An artist's rendering of the Perot Museum's fracking-themed Shale Voyager exhibit.
If oil companies designed the lessons contained in middle school science textbooks, it would be a national scandal. But helping to design scientific displays in natural history museums that host countless school field trips each year? Apparently, that's just fine.
Take the shiny new Perot Museum of Nature and Science(yes, as in former presidential candidate H. Ross), which opened in Dallas on Saturday. A $10-million donation from Hunt Petroleum (now owned by Exxon) helped finance the museum's Hunt Energy Hall, where exhibits include a larger-than-life drillbit cutting through a slab of faux rock, and a fracking-themed virtual reality experience known as the Shale Voyager. The New York Times' Edward Rothstein got a preview:
The Hunt Hall has its virtues. Some science centers treat environmentalism with almost devout attention, eager to drive home homilies, so it is a novelty to see it treated in this hall, as it is in other parts of the Perot, as one subject among many. It is refreshing as well to see some attention devoted to the engineering difficulties in the extraction of oil and get some idea of the science, however awkwardly presented.
But it is almost bizarre to see a major exhibit about energy whose central focus is on fracking and its machinery, even if the process ultimately transforms American energy production. We also get little sense of the controversies and debates that now fuel any examination of the energy issue. Even if the hall is meant to reflect Texan preoccupations, we learn in only a small part of a display case that "Texas produces more wind energy than any other state in the U.S."
The Perot Museum is far from the only one pumping up fossil fuels. Forth Worth's Museum of Science and History features the XTO Energy Gallery, named after the eponymous Barnett Shale fracking outfit. And in North Dakota, fracking billionaire Harold Hamm has shelled out $1.8 million to help construct a new wing of the North Dakota Heritage Center that will include an exhibit on—you guessed it—fracking.
These relationships might seem less problematic if the museums actually built firewalls between their fundraising and curatorial departments. I don't know how things work at the museums in Dallas and Fort Worth, but when I visited the North Dakota Heritage Center earlier this year, museum staff told me that they'd sought Hamm's input on the content of their energy exhibits. This brings to mind the kind of "science" espoused by the Creation Museum—the transmutation of opinion and faith into "fact" through the magic of pseudo-scientific dioramas.
Hamm and Perot Musuem donors T. Boone Pickens and Trevor Rees-Jones represent a new generation of philanthropically inclined Texas oil magnates. But while their names are showing up on a lot of buildings, they haven't begun to build the kind of legacies left by, say, the Whitneys or the de Menils—families that underwrote world-famous art museums in New York and Houston. Funding fracking exhibits might be a good PR move, but in the long run, the best PR is the kind that lacks an obvious political agenda.
Earlier today, President Barack Obama took the battle over the fiscal cliff to Twitter, urging his followers to voice their support for his budget plan with the hashtag #MY2K. The tag refers to the $2,200 that the average American family will save each year if Congress votes to extend the Bush tax cuts for all but the top 2 percent of earners.
Obama's Twitter campaign reflects a push to mobilize his large army of grassroots supporters beyond the electoral campaign. His strategists don't want to repeat the mistakes of four years ago, when the populist energy from his campaign fizzled for lack of any meaningful way for his supporters to stay involved. Vocal support from liberals for the middle-class tax cuts might make it easier for Obama to boost taxes on the rich.
The #MY2K hashtag quickly began trending on Twitter. But waging a policy battle with social media isn't as simple as it might sound. Here's a sample of tweets that use Obama's hashtag:
The origninal tweet:
"Call your members of Congress. Write them an email. Tweet it using the hashtag #My2K." —President Obama
The money's there if you know where to look for it.
Josh HarkinsonNov. 28, 2012 7:03 AM
Although you might never know it from listening to the pundits, America isn't broke. We have plenty of money to pay for government programs—we've just gradually lost our ability to collect it. Here are 10 ways, most of them long favored by liberal economists, that politicians could avoid the fiscal cliff's $1.2 trillion in trigger cuts. While these ideas alone won't immediately eliminate the budget deficit, they will, combined with expected growth, point the nation towards a sustainable fiscal path.
Stop giving investors a sweetheart deal Additional revenue:$533 billion over 10 years
Low tax rates on capital gains are the main reason that billionaire investment guru Warren Buffett pays a smaller percentage of his income in taxes than his secretary does. In 2003, Congress capped the rate on capital gains (investment income) at 15 percent—far less than the 35 percent that people pay on their salaries. Tax hawks like to argue that raising the capital gains tax will stifle investment, but that argument isn't supported by the evidence. (Just ask Buffett.) Taxing capital gains as ordinary income—just like the IRS treats the investment gains from your 401(k)—would have the added benefit of undermining "carried interest." That, you may recall, is the ludicrous accounting trick that allows big fund managers (think Mitt Romney) to pass off their management fees as investment income, thereby avoiding the higher tax rates paid by their receptionists and janitors.
Quit subsidizing mansions and vacation homes Additional revenue:$214.6 billion over 10 years
The popular mortgage interest deduction subsidizes home ownership but it also distorts the real estate market and favors the wealthy. That's because people are allowed to deduct interest paid on mortgage debt up to $1.1 million—which in effect means that taxpayers are helping rich Americans pay for mansions and vacation properties. Eliminating the deduction entirely would likely yield the revenue gains listed above, but also make things tougher on middle-class homeowners. For a more palatable alternative, Congress could lower that $1.1 million cap to, say, half a million bucks and limit the deduction to loans on primary residences.
End the "step up" giveawayon inherited stocks Additional revenue:$764 billion over 10 years
Suppose your Aunt Mildred bought stock in Acme Widgets back in 1940 for $10 a share and has watched it appreciate to $100 a share. If she sells it now, she'll pay capital gains taxes on her $90-per-share profit. But if Mildred wills you the stock, you'll miraculously forego taxes on her gains. To put it in accounting terms, Mildred's $10-per-share "cost basis" will instantly "step up" to the stock price on the day you inherit it. So if she dies today, and you later sell your inherited Acme stock at $105, you only pay taxes on $5 per share. But eliminating this massive loophole would throw a wrench in the estate planning of lots of rich and powerful families, so don't get your hopes up.
Revitalize the "death tax" Additional revenue: $432 billion over 10 years
If you're old and rich and had the choice, this would be a pretty good year to die. That's because, unless Congress extends its Bush-era cuts to the federal estate tax (foes call it the "death tax"), the levy on inheritances will to revert to its old top rate of 55 percent and the exempt, nontaxable portion will go back to $1 million per individual beneficiary, down from about $5.1 million now. Even so, thanks to special breaks for family farms, businesses, and all but the largest holdings, the estate tax has never affected many households. In 2003, before cuts to the tax began taking effect, only 1.3 percent of deaths resulted in any federal estate-tax liability.
College students already smoke a lot of pot, but now some of them can also study it in the classroom.
Northern California's Humboldt State University recently launched the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research, what's believed to be the nation's first pot institute at an accredited university, according to the Eureka Times-Standard. The HIIMR will offer scholarly lectures and help coordinate reefer-related research among 11 faculty members from fields such as politics, economics, geography, sociology, and psychology.
"Across the country, there was a tendency to ignore the 'green elephant' in the room," institute co-chair Josh Meisel told the Times-Standard, explaining how the idea for the institute went from pipe dream to reality. "With these public discussions (around pot legalization), there were a lot more questions than there were answers."
Located in California's "Emerald Triangle," the epicenter of the state's pot-growing economy, Humboldt State has about 7,000 full-time students, putting it among the smallest third of the 23 campuses of the California State University system.
Unlike well-known "cannabis colleges" such as Oakland's Oaksterdam University, HIIMR won't offer classes on pot cultivation—at least not for now. But it will have the ability to teach courses for college credit. Its first annual speaker series kicks off tomorrow with a public lecture on the implications of pot legalization for "marijuana communities"—groups like the backwoods growers in Humboldt County.
Chances are you missed this particular bargain on Black Friday: Agree to spend 15 cents more on every shopping trip, and Walmart, Target, and other large retailers will agree to pay their workers at least $25,000 a year.
Big box retailers aren't actually offering that deal, but a new study by the liberal think tank Demos argues that it would be a great bargain for us all if they did. Increasing the average wage at large retailers from $21,000 to $25,000 would probably cost you less than $20 a year at the register yet lift some 1.5 million people out of poverty (including your cashier), create 100,000 new jobs, and boost GDP by some $13.5 billion.
Demos argues that retailers would benefit, despite higher labor costs, because their low-wage employees could suddenly afford to buy more of the basic necessities that they scan and load into plastic bags every day.
If you are still wondering what's in it for you, however, then consider this tidbit from Sasha Abramsky:
In 2004, a year in which Walmart reported $9.1 billion in profits, the retailer's California employees collected $86 million in public assistance, according to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley. Other studies have revealed widespread use of publicly funded health care by Walmart employees in numerous states. In 2004, Democratic staffers of the House education and workforce committee calculated that each 200-employee Walmart store costs taxpayers an average of more than $400,000 a year, based on entitlements ranging from energy-assistance grants to Medicaid to food stamps to WIC—the federal program that provides food to low-income women with children.
Seen through this lens, the worker protests that erupted after Thanksgiving at Walmart locations around the country might end up being the best Black Friday specials of them all. Think of them as 2-for-1 coupons: Spend more on wages now, improve the economy AND save us all lots of tax money down the road—money that we can spend instead on more important things, like, well, parachutes for our cats.