Tag Archives: economy

Don’t Call Appalachia ‘Trump Country’ Just Yet

Donald Trump says he's ended the "war on coal," and for some people in Appalachia, that's everything.

"Trump wins in November and almost instantly ignites a new sense of optimism and confidence within our industry," said Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "There's this sense we can recover from this—maybe not a capital-R recovery, but we can show some gains here."

Already, if they look hard enough, Trump fans can point to numbers teasing a small-"r" recovery in what might be America's most romanticized stretch of heartland. Through April 8, year-to-date domestic coal production—the lifeblood of the economy here—was roughly 16 percent higher than over the same stretch in 2016, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Of course, tracing a statistical blip to the policies of brand-new president is a dangerous game, as growth in production and hiring started before Trump's inauguration and indeed even before the 2016 election.

"We're continuing to grow our production a little bit, but nothing in leaps and bounds," said Southern Coal Corporation president and CEO Jay Justice, who added, "I don't know if there's really been anything substantive that's really changed, but the perception that there's not a combative administration in office makes a lot of people just feel better about it."

Perception over substance may prove something of a theme around here. So far, the president has handed down an executive order rolling back the greenhouse gas–capping Clean Power Plan and signed a law passed by Congress to repeal the so-called Stream Protection Rule, both of which would have imposed new burdens on coal companies in Appalachia. Earlier this month, his administration also stopped another regulation to require coal-burning power plants to use the latest technology to strip lead, arsenic, mercury, and other toxins from wastewater. None of these rules were ever actually implemented, so to some extent Trump's simply carrying water for the status quo.

And the cold, hard reality of the matter is that Washington probably doesn't have the power or will to rejuvenate the coal industry with which Appalachia is often thought to be synonymous. After all, in response to a flood of cheap, hydraulically fracked natural gas and falling costs of renewable energy, electric utilities have shifted away from coal in recent years. Executives at Appalachian Power, which covers 1 million customers in West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee, say they've built their final coal-fired plant and have been trying to develop a renewable energy portfolio of solar and wind power.

But even as the much-diminished coal industry continues to dominate discussion of Appalachian politics, its cultural footprint well outstrips its actual economic impact. That's partly because many regional legacy industries such as equipment manufacturing and the railroad are directly affected by coal. And the GOP successfully weaponized "war on coal" messaging during Barack Obama's presidency, accelerating a regional tilt to the GOP that peaked with Hillary Clinton's remark, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?"

Combined with the intangibles in any given voter's heart—racial resentment, religious faith, a desire for unlimited gun rights, or a simple desire to punch the Establishment in the mouth—a decades-long shift away from Democrats reached fever pitch in the last election. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton 63 percent to 33 percent in Appalachia, winning more than 90 percent of its counties.

"He found an audience that loves him, and he learned how to speak to that audience," said Nick Mullins, a fifth-generation former miner who now works to help organizations better communicate with working-class Appalachians about transitioning from extractive industries.

Watch the VICE News Tonight segment on the way forward for one community in West Virginia that doesn't involve going back to the coal mines.

Still, the president is hardly universally popular here. In West Virginia, 43 percent of registered voters didn't even cast a ballot on November 8, meaning more people stayed home than voted for Trump. The same day, billionaire coal baron, resort owner, and Democrat Jim Justice—Jay Justice's father—easily won election as West Virginia governor. He now faces a half billion dollar hole in the state budget, along with a roughly 17.5 percent poverty rate, seventh worst in the country.

And despite the cultural emphasis on coal, communities across West Virginia and greater Appalachia recognize the need to find a new way of life. Roanoke, Virginia, a Blue Ridge town outside the coalfields, historically relied on the coal-related railroad industry but in recent years rebranded itself as a forward-thinking outdoor and beer town. After the railroad closed its final administrative offices in the city, the Roanoke Valley region landed production facilities for two West Coast breweries, as well as an Italian auto-parts manufacturer.

Other, more rural communities have struggled to find their way. Wise County, which sits amid southwestern Virginia's coalfields, has worked since the early 1990s to line up the pieces for a business technology park. It relied on the Appalachian Regional Commission—which, somewhat bizarrely, is on Trump's budgetary chopping block—for a variety of projects to shore up the county's water and sewer systems. Officials graded sites, lined up broadband internet service, and figured out how to deal with soil compaction issues stemming from the fact the park was built on a former surface mine.

Twenty-five years later, the effort is starting to pay off, with five businesses employing 750 people, and hundreds of acres yet to be developed. Of course, it's quite possible that some of those new employees were among the hundreds of miners laid off in the last few years, and if so, they've likely taken a pay cut: The jobs at a local communications service center, for example, pay about $35,000—a decent living wage but far less than what one can make in the mines.

Meanwhile, many people are struggling just to hold onto what they've got. Sharp declines in coal severance tax revenue and shrinking populations have cut into state and local budgets, which hurts public schools and has ripple effects for young workers. And for all his talk about investing in new infrastructure, the Trump administration's budget proposal guts a number of federal programs crucial to regional economic development, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, and the US Department of Agriculture's infrastructure budget. The White House argues that economic growth will do more to boost Appalachia than government programs, but the cuts, if enacted, could immediately reduce quality of life and hurt the environment.

"Those programs are crucial to everybody in the Appalachian region," said Amy Swann, executive director of the West Virginia Rural Water Association. "To me, it is astonishing that the president and his advisers don't understand those simple concepts when it comes to water and wastewater treatment."

Trump's budget would also cut nearly $2 billion from the Energy Department, potentially including research on so-called clean coal technology, which the president has touted as a path forward. That proposed cut inspired a letter from three large coal companies and the United Mine Workers of America asking him to reconsider.

But so far, at least, many here seem willing hold out hope that the president they embraced in the ballot box will do what decades of national politicians have failed or not even attempted: Bring them back into the mainstream of American economic life.

"To me, it's obvious that West Virginia at this point is optimistic that good things are coming, and it's rather dismayed that a lot of people in the country can't accept the fact that the American voters spoke," said Oak Hill City manager Bill Hannabass, who's building a wastewater management system thanks in part to some of the very federal programs Trump would cut. "It's nice to have someone in the White House who's a friend of coal. But that optimism will die down quickly if there's not a shift, if there are not more opportunities for gainful employment."

Follow Mason Adams on Twitter.

How Trump Plans to Devastate America’s Housing Projects

When Rose Townsend wants to mix baby formula for her four-month-old, she has to get water from the bathtub. If the elevator is out—as it often is in Brooklyn's sprawling Lafayette Gardens and plenty of other New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments across the five boroughs—the mother of three is forced to choose between waiting hours for a repair and abandoning the bottom half of her youngest son's stroller in the lobby so she can drag his detachable car seat up the urine-soaked stairs.

Windows stay broken. The front door won't lock. When her kitchen sink broke nearly two weeks ago, Townsend said, NYCHA workers pulled the counter away from the wall, ripped out the basin and covered the hole with a plastic trash bag, leaving the pipes exposed.

Oh, and the heat? Don't count on it.

"They cut the heat off and it's cold outside," she told me as she shivered in the bitter March chill while waiting for a cab near Woodhull Hospital. "I've got a newborn baby and my house feel like out here."

Disrepair is nothing new for New York's public housing projects. But if the Trump administration has its way, that problem is about to get a whole lot worse.

The White House wants to slash over $6 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which could in turn gut funding to public housing across the country. Though national in scope, those cuts would be especially painful for residents in New York City, which accounts for about 20 percent of the country's public housing stock. Earlier this month, HUD began cuts of $35 million—which would amount to five percent, over the course of the year—in federal funds for the city's affordable housing units, the Wall Street Journal reported. The exact number is likely to change with the Congressional budget process next month, and could be much higher.

The impact is poised to be immediate and uncomfortable for the 400,000 "authorized residents" of the New York City projects—and the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 additional "ghost residents" who also call those developments home. Nationally, about 2.2 million Americans live in what most of us know as public housing (millions more lean on Section Eight housing vouchers).

"It means slower services, slower repairs, lot more strain on our infrastructure," a NYCHA spokeswoman told VICE, confirming the authority's ongoing federal haircut.

Public housing residents across the city say basic maintenance and ordinary repairs already take too long, though wait times have actually shrunk considerably in recent years, from an average of about nine days in 2015 to about four days last year, according to a January report from the Mayor's Office.

The HUD cuts will wipe out those gains, the NYCHA spokeswoman told me. But they will also threaten critical infrastructure projects that keep the aging developments from falling apart.

"It's going to be grim," said Nicholas Bloom, an associate professor of social science at the New York Institute of Technology. "The city and the state are going to have to make those investments," something he said local governments are reluctant to do, lest that encourage the feds to cut deeper still.

"We've gotta fight HUD, we need to fight [Secretary] Ben Carson," argued Robert Jackson, a 40-year resident of the Albany Houses in Crown Heights, where workers have nearly finished a years-long, city-funded overhaul of the 60-year-old development's leaky roofs. NYCHA budgeted about at least a billion dollars for similar capital projects in 2015, and more are desperately needed. (Federal housing officials at HUD declined to comment for this story.)

Lafayette Gardens was built in 1965, making it one of the newest projects in NYCHA's portfolio. The oldest turned 80 in 2015, and at least ten more are septuagenarians. If age weren't enough, a bevy of developments from Surfside Gardens in Coney Island and Ocean Bay Apartments in Rockaway to Jacob Riis in the Lower East Side are still awaiting repairs from Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

"It's a dire situation," the NYCHA spokeswoman said.

And even if the infrastructure stands up, scaling back the most basic repairs may have another unintended consequence—an increase in crime.

A 2014 analysis by the New York Daily News showed that the projects most badly in need of repair also had among the highest rates of crime, even as the crime rate hit historic lows across the city.

"They just now fixed the front door in the building—just now, and I've been living there for nine months," Townsend said of her home. "People come in the building, they get into fights in the building. It's a big problem."

But Bloom, the social scientist, thinks these cuts are merely a taste of what's to come.

"This is just the beginning—Congress is going to change the rules of the game," he warned. "The best thing [Americans] are going to be able to do is limit the damage."

Follow Sonja Sharp on Twitter.

One Recipe for a More Equal World: Mass Death

For almost as long as human beings have existed, some have had more than others. In the early hominoid days, physically stronger proto-people might have secured more meat than other proto-people, and those who lived near water replete with fish could benefit from the extra calories. As time went on and what most of us know as society emerged, status and power became more complicated, and a basic truth came into focus: Some have a lot, and others have almost nothing.

More recently—really in the past few hundred years—experts and advocates have begun to discuss this phenomenon of economic inequality as a problem that might be fixed. But Stanford historian Walter Scheidel, author of the recently-released book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality, has bad news for those who might like us to live in a more equal society: The surest way to do that is to unleash hell on your fellow human beings.

Scheidel takes readers on a brutal tour of inequality throughout human history, drawing on everything from wheat wages in ancient Egypt to the size of houses in the Middle Ages to modern tax records. Consciously building on the work of celebrated French economist Thomas Piketty, whose 2014 (in English) bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century predicted yawning income gaps would continue to get even larger in the decades ahead, Scheidel looks to history to find out what humans can actually do about it.

The answer, unfortunately, seems to be that short of a horrific plague or famine, another world war, total state collapse, or violent revolution, we may be shit out of luck. Those "Four Horsemen," as Sheidel calls them, account for most of the major reductions in material inequality over the course of human history. Plague in medieval Europe, for instance, massively increased the clout of workers, as they were suddenly a prized commodity and could demand higher wages. And it's not exactly breaking news that revolutions, state collapse, and warfare can all destroy (literally, in many cases) wealth, which is one reliable way to reduce the gap between rich and poor—albeit with plenty of misery along the way.

For some perspective on how we can apply the lessons of history to our modern struggle with inequality—and what Donald Trump means for this whole mess—I called up Professor Scheidel for a chat. Here's how that went.

VICE: Is inequality, in and of itself, a bad thing, something that we should desire to reduce?
Walter Scheidel: I think the answer is that it's not the worst thing ever, but it's arguably a bad thing. So if you compare it to poverty, obviously that's a much more pressing issue, not just in the US but anywhere in the world. But if you just look at inequality as such—how the available resources are distributed regardless of whether people are poor or not, there are various dimensions to it: an ethical dimension, a moral dimension. Is it fair if the gains that are generated by an economy are distributed in a highly uneven way? It might be fair, but it arguably needs to be justified, at least in a democratic system. And an economist would say, Well it might have negative effects on economic growth. For instance, if you have a very unequal society, it could depress the ability of a large part of the population to consume and invest. So it might actually retard economic development.

You have the aspect of perpetuating this kind of inequality over time. If you have a high level of inequality, it's more likely that parents will pass on those advantages to their children. In the long term, it might be seen as unfair if you live in a kind of social democracy—or meritocracy, if you will.

You lay out pretty early in the book the Four Horsemen—four phenomena, basically—that have historically succeeded, in your estimation, in massively curtailing inequality. They are mass warfare, violent revolutions, state failure and plagues/diseases/epidemics. Can you explain the intellectual history of that concept—is it your own creation?
It just occurred to me because it turned out to be four major factors that I could distinguish and so I thought of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Had it been a different number, I might have settled on some different phraseology.

I did start out probably with Piketty's articles where he talked about World War II and so on. I thought, Well, how about most of history? I had done work myself on plagues, published research looking at the development of real wages and inequality, what happens when a very big plague hits. And I had this in the back of my mind. So if you put two and two together, you have mass mobilization wars that Piketty talks about, and you have these other phenomena. Socialist revolutions are pretty much a no-brainer—they're obviously a violent leveling force. And I had also done some work on state collapse and it sort of coalesced into this. I thought, Well, if there are all these forces are out there, they all look very violent to me; let's see if there are others. But I couldn't find any others that are equally powerful. And I said, Let's look at this systematically over the course of history. And as I was doing this, it really crystalized that really these are four distinctive factors and there's not much more out there in the long term.

How An 80s Arnold Schwarzenegger Film Predicted Our Future:

There's been a fair amount of talk in radical circles in the United States, going back centuries, about literally killing rich people. When you talk about your Four Horsemen, though, rounding up a few Wall Street guys or whatever fantasies some of us might entertain doesn't seem like enough. You point to the French Terror as a failed example of a more targeted purge that was followed by a restoration of monarchy. Can you explain that?
I mean, one of the problems is that during this period, nobody really took measurements. We don't have proper data from right at the peak of the Terror, the beginning of Napoleon. It's a little hard to disentangle the effects of the restoration from what had happened before. Maybe it's a little unfair of me to have said, "Well, they didn't get very far," because much was undone later on.

But the revolution was relatively shallow, right? They killed a few thousand rich people, which certainly made a difference, but it was ultimately a bourgeois revolution. If you have a bourgeois revolution, it's not going to be very redistributive unless you really appeal to the lower income half of the population and say, "This is really for you and nobody should have more than other people," which is what you get on left. But the French Revolution was very keen on private property—they had no particular desire for collectivizing everything, as it was very much a middle-class phenomenon.

So the distinction you're making here is between more modest political revolutions and a truly violent upheavals?
You can think of the American Revolution, which was a war against a foreign power, a civil war, any number of things at the same time. And there was certainly violence against rich loyalists who would be kicked out or lose their assets. But it wasn't a wholesale revolution that really equalized on a large scale. And the French Revolution was a step up from that, but if you look at the Communist revolutions, everything else pales in comparison to that because nobody had tried to do this [society-wide restructuring] before.

Can we talk a little about actual violence versus the threat of violence? Could one not argue that the latter is sufficient to reduce inequality? In the 1930s, for instance, we saw the erection of massive welfare programs in the US before World War II, at least partly because of the broader political dynamic in the world and anxiety about the appeal of socialism at home, right?
It's a little tricky because the US never really had any strong leftist movement. But if you look at Europe, after 1917 people were really scared about Communism in all the western European countries. You have all these poor people, they might rise up and kill us and take our stuff. That wasn't just a fantasy because it was happening next door. And that, we can show, did trigger steps in the direction of having more welfare programs and a rudimentary safety net in response to fear of Communism. Not that they [the Communists] would invade, but that there would be homegrown movements of this sort.

American populism is a little different because it's more detached from that. But it happens roughly at the same time, and people in America are worried about Communism too—not necessarily very reasonably. But that was always in the background. And people have only begun to study systematically to what extent the threat, real or imagined, of this type of radical regime really influenced policy changes in Western democracies. You don't necessarily even have to go out and kill rich people—if there was some plausible alternative out there, it would arguably have an impact on policymaking at home. That's certainly there in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s and 60s.

And there's a debate, right, because it becomes clear that the Soviet Union is really not in very good shape, and people don't really like to be there, and all these movements lost their appeal. That's a contributing factor, arguably, that the end of the Cold War coincides roughly with the time when inequality really starts going up again, because elites are much more relaxed about the possibility of credible alternatives or threats being out there.

"There's surprisingly little work, if any, that looks at whether inequality is behind certain kinds of violent shocks."

Aren't those social welfare programs sort of a partial rebuttal to your theory, though—that the threat of violence was enough to curb inequality, rather than the thing itself?
That's true, but you could argue that there was need for the violence [to happen somewhere]. So if people in Russia go and kill all the rich people, that doesn't mean violence occurred in other countries, but they know it can happen and did happen. That happened with the French Revolution too—the monarchies of Europe said, "That's really terrible, they're cutting off the heads of aristocrats, we have to snuff this out and invade France and put it down."

There are very powerful indirect effects—it doesn't have to happen at home, but as long as it happens somewhere out there, it provides a credible template. Think of Cuba: If Fidel Castro comes in and he takes over Cuba and expropriates the rich, all the rich people in Peru and Chile and Mexico are going to say, This could happen to us. What should we do? Should we opt for oppression, should we maybe embrace reform? In many cases they did because, again, they are spurred on by something like this happening out there. And all of a sudden this becomes a much more credible threat to them.

How do you untangle correlation are causality here—the extent to which inequality might be affected by major shock events and how it might help bring them about?
The problem is it's very difficult to construct some kind of complete feedback loop with violence and inequality. People haven't studied this intensely enough—there's surprisingly little work, if any, that looks at whether inequality is behind certain kinds of violent shocks. You'd expect that people would have done this systematically; turns out they haven't. I hope what I did and what others have done will inspire people to work more on this in the future. But as of now I can't see any kind of systematic relationship going the other way—from high inequality to violent shocks.

I don't know if you noticed that George Will, the conservative Washington Post columnist, referred to your book approvingly as sort of validating his worldview. That is, if violence is the only way to reduce inequality, why bother with the social welfare state? Do you agree that these programs are sort of pointless?
No, no I don't. The historical evidence can be read in a huge range of different ways. You can do the Will thing and say, "OK, let's just throw our hands up and do nothing." You could go to the opposite end and say, "Well, maybe violence is a good thing, maybe we should go out and kill the rich." I don't advocate either one of those positions! There is certainly room for incremental change, that's what the example of Latin America shows in the last 15 years or so. But if you look at really substantial reductions that really made a difference overall, well, there the picture seems to be different. It's actually very hard to do that unless there is—not just violence happening but has happened in a way that meaningfully influences policymaking and other developments the way we just discussed.

"If you expect some really big change for the better in terms of inequality over the next five or ten years, you probably need something like, not necessarily nuclear war, but some really big shock or big disaster of that sort."

There was a lot of hype for Obama when he took over in 2009. The New York Times called his first budget plan "bold" and said it sought "to reverse the rapid increase in economic inequality over the last 30 years." And there was of course a massive right-wing rebellion against his agenda. Yet when we step back, eight years out, there was a little bit of a boost for the lowest incomes and a tiny bit of compression, maybe, at the top. But Obama didn't actually move the needle much. Do you see that as validation for your approach and maybe an indication that perhaps Obama wasn't forceful enough—or even violent enough?
Inasmuch as something happened, it happened not because of his policies initially but because of the recession. The recession really hit the rich pretty hard, initially, because of their exposure to risky investments and so on. And within the next four years or so, that recovered. And so it wasn't really driven so much by whether his policies worked or not but forces beyond his control.

You can say, well, What if Bernie Sanders had been elected instead of Obama? The answer is probably, well, the right-wing insurgency would have been a lot more powerful, right? That's always an interesting issue, because it seems at least in the US that inequality is closely tied up with political polarization. So when it was high way back when in 1900, the country was also pretty polarized. And then, again, because of all the bad things that happened—the populism, the Great Depression, World War II—polarization really went down dramatically because people figured: We really have to get our act together and make things happen. That was exactly at the time when you could implement really radical policies.

But ever since, polarization has been going up—quite rapidly, especially since the 80s. And inequality has been going up, quite rapidly, again, since the 80s. And those two things are not entirely unconnected. Because if you have political stalemate, one side trying to undo everything the other side is putting in place, nothing much is going to work.

I have to ask about the nuclear war thing—your suggestion near the end of the book that, in theory at least, that is perhaps the most potent way to massively reduce inequality in a way that would really dramatically reshape the world. How are we not to lose hope for the prospect of a more equal or even more stable society if it seems like deadly catastrophe is the only way out of where we are?
Well, it may be the only shortcut out of where we are. If you expect some really big change for the better in terms of inequality over the next five or ten years, you probably need something like, not necessarily nuclear war, but some really big shock or big disaster of that sort. That doesn't mean incremental change isn't possible—there's lots of low-hanging fruit, especially in the American system, because some things are just so egregious and have been pointed out many times: certain features of the tax code, the money that goes into politics, and so on. So if those could be addressed—and they are in principle addressable—then improvements could be made at the margins. That may become more sustainable in the long term, there's at least some hope.

But if the hope is very big—if the hope is to say what Trump says, "I'm going to take you back to the way things were 40 years ago," which implicitly he's saying—that's just not going to happen unless something extraordinary happens. And that extraordinary thing would probably have to be something very bad at the same time.

I wanted to ask about Trump. Does the elevation of a figure like him make the prospect of one of the Four Horsemen more plausible and therefore—like it or not—make a massive reduction in inequality more likely?
I think we probably overestimate Trump's ability to really do things. We're already seeing how much pushback he gets from within the bureaucracy, and it can only get worse over time. So I think it's easy for him to stir things up at the surface. God willing, it's far less likely that he will stir things up in a more profound fashion.

And even in terms of his policies, on the one hand he poses as a populist for the working class, and [wants to bring back] manufacturing jobs and so on, and at the same time he allies himself with a party that is always pushing for tax cuts. Which is not really compatible with what he claims he wants to accomplish.

There's been a lot of talk in the last few weeks about "punching Nazis" and violence against white supremacists. I realize opposing Donald Trump and wanting to reduce inequality are not identical, but can your book and its theory be brought to bear here? Are anti-fascists, some of whom express openness to violence, onto something?
Once you have a society in which inequality reaches very high levels, all else being equal, you might expect a greater propensity to call for these [acts of violence] or even engage in them in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. That has been a problem in Latin America for a very long time, where you have a much higher degree of violent dissent and insurgency. So you could ask: "Is punching Nazis just the beginning of some kind of fringe response to certain social conditions like polarization and very high inequality?" I would see it as a possible outgrowth of these conditions.

So what's your prognosis for the next five to ten years, given the populist insurgencies afoot in much of the West, the turn toward xenophobia in some corners, growing inequality, and the like? Where are we headed here? How does this human story out?
I don't believe that any of the traditional Four Horsemen are going to come back any time soon for any number of reasons. So I think in the short term, ten to 20 years, will probably see a worsening of the political climate and more polarization, more (rhetorically or otherwise) violence, more populism, more movement at the margins, at fringes. But I think the economic system that we have now is sufficiently resilient to weather this reasonably well. And as long as it does that, there is no good reason to believe inequality's going to change massively, either.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Learn more about The Great Leveler here.

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.

Watch Trump and Justin Trudeau’s Joint White House Press Conference

On Monday, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau met with Donald Trump at the White House and tried to start off on the right foot with the new US president, CNN reports.

The president has already soured relations with Australia and Mexico after spats over the phone and on social media, but Trudeau—whose stance on refugees and trade stand in stark contrast to Trump's—is under pressure to stay on good terms with the American leader since his threat to renegotiate NAFTA could potentially hurt Canada's economy. 

According to the Associated Press, the two reportedly discussed trade, jobs, and women in the workforce. Earlier Monday afternoon, Trump and Trudeau held a roundtable discussion with some of the countries' top female business executives to lay the groundwork for a new task force called the United States Canada Council for the Advancement of Women Business Leaders-Female Entrepreneurs. Trump's daughter Ivanka—who recently had her merchandise pulled from Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and TJ Maxx—was reportedly in charge of recruiting the business leaders for the discussion. 

At around 2 PM, Trudeau and Trump will hold a joint press conference at the White House and answer questions from reporters regarding their meetings. Let's just hope they both make it through the day without a cringeworthy handshake, like the one Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe had to suffer last week. 

Watch the joint press conference at 2 PM via the livestream below.

Can Pot Farms Save Former Oil Towns?

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

No question, it's been a brutal couple of years for Canada's oil patch.

You have a province of devout capitalists sitting on top of Earth's third largest oil reserve, yet we know burning all of it would make the planet irreversibly less habitable. Throw in an oil price crash, surprise non-conservative takeover, and a tragic wildfire, you have the makings of a binge-watchable Netflix drama.

I know Albertans probably don't want me—a nature-loving Vancouver coastal elite or whatever—worrying about them. But watching all this unfold from west of the Rockies, I can't help hoping and cheering for Canada's Texas to overcome job losses and existential climate threats. (Recent "phase out" misspeaking aside, I think we all agree both would be ideal?)

Anyway, this is why I was excited to discover that Edmonton's airport, of all places, will soon host the world's biggest weed grow-op. A Vancouver-based company called Aurora Cannabis has announced plans to build an indoor medical marijuana production facility the size of nine football fields.

The company is selling the project as an economic boost for a still-struggling province. Aurora's CEO told Business in Vancouver he's proud of the plan because "it will become an important contributor to the local economy, both through investments and job creation."

Rendering of the "world's most advanced cannabis facility." Image via Aurora Cannabis

Let's try to appreciate how massive this thing is for a second: At 800,000 square feet, it's more than four times the square footage of the nearest Costco. Alberta's only other legal grow op (also owned by Aurora) is 1/16th the size. It's basically the weed version of the West Edmonton Mall.

The Aurora plant will be capable of producing 110 metric tons of cannabis per year. For some perspective, the government expects Canadians as a whole will consume about 655 tons of weed by 2018, once a legal market is in place.

If anyone is going to take weed to corporate extremes, it's going to be Alberta. Which makes it somewhat easier to imagine an alternative universe wherein a multibillion-dollar weed boom saves the economy.

I know oil is back over $50 a barrel and Alberta might do just fine this year. But for an an experiment in extreme wishful thinking, I reached out to Western University economist Mike Moffatt to figure out how plausible this "weed patch" reality would be. He told me it could definitely become a major part of Alberta's economy, but it's not catching up to the oil sands anytime soon.

Read More: Canadians and Americans Spent $72 Billion on Weed Last Year

Our first task was to figure out how big Alberta's weed market could possibly get. A recent study by Deloitte pegged the Canada-wide maximum at $22 billion [$17 billion USD], including lab testing, security, and other related fields. According to the study's author Mark Whitmore, that's similar to the size Canada's entire alcohol industry.

Accounting for Alberta's population, Moffatt and I settled on somewhere between one and two billion for Alberta's homegrown weed market. "Which is not nothing," he told VICE. But next to Alberta's oil sands and related industries, it's pennies on the dollar. "Compare that to $60 billion [$46 billion USD] just from oil exports, and billions more in services around that," he said, "we're talking maybe one or two percent of the size."

Now, some weed advocates do contest the Deloitte figure. Craig Jones, executive director of NORML, suggested there would be a much larger opportunity if Canada was allowed to export to the US and other countries. Though British Columbia probably has a stronger brand opportunity, Alberta could stake its own claim on the global scene.

But Moffatt pointed out that getting into the global weed market might not shield Alberta from the kind of price fluctuations its oil sands industry has been fighting against these past two years. "I would treat it as any other agricultural commodity, so you probably would have the potential for price volatility," he said.

This is something we've already seen happening in Washington State, where weed has been legal for a few years now. In fall 2014, a massive crop of sun-grown weed flooded the Seattle market. Prices at dispensaries dropped from over $20 to $4 a gram, lots of pot went unsold, and growers called it an "economic nightmare." That's nothing compared to crude's tumble from $120 to $30, but a potential headache nonetheless.

Read More: Everything Your Weed Guy Knows About Weed Is Probably Wrong

That, and pot industry leaders might not stick around if the climate or economic conditions aren't ideal. "It's going to be grown where the best conditions are. I don't know why Alberta would have an advantage over Vancouver Island or southwestern Ontario." One great thing for Alberta, is that there would be a sizable stream of government revenue, mostly from taxing the consumer side.

I asked Moffatt to come out on a limb with me, and imagine what would have to happen for weed to surpass the oil sands as Alberta's biggest money maker. What if, say, 50 years down the road, oil sands production has been scaled back to meet real, enforceable international climate targets, and weed has taken off as a new centerpiece of Alberta's economy?

Though highly improbable, Moffatt agreed this would have to be part of a post-carbon economy, where oil sands have been closed down almost entirely. "We're probably talking about pretty much shutting down the oil sands. If you shut that down and just kept some conventional oil, that would probably be comparable."

But realistically, if anything is going to replace the oil sands as Alberta's cash cow, it's going to be some kind of alternative energy, says Moffatt. There just isn't enough demand for weed to sustain that kind of single-resource market. Then again, cannabis activist Jodie Emery told me hemp biofuels have the potential to shake things up in coming decades. And based on events of the last week, truly nothing seems impossible.

"I think it can become a significant part of the economy," Moffatt told me. "Is it going to be the dominant industry? Probably not. But that might not be a bad thing."

Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.

The Government Just Suspended A Move That Would Have Made Mortgages More Affordable

Fewer people are buying homes, and that may have something to do with redefining the American Dream, but it’s also because, for many people, housing is just not affordable. To address this, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) announced a program that would’ve made FHA-backed mortgages more affordable for…

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Eight Billionaires Are Richer Than Half of the World’s Population

Have you ever stressed over whether to buy the no-name brand of frozen burritos from the supermarket? Is the $4 more for the logo and fancy package really worth it? If so, you'll probably be pretty upset to know that eight of the world's billionaires own as much wealth as half of the entire population of Earth, according to a new report published by Oxfam

The data (which came from Credit Suisse's economic research on wealth distribution in 2016) shows that eight billionaires—totaling a net worth of $426 billion—have as much wealth as 3.6 billion people, who make up the bottom half of the world's economy. Last year, it took 62 of the world's richest to reach that same conclusion.

The eight billionaires, in order of networth, are as follows: Microsoft founder Bill Gates ($75 billion); Fashion business magnate (aka Zara owner) Amancio Ortega ($67 billion); American investor Warren Buffett ($60.8 billion); Mexican businessman Carlos Slim ($50 billion); Amazon head Jeff Bezos ($45.2 billion); Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ($44.6 billion); Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison ($43.6 billion); and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg ($40 billion).

The report notes that the transfer of wealth from the bottom half to a very select few is a hard and complex relationship to understand, but offers a few explanations for the ever-widening wealth gap—pointing to an increasingly-stressed global economy, as well as factors such as climate change and war.

"Unlike extreme wealth at the top, which can be observed and documented through various rich lists, we have much less information about the wealth of those at the bottom of the distribution. We do know however, that many people experiencing poverty around the world are seeing an erosion of their main source of wealth—namely land, natural resources and homes – as a consequence of insecure land rights, land grabbing, land fragmentation and erosion, climate change, urban eviction and forced displacement."

Read More: Who's to Blame For Income Inequality in the US?

According to the report, most of the world's poorest half resides in live in south-eastern portions of the globe, such as India, Africa, and some parts of Asia. Only one percent of that population resides in North America, and almost half of all billionaires are from the continent.

The data also shows that the growing rift between the world's poorest and richest has no borders: in Canada, David Thomson and Galen Weston—two Canadian billionaires with a net worth of $33.1 billion—own as much wealth as one third of the entire country,

Across the globe, women also take the brunt of the blow when it comes to wealth distribution. In countries like Canada, New Zealand, UK and Australia, women make up over 60 percent of the unpaid work force. Women are 90 percent less likely to earn an equal wage as their male counterparts, and compromise a mere 15 to 20 percent of the top income bracket in western countries.

For what it's worth, the richest woman on earth last year—Liliane Bettencourt, the principal owner of L'Oreal—is worth a rock solid $36.1 billion.

"Worldwide, the chances for women to participate in the labour market remain almost 27 percentage points lower than those for men," the report reads. "Once in the labour market, women are more likely than men to be in jobs not protected by labour legislation. In formal jobs, women consistently earn less than men."

Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.

Lead photo via Wikimedia.