Mapping the Driftless Area

· Posted by Joshua in Maps, Nature

Want this map?

Get a Copy.

My home is the Driftless Area — a landscape of rugged hills and coulees that unfolds in steep contrast to the plains of the surrounding Midwest. I’ve long wanted a good map of the area’s unique topography, but this desire has been hard to satisfy. The Driftless Area is flung across the borders of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, so no individual state map covers the whole region. Moreover, while there are a handful of maps out there centered on the Driftless Area, none that I’ve seen show quite what I want. There was just one solution: I would have to make a map of my own. I have no formal training in GIS or cartography, but maps have fascinated me since childhood, and there is no better excuse than ignorance for learning something new. It took some time, but at long last I’ve made the map I’d been looking for.

Map of the Driftless Area

The Making of the Region

The Driftless Area takes its name because it is comparatively free of glacial “drift,” the silt and stone carried elsewhere by ice age glaciers. Though prehistoric ice sheets passed the Driftless Area on all sides, this region mostly escaped the scouring glaciation that flattened the neighboring countryside. As a result, the Driftless Area exhibits a more timeworn terrain, visible on the preceding map as a swath of rough relief stretching from northwest to southeast. For all its hills, the area is not mountainous — its highest elevation, at West Blue Mound in Wisconsin, is only 1,719 feet above sea level. In fact, the Driftless Area was built up from sediment in a shallow Paleozoic seabed. Ever since the region rose out of the sea hundreds of millions of years ago, streams have been eroding deep, fractal-like drainage channels into the land, creating its present rough surface.1

A Map shows that the Wisconsin Glaciation skirted the Driftless Area to the East; the Illinoian Glaciation passed it on the north and south, and the Pre-Illinoian Glaciation cut across the far north and western part of the Driftless Area
Limit of Glaciation around the Driftless Area during the Quaternary Ice Age. This map is based on U.S. Geological Survey Geologic Investigations Series I-2789, “Surficial Deposits and Materials in the Eastern and Central United States,” by David S. Fullerton, Charles A. Bush, and Jean N. Pennell (2004).

During the last 2.5 million years, ice sheets repeatedly advanced and retreated around the Driftless Area. The accompanying map shows the estimated limits of these glacial advances. The most recent glacial maximum, called the Late Wisconsin, can be mapped with great accuracy. In the Late Wisconsin period, ice sheets spanned from Canada to southern Ohio, leaving behind the lakes, drumlins, and moraines that characterize the geography of eastern and northern Wisconsin. Glaciers in this period did not penetrate the Driftless Area, however. Earlier glacial periods are more difficult to map with precision, but it seems clear that the Illinoian Glaciation also passed around the Driftless Area. On the other hand, geologists have unearthed scattered Pre-Illinoian glacial deposits in the western and far northern portions of the Driftless Area. By definition, Pre-Illinoian glaciation took place at least 310,000 years ago. The ice that once encroached into the Driftless Area probably came even earlier — the magnetic polarity of the region’s glacial deposits indicate that they were formed more than 790,000 years before present. As a result, evidence of that early glaciation has had time to mostly erode away.2

The erosion of the Driftless Area was exacerbated by cataclysmic floods that followed each glacial period. During the last glacial phase, meltwater pooled along the northeast periphery of the region, where a combination of ice and hills held back Glacial Lake Wisconsin. The lake created a broad, sandy bed that remains visible today as flat expanse of lowlands across the central part of the state. When this prehistoric lake overcame its constraints, it unleashed floods that eroded the present valleys of the Black River and the Lower Wisconsin River. Similar outpourings of glacial meltwater molded the Chippewa River and Mississippi River valleys. The last retreat of glaciers from Wisconsin between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago established these rivers in their present courses, leaving the Driftless Area essentially in its modern form just as the first humans made their way into the landscape.3

The Making of the Map

Map of the Mississippi River Valley at Trempealeau
Map Detail showing the Mississippi River Valley at Trempealeau. The river cut a section of bluffs away from the others, forming “Trempealeau Mountain” and Perrot State Park in Wisconsin

I wanted my map of the Driftless Area to reveal at a glance the shape of the natural landscape. Human development and labels were less important, as I can find road maps from Yahoo! and Google, and in any case, the cultural features of the Driftless Area tend to rise from their natural surroundings. River valleys such as the Mississippi and Wisconsin doubled as arteries of trade and transportation. Alluvial terraces became building sites for towns and cities like Winona, La Crosse, and Prairie du Chien. Stretches of highland like Military Ridge became thoroughfares linking upland settlements, and prominent features like the Blue Mounds and Trempealeau mountain have long served as landmarks for passersby. A map that makes these natural features visible will therefore expose the foundations of human geography in the region.

After deciding on an emphasis for my map, I needed to collect the geospatial data and software needed to make it. I was able to complete the map with public domain data from U.S. government agencies. To process this data, I relied exclusively on free open source software. GRASS (with GDAL and OCR) did the heavy work of rendering my data sources into graphical map layers, while Inkscape and GIMP aided me with further graphic editing and layer compositing — all on a GNU/Linux operating system.

Land elevation formed the basis for my map. I downloaded local elevation data from the National Elevation Dataset (NED) maintained by the United States Geological Survey. The NED is a raster or grid of elevation measurements spaced at every 1 arc second (1/360th of a degree, or approximately 30 meters) across the entire contiguous United States (other levels of detail, such as measurements at every 1/3 arc second, are also available). I used GRASS to map these elevation measurements in three ways. First, I defined a different color to mark each elevation level — rising from green lowlands to brown uplands. This is a cartographic technique known as “hypsometric tinting,” and it serves to fill the map with color while making it easy to compare the height of distant locations at a glance. Second, I instructed GRASS to draw simulated shadows behind rises of elevation, creating a classic “shaded relief” map. This provides a three-dimensional illusion of the rise and fall of terrain. Finally, in addition to traditional relief shading, I also utilized GRASS to draw subtle “slope shading,” making steeper areas appear slightly darker than flat areas. This outlines hillsides even at angles that standard shaded relief would miss.

As I created these three elevation layers, I also needed GRASS to project my renderings onto a plain — the earth is round, but maps are flat. There is no perfect way to depict the spherical surface of our planet in two dimensions, and as a result cartographers have designed countless map projections that compromise shape or scale in different ways to make the best approximations for different needs. I used the transverse Mercator projection for my map of the Driftless Area, as that projection is ideal for mapping small regions that are longest from north to south. Below are samples of my three elevation renderings — hypsometric tinting, shaded relief, and slope shading — each as a transverse Mercator projection:

Three elevation maps showing hypsometric tinting, relief shading, and slope shading

After mapping elevation, I added a few more elements. Streams are responsible for the erosion that created the Driftless Area’s topography, so I wanted to show water features in as much detail as possible. I was able to obtain outlines of streams and waterbodies from the USGS National Hydrography Dataset and the U.S. Census Bureau’s TIGER mapping service. I also downloaded state and county boundary definitions from the Census Bureau. Although I left out other human features on my map, I included boundaries to serve as a location reference and enable easy comparisons with maps that emphasize man-made features. As before, I rendered both the water features and boundaries as a transverse Mercator projection using GRASS. I then turned to Inkscape to color and pattern each set of features, creating the maps below:

Three vector maps showing water features, county boundaries, and state borders

A Poster of the Driftless Area Map lays spread on an outdoor table, with the landscape of the Driftless Area visible in the background.
The printed Driftless Area Poster outside in the Driftless Area

When I had at last prepared each layer of the final map — state and county boundaries, water bodies, and three renderings of elevation — I used GIMP to stack the layers together. The resulting composite map was shown at the start of this article.

I still was not done. It was not enough merely to pan across the map on my computer screen — the only way to study the whole region in detail would be to order a large format print of the map. A print would need to be as polished and informative as possible, so I went back to the USGS for more data and used GRASS and GIMP to create a map of local glaciation (included in part one of the article) as well as a locator map based on the contiguous United States. I inset these additions onto the main map for added reference value in the final printed version. Finally, I embellished the map with photographs showing four seasons of Driftless Area natural scenery. I sent the design away to be printed, and in a few days, I had the map in my hands as a 24 by 36 inch poster.

How to Get a Copy

This map was made to be shared. You can get the 24 by 36 inch print for yourself by ordering the Driftless Area Map Poster from Zazzle. I wouldn’t hawk the poster if it wasn’t absolutely the best way to see the map in all its detail. A portion of your purchase also helps keep this website alive and free of outside advertising.

Not ready to buy the poster? No worries! I’m also giving the map away as a 1280-pixel JPG for screen viewing. It’s not quite the same as having the print for your wall, but it is free. Just right click on
Download the Driftless Area Map and select the “Save” option from your browser’s context menu.

Notes and References:

  1. Robert H. Dott, Jr., and John W. Attig, Roadside Geology of Wisconsin, (Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Co., 2004), pp 119-128, 158.
  2. David S Fullerton, Charles A. Bush, and Jean N. Pennel, “Surficial Deposits and Minerals in the Eastern and Central United States (East of 102 Degrees West Longitude),” U.S. Geological Survey Geologic Investgation Series I-2789, (2004). [http://pubs.usgs.gov/imap/i-2789/]; Dott and Attig, pp 131-134.
  3. James Theler and Robert F. Boszhardt, Twelve Millenia: Archaeology of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003), pp 19-32; 58-68; Dott and Attig, pp 134, 166-179, 199-205.

An Old Idea: Wisconsin and its University

· Posted by Joshua in History

Birds Eye View of the University of Wisconsin campus at Madison, 1907
View of the University of Wisconsin campus at Madison in 1907 by H. D. Nichols. WHi 3882.

This September marks the beginning of fall term for more than 180,000 students across the twenty-six campuses of the University of Wisconsin System. The return to school is an opportunity for reunion and renewal, for the discovery of new possibilities and the re-evaluation of old ideas — including the idea of public higher education itself. If this idea is to remain relevant in the years to come, then we must value public universities as something more than a monetary cost to taxpayers and a dollar discount to tuition payers. At the foundation of any real public state university there is a deeper value: service and accountability to the people who make up the state. One need not look farther than the development of the University of Wisconsin itself for an illustration of what this ideal means.

The University of Wisconsin and the State of Wisconsin were created in the same stroke. Article 10, Section 6 of the Wisconsin Constitution of 1848 declared:

“Provision shall be made by law for the establishment of a state university, at or near the seat of government, and for connecting with the same, from time to time, such colleges in different parts of the state, as the interests of education may require.”

Wisconsin’s founders called for a public university in the state constitution, and established the seat of learning as one with the seat of law, because they had an ideal of cultivating productive citizens, and educated citizens, and cultured citizens, but above all else, citizens — participants in a democracy and shapers of law, not mere subjects either of crown or wealth. John Lathrop, the first UW Chancellor, expressed this concept eloquently at his inaugural address on January 16, 1850:

“The American mind has grasped the idea, and will not let it go, that the whole property of the state, whether in common or in severalty, is holden subject to the sacred trust of providing for the education of every child of the state. Without the adoption of this system, as the most potent compensation of the aristocratic tendencies of hereditary wealth, the boasted political equality of which we dream is but a pleasing illusion. Knowledge is the great leveler. It is the true democracy. It levels up—it does not level down.”1

As it grew, the University of Wisconsin only strengthened in its commitment to knowledge as true democracy. In 1894, when economics professor Richard T. Ely was attacked by in the national press as an anarchist and socialist radical for his research interest in the growing labor movement, the UW Board of Regents convened hearings to investigate, and concluded them by issuing a famous defense of the professor and the freedom to pursue knowledge:

“We cannot for a moment believe that knowledge has reached its final goal, or that the present condition of society is perfect. We must therefore welcome from our teachers such discussions as shall suggest the means and prepare the way by which knowledge may be extended, present evils be removed and others prevented. We feel that we would be unworthy of the position we hold if we did not believe in progress in all departments of knowledge. In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”2

Some twenty years after the regents made this proclamation, their “sifting and winnowing” statement was affixed in bronze to University Hall (since renamed for UW President John Bascom), becoming an enduring reminder of the commitment to truth.

In the meantime, the University of Wisconsin had begun to redefine the ways in which knowledge could be disseminated and truth be put to the service of democracy. Under the leadership of Charles Richard Van Hise, UW President from 1903 to 1918, the university advocated what became known around the United States as the Wisconsin Idea: a notion often summarized in the slogan “the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state,” meaning that the role of the public university should be public service to all the people of the state and their government — not only the researchers and students on campus. Theodore Roosevelt remarked on this ideal that:

“In no other State in the Union has any university done the same work for the community that has been done in Wisconsin by the University of Wisconsin. … I found the President and the teaching body of the University accepting as a matter of course the view that their duties were imperfectly performed unless they were performed with an eye to the direct benefit of the people of the State; and I found the leaders of political life, so far from adopting the cheap and foolish cynicism of attitude taken by too many politicians toward men of academic training, turning, equally as a matter of course, toward the faculty of the University for the most practical and efficient aid in helping them realize their schemes for social and civic betterment.”3

The “work for the community” that Roosevelt observed one hundred years ago had a wide scope. Sure, the University of Wisconsin at the dawn of the 20th century offered tuition-free admission to Wisconsin residents, paid for by state taxpayers and federal grants — but this was only typical for a public university of the period. What set Wisconsin apart were the university’s efforts to reach beyond traditional student instruction to improve life across the state.

Continue reading →

Laura Sherry and the Wisconsin Players: Little Theatre in the Badger State

· Posted by Joshua in Arts, History

[Note: This article was originally published at Acceity.org on 12 May 2011 and was revised and expanded with new sources on 18 June 2012].

The Wisconsin Dramatic Society published two volumes of 'Wisconsin Plays,' shown here. The first volume was dedicated to Laura Case Sherry.

The announcement in the New York Times on October 9, 1917, was straightforward and short: “WISCONSIN PLAYERS COMING.” The amateur acting company from Milwaukee, which had been at the vanguard of the American Little Theatre Movement for the better part of a decade, was about to make its East Coast debut.

In bringing the Wisconsin Players to New York, producer Laura Sherry was doing her small part to turn the world of theatre inside out. Before 1910, New York had practically controlled the American stage. A handful of businessmen had held the nation’s theatres in the grasp of their Theatrical Syndicate, which pushed safely profitable productions from New York across the country while locking out competitors.1 Laura Sherry and the Wisconsin Players represented something different: the Little Theatre, an emerging national movement of non-commercial and non-professional drama. It was now time for the actors and writers of the Midwest to bring their ideas to Manhattan.

Laura Case Sherry, whom the New York Times called “the guiding spirit” of the Wisconsin Players,2 had experienced the theatre from both sides — big and little, commercial and amateur. Born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1876, Laura Case’s parents were Emily Avery and Lawrence Case, owner of the small town’s leading general store. Her parents’ position afforded Laura an education at the University of Wisconsin and the school of speech at Northwestern University. From there she went to study theatre in Chicago and at last New York, where in 1897 she joined the Richard Mansfield Company as an actress and toured the country as a cast member in several plays, including Mansfield’s famous production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.3 Mansfield, then an opponent of the Theatrical Syndicate, spoke frequently against its stranglehold on the stage, even assailing syndicate bosses inside their own theatres.4 Though Mansfield’s own self-interest later led him to soften his resistance, his early opposition to the centralized commercial theatre must have made an impression on young Laura Case.

At the start of the twentieth century, Case settled back into Wisconsin life. She married Edward P. Sherry, a lumber and paper tycoon from Neenah, and the couple made a home in Milwaukee. There, Mrs. Sherry set to work gathering a club of like-minded theatre devotees and performers.5 The group held meetings and rehearsals in the homes of members, and on April 21, 1909, the amateur troupe staged the one-act Irish drama Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge at the Davidson Theater in Milwaukee.6 The Irish play was fitting, for the Little Theatre movement in America would draw much of its inspiration from a tour of the United States by the Irish Players in 1911 — but Sherry’s troupe performed Riders to the Sea years before the Irish Players’ visit, demonstrating their foundational role among the nation’s community theaters.7

The nascent Milwaukee association soon gained the support of University of Wisconsin English professor Thomas Dickinson. Unable to produce plays at the university in a time when theatre was not deemed a proper academic subject, Dickinson founded the Wisconsin Dramatic Society in Madison in 1910 and organized a company of players by 1911.8 Dickinson and the Madison group worked closely with Sherry and her Milwaukee compatriots from the start, so that the two associations quickly became branches unified in a statewide society.9 The Wisconsin Players had now been born in earnest.

Continue reading →

The Mississippi Flood: Awash In History

· Posted by Joshua in History, Nature

Note: This article documents flooding that occurred in April 2011. As of May, Prairie du Chien is once more dry and green, and all the parks and historic sites mentioned below are now open for visitors.

The Mississippi River surrounds a log house on St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien during the Flood of 2011. The Villa Louis mansion is visible perched on a mound in the far background.

The Father of the Waters is reenacting a familiar natural drama at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Swollen by spring rain and melted Minnesota snow, the Mississippi River will carry over 1.5 million gallons of water past town each second during the peak of the Flood of 2011. While the power of the river is awe inspiring, the latest flood is nothing new. At Prairie du Chien, the Mississippi is immersed in history.

An inch or so of water pools in the grass around the foundations of old Fort Crawford
Floodwater began to seep around the foundations of Fort Crawford on Monday, April 11, 2011.
The two-story blockhouse is a replica constructed in the 1930s. The fence surrounds an excavated stone “prison pit” from the fort that has filled with water.

On April 11, 2011, floodwater began to creep across the foundations of Fort Crawford, one of Prairie du Chien’s most significant archaeological sites. Built in 1816, Fort Crawford was a federal military installation intended to secure control of the Upper Mississippi River for the United States. It was also situated on an island in the middle of a floodplain.

One year after Fort Crawford had been built, Major Stephen H. Long made an inspection of the post. “In regard to the eligibility of the site upon which Fort Crawford is erected,” wrote Long, “very little can be said in favor but much against it. … The site has been repeatedly subject to inundation, which is always to be apprehended when excessive floods prevail in the river.”

Major Long’s apprehensions proved well-founded. In 1823 he returned to Fort Crawford along with William Keating, who noted:

The river bank is here so low and flat, that by a swell which took place in the Mississippi the summer before we visited it, the water rose upon the prairie, and entered the parade, which it covered to the depth of three or four feet; it penetrated into all the officers’ and soldiers’ quarters, so as to render it necessary for the garrison to remove from the fort and encamp upon the neighboring heights, where they spent about a month. The waters having subsided, at the end of that time, they returned to their quarters; the old men about the village say that such an inundation may be expected every seven years.

Continue reading →

Wisconsin Census Data Released

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines

The United States Census Bureau today released its first official 2010 population figures for Wisconsin counties, cities, villages, and towns. These are exciting numbers, and not only for comparing rival cities and hometown trends. The census data will be used, among other things, to tweak the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts to ensure equal representation — a process that will no doubt be mired down in gerrymandering and political intrigue. I’ll set that aside for this post, however, and focus on the numbers.

Wisconsin’s population grew from 5.36 million to 5.68 million between 2000 and 2010. That’s an increase of about 6% — slower growth than in most states, so Wisconsin’s rank has slipped from 18 to 20 over the last ten years. That slide in proportion is small enough that Wisconsin will still keep eight congressional representatives and ten electoral votes for the next decade. While overall growth was sluggish, it’s notable that the state’s Hispanic population increased by over 72% in the last ten years. Hispanic residents now make up nearly 6% of the state’s total population.

The map below shows the relative change in the total population of Wisconsin’s counties:

The map shows that Wisconsin’s population growth was spread fairly consistently across the state and carried over into many rural counties, with the exception of the north woods. Fifty-two counties gained population, and twenty had a loss. This is a stark contrast to what happened in Iowa, where 2/3 of the counties saw a population decrease.

Wisconsin’s largest cities remained fairly steady over the last ten years. Milwaukee continued to lose population but at a decreasing rate, and it remains by far the state’s largest city. Near Milwaukee, Racine and West Allis also lost population, while Waukesha grew by 9%. Madison saw its population rise by 25,155 people, a jump of 12%. The only change in ranking was that Janesville overtook West Allis as the state’s 10th largest city.

Wisconsin’s 10 Largest Cities in 2010 and 2000
City 2010 2010 Rank 2000 2000 Rank Pop. Change % Change
Milwaukee 594,833 1 596,947 1 -2,114 -0.35%
Madison 233,209 2 208,054 2 25,155 12.09%
Green Bay 104,057 3 102,313 3 1,744 1.70%
Kenosha 99,218 4 90,352 4 8,866 9.81%
Racine 78,860 5 81,855 5 -2,995 -3.66%
Appleton 72,623 6 70,087 6 2,536 3.62%
Waukesha 70,718 7 64,825 7 5,893 9.09%
Oshkosh 66,083 8 62,916 8 3,167 5.03%
Eau Claire 65,883 9 61,704 9 4,179 6.77%
Janesville 63,575 10 59,498 11 4,077 6.85%
West Allis 60,411 11 61,254 10 -843 -1.38%

Here in Southwest Wisconsin, every county except Crawford gained population. A number of factors likely contributed to Crawford County’s loss, but the major back-to-back floods on the Kickapoo River in 2007 and 2008 no doubt played a role: Gays Mills in Crawford County lost over a fifth of its residents; Soldiers Grove lost nearly one in ten. The county seat at Prairie du Chien also experienced a slight decline.

In Grant County, Cassville fell below 1,000 people, and the county seat Lancaster experienced a slight decline, but Platteville’s population jumped from 9,989 to 11,224. Fennimore’s population skipped ahead of both Mineral Point and Darlington.

La Crosse, the largest city in the region, remains almost unchanged in size with only a slight decline, but it’s largest suburb Onalaska grew by nearly 20%.

The table below includes figures for several cities and villages in Southwest Wisconsin. Click on a column header to sort the table by that column.

Cities and Villages in Southwest Wisconsin
City or Village 2010 Population 2000 Population Change % Change
Black River Falls 3,622 3,618 4 0.11%
Boscobel 3,231 3,047 184 6.04%
Cashton 1,102 1,005 97 9.65%
Cassville 947 1,085 -138 -12.72%
Darlington 2,451 2,418 33 1.36%
Dodgeville 4,693 4,220 473 11.21%
Fennimore 2,497 2,387 110 4.61%
Gays Mills 491 625 -134 -21.44%
La Crosse 51,320 51,818 -498 -0.96%
Lancaster 3,868 4,070 -202 -4.96%
Mineral Point 2,487 2,617 -130 -4.97%
Onalaska 17,736 14,839 2,897 19.52%
Platteville 11,224 9,989 1,235 12.36%
Prairie du Chien 5,911 6,018 -107 -1.78%
Reedsville 1,206 1,187 19 1.60%
Richland Center 5,184 5,114 70 1.37%
Soldiers Grove 592 653 -61 -9.34%
Sparta 9,522 8,648 874 10.11%
Spring Green 1,628 1,444 184 12.74%
Tomah 9,093 8,419 674 8.01%
Trempealeau 1,529 1,319 210 15.92%
Viroqua 4,362 4,335 27 0.62%
Westby 2,200 2,045 155 7.58%

You can dig for even more census data at the Census Bureau’s American Factfinder website. What do you make of the new figures? As always, feel welcome to comment below.

Wisconsin Assembly Vote on Budget Repair: District by District

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines, Maps

By now just about everyone has heard about the contentious Wisconsin Assembly vote early Friday morning that approved Governor Scott Walker’s contentious “budget repair” bill in mere seconds — without even allowing time for the entire assembly to vote! Since I couldn’t find a map of the vote anywhere else, I decided to make one myself. Now it is easy to see whose representatives have been listening, whose have not, and whose weren’t given a chance to represent their constituents at all.

A Map of Wisconsin Assembly Districts shaded by vote on Gov. Walker's proposed budget repair

You are welcome to copy and share this map. If you want more information, you can access the full vote roll from the Wisconsin State Legislature website. They also offer detailed and numbered maps of the state assembly districts.

Edit: The map has been corrected to show that Janet Bewley (D) of District 74 (Ashland) did not get in a vote. I apologize for any confusion caused earlier.

To Be Fair, We Must Level Up

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines, History

Citizens surround the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison to protest Governor Scott Walker's budget proposals.
Protesters in Wisconsin on February 19, 2011.
Photo © 2011 Mark Danielson. Obtained under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

The protests this month in Madison have incorporated much discussion of fairness — something that people on all sides claim to be seeking. The debate reminds me of a quote by Dr. Samuel Johnson, a British scholar best known for compiling A Dictionary of the English Language in the 1750s. Dr. Johnson was a staunch conservative in an era when conservatism meant defending aristocratic privilege, and he once disparaged an egalitarian movement in England by remarking, “Sir, your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves.”

These words struck me as a very legitimate criticism. Why is it that those who stand up for fairness so often fixate on cutting down those who are better off, rather than lifting up all of society?

Make no mistake: Dr. Johnson was on the wrong side of political history. At the cusp of the American Revolution, for example, he wrote that “there can be no limited government” and that “since the Americans have made it necessary to subdue them, may they be subdued … When they are reduced to obedience, may that obedience be secured by stricter laws and stronger obligations!” This does not mean that all of Dr. Johnson’s observations lack merit. His comment about levellers seems enduringly and unfortunately relevant. It is, however, something we can change. When we work towards fairness, we should strive to level up, not to level down.

I grant that there are limits. We cannot all rise to be aristocrats, for there would then be no one left to serve our feasts or plow our fields. That dependence on servitude is where the truth becomes manifest: real unfairness comes not so much when some people have more than others, but rather when some people have more than others through coercion — when one class lives high by exploiting the labor of others.

People who legitimately seek fairness and equality will work, not to bring people down, but to raise people up by leveling the distribution of power, eliminating the privileges that give one class, race, or gender the power to exploit or to hold down the rest. That is the way to level up.

Continue reading →

The Fallacy of Efficiency

· Posted by Joshua in Miscellany

This post is long overdue. For years now, I’ve cringed at the constant appeals for “increased efficiency” made by managers, executives, politicians, researchers, journalists, teachers, engineers, activists, bosses, columnists, liberals, designers, coaches, conservatives, accountants, and radio talk show hosts. I think it is safe to say that we all agree: all of us want to make our businesses, our jobs, our governments, our schools, and our refrigerators more efficient. Efficiency is a good thing.

Efficiency, however, is a property of means, it is never an end, and it cannot be an ultimate goal. The thing that matters most is our choice of objects to efficiently accomplish. The business that efficiently returns value to shareholders is not necessarily the business that efficiently rewards good employees or that efficiently turns out efficient refrigerators. It is clear that machine guns and gas chambers are very efficient killing machines, but efficient murder isn’t a good thing at all.

When a merchant or a candidate or an employer tries to sell you on efficiency, it is a meaningless pitch unless you ascertain what sort of efficiency he or she means. Is the most efficient factory the one that makes widgets the most quickly, or the one that makes the strongest widgets? Is the most efficient government the one that does things for the least expense, or the one that does things for the most good? Is the most efficient plan for your boss the most efficient plan for you?

Let’s take a collective step back from this mad drive towards efficiency, and remind ourselves of our values, our goals, and what it is we’re trying so hard to accomplish. Using ends to justify means is bad enough. Don’t make the means into the end.

Rural Iowa is now even more rural.

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines

It’s official: 66 of 99 counties in Iowa lost people between 2000 and 2010, even while the overall state population increased by 4.1% owing to the growth of large cities and especially suburbs — continuing a decades-long trend. These details from Census 2010 were released today by the U.S. Census Bureau:

Iowa is the first state in the region for which detailed Census 2010 data has been released. The Census Bureau plans to release data on a rolling state-by-state basis to be completed by April 1. I’ll be sure to note the release of data for Wisconsin here at Acceity when that arrives. In the meantime, the Iowa returns offer something to think about.

Tale of Two News Feeds

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines, Internet, Media

Protests in Egypt continue to make headlines across the globe today, but not everyone is getting the same story. Take a look at this morning’s (8:00am CDT) top story from the web feeds of two leading news agencies on opposite sides of the Atlantic: the AP in the United States, and the BBC in the United Kingdom.

AP “Top Headlines” Feed (archived | live):

Gangs free militants, foreigners try to flee Egypt
“Gangs of armed men attacked at least four jails across Egypt before dawn Sunday, helping to free hundreds of Muslim militants and thousands of other inmates as police vanished from the streets of Cairo and other cities.” (article)

BBC “Top Stories” Feed (archived | live):

Protesters dominate central Cairo
“Anti-government protesters take over the centre of the Egyptian capital Cairo, as armed citizens’ groups form to counter widespread looting.” (article)

These stories naturally each go on at length, but I’ve only copied the headline and summary broadcast by each organization’s RSS/Atom feed. Often, this is all that subscribers glance at anyway.

Although both reports are rooted in fact, the difference in emphasis is startling. The AP headline, “Gangs free militants, foreigners try to flee Egypt,” stresses chaos, danger, and crime. The less sensational BBC headline, “Protesters dominate central Cairo,” stresses the scope of protest — a human right. You might say that the BBC emphasizes “civil” and the AP emphasizes “disobedience.”

The summaries show even more contrast. The AP raises the familiar American terror of “Muslim militants” freed by “gangs of armed men”, whereas the BBC recognizes “armed citizens’ groups.” These are not instances of using different terms to refer to the same thing; the focus is on different facts altogether. The facts are, however, related: the AP establishes that “police vanished from the streets,” stressing a descent into chaos, while the BBC confirms that “citizens’ groups form to counter widespread looting,” stressing the people’s positive attempts to maintain order.

What I’ve described is only one isolated example of the disparate perspectives that can arise between two supposedly neutral and objective news agencies. The Internet’s deleterious effects on our attention spans might exaggerate these differences, for when news writers compress complicated stories into one-sentence blurbs for syndication, they’re likely to concentrate their biases too. Thankfully, the Internet also provides readers with mechanisms for dealing with bias: we can subscribe to a dozen feeds like this from around the world and gain diverse perspectives on every issue, we can click “read more” for the full story, and we can discuss the news on blogs or social networks. The Internet gives us more tools for making sense of the world than ever before — and more reason to use the tools it gives us.