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What Should Be Done To Protect Renters in Expensive Cities?

[ 0 ] August 26, 2016 |


Since for at least some of you, evidently rent control is the greatest evil in human history, I am wondering what should be done to protect renters?

More than three dozen New York officials stepped into a high-profile court battle over rent stabilization yesterday, filing a brief on behalf of tenants who have sued their Lower Manhattan landlord, claiming they were denied rent caps that should have been guaranteed under a state tax program.

The fight between residents of 90 West Street and developer Kibel Companies, which ProPublica first chronicled in a story published in May, could determine the legality of two decades of rent increases in more than a dozen downtown high rises.

Developers received hefty tax breaks for converting these former office buildings into luxury rentals under an obscure program known as 421-g. In exchange, they were supposed to provide tenants with leases that limited yearly rent increases to levels set by the city. In practice, they often haven’t, maintaining that units renting for more than a certain amount (now 2,700 dollars) were not subject to rent stabilization.

The amicus brief filed late Thursday afternoon by New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, twelve state senators, twelve assembly members, and thirteen city council members, all Democrats, accuses Kibel of claiming a “windfall grant of tax abatements…in exchange for nothing at all.”

Officials said they decided to wade into the case, in part, to demand stronger oversight of an array of programs that swap tax benefits for rent limits, potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of units citywide. Preserving rent-stabilized units has become an increasingly hot political issue, with many local leaders calling for Mayor Bill de Blasio to do more to expand lower-cost housing options.

“The deal behind 421-g was clear—tax breaks for housing in lower Manhattan must include more affordable housing,” State Sen. Daniel Squadron, who represents the neighborhood, said in a statement. “It is not acceptable to shortchange the tenants or the community.”

I am not saying rent control is the only answer. But I do think it can and should be part of the answer. Not having rent control certainly isn’t working. And those who oppose it have no program to fix these problems. Just saying “build more housing units” doesn’t work well in many cities, where foreign billionaires are buying up whole floors of the luxury apartment complexes arising in New York, Seattle, Vancouver, and other cities. Of course, we do need a lot more housing units. But if you are a developer and you have control over what kind of housing unit you build, why not go for the profit on the high-end? Obviously that’s what you are going to do. Far more mandates are needed on rent control and the types of housing that are built. Unfortunately, we do not have that and whole cities are becoming completely unlivable for the working-class, or even the upper middle-class in the cases of New York and Vancouver. And that’s simply not sustainable in any way.


Important Links this Friday Morning

[ 9 ] August 26, 2016 |

Good morning. I hope your Friday is off to a great start. Enjoy…(?)…these links:


Working-Class Trump Supporters: Motivated by Racism, Economic Dislocation, and Community Decline

[ 107 ] August 26, 2016 |


So you might think that a West Virginia coal miner turned strident anti-coal activist would support the one candidate who might do something about climate change and who would follow up on President Obama’s attempts to mitigate coal fired power plants. But you would be wrong. Meet Ed Wiley, a figure in the interesting looking new book by Alexander Zaitchik, The Gilded Rage: A Wild Ride through Donald Trump’s America. He is said anti-coal activist. He supports Donald Trump.

Most of this is just an interview. In it, he powerfully talks about the horrors the coal mines have caused on people and the land. He even worked with Earth First founder Mike Roselle. But why does he support Trump? Because he’s just angry.

“Trump will get elected. I’m for it. I said it from the beginning, when everybody said I was crazy. People in America like his attitude. We’re tired of being broke. People’s tired of bull crap. Jobs never should have never left here. They should have stayed in America. He’s a businessman, and mostly everything in the world now depends on some kind of business. We need to keep our butts at home, stay out of these wars. That’s the sort of thing you’d have to watch with him, is: Can he keep himself calm? Control of his bipolar. That might be what we need, is a good bipolar president [laughs]. He says it like it is. If he says it, he’s probably going to do it one way or another, or try to. He don’t hold nothing back. That’s for sure. He probably knows people all over the place. Can make some kind of jobs happen.

“But they need to quit talking about that border wall shit. I never did like this. The drugs are going to get here from somewhere, one way or another. We don’t need a damn wall. Get along with the people. Bring them and build more. Help us build the country. They want to work, too. Let’s put them to work. Put everybody to work. You look at all the problems it’s caused in California right now—it’s over that damn wall. We need to just work this out on that. We need to get that straightened out so people ain’t fighting in the street. And Trump should stop calling them scoundrels. Everybody’s not a scoundrel. And them people are desperate. You become a bit of a scoundrel when you get desperate, whether you are or not. You get hungry, you’re going to grab that doughnut, if you can get it.”

When you read something like this, from someone who is not a low-information voter, it’s hard to know what to make of it. He clearly doesn’t really believe in Trump as some great leader or even a stable person. But he doesn’t care. Because Trump is a businessman and we need businessmen, even though Wiley’s spent the last 15 years as the enemy of his state’s biggest business. So what’s going on here? Discussions of Trump voters and their motivations tend to revolve around two themes that I don’t see as nearly mutually exclusive as others often represent them. The first is that people are devastated by job losses in their communities and need good work. The second is that they are racist. Earlier in the interview, Wiley refers to a “colored boy” who died of an asthma attack at an anti-coal rally. So it’s not like he’s a real sophisticated guy when it comes to understanding race, even if I don’t think we can use this as enough evidence to say Wiley’s a racist.

On the other hand, all the conversations about people angry about job losses and believing in Trump because he supposedly will bring jobs back to the good old U.S.A. internalizes the highly unfortunate tendency to equate working class voters with white people. It’s whites in Scranton or West Virginia or Alabama who are angry about this. But it’s not like deindustrialization and globalization hasn’t hurt the economic prospects of African-American and Latino industrial workers as much as whites. It’s probably hurt them even more because they face racism on top of all the other problems economic upheaval and capital mobility creates. And those voters sure ain’t finding Trump appealing.

I’m sure that Wiley’s response, like a lot of other white people, is a combination of both economic problems, community collapse, and racism. I know people like monocausal responses and to just paint the white people voting for Trump as racists, but the reality is more complicated. The other day, I heard an interview with J.D. Vance about his new book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Vance is a right-winger himself who does not support Trump so take it how you will. But in the interview, he talked about his Trump-supporting family in Ohio and Kentucky. And he said that they know Trump is not really going to make their lives better or fix their problems. But at least he’s articulating their problems. Now, of course part of what they see as their problems is the decline of white privilege. White supremacy is what they want back. But at the same time, they also do want jobs and an economic future. And they don’t have that. That’s probably what Wiley is feeling as well.

In the end, the Trump phenomena is more complicated than just racism. Racism is absolutely central to it. But it’s more than that. And it would indeed behoove policymakers to take these concerns seriously, even if Trump gets crushed. That will finally prove that Democrats don’t need to appeal to white working-class voters (so often equated to be “real Americans” in the media) in order to win. But so what? The concerns are greater than just the election. Policymakers need to not only take the opioid epidemic seriously in white working-class communities, but they also need to figure out ways for these places to have jobs. People need jobs. The Trans-Pacific Partnership only makes the unemployment situation worse for working-class communities. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have had any answer to the economic dislocation caused by globalization and free trade except to say “get some more education and maybe we’ll throw a few bucks at retraining programs that don’t lead to good jobs.” It’s a pathetic response that shows the irrelevance of these people to elites of either party. So it’s hardly surprising that such voters, even one who has fought the coal industry, see Trump as someone paying attention to them and are flocking to him.

Extreme Weather, Climate Change, Science Communication

[ 23 ] August 26, 2016 |


I have long stated the dangers of scientists refusing to take strong stands connecting weather events to climate change. I understand why they have done this–science is not about certainty, is ideally not too connected to politics, and you can’t 100 percent connect a specific weather event to climate change, although that is rapidly changing. But part of the problem as well is that scientists aren’t really trained to communicate their findings to the general public. What this has done in the real world is cede far too much ground to climate deniers, obscuring the facts and making doing something about climate change all the more difficult.

But it’s absolutely crucial to connect current weather events to climate change. Using the recent extreme flooding in Louisiana and other record rains Union of Concerned Scientists climate scientist Astrid Caldas makes the case as to how they are a consequence of climate change.

Louisiana, August 2016: “I’m going home to see if I have a home”.

Ellicot City, Maryland, July 2016: “Oh my god. There’s people in the water”.

West Virginia, June 2016: “23 dead, thousands homeless after devastating flood”.

What do these events (and 5 more since April 2015) have in common? They were all considered very low probability, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hydrometeorological Design Studies Center created maps of annual exceedance probabilities (AEPs) for all of them. AEP is the probability of exceeding a given amount of rainfall for a given duration at least once in any year at a given location. It is an indicator of the rarity of rainfall. These maps are created for significant storm events that typically have AEPs of less than 0.2% (i.e, exceed 500-year average recurrence interval amounts). For Louisiana, the probability analyzed was for the worst case 48-hour rainfall. For Ellicott City, it was for the worst case 3-hour rainfall. And for West Virginia, the June 23-24 event became a map for the worst case 24-hour rainfall.

In other words, just in the past 17 months, 8 rain events that are considered very low probability (i.e., less than 0.2%) occurred. Three happened in the past 3 months. Flooding like this should happen very rarely – there are AEP maps for only 18 more events, one of which was in 1913, all others having occurred since 2010. As our hearts go out to the families affected by the flooding, we may be asking; is this a series of unfortunate events? Certainly. The sheer loss of life and property is staggering, and heartbreaking. Totally unexpected? Unfortunately, the answer is hardly.

NOAA and NASA just released their global temperature data for the month of July 2016, and again, it was a record warm month. Not only the warmest July on record, but also the warmest month ever on record. According to NOAA, this is the 15th record warm month in a row, starting with May 2015. One can’t help but notice that over these 15 months, 8 rain events were off the probability charts, so to speak. Yes, climate change fingerprint is on these events, including the Louisiana flood, considered the worst natural disaster in the US since hurricane Sandy. Special conditions mainly fueled by climate change were behind this record event.

As much as local conditions affect rainfall events individually, global warming is among the main reasons why we are seeing places that never flooded before, such as Baton Rouge areas and Ellicott City, being swallowed by not only deep but very fast rising waters. Development and urbanization also play a big role in these events, as rainwater swells rivers that no longer have wide, protective margins, and hits impervious surfaces that do not allow for ground penetration – water that has nowhere to go but along streets and between buildings down the easiest path it can find, based on topology and gravity. Here and here are some good resources that elaborate on the aforesaid factors.

The 2014 National Climate Assessment stated: Heavy downpours are increasing nationally, especially over the last three to five decades. The heaviest rainfall events have become heavier and more frequent, and the amount of rain falling on the heaviest rain days has also increased. Increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events are projected for all U.S. regions.

Even though Louisiana is not among the areas that had seen the most increase in heavy precipitation events, the Southeastern US saw an increase of 27 percent from 1958 to 2012. The straightforward explanation for heavier downpours is that warmer air can contain more water vapor than cooler air. Indeed, global measurements show that there is more water vapor in the air now. It follows that there is more water to come down when it rains. Other factors also affect precipitation patterns, which I have explored a bit further here. Even if one cannot directly attribute individual events specifically to climate change, the latter is behind an increased likelihood of them happening, and also of them becoming more extreme. Extreme rainfall is one type of extreme event on which the effects of climate change are better understood, according to a recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that I explore in this blog.

Now, it’s never going to be a precise 1:1 correlation between climate change and a given event. But despite that, scientists have to send a strong message that it is climate change causing catastrophic flooding that creates havoc on communities and costs taxpayers millions or even billions of dollars in each event. It’s not only in our interests to take strong action to mitigate climate change and start preparing for the inevitable, but it’s the most important issue of our time. We can’t allow oil companies and those who want to deny climate change because they hate the dirty hippies to win the public opinion battle. With each major event, the message has to be over and over again that climate change is at least partially responsible and without a real program to fight and mitigate this, it’s going to happen over and over again. Unfortunately, we are far from even such a widespread communications strategy, not to mention a real agenda on what to do or the political will outside of a few leaders like Sheldon Whitehouse or Ed Markey to even make a stink about it.

Can Our Revolution Be His?

[ 15 ] August 26, 2016 |


Bernie Sanders’s new group is off to a somewhat rocky start:

Bernie Sanders has launched Our Revolution, a new group meant to support progressive causes. In doing so, they’re also promising to “revitalize American democracy” and “elevate the political consciousness.” All of which sounds great, and crucial, and they will probably be right on it, as soon as they replace the majority of the staff, who have resigned almost instantly.

Some of this initial rough patch seems to be connected to choices made by Sanders. In particular, Jeff Weaver, sort of the Mark Penn of the left, is predictably alienating a lot of staffers and causing resignations over Sanders’s personal entreaties. But as Merlan says, there are broader issues with this kind of enterprise that aren’t really about Bernie per se:

Politico reports that the board, which is chaired by Jane Sanders, was growing “increasingly concerned about campaign finance questions being raised over the last week.” Questions like, how does a political nonprofit founded by and closely linked to a sitting U.S. senator operate legally, even if Sanders isn’t directly running the show?


The nonprofit status also means the group can’t give money directly to candidates. And the arrangement is deeply ironic, given that 501 (c)(4) designations are usually pursued by people who don’t want to disclose their donors. The most infamous example is Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, which managed to get itself qualified as a nonprofit “social welfare group” despite being run by Karl Rove.

There are, in other words, structural reasons why major activist groups tend not to be led by sitting politicians: doing so limits what they can do and limits their leverage. If Our Revolution or a similar group of set of groups is going to be successful — and finding a way to harness Sanders’s strong support into a powerful voice in the party is important — it probably can’t be about Bernie or any other currently office-holding politician per se. And that’s probably not a bad thing.

The Grand Old Alt-Right Party

[ 68 ] August 26, 2016 |

Clinton’s speech yesterday carefully laying out Donald Trump’s history of racism was indeed very important. It’s also enormously difficult to imagine a major Democratic politician giving it ten years ago — Trump has had a taboo-shattering effect two ways, not only making the overt expression of racism within the Republican Party more common but allowing it to be called out without immediately setting off Both Sides Do It alarms. I also agree with Jeet Heer that what appeared to be conciliatory language towards Republicans was actually more like “if you support Trump, explicitly or passively you own him.” And the most important Republicans, we should never forget, do:

Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have ducked questions about Clinton’s denunciation of the alt-right. But the question has already been answered. Party leaders who can accept Trump as their nominee have made a public admission that racism in the Republican coalition is a fact of political life they are willing to live with.

BBC’s top 100 century list

[ 310 ] August 25, 2016 |

The BBC list has been making the rounds; seems like it deserves a thread.

I think I share two of my top three with the list; In The Mood For Love remains a clear #1 for me (indeed, I’d have to go back to at least the 70’s to think of a film that would challenge it for me), and while I need to rewatch it I’m prepared to keep Mulholland Drive at #3. I’m pleasantly surprised to see Spike Lee’s 25th hour as high as it is; I hadn’t realized critical consensus was finally catching up to where it should be.

More fun that debating what’s too high or too low is most egregious inclusions and exclusions. Here’s mine:

Most egregious exclusions, of the top of my head:

1. Bad Education. #2 so far for me; my favorite Almodovar by far. (Talk to Her is just about right around #30). How many directors have rattled off four films in a row as strong as All About My Mother–Talk To Her–Bad Education–Volver?

2. The films of Hirakazu Kore-eda. Still Walking is probably in my top 10; Our Little Sister isn’t far behind. There are lots of films and directors who’ve been influenced by Ozu and for the better, but with these two films I’m tempted to believe in reincarnation–the man directing these films just has to be Ozu. The effortlessness with which these films, like Ozu’s best work, produce powerful emotional moments from a series of moments from ordinary life is just remarkable. As with Ozu I find it difficult to convey exactly why these films work so well for me. After Life and Nobody Knows are a step below those two, and more Ozu-influenced than Ozu-embodying, but probably both make the backend of my list as well. The conceit of After Life (basically, when you die you get to pick out one day from your life, which you’ll experience over and over again forever. There are council

3. Assayas is represented, properly, with Carlos at 100, and while his very best work is from the 1990’s, at a minimum Summer Hours belongs on this list as well. Structurally similar to Still Walking, and while I prefer the Kore-eda the performances Assayas gets out of Binoche, Berling and Renier are among their best work, and the layering of the family conflict is near-perfectly done. Clouds of Sils Maria is on my must see soon list; Lemieux and Loomis will tell you it belongs on the list. And I don’t know that Clean would make my top 100, but it’s an excellent treatment of addiction, and gets great work from Nolte and Cheung.

4. No Zhang Yimou? Have Hero and House of Flying Daggers seen a decline in their critical reputation? I like them both at least as much as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I haven’t seen them since the theatrical releases, but on the strength of my reactions to them at the time I’d say they belong at least on the back-end, especially Hero.

5. On the Pixar front, Up is much better than Ratatouille (which I liked a fair bit) or Finding Nemo (which was just OK).

6. On the non-Pixar animated front, I think a decent case could be made for The Iron Giant
. EDIT: No, a case can’t be mounted, becuase no matter how good The Iron Giant is, it came out in 1999.

Most egregious inclusions:

Spring Breakers. Critics seem to be under some sort of bizarre spell regarding Korine. I’ll actually defend Kids, but Korine hasn’t really had any new or good ideas since as far as I can tell, and has only become more pretentious. I almost walked out of Spring Breakers and by the end I regretted not having done so.

I find Moulin Rouge! to be completely and totally unwatchable. I started it three times, never made it more than 30 minutes in. I just don’t understand.

On the Linklater front, I can’t quite call Boyhood an egregious inclusion. It was a legitimately interesting and not unsuccessful experiment. I doubt it would make my top 100 but including it on the back-end of such a list wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable, and I’m amenable to bonus points for technical difficulty. But #5? Come on. And Before Sunset is just awful. Ethan Hawke might be a decent actor for all I know, all I can think about when I see him is how much I loathe everything about the Before movies.

Korine has a pretty staggering pretension to achievement ratio, but von Trier tops him for Dogville. A dumb, silly, dull film.

And while I feel like a bit of a philistine for saying it, what’s the deal with the love for Apichatpong Weerasethakul? I don’t hate his films–they’re pretty to watch and he’s clearly got some talent as a director, but I find myself checking the time pretty frequently when watching his films. None of them are bad, just kind of boring.

[SL]…It is just amazing to me that Dogville‘s reputation survives in 2016. Even at the time the defenses of it could basically be boiled down to “George W. Bush sucks.”

[djw]…three more egregious exclusions worthy of an update:

1. Donnie Darko. Either you agree of you don’t, so no point making the case.

2. Turtles Can Fly. Follows a group of war orphans who scavenge for undetonated mines in a Kurdish refugee camp on the eve of the 2003 Iraq war, working with non-professional Kurdish kids as actors. Hilarous moments (especially a scene where the leader/boss of the kids offers his translation services for George W. Bush speeches, but tells the village elders what he thinks they want to here), but the plot twist/reveal that’s as emotionally devastating as anything from any of these films.

3. Blind Shaft. A film about murderous grifters who work in illegal mines in Northern China. They pick up itinerant workers, convinvce them they can get them a job if they claim to be a relation of some sort, and once they get him in the mines they kill him, make it look like an accident, and extort the owners/managers of the mine. Scathing, haunting indictment of Chinese capitalism, and the place of excess labor in the social order.

[EL] A few thoughts here. First, some of the films are ridiculously high. The Tree of Life? Really? Another 45 minutes of random dinosaur images in between this sort of story about growing up in the 50s would totally make it #1. I do get that in an era where TV has replaced film as the visual media of prestige that someone trying new things gets a major pass, but Tree of Life is just not very good. Albeit it’s a hell of a lot better than To The Wonder, which is an atrocious film. Also, Inside Llewyn Davis at #11? I grant that the cat was cute. But A Serious Man is far, far better. I’m far from sold on Synecdoche, New York at 20. The Master was a complete mess and does not belong at 24. The Social Network? Stop.

Also, Lars Von Trier is a terrible director who has made a career on exploiting women on screen.

That said, I was highly pleased that films seemingly forgotten like Fish Tank; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring; The Return, and The Gleaners and I made the list. The Return especially is one few have seen but is truly outstanding.

What is missing? The Hateful Eight for starters. After all, he only wanted a blanket. Dirty Pretty Things, which is flawless and wonderful. There’s no Ken Loach and Sweet Sixteen is well worth inclusion. In the Mood for Love is well worth its position at 2 but 2046 is nearly as good and surely should be in the top 100. Arnaud Desplechin is missing entirely. Kings and Queen is outstanding. So is A Christmas Tale. The entire Romanian New Wave is missing. That’s ridiculous. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days should be there. (So it is there there. The Romanian New Wave still should have more than 1 film) 12:08 East of Bucharest too. Another great and obvious inclusion should be Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light. Where are the films of Johnnie To? Exiled at the very least should be included. I know everyone loved Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and I liked it too. But I thought Take This Waltz was really great and has one of my five favorite scenes of all time. Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture is incredibly powerful. And Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, definitely.

But it’s good enough to argue about, which is really the point. Even though I simply refuse to accept Boyhood at #5. And unlike everyone else on this blog, I really like the Before Sunrise/Sunset films But c’mon.

Genteel Union-Busting in the Ivies

[ 64 ] August 25, 2016 |

Like many of you, I was overjoyed to hear that the NLRB had ruled that graduate students in private universities once again have the right to form a union. This case was especially meaningful to me, because I was an undergraduate when Columbia University graduate students last tried to organize and ran headlong into the 2004 Brown decision.

As a result of this experience, I’m entirely unsurprised that Columbia’s response to the ruling is to threaten an appeal and put up a union-busting website. Thanks to the training that I acquired at Columbia, I can tell you that Columbia is a historically union-busting institution: President Seth Low personally approved the use of Columbia students to help bust a national machinist worker’s strike in 1901, and the tradition continued with Columbia students acting as strike-breakers in a 1905 transit strike, a 1920 railroad strike, and a building trades strike in 1936, until the rise of student leftism finally made collegiate scabbing uncouth.

And again, I was there when the GSEU held a “Free the Ballot Box” protest on the steps of Low Library to protest management having locked up the ballot boxes in the NLRB election that had been held shortly before the Brown decision, which election had come only after four years of management stalling and failed appeals that dragged on for years after the NLRB had made its ruling in 2000 granting the right to organize.

Well, as an alumni, an eight-year veteran as a unionized graduate student and union activist, and currently unionized adjunct, I thought I’d check out the website, and see what union-busting looks like up in Morningside Heights.

Read more…

A hero for our time

[ 43 ] August 25, 2016 |


Tales from the New Gilded Age, Part Infinity:

America is the only developed nation that lets drugmakers set their own prices on life-saving medications. One of the great things about this liberty-maximizing approach is that it gives pharmaceutical entrepreneurs the incentive to innovate.

And few entrepreneurs have done more to disrupt the provision of life-saving drugs than Mylan CEO Heather Bresch. In 2007, Bresch added EpiPen to Mylan’s portfolio. At that time, the emergency epinephrine-injector pens sold at an average wholesale price of $57.

Now, EpiPens aren’t a new, sexy drug. They’ve been around for more than four decades. And, traditionally, drugmakers have been reluctant to drastically raise the price of the penlike devices because so many American children rely on EpiPens to protect against fatal allergic reactions.

But where less daring executives saw an obstacle, Bresch saw an opportunity: If some people rely on EpiPens just to survive, surely they’d be willing to pay more to access them. After all, isn’t $57 a disgustingly low price to put on the value of a human life? . . .

Over the course of nine years, Bresch gradually brought the price of EpiPens in line with their true worth. To do that, she thought outside the box and made sure to use every tool at her disposal — including her familial connections on Capitol Hill. In 2012 and 2013, Mylan spent $4 million lobbying Congress to pass the 2013 School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act, which encouraged schools across the country to stock up on her product. The act was passed by the House and Senate (where Bresch’s father, Joe Manchin, works) and was signed into law by President Obama.

In total, Bresch raised the price of EpiPens by over 400 percent, to an average wholesale value of $317.82. That helped Mylan triple its stock price, from $13.29 in 2007 to $47.59 in 2016.

But that’s not all: Bresch also found time to disrupt her company’s tax burden by officially “relocating” it to the low-tax Netherlands, even as the company maintains most of its offices in Pittsburgh.

By itself, that record would make Bresch a great entrepreneur. But what makes her a true hero is what she chose to do with her company’s increased profitability. You see, for Bresch, making it easier for poor kids to die from allergy attacks is about something a lot bigger than herself. That’s why she chose to take a huge bite out of America’s gender pay gap by increasing her own salary from $2,453,456 in 2007 to $18,931,068 in 2016 — an increase of 671 percent!

Still, as impressive as Bresch’s accomplishments are, it’s important to remember that they’re only possible because of the system we all created together. And if that doesn’t make you proud to be American, then maybe you should “relocate” to the Netherlands, too!

Texting while driving

[ 163 ] August 25, 2016 |


I see people texting while driving constantly. A couple of months ago I was a passenger in a car that got rear-ended by a driver who was in the midst of posting an update to her Facebook page.

Three years ago, AT&T approached Werner Herzog about making a few short public service messages about texting and driving. The great director delved into the topic and decided that crafting an effective message required a documentary film:

“Originally I was supposed to do four spots, 30 seconds long, but I immediately said these deep emotions, this inner landscape can only be shown if you have more time. You have to know the persons. You have to allow silences, for example, deep silences of great suffering.”

The result is a powerful and harrowing film that’s difficult to watch, but which really ought to be seen by anyone who drives and texts, even if they have never done so at the same time.

Banning “Burkinis” is a Disgrace

[ 313 ] August 25, 2016 |


Katha Pollitt is excellent on why coercively policing the appearance of women in the name of secularism is not better than doing so in the name of religion:

But how do bans on Islamic dress—the head scarf, the niqab, and now the burkini—free women? That would be true only if wearing them were enforced by Muslim communities regardless of women’s own preferences. This is the case in Saudi Arabia and Iran, where covering is the law, and in parts of many Muslim-majority countries by social custom. When France instituted its ban on head scarves in public schools in 2004, it was justified as necessary in part to protect schoolgirls from male relatives keen to control them. (Those views now seem overblown.) The same theory explains why the ban on wearing the niqab (the two-part full-face veil) in public calls for a €150 fine for the woman, but a whopping €30,000 fine and a year in jail for any person who forces a woman to wear it. (No one has yet been convicted.) As Ed Vulliamy points out in The Guardian, though, the penalty for wearing a burkini (€38 in Cannes) falls on the woman alone. Are those women subjugating themselves? “It is my choice to try and cover whilst poolside so I can feel comfortable and make the most out of my love for swimming, and my faith,” writes Shereen Malherbe on Muslimah Media Watch.

The apparent fact that some Muslim women want to wear burkinis doesn’t mean that the garment isn’t sexist. Sexism would never have become the powerful social force it is if women didn’t buy into it too. That’s why it’s easy to find women who think that a woman who won’t wear a burqa—or a knee-length skirt—is asking to be raped. Still, it’s hard to see pathbreaking Muslim Olympic athletes like the hijab-wearing American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad or Egyptian volleyball player Doaa Elghobashy as lacking agency. Even if you think Islamic garb—or Orthodox wigs, or fundamentalist-Mormon prairie dresses—is a fashion prison, it doesn’t follow that banning it is the path to liberation.

In fact, it does the opposite: It fetishizes Islamic covering as a communal identity marker and turns it into a way of poking the majority culture in the eye. It also further marginalizes Muslim women. Not men, who dress as they please with no awkward questions about whether they truly want to sport that beard or crocheted skullcap. In France, street attacks on women in Muslim dress have increased since the niqab ban. A Muslim woman in a head scarf can’t work in a government job. According to a recent legal ruling, she can even be denied a job in a day-care center lest she give toddlers the wrong idea about a woman’s place. Prime Minister Valls even wants to ban the head scarf from universities. This isn’t feminism; it’s cultural panic.

Local Food? What About Local Farm Working Conditions?

[ 34 ] August 25, 2016 |


Liberals love local food. But for the most part, they really don’t want to know what’s going on at the farm. They are fine with pictures of community members going out to the co-op farm and picking tomatoes or whatnot. But working conditions simply do not matter to most consumers. That’s almost as true for the liberals going to the farmers market as the everyday person shopping at Walmart. What is happening on those farms? Don’t we have to know this to know if we are creating a sustainable food system? Can sustainability exist in the face of exploitative working conditions? These are the questions Margaret Gray explores in this excellent Jacobin piece.

But my research, dating back to 2000, reveals that working conditions on local farms in New York’s Hudson Valley are not very different from those on the factory farms that dominate the headlines.

Of the farm hands I met, 99 percent were foreign born. The vast majority, 71 percent, were non-citizen Latinos; 20 percent were on H-2A guest-worker visas and hailed from Jamaica or Latin America. Most of the Latinos spoke little English, had low literacy in their native languages, and, on average, received a sixth-grade formal education.

The lack of English skills actually benefits their employers, who see learning the language as a stepping-stone to becoming American. The problem with American workers, farmers told me, is that they don’t have a work ethic.

Hudson Valley farmworkers were not primarily migrant workers: they lived in New York year-round, even if their farm jobs were seasonal. About one-third of those I met also lived with their families. This family reunification counters the workers’ loneliness, but it also undermines their financial goals.

Manuel expounded on this point:

I currently have nothing. You make dollars, but here you spend dollars, not like at home where the money goes further. The situation would be different if I made money here and sent it back to my country, but my family is here. You honestly cannot save money here.

The workers reported even worse economic exploitation in their home countries: age discrimination in factory work, bosses who paid in food, and subsistence living.

One comment raised both environmental issues and the retraction of irrigation programs and farm subsidies in Mexico post-NAFTA: “I used to have my own potato farm, but there is no water. Nothing happens with land that is dead.”

Those I spoke to also described their fear of losing their jobs or being deported. They also did not know their rights.

These factors, coupled with their desire to return home, created a vulnerable workforce willing to make tremendous sacrifices. To protect vital income for their families, they kept their heads down, set aside concerns about their own well-being, and complied with employer demands.

Many acutely analyzed their positions — they were utterly dependent on farm wages, lonely, and alienated.

A twenty-two-year-old Guatemalan woman broke into tears when she described how much she missed her home. She spoke to her mother often over the phone, but said she never related her sadness or complained about the work. Like others I interviewed who downplayed their hardships, her goal was to optimize her income even as she was painfully aware of her meager earning potential.

The work they perform is difficult, dirty, and strenuous; it requires repeated bending or crouching, sometimes with sharp implements, and sometimes in extreme weather for long hours. “You are dead by the end of the day; your arms and your feet ache because of standing all day,” one worker said.

A field hand told me he thought dogs were treated better than he was. But then he got worried that he was telling me too much. Many workers were reluctant to share stories about their working conditions, using phrases like “I better not say” and expressing fear of reprisals.

There are stories of wage theft, human trafficking, sexual harassment, illegal firings, and intimidation. But even if employers were prosecuted for such violations of existing law, the job would still exploit workers.

In New York — as in most other states — farmworkers do not have a right to a day of rest, they do not have a right to overtime pay, and they do not have a right to collective bargaining.

This means that some work eighty to ninety hours a week, for minimum wage, sometimes over seven days. Farmworkers argue that the law sets them up for exploitation since it fails to recognize them as equal to other workers. Heriberto, a farmworker who has given public talks, tells New Yorkers that they should be embarrassed by these laws.

This is not agribusiness. This is the local farm out in the countryside, growing such tasty veggies sold at roadside stands and farmers’ markets. There is massive exploitation on these farms. Yet none of this is really on the radar for most food consumers, even those who describe themselves as having a food consciousness, who buy organic and local. For food writers like Michael Pollan, these issues are even less important. And he should know better. But he’s never really paid much attention to work, preferring a romanticized past of mom laboring in the kitchen for hours each day without pay, ignoring the reality of modern life. Simply put, a food movement that allows for labor exploitation has no right to call itself sustainable. And yet the food movement has never cared about workers. As I discussed in the food chapter of Out of Sight, the fear of vegetables laden with pesticides led to a real consumer movement. But the companies completely defanged it by changing the pesticides to a new style that hits hard and fast and then dissipates. That protects the consumer but makes the lives of workers far more dangerous and poisonous. Consumers were fine with that. Once again, Margaret Gray:

If we are sincere in our solidarity with farmworkers, we must pay equal attention to labor conditions at smaller farms. Organic produce is thriving because consumers said they wanted it; animals are treated better because consumers said they cared.

While supporting farmworker efforts against corporate giants is commendable, we also need look in our own backyards and confront our local farmers — which should be one of the benefits of intimacy.

And that’s only the start. Those concerned with the politics of food need to think more clearly than Kingsolver, Pollan, and the other avatars of the “locavore” movement about the range of problems contemporary farms, industrial and “pastoral” alike, face — and to be more sanguine about the limits of consumer activism.

The plight of hyper-exploited workers on small farms will remain hidden if activists continue to portray factory farming as a unique evil facilitated by some kind of spiritual disconnect from the land, rather than one particularly telling example of capitalism’s inhumanity.

There is much to admire about small, local farms. But any serious effort to address the food supply chain must be big and international.

Until there is a food movement that takes place on those terms, produce cultivated under fair labor conditions will stand for little more than “organic” and “cage-free” do now: the costly mark of good conscience available only to the small few who can afford it.


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