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Obama’s TPP Arguments Make Little Sense

[ 11 ] June 3, 2016 |


If Obama is going to push the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I’d like to see his arguments for it be serious, as opposed to “The current system doesn’t work well. We should do something about it. This is something. Let’s do this!”

People afraid of losing jobs and market share to foreign countries should embrace a pending trans-Pacific trade deal, President Barack Obama said May 24, rather than sticking to the status quo and opposing his signature trade effort.

Obama said the U.S. economy is more open than other nations, but the Trans-Pacific Partnership would reduce these imbalances.

“If you’re dissatisfied with the current trade arrangements, where tariffs are placed on U.S. goods, and other people’s goods are already coming into the U.S., why would you want to just maintain the status quo?” he said during a swing through Vietnam, one of the 12 countries participating in the trade pact. “Why not change it?”

Why not change it indeed. Of course, the opponents of the TPP actually do want to change it. They just want to change it to something that is going to allow some manufacturing jobs to remain in the United States, to not grant corporations extra-judicial courts that citizens have no access to, to have environmentalists and labor at the table in creating the broad parameters of the agreement, to create real meaningful labor protections for workers that would hold American corporations accountable in their actions overseas. In other words, we do want to change it. We want to change it to a system that benefits workers both in the United States and overseas. That’s called fair trade.

Unfortunately, Obama prefers to dismiss or insult those on the left who oppose his trade agreement.


I Had No Intention On Sleeping Tonight Anyway

[ 222 ] June 3, 2016 |


Well, this makes one feel secure:

The U.S. nuclear weapons system still runs on a 1970s-era computing system that uses 8-inch floppy disks, according to a newly released report from the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO report found that the Pentagon’s Strategic Automated Command and Control System — which “coordinates the operational functions of the United States’ nuclear forces, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts” — runs on an IBM Series/1 Computer, first introduced in 1976.

The system’s primary function is to “send and receive emergency action messages to nuclear forces,” the report adds, but “replacement parts for the system are difficult to find because they are now obsolete.”

I see no potential downside to this situation.

Children Who Labor

[ 13 ] June 2, 2016 |

In comments to today’s earlier post on the Child Labor Amendment, Woodrowfan reminded me of the wonderful 1912 anti-child labor film “Children Who Labor.” I’ll let him explain the content:

Check out the short “Children who Labor” (1912) which shows a poor immigrant family trying to survive. But Dad can’t get a job because the factory is only hiring child workers. The elder daughter has to go to work, where she is sexually harassed by a foreman, who also tries to force the girl to try chewing tobacco.

When the daughter of the heartless factory owner is separated form her mother, she is taken in by the immigrant family. She goes to work in (irony alert) her own father’s factory, where she passes out from overwork. The factory owner’s wife, hearing a little girl collapsed at work, shows up with a basket of food she finds, to her shock, it’s her own missing little girl!

Immigrant Dad refuses a cash reward to finding the little girl, but the factory owner is convinced to hire only adult men. The end scene shows the kids going off to school while their dads enter the factory, happy to earn a living.

Unfortunately, the version on YouTube lacks a soundtrack. Just put on a jazz or classical album in the background and watch it with that. But it is well worth your time. His own daughter ending up in his factory. That will teach the evil capitalist!

Also, this is a reminder that Shakezula is hosting the last reading group for Out of Sight on June 8 at 2 pm eastern. We are discussing the last two chapters, including the conclusion, which is the most important part of the book. Pepper me with questions about what a just trade policy would look like!

The Trump Energy “Plan” and the Election

[ 281 ] June 2, 2016 |

Sargent is right on here.

Believe it or not, Donald Trump has now made a very important policy statement. Introducing what he billed as an “energy plan,” Trump promised to “cancel the Paris Climate Plan.” Unlike so much of what comes from Trump on policy, this is a genuinely clarifying moment, with potentially enormous long-term implications.

The near-term political consequences of this will — or should — be that there is now no chance whatsoever that Bernie Sanders will do anything at all on his way out that could imperil party unity in a way that makes a Trump victory more likely. I don’t believe Sanders has any intention to do that, by the way, but this should theoretically render it an impossibility in his mind, because it dramatically increases the stakes for a relatively smooth resolution of the Democratic primaries. Indeed, I believe it’s likely Sanders will see it this way, too.

To get all the details on Trump’s full energy plan, read Brad Plumer’s piece. Trump would pursue a mostly standard-issue GOP agenda of “fewer regulations and more fossil fuel production.” More important, with some reporters wondering what Trump’s actual views are on global climate change, he clarified them: He is utterly indifferent to its existence and would roll back the main things we’re currently putting in place to deal with it.

Trump said that the current environmental challenges that the Obama administration is trying to tackle are “phony.” He added that he would “rescind” the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which would curb carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, and is key to the U.S.’s ability to meet its commitments as part of the global climate deal. He would withdraw the U.S. from participation in that global accord.

As I’ve reported before, there are complexities that could make it harder than expected for a Republican president — even one as masterfully competent and strong as Trump — to roll back the Clean Power Plan and/or withdraw from the Paris climate deal. But it’s possible that Trump could accomplish one or both of these, which would be a tremendous setback.

The idea that Sanders voters could even conceive of voting for Trump is completely insane. That they would consider voting for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson is only slightly less idiotic. I know people have an unreasonable and unquenchable hatred of Hillary Clinton. Even though Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton share many of the same policy points and are not that far apart on most others, they see Clinton as literally Satan and Bernie as a heavenly savior to the nation. That’s completely nuts on both ends. But fine, hate Hillary Clinton all you want to. The other choice is Donald Trump. Once again, the other choice is Donald Trump. If you believe in Bernie Sanders then you probably believe that climate change is one of the greatest threats facing America today, if not the greatest. And Hillary Clinton has not really made climate change one of her most important issues. But you know that she is going to follow up on Obama’s commitments on this issue. So you might think, like Bernie, that that Paris climate deal doesn’t go far enough. That’s absolutely true. But it’s also the best we have right now. So the choice is going to be a) Hillary Clinton, who will at least keep us on the same path in terms of preparing to do something about climate change even if it’s not enough or b) Donald Trump, who is totally down with doing even more to cause it.

How is your vote in November not an obvious choice?

Today in Evil

[ 211 ] June 2, 2016 |


Fortune magazine has an advice column. It’s very special.

Frank has been with us for more than 20 years. He works in the warehouse and has done a good job for us. I like him. But, to be honest, for the work he performs I could easily replace him someone younger and… cheaper. Would it be wrong to let him go?

Um, yes?

No, of course not. Go for it!

And the costs are rising, right? You’re increasing Frank’s salary every year, at least by the cost of living. And that’s not all. You’re contributing to his healthcare and his 401(K). He’s earning more and more vacation each day that he’s working for you. And as he gets older, you’re increasing the risk that he will cost your company more – maybe he gets injured or needs financial assistance because he’s not putting enough away for his retirement. Sure, he’s got experience. He’s proven. He’s a known card. But he’s costing you. And you know you can get the same job done by someone else for less money. I see this with many of my clients, and it’s a complicated issue. Are you a heartless cad if you let this guy go? Doesn’t loyalty count for anything? The guy’s given you 20 years of his life, and you’re just going to cut him loose? You must be some kind of awful person.

Actually, no you’re not an awful person. I am not encouraging that you should discriminate based on your employee’s age. Age discrimination is against the law. However, your job is to make the decisions. The hard decisions that are necessary to grow your business and ensure it as a going concern for years to come. Why? Because you have employees, customers, partners, suppliers and everyone’s family members (including yours) that rely on you and your company for their livelihoods. And their interests should rise above the interest of any one specific person. OK, maybe you don’t have to be so harsh. Maybe you can ease him out over the next two years. Or find another role for him where he could actually be more productive for you (Driving a forklift? Maintenance? Customer service?) as he gets older. But if you’re letting your overhead get too high and your profitability becomes negatively-impacted because you’re unable to make those hard choices, then you’re hurting everyone who depends on you.

I’m not telling you to discriminate against older workers. That would be illegal. I’m just telling you to discriminate against older workers.

Fortune had to walk this back:

Editor’s note: This piece was updated on May 31 at 5:45 p.m. ET to make clear that age discrimination is illegal. We regret that this piece was published without closer scrutiny.


Verizon: Why You Are a Fool if You Don’t Want to Join a Union

[ 32 ] June 2, 2016 |


The Verizon strike is over and it is a landslide victory for the workers and their unions, the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The four-year contracts would give workers a nearly 11 percent increase in pay over all, up from the 6.5 percent increase that Verizon had proposed before the strike, as well as modest ratification bonuses and profit-sharing.

Verizon had long argued that it needed to cut costs and increase its flexibility to manage its work force and preserve the competitiveness of its wireline business, which includes landlines, video and Internet service that run through wires.

Perhaps the most consequential issue at stake in the standoff was Verizon’s ability to outsource work. The previous contracts included a provision requiring that a certain percentage of customer calls originating in a state be answered by workers in that state — ranging from just over 50 percent for some types of calls in some states to more than 80 percent in others. Verizon sought to significantly lower those numbers.

Under the tentative new contracts, a similar percentage of calls must be answered by a unionized worker somewhere in Verizon’s wireline footprint, which runs from Virginia to Massachusetts, rather than the particular state from which the call originates.

Both sides claimed victory in the change.

“We only care that our members somewhere in the footprint are doing the work,” said Robert Master, assistant to the District 1 vice president of the Communications Workers of America. “The push to outsource call center work was rebuffed.”

Lending partial vindication to this claim was a commitment by the company to create over 1,000 unionized call center jobs over the next four years to accommodate new demand from customers. The company also agreed to reduce the number of call center closings.

The company also won the right to offer buyout incentives to employees once a year without first getting the union’s blessing, making it easier to eliminate jobs that the new rule could eventually render obsolete.

Elsewhere, the outcome appeared more one-sided. The unions managed to beat back proposed pension cuts, including a cap on the accrual of pension benefits after 30 years of service.

The company also agreed to withdraw a proposal that would have allowed it to relocate workers for up to two months anywhere in its geographic coverage area, although it had already expressed an openness to withdrawing the proposal before the strike.

Proposals to change seniority rules and to make the company’s sickness and disability policy more strict were also withdrawn, and the company agreed to change a performance review program in New York City that many workers considered abusive.

Significantly, the new contracts also cover some 65 unionized workers at Verizon Wireless stores, signaling the first time that retail wireless workers at the company have been included in a union contract, a potentially important precedent.

This is an incredible contract. The workers win nearly twice as much money as they originally asked for. They force Verizon to cave on all the benefits and the relocation drive that infuriated workers. They make Verizon back down on outsourcing jobs overseas. They force the company to create 1000 new union jobs and allow Verizon stores to become part of the bargaining unit. In return, the workers give up basically nothing. They allow individual workers to take a buy out if they want it. OK. And they open up slightly on who precisely takes a given call, but maintaining that the worker taking it is a union worker. Who cares. They also had to do some givebacks on health care, but these are the compromises that must be made sometimes. Overall, this is an outstanding contract and a gigantic win for workers.

Importantly, the settlement was mediated by Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, who, once again, has been absolutely fantastic and is my top choice to be Clinton’s Vice-President, far more than Elizabeth Warren, who is perfectly effective in her current job. It’s also important to step back here and remember what would have happened if Verizon workers hadn’t won unions in the past. If that doesn’t happen, their healthcare is far worse, most of those jobs Verizon wants to outsource are already overseas, workers are sure not getting 11 percent raises, the pension is already gone, workers are being forced to relocate if they want a job, etc. This all happened because workers joined a union and went on strike to demand dignity on the job. Clearly, the next step for CWA and IBEW is to start organizing the Verizon stores. Allowing those workers into the bargaining unit is an enormous concession by Verizon. Moreover, employees in the service industry are almost totally unrepresented by unions and breaking into that sector could have transformational effects. Organize!

Speaking of Perez’s DOL, soon to be announced National Labor Relations Board rules declaring graduate student workers is already having an effect.

Graduate student unions on a number of private campuses have for years sought recognition from their universities and federal officials, to little avail. But organizing efforts at Cornell University are moving forward, in the form of an agreement on how to proceed until and if a legal barrier to collective bargaining is reversed.

The development sets Cornell apart from most other elite privates institutions, which have maintained that teaching and research assistants are students — not employees entitled to collective bargaining rights — ahead of a major decision on the issue from the National Labor Relations Board.

“Should current federal labor law change to deem graduate students at private universities employees, we believe the terms of this agreement will assist our graduate assistants as they make their own decisions about whether or not to join the union,” Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer at Cornell, said in a statement Wednesday. “Our goal is to provide them with an open environment to make that decision that ensures dignity and respect for all parties involved.”

Cornell’s new agreement with its American Federation of Teachers- and National Education Association-affiliated graduate student union does not signal voluntary union recognition. So it’s not the kind of decisive agreement that New York University reached with its United Auto Workers-affiliated graduate student union outside of NLRB channels in 2013. Nor does Cornell express neutrality about the campaign, despite union requests that such language be included.

But the new agreement does outline a possible path to Cornell having one of the few graduate student unions among private institutions, and establishes formal communication and election procedures, voter eligibility guidelines, and a dispute resolution mechanism. It offer protections for those involved in union organizing and says that a fair and expeditious election will be held outside of NLRB channels should the board decide that graduate students at private institutions are entitled to collective bargaining — a decision that other institutions have indicated they would fight in court. Cornell would grant “immediate” recognition in the event of a majority vote.

This is huge news as well. Universities are some of the worst anti-union institutions in the country. While many public university faculty and staff have organized in states that aren’t right to leech, private universities have simply refused to even consider it. Breaking down that wall, especially for some of the most exploited people on campus–graduate students–is a major victory for justice. This only happens because of a Democratic administration committed to advancing worker rights, as the Obama administration has largely supported, especially in the second term under the Perez regime at DOL.

For Hamilton Nolan, the lesson is that strikes work and that we should all go on strike when we feel the need to do so.

Strikes work. Strikes have always worked. Strikes still work. Pro-business forces like to deride unions as socialist parasites, but strikes are, in a sense, one of the purest free market actions that workers can take: the refusal to sell labor at a price that is deemed too low. This has the effect of raising the price of labor. Though “Economics 101″ idiots like to pretend that the free market will always magically produce the perfect wage for every job, the reality is that working people—people with less money—are always at a disadvantage when it comes to asserting the leverage necessary to raise their own wages, because they can’t afford to stop working and lose a paycheck. This is the biggest hurdle that strikes have to clear. It’s hard for working people to leave work, demanding better wages and working conditions. It’s a gamble. But it tends to pay off.

As much as workers need wages, businesses need labor even more. The free market has not raised your wages in decades. The government has not raised your wages in decades. You need to raise your own wages. Organize. Then strike. It’s always good to be reminded that it works.

I’m a bit less sanguine about this. After all, there certainly have been disastrous strikes. But he’s mostly right. If workers stand up and act upon their demands, their chances of living a dignified life are much higher.

For me, the real lesson is that if you don’t support joining a union, you are a fool because you are only hurting yourself. Almost all of us should have unions. Even if you are a faculty member or public employee in the South and live in a right-to-work state, you should still have a union because it will serve as an organized voice and point of power, even if you can’t win a contract. I know, because I helped one get off the ground. Entry-level lawyers at big law firms should have unions. Workers at every private factory or establishment should have unions. Starbucks and McDonald’s workers should have unions. We should all have unions. Organizing like the Verizon workers is not a throwback to the past. It should be an entryway into the future.

Fixing the Subways

[ 180 ] June 2, 2016 |


The big subway systems of New York, Washington, and Boston are just getting worse and worse. Cities and states are struggling to keep up the maintenance. Commuters are getting frustrated. But the problem simply won’t be fixed without major federal investments in them. If federal transportation funding remains flat, as it surely will at best under congressional Republicans, it’s going to be a losing game for all three cities. This of course relates to the larger infrastructure disaster in the United States poisoning people in Flint and allowing bridges to collapse. But, far more important to make sure the rich pay low taxes!

This Day in Labor History: June 2, 1924

[ 45 ] June 2, 2016 |


On June 2, 1924, a constitutional amendment to ban child labor passed the Senate and was sent out to the states for ratification. Unfortunately, the states never ratified it, although they still could today.

The fight against child labor had been a major part of both the struggle of organized labor and of middle-class reformers for decades. For unionists, they not only saw child labor as degrading to children, but also as undermining the wages of working class. Get rid of the children, they argued, and you eliminate a major source of competition driving wages down. The wages would rise and children could go to school instead of working. For Progressives like Florence Kelley and Lewis Hine, child labor was a horror of American society, contributing to long-term poverty and social unrest that hurt the entire nation. Kelley’s Consumers’ League, as well as the National Child Labor Committee, lobbied Americans, especially middle-class women, to fight against the scourge of child labor through the early twentieth century, first focusing on the state level and then moving into the realm of national politics.

On the other hand, many working families, especially in the South, relied on child labor. But they had little political power. The real opposition came from corporations, especially the textile industry, which relied heavily on children in their mills and which had moved from the northeast to the South during these years in order to take advantage of states that had not passed child labor laws. It was in southern mills where Hine took many of his most powerful images of child labor. The need for a constitutional amendment became apparent when the conservative Supreme Court overturned federal legislation regulating child labor in 1918 and again in 1922. In 1916, the Keating-Owen Act, which the National Child Labor Committee had lobbied for, overwhelmingly passed Congress and was signed by President Wilson. In 1918, the 1918 Supreme Court overturned it in Hammer v. Dagenhart, deciding that Congress had no authority to regulate products made by children. For anti-child labor activists, the only remaining strategy was a constitutional amendment.

On April 26, 1924, the child labor amendment passed the House of Representatives and on June 2, the Senate. The text was simple:

Section 1. The Congress shall have power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age.

Section 2. The power of the several States is unimpaired by this article except that the operation of State laws shall be suspended to the extent necessary to give effect to legislation enacted by the Congress

Given the relatively easy passage of the amendment through Congress, the failure of it to gain traction at the state level was striking. Between 1924 and 1932, a resounding 6 states ratified it and 32 state legislatures had voted it down. It was seen as a dead letter. Employers rallied to oppose it. Comparing child laborers to Civil War soldiers, Manufactures Record noted that 850,000 soldiers under the age of 18 had fought in the war and opined, “If they were old enough to fight for their country, they ought to be old enough to regulate the matter of their own employment.” The same editorial added a new twist to this old freedom of contract canard: redbaiting. Passing the amendment,

would mean the destruction of manhood and womanhood through the destruction of boys and girls in this country. The proposed amendment is fathered by Socialists, Communists and Bolshevists…aimed to nationalize the children of the land and bring about in this country the exact conditions that prevail in Russia. If adopted, the amendment would be the greatest thing ever done in America in behalf of the activities of hell. It will make millions of young people under eighteen years of age idlers in brain and body, and thus make them the devil’s best workshop.

I wonder if the person who wrote this had to smoke a cigarette and then shower after that rant.

This sort of pressure, coordinated by the National Association of Manufacturers, is why so few states jumped on board the amendment. But in 1933, it received a jolt of life, thanks to the Great Depression and the overwhelming victories of the Roosevelt administration and reformers at the state level in 1932. Child labor was still a major problem in many states in 1933. In 1933, 12 more states passed it, 10 of which had previously rejected it. In 1934, the Roosevelt administration decided to get behind it directly as a way to build on the National Recovery Administration’s goals to reduce competition and stabilize the economy. The NRA had prohibited labor for anyone under the age of 16, at a time when only 4 states had a similar law on the books. FDR stated in a letter to the Massachusetts League of Women Voters:

Of course, I am in favor of the child labor amendment. A step in the right direction was achieved by demonstrating the simplicity of its application to industry under the N. R. A. Those connected with industries which had, been the worst violators were the first to see the wisdom of the step. It is my opinion that the matter hardly requires further academic discussion. The right path has been definitely shown.

But momentum was fleeting. 4 more states ratified in 1935 and another 4 in 1937. Kansas was the 28th and last on February 25, 1937. Overcoming intransigent or indifferent state legislatures was just too much, as it often is with constitutional amendments.

The child labor amendment would fail, but eliminating child labor was still a leading goal of the Roosevelt administration. It was incorporated into the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which covered most industries, but not agriculture, where child labor remains an issue until the present. Interestingly, Congress did not set a time frame on the amendment. Thus, it theoretically still could be ratified today. Ten more states would need to ratify it. Perhaps even more interestingly, this issue led to its own Supreme Court decision, with the Court ruling in Coleman v. Miller in 1939 that if Congress doesn’t set an end date for an amendment sent to the states, there is no end date. This actually led to the ratification of the 27th Amendment, which 7 states ratified between 1789 and 1792, Ohio ratified in 1873, and no other states ratified until 1978.

The good quotes in this post are borrowed by Chaim Rosenberg, Child Labor in America: A History.

This is the 179th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Don’t Be a Human Tire Fire

[ 202 ] June 1, 2016 |


A message that will need repeating over and over in the next 5 months.

This is for anybody wasting time online blathering about how Hillary and Trump are the same; how if Hillary gets the nomination, they won’t vote at all; or how they’re super-stoked to vote for a third party candidate because THEY HAVE PRINCIPLES, GODDAMMIT.

Hi. I’m your Auntie Sara. Time to wake the fuck up. If you are decent, you are going to vote for the Democrat in November. Not because you love Hillary (or Bernie, for whom I will vote if Hillary doesn’t get the nomination!) Not because you love the two-party system (I don’t! Do you? That’s weird! We deserve better!) But because we’re dealing with brass tacks reality here, not our dreams.

Remember No Child Left Behind? AHAHHAHAHAHAHA. Oh, how fun it was to contend with that gem of legislation a few years later when I was teaching in the public high school system. Remember abstinence-only education? Of course you do; it’s how you had your first child. And your second. They’re so cute now! Hooray!

My point is this: don’t throw your vote away because your ego and your “personal brand” says you’ve got to Feel the [fill in the blank thing that sounds great but will not lead to the Democrats actually winning the presidency in November 2016.]

I get it if it makes you feel really good personally and like a great liberal with super awesome true blue standards to vote for Bernie and support Bernie. He has many good things to say! He’s done some lovely stuff! He is smart and amazing and I admire him a great deal. I admire many people. That’s great. I also enjoyed Ralph Nader for a time. You know who’s also great? Dr. Jill Stein, the Green lady! She seems great! But when Hillary gets the nomination, and she will, it is imperative to vote for the Democrat because the DNC platform is vastly superior to the GOP values. And if it makes you feel good in your feelings to stay home from the polls because you don’t like Hillary or don’t agree with things that she has done or said, you are effectively voting for Donald Trump.

So get your fucking shit together once Hillary is the nominee, unless your ego and need to talk about stuff at your organic locally grown dinner parties for the next four years is greater than your respect for and compassion for the people who would suffer terribly under a GOP presidency and the Supreme Court for the next 10 to 40 years.

Internet Profits?

[ 160 ] June 1, 2016 |


I am still at a total loss as to how anyone thinks internet-based businesses will make money. Yet our betters sure love them.

Spotify tossed another scary financial figure into the ring this morning, with 2015-year losses topping an astounding $188.7 million on revenues of roughly $2.12 billion. That widens a year-2014 loss of $176.9 million, and brings cumulative losses to $698.1 million since the company started in 2008. All of which raises the question over whether streaming music is a viable business model.

The plunging losses explain a recent, $1 billion tranche in loans, which brings cumulative loans and debt to roughly $1.56 billion. But whether that debt can be properly services is now a very real and pressing concern.

The question analysts and the music industry is pondering is whether this math can somehow make sense. Heavy losses aside, other metrics are booming, including top-line revenues and paying subscribers. For 2015, Spotify counted total revenues at $2.12 billion, up 80 percent over 2014. Paying subscribers were counted at 25 million, a figure Spotify has since upwardly revised to 30 million (while hinting at 100 million total users).

Meanwhile, Spotify says payments to rights owners are exploding: the company claims €1.63 billion ($1.82 billion) in royalty payouts last year, up 85 percent. But a gigantic chunk of that appears to be going to major label partners, all of whom carry equity positions but are simultaneously upping licensing fees. Meanwhile, artists continually complaining of decreasing per-stream payouts, with data to back it up.

The next step is a massive Wall Street IPO, one that could generate billions in fresh capital. But here’s another problem: analysts don’t think Spotify will ever reach profitability, at least without drastic changes to its core business model. “Their operating and net losses were both bigger in 2015 than 2014, and that’s a bad sign for future profitability,” Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research told Mashable.

And then there is Twitter, which has never turned a quarterly profit.

But what do I know? I’m not a Silicon Valley libertarian.

Civil War Battles, Portrayed by Cats

[ 24 ] June 1, 2016 |


Our national need for a Civil War museum consisting of battle reproduction scenes with cat figurine soldiers has finally been fulfilled.

In September, in the shadow of the historic battlefield here, twins Rebecca and Ruth Brown opened Civil War Tails, possibly America’s most whimsical war museum.

Their collection of scale-model battle dioramas includes Fort Sumter, the Battle of the Ironclads and their masterpiece, four years in the making, Pickett’s Charge, 1,900 cat soldiers in all.

Yes, cats, an inch or smaller, each one lovingly sculpted in clay by the 32-year-old sisters, then baked in a 225-degree oven. The choice of figurine was born of necessity more than devotion, although the sisters like cats plenty. “We just don’t make clay people as well as cats,” Rebecca says.

Personally, I look forward to the cat figurine scene of Sherman’s march to the sea.

Book Review: David S. Shields, Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine

[ 39 ] June 1, 2016 |


David Shields is a food historian of the South, particularly the Carolina lowcountry, who has spent more than a decade working specifically on the recovery of Carolina Gold rice, a nearly lost breed central to Carolina cooking, particularly before 1900. He builds upon that work in Southern Provisions to provide a series of essays on southern food traditions, with an emphasis on the pre-industrial South. Shields’ primary concern is recovering and contextualizing the lost breeds of the agricultural South as his contribution to the larger project of revitalizing and recovering southern cuisine in all its complexities, fighting against the stereotype of it, outside of Louisiana, as nothing but BBQ and grits. Although he’s English professor at the University of South Carolina, he works in the primary sources and generally writes solid history. The breeding of plants in the 19th century South was exceptional. Early in the book, he lists the notes of a mid-19th century Georgia breeder, discussing 25 different pea breeds for their qualities. Of course, these are almost entirely lost to us today.

Shields however doesn’t make a fetish about lost breeds or tradition. In his chapter on truck farming, he notes that the goal of recovering the best of lost southern cuisine is about taste and as post-Civil War South Carolina farmers produced strawberries to ship to the north, they focused on breeds that would stand the trip more than taste. There’s not anything per se of culinary value there. Moreover, he dismisses those who don’t want to improve on his beloved Carolina Gold, because tradition for tradition’s sake will not keep rare breeds on the market. Shields is part of a movement focusing on breeding for taste and nothing else, one that reflects the water and soil of a particular place, something only recoverable with several plantings of organics to leech the pesticides and fertilizer out of the soil.

Fundamentally, reading about old recipes is just interesting. There’s a recipe for “Turkey, Oyster Sauce” that sounds like it would be good enough to make Thanksgiving a day not to dread if oysters were as common as in 1860. Basically you stuff the turkey with oysters, steam it, thicken the oyster gravy, add some cream, and pour it over the turkey. The chapter on everyday pre-Civil War food like possum and greens is just as fascinating, as are the various 19th century breakfast recipes using Carolina Gold.

It’s in the book’s final chapter that Shields’ real mission is best articulated. Titled, “The Return of the Tastes,” he makes a strong case for growing particular crops not to maximize nutritional value, but for taste, for understanding how soil can affect a crop, for cultural heritage. This doesn’t mean that all modern food is bad or worthless, but it states the inherent benefits of growing breeds for maximum flavor and preserving those breeds to produce a historically-grounded cuisine that tastes good. Shields is obviously frustrated with the current state of agricultural policy (for good reason) but also believes that once people taste this food, they will want more of it and that will help these breeds survive.

One rather major quibble. For a book that largely paints the pre-Civil War South in a positive manner, I am naturally going to examine the discussion of slavery and the plantation elite, who largely are his protagonists. It grates. Although I do not believe he is a native southerner, as he mentions his move from the Hudson Valley to South Carolina, his sympathies really are with those planters. For instance, in his chapter discussing a gigantic meal served at an elite Charleston club in 1860, he notes how it was discussed in a New York “sporting journal,” which I assume to mean a horse racing journal:

For the plantocracy to appear in a northern periodical as a class of humane, intelligent, and companionable human beings in 1860 was something of a minor miracle. The abolitionist press in the North had invested years of energy to envisioning the great planters as violent, grasping creatures of passion, sadistically obsessed with oppressing slaves. The Spirit of the Times supplied a rare discursive spaces in which the southern elite shared values of civility, good taste, sociability, and a love of sport with like-minded persons in other sections of the country. In the periodical’s pages, Saratoga Springs was in the same cultural vicinity as Washington Park. (133)

The problems with this paragraph are legion. I don’t have to go deep into the historiography to refute these points, I just have to link to the book reviews of other random books I have reviewed at this site. First, horse racing was a space where northern and southern elites often met and mingled. Second, the connections between cotton and violence are well-documented. Whether sadistic or not, South Carolina planters wrested every last drop of profit out of their slaves. Denying or trivializing that does no one any good, especially the author. Third, the idea that the North was completely filled with abolitionists demonizing the South was just not true, not when you had a whole generation of northern Democratic politicians and their newspapers more than willing to serve the slave masters’ cause. And if the abolitionists were envisioning the “great” planters as violent sadists, good! Many of them were.

So that’s a problem. That’s not to say that Shields doesn’t give African Americans and Native Americans some credit for their role in developing southern cuisine. In his chapter on citrus on the Florida coast, he notes how what Europeans thought was a wild, native orange was the descendants of Spanish-planted oranges Native Americans brought north, but here again, his hero is a white ex-Confederate citrus breeder named Colonel F.L. Dancy. He also writes on how Charleston lacked a decent fish market or tradition of cooking fish until the African-American Charles Leslie developed one during Reconstruction, building an empire because now black people could choose their own work and diets and because he sought to expand the number of species available for consumption through working closely with fishing crews.

In the end, this is a pretty interesting group of essays. Yes, it’s marred a bit by the author sympathizing with his subjects a bit too much, a problem when those subjects are slaveholders who would commit treason to defend slavery. But anyone interested in American food cultures will like Southern Provisions.

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