Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Erik Loomis

rss feed

Visit Erik Loomis's Website

How to Get Something Done in Government, 1949

[ 26 ] July 6, 2015 |

tumblr_lgl45kWEf81qd6eyyo1_500

I am presently doing research at the Library of Congress. I just ran across this oddity. Ula Glen of Crestone, Colorado was a ranch wife. Somehow (this is not quite clear to me), she knew Leo Goodman, who was a housing and later nuclear expert for the CIO, who I am researching. The Rural Electrification Administration was supposed to hook her home up to the electrical lines. But they hadn’t. So she wrote this poem and sent it to Goodman:

O country life, o country life, how good you are for me…
The early rising, mornings, with the stars still to see.
The daily strolling down the lane, across the road and farther,
Packing, of all things, a couple of pails of water.
O country life!

Our lovely, useless bathroom–a symphony in rose,
The boiler on the cookhouse filled with water ‘stead of clothes.
The cans arrayed with loving care to hold the precious water
Stand South and kind of East of a gas refrigerator.
Icecubes, but no water!

The lamps they set around the room as pretty as a portrait.
But when will they dispel the gloom in this here little Orchard?
The wire from road to housetop–so near and yet so far–
Where or where are the men who doing the ironing are?
Whar?

The REA has gone away from weather below zero.
By kerosene we vent our spleen on them that have such fear-o
Come back, come back, REA, come back from Oklahoma.
It takes electricity to make a house into a homa.

O, REA!

Goodman then contacted a friend of his in the REA who quickly got the Glen’s home on the line.

I am doing research on a new book project for the next three weeks and it’s kind of lonely and boring sometimes. So I may continue updating you with tales from the archives from time to time.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share

What Should Labor Law Do?

[ 23 ] July 5, 2015 |

NLRB

Today is the 80th anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act.

Of course, the NLRA is hardly working for workers these days, with regulatory capture and unfriendly court decisions creating a regime that keeps all the restrictions on workers and eliminates all the benefits. The extent to which labor should hope to keep using the old legal regime is a big debate within labor circles. Lane Windham weighs in, going over the basics and concluding:

The best way to fix the Wagner Act and to restore workers’ freedom to form union is to lighten the work we expect this 80-year-old law to do. All workers need a guaranteed basic annual income, all workers need full access to health care, and all workers deserve to retire with guaranteed dignity—whether they have a union or not. Once our nation guarantees universal social wage benefits for our workers, employers will have less incentive to wage war on unionizing efforts, and the Wagner Act may once again be a potent tool for bringing democracy and worker empowerment to the nation’s rapidly changing workplaces.

OK, but can I have a pony too? I mean, sure, it’d be great to have universal basic income, Swedish-style health care, and great retirement benefits. But to say that we should quit worrying about labor law until we get these things means that we will never worry about labor law again because these goals will probably never happen in American society. Or it will take decades if we are being optimistic. A scenario of New Deal-esque social legislation before getting to these other issues is, to say the least, not a realistic one. At the very least, Windham should have laid out some framework for when this was going to happen and I’m surprised the editors of the piece didn’t push her on this.

Sex Offender Registeries

[ 118 ] July 5, 2015 |

Sex offender registries are a great injustice and need to be stopped. While there is some value in tracking real sex offenders, a lot of these people have done nothing more than had sex with a slightly underage woman when they were themselves young men or, as in the case linked above, hooked up with a woman online who was lying about her age. To damn these people for life is a horrible crime, leaving people unable to find work or a home, stigmatized for decades. The registries are another example of the overreaction to crime in the 1980s and like drug crime sentencing and three strikes laws, need to be severely revised.

Selma

[ 61 ] July 4, 2015 |

10

So I finally watched Selma. A few observations long after the debate has dissipated.

1. The main issue in the Selma debate was the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Critics said the portrayal was too cynical and didn’t give LBJ his due. Phooey. First, this isn’t a documentary. Second, at the core of the LBJ defense was pointing out how much he did and how much we should honor him. That’s fine, but it also borders on the hagiographic. LBJ was a politician with a lot on his plate who really would have preferred not to deal with any of this, as the film effectively shows. By thinking of Johnson as a hero of the civil rights movement, it reinforces the unfortunate way progressives look at political leaders (Obama primarily) as the people who should guide us and then are disappointed when they don’t. That’s our problem, not the politicians. The film effectively shows how politicians respond to intense political campaigning. That’s the lesson of the film. And it’s a valuable one. No politician will ever be a solution.

2. The film does an effective job of delineating the factions developing in the civil rights movement by 1965. But it does give short shrift to the radical SNCC ideas that will quickly become prevalent under Stokely Carmichael’s leadership.

3. The film really underplays the amazing grassroots work of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth in Selma and that’s unfortunate.

4. The film also could have done more with Diane Nash and the role of women in the movement.

5. I thought the film actually soft sold the hatred of whites, largely making the violence look like an official response than a popular one. The only time the word “nigger” was actually spoken during the film was when the white priest from Boston was beaten to death. This was telling. The film did pull some punches in making connections to the present as well.

6. As a U.S historian with a pretty deep, although not expert-level background in the civil rights movement, I was frustrated early in the film by the characters saying so many obvious things that the actual people would have already known. But then my wife, a Latin American historian with a reasonable background in these issues, didn’t know all the details. So it’s hard being an Americanist watching films about American history. But what can be done?

7. David Oyelowo was very good as MLK. And I’m glad the casting went to a relatively unknown actor.

8. I laughed out loud when Tim Roth was playing George Wallace. Great casting. Had I seen it in the theater, it’s unlikely my fellow patrons would have laughed alongside me.

9. The only explanation for Ava DuVernay not getting a best director nomination in the Academy Awards is the racism/sexism combo. You have got to be kidding me.

10. I would love to see a movie about King after Selma. The failures of the Chicago campaign, the growing tension in the movement, coming out against Vietnam, the move toward economic justice, and the final days in Memphis, could, in the hands of the right director, make a fantastic movie. Not sure it would supply the myth-making American audiences require though.

Independence Day

[ 112 ] July 4, 2015 |

11119678_10153019226335959_1956478355567955556_o

On this July 4, I embraced the fruits of this great land. Well, technically the fruits of our salt marsh ponds as I gorged myself on this pile of fried whole belly clams from the Clam Shack in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where the real July 4th tradition is sitting in traffic. Please note that while there is ketchup in upper left hand corner providing by the shack, it remained unopened. Which is what all good Americans did with the substance today.

Let me also recommend Dylan Matthews’ piece on why the American Revolution may not have been such a great thing
. I’ve been saying this for years. I know, I know, such inspirational language. And I hold no real animus against most of the Founders, although I hate the term “founding fathers.”

But let’s be clear on two things. First, the American Revolution was horrible for African-Americans. Second, the American Revolution was catastrophic for Native Americans. Any celebration of the day has to reckon with these two incontrovertible facts. Both groups acted in their own self-interest during the Revolution, with African-Americans fleeing to the British lines and Native Americans largely fighting on the British side. On the former, I really recommend this collection of primary source documents by African-Americans during the Revolution to get a sense of how they responded to these events. The American Revolution was a war that significantly pushed ahead the cause of white supremacy at the cost of minority rights. I am presently reading Greg Grandin’s latest book (which is the next book I’m reviewing here) and he notes that the Latin American revolutions were essentially also white supremacist rebellions, in this case to liberalize the African slave trade. I do believe that there was nothing unique about the United States that would have created widespread resistance unlike the rest of the British colonies had slavery been abolished in the 1830s here under British rule. And while the future for Native Americans was unlikely to be shining bright under continued British rule, it literally could not have been worse than it was under the Americans.

I’m somewhat less convinced by the 3rd piece of Matthews’ argument, that the government would be more functional had the Americans lost. Maybe. Certainly our government is designed for dysfunction and the Senate is disastrous and highly undemocratic as an institution. But other systems are not necessarily all that much better or per se lead to more progressive outcomes. After all, what torpedoed most progressive reform in U.S. history was not problems with the government necessarily as it was widespread opposition from the South.

Finally:

Marjoe

[ 43 ] July 2, 2015 |

I just watched Marjoe, the 1972 documentary about an ex-child preacher turned hippie who supported himself by going back out on the preacher circuit even though he believed none of it. It’s pretty great. If you want to understand why the current wingnut world is a giant grift, this is a good place to start as he gives out all the secrets. This film won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards. He then went on to appear in 17 episodes of Falcon Crest in the 80s. Here’s an excerpt.

Today in Racist History

[ 76 ] July 2, 2015 |

Moynihan

This month is the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report. Stephen Steinberg:

A few weeks after Moynihan’s report was leaked to the press, the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles exploded in violence, triggered by an incident with police that rapidly escalated into five days of disorder and left thirty-four people dead. Pundits and politicians seized upon the report to cast blame for the “riot” on the deterioration of “the Negro family.” The report warned, “The family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable, and in many urban centers is approaching complete breakdown.”

Critics condemned the report for pathologizing female-headed households and black families in particular. The most trenchant criticism, however, was that the preoccupation with black families shifted blame away from institutionalized inequalities and heaped it on the very groups that were victims of those inequalities. As James Farmer, cofounder and national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, wrote with blunt eloquence, “We are sick unto death of being analyzed, mesmerized, bought, sold, and slobbered over while the same evils that are the ingredients of our oppression go unattended.”

Today, in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore, family dysfunction is again cited by politicians, pundits, and scholars as the root of the problem. Rand Paul publicly twaddles about “the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society.” David Brooks opines in the New York Times, “The real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” And sociologist Orlando Patterson asserts that “fundamental change” can come only from “within the black community: a reduction in the number of kids born to single, usually poor, women.”

Steinberg goes on to break down the intellectual sources for the Moynihan Report, particularly Nathan Glazer. Intellectual racism that blames people of color for their own poverty has not diminished in the last half-century. Any number of racist sites refer back to Moynihan today; meanwhile this paragon of institutionalized racism became a respected Democratic senator without ever questioning his blaming of black people for their own poverty and ending his career as a big supporter of slashing welfare. Among other great things in this man’s life was ensuring the UN did nothing to stop the Indonesian slaughter in East Timor when he was UN Ambassador during the Ford administration and opposed the Clinton health care plan.

This Day in Labor History: July 2, 1980

[ 11 ] July 2, 2015 |

hazard

On July 2, 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in Industrial Union Department AFL-CIO v. American Petroleum Institute that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration must take economic considerations into account when issuing regulations. This 5-4 decision severely impacted the ability of the government to take an aggressive and preemptive stand against workplace health problems.

One thing that often gets left behind in discussions of OSHA is the health part of the agency’s mission. We focus on safety. That’s because those issues are easier to take care of. You put proper protection around a saw and it becomes a lot less dangerous. But health is a whole other issue. You have a couple of issues making it so. First is the long term impact of work upon health, which means that occupational illness can take decades to become apparent. Second is that remaking worksites so that workers aren’t exposed is a lot more expensive than the saw guard. Protecting workers from benzene, toxic gases, or dust has real challenges. And those solutions can be expensive.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 charged the federal government with protecting workers on the job from industrial hazards. OSHAct stated, “no employee will suffer material impairment of health or functional capacity even if such employee has regular exposure to the hazard dealt with by such standard for the period of his working life.” It built on the “Precautionary Principle” that was in favor during these years for dealing with workplace safety and health issues, addressing environmental uncertainties in the regulatory process before they became problems. That means in the case of workplace health trying to figure out what substances might cause health problems and preemptively eliminating them. That requires action even if scientific data doesn’t exist that suggests there is a problem, but only that there could be in theory. This principle drove the move toward environmental and workplace regulation during the 1970s in both the United States and Europe. But the political implications of this were not worked out in the legislation and Congress gave OSHA a lot of leeway in figuring out how the agency would actually operate.

OSHAct tasked the Secretary of Labor is bound to set out rules for substances like benzene, even if only one worker might become unhealthy due to exposure. It was benzene at play in Industrial Union Department. OSHA sought to regulate benzene, an carcinogen, but without really nailing down how many workers’ lives would be saved in doing so.

The American Petroleum Institute decided to fight this, even though the petroleum industry clearly had the money to protect its workers from benzene exposure (it didn’t even bother arguing otherwise). Industry had engaged in a court campaign to slow down OSHA from its beginning, challenging the agency at every turn. On the other hand, the AFL-CIO led the charge to save the Precautionary Principle, building on its significant progress in fighting for workplace health in the 1970s. OSHA finally was up and running at full capacity by the late 1970s with Jimmy Carter naming Eula Bingham as the agency’s head. Bingham, the first OSHA director who really supported the agency’s mission, sought to remake workplace environments around the nation, often with the active support of those unions who saw the agency as a way to empower workers on the shop floor to protect themselves and express workplace power at the same time. So defending the Precautionary Principle became a top OSHA priority after 1977. Bingham’s OSHA created standards for acrylonitrile, cotton dust, lead, arsenic, and benzene.

Yet for organized labor, this was very slow progress. By 1981, the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) had recommended 250 standards but OSHA had only implemented 21 of those. Only 4 of these standards dealt with cancer-causing agents. In my forthcoming book on timber unions, I discuss in some detail how the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) was frustrated that their concerns on a wood dust standard was not taken seriously enough by OSHA. So for corporations, these standards were outrageous and for workers, they were too little and usually too late. The Precautionary Principle was a great idea but workers in the 1970s were impatient and wanted immediate remediation of the problems of work.

In the case itself, more popularly known as the benzene case, the Court had two primary objections. First was to rule on the benzene standard itself, specifically the reduction of benzene at the workplace from 10 parts per million to 1 ppm. Second was whether OSHA needed to have a “reasonable relationship” between the costs and benefits of new standards. The Court’s majority (John Paul Stevens wrote the opinion with Burger and Stewart in the majority while Rehnquist and Powell wrote concurring opinions) decided to read Congress’ mind in interpreting the Occupational Safety and Health Act, assuming Congress couldn’t have meant to protect all workers from all health risks without cost consideration. Effectively, the Court rejected the Precautionary Principle as an unreasonable standard with which to hold business. A plurality tried to create a standard for workplace health that would activate OSHA action, rather unhelpfully noting that it should lie somewhere between a 1 x 1000 chance of illness and a 1 x 1,000,000 chance. What this did was allow the Reagan administration to effectively avoid health regulations on the job at all after it took power in 1981 by adhering to the 1 in a million standard. Thurgood Marshall wrote a blistering dissent (Brennan, White, and Blackmun making up the rest of the minority) saying the decision placed “the burden of medical uncertainty squarely on the shoulders of the American worker.”

Despite Industrial Union Department, American work is much safer and healthier today than it was decades ago. Unfortunately, a lot of the reason for that is the outsourcing of such work to Latin American and Asian nations where workers labor in health-destroying conditions making products for American consumption.

While researching this case, I ran across a celebratory essay about the decision by one Antonin Scalia in an American Enterprise Institute publication.

The roots of this week’s decision in Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency
can be seen in Industrial Union Department, as Scalia’s opinion relied heavily on the same cost-benefit analysis as that case.

I don’t think there is a single book that really deals with this case effectively, but it is mentioned in Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner’s Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, which is a very good book on the larger issue of workplace health. I also consulted Albert Matheny and Bruce Williams, “Regulation, Risk Assessment, and the Supreme Court: The Case of OSHA’s Cancer Policy,” in Law and Policy, October 1984.

This is the 149th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Neo-Confederate Response

[ 49 ] July 1, 2015 |

imrs.php

The racists have burned 8 black churches in 10 days.

The Subway

[ 77 ] July 1, 2015 |

SubwaySigns

It’s amazing the New York subway system works at all.

But the fundamental reason the MTA is so hard to fix, say transit experts both inside and outside the authority, goes back to those antediluvian switches. The MTA runs one of the largest transit systems in the world on a budget that’s dependent on the whims of elected officials in City Hall and Albany. It’s the equivalent of trying to change the engine and tires on a 1930 Studebaker while driving cross-country at top speed and hoping you can find enough spare change between the seat cushions to buy parts.

“We’re trying to address three or four decades’ worth of disrepair and disinvestment,” says MTA planning director Bill Wheeler. “The last time people sunk money seriously into the subway system was before World War II. It’s taken us a long, long time to come back, and that’s why much of the capital program is about rebuilding.”

“New York started off behind a lot of other places, because most other places haven’t let their physical plant deteriorate to the extent that New York has,” agrees Richard Barone, director of transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association (RPA), one of the local groups that has pushed hardest for improved transit infrastructure. It’s a problem that started in the 1950s and 1960s, when local budgets got tight and subway service for a shrinking (and increasingly nonwhite) city populace no longer seemed like a priority.

“New York really just ignored investing in its infrastructure,” says Barone. “So it took decades to rebuild what we had lost because of neglect.” And while the MTA has spent more than $100 billion on improvements since its first capital plan in 1982 — almost every subway car has been replaced in that time, for starters — Barone says the agency remains in “catch-up” mode.

And of course there’s huge parts of the city the system does not touch. Yet it’s still reasonably reliable. In my limited experience, it seems more functional than that of Washington. I’ll find out more about that in the next few weeks as I’ll be in the nation’s capital for most of July researching a new project and enjoying that sweet, sweet DC weather.

The Foolishness of Post-Work Utopianism

[ 176 ] July 1, 2015 |

Claims-for-unemployment-benefits-drop-in-the-First-Week-of-March

Every now and again, you see some essay about the utopia of a post-work society, suggesting that the disappearance of traditional paid labor (a lot of which is not much fun) will allow people’s real passions to flourish. Derek Thompson wrote a very long Atlantic piece exploring these ideas in a very positive way. I was not pleased. There is no utopian end of work. What follows the end of work is poverty. And such articles undermine what we actually need–motivating people to political action for economic justice and good jobs. The threat of automation creating mass unemployment is real enough, as I have discussed here repeatedly. But there’s nothing positive at the end of that process. Moreover, I felt like, although I can’t know, that all the people Thompson talked to as examples of people already engaging in a post-(traditional) work economy are relatively well-educated white people–the PhD who decided to start a foundry where people like mixed media artists and engineers come to labor/leisure, the bartender in Youngstown who is also a PhD student at the University of Chicago, the writer with two master’s degrees working in a cafe. Where are the African-Americans in Youngstown or Native Americans on the reservations already suffering from long-term unemployment? Do they have a place in this post-work future? They sure don’t seem to in Thompson’s article.

Luckily, I’m not the only person rolling their eyes at this sort of thing. Mike Konczal:

There’s been a consistent trend of these stories going back decades, with a huge wave of them coming after the Great Recession. Thompson’s piece is likely to be the best of the bunch. It’s empathetic, well reported, and imaginative. I also hope it’s the last of these end-of-work stories for the time being.

At this point, the preponderance of stories about work ending is itself doing a certain kind of labor, one that distracts us and leads us away from questions we need to answer. These stories, beyond being untethered to the current economy, distract from current problems in the workforce, push laborers to identify with capitalists while ignoring deeper transitional matters, and don’t even challenge what a serious, radical story of ownership this would bring into question.

But what is the impact of these stories? In the short term, the most important is that they allow us to dream about a world where the current problems of labor don’t exist, because they’ve been magically solved. This is a problem, because the conditions and compensation of work are some of our biggest challenges. In these future scenarios, there’s no need to organize, seek full employment, or otherwise balance the relationship between labor and capital, because the former doesn’t exist anymore.

This is especially a problem when it leaves the “what if” fiction writings of op-eds, or provocative calls to reexamine the nature of work in our daily lives, and melds into organizational politics. I certainly see a “why does this matter, the robots are coming” mentality among the type of liberal infrastructure groups that are meant to mobilize resources and planning to build a more just economy. The more this comforting fiction takes hold, the more problematic it becomes and easier it is for liberals to become resigned to low wages.

Because even if these scenarios pan out, work is around for a while. Let’s be aggressive with a scenario here: Let’s say the need for hours worked in the economy caps right now. This is it; this is the most we’ll ever work in the United States. (It won’t be.) In addition, the amount of hours worked decreases rapidly by 4 percent a year so that it is cut to around 25 percent of the current total in 34 years. (This won’t happen.)

Back of the envelope, during this time period people in the United States will work a total of around 2 billion work years. Or roughly 10,000 times as long as human beings have existed. What kinds of lives and experiences will those workers have?

Worker power matters, ironically, because it’s difficult to imagine the productivity growth necessary to get to this world without some sense that labor is strong. If wages are stagnant or even falling, what incentive is there to build the robots to replace those workers? Nothing is certain here, but you can see periods where low unemployment is correlated with faster productivity gains. The best way forward to a post-work atmosphere will probably be to embrace labor, not hope it goes away.

And if you actually were going to promote a post-work utopianism, you’d think you would go so far as to endorse the one policy that might alleviate a few of these problems, which is universal basic income. But nope, not a word about that. Just a vague of sense of fulfillment and belonging through artisanship and a sort of government funded online-WPA type proposal. So the policy recommendations here really fall short of even beginning to think about how to deal with unemployment in the present or in the future.

Finally, Thompson’s story ends with a 60 year old going back to get a master’s degree so he can become a teacher. He writes, “It took the loss of so many jobs to force him to pursue the work he always wanted to do.” Except that where are the jobs for 60 year old teachers?!? Thompson just leaves this here as if personal fulfillment somehow leads to economic stability. And anyone who knows anything about the current state of education and employment knows that even if you do love teaching, the realities of being in a classroom in a Rheeist society of extreme testing and attacks on teachers’ unions is not some glorious result. Rather, Thompson is engaging in a sort of romanticizing of teaching (a long tradition) to avoid real conclusions and a strong basis in the realities of work and labor policy in the United States.

In conclusion, I really have to wonder how many of these people who write about a post-work society in a hopeful way have ever actually experienced poverty or even basic working-class life. Not having employment is a terrible thing. And even if everyone else isn’t working either, it’s not like that leads to some universal acceptance of the situation and everyone getting over their Protestant work ethics. Rather, we can see what a bit of a post-work society looks like. It looks like Youngstown or it looks like southern West Virginia. And that’s not a vision anyone remotely progressive should want to replicate. If Youngstown is someone our national future because all the jobs are gone, there’s nothing to celebrate. There’s no positive endgame to that scenario.

Always for Pleasure

[ 27 ] July 1, 2015 |

I had a whole bunch of stuff to write about today and then it didn’t happen for a number of reasons. But I still found time to watch Les Blank’s 1978 film about the culture of New Orleans, Always for Pleasure. It’s not available as a whole film on YouTube; I watched it on Fandor. But there are a couple clips available. It’s pretty great. I know the New Orleans of 1978 is not the New Orleans of 2015 in many ways. But it still made me want to go to New Orleans again.

The only thing to say after that second clip is NOT ENOUGH CAYENNE!!!!

Page 100 of 423« First...102030...9899100101102...110120130...Last »