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The Administrative State

[ 5 ] October 4, 2015 |


Mike Konczal has a really smart essay in the Boston Review about the history of the administrative state that you all should read. Basically, unlike modern conservative mythology that states that the rise of Big Government is something that comes out of the Progressive Era and New Deal that undermined traditional American small government, in fact the administrative state has existed in the United States since almost the beginning. The real question has been what that administrative state should do, who it should benefit, and what realms of society should be affected. But there is no pre-administrative state for us to return to. That would be uncharted territory and a complete disaster, if such an attempt was ever implemented. It wouldn’t be though, since even modern conservatives just want to eliminate the parts of the state they don’t like, such as programs that help black people or women. Just an excerpt here:

Take the settlement of the West. The surveying, sale, and settlement of the new public lands was the largest administrative challenge facing the early federal government. People moving westward, especially after the Louisiana Purchase, didn’t form the bargaining, enclosing paradise of libertarian lore. Settlements involved endless fighting in courts over who owned what under a mix of state, federal, and international law. Courts were ill equipped to handle these cases and quickly buckled under the endless, costly claims, some of which would take decades to negotiate. The time and energy absorbed by the legal process slowed the work of making new land available for settlement. Dysfunction fed back on dysfunction, with lawsuits provoking further lawsuits and uncertainty.

In order to deal with this chaotic situation, Congress created the General Land Office in 1812. It was not without controversy of the sort we might recognize today: during the republican era, Congress wanted to explicitly control every aspect of policy. But rules drafted in Washington D.C., no matter how meticulous, required expert implementation on the ground. The process of surveying, recording, and selling land had to be subject to uniform rules, but the land itself was not uniform, and the rules weren’t easy to apply. Congressional strictures originally prevented Land Office administrators from correcting record-keeping errors resulting from the disconnect between the law and facts on the ground. Eventually, though, Congress realized the need to tolerate some administrative discretion. So, for example, while the law required planting trees to demarcate townships, where trees could not be planted, administrators might fix stones. Land Office agents, newly empowered to make at least some decisions, filed reports with Congress to ensure accountability.

Mashaw extends a project of finding the state in the nineteenth century, which historians have undertaken since the 1990s. Books such as William J. Novak’s The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America (1996) have documented the extensive state regulation of behavior that characterized the time period. Mashaw shows that the government not only regulated through law, but also expanded its capacity to enforce those laws by means of the administrative state.

All of this helped to build the republic that we live in today. If we want a functional state, the principle of big government is something we should embrace, not apologize away.


Domestic Workers and the Legacy of Slavery

[ 16 ] October 3, 2015 |


Training future domestic workers, Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth, Bordentown, New Jersey

Premilla Nadasen has an exciting new book out on the history of domestic worker organizing. I’m looking forward to reading it. Jake Blumgart has an interesting interview with Nadasen, where she explains the connection between domestic workers even today and the legacy of slavery:

What was the legacy of slavery in the domestic labor sector, especially in the first half of the 20th century?

After the end of slavery, African-American women increasingly became paid domestic workers. The image that came to dominate their labor in this occupation was the figure of the mammy, an African-American woman loyal to the family for whom she worked and happily served. The image of the mammy becomes essential in the early 20th century to justify an unequal racial order in the South and as an apology for slavery, with its assumption that African Americans were content to serve white families.

The reality is that their work was not treated as real work. They were very often framed by their employers as “one of the family.” That meant they would work longer hours and take hand-me-downs instead of payment because the assumption built into the “one of the family” phrase was that they were working out of love. But Carolyn Reed, an organizer in New York City, put it best when she said “I don’t need a family, I need a job.”

In the beginning of the book you talk about communists and other radical activists who tried to organize with domestic laborers. How successful were those 1930s efforts?

Considering that the occupation was so difficult to organize, I think they were enormously successful. They were isolated employees who often worked alone in a home and were invisible from the public eye and labor organizers. When communists, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the Urban League all decided to organize domestic workers, they actually brought these women together in a collective space. Sometimes they reached out to them in the “slave markets,” the name that Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke gave to these street corners in New York City where African-American women waited to be hired as day workers. The Bronx Slave markets became sites of organizing. Then domestic workers and their supporters developed hiring halls where domestic workers could be protected from exploitative employers.

Figured this would be of interest to many readers.

What Does Dylan Matthews Think The Worst New York Times Article Published in the Last Decade Is?

[ 159 ] October 3, 2015 |


Dylan Matthews tweeted a while ago:

So naturally, I clicked. It was Paul Theroux writing about the hypocrisy of corporate campaigns for charity when their own outsourcing policies caused the economic decline of the American working class in the first place. A selection:

Take a Delta town such as Hollandale, Miss. Two years ago, the entire tax base of this community of around 3,500 was (so the now-deceased and much-mourned mayor Melvin Willis told me) less than $300,000. What the town had on hand to spend for police officers, firefighters, public works, outreach, welfare and town hall salaries was roughly the amount of a Bill or Hillary one-night-stand lecture fee; what Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, earns in a couple of days.

When Hollandale’s citizens lost their jobs in the cotton fields to mechanization they found work nearby, in Greenville and elsewhere, in factories that made clothes, bikes, tools and much else — for big brands like Fruit of the Loom and Schwinn.

They are gone now. Across the Mississippi River, Monticello, Ark., and other towns made carpets and furniture while Forrest City produced high-quality TV sets. The people I spoke to in the town of Wynne, known for its footwear, said they’d be happy to make Nikes if they were paid a living wage.

I found towns in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas that looked like towns in Zimbabwe, just as overlooked and beleaguered. It’s globalization, people say. Everyone knows that, everyone moans about it. Big companies have always sought cheaper labor, moving from North to South in the United States, looking for the hungriest, the most desperate, the least organized, the most exploitable. It has been an American story. What had begun as domestic relocations went global, with such success that many C.E.O.s became self-conscious about their profits and their stupendous salaries.

To me, globalization is the search for a new plantation, and cheaper labor; globalization means that, by outsourcing, it is possible to impoverish an American community to the point where it is indistinguishable from a hard-up town in the dusty heartland of a third world country.

This is by and large true. Globalization has led to a global race to the bottom that has deeply undermined the American working class, led to the decline of unions (the only collective voice that American workers have ever had in politics) and their replacement in the political realm by untold amounts of corporate cash leading to equally untold influence over policy. It also also allowed for wealthy capitalists to make tremendous amounts of money by exploiting the poorest of the world’s people, dooming them to death on the job, massive pollution exposure, low wages, sexual assault on the job, violence when they try to organize unions, and the constant, never-ending threat of capital mobility if they organize to improve their lives. Globalization has also led to the creation of a global elite and smaller middle-class that has created real economic benefits for those lucky enough to rise into it, whether in India, China, or the United States. The question to whether we can have one without the other is what people who care about issues of global trade and inequality try to hash out. But the impact of capital mobility upon working-class American communities is pretty much not arguable. Whether the Mississippi communities Theroux describes, the Oregon logging communities without jobs, or old factory towns like Schenectady and Johnstown and Pawtucket and Flint, we can see the impact of globalization on the American landscape, or at least we can if we ever leave the Beltway.

So the basic point should be pretty well accepted. In any case, it’s hardly the abomination Matthews describes. Matthews’ objection is that Theroux wants to doom the poor around the world to poverty for nationalist reasons and thus he is a moral monster or something. First, that’s not true and any cursory reading of Theroux’s own work shows that. The chances that Matthews has ever read anything by Theroux, someone who knows far more about the developing world that Matthews sitting at his Vox desk could ever dream of, seems unlikely, although how I am to know. Second, Theroux makes no such claim. He points out that globalization has decimated working class communities and that the Chinese have benefited. Third, Theroux rightfully calls out the business community for being hypocrites, claiming they care about communities while taking all their jobs away. I guess that doesn’t mean you have reject corporate money to improve decimated communities, but it’s obvious that business, ranging from their strong anti-union positions to the Chamber of Commerce’s attack on the ACA, is opposed to any actual policy that would help working people outside of the dribbling of charity from their own beneficence.

But Matthews has the same kind of neoliberal centrist economic position staked out by his own Vox compadre Matt Yglesias when he talked about it being OK for Bangladeshis to have lower workplace standards and allow over 1100 workers to die at the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. This is a wholly abstract notion of the world economy developed in an atmosphere of Washington boardrooms, raw data analyzed without historical or anthropological context that ignores the messiness of what happens on the ground, and the elite confidence in their own rightness developed at Ivy League schools and continued through the networks that keeps these people on top. What it is totally disconnected to is how actual workers live, what they want, the real sufferings they deal with, and their own demands in the system of global capitalism. These are questions that receive indifference from Matthews, Yglesias, and the like, who are far more comfortable taking on the mantle of Official Explainer of Data to the American upper-middle class in ways that justify their readers’ current position on the economic scale than they are in articulating just how they see American communities recovering from globalization or how we should support the desires of Bangladeshi textile workers to live a better life.

As far as I can tell, Dylan Matthews is completely indifferent to the suffering of the American working class so long as he can justify it by data that shows that some other people’s lives are improving because of it. And of course, I want the lives of Bangladeshi workers and American workers to both improve. That’s why I wrote a book connecting the two nations and trying to think through ways that we can tame a global economy that decimates communities in both nations. Matthews, Yglesias, and others of their ilk are happy to support better health care policy and the like, and that’s good. But they really struggle to understand how important it is for people to have work and how much of what they don’t like about where this nation is right now–the fear of immigrants, the post-Citizens United political landscape, stagnating incomes, long-term unemployment, etc.–stems in parts larger or smaller from the decline of unions and the undermining of the American working class turned middle class. Without the jobs that Matthews is more than happy to send overseas if the workers unionize, (and really, have either Matthews or Yglesias ever actively written in support of a single labor struggle, even if they support unions in theory? Not that I have ever seen), none of this gets fixed. It certainly doesn’t happen if we just let all the smart people in DC decide what to do, a long-standing mythology held on to with great aplomb by those who could potentially be part of that conversation.

This doesn’t mean that one can’t criticize Theroux’s arguments. It’s really not the best piece one could write on the impact of globalization. He presents the global economy as more of a zero-sum game than it is. His own discussions of the impact of charity in Africa, while not entirely untrue, are certainly cranky and problematic. He’s been criticized before for his recent writings on Africa that blame foreign aid for a lot of the continent’s current problems. Theroux himself doesn’t seem to get or he doesn’t articulate the importance of worker power and unions in American work, not that one per se must address that in a relatively short op-ed. And if you frame all of this as a zero-sum game, then it does become problematic because you open yourself up to Matthews’ response that by bringing the jobs back to America you want the Chinese to be poor (although that’s not really any more morally problematic than Matthews’ own predilections.)

But in the end, Matthews called an article concerned about the poverty of the American working class the worst thing the New York Times has published in maybe a decade. This is the conclusion to Theroux’s supposed abomination.

Some companies have brought manufacturing jobs back to the United States, a move called “reshoring,” but so far this is little more than a gesture. It seems obvious that executives of American companies should invest in the Deep South as they did in China. If this modest proposal seems an outrageous suggestion, to make products for Nike, Apple, Microsoft and others in the South, it is only because the American workers would have to be paid fairly. Perhaps some chief executives won’t end up multibillionaires as a result, but neither will they have to provide charity to lift Americans out of poverty.

Wow, what a moral monster.

Matthews deserves a good bit of pushback on this. I’ll be curious to see if he writes more on it. But it’s not wrong to be concerned about the lack of good jobs in your homeland, nor to document how global trade policies have driven some people into poverty. If attacking such statements as being morally monstrous is by someone who is identified as a smart center-left commenter, we have real problems.

Afghanistan: Another Nation That Should Be Grateful to the West

[ 39 ] October 3, 2015 |


Cass Sunstein is right once again. The West brings nothing but gifts wherever it goes, totally eliminating any claims from those nations for justice. And what nation has received more of these gifts than Afghanistan:

A hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz was badly damaged early Saturday after being hit by what appears to have been an American airstrike. At least 19 people were killed, including 12 hospital staff members, and dozens wounded.

The United States military, in a statement, confirmed an airstrike at 2:15 a.m., saying that it had been targeting individuals “who were threatening the force” and that “there may have been collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.”

The airstrike set off fires that were still burning hours later, and a nurse who managed to climb out of the debris described seeing colleagues so badly burned that they had died.

What’s a little collateral damage (everyone’s favorite euphemism for state-sponsored murder of civilians during war) when we have targets in the area? A Doctors Without Borders hospital is just an acceptable price to pay I guess for our government.

Indonesia: Another Nation That Should Be Grateful to the West

[ 14 ] October 3, 2015 |


October 1 marked the 50th anniversary of another of Cass Sunstein’s noted gifts from the West to the developing world–the Suharto coup in Indonesia that led to between 500,000 and 1 million deaths and was promoted by the U.S. government. Samantha Michaels has a primer.

What sparked the mass murders? In the early hours of October 1, 1965, a group of army conspirators killed six generals in Jakarta, the country’s capital. Maj. Gen. Suharto, who would soon become Indonesia’s dictator for more than three decades, took control of the armed forces, claiming that the killings were part of an attempted communist coup. Then he and the military launched a campaign to purge Indonesians believed to be connected with the communist party or left-leaning organizations. They also targeted hundreds of thousands of Indonesians unconnected to the party who they saw as potential opponents of their new regime, including union members, small farmers, intellectuals, activists, and ethnic Chinese. The carnage was so intense that people stopped eating fish—fearing that the fish were consuming the human corpses flooding the rivers.

So, how was the United States involved? Speculation abounds over the US role in the 1965 military takeover, though there’s no concrete proof in the public record that America had a direct hand in it. However, investigations by journalists, as well as government documents, have made it clear that the United States provided money, weapons, and equipment to the Indonesian military while it was undertaking the killings. What’s more, according to excerpts of contemporary cables released by the US State Department, officials at the US embassy created lists of thousands of names of communists and provided them to the military. It has been reported that the CIA worked on the lists, too, but the agency has denied involvement, Harsono says.

How was the genocide covered by the US press? “It was presented in the American media as good news,” says Joshua Oppenheimer, a filmmaker who has spent the past 12 years investigating the mass murders and producing two award-winning documentaries about them. He cites a 1966 story in Time magazine that said the killings were the “best news for years in Asia.” In a report at the time for NBC News, a correspondent spoke with an Indonesian man in Bali who claimed that the island, famous for its tourism, had “become more beautiful without communists,” and that “some of them wanted to be killed.” The correspondent noted that Indonesia boasted “fabulous potential wealth in natural resources” before showing footage of so-called communist prisoners at a labor camp on the island of Sumatra, some of whom, he said, would be starved to death or released from the camp to be killed by local citizens.

The U.S. government was good friends with Suharto for a very long time. None of this is maybe so surprising given that we are all familiar with the terrible moral choices the American government made in its dealing with other nations during the Cold War. But the stories we tell ourselves about the U.S. in this era do not often include Indonesia, where the death toll might not match that of our involvement in Vietnam, but is higher than that of Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, and other nations where the U.S. did horrible things in the name of fighting communism.

I will say that I’m not really comfortable with the term “genocide” here. All mass murders are not genocide, nor are all mass state-sponsored murders. There was no intent to kill off an entire ethnic group or all the people on one island, at least not that I’m aware of. But this misuse of the term is common so I won’t belabor the point, especially considering the crimes of Suharto and his US supporters are far more important than pedantic discussions. We should be thinking more about our impact in Indonesia over the long-term and reminding ourselves that the impact of U.S. anti-communist policies had a tremendous and usually devastating impact everywhere in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Trans-Atlantic Diplomacy

[ 57 ] October 3, 2015 |


New York Jets style, on the sage advice of an intern:

“the toilet paper was very thin because their plumbing isn’t as good”.

Over the Tallest Bridge in the State of Ohio

[ 44 ] October 2, 2015 |

We haven’t had a thread about the nation’s best band of the last decade lately, so it’s worth noting that “Little Miami” might be the best song Wussy has ever recorded. Chuck Cleaver thinks so anyway. I can’t really argue, although there are 5 or 6 others that I think have a claim to the title.

Not a Dime’s Worth of Difference!

[ 126 ] October 2, 2015 |


Barack Obama:

We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings. Friends of ours, allies of ours — Great Britain, Australia, countries like ours. So we know there are ways to prevent it.

And, of course, what’s also routine is that somebody, somewhere will comment and say, Obama politicized this issue. Well, this is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic. I would ask news organizations — because I won’t put these facts forward — have news organizations tally up the number of Americans who’ve been killed through terrorist attacks over the last decade and the number of Americans who’ve been killed by gun violence, and post those side-by-side on your news reports. This won’t be information coming from me; it will be coming from you. We spend over a trillion dollars, and pass countless laws, and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil, and rightfully so. And yet, we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?

This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction. When Americans are killed in mine disasters, we work to make mines safer. When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer. When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities. We have seatbelt laws because we know it saves lives. So the notion that gun violence is somehow different, that our freedom and our Constitution prohibits any modest regulation of how we use a deadly weapon, when there are law-abiding gun owners all across the country who could hunt and protect their families and do everything they do under such regulations doesn’t make sense.

Jeb! Bush:

“I think we need to reconnect ourselves with everybody else. It’s very sad to see. But I resist the notion, and I had this challenge as governor—look, stuff happens.”

In conclusion, don’t vote, it just encourages the bastards.

For Corporations, Sticks, Not Carrots

[ 19 ] October 2, 2015 |


Before this story gets totally forgotten, I want to revisit the Volkswagen issue. For it shows something that I point out repeatedly in Out of Sight (now available for a James Blaine campaign price of $18.84 if you have not purchased it) as well as Empire of Timber. Corporations simply cannot be trusted to self-regulate. It will never work because all the incentive is there for them to cheat. They want to profit and if the government isn’t watching, they will cut corners to do so. The auto industry has shown this for decades. Only sticks will work. You have to punish corporations–and specifically corporate executives with massive fines and jail time if you want corporations to obey the law and take safety and pollution seriously. One estimate has the Volkswagen emissions leading to approximately 106 deaths in the United States. VW will be punished for this, but if we want to stop other companies and other industries from similar evasion of regulations, we simply have to beef up our regulatory powers and funding for regulatory agencies significantly. Otherwise, other versions of this will happen again and again.

Jamaica: Another Nation That Should Be Grateful to the West

[ 90 ] October 2, 2015 |


Slaves in Jamaica

David Cameron visited Jamaica this week. Presumably, the farmer’s pig farmers locked up their stock for the duration. Anyway, Cameron went full Cass Sunstein in his speech to the Jamaican Parliament, telling the nation to get over slavery and focus on all the great things the British brought the island.

David Cameron has called for Jamaica and the UK to “move on” from the deep wounds caused by slavery but ducked official calls for Britain to apologise for its role or pay reparations.

Speaking to the Caribbean country’s parliament, the prime minister struck a defiant note as he spoke of his pride that Britain had played a part in abolishing the “abhorrent” trade, without highlighting its historic involvement in the transfer of slaves from west Africa and ownership of slaves in the Caribbean.

He called for the two countries to “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future”.

His trade trip to Jamaica, the first for 14 years by a UK prime minister, has been overshadowed by the issue of slavery. Cameron was warmly received by a military band playing God Save the Queen on arrival at the airport and received a hug from the country’s prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller.

Reparations obviously are controversial and could be problematic, although given the amount of wealth the British stole from the island, one could argue for them on a number of levels. But to not apologize over slavery? Why? Oh yeah, because David Cameron is a massive jerk.

But hey, Sunstein would be proud because of yet another gift from the western world to a developing nation!

The UK is to spend £25m on building a prison in Jamaica so that foreign criminals in the UK can be sent home to serve sentences in the Caribbean.

More than 600 Jamaican nationals are in UK jails but cannot be deported because of Jamaica’s poor prison conditions.

Prime Minister David Cameron announced the deal as he began a visit there.

Importing Africans to work on brutal sugar plantations, holding Africans under colonialism until 1962, and now building them prisons to incarcerate Africans. It’s gifts all the way down!

Violent crime in America: A complex story

[ 92 ] October 2, 2015 |

(1) The United States is on average much more violent homicidal than other developed nations. For example, here are the most recently available homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants for ten countries:

Canada: 1.6
South Korea: 0.6
Denmark: 0.8
Ireland: 1.2
UK: 1.0
Italy: 0.9
Spain: 0.8
Australia: 1.1
China: 1.0
United State: 4.7

(2) Both the violent crime rate and the homicide rate in the US have declined by about half over the past 25 years. Over the past half century violent crime and homicide in America have followed a roughly parabolic pattern:

homicide rate

violent crime

(3) The reasons for the massive run-up in the violent crime rate between 1960 and 1990, and (especially) for the equally sharp decline in the rate since then are not well understood. Many theories have been proposed, but none of them are especially well supported. The most that can be said at this time is that both the run-up and the decline each had many causes, but identifying and sorting out the relative importance of those causes is extremely difficult to do.

(4) Mass shootings intended by their perpetrators to draw media attention have a symbolic cultural significance that goes far beyond their minuscule role in overall crime statistics. Among other things, they throw light on the fact that the United States remains, in comparative terms, a remarkably violent place, although it is true that we are now “only” about five times rather than ten times more violent murderous than our economic peers.

Edited to reflect that the big gap between the US and otherwise similar nations is in regard to homicide, as opposed to violent crime per se.

Another Massacre, Another Interview

[ 3 ] October 2, 2015 |

My accent does media over here the United Kingdom, explaining to the fair citizens of the southwest of England why my home country appears to be composed of blood thirsty gun owners, while likewise utterly unable to do a damned thing about it.  Bill Buckley, the 1-3pm presenter on BBC Radio Devon, is very good.  He had me on today in response to the Umpqua Community College massacre.  Find it here about 1:31 in:

On a couple points I was slightly off at the margins — public opinion is 50-48 for tighter gun control right now (pre-Umpqua) whereas I went slightly in the other direction. It was also recorded, not live, and some bits were excised, including my discussion of Erik’s experience following his head on a stick tweet in December 2012.

I’m also on BBC Radio Cornwall, airing right now, also recorded (at least I got the public opinion data correct), as well as being yet again pissed off.


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