I’m not extreme, you’re extreme — the Aw Heck version.

When the Duluth News Tribune published an opinion piece from an out-of-state pipeline lobbyist last week calling me and my neighbors “extremists,” my Minnesota self thought “aw heck.” So I gave the editor a call and we agreed to have an exchange about it. It’s in today’s e-edition, and re-published below in full. What do you think?

In Response: Be wary who the newspaper labels an ‘expert’

Written By: JT Haines | Dec 3rd 2020 – 4pm.

JT Haines

A successful relationship between a local paper and the community is built on trust, and I have developed a level of respect for News Tribune reporters and editors over the years. At its best, our local paper transcends non-local ownership and provides an important public service.

I was disappointed, however, when the News Tribune published a piece from an out-of-state pipeline advocacy and lobbying group and identified the writer as an “energy expert.” To me, this label read as a sort-of endorsement of the writer’s opinions and raised some questions about when such an endorsement is applied. (Energy Expert’s View: “Anti-energy extremists litigating us into environmental catastrophe”, Nov. 24.)

The gist of the commentary was that energy production and consumption are a constant and the only variable is whether we move it by train or by pipeline. Indeed, the writer seemed so certain in his view that he called News Tribune readers who consider other variables in the discussion “extremists.” The protection of clean water and the issue of climate-changing emissions are, of course, among those variables; most Minnesotans do not view those as “extreme.”

So what qualifies someone as an energy “expert” on News Tribune Opinion pages? A review of this particular writer’s bio revealed a masters of public administration degree in management consulting and a full-time job in Ohio with an organization called the Consumer Energy Alliance. The organization does not reveal many details about its funders online, but its annual report indicates its members include Chevron, Exxon, and Shell, some of the same Big Oil interests currently being sued by the Minnesota attorney general for deceiving Minnesotans.

Meanwhile, we have plenty of experts right here in Minnesota. Even just at my own organization, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, we have numerous legal and policy experts, including energy analysts, State Bar Association energy section chairs, former state agency attorneys, and a former Minnesota Public Utilities commissioner, all with degrees from top institutions around the country.

In my view, we don’t really need someone coming from out of state to call Minnesotans extreme while ignoring important nuances in the local conversation. If space is to be provided to such interests, in the name of publishing a variety of opinions, I think it’s at minimum worth asking: When should writers be given an endorsement as an “expert?” And to whom should that apply?

I respectfully request the News Tribune please restate for readers its criteria for dubbing a submitter an “expert” and consider also giving express priority to Minnesota writers with equal or better levels of expertise and understanding of local conditions. In the meantime, I’d also invite my fellow readers to receive anything labeled “expert” with curiosity, which of course is a fine policy in general.

JT Haines of Duluth has a juris doctor degree from the University of Virginia and a masters in public policy degree from the University of Minnesota with a concentration on cost/benefit analysis in economics. He is an advocate for northern Minnesota with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (mncenter.org).

On Cancellation of Student Debt

By JT Haines — November 21, 2020

Student loan debt cancellation is a good idea, and we should do it. There’s too much of it, we’re in an economic crisis which is exacerbated by a global pandemic, and most importantly, it would really help people. Though we might also want to pump the brakes on the whole “you’re an asshole” thing if you have additional feelings about it, especially vis a vis those who have already paid their debt off. Hear me out.

First it should be said that, for most, having student loan debt isn’t really as much of a “choice” as it is the product of a system that has been bearing down on people for decades. The growing student loan debt burden in this country is compounded by a predatory lending system, an increasingly burdensome (for students) approach to higher education, and an economic system that is failing young people more and more just in general. As usual, this is especially true for Black people, who, according to Harpers Magazine (“Skin in the Game,” December 2020) “owe on average nearly 50% more in loans than their white peers.”

And the fact that we casually, with little debate, suspend fiscal “rules” to spend trillions on corporate economic bailouts and foreign wars is all the more reason to act boldly and urgently on student debt in the face of multiple interconnected crises.

But if we can help it, I also don’t think it’s a good idea to completely discount the people who’ve already paid off their debt — often as a function of privilege, yes, but also sometimes at great personal effort. Some folks, I’m sure, have prioritized student loan payments over things like buying a car, or a house, or even starting a family, and may rightly feel some personal sense of achievement in having done so.

I don’t know how many of those folks there are in the grand scheme of crushing debt in this country, but I do know they exist. And some may even have some feelings about it.

At this point, I’m guessing we need to address whether this is all just a thinly veiled assertation of my own feelings, or whether I myself have debt. So I’ll just tell you, yes, I do still have student debt, around $20,000. So does my spouse. Most of mine is from a public university, and I’ve been paying on it — sometimes quickly, sometimes not at all (depending on my employment status) — since 2000. Cancellation of any part of that debt would be welcome news, and would have a meaningful impact on our finances.

The fact that I still have debt though is, in my case, also the product of choice. In the face of a job market that I’ve always approached with a certain level of suspicion, I have typically prioritized savings (and employment flexibility) over paying down loans. And, having observed the growing bubble of now over $1.6T in student loan debt nationwide, I’ve also often wondered if we might see some changes to monetary policy that could impact my situation. And I’ll be very honest, that hasn’t not figured into my choices.

There is privilege in that as well. How many of us with student loans have the luxury of actually choosing how to approach it from a strictly fiscal perspective? I am aware of this. And maybe that’s a good enough reason to downplay my own choices in the larger conversation.

I also wonder though — do we really want to exclude from this conversation those who have made different and possibly very hard choices in the paying off of their own debts? Especially in light of the uncertainty about government policy which we can now assume is a factor we all should’ve been considering all along? I mean, maybe a lot of folks are focused only on the go forward, and good for them, but is it fair to demand this level of goodwill from this subset of people only?

All of which is to say, if we’re going to bail out student loan havers in any form, I think it would be fair to also include in consideration those who have — perhaps at great effort — paid off their own debt in the relatively recent past. Maybe such an inclusion applies to loans acquired and paid off in the past 20 years. Maybe it’s pro-rated in some way, or subject to certain requirements, or heck, even optional. Maybe it’s simple, or probably it’s not.

Either way, one thing we minimally shouldn’t do is call those people assholes for having thoughts about something that may have been dominating their personal financial choices for decades.

So, yes, let’s move forward with student deb relief. We’ve made a big mess, and there are all sorts of reasons to address it now. But perhaps we can also include in the conversation not only payoff date, but acquisition date too.

Finally, and as long as we’re having opinions about this, I think we can also be prepared to discount opposition from anyone who went to public university for $400 in the 60’s. Thanks for reading.

JT Haines holds a JD from the University of Virginia and a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School, with an emphasis on economics. He taught cost-benefit analysis as an assistant for economics Prof. John Brandl (1937-2008).

Pride in Ownership: The United States Postal Service

By JT Haines — July 26, 2020

There’s plenty to be concerned about these days. Too much, obviously. With that said, there may not be a single issue more emblematic of the pickle we’re in as a republic than the bizarre and anti-factual attacks on the US Postal Service.

The USPS is an engine of democracy. It is a vehicle for connection. It is a jobs program. It is for many a matter of actual life and death. It delivers to every remote corner of our fair land whether it’s “profitable” to do so or not.

It is a “public good,” and a gem of one at that.

Investment in public services make sense when there are public benefits, as there very obviously are in the case of the USPS. This is true even when — especially when — those benefits are hard to measure. It’s incredible to me how often this needs to be explained.

Nonetheless there has been a lot of debate, especially in the last 15 years or so, about whether the USPS is “losing money.” A lot of this actually has to do with the special accounting for pre-paid retiree benefits required only of the USPS, but let me also have a little bit of an attitude here and say I don’t give a shit. It’s not supposed to be “profitable.” It’s a public service. In addition to doing all the things mentioned above, it also literally subsidizes private mail services simply by existing as the only universal service provider.

Rather than waste time listening to fools bloviate about whether the USPS made or lost $10 billion in a particular year, or whether we should attempt to save a billion dollars paying postal workers less or charging more for shipping, what we should be doing is focusing on how much this public good is worth.

Meanwhile $10 billion dollars is not real money. The Pentagon costs us $700 billion a year, and that doesn’t include all the secret unconstitutional stuff. We just spent multiple trillions of dollars in coronavirus bailouts mostly benefiting private interests and the rich.

It makes less sense to start from a proposition that the USPS should cost zero dollars than it would to just assume it is worth, and should therefore cost, $100 billion dollars. At least the latter would save us from stupidity about whether we should pay APWU members hazard pay during a damn pandemic. In any case, $10 billion is not a real thing, especially during a time when we need to be looking for smart investments not running from them.

Fortunately, it seems most people do actually understand this. A recent Pew poll found that the 91% of us favor the USPS, and 92% of us support direct financial aid as part of coronavirus relief. (Fortune). Thank goodness.

The US Post Office Department was created in 1792. We didn’t expect it to be “self-funded” until the Reagan 80’s. It has been a crown jewel of our democracy. It is real world evidence that good and smart government actually works, and that citizens of a republic are actually capable of understanding the importance of a public good. No wonder the right-wing anti-government forces spend so much time and energy attacking it. We need to ignore them.

And if we find out, as is lightly implied by this Fortune Magazine article, that the Trump White House is actually causing the USPS to impede democracy by (intentionally) slowing mail through (intentionally) terrible management, we must react vociferously. And we certainly cannot waste any time talking about whether the damn thing costs a billion dollars.

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” These are the words of men and women who actually care about our country. 

JT Haines holds a JD from the University of Virginia and a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School, with an emphasis on economics. He taught cost-benefit analysis as an assistant for economics Prof. John Brandl (1937-2008).

Update, Washington Post, July 30:

The U.S. Postal Service is experiencing days-long backlogs of mail across the country after a top Trump donor running the agency put in place new procedures described as cost-cutting efforts, alarming postal workers who warn that the policies could undermine their ability to deliver ballots on time for the November election.

There are no scruples here.

July 18, 2020 — JT Haines

The other side doesn’t care. There are no scruples here. It’s wave after wave of duplicitousness, the damage of which is done long before any efforts at accountability.

Unscrupulousness in large quantities is a strategy. And a bi-partisan affair.

Find the real people. Support them. It shouldn’t be as hard as it looks.

Why the Attitude? Is Back

July 2, 2020 — By JT Haines, Duluth MN

When I first started this blog in January of 2013, I dubbed it “Why the Attitude?” The name was a hint at my motivations for writing, which I described at the time as follows:

In 1984 I was 10. At night, in my light blue second floor bedroom, I sometimes thought about tornadoes and nuclear war. I liked the sound of the taconite train in the near distance. In summer, my bedtime was 9. But it stayed light later, and I could hear the kids still playing outside my window. It was a simpler age, but I had an inkling. Among other things, I hated pollution. And I thought the president should reduce military spending since we already had enough missiles to blow up the world many times over – including my light blue bedroom. I thought, I’m 10. Well here we are, almost thirty rapacious years later, and allow me to say goddammit. Goddammit I say. So, tiny apologies for the attitude.

The name served me well, and, I thought, provided something like a disclaimer for an audience managing their own time and energies. Let’s be upfront, right?

Under that banner and for two years, I wrote quite a bit — largely a product of the fact that at the time I was a solo practice attorney representing a single non-profit client, and I spent a lot of my mornings at the coffee shop down the street (first in Bronxville, NY, and then in St. Paul, MN). It was a “heady” time, as they say (though one also without a lot of income).

I haven’t had a lot of interest in external measures of success for a blog — consistency, visitors, and hopefully for at least a few people, financial viability — for me it’s mostly been about an outlet and a process I enjoy. Nonetheless, by 2015 I had over 500 followers, and more than 3,000 visitors to the site that year. Some of my pieces — about growth, water, mining, and sometimes politics — were getting cross-posted at minnpost.com. This was success to me, and my writing was becoming fairly regular.

I wondered, though, about seeing the name “Why the Attitude” linked at minnpost. I wondered if the name put me in a hole with the reader — as in, why do I want to suggest a level of crankiness before they even get through the first paragraph? Often, I wrote to disprove the title, bending over backwards to filter my voice and present a reasonable argument. This seemed counterproductive.

So, that year I changed the name to Newspeak Review. The new name was a reference to Orwell’s 1984, and the suggestion was that my interest was in presenting an alternative point of view to a mainstream narrative (i.e, it’s a blog). The idea was to present a more “neutral” face.

Some grasped the idea of the new name, though I don’t think many. And some actually expressed disappointment at the loss of Why the Attitude, which to them felt more genuine and a little spunkier. More cheeky than cranky.

If neutral was the goal, obtuse may have been the result.

In any event, larger forces intervened. In May of 2015, I moved to Duluth and started a job as a full time union organizer and negotiator. I was in the field for AFSCME Council 65, representing mostly public sector workers from Two Harbors to Hinckley, and as far as Milaca. I embraced a new community and a new work family, and for three years wore the many hats required of someone working in the field representing real people.

The role — if you’re trying to do it right — felt barely sustainable on its own, and by 2019 I had essentially stopped writing altogether. Here’s what that looked like:

This too was a heady time, and I have a lot of positive feelings about my experience with the members and staff of AFSCME Council 65 — perhaps someday I’ll write about that as well. But Newspeak Review was essentially on indefinite pause.

I’m hoping to change that now. My job today is as the Northern Minnesota Advocate for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. This job is also demanding and multi-faceted, and the work couldn’t be more important. But it also involves writing — about issues related to the issues I’ve been drawn to on this site — and it feels more sustainable in general.

With the long holiday weekend before us today, I have it in my head that perhaps I can find a groove to do more writing again here as well.

Which is to say, Why the Attitude? is back — at least in name. I hope the return to roots helps, in a small way, inspire some more candor in writing, maybe some more cheek, and mostly just some more writing in general.

We will see. Thank you for reading.