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Takes on the Trans-Pacific Partnership

[ 3 ] January 25, 2015 |

With the Trans-Pacific Partnership likely headed our way in the next few months, journalists and pundits are already weighing in. There are some smart takes. Not surprisingly, one of those comes from Lydia DePillis. Examining an Ohio fire truck company that sells to China, she notes that there is room for high-value exports from the United States that trade deals might help, but that despite how much politicians like to talk about companies like this, they are few and far between. Plus most leading exports, like agriculture, employ very few people while other industries have rushed to replace people with robots in order to compete globally. So expanding on this free trade regimen really is not going to help most Americans because good manufacturing jobs will continue to disappear.

There are also some dumb takes. Also not surprisingly, one of those comes from Joe Nocera, who is shocked to discover that opponents of the TPP are using NAFTA as an euphemism for an entire series of trade deals and export policies. I know, I have never heard anything more outrageous. Writing the most condescending article I’ve read in some time, Nocera takes such defenders of working Americans in Congress as Louise Slaughter and Rosa DeLauro to task for saying NAFTA was bad, basically saying they don’t understand the glories of globalization. He uses Kodak, a company whose closure decimated Slaughter’s upstate New York district, as an example, saying Kodak closed because the company didn’t adjust to the end of film products. There may be some truth to that, but of course even if everyone used film every day, Kodak would have still closed that plant and moved it to Mexico or China. Nocera knows this of course. Nocera also actually believes that meaningful labor and environmental provisions will be in the TPP, which is laughable. But Nocera is a true believer in trade agreements and outsourcing, so there you go.

Where Fighting Police Violence = “Flawed Liberalism”

[ 43 ] January 25, 2015 |

Unlike Noam Scheiber, I don’t have a problem with Bill DeBlasio emphasizing police violence against people of color. Scheiber would rather see DeBlasio become an economic populist and unite the poor of all races. Well, I’d like to see that too, but that doesn’t mean DeBlasio was wrong in emphasizing police violence. What Scheiber seems to struggle with is that the only question is not the politically smart move. It’s also what is right. This is an issue of justice and racism and it deserves attention even if the mayor’s popularity ratings decline. I can’t believe he doesn’t see this.

This Day in Labor History: January 25, 1984

[ 5 ] January 25, 2015 |

This is a guest post by Paul Adler, lecturer at the Harvard History and Literature program. He received his PhD in history from Georgetown University in 2014. Paul’s dissertation, Planetary Citizens: U.S. NGOs and the Politics of International Development in the Late Twentieth Century examines efforts by U.S. groups like INFACT and the Sierra Club to influence international institutions like Nestle and the World Bank during the 1970s and 1980s. Previous to graduate school, Paul worked for several years on global justice issues at Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

On January 25, 1984, William Thompson, a leader with the International Nestle Boycott Committee (INBC) met with Nestlé executive Carl Angst in New York City. There, the two men announced a surprise: after seven years of a global boycott of Nestlé, U.S. organizers were suspending this effort in light of new Nestlé initiatives intended to address activists’ critiques. Ending ten months later, the Nestlé boycott set important precedents for liberal and left-wing activists in challenging multinational corporate power. However, the memory of the campaign as a great success does not stand well against close scrutiny.

The controversy that prompted the campaign concerned the marketing practices employed by multinational companies selling breast milk substitutes throughout the Global South. Given living conditions often characterized by lack of access to clean water, the use of products such as infant formula heightened the possibility of newborns contracting any number of dire, even deadly diseases.

Multinational companies advertised breast milk substitutes as embodying a “modern” lifestyle. To spread this message, they used an array of aggressive marketing practices. Among other techniques, companies produced booklets on infant feeding that accentuated the difficulties of breastfeeding and hired nurses to serve as salespeople in newborn wards.

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Example of Nestlé advertising, Malaysia, 1978

During the 1960s and early 1970s public health experts labored to publicize the dangers associated with breast milk substitutes. They met with little success however, causing one doctor to muse in 1974 that some “group may have to take a more aggressive, Nader-like stance.” Fortunately for him, that same year, activists in the United Kingdom released a pamphlet on the crisis called The Baby Killer followed soon after by activists in Switzerland becoming embroiled in a lengthy lawsuit with Nestlé.

In the United States, the key figure who transformed the breast feeding controversy into an activist campaign was Leah Margulies. The daughter of a staffer at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (her parents met through the Young People’s Socialist League), Margulies was, by the early 1970s, a veteran of the civil rights and radical feminist movements. In 1974, working as an organizer for the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, Margulies began devising ways to make the breast milk substitutes scandal into a campaign.

To Margulies, this controversy appeared a perfect issue to use in energizing activists to engage with questions of economic inequality and multinational corporate power. As she explained to Mother Jones in 1977, “it is very difficult to make graphic that the world is starving, not because of drought or floods, but because of economic dependency.” From 1974 to 1977, Margulies worked with church groups to spread awareness, launch several shareholder resolutions, and mount a lawsuit against Bristol-Myers. However, these efforts produced few tangible results. Looking to escalate her efforts, Margulies reached out to fellow anti-poverty activists with the intention of starting a boycott of Nestlé. The Swiss multinational offered a promising target: not only was it the world’s largest purveyor of breast milk substitutes, but it also sold household products (such as coffee) around which a consumer boycott could easily be organized.

Teaming with activists in Minneapolis, in early 1977 Margulies helped to found the Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT). On July 4, 1977, INFACT commenced a nationwide boycott of Nestlé. Organizing through a broad array of organizations (from public health associations to churches to left-wing solidarity groups), INFACT rapidly assembled local boycotts in towns and cities across the country.

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A Nestlé Boycott Picket Line

One constituency the boycott’s organizers sought out was organized labor. Activists tried to enlist labor in part by portraying the boycott as an experiment in corporate campaigning. Writing to a number of union presidents in 1982, Americans for Democratic Action president Robert Drinan illuminated this point, describing the boycott as “an act of international solidarity with working people in the Third World” and arguing that “organized labor has long recognized the need to develop an international capability to deal with the problems presented by multinational corporations. The leaders of the infant formula campaign have shown that it is not only necessary, but possible.”

Even as they built the boycott coalition, the leaders at INFACT searched for other avenues to influence. After months of organizing focused on the U.S. Senate, on May 23, 1978 activists descended on Washington, D.C. to participate in a hearing chaired by Ted Kennedy. While activists effectively presented their case, the representative sent from Nestlé delivered a calamitous performance. He accused church groups of being part of a “world-wide church organization” conspiring to “undermin[e] the free enterprise system,” while also arguing that Nestlé bore no responsibility for ensuring that consumers safely used its products.

Excerpt from the Kennedy hearing

Feeling humiliated after the hearing, Nestlé and the other multinationals searched for a way to end the boycott. Negotiating among the activists and the companies, Kennedy helped to steer both sides towards finding a solution under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO). In October 1979, a meeting cosponsored by the WHO and UNICEF in Geneva ended with the WHO agreeing to draft a global code of conduct for the marketing and promotion of breast milk substitutes. For the next year and a half, lobbyists from activist groups and multinationals each tried to influence the code’s language, while activists also intensified and internationalized the boycott.

In the end, companies (backed by the U.S. government) succeeded in ensuring that the code would take form as a voluntary “recommendation,” as opposed to a legally-binding regulation. However, the code’s strictures significantly constricted corporate advertising, causing the companies to condemn the code (while activists offered critical support). When the code was voted on at the WHO in May 1981, the only nation to oppose it was the United States, acting at the behest of the Reagan administration. Following the May 1981 vote at the WHO to create the code, activists and Nestlé spent the next two and a half years battling over the company’s implementation of the code, leading to the January suspension and then the October announcement by Nestlé that it would fully abide by the WHO code.

The Nestlé boycott was an early example of a coordinated, international effort targeting a multinational industry. During the early 1980s INFACT coordinated closely with boycott efforts in Western Europe, as well as in Australia. Even more significantly, NGO activists from the Global North and Global South came together to work under the auspices of a single organization, International Baby Food Action Network. The connections forged in this era continued through the 1990s anti-WTO fights and remain significant to the present. While the boycott did terminate with a seemingly monumental victory in October 1984, subsequent events have been more dispiriting. Four years after this triumph, activists relaunched the Nestlé boycott, accusing the company of not abiding by its commitments to the code. The boycott, while mostly dormant in the U.S., is active abroad to this day, in part reflecting the difficulty of monitoring the code (given the ease with which improper advertising can occur) and in part the vast power of multinationals like Nestlé.

This is the 130th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Children of Eve

[ 9 ] January 24, 2015 |

Like most of you, I spend my Saturday nights watching silent films. Title cards like this one from Children of Eve are one reason.

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It’s almost as if directors from 100 years ago are speaking to me from the grave.

…This title card is followed by a reenactment of the Triangle Fire and subsequent heartbreak.

…If we are strictly comparing the awesomeness of title cards however, this one from The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, from 1913, is hard to beat.

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Sweatshop Reality Show

[ 29 ] January 24, 2015 |

I’m a little torn on this:

In an attempt to keep a dialogue going surrounding the sweatshop conditions in which so many mass-produced articles of clothing are made, Norwegian publication Aftenposten has released a harrowing web documentary series that sends three fashion bloggers into the heart of a Cambodian sweatshop. The series puts the conditions that its employees face on a day-to-day basis in an unfiltered and heartbreaking way.

The series has already sparked debate over not just the obviously horrific conditions in the sweatshops that Norwegian bloggers Frida, Ludvig and Anniken visit, but over the ethics of the series itself, which could be seen as bordering on third-world exploitation. It’s easy for Westerners to turn a blind eye, however, and if bringing the Western gaze onto the situation takes putting actual Westerners in the situation, then the work the documentary is doing is important.

In an interview with Pulse, the series’ director Joakim Kleven spoke a little bit about the conditions that he witnessed: “It was extremely difficult to come at all in any factory inside. The only factory that has let in us, was one of the best in Cambodia, but that was not okay. It was very hot in there, there was no toilet paper in the toilets and the chairs on which the seamstresses had to sit were extremely uncomfortable. Some workers have told us that soldiers stood during her shift already behind them and they would have beaten for sewing, so much so that some of them were unconscious.”

This probably is exploitation–after all, it’s a series that allows white people to parachute in on the lives of Cambodians and features the voices of those white people as the sympathetic storytellers. However, in this case, it is probably worth it. As I argue in Out of Sight, the fact that so much industrial production is done overseas means that when Bangladesh has its version of the Triangle Fire, there will be no Frances Perkins there to witness it and then mobilize consumers and politicians to mandate changes to the apparel industry. This separation of production and consumption is intentional and happens in part to protect companies from having to improve conditions. So a show that actually gives westerners the opportunity to see the conditions in which their clothes are made has real potential to put that production back in sight. And that’s incredibly important for creating change.

Could Christmas Be Coming Early This Year?

[ 75 ] January 24, 2015 |

Oh please oh please oh please oh please let this be true:

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s warning to “stay tuned” for more corruption arrests after he bagged Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has sent a big chill through the state Capitol.

“I think everyone is waiting for the next shoe to drop,” said one legislative official.

Added former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat: “When a prosecutor says stay tuned, I think he means it.”

The big fish reportedly being looked at is Gov. Cuomo.

Bharara has been probing whether the governor and his top aides improperly interfered with the Moreland anti-corruption commission Cuomo established.

He is also probing the circumstances behind Cuomo’s decision to abruptly end the commission after the Legislature agreed to some ethics reforms.

Other than perhaps Rahm Emanuel, this couldn’t happen to a more deserving well-known elected Democrat in this nation.

Fracking Bans

[ 22 ] January 24, 2015 |

Mora County, New Mexico, right in the middle of the land grant thefts that led to the rise of Reies Lopez Tijerina and the long-term animosity to outside corporate control over the land, passed a county-wide ban against fracking in 2013. Of course, the courts overturned it.

A county’s ban on hydraulic fracturing and drilling conflicts with both state and U.S. law, a federal court in New Mexico found this week.

The U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico on Monday struck down a ban on fracking and drilling in Mora County, a rural area about 100 miles northeast of Santa Fe. County voters passed the ban in 2013, and Royal Dutch Shell PLC subsidiary SWEPI LP filed suit last year.

The decision is a win for industry and a major setback for environmentalists, who have had mixed results in championing a “local control” approach to oil and gas regulation around the country.

In Monday’s decision, Judge James Browning found that Mora County’s ordinance violated the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause by attempting to discard corporate rights protected by federal case law. The county’s measure explicitly noted that oil and gas companies “shall not have the rights of ‘persons’ afforded by the United States and New Mexico Constitutions,” including First Amendment rights and due process.

Of course, it’s not at all surprising that corporations wouldn’t respect this, but it’s also worth remembering that the love corporations and their political lackeys for local control over regulations and resources goes only to the precise point where that local control helps companies. Otherwise, they love big government.

Good Job Maryland

[ 89 ] January 24, 2015 |

Thanks to an unfortunate combination of factors, Maryland has elected a Republican governor. They are already getting what they asked for. Larry Hogan has already withdrawn from regulations of phosphorous releases from the state’s many poultry farms that protected the Chesapeake Bay from massive pollution. He blocked air pollution regulations that would reduce carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants. And he withdrew from regulations that would bar Medicaid providers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Expect another 4 years of this.

Of course, as Maryland is showing both parties are the same and that’s why the only true progressive candidate in 2016 is Rand Paul.

The New Gilded Age

[ 18 ] January 23, 2015 |

The historian Richard White, author of one of the delightfully angriest books of history in recent years, demonstrates some of the ways we have created a New Gilded Age, in particular around the issue of political corruption:

Gilded Age politics was always corrupt. Before the 1890s, however, it was retail corruption. Corporations solicited “friends” among those already in office — the preferred means were favors and the sharing of financial information. When necessary — and it often was — they offered bribes.

Influencing elections was far more difficult. Before the direct election of senators, the politics of friendship and bribery worked only in persuading legislatures to choose U.S. senators who would serve corporate interests. Senator John Mitchell of Oregon, for example, proclaimed of Ben Holladay, the railroad tycoon, “Ben Holladay’s politics are my politics and what Ben Holladay wants I want.”
Most corporate friends tried to be more circumspect. But when — through the pairing of vanity and bad judgment – plutocrats like Leland Stanford of the Southern Pacific Railroad and William A. Clark, a notorious “copper king” of Montana, bought their own election as senators, the confusion of interests was harder to disguise.

The move to “educational” campaigns and the growing strength of national parties, which were far more than coalitions of state and local organizations, created new demands for money.

The money was chump change by today’s standards, but it was enough to require large donors. It represented a new form of corruption — quid pro quo. But it substituted favors to a political party for favors to a specific politician.

Henry Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents and author of the early 20th-century’s best-selling and most erudite memoir, was cynical and disengaged about politics – though well informed. He recognized the new relationship of the Gilded Age rich and politicians.

After the 1892 defeat of the Republican Benjamin Harrison by Grover Cleveland, Adams wondered why GOP money hadn’t been able to win out. He asked his friend John Hay, a well-connected Republican who had served as Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary and would later be Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state, what had happened to “McKinley money” — the money that Republican manufacturers reaped from the McKinley Tariff.

“Is it possible,” Adams wrote, “…that our Republican manufacturers, after pocketing the swag, refused to disgorge? If so, they’ll catch it.”

The spoils that Adams referred to were not to supply simple bribes. Instead, he was saying, the plutocrats should have used their wealth to fund Harrison’s presidential campaign. It would, in the language of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote for the majority in Citizens United, be laundered into speech.

Canonizing the Colonizers

[ 70 ] January 23, 2015 |

Pope Francis has decided to make Junipero Serra a saint. Serra was a Franciscan in California who founded many of the California missions in the 18th century, effectively making him an agent of colonization as well as a converter of Native Americans to Catholicism. Building these missions meant forced labor from Native Americans while the conversion process obviously demonstrated a lack of respect for indigenous cultures as well as the compulsion of these conversions. Physical abuse of Native Americans was common, with many recorded beatings and whippings. A lot of indigenous people in California are very upset about the choice to canonize Serra.

Serra is far from the only Catholic saint involved in the colonization process. In Colombia earlier this month, I visited the church dedicated to Pedro Claver, a priest who converted slaves. Being Latin America, his remains are proudly displayed on the church altar.

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The patron saint of slaves supposedly baptized 300,000 African slaves. Of course in doing so, he was part of a system that was capturing Africans, bringing them to the Americans, and working them to death on sugar plantations.

Claver was canonized in 1888 so perhaps we can chalk this up to a Catholic church in a different era. But canonizing Serra today, doesn’t that provide tacit approval of a colonization project that led to the repression and genocide against native peoples throughout the Americas? Of course, the Pope is from Argentina, which has far from apologized for its own genocidal project.

Ultimately for the church, it still thinks of the forced conversions of the colonization project as a great thing, something for which one deserves sainthood.

Civility: The New Arbitrary Academic Standard

[ 45 ] January 23, 2015 |

This should depress any academic:

A new survey of chief academic officers is out from Inside Higher Education. Among the findings: Provosts really care about civility and think it should be part of the framework for hiring and tenure.

I see this as potentially troubling. When the Steven Salaita controversy broke, I wrote a piece for the Chronicle called “Don’t Speak Out,” in which I read the Salaita affair through the lens of my interest in public engagement for academics. I said that the lesson for academics was that if you ever wanted a job, or might want to move from one job to another, don’t have strong opinions about things.

We need more public writing, not less. We need to open pathways for more academics to speak out in public, not punish Salaita for doing so in ways that have provoked such strong feelings. But we can’t ask scholars to embrace the risks of engagement in a system in which partisan bloggers and local papers can push timid administrators to fire, or in this case unhire, academics who leap into public debates.

In theory, Provosts agree with this and support public scholarship. At the same time, from IHE:

Generally, provosts expressed concern (with little difference by sector) about civility. Asked if they were worried about “declining civility among higher education faculty,” 27 percent said that they were very concerned and 44 percent were somewhat concerned. Only 5 percent were not concerned at all.

But in more detailed questions, provosts had varying perspectives on where faculty civility is lacking.

Generally, they feel more confident of faculty civility with regard to students than to fellow professors or (in particular) administrators. And provosts typically believe that their institutions display more civility than higher education as a whole. (A pattern in Inside Higher Ed surveys of administrators is that they think their institutions are doing better in many respects than the rest of higher education.)

In short, provosts act like the CEOs they imagine themselves. Any faculty that speaks against the mission or says anything that could be considered “uncivil,” which in provost speak means “anything that could make me look bad,” does not deserve any protections and in fact should be subject to firing. Increasingly, for provosts all this matters more than scholarship, teaching, or service. “Does the faculty member reflect well on my leadership?” That’s the question. And that should put a chill in any academic who either questions the administration or has a public persona.

Environmental Policy History Reading List

[ 28 ] January 22, 2015 |

I received a request for a list of environmental policy/history books. I make no claims to being an authoritative source here and others will have different books, but here are 10 books on the history of environmental policy I find useful. I am thinking of these terms broadly as well. In no order:

1. Samuel Hays, A History of Environmental Politics since 1945.
Pretty self-explanatory, good overview of the issue from the dean of environmental policy history.

2. James Morton Turner, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964
An excellent recent overview of wilderness politics after the Wilderness Act.

3. Christopher Wells, Car Country: An Environmental History
How did we become a car-centric society and what are its environmental implications?

4. Andrew Hurley, Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-80.
Who has access to clean nature and who does not? Guess what–it’s about race.

5. Karl Jacoby, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation
What were the politics and actions behind the creation of hunting law and national parks?

6. Nancy Langston, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES
A key book about the science and policy behind synthetic chemicals and women’s bodies

7. Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West
Water policy, which we must understand to talk about the West.

8. Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River
How policymakers and industry completely reshaped a river and its ecosystem.

9. Joseph Taylor, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis
Fisheries policy and its many mistakes is hugely important for environmental policy

10. Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: People, Politics, and the AIDS Epidemic.
A great piece of journalism rather than a history but it holds up as an indictment of the abject failure of the Reagan Administration during the greatest public health crisis of the second half of the 20th century.

I find this list slightly dated, which surprises me since I keep up on the historiography pretty well. It’s also I should note quite different than what I think the best books of environmental history are, although these are all good. Strictly thinking about policy.

I have no doubt there will be many great recommendations in comments as well, including books I probably just forgot.

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