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How Climate Change Combines With Policy To Create Disaster

[ 14 ] October 28, 2015 |


This Human Rights Watch report on climate change in northwestern Kenya is well worth your time. It is quite excellent because it shows how climate change combines with politics, tradition, international relations, etc., to create a disaster. In other words, people and climate together create natural disasters. An excerpt from the summary:

The report finds that climate change, in combination with existing political, environmental and economic development challenges in Turkana, has had an impact on the Turkana people’s ability to access food, water, health and security. Turkana County has long experienced periods of cyclical drought. However, increasing temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns, combined with population growth and threats to Lake Turkana from hydroelectric and irrigation projects in Ethiopia, present significant, long-term challenges for the Turkana County and Kenyan national governments.

Increased temperatures and unpredictable rainy seasons have placed increased pressure on water resources, resulting in less dry season grazing land, diminished livestock herds, and increased competition over grazing lands. Pastoralists told Human Rights Watch that prolonged and more frequent droughts have exacerbated already difficult access to potable water, making every day a struggle for survival. Women and girls often walk extremely long distances to dig for water in dry riverbeds. Many children become sick because their families are unable to provide them with sufficient food and clean water. In northern Turkana County, increased competition over grazing lands and water has heightened the likelihood of conflict and insecurity.

Industrial and agricultural development across Turkana’s northern border with Ethiopia also poses threats that could affect the realization of rights of the Turkana people. Over the past several years, Ethiopia has embarked on a massive plan for dams, water-intensive irrigated cotton and sugar plantations, and irrigation canals and other infrastructure in Ethiopia’s Omo River Basin, which provides 90 percent of the water in Lake Turkana. These developments are predicted to dramatically reduce the water supply of Lake Turkana: the planned irrigation projects alone could reduce by up to 50 percent the Omo River’s total flow. Some scientists predict that Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world, could recede into two small pools.

Reduced water levels in Lake Turkana will have a devastating impact on the environment and people of Turkana County. Dramatic reductions in freshwater input from the Omo River into Lake Turkana will increase levels of salinity in the lake and raise water temperatures, decimating fish breeding areas and mature fish populations. Higher air temperatures will increase rates of evaporation, further increasing salinity while reducing biological productivity.

Traditional economies combine with growing populations to stress the land. Underdevelopment and national neglect of tribal peoples far from the capital increase vulnerability. International decisions around national development severely undermine watersheds up river, potentially creating international tensions or even war over increasingly scarce resources. Climate change caused by nations far, far away change the wet/dry seasons and lead to increased warming, threatening a society created over thousands of years. Social problems, often exacerbated by gender inequalities, are exacerbated by all these issues.

This is a story that in some way will be repeated throughout the world as climate change develops. Will Turkish development of the Tigris and Euphrates undermine Syrian and Iraqi stability even more as water sources are impounded for Turkish agriculture, for example? So-called natural disasters are always a combination of nature and humans. We can barely even call climate change a natural disaster since it is human-caused, but of course people will. The term “natural disaster” itself is apolitical and serves the powerful by shifting blame away from human behavior and inequality, moving it on to Mother Nature and who can blame her?


Erik Visits an American Grave (III)

[ 107 ] October 28, 2015 |

This is the grave of James Buchanan.

2015-07-28 14.59.44

Buchanan was arguably the worst president in American history. A follower of Andrew Jackson, with all the commitment to white supremacy that entailed, Buchanan was president from 1857-1861, where he was a doughface’s doughface, running the nation to serve the interest of slaveholders. Before this he was Secretary of State under Polk, during the Mexican War, where they acted to steal half of Mexico in order to expand American slavery. In the 1850s, while serving as Ambassador to Great Britain under Pierce, he also helped create the Ostend Manifesto, which sought to acquire Cuba, also in order to expand slavery. Had this happened, ending slavery would have been more difficult because the sugar money far outstripped the wealth of the cotton planters. In the months before his presidency, Buchana worked with Roger Taney and other southerners on the Supreme Court to have the Missouri Compromise declared unconstitutional in the Dred Scott decision, as the judges were originally expected simply to find against the ex-slave on narrow grounds.

Buchanan as president was predictably awful on slavery. Despite initial promises over the idea of popular sovereignty in Kansas, when the slaveholders rammed through the Lecompton Constitution over the will of the people of Kansas that would have guaranteed slavery there, Buchanan offered his support and wanted to sign it. This led to a split between himself and Stephen Douglas, who had hoped to vault himself to the presidency on the idea of popular sovereignty and this helped lead to the split in the Democratic Party in 1860. He actually claimed that he hoped slavery could be limited and that he wouldn’t support acquiring more territory explicitly to expand slavery, but his actions belied these words. Buchanan was president when South Carolina led the succession movement after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860. His response was to do effectively nothing. He gave a speech saying that secession was not legal but that the North was to blame. This just made everyone hate him. What’s worse, his own Secretary of War John Floyd started moving guns in American arsenals to the South in order to arm his home region, an act of abject treason. Finally, in late December Buchanan got rid of Floyd, as even Buchanan couldn’t deal with this behavior. During the Civil War, Buchanan was widely loathed and he spent the rest of his life defending himself from attacks.

James Buchanan is buried in the Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

School Testing and For-Profit Colleges: Both Declining?

[ 95 ] October 27, 2015 |


There’s a useful slight reversal of position from President Obama and other Democratic politicians who have pushed a regimen of educational reforms, primarily constant standardized testing (or studying for those tests) that take much of the education and a whole lot of the joy of learning out of education. Obama and Arne Duncan are now saying that while testing should occur, it should take up no more than 2 percent of classroom time. Which is still too much and doesn’t include prepping for those tests. But given how utterly awful the Obama administration’s education policy has been, it’s good that they are willing to listen to the overwhelming complaints from parents and teachers about this and act a bit. Still, it’s hard not to roll one’s eyes. Or just get angry. Everyone’s favorite human, Andrew Cuomo has lauded Obama’s new position. That’s especially galling given Cuomo’s war on teachers, as Maria Kilfoyle writes:

Educators and parents in New York State have been protesting for years that the testing is over the top. Cuomo doubled down this past year making 50% (which is actually a 100%) of a teacher’s evaluation based on TEST SCORES. The New Education Transformation Act also allows a “second” optional ASSESSMENT for districts to negotiate. Districts who teach children with historically low state test scores will probably opt in for the second optional assessment. They will roll the dice to try and protect their schools from going into receivership. So, in essence, The Education Transformation Act (which is education law in New York State) will promote testing kids MORE in struggling districts– does that look like promoting less testing? Cuomo will continue to grow the opt-out movement by ignoring what over 200,000 opt out parents in New York State have been saying – we will not allow our children, schools, and teachers to be ranked and sorted.

Educators and parents in New York State have been screaming from the tops of the Adirondack Mountains to the shores of Long Island. They have warned the Governor that assessments do not effectively evaluate teacher impact on student learning. But Cuomo’s new Education Transformation Act doubled down on testing and teacher evaluations.

Gov. Cuomo has been on the wrong side of the fight for equity in education. There are two sides in the fight to make great schools for New York children– those who see public education as a public good and those who see it as a private good. Governor Cuomo has very clearly seen education as a private good.

Remember when Cuomo called public education a monopoly?

“I believe these kinds of changes are probably the single best thing that I can do as governor that’s going to matter long-term,” he said, “to break what is, in essence, one of the only remaining public monopolies — and that’s what this is, it’s a public monopoly.” He said the key is to put “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.” Cuomo said he will push a plan that includes more incentives — and sanctions — that “make it a more rigorous evaluation system.”

Cuomo has pandered to Wall Street at the expense of New York children. Guess what? You don’t get to take that back.

So yeah, shut up Cuomo.

Probably just as vile as the school testing regime and privatization of education through charter schools is the for-profit college scam. James Surowiecki has a good run-down of how for-profit colleges are now collapsing rapidly because they are a giant grift built around getting people to take out student loans they can’t afford for a vastly inferior education. People are finally starting to realizing that for-profit college is a terrible idea. There was the disastrous MOOC attempt at San Jose State that started pushing back against idea of firing all the professors and having everyone take giant online courses. And now there’s this. The Department of Defense has stopped including the University of Phoenix in GI Bill coverage, for instance.

I particularly appreciated Surowiecki’s concluding paragraph, which makes a ton of sense:

But if we really want more people to go to college we should put more money into community colleges and public universities, which have been starved of funding in recent years. We should also rethink our assumption that college is always the right answer, regardless of cost. Politicians love to invoke education as the solution to our economic ills. But they’re often papering over the fact that our economy just isn’t creating enough good jobs for ordinary Americans. The notion that college will transform your job prospects is, in many cases, an illusion, and for a while for-profit schools turned it into a very lucrative one.

Right. The fundamental problem here is that there simply aren’t a lot of good jobs anymore. And for the type of people who are likely to need to go to for-profit colleges–non-traditional students and traditionally under-represented students–what’s really happening is that there simply aren’t well-paying jobs for workers any more if they don’t have a college degree, since all the manufacturing has been sent abroad. So they take out huge debts and then don’t graduate. That shouldn’t happen. What needs to happen is that politicians and pundits must reject the idea that education is the answer to all our problems and understand that a) the economic benefits of education are often based on its relative scarcity and b) some people are simply not equipped to go to college but still deserve to live a dignified life. But that requires policies that include alleviating poverty through jobs that might discourage corporations from sending American jobs abroad whenever possible. Unfortunately, even mentioning such a thing means that you are History’s Greatest Monster, as Paul Theroux recently found out.

Build Up or Build Out?

[ 94 ] October 27, 2015 |


This is just a small story about a small city, but I thought it was a pretty good look at perhaps the key issue in modern urbanism, especially in the West and the South, which is whether to build up or build out. Durango, Colorado is debating that issue now, with the traditional sprawl of western cities being challenged by people who realize that building up may make a lot more sense. There’s the potential to generate a lot more tax dollars by building up, not to mention creating a walkable downtown that is more environmentally friendly. But the Durango tax code combined with parking requirements that force a lot of land into parking lots makes this hard. This is a fundamental problem in cities around the nation, as the incentives promote car-centric sprawl.

Erik Visits an American Grave (II)

[ 62 ] October 27, 2015 |

In my seemingly constant travel (thanks to academic stuff and a wife working in a different state, not because I am actually traveling for fun, mostly) around this great land, I look for new things to do. In the last couple of years, I have taken to visiting the graves of famous Americans. There is no real reason to do this. I just do it. My wife is thrilled by side trips to cemeteries, as you can imagine. I’ve only talked about one of these trips, my visit to the grave of Henry Clay Frick, arguably the most cartoonishly super-evil villain in American history.

So it’s time for a new series, chronicling these visits. So we’ll call Frick number 1 in that series. This will be occasional, except at first when I get through my pretty long backlog. There’s only one logical choice for the 2nd part of this series. And that’s the grave of Eng and Chang Bunker.


Eng and Chang have one of the weirdest stories in American history. They were, of course, Siamese twins. Born in 1811 outside of Bangkok, they were only connected by cartilage and were pretty independent given the circumstances. A Scottish entrepreneur saw the benefit of exploiting them and in 1829 convinced them to be shown at circuses and sideshows around the world. The brothers agreed, eventually managing themselves. In 1839, they were visiting western North Carolina and decided to stop and buy a farm there.

Now, if you are in North Carolina in 1839 and you own a farm and have a little money, what do you do? You buy slaves. So Eng and Chang became slaveowners. Taking the name “Bunker,” they then married a pair of white sisters from the area. They combined to have 21 children. Now, I don’t want to poke fun here really and I’m glad they lived relatively normal lives except for the whole slaveowning thing. But the sex? I have to say, I’m really curious about how they managed that. On top of that are the social mores of the early 19th century, with the interracial sex and the close naked intimacy such an arrangement would have caused. Of course the first can be explained away by the fact that as Chinese-Thais they were so exotic that they weren’t seen as a threat like black slaves. And the second can be explained to some extent by the fact that our stereotype of 19th century Victorian Americans as unsexed and uptight is way too simplistic. But still. There was some national outrage at the news, but they seem to have more or less accepted by their neighbors.

Both couples had a son who served in the Confederate Army. Both Chang and Eng were very pro-Confederate and were angry over the money they lost during the war, including their human property. Over time, the sisters grew to dislike each other. So they set up separate households and the brothers switched every three days. Toward the end of their lives, Chang began drinking heavily. Because their blood vessels were not connected, this did not affect Eng’s health, at least his physical health. Although they did have a fused liver, and I have trouble seeing how this could not have played a factor, but I’m not going to do the research to get this all figured out. In 1874, Chang died in his sleep. The doctors attempted an emergency separation of the two, but Eng died soon after. It’s not entirely clear why, but the obvious problem of being connected to a dead body would likely have ended his life quickly anyway.

Alex Sink, who lost the 2010 race for governor of Florida, is Chang’s great-granddaughter.

I found this grave in January 2014 when I was in North Carolina. There was a museum exhibit at the University of North Carolina on them and I realized I was heading through Mt. Airy on the way out. I mentioned this to my wife who dismissed it, probably with hope I would forget about it. But the day we went to Mt. Airy, which is of course Mayberry, we were going to go to the Andy Griffith Museum. But everything in that town was closed that day because it was 15 degrees outside. It wasn’t icy. There was no snow. It was 15 degrees. And North Carolina freaked out. So there was only thing to do. And that’s visit the grave.

Eng and Chang Bunker are buried in the White Plains Baptist Church Cemetery in White Plains, North Carolina, just outside of Mt. Airy.

The Most Dangerous Workplace

[ 59 ] October 27, 2015 |


The most dangerous workplaces is the family farm, which is why we need a lot more attention paid to working conditions there. This is an outstanding discussion of this easily solvable problem.

Richard Rosetter stood inside his 28-foot grain bin and smashed a shovel into the thick layer of ice that covered his corn.

He was in a foul mood. His wife and a neighbor were pestering him, upset that he was working by himself, with no spotter to rescue him if he got trapped.

He had been doing this for 50 years, Rosetter reminded them that cold day in February 2014.

Just before 3 p.m. he realized his mistake. As the corn turned to quicksand beneath Rosetter’s feet, he pulled out his cellphone to call for help. But the walls of the bin were too thick. The phone didn’t work.

It took rescuers six hours to find his body at the bottom of the bin.

“I think it was totally preventable,” said Gene Stengel, a local farm bureau leader who was hired to haul Rosetter’s corn that day. “I tear myself up. What could I have done differently?”

At nearly all workplaces in America today, regulators, insurers and workers themselves demand safeguards to make it less likely for a careless mistake to become a tragedy. Coal mines, factories and construction sites are safer as a result.

Not the family farm. Minnesota and other Midwestern states allow small farmers to rely on their own judgment and experience to decide what’s safe and what isn’t. State and federal budget cuts have slashed farm training and safety programs, even as farm machines have become more powerful and more dangerous.

Deaths are on the rise. More than 210 work-related deaths occurred on Minnesota farms from 2003 to 2013 — an increase of more than 30 percent when compared with a decade earlier. A Star Tribune review of those fatal cases shows that at least two-thirds involved practices that violate federal workplace rules.

Unlike at most work sites, state and federal regulators rarely visit farms after a fatality. There is usually no penalty for running a dangerous farm and little financial incentive to improve safety. Steps to address safety problems at the federal level have stalled, most recently in 2014 when Congress forced the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to curtail a campaign to reduce grain bin deaths.

Ah, those lovely congressional Republicans.

Focusing on Minnesota, this piece shows that farmers, their families, and their workers (often the same people) suffer from interrelated problems of consistently poor safety practices, technological innovations not paired with safety equipment, and a lack of enforcement for the laws that do exist. It’s not like we are talking about some incredibly difficult problem to solve here. It’s about regulation and enforcement, combined with safety classes, technological safety fixes, and basic safety precautions like actually making sure no one is in the grain bin when you dump grain in it. Here’s a little piece from Australia on solving farm safety problems there. It’s not hard. It’s a matter of willpower and cultural change. Of course, congressional Republicans will actually halt any attempt to make farms safer because it’s freedom to die in a grain silo, almost as much as it’s freedom to die from your college classmate’s gun. But like a lot of rural issues, progressives also don’t focus on this much, including in the labor movement. Unions aren’t going to organize most of the farms, but it’s in everyone’s interests (except maybe the employer but that changes if the nation cracks down on them enough) that we fight for safe workplaces everywhere.

Empire of Timber

[ 42 ] October 26, 2015 |


Listen people, you have two choices. You can eat this month. Or you can buy my new book Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests, published by Cambridge University Press, at the modest price of $100. Or $80 on Kindle. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, it it available and I can only say that after working on something that long (12 years since I finished my comprehensive exams and started conceptualizing it), I’m amazed that it is out and a real thing that ended up in my hands today. No words. It will be a much, much cheaper paperback in about a year. This is the description from Cambridge:

The battles to protect ancient forests and spotted owls in the Northwest splashed across the evening news in the 1980s and early 1990s. Empire of Timber re-examines this history to demonstrate that workers used their unions to fight for a healthy workplace environment and sustainable logging practices that would allow themselves and future generations the chance to both work and play in the forests. Examining labor organizations from the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1910s to unions in the 1980s, Empire of Timber shows that conventional narratives of workers opposing environmental protection are far too simplistic and often ignore the long histories of natural resource industry workers attempting to protect their health and their futures from the impact of industrial logging. Today, when workers fear that environmental restrictions threaten their jobs, learning the history of alliances between unions and environmentalists can build those conversations in the present.

That pretty much sums it up and of course is a theme I have talked about so many times here–that workers and environmentalists are not natural enemies and that an examination of the past elucidates this point again and again.

This picture also includes a union bug timber hammer an old Carpenters union activist gave me during my research, a ponderosa pine cone from Deschutes County, Oregon, and a crack in my wall which may or may not say anything about conditions at the University of Rhode Island.

Worth mentioning as well that you can still of course buy my book from earlier this year, Out of Sight, for the “let’s steal half of Mexico to expand slavery” price of $18.46.

Remind Me Why We Shouldn’t Hold CEOs Criminally Responsible for Their Supply Chains

[ 56 ] October 26, 2015 |


This story on Indian children digging mica for western cosmetics companies is distressing but also reminds us why we cannot allow corporations to escape legal responsibility for conditions in their supply chains.

Her face caked in dirt and hair matted with sweat, eight-year-old Lalita Kumari hacks away at pieces of rock containing an elusive mineral that adds a dash of sparkle to lipstick and nail polish. While taking a breather in the hollow of a shimmery sand hill, Lalita says she has not known any other way of life after toiling in the mines of India’s eastern Jharkhand state since she was aged four. “I want to go to school but there is never enough at home for us to eat. So I have to come here and work,” said the pony-tailed youngster, her blistered hands hid behind her back after laying down her pickaxe.

Lalita is among hundreds of children who help their families make ends meet by spending their day collecting mica, their stomachs often hungry while the sun beats down on their heads. Two decades ago the Jharkhand government shut down the mines over environmental concerns but tonnes of scrap left behind continue to lure impoverished villagers. The mica adds glitter to powders, mascara and lipsticks of top global brands although a complex supply chain makes pinning down the exact origin almost impossible, say activists.

The families of the children who collect the mica often sell it to small traders who in turn sell it to big suppliers. In 2009, German pharma giant Merck was accused of using mica mined by children and supplying it to brands such as L’Oreal and Revlon. Merck has since implemented several measures to make sure that “all mica used for the manufacture of our pigments comes from child labour free sources,” the company said in a statement to AFP.

Companies like Revlon might deny they have responsibility and Merck might say they aren’t buying that mica, but of course someone is buying it. Like supply chain management practices around the world, corporations use them to deflect responsibility, obscure sourcing, and in general keep the conditions of labor and procurement as far away from consumers’ sight as possible. Creating an opaque system of supplying serves corporate interests as we might well be outraged by child labor but have no idea who to hold responsible when these companies deny culpability. This is why we need a tremendous amount more transparency throughout the supply chain system, with corporate reports to governments explicitly stating who they are gathering materials from and guaranteeing decent conditions in those places because of financial or criminal implications if they do not. They will complain about all the paperwork. Companies filing paperwork should not get in the way of creating global systems of dignity that give all workers opportunities to live decent lives. This must be central to our demands of corporations now and in the future.

And if you support this current system of supply chains that obscure corporate accountability, this is what you tacitly also support:

Thirteen-year-old Seema Kumari says she can now fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. But she is one of the lucky ones and other youngsters see no end in sight to their labours. “We know mica is used in powder and lipstick,” said Pushpa Kumari, whose weathered features belie her 13 years. “It makes women look prettier,” she said, balancing a tray full of mica on her head. “But look what it does to us.”

There may be nothing we can do if Kumari is working for Indian companies. But if that mica is going into western makeup, those looking the other way need to be held responsible.

New Directions in Rheeism

[ 30 ] October 26, 2015 |


Campbell Brown, who has become the nation’s leading spokesperson for destroying teacher unions and privatizing public schools since she left CNN, is now inviting Democratic candidates to events she’s hosting about how teachers’ unions are the most evil organizations in human history and when they obviously turn her “offer” down, her and her allies compare the American Federation of Teachers and other unions to the National Rifle Association with maximum media attention from her friends in the media.

Good times.

Legislation of the New Gilded Age

[ 35 ] October 26, 2015 |


When investigators convict your friends and supporters of crimes, the best way to solve the problem is to ban their investigations. Just ask Scott Walker.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who gave up his quest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination last month, signed into law on Friday a measure that limits a longstanding tool against political corruption that has been used in investigations of Mr. Walker and his allies.

The John Doe law, as it is called in Wisconsin, has given prosecutors the power to obtain search warrants and order people to testify and turn over documents in investigations that typically take place in secret.

Under the measure, which easily passed both Republican-controlled chambers of the State Legislature, prosecutors will no longer be allowed to use the John Doe law to investigate crimes that include bribery and misconduct in office. The legislation will also limit proceedings to six months and lift an order that barred subjects of an investigation from discussing it publicly.

Prosecutors can still use the John Doe law to investigate violent crimes and drug-related felonies.

Six of Mr. Walker’s aides or allies were convicted as a result of a John Doe investigation. Mr. Walker’s former government office and, later, his campaign were the focus of John Doe investigations of campaign activities and fund-raising, but he was never charged.

Kelly M. Rindfleisch, deputy chief of staff to Mr. Walker during his time as Milwaukee county executive, pleaded guilty in 2012 to felony misconduct in public office after facing charges that she had used county time to perform campaign work.

I guess the next move is to make bribery legal. Or at the very least, to repeal the 17th Amendment so that state legislators can be handed bags of cash to name rich people to the Senate.

Out of Sight in The Boston Review

[ 36 ] October 23, 2015 |

Marshall Steinbaum reviewed Out of Sight, along with Gabriel Zucman’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations in The Boston Review and it was largely positive. An excerpt:

Rather than escaping over-burdensome regulation, Loomis’s book points to a different understanding of what motivates a political project to enable capital mobility. In a strategic context, in which the owners of capital and of labor are engaged in competition for shares of productive output, the party with more and more valuable outside options to cooperation with the counterparty gains the upper hand, as in any negotiation. In a world of high tariffs and limits to international capital flows, strong labor unions, and state regulation of labor contracts themselves and workplace and environmental safety, labor has the upper hand and is able to secure a robust share of the economic pie. But in a world in which capital can move overseas at any time, where unions are weak and replacement workers hired here or in Bangladesh at little cost, and where labor contracts are not collectively bargained, the returns to capital are much higher.

When the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in 2013, Loomis engaged in a memorable online dispute with Matthew Yglesias, who published a piece on the disaster headlined “Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and That’s Okay,” essentially repeating the argument that once led Larry Summers to call southern Africa “under-polluted” since the people who lived there are less economically valuable than those in developed countries. The Yglesias corollary is that poor workers benefit more than rich ones from a job at a dangerous factory. Both arguments sustain a commitment to the idea that operating dangerous and environmentally damaging production in poor locales is an economic win-win, and anyone who fails to recognize the truth of this schematization lacks understanding of the way the economy truly works, or is in hock to an outdated leftism that clings to state socialism and can’t make sense of inexorable globalization. Loomis’s reply to Yglesias at the time is, in essence, the genesis of Out of Sight.

The Summers/Yglesias view descends from David Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage: Bangladesh specializes in cheap clothing produced in dangerous conditions, while the United States specializes in higher-value production, and the world is made better off, including workers in both places, the freer is American commerce with Bangladesh. Recently, the debate with Loomis flared up again, following Paul Theroux’s October 2nd Op/Ed in the New York Times juxtaposing a tour of economic dislocation in the American South with his travels in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Loomis’s and Zucman’s calls for re-erecting national boundaries and re-empowering democratically accountable regulators are implications of a much more successful model for explaining why inequality has risen so much within developed and developing countries than in Yglesias’ just-so story: capital has gained the upper hand over labor by creating and accessing outside options while eliminating those of its opponents. Both books are the product of careful reconsideration and critique of received wisdom in the fields each covers, and more casual commentators would be wise to take heed of their implications instead of peddling discredited objections to any check on international capital mobility.

Steinbaum is right to put this in the context of the Theroux piece and the Voxxers reaction to it because the indifference to the American working class among those people and the moral certitude of American capitalism gifting better lives to the global poor are both really problematic because they ignore the real costs of relative poverty to American society and because they don’t actually get on the ground to ask what workers want in Bangladesh, Vietnam, etc. Instead, when 1100 workers die, it’s just part of a process. Meanwhile, workers themselves are trying to form unions and fight against unsafe workplaces, sexual harassment from employers, low wages, etc. But that doesn’t concern the Yglesias/Lowrey/Matthews types who rather see a globalized Gilded Age capitalism as the greatest gift the world has ever seen, ignoring both what unregulated merchant capitalism did to the United States a century ago, what it is doing to developing countries and their workers today, and what it is in fact doing to the United States today as well. That doesn’t mean we don’t have global trade and it doesn’t mean that Bangladeshis don’t need jobs, as I point out in Out of Sight. It means that we need to ensure those jobs don’t exploit workers and kill them and pollute their communities. That can be done, if we actually take the voices of real life workers around the world seriously.

Safety Before Profits

[ 18 ] October 23, 2015 |


Michell McIntyre makes a strong case around one of my most important issues–the need to punish employers far more harshly for workers who die at their worksites.

During one of his early morning shifts, Jose Melena stepped into a 35-foot-long oven and began loading pallets of canned tuna at a Bumble Bee Foods plant. Not realizing Melena was inside, fellow employees shut the machine door behind him and turned on the oven. With temperatures reaching about 270 degrees, he was cooked to death.

In what is being called the largest known settlement in California criminal prosecution history for felony workplace safety violations involving a single victim, Bumble Bee Foods was ordered to pay $6 million for “willfully violating worker safety rules.” In addition to charging the company, prosecutors filed felony charges against the former Bumble Bee Foods safety manager and company director of plant operations for willfully violating the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) worker health and safety protocols governing employees and hazardous machinery.

“You don’t have warm blood running in your veins if you’re not affected by the way this guy died. It’s horrific,” said Hoon Chun, Assistant Head Deputy District Attorney for the Los Angeles County office’s Consumer Protection Division, who helped prosecute the case. “I cannot imagine a worse result of violating safety rules than something like this.”

If an employer knowingly puts their workers in harm’s way they should be held fully accountable by law. It is clear that civil penalties are simply a drop in the bucket and insufficient while no one is held accountable. The fines simply become the cost of doing business with little or no regard for the life of the employee and their devastated family. Even in cases where workers were killed on the job, the typical penalty was just above $5,000.

California district attorneys should be considered trailblazers for pursuing criminal charges for willful worker health and safety violations that result in death or serious injury.

On his second week on the job, Raul Zapata was buried alive in a trench. Three days before Zapata’s death, a city building inspector issued a stop-work order due to concerns that the unfortified dirt wall was prone to collapse. However, the owner of the construction company that employed Zapata and the project manager decided to defy the order and move forward with the work. California’s Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office brought criminal negligence charges against the owner and project manager, last week both were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison.

In fact what needs to happen is a lot more prosecutions of high-ranking employers like what is happening to Don Blankenship, making them personally liable for the terrible conditions of work they create. That outsourcing, franchising, and temp workers creating technical multiple employers on the same site makes doing so more difficult is in fact much of the point of those systems of evasive labor.

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