Recharging EVs, Repairing Tractors, and Remembering Carle: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From the right to repair to transformation of our communities, we learned a lot over the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
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Electric vehicles are displayed before a news conference with White House Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg near Capitol Hill on April 22, 2021 in Washington, DC.
EV Drive Home
“This sucker is fast!” President Joe Biden remarked last week after test-driving an early model of Ford’s electric F-150 pickup. If only the gears of policy and lawmaking were as lightning quick—especially when it comes to maintaining America’s highways and byways and preparing them for electric vehicles. Right now, EVs account for fewer than 1% of what’s on the road. There are plenty of reasons for this, which I discovered when shopping around for a car (for the first time in two decades). I wanted to minimize my carbon footprint and get an electric car, but it was basically impossible. They are prohibitively expensive sticker prices and drive ranges that leave a lot to be desired, and even if those obstacles didn’t exist there are perpetual stock shortages, especially in New York state, for lots of reasons. I ended up going with a hybrid because it helped address the even larger issue looming over EV ownership: infrastructure. Gas stations are everywhere; EV charging stations are so rare you need to plan road trips around where you can top off the battery. That’s an issue more and more people—especially policymakers—are grappling with. Not just because of the desire to own an EV, but because of what declining gasoline purchases mean for American roads.
Automakers like Ford and General Motors have made big commitments to move away from internal-combustion engines—an unquestionably positive thing as far as the environment is concerned—but it has caused lawmakers to worry what that means for revenues. “In the US, state and federal motor fuel taxes account for more than 40 percent of transportation funding—the largest revenue source,” Aarian Marshall writes for Wired. “But the federal government hasn’t raised the gas tax since 1993, when it was fixed at 18.4 cents a gallon.” Marshall continues, “The nation uses gas taxes to fund the construction and upkeep of everything from roads and bridges to buses and ferries. As more electric vehicles—including the Ford F-150 Lightning, which goes on sale next year—hit the road, gas sales will decline, along with the revenue from taxing them.” (You have to wonder where all those tax dollars are going now considering our roads and bridges are in such disrepair as to necessitate at least $50 billion in a nearly-$2 trillion infrastructure bill to fix and modernize them.) One option for a gas-tax replacement is road user fees, where drivers are taxed based on mileage driven, but that poses all sorts of problems, too, especially in terms of tracking and monitoring. It’s a problem without a simple solution, but the Wired piece offers some alternatives. It’s a fascinating challenge to consider as our commuting lives change and evolve post-pandemic and with greater attention paid to the climate impacts of our cars. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
The skills needed by the modern farmer: knowing the seasons, understanding the soil, grasping touch-screen app-based tractor controls. Not needed: knowing how to repair the tractor, or even wanting to know (at least, according to a new lawsuit).
Tinker Tractor Farmer Lawsuit
The question of ownership in the digital world is likely to be settled, at least in part, through a years-long dispute between farmers and the John Deere tractor company. Today's generation of tractors have fancy touch screens and are packed with software and sensors that can help a farmer plant, spray, and harvest with great precision,” reports NPR’s Uri Berliner. “And as tech has become more important in farming, the standoff between tractor-makers and farmers has intensified.” That’s because even though farmers buy the tractor, they don’t have the right to make repairs affecting the complex and proprietary computer systems that make the tractor function. For something as simple as a fuel sensor, they have to send the ol’ John Deere off to a licensed dealer rather than tinkering with it themselves or letting a local mechanic have a go.
This has led to a wave of “right to repair” legislation in statehouses across the country, potentially affecting everything from iPhones to cameras to hospital equipment to Teslas. Lawmakers are weighing whether companies have the right to prohibit the physical owners of high technology from futzing with their devices—be they tablets or tractors—modifying, fixing, and tinkering with them in ways that might go against corporate wishes. This gets into deep questions about market manipulation, property rights, and the almost philosophical issue of what it means to “own” a smartphone if the device is completely dependent on software updates from the manufacturer. Pew has a good roundup of arguments against right-to-repair from tech companies and equipment manufacturers, who mostly allege that unfair tinkering can compromise safety or infringe on intellectual property. But it’s hard to get past the intuitive argument that once you’ve bought something, you should be perfectly free to mess with it. [Also, there is a exceptionally compelling ecological argument for why we should be allowed to repair our stuff. —Ed.] The future of America’s tractor-hacking farmers is almost certain to play out in federal court. —Eric Johnson
The U.S. Steel Building is the tallest skyscraper in Pittsburgh. Today, the monument to the city's steel history is now the headquarters of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which has replaced Big Steel as Pittsburgh's largest employer.
Beating Steel Mills into Hospitals
One of my earliest memories is from the early 1980s, as a kid in Pittsburgh, going with my mom—who was a steelworker—to pick up her union check after she was laid off from the mill for what became the last time, then going up the street to the local food bank so we had something to eat. (Thanks forever, Rainbow Kitchen.) At the time I was a few years old, my brother was maybe 1, and my mom was not yet 30. She knew fairly quickly the end had come for mill work, so she went back to school and got retrained to work in the medical industry helping patients navigate insurance claims and ensure they got the care they were entitled to. (She even went to Washington to testify before Congress about the necessity of adults chewed up by deindustrialization and Reaganomics having opportunities to be retrained and reeducated to find new jobs.) That experience and her example is central to who I am today, but until last week I didn’t realize her story is also a microcosm of larger forces and trends across the Rust Belt. When my mom was young, steel dominated Pittsburgh; today it’s healthcare, with the largest employer the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In his new book, The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America, Gabriel Winant, Assistant Professor of U.S. History and the College at the University of Chicago argues that this was an inevitable outcome of not just the loss of industry, like steel and coal mining, but also the public-private welfare state created by New Deal policies and the postwar conservative reaction to them. “In Pittsburgh, both the booming market for care and the huge workforce to supply care grew out of the social and political context of the steel mill,” Winant writes. “The factories did not just make metal goods; they made people, institutions, a way of life, and a system of relationships—a social world. As the industrial basis of this world began to collapse…[their] world was melted down and recast, but it was still made from the same materials.” I had seen The Next Shift at some local bookstores, but where I really discovered it was through a fantastic On the Media conversation between Winant and co-host Bob Garfield. (It might have been Garfield’s last hurrah on the show, it turns out.) It’s essential listening—for people like me, certainly, but for everyone who wants to make sense of why healthcare occupies such an outsized place in our national conversation. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
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In an aerial view from a drone, the Amazon fulfillment warehouse at the center of a unionization drive is seen on March 29, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama.
Server Farms are Still Farms—Right?
Because of my side hustle as a university bureaucrat, I spend a lot of time in meetings about economic development. Public universities don’t just teach students; they also conduct research, advise governments and businesses, and try to ensure the benefits of higher education reach well beyond campus. I remember listening in, many years ago, on an argument between a university economist and a local economic developer debating how best to generate job growth in rural regions. “Are we trying to help the people, or help the places?” the professor asked. It was a great question. And in a piece published by MIT Technology Review, Brian Alexander looks at what happens to the places left behind by the growing concentration of “innovation economy” jobs in big cities and technology hubs.
As the old-school industries that sustained small towns and rural regions move overseas or become increasingly automated, educated young people have moved to bigger cities where there’s greater opportunity. That leaves places like Bryan, Ohio, trying to figure out what comes next—and whether you try to save the town or encourage people to make new lives elsewhere. One of the biggest obstacles to successful redevelopment, Alexander reports, is basic access to the internet. “About 10% percent of Americans live in areas without access to broadband internet. Many who do have access can’t afford to pay for it,” he writes. “Expanding access and affordability could encourage entrepreneurs to think about starting businesses in places like Bryan, with its low cost of living.” There’s a lot of hope that the lifestyle changes brought on by the pandemic—more people working from home, looking for wide-open spaces and cheaper housing than what’s available in big cities—could bring much-needed growth to small towns. But that only works if those places are connected and well educated. “Unless there is deep and lasting investment in education sufficient to renew a faith in the possibility of rational progress,” Alexander writes, “such areas can look forward to a future of low-paying, insecure jobs in warehouses and distribution centers, along with a handful of legacy manufacturers.” —Eric Johnson
The Very Prolific Artist
“I don’t draw too well, really, but I’m a graphic designer, and big, small, night, day, are graphic elements to draw you into pictures, I believe. As you notice, my books are a lot of white space, concentrated color — those are graphic devices to entertain you and to entertain your eyes. I just think that whatever our eyes touch should be beautiful, tasteful, appealing, important.”
Eric Carle, who died this week at the age of 91, spent a lifetime making picture books an art. And from The Very Hungry Caterpillar to Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, from Mr. Seahorse to The Nonsense Show, from The Grouchy Ladybug to The Very Busy Spider, he ensured generations of children saw beautiful, tasteful, and appealing images that stimulated their imagination and made them feel important in a big, confusing world. “I never imagined it would become so important to so many children,” Carle said of The Very Hungry Caterpillar in 2002. “Why do children love it? It’s a book of hope. You little, ugly, little, insignificant bug — you too can grow up to be a big, beautiful butterfly and fly into the world and unfold your talents.” (And just because I’ll always take an opportunity to share a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood clip, here’s Mr. Rogers visiting Carle at his studio in 1998.) —Dante A. Ciampaglia