Category Archives: Politics

The systematic distruction of America’s electric trolley cars

A story many do not know is that of the early days of the light rail in the United States. The fact that it is uncommon knowledge is a shame, because the repercussions from what happened in those early days of public transportation can still be seen clearly on the streets of the U.S. to this day.

In the early 20th century, it was said that one could travel from New York to San Diego by simply hopping from one trolley to another. Unsurprisingly, competition was forming around the same time, in this case it was the bus lines.

Within a matter of years, wealthy bus line owners from all around the country bought up rail after rail and systematically destroyed all of the trollies. This was to ensure big oil’s grasp on the commuters of America by forcing them to ride oil-powered buses rather than electric street cars.

The result had a devastating effect on our environment and infrastructure. Millions of tons of CO2 from city buses has rocketed into the atmosphere and our roads have been clogged and eroded by the heavy, bulky machines.

The history is as follows: Corporate giants Mack Truck, Firestone, Phillips, General Motors and Standard Oil banded together in the 1930’s and 40’s to make a “secret company” who’s task was to buy all the passenger cars and trolley lines. In the documentary Pump, author Edwin Black who wrote about this topic at length in Internal Combustion,  gave a chilling summary of what happened next.

“… the rails were pulled up, the trolley cars themselves were burned in public bonfires, and they replaced them with smelly, oil-consuming motor buses. Eventually, the federal government discovered that this was a conspiracy to subvert mass transit. All five corporations were indicted, they were tried, they were found guilty. A corporate conspiracy was responsible for destroying the trolleys in America.”

The word “conspiracy” always insights skepticism among those who hear it used to describe major historical events, but unlike in most cases, the conspiracy to destroy America’s electric rail system is well-supported by documented evidence. And it all starts with a company called National City Lines.

First, a little background:

National City Lanes was founded in Minnesota in 1920 as a modest local transport company operating two buses. Part of the operations were reorganized into a holding company in 1936 and expanded about two years later with funding from General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, and Phillips Petroleum.

The five companies involved NCL in their pocketbooks for the sole purpose of acquiring local transit systems throughout the United States. This eventually became known as the General Motors streetcar conspiracy.

The plan was as merciless as it was intricate. When National City Lines would acquire a transit system, the trolley rails would be ripped up, the overhead wires would be cut down, and the system would be converted to buses within 90 days.

General Motors scrapped electrically powered streetcars and trolley-buses, which they did not make, and substituted them with gasoline powered buses that they manufactured. This way, every aspect of supply and demand was tilted in their favor. The cars and busses that GM designed and manufactured would burn Standard Oil gasoline and roll on Firestone rubber tires.

The man behind all this? Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., a highly intelligent man who studied at MIT and was hired by General Motors to expand auto sales and maximize profits by eliminating streetcars.

The statistics on public transit at the time are truly awe-inspiring, and one can almost see why Mr. Sloan might have felt threatened enough to take such drastic action.  At the time, 90 percent of all trips were by rail, chiefly electric rail; only one in 10 Americans owned an automobile.

There were 1,200 separate electric street and interurban railways, a thriving and profitable industry with 44,000 miles of track, 300,000 employees, 15 billion annual passengers, and $1 billion in income. Virtually every city and town in America of more than 2,500 people had its own electric rail system, but not for long.

As the largest depositor in the nation’s leading banks, GM enjoyed financial leverage over the electric railways, which relied heavily on these banks to supply their capital needs. According to U.S. Department of Justice documents, officials of GM visited banks used by railways in Philadelphia, Dallas, Kansas City and other locations, and, by offering them millions in additional deposits, persuaded their rail clients to convert to motor vehicles.

And where rail systems were publicly owned and could not be bought, like the municipal railway of St. Petersburg, Florida, GM bribed officials to get their way. According to FBI files, General Motors provided complimentary Cadillacs to railway officials who converted to bus-based systems.

The punishment:

In 1936 National City Lines and General Motors was found guilty of subverting public transit by a federal court. The two were fined $5,000 apiece, while their management staff were fined $1 each.

However, later Justice Department investigations got nowhere because by 1932 GM had created the National Highway Users Conference, a powerful Washington lobby to push for more freeways and silence discussion of diesel or gasoline pollution. Alfred P. Sloan headed the conference for 30 years until another GM man took over. Today, the commission is headed by Greg Cohen, President and CEO of the NHUC.

In 1949, National City Lines were again convicted in Federal court (and in 1951 the conviction was upheld) for destroying the electrified rail and electric bus transit systems in 44 American cities.

E.J. Quinby, president and founder of the Electric Railroader’s Association, bravely persuaded the government to bring the lawsuit against GM and its powerful automotive allies.

Despite these convictions, the government refused to punish the automotive giants beyond the small symbolic fines described above.

Yet still, more attempts to hold the guilty companies accountable were made. In 1972, then U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy called for a Federal investigation into G.M.’s alleged conspiratorial destruction of the U.S. rail industry and public mass transit industry, in order to facilitate the sale of automobiles.

This led to Senate Bill 1167 of 1974 “The Industrial Reorganization Act” and the now little known Ground Transportation Hearings of April 1974 – which were sidetracked by the resignation of then U.S. President Richard Nixon on August 8, 1974.

To date there has not been another attempt to prosecute the five companies involved with taking down America’s light rail and electric trolley systems.

What seems overwhelmingly clear is not only were we as Americans robbed of the opportunity to have efficient public transit on the same level as other developed nations, but we were also robbed of the opportunity to have less polluted air and less congested roads. The good news is even if our government cant adequately punish companies for their crimes, the past does not have to remain the status quo.

If we come together as a society and make it known that we care enough about this issue to do something about it, we can re-instate the rail systems, reduce the number of buses in use across the country, build more trollies and light rail systems throughout cities, and maybe even reclaim the day when it could be truthfully uttered that one can travel from New York to San Diego by light rail simply my switching trains again and again.

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The TSA: an illusion of security

Some of you may have heard the reports about the Transportation Security Administration’s failure to pass surprise inspections that tested their effectiveness at stopping threats. If you haven’t, allow me to fill you in.

What’s significant here is the scope of their failure. According to ABC news, the TSA allowed 67 out of 70 possible threats to sneak by their airport checkpoints unnoticed. That’s a 95 percent failure rate. But how can the TSA be so ineffectual at what is literally their only job? That’s what we’re here to find out.

Homeland Security personnel dressed as civilians walked into dozens of airports all over the country and were able to smuggle everything from mock explosives to weapons past the security checkpoints. These “red teams” were part of Homeland Security’s push to identify the TSA’s most serious weak points.

The TSA claims that the numbers in reports like these never look good out of context, with some officials even going as far as to claim the Homeland Security agents were “super terrorists” who pushed every aspect of the TSA’s operation to the limit.

But isn’t that the point?

In fairness, the TSA say they’ve already corrected some of the security lapses that led to their procedural failings, but it’s very unfeasible that they have already corrected all or even most of them.

A look through the TSA’s website reveals that they’ve installed new equipment such as the Advanced Imaging Technology scanner. They’ve also expanded their new two-lane checkpoints to 2,640 square feet, which the agency says will create more space for both passengers and security personnel.

However, these improvements were only made at the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport, with no mention in the press release of similar improvements being made in any other locations. There are no speech transcripts, testimonies, or press releases available on the TSA’s website from the month the story broke that address their security failures.

Peter Neffenger, Ambassador for the TSA, told the House Committee on Homeland Security he was “greatly disturbed” by the TSA’s failure rate on the undercover tests. Neffenger cited DHS Secretary Johnson’s ten-step plan to improve the TSA’s methods and increase their effectiveness.

According to the transcript of Neffenger’s testimony to congress, “The assessments are designed to determine the proximate root causes of these failures and provide effective system-wide solutions.” When the testimony was given, Neffenger promised a “systemic review” to identify vulnerabilities across the aviation security system as a whole.

The rhetoric coming from TSA brass may sound reassuring, but the agency’s actions in response to its security lapses have been baffling. The TSA spent nearly $50,000 on an app that splits waiting passengers into two lines with a simple right swipe/left swipe function – a job that could easily have been done without the assistance of an iPad.

According to Politico, fewer passengers are going to be funneled through the less-invasive PreCheck lines in an effort to be more thorough, but many criticize this plan as slowing down an already slow process. There has also been talk of increasing the presence of drug-sniffing dogs and bomb-residue detecting hand swabs.

Representative Bennie Thompson of the House Homeland Security Committee told Politico that he supports adding more manual screening and increasing the selectiveness of expedited treatment, but he’s also worried about how this shift would look in the wake of the TSA’s efforts to speed the screening process for the millions of passengers they see every day.

It has become clear that we as a nation are going to have to make the choice between spending more time in airport lines, and increasing the risk of someone dangerous getting through the checkpoints.

While submitting to more screenings may not seem ideal, it’s hard not to argue that something must be done about the TSA’s security lapses. If the TSA are going to change up their act in an effort to improve, it’s up to us as passengers to be ready for it.

An effort to reach the TSA at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport for comment was unsuccessful.

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The Panama Papers: following the money

The reason why the Panama Papers are more than just a news story is because of their tie to history. Financial scandals may not be as sexy as those relating to war, but the fact of the matter is the Panama Papers are much larger in size and scope than the Pentagon Papers ever were.

Let’s start off with the basic facts: Eleven-point-five million documents were leaked from the law firm Mossack Fonseca, the world’s fourth largest offshore law firm, incriminating 143 politicians and 12 world leaders both former and current in the hiding of personal assets in offshore tax havens.

I admit the numerical details can be incredibly dry. Simply put,  finance isn’t sexy. But its implications are. Vladimir Putin himself was implicated in the hiding of two billion dollars in offshore funds, and the Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson resigned his post within hours of the story breaking. Gunnlaugsson stepped down due to his failure to disclose companies controlled by he and his wife that were being overseen by the Icelandic government.

Here’s where the story goes from numbers to consequences. When we start to see high-level change in the world of politics, you can be sure that there is something more going on besides some accounting  tom-foolery. And this is a story that is sure to be breaking not only this week, but over the next few months and possibly years.

I know it may be easy for many people to ask “Why should I care?” but it’s important to remember that wrongdoing, no matter how benign it may seem, is still wrong. And the committers of those wrongdoings need to be held accountable, especially if they’re elected officials.

Forty years of records were leaked, more than two terabytes of data, all vetted by a coalition of approximately 100 professional journalistic organizations. This massive professional partnership has led some to speculate whether the days of “amateur” leaks, such as the Wikileaks scandal, are behind us.

What’s truly amazing however, is the sheer number of people implicated in the documents. In addition to Putin and Gunnlaugsson, the papers contain information on Pakistan’s prime minister, the President of Ukraine, Argentina’s president, the King of Saudi Arabia, six members of the UK’s House of Lords, eight families associated with the supreme ruling body in China and dozens of Brazilians, according to The Guardian.

Digging deeper into this story revealed another layer of information. According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the documents also name at least 33 people and companies “blacklisted by the U.S. government.” Among the list of names are people that do business with terrorist organizations and Mexican drug lords. And it isn’t just people that were identified in the documents. Countries such as North Korea and Iran were also implicated.

We know the names and positions of some of the key players in this story, but what exactly did they do? Let’s break down the involvement of four people named in the list earlier in the article.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif:

According to the Wall Street Journal, three of Sharif’s children were linked to offshore companies. They were either owners of the companies or had the right to authorize transactions for them. The records indicated the family owned London real estate in prime locations and that the companies used the properties as collateral to secure a loan worth millions of pounds.

President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko: reports that Poroshenko set up a secret offshore company, Prime Asset Partners Ltd., in the British Virgin Islands. To make matters worse, these dealings took place during the period of conflict between Ukraine and Russia that left many Ukrainian solders dead. According to the documents, Poroshenko was listed as the only shareholder of Prime Asset Partners Ltd.

Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri:

Reports from the BBC show Mr. Macri was listed as director of an offshore company in the Bahamas. Fleg Trading, the company in question, was under his control from 1998 until 2009. Macri kept the company off his books as Mayor of Buenos Aires in 2007, and then again as president in 2015. His office released word Tuesday saying Mr. Macri’s family did in fact own a offshore business group, the acquisition of which was facilitated by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia:

An article on reported that King Salman used an offshore British Virgin Island company to take out mortgages on London-based luxury homes. In total, the mortgages for those homes totaled $34 million. Now to be clear, the papers do not mention King Salman’s specific role in the scandal, but the mortgages are mentioned to be “in relation to” him and his assets.

This crisis is truly global, with over 200 countries and territories being identified in the leak. According to the ICIJ’s website, Mossack Fonseca is involved in Africa’s diamond trade, provides services to Middle Eastern royalty, and has dealings in the international art market along with other businesses that thrive on secrecy. While most of their clients and transactions are law abiding, it’s clearly worth highlighting the few that are not.









Global climate change: Mother Nature or mankind?

It’s always baffled me that an issue as important as our environment could become just another political pawn.

There’s so much riding on whether or not humans are truly destroying the Earth that one would think politicians and the public would be able to come to a consensus. But no, now it’s just another he-said/she-said debate in the halls of Washington and around the dinner table… until you step into the lab.

“There are natural climate cycles but the current CO2 increase is not part of it,” said Susanne Neuer, Senior Sustainability Scientist at ASU. “The Earth has gone though changes much hotter than we have today. There are traces in the geological record where there was no ice anywhere in the Polar Regions. If all land ice currently bound on the continent is melted, the sea level would be 70 meters higher, and there have been much larger changes in sea level than that,” said Neuer.

In college-level Psychical Geography courses, students are presented with evidence that the Earth has undergone extensive heating and cooling cycles throughout the course of its history. According to temperature data, the period we’re living in now is “unusually warm” with record droughts and wildfires.

This is partially due to the fact that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere recently reached its highest point in at least one million years. If you look at the history of Earth’s CO2 levels on the graph below, you’ll see that the spike in CO2 over the last 150 years is very insubstantial when compared to previous concentrations of the gas.

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Components of Earth’s atmosphere over the last five billion years. Photo from a GPH 111 course at ASU. 

This is not to say that mankind is not affecting its atmosphere adversely, but rather there are far more factors to consider in climate change than just CO2. Yes, admittedly the last time CO2 levels in the atmosphere were this high, humans did not yet inhabit the planet. But the fact that we are still here proves it wasn’t the CO2 level that was making life for humans unsustainable at that time.

Remember: multiple factors.

What should be most worrying to people is that these factors are, for the most part, out of human control (at least for the next hundred years or so.)

Without wishing to get too deep into another subject matter, according to the Kardashev theory, Earth is currently a Type 0 civilization. This means we haven’t yet advanced far enough technologically to harness the power of all the weather events on our planet. Scientists predict human beings will be able to do so sometime early in the 22nd century.

Until then, we must tread very carefully with the ecosystems of Earth, because they ultimately have more power over us than we do over them.

Neuer outlined the build-up to where we are now environmentally and explained where we’re headed as an industrial world. “Since [the Industrial Revolution] CO2 has increased at unprecedented levels – which is what’s really scary,” she said. “The CO2 level was at 180 parts per million during the last Ice Age, and should be at 280 parts per million now. Today’s CO2 levels are at 400 ppm, more than 40% higher. That was a rise that happened only in the past 150 years or so. We’re already seeing the effects of what we’ve done to our planet.”

According to Neuer, the ocean is taking up 90 percent of the planet’s heat and swallows up 30 percent of the CO2 released by fossil fuel burning into the atmosphere. In other words, it plays large and important role in our climate.

Neuer went on to explain how methane, while often talked about in the climate debate, is not as harmful as carbon dioxide. “Most methane disperses in the atmosphere, and the little that doesn’t is transformed into CO2,” said Neuer. “CO2 creates a greater impact than methane does because it is a so much more abundant greenhouse gas.”

Neuer cited her own research as evidence to support her claims. “In my own work I’ve seen surface-ocean warming and reduction of pH, which comes from CO2 being taken up by the ocean,” she said. “Reduction of pH, so-called ocean acidification, hurts sea life with carbonate shells or skeletons, such as corals.

“When this happens, the ocean currents get disturbed and don’t flow naturally anymore, which is what caused the dramatic weather events shown in the movie The Day After Tomorrow, but on unrealistically fast time-scales.”

Neuer says it’s predicted in some model calculations that this disruption could come to a head in the next 200 years if we don’t get our act together.

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The graph shows the multiple elements in our atmosphere causing climate change. Photo from a GPH 111 course at ASU. 

Nancy Selover, State Climatologist for Arizona, took time to comment on the significance of record-breaking high and low temperatures so often reported on.

“We’ve seen trends towards hotter records more than colder records,” said Selover. “I look at the trends in terms of climate and try to stay out of the political side of the issue because we can’t attribute what’s causing it to a single thing. If you want to actually change the temperature of the globe then you should want to know how to pull the carbon back out of the atmosphere.”

Selover went on to explain that there are thermometers placed all over the globe to measure climate, including instruments on top of buoys to get a reading on temperatures over the oceans. But she says that there are areas of the globe that are either inaccessible or too inhospitable for humans to install temperature-scanning devices.

Despite some areas going unrecorded, Selover insists that scientists still receive an accurate reading of overall global temperature shifts. “Not every singe place responds the same,” she said. “When you take a global average you take an average of hot and cold data. People are going to notice what’s going on where they live.”

Selover explained that what people notice is more local in terms of temperature change, and that they don’t get too panicky about global climate swings. “The Earth is always changing in terms of its climate and it’s impossible for it not to,” she said. “People would like for temperatures to stay the way they are now because that’s what we’re used to, but average temperatures won’t stay the same forever.”

Dr. Selover was also adamant about there not being enough done in terms of cleaning up the atmosphere, and that all the money and research seems to be going towards prevention. “If they said ‘Let’s stop burning fossil fuels and clean up the air to avoid respiratory issues’, it could be done in way less than 100 years,” she said.

Selover says that removing CO2 from our air would have a more immediate impact than waiting for the CO2 to dissipate on its own. “You can’t just say ‘We need to stop putting CO2 up there.’ We also need to be cleaning it up,” she said.

Happily, research professors have been working on CO2 removal methods very similar to what Dr. Selover described. The Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at ASU experiments with carbon-removal methods, which include algae growth and “capturing” carbon in rocks.

Steve Atkins, Senior Engineer at the CNCE, has been working with his colleagues on technologies that remove carbon in different ways.

“I’ve been primarily focused on building direct air capture devices,” Atkins said. “They capture CO2 from the atoms in the air. At the Center we have something called an Ionic Resin Exchange Membrane, and basically what it does is collect CO2 from the atmosphere.”

According to Atkins, by feeding CO2 to algae they’re able to grow and eventually be converted into bio fuels. “Algae needs CO2 to grow better and faster. It’s how a lot of greenhouses pump elevated levels of CO2 into their structure,” he said.

“The overall goal is to be able to capture CO2 from the atmosphere at a low cost,” said Atkins. “We’re aiming to do this at a cost that is below what everyone else can do. We’re looking at 100 dollars per ton of CO2 that’s captured.” Atkins says that a secondary goal is to demonstrate that the process is scalable and economically viable. “We need to demonstrate this technology at a commercial scale,” he said.

The Center’s plan is to scale the project up to about one ton of CO2 removed from the air per day. But to do this they’d have to produce and deploy the devices that facilitate this process at the same rate that the U.S. produces automobiles. “We mass-produce so many other things in this country. We can do this too,” said Atkins.


An artist’s impression of the CO2 ‘scrubber’ designed by Klaus Lackner. Photo from

According to the Center, the impact on the environment will come with the mass production of this machine. “Worst-case scenario, we would need 100 million of these devices out there to reduce carbon levels,” said Atkins.

That may sound like a lot of machines to build and have taking up space, but remember that there are 165 thousand cars produced around the world every day. The difference is, instead of producing carbon dioxide like cars do, these machines will actually consume it.

Now for the million-dollar question: Will any of this save us? Or is it too late to make a change?

“It is conceivable that at 400 ppm we’ve already exceeded the concentration needed to cause catastrophic climate change,” said Atkins. “To get back, we’d have to go negative – that is, we’d have to extract CO2 from the air, not just reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions.”

But are we at least going in the right direction? Atkins doesn’t think so. He says he’s pessimistic about the political and financial side of this issue.

According to climatologists’ calculations, in order to reach emission goals, 80 percent of the Earth’s oil has to stay in the ground. Atkins sees that as contrary to oil companies’ plans and financial interests. “We’ve made some progress in the fossil fuel industry but only a few coal plants have closed, and generally for financial, not environmental, reasons,” he said.

Perhaps the most foreboding thing about global climate change is that despite all of our technology, there is no timetable available. “I don’t know when we’ll know for sure whether or not we’re too late to stop the two degree global temperature increase that will lead to an irreversible climate shift,” said Atkins. “But I do think that climatologists are being conservative with their estimates. I think we’re going to find out sooner than most people think.”

Former CBS President Andrew Heyward visits Cronkite School

Former president of CBS Andrew Hayward visited the Cronkite School on Tuesday to discuss the challenges facing the next generation of journalists.

Excited ASU students were given the opportunity to ask the veteran journalist questions ranging from the future of newspapers to how television news will innovate to keep pace with the internet. During the hour-long discussion, which was also open to the public, Heyward outlined his vision for the future with hints of both optimism and warning.

“Prior to the 1980s, newsrooms didn’t have to be profitable,” said Heyward. “They were ‘loss leaders’ that added prestige to the network. After that period there were all sorts of corporate changes. What’s harder now than it was even 10 years ago is the tremendous financial pressure that the newsrooms have. They are expected to do more with less.”

Despite these harsh realities, Heyward’s message wasn’t all bad. “The good news is it’s become significantly cheaper to produce and distribute news.”

Journalism is a far more welcoming field than it once was, according to Heyward. He said it offers a lot more reward for individual talent than it used to. As students scribbled furiously to keep up with Mr. Heyward’s rapid speaking style, he went on to say that journalists are no longer expected to fit into the cookie-cutter mold that was standard for old newsrooms.

In Heyward’s view, online startups like Vice, Vox and Buzzfeed are the future of print journalism. He believes that Vice is the most impressive of the three because they use old-fashioned reporting methods to craft their stories. “Something that’s very important to remember is it’s much easier to chase viewers away than it is to attract them,” he said. “You have to protect your core while going for more.”

On the innovation issue, Heyward explained the concept of a “social scanner.”  In much the same way as one would use a police scanner, newsrooms and broadcast stations can use a social scanner to form a two-way relationship with their audience by digging into social issues and other hot topics. “Local news has been floundering because their style is too formulaic. Wildfires and court cases only really interest those whom are directly affected by them. Running stories like that are easy, so in a way it’s reaching for the low-hanging fruit.”

In Heyward’s experience, there is a perception in the newsroom that being a reporter is an annoyance that one must simply get through, and that being an anchor is the big prize. He said in order to really improve the position that journalism is in, we have to create the mindset among professionals that being an anchor is the boring/unfulfilling role and that reporting is where the exciting, meaningful work is done.

“If there were more transparency in the process of news gathering/reporting between the professionals and their audience, it would increase journalist’s credibility and ease the perception that all journalism outlets are biased,” said Heyward.

In perhaps his most profound observation of the night, Heyward said that a journalist’s job is not to reveal truth, it’s to discover facts. This carries legitimate weight when you consider that what’s true to one person may not necessarily be true to someone else, so in order to cut through the bias, ignorance and personal perceptions, journalists must find the actual facts.

It’s difficult to tell exactly where journalism will go in the coming decades – even Andrew Heyward will confirm that. But there’s one thing he knew for sure: millennials are fortunate enough to be born at the most exciting and transformative period of journalism in centuries. Before departing the stage Heyward looked at the crowd and said, “I envy you.”