re just waiting for a single charismatic leader to take them over (and the modern reader can’t help but be a little worried by the rise of the new Good Citizens League during the course of the novel…), and a dictatorship of optimistic niceness will be enforced… to some extent, I think that the rise of genuinely fascistic states perhaps has helped us be more skeptical of the sort of deeply controlling, deeply (and vacuously) idealistic society that Lewis describes.

So that’s improved. But not entirely for positive reasons. For one thing, civil society now is less powerful because civil society now has collapsed. These organisations, the clubs and leagues and secret orders, that gave support and comfort and a sense of place and belonging to the lost little Babbitts of the world, have largely ceased to be, or at least have lost their size and power. That they can no longer wield the club of public opinion so surgically is good; but we are also now without their potential benefits.

Particularly striking is the rise of income inequality. We don’t tend to see the roaring twenties as a time of equality and fraternity, but even in Lewis’ horrified, condemning satire, his world seems like utopia by modern standards. Babbitt is a man in an exalted position: owner of his own real estate company, a seriously important local businessman. And yet he is constantly aware of his own smallness. He looks up to more connected comrades like Vergil Gunch, or to more educated comrades like the professor Howard Littlefield and the commercial poet Cholmondeley Frink, but more than that he is aware of the profound distance between him and the real success stories, men like the industrialist Charles McKelvey, who owns a string of national enterprises. At one point Babbitt notes that Charles is always friendly to him when they happen to meet, yet never seems to invite him to dinner. At another, he sees Charles’ wife alone in a railway carriage, but she ignores him as though he were not there. At another, we discover that George and Charles went to university together.

The thing is, the depressing thing is, today men like Babbitt would not have gone to university with men like McKelvey. McKelvey would have gone to private school, and then to Harvard or Princeton or Yale or the like, not the local state university with Babbitt. He would not bump into Babbitt at lunch, or at the golf club, or at the chamber of commerce, or at the barber, or the church, or at a meeting of the local Republican party, or anywhere else: he would eat his lunch, play his golf and have his hair cut somewhere altogether exclusive, or at his own home, and he would not go to the chamber of commerce because that part of civil society is almost dead, and he would not have anything to do with the local Republican party but would only send dollars and demands to the national committee or to a superPAC, and he would not go to church, though he might have personal spiritual advisor. His wife would not have to blank men like Babbitt on the train because his wife would not travel by public train, but by private helicopter. Throughout the novel, Lewis wants us to get this sense of there being many Zeniths all living side-by-side, different worlds all lived in the same space, but overlapping; at one time, Babbitt is on a committee alongside the august old-money banker/aristocrat William Eathorne, and at another, prohibition forces him into a low dive to source some alcohol from people from an entirely different Zenith… the worlds of drug traffickers and prostitutes, of business, of high-society, are all just moments away from one another.

Now they aren’t. That’s what’s changed, the idea that these worlds could be permeable to one another: visible, if not attainable. Now, these worlds barely have the slightest material contact. The McKelveys and the Dodsworths and the Eathornes now live on an entirely unrelated planet to the Babbitts. Actually, I’m not sure the Dodsworths and the Eathornes – the pioneer families turned banking oligarchs – even exist anymore, except perhaps in relic form, as curiosities, somewhere in Connecticut, retaining some of their money, little of their conservativism and almost none of their power. Their place in the world has been adsumed by the McKelveys. Except it hasn’t really, because how many industrialist magnates are there now? Some, mostly in tech companies. Mostly we’re ruled by… well, Stanley Graffs, I guess, people even Babbitt would have looked down on, but who have somehow elbowed their way to the top of the pole, and had the morals and manners skinned off them in the process. Babbitt himself is hard to find these days, the Prominent Local Businessman. Most of them have lost their jobs to the growth of the great national and international chain stores, that were no doubt once founded by the McKelveys, but are now run for them by distant Graffs. Babbitt, if he survives at all, is probably a put-upon middle-manager now, come a long way down in the world.

If I sound depressing, that’s the point; because that’s what’s changed, in a way. Lewis’ satire is aimed at the horrors of the modern world, but in particular at modern optimism. The everyday American of Babbitt is relentlessly positive, bursting with pep, committed to boosting, filled with hope and zing. Sure, part of that is a steadfast denial of their real problems, and part of it is a scared façade, nobody wanting to be the one to let the team down. Lewis’ America is a nation of brutally enforced mass happiness, in which to acknowledge pain or discontent is tantamount to treason – only socialists, or worse, those damn long-haired liberal ‘intelligentsia’ speak that way about America. Don’t they know America is the greatest, swellest he-country in the world? U – S – A! (to quote the novel). Gee whiz.

[If you’ve seen Pleasantville… Babbitt is the perfect world those guys in the 1950s were trying to recreate after the horrors of war and Depression. The chief difference in tone is that in the 50s, it was an imitation, and a settling – in the 20s, it was real and it was striving]

And yet… there is also a real sense of hope here, a sense of progress, a sense of a brighter future, a sense of growth (Zenith’s inhabitants keep close count of the city’s population, which is its score in its competition against all the other growing young cities). The very blind optimism that is the chief target of Lewis’ derision seems now… charmingly young. Endearingly, painfully, sincere. You poor saps, the modern reader is likely to think, don’t you know that this is (nearly) as good as it gets? And Lewis may mock it, but he carries it too. Why satirise American society this way, we might think, when there is no alternative? Nothing can ever change, so why bother to complain? Sure, Sinclair, capitalism sucks, but it’s not like there’s any alternative. Seneca Doane isn’t a pioneer of socialist progressivism, he’s a deluded old dinosaur ensnared by the false audacity of hope. Yes, we’ll invent all sorts of technologies and liberating forms of communication, but obviously they’ll just be used to enact, so much more efficiently, the same sort of personalised repressions that they needed Athletic Clubs to enforce back in 1920, and in a more depersonalised way. Bohemianism won’t offer a way out – the respectable, commercial world will simply accommodate it, and sell to it, and market it. Lewis mocks the idea of “competition”… doesn’t he know that that will be unchallengeable dogma for the rest of human history? He puts his faith in the new generation – Babbitt’s daughter, we discover, reads Cabell and Hergesheimer, and Mencken, and the poetry of Vachel Lindsey* – doesn’t Lewis know that Babbitt’s son and daughters will grow up to be the Gatsby generation**, no less facile or less money-grubbing than their parents? Doesn’t he know that the Great War that he fears has indelibly scarred the psychology of the older generation is only going to be reiterated in the lives of Babbitt’s future grandchildren? And doesn’t he know that Cabell, and Hergesheimer, and Lindsey, and to a lesser but still considerable degree Mencken and Lewis himself will be swept aside in a tide of Faulkners and Hemingways*** and Steinbecks – real swell manly he-literature, as Georgie Babbitt would admiringly call it – and erased from public consciousness almost entirely? [Oh, sure, Babbitt and co. would frown and tut about Steinbeck being a dangerous socialist who needed to be kept an eye on, but better a misguided socialist than some punk longair – and Steinbeck did make some real he-sales!] There is an eager earnestness about Lewis, and about his characters, that is at once amusing, embarrassing, and somewhat pitiful. It’s all a bit depressing…

*Lindsey returned the favour by writing a poem all about babbittry.

**Its worth noting how fresh it is to read a story about the parents of the Gatsby generation – to see the famous Roaring Twenties from the other direction, as it were. Lewis, to his credit, despite putting his faith in that generation, allows us to be under no illusions about their virtues, or their general annoyingness…

***Lewis admired Hemingway, called him one of the few truly important, “and almost savagely individual” writers living in their age. He not only mentioned him in his Nobel acceptance speech as a future winner, but went ahead and nominated him. In return, Hemmingway, the true American he-man, mocked Lewis mercilessly for years, in conversation, in journalism and even in his novels, mostly for his physical appearance, which Hemingway found insufficiently he-masculine. He even took a detour in Across the River and Into the Treesto taunt his older cheerleader, through a very specifically-described background character, a compatriot of the American protagonist who has ‘outlived his talents’, specifically with the purpose of mocking Lewis’ skin cancer. The Lewis-stand-in character, Hemingway says, is Goebbels, if Goebbels had ever been trapped in a burning plane. He peers about constantly, as though truth could be discovered through query. His skin is pockmarked, and his soul and heart are pitted in the same way. Where Hemingway’s Mary Sue sits with his adoring teenage sex-toy and thinks about sex, Lewis’ image is trapped talking to a respectable old woman. He looks like a disappointed weasel. He looks like he has been run half-way through a meat grinder and then been boiled, lightly, in oil. Spit runs down his face from the corner of his mouth when he speaks. He drinks too much. He is a waste of time not worth talking about. His face looks like the hills around Verdun after the war. In Italy, nobody bothers to pay attention to him – he arouses neither love nor hate nor fear nor suspicion. He writes rapidly, late into the night – “I dare say that makes marvelous reading” mocks Mary Sue; “I dare say,” sniffs the sock puppet on Hemingway’s second hand, “but it was hardly the method of Dante.” He is a drawing by Goya. He is so ludicrous (surely that’s a wig?) that Mary Sue will hope to have him by to laugh at whenever he feels sad.

The difference in how they speak of their rivals rather encapsulates the difference in approach from the two men; and indeed it can hardly be a surprise, given this, that Babbitt and his fellow he-men soon fell in love with Hemingway, and forgot about old, querying, liberal, effeminate Lewis.

And some of that depression is intentional. Lewis may not realise quite how pitiable his dreams are, but he does realise how pitiable the dreams of the Babbitts of the world are. Babbitt is not a maudlin book – too full of boosting, and he-pep, and zing!!! and zip! and zow! and “LIFE’s ZIPPINGEST ZEST”!!!!– but it has maudlin moments. There is a soul of melancholy and of desperation under the shell of fixed smiles: from the quite moments, driving through the streets at night, to the dreams of a fairy child, to the moments of doubt and dread and existential anger. There is a sense that everybody in the book is perhaps only a few feet from self-destruction – that society itself is walking on ice over a cold abyss. There is at the best moments a suggestion of duality, of ambiguity: are the characters tied up with ropes, constrained, imprisoned… or are they roped to one another, to pitons, are the ropes all that are holding them up?

At times, in its quiet, restless, sad moments, the novel approached beauty.

That, however, was not its selling point. That side of things may have helped it with the critics, but it isn’t why it sold. [And in Babbitt, everything must be evaluated by whether its sells, pulls, and/or earns]. It sold because it’s funny. What Lewis did was write a novel that was not only breathtakingly, precisely realistic, and shockingly, unprecedentedly modern (the novel attempts to capture the era of 1920-1921, and was published in 1922… there can have been few novels that so audaciously combined scholarly attention to time and place and a hot-off-the-press, journalistic recency)… but took that world that people saw around them and mocked it mercilessly, to the extent that even Lewis’ enemies were soon admitting the veracity of its barbs. Even the Babbitts owned up to being Babbitts. And that’s because of Lewis’ combination of ferocious satire with a fundamental humanity: everybody is mocked, but nobody is rubbished. There are many conflicting viewpoints, all are flawed, and none are precisely promoted: the pervading sense, indeed, is one of confusion, of being at a loss as to how to proceed.

It’s the humour that sold the copies. Unfortunately, it’s also the humour that comes close to sinking the whole novel.

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Lewis, you see, has all the subtlety of a concrete block to the head. It begins in the prose. Lewis just isn’t a great prose stylist: he imitates Cabell, but does it worse. That’s not to say he’s bad – mostly it’s perfectly adequate, and there are moments, particularly the more sincere, slower moments, when he approaches beauty. He also gets in the odd well-formed, memorable line. But there isn’t the deftness, the subtlety, of a great stylist, so when he tries for deadpan irony, there’s never the slightest ambiguity about it, the slightest consideration for the tone or the context. It’s like the guy who always uses the same ultra-sarcastic voice to make jokes, no matter where you are, whether it’s a wedding or a funeral. It’s not necessarily that he shouldn’t make the jokes, but just…. can’t you try to have a little delicacy about it? It grates. And it’s not just the delivery. Lewis is paranoid that you might not get the joke. So he makes you get it. He makes you get it twice, just in case. When a couple talk about how horrid it is to deal with people of a lower social class than them, or a middle-aged person talks about how boring the elderly are, you can be sure that Lewis isn’t going to leave the interpretation up to common sense, reading ability, and intense sarcasm. No, he’s going to give you word-for-word mirroring scenes, immediately after, when the complainer is complained about in exactly the same terms by someone of even higher class, or who is even younger.

But that’s still sort of implicit, and it also takes time. So Lewis doesn’t stop there. When, for instance, he describes a soulless, perfectly-provisioned fashionable house without the slightest indication of personality or romance… he finishes by explaining that the house is perfectly provisioned except for lacking any personality or romance. “In fact there was but one thing wrong with the house: it was not a home.” Really, Sinclair? That was the point you were trying to make, was it? I hadn’t realised.

Thanks for clarifying that for me!

But although I thank him for clarifying it for me, really I understood it all along, and I was only thanking him sarcastically. Because, you see, he’s explaining his jokes?

Just to clarify that for you.

So he’s the guy who follows you around 24 hours a day, keeping up a thoroughly sarcastic commentary/catalogue of all your actions, and then explaining why he’s being sarcastic and what he really means. In other words, he’s really, really annoying. That doesn’t stop him sometimes being funny, I should be clear. Sometimes he is funny. He’s just really annoying too.

Of course, the cynic may now point out that Jurgen may have been a publishing success, but Babbitt was a publishing behemoth. So maybe assuming a slow audience and spelling everything out carefully was a successful business decision. Certainly, it provides at least a floor of enjoyment for the novel. With something more subtle, like Jurgen, you may worry that a reader might miss the joke; they won’t miss the joke of Babbitt.

Unfortunately it’s mostly the same joke every paragraph for 400 pages, and it’s not a subtle joke the first time.

[Though, to be fair, the sheer violence with which Lewis mocks his readers is in its own way impressive to behold, and is probably not just part of why people liked reading it, but also part of why they were so shock-and-awed by it. In today’s atmosphere, few writers go quite as full-bore in eviscerating readers, critics, and society, even though that pose of contempt has become a fashionable posture for literary authors – in Lewis’ day, that’s not what writers were meant to be for! (more on which in the postscript). You can almost hear the collective gasp, echoing across the decades…]

Where does that leave us? With three different novels. On the one hand, there is an encyclopaedic survey of American society circa 1920. This is fascinating, but rather dry, particularly as large sections seem to be there solely for the purposes of cataloguing an aspect of society, with or without any thematic or narrative motivation. On a second hand, there is a broad satire of social attitudes. This is often annoying, but is sometimes genuinely funny – occasionally very funny – and although it lacks subtlety, if you like this sort of thing it’s better than a lot of other things you could be reading. It’s funnier than a lot of modern comedians. And then there’s our third hand, on which Babbitt is an intense and melancholy psychological novel about ennui, alienation, culture clashes, but also hope, progress, community, and so forth.

Unfortunately, not only do these three novels not quite hit the mark individually, they all seem to be tugging in different directions. Then again, sometimes that’s for the best: when one novel lags, the others can sometimes fill the gaps.

The serious novel is the quietest but by far the best, and it comes increasingly to the fore in the second half of the novel. I fear that many readers won’t make it that far. To be honest, here: many, many readers will quite rightly find most of Babbitt plotless, dreary, irritating and dull.

Personally, my reaction followed a curve: brief delight when I found it much funnier than I was expecting; irritation when the joke just kept repeating and we struggled through a terribly boring Day In the Life of a Boring Man; boredom alleviated by historical curiosity and amused delight at the dated language; the beginning of a feeling that actually things might end up interesting; real engagement and enjoyment near the end.

So in conclusion, it’s a novel with really good material in it, both comic and serious, and I enjoyed it in the end, and don’t regret reading it, and I would recommend it to people who might like this sort of thing. But you’ve got to really like the humour, or else really be interested in the era, or else just be really patient, because it’s 80% filler and it takes a long time to get going. You can totally see why generations of authors were deeply influenced by Babbitt, and why he got the Nobel; it’s got great ideas, great moments, it’s stunningly original for its day (but endlessly imitated); but you can also see why so many authors thought that they could do it better…

In other words, Lewis was an author badly in need of an editor…

Adrenaline: 2/5. I’m being generous. Most of it is a 1/5. But toward the end, the creeping oppression of Babbitt’s society does get quite tense – and the boredom of the book, frankly, is part of that. It leaves you, like Babbitt, frustrated and desperate to escape… overall, however, it’s a book that intrigues rather than excites.

Emotion: 3/5. Much of it is unemotional, intentionally – it’s a sterile world where any real emotion that might exist is concealed. But there are moments where it breaks through to the surface, only more powerful for having been pushed down under such pressure.

Thought: 4/5. Between the historical parallels, the everyman applicability, and the continual puzzle of working out what these people are talking about what is that expression even meant to mean?, it kept my head very active indeed.

Beauty: 3/5. There are beautiful moments… but a lot of other material to wade through to find them.

Craft: 3/5. I’m sorry, did I just give 2/5 for the craftsmanship of a Nobel Laureate? Yes, yes I did. OK, I did, but then I put it up a notch. In some ways, you could argue 2 was deserved. The prose is often too clunky, the structure is too flaccid, the characterisation frequently far too broad, and the jokes spelled out. He does have his moments. But most of the time, it’s not one of those moments. That said, the writing is never terrible, and there are good bits, and moving beyond the prose to the content I do think was able to capture certain characters and moods very well. He also captures the era with a great deal of attention to detail. So… good and bad, I think a par score is fair.

Endearingness: 3/5. I’m conflicted (nothing new there). I enjoyed bits a lot; I… unenjoyed? bits a lot. Will I be rushing to reread it? I doubt it. And yet I’m left with some sort of lingering affection for it. Much like the character of Georgie Babbitt, I guess, who is so visibly stuffed with flaws, much too full of himself, and yet somehow is impossible not to have some creeping fondness for, like a particularly idiotic dog who constantly misbehaves accidentally, and then looks at you with big sad puppy eyes…

Originality: 3/5. Fair’s fair: in terms of the actual novelty of the book, when it came out, this was culturally world-shattering. The problem is, we’ve now had 94 years of flagrant imitators. Thanks in large part to Babbitt, “realistic, witty novel about middle-aged middle-class white guy suffering ennui as he goes about his day-to-day life, occasionally tempted to have an affair” has basically become the archetype for the “literary fiction” genre. If you want a Platonic Ideal of Literary Fiction, this isn’t far off it (except perhaps that it’s more overtly humorous than most). But it does gain some marks for being so pedantically researched, so precisely and pervasively of its time. You may have read about this guy before, and you may know this plot already, but you probably haven’t seen it set in exactly the summer of 1920 in a Midwestern city… there are a lot of imitators, but you’re not going to confuse Babbitt itself with any of them, I don’t think.

OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD.

I originally gave it 4/7 (‘not bad’) and wrote:

…and now I feel embarrassed. Nobel Prize, idiot! Seminal work of 20th century literature! The Guardian rates it in the top 50 novels of the century! How the bloody hell do you wind up giving it the same score as (pulp horror-fantasy undead killfest D&D novel) Dance of the Dead!?
But… is that wrong? I mean, really? I’m not rating Babbitt for its historical significance, which is obviously tremendous, its influential even beyond the bounds of literature. No argument there. And I’m not really rating it for its value as a histeriosociographical source document, although in that regard it’s fascinating, and by all accounts painstakingly researched and true to life. But none of that really makes it a good novel, does it? Novels aren’t just there to tell us about the past in an informative manner (although that’s nice, don’t get me wrong).

Babbitt does show us a window into the human soul. That’s worth something. And at times its funny, and often interesting, if it interests you. But a lot of novels show us a window into the human soul. I can’t honestly say that what Babbitt showed was informative and novel in that regard, nor that it was particularly emotionally powerful, at least when counterbalanced with all the pages that did not display any particular insight into human existence. But Dance of the Dead had zombies, and weremink, and a talking psychopathic rabbit, and Babbittdid not have any of these things, and there is also that to consider.

After letting passions cool for a while, however, I’ve reconsidered and pushed it up to a 5. I stand by the above, in that I do believe the gap between a good pulp entertainment novel and a historical important literary novel can be much less than you’d imagine. Just because something is Important and is read by Cultured People, that doesn’t automatically make it a great work.

But… I think it’s more accurate to describe Babbitt as ‘good’ than as ‘not bad’. It has a lot of flaws, and frankly anybody calling it one of the books of the century on artistic, rather than historical, grounds is either very badly read, or more likely is a weak-willed charlatan reciting a line they’ve been given and don’t dare challenge. In prose, in structure, in themes, in vividity and acuity, the novel is nothing special. And yet Babbitt is genuinely an interesting, moving, funny, and impressive novel.

We live in an age in which everything is either brilliant or terrible – and The Classics, in particular, are either Overrated (probably due to racism/sexism) or else True Immortal Works of Genius. Babbitt… isn’t either of those things. It’s somewhere inbetween – worthwhile, valuable, impressive, worth reading, and yet frankly not all that earth-shattering.

I began by saying that Babbitt should be on your reading lists. I still agree with that, if we mean a list of Books You Ought To Have Read – and if it is on your lists, don’t treat it with dread, there is enjoyment to be gotten out of it. But at the same time, I’m not going to be putting it anybody’s Books You Must Read Because You Will Love Them list – not unless I think they’re really a perfect fit for it.
That said, while critics may still mention it, I don’t think many people are reading it still. And I think that given its quality, and its continued relevance to the modern world, it ought to be read by more people. Because Babbitt is… well, it may be odd and heavy-handed and meandering, but it’s also… actually pretty good.

P.S. Babbitt did not win the Pulitzer Prize. There’s probably a story behind that. I don’t know it, but I do know the stories behind the Lewis novels that flanked it, and those stories, ironically, get to the heart of why he wrote Babbitt in the first place.

You see, Main Street, the preceding novel, was a contender for the Pulitzer. More than a contender: the jury decided to award it the prize. Unfortunately for Lewis, however, the jury don’t get the final say – and the Pulitzer Prize Board overruled their expert jury, choosing to instead hand the prize to a supposedly lesser, but much less controversial, nominee (a little novel called The Age of Innocence, by a certain Edith Wharton). This is probably why Babbitt is dedicated to Wharton, though whether this represents an olive branch or a sarcastic slow-clap I’m not quite sure.

Now, the Prize Board weren’t wholly opposed to Lewis, or else with his continued acclaim they finally saw the light. Because the novel after BabbittArrowsmith, DID get the Pulitzer. Or at least, it won the Pulitzer. Because this time it was the author who wouldn’t coöperate: Lewis refused the prize.

Why does any of this matter? Because Lewis didn’t turn down the award purely out of spite or for revenge. He rejected the award in protest at the Prize’s aims. You see, we may think of the Pulitzer as recognising quality, and that’s how it was thought of at the time as well – but literary quality, like all other virtues, was judged differently in the age of Main Street and Babbitt. In the terms of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, literary quality is defined very straightforwardly and, for the day, non-controversially: the Prize was “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”

…I’m just letting that sit there for a moment. That is why novels like Cabell’s Jurgen and Lewis’ Babbitt were written. Because in the capitalist-flavour Soviet Realism of twenties America, good art is art that serves the public morality, and public morality is always best served by accurately depicting America, and America can only be accurately depicted by emphasising its manhood, its manners, and its wholesomeness. It is a view of art that George F. Babbitt and his brethren would heartily assent to, would see even as unquestionable. Of course great he-literature has to boost American wholesomeness and manhood. What kind of punk fellow would use literature to do anything other than boost his country, when it’s clearly the best country on earth? Only a bunch of fourflushing liberal punk long-hairs trying to undermine America, that’s who, and we don’t want anything to do with that bunch! U.S.A.!

Babbitt may seem to modern readers to err on the side of exaggeration… but actually it’s just an early example of Poe’s Law. The parody cannot rival reality.

Nor, for that matter, was this simply an ignored issue, though Lewis suggested it was an assumption that went generally unnoticed. This very question had also confused the 1920 Prize, when most of the Jury wished to recognise Java Head, the popular but controversial novel of miscegenation, drug addiction, suicide, illegitimacy, murder and migration, by Lewis’ role-model Hergesheimer, but were prevented from doing so by a single juror who insisted that the novel failed to present American life as adequately wholesome. No award was made that year, and presumably similar motivations explain the snub for Main Street.

P.P.S. As hypothetical long-time readers know, I mostly read/review SF&F novels – and readers looking for more of the same have probably wondered off long before this point in the review. But if any of you have made it this far, here’s a little reward: Babbitt may be one of the most important novels in the history of Fantasy.

Why? Because of a certain Sinclair Lewis fan named John Tolkien. I didn’t realise until now that he was a Lewis fan – it seems, on the face of it, implausible. Realism and fantasy were much closer back then, however, before the walls of the fantasy ghetto were erected, and it turns out that Tolkien claimed to have read every single one of Lewis’ novels. Given that, you might even imagine a certain similarity in style, particularly in the area of humour – Tolkien doesn’t joke that much, but he does sometimes indulge a deadpan wit that isn’t so far removed from Lewis’. Realistically, this is probably more the result of shared influences, like Cabell and indeed a whole tendency in English writing of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although Lewis’ use of the style may have contributed to Tolkien’s own employment of it.

The important bit, however, is much more concrete than that. It lies in a pair of words: babbitt and hobbit. The similarity in sounds, it seems, is more than a coincidence. Although Tolkien denied a conscious decision in this regard, saying that the word ‘hobbit’, and the novel that followed from it, were plucked out of the top of his head on a whim, he in hindsight came to believe that his hobbits had subconsciously been formed by his fondness for Lewis, through the similarity of these two words. Specifically, the culture of the hobbits of the Shire, while dressed in the details of the English gentry, were in Tolkien’s mind a recreation of the petty-minded babbittry of the American middle classes… and, in particular, of the well-fed, conventional, adventure-avoiding Mr George F. Babbitt himself.

He does not, however, have hairy feet.

[Lewis also had something else in common with fantasy writers: obsessive worldbuilding. Lewis drew up detailed maps of Zenith (including all its suburbs, population nearly 400,000) and the entire state of Winnemac, not to mention biographies and genealogies even for minor characters. If Babbitt were a modern fantasy novel, it would be dismissed for its excessive reliance on worldbuilding and on travelogue.]

P.P.P.S. As you may have noticed, my reviews have been getting stupidly long. In particular, the review for Jurgen was simply ridiculous. That’s why I’ve decided to begin the year by changing how I write reviews, employing rigid discipline and an iron will to ensure that, starting with this review, every review I write will be brief, concise, and to the….
*looks at wordcount*

…oh bugger.

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North America

Ontario: The Borderland Economy

Source: RBC, predictions from March 2015

Source: Royal Bank of Canada, predictions of provincial economic growth for 2015, published March 2015

With the economy of Western Canada hit hard by the fall in oil and other commodity prices that began last year, Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, has begun to account for quite a large share of the country’s economic growth. Many Canadian economists – most of whom live in Ontario, as I do – assume this economic resilience is the result of Ontario’s economic diversity and size. Ontario’s population is much larger than that of any other Canadian province (see graph below), and its economy is mixed between services (in Toronto),  government (Ottawa), industry (southwestern Ontario), and commodities (northern Ontario). Ontario’s economy is also more oriented toward the auto sector than other provinces are, and so may be benefiting more than others from the fall in oil prices.

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Ontario accounts for around 38 percent of Canada’s population, compared to 23 percent for Quebec and 13 percent for British Columbia. Most other countries do not have provinces/states that are as large as this. California, for example, is the largest state in the US but has just 12 percent of the US population; source: Future Economics

Still, this may be missing the point to a certain extent. What really sets Ontario aside from other Canadian provinces is the proximity of large population centres in Ontario to large population centres in the United States. This is unique among Canadian provinces (see graph below), particularly if you ignore Quebec (which is separated from US populations by a language barrier as well as a political one) and British Columbia (which, perhaps not incidentally, is the other major province that has decent economic growth right now, in spite of the fact that it is a significant commodity exporter and has close ties to oil-rich Alberta). Ontario is the only province to have a handful of cities which straddle the US-Canada border. These include Detroit-Windsor, Buffalo-Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Sault St Marie, and Sarnia-Fort Huron.

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Since the US economy has remained relatively strong in recent years, unlike those of Europe, East Asia, or much of the developing world, Ontario’s ties to the US may be what is driving Ontario’s economic growth. This should make Ontario concerned; the US economy has not had a recession for almost eight years now, so, in a certain sense at least, it is due for one soon.

Below, I have tried to show some of the ways in which Ontario’s proximity to the US is unique. I’ve gathered all the data myself using Google Earth and recent Canadian and American censuses, so if you think you’ve found any errors in the following graphs please let me know.

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us-can gdp growth

[New Brunswick had zero in this category because Maine’s economy has been neither growing nor shrinking in the past year or so. Alberta and BC are high in this category because of the growth of Washington state and Montana, respectively. Saskatchewan and Manitoba were doing great in this category before the oil crash caused their shared neighbour North Dakota to go from the fastest-growing US state into a serious recession. Ontario and Quebec are roughly equal in this category because of the huge size of New York state, which they both border. However if you were to ignore New York state, then Ontario’s border states, namely Michigan and Minnesota, are growing much faster than Quebec’s border states, namely Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Minnesota’s growth, meanwhile, is also why Manitoba is relatively high in this category in spite of North Dakota’s recession — as Minnesota’s  GDP is nearly seven times higher than North Dakota’s]

Ontario’s ties to the US have also meant that it is less dependent on inter-provincial trade of goods than other parts of Canada are: in recent years Ontario has conducted 2.5 times more trade with other countries (led by the United States, of course) than it has with other provinces. This is compared to just 1-1.5 times more for Quebec, Alberta, and British Colombia.

Economists and financial journalists in Ontario need to be more careful than they have been in the recent past. During the 2007-2009 economic crises they ascribed the relative success of Canada’s financial system (which is centred in Toronto, Ontario) to the fact that Canadian bankers and regulators were more prudent and conscientious than their peers in other countries, rather than to the fact that Canada was flush with capital at the time as a result of the sky-high commodity prices that existed just before and just after the financial crisis, and as a result of the fact that Canadian Baby Boomers  were then in the prime of their financial lives (as Canada, unlike the younger US or older Japan, is dominated by the Baby Boomer generation).

But instead of acknowledge these facts, much of the Canadian media decided instead to help create a cult of personality around Canadian bankers and Bank of Canada leader Mark Carney — a cult of personality they have since exported to Britain, where Carney has become a figure of great importance (especially since Brexit and the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron) and the first non-Briton to ever become the central banker over the British financial system, a system that is far larger, far more worldly, and far less dependent on  commodity sectors than the Canadian financial system is. Similarly, Ontario’s economic resilience is now being described (by some people) as if it was basically an inherent condition of the Ontario economy, rather than a result, at least in part, of Ontario’s unique ties to the growing US economy.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that Ontario is not a resilient place or that bankers and regulators in Toronto and Ottawa are not prudent and wise. And certainly I would like Ontario’s economy to continue growing, since it is my home. However, believing either one of these stereotypes about Ontario too much could be a dangerous mistake for investors or governments to continue to make.

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East Asia, Europe, India, Middle East, North America, South America, South Asia

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.

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North America

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

[Just to make something clear before we go on, so that I don’t get blamed for being a shill for the coal industry or something: I am a Green Party supporter, and in favour of putting very high taxes on carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants (though ideally I would want these taxes to be “revenue neutral”, i.e. for other types of taxes, such as sales taxes, to be reduced by an equivalent amount). I am not, admittedly, in favour of subsidizing alternative energy sources. But I am certainly not biased in any way in favour of coal. Got it? Okay good, let’s begin]:

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.

methane emissions

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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.

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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.

CoalRetirementsMap

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.

land per capita

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.

relative trade northeast asia

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”.

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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.

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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.

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