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Be Safe. Live in Cities

[ 99 ] July 30, 2013 |

Despite our national culture of fearing cities and creating myths about rural America being the Heartland and such, living in a city is far safer than living in the countryside.

Would be interesting to see a comparison of suburbs to inner cities.

Ho Chi Minh and America

[ 80 ] July 29, 2013 |

Last week, Barack Obama had a meeting with Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang. After the meeting, Obama had some remarks about the relationship between Ho Chi Minh and American history:

At the conclusion of the meeting, President Sang shared with me a copy of a letter sent by Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman. And we discussed the fact that Ho Chi Minh was actually inspired by the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson. Ho Chi Minh talks about his interest in cooperation with the United States. And President Sang indicated that even if it’s 67 years later, it’s good that we’re still making progress.

All true. But conservatives are flipping out that the Kenyan Usurper supports Vietnamese communism, which they already knew anyway.

Several conservative media outlets blasted the president on similar terms. “Obama may have just been trying to flatter his guest who was obviously eager to show that Ho was not the monster history shows him to be,” Chris Stirewalt, digital politics editor for Fox News wrote. “But his connection between the American founders and Ho shows either a massive lack of historical knowledge on the part of the president or a remarkable degree of moral flexibility.” (The Drudge Report quickly picked up the Fox piece.) The headline at Breitbart.com read, “Obama Praises Communist Dictator & American Enemy Ho Chi Minh.” And so on and so forth.

Hilarious stuff. But Ho’s history with the United States goes back well before 1945, when Ho appealed to the U.S. for help against French colonialism at the close of World War II. In 1919, Ho Chi Minh was a 29-year old Vietnamese nationalist living in Paris. Like nationalists across the colonized world, Ho was inspired by the words of Woodrow Wilson around national self-determination. Ho already had a positive view of America’s revolutionary history and hoped he could enlist Wilson in the Vietnamese cause. He was not alone. Nationalists in Africa, China, and India also held onto Wilson’s words as a great promise. Of course what none of these people knew was that Wilson was a white supremacist and colonialist and that his vision of self-determination existed solely for European white people. Ho tried to meet with Wilson, but the president of course refused and gave America’s support to French colonialism in Asia. When Wilson failed to live up to the promise that Ho and others had projected upon him, they turned to the alternative of the Soviet Union. But in 1919, this was a decidedly second choice. Not only was the USSR weak, divided, and in the middle of a raging civil war, but the nationalists from colonized countries preferred U.S. help because of the vision of freedom and democracy it represented. Unfortunately, American rhetoric has never lived up to reality, especially when it comes to nations of brown people. The Haitians were inspired by the American Revolution and the U.S. isolated it after it kicked out the French. The nations of Latin America were inspired by the American Revolution and we know how the U.S. have treated those nations throughout the post-1821 years.

So in thinking about Ho’s relationship with the United States, it’s a story not only of his, perhaps idealized, vision of the United States, but of the failed opportunities of American foreign policy to reject colonialism after both World War I and World War II and create positive relationships with developing nations. I’m not saying this was a particularly realistic stance for the United States to take in 1919 (although it was in 1946), but in the history of mistakes with bad consequences, blowing off Ho Chi Minh has to be pretty high.

Fast Food Strike

[ 87 ] July 29, 2013 |

Read Josh Eidelson’s piece on fast food strikes. Fast food workers in seven cities will engage in one-day strikes over the next 4 days, starting with New York today. Among other things, they are arguing for a hike in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Eidelson includes a lot of good stories from workers about their struggles. I want to focus on his larger implications though:

Whether workers can transform that industry – rather than just hoping to rise within in – has big implications for labor’s future. First, because fast food jobs are increasingly representative of US work: poor compensation, little job security, a constant expectation to put on a happy face for customers, and virtually no unions.

And second, because – following a decades-long economic, judicial, and political attack – the campaign’s strategy represents some of the ways organizers are attempting to break free from a strategic box labor’s been left in to die. Among them: Given the law’s failure to meaningfully compel companies to bargain collectively even when workers want to, and the limits of slick anti-corporate P.R. campaigns that don’t deeply involve workers, some low-wage non-union workers are taking up the strike. Facing changes that have made strikes more risky and less effective, they’re mounting short-term strikes by a minority of the workforce designed to ignite further activism, embarrass management, and engage the public, while reducing (but not eliminating) the risk the workers will lose their jobs.

Those strikes anchor and amplify a range of other comprehensive campaign efforts, from criminal charges filed by Seattle workers over alleged “wage theft,” to a full-court media press to embarrass McDonald’s over the budget calculator it offered its low-wage workers. Jonathan Westin, who directs New York’s Fast Food Forward campaign, told Salon he doubts that national TV outlets would have lingered on the budget story if workers hadn’t forced a debate about the industry by repeatedly going on strike. “The more and more workers continue to take action and continue to publicize their fight,” said Westin, “the more and more it starts to get at the fast food industry’s biggest asset, which is their name brand. And I think that’s what we’re beginning to see in a very real way.”

Maybe.

I am significantly less optimistic about the ability of these strikes to transform the labor movement. Wasn’t Wisconsin supposed to bring collective bargaining rights back into the public conversation? Didn’t Occupy have the potential to usher in a new workers’ movement? Wasn’t the WTO protests in Seattle the beginning of a new era of environmentalists and labor working together? You can find a lot of articles from the time saying all of these things.

It’s a positive development, no doubt. But I’d really need to see some concrete results before thinking that a few workers engaging in one-day strikes across the country has much meaning to the nation as a whole.

Still, you never know what spark is going to change the world. These strikes are wholly positive and eventually my pessimism will be shown incorrect. Or at least I hope it will.

That doesn’t mean the fast food strikes are not beginning to scare companies though. The Employment Policies Institute ran this full-page ad (PDF) in today’s issue of USA Today to attack the idea of raising the minimum wage. What made me laugh about it was the text suggesting that a higher minimum wage would force employers to replace workers with machines, which they are already doing anyway. This is the minimum wage version of environmental job blackmail, when employers look to scare workers by saying that environmentalists will steal the jobs that employers are already planning to eliminate. Of course, the companies aren’t ready to replace all their workers with machines yet and so a $15 minimum wage does scare them enough to advertise in national newspapers.

The Death of Sherwood Anderson

[ 51 ] July 29, 2013 |

I just finished re-reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio for the first time in many years. While I’ve been in Mexico, I’ve reacquainted myself with the literature of the Gilded Age, largely because I am using the Kindle feature on my ipad for the first time and so I didn’t want to invest in newer books until I knew I liked it. It’s been a useful exercise. Read Great Expectations for the first time since high school. Read A Doll’s House for the first time. Same with Wister’s The Virginian (a very silly novel but useful for me as a teacher of the period). Found Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham fascinating in the first time I’ve read it since college. Total Gilded Age fantasy that capitalists wanted to tell themselves about making moral decisions when everyone else (including themselves) were swindling as many people as they could. Some other good stuff as well. So it’s been great. But reading Winesburg, Ohio again was like a slap in the face. What a brilliant piece of literature. So true and direct. Talking about sex and loneliness and obsession in a real, straightforward way that previous American authors really couldn’t do.

Anyway, I was reading Anderson’s Wikipedia page and came across this, a truly unfortunate way to die:

Anderson died on March 8, 1941, at the age of 64, taken ill during a cruise to South America. He had been feeling abdominal discomfort for a few days, which was later diagnosed as peritonitis. Anderson and his wife disembarked from the cruise liner Santa Lucia and went to the hospital in Colón, Panama, where he died on March 8. An autopsy revealed he had accidentally swallowed a toothpick, which had damaged his internal organs and promoted infection. He was thought to have swallowed it in the course of eating the olive of a martini or hors d’oeuvres.

I’m not sure how one swallows the toothpick off a martini olive unless you were very drunk, which is always possible. That’s a pretty tough way to go. I mean, I don’t mind too many martinis killing me, but I’d prefer the slow death of liver destruction to puncturing my innards with a bloody toothpick. Let’s at least hope the olive was good.

Also, I feel there’s a non-zero chance that this is the way Farley will go out.

Supporting the Dream Act 9

[ 124 ] July 29, 2013 |

I’ve spent July in southern Mexico. The region today is defined by immigration. Traveling to one of the towns my wife studies, way up in the Mixteca, an indigenous and mountainous area about five hours from the state capital of Oaxaca, we were talking to her friends and their families, as it was the town’s feast day. These families are completely torn apart by immigration. One of her friends is the youngest of 10 children. He stayed in Mexico and is making a go of it as an artist and photographer. The other 9 are all either in the U.S. or have spent a long time there. He was opening an exhibit. Of his 9 siblings, 2 made it back for it. I assumed most of the rest were undocumented and of course can’t come back except at major risk. Nothing about his family was exceptional. These towns are completely devoid of young men and some of young women as well. There are old people and some children and a few in between who are still trying to make a living farming or in the towns. These are good, solid, hard-working people, the same as people around the world. Yet the United States treats them like criminals.

The actions of undocumented immigration activists to bring attention to these problems are so brave. The 9 activists who crossed the border in protest and then recrossed in order to get arrested are amazing. They are asking to be allowed to remain in the U.S. on humanitarian grounds. Unless they get a special exception, they probably are going to lose. For many undocumented people who get deported, they don’t even know the country of their birth. If they are 19, have they been to Guatemala or El Salvador or Mexico since they were 2? For some, no. They might not even speak Spanish well. To President Obama’s credit, he’s trying to change the system to some degree through immigration reform. But thanks to Republican racism, it isn’t going to happen. On the other hand, Obama has led the largest deportation of immigrants in American history.

The 9 activists are on a hunger strike to bring attention to their cause. They need our support and I urge you to pay attention to the case.

Beer and Energy Corporations

[ 22 ] July 29, 2013 |

Like the role Ommegang has played in fighting fracking in New York, I am glad to see Bell’s Brewery take on the tar sands company Enbridge after an oil spill near the brewery dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River three years ago. The more attention that is brought to the great environmental damage caused by tar sands and oil pipelines, the better. The linked article also makes the point that while proponents of Keystone are talking jobs, jobs, jobs, the reality is that environmental degradation can often cost regions jobs when the reasons why people wanted to move there disappear. Bell’s creates jobs too. If its water supply is ruined from oil spills (not the case with the Kalamazoo spill, so don’t worry about your delicious Two-Hearted Ale becoming undrinkable), it and other companies will have to close or move.

The Bangaldeshi Garment Capitalists

[ 64 ] July 28, 2013 |

The New York Times continues its run of articles on the garment trade in Bangladesh but once again I am frustrated with them. Saturday’s article focused on the Bangladeshi garment capitalists, essentially the middlemen between the apparel companies and the workers. These are not good actors. They are corrupt millionaires who dominate the nation’s politics and finance, create laws against unions, have union activists murdered, etc. But what this series of articles continues to do is naturalize American corporate behavior. In this and other articles, American companies aren’t the problem, it’s Bangladeshi corruption. But this situation exists precisely because it generates high profits for apparel companies. If Wal-Mart and Gap wanted to create better conditions in the factories, they could do so almost overnight. They could cut ties with subcontractors who use bad labor practices. They could work with international labor activists to ensure meaningful regulatory enforcement. And, amazing as this sounds, they could also open their own factories in Bangladesh that directly employ garment workers. Just because the apparel industry has subcontracted work for over a century doesn’t mean it has to be that way. Recreating the Triangle Fire over and over again is the upshot of capital mobility and garment industry labor practices. This can change. Bangladeshi factory owners suck but they are not the entirety of the problem, or even the majority of it.

The Energy Industry’s Crocodile Tears

[ 56 ] July 28, 2013 |

Governments subsidize energy. That is a way of life in the United States that is not going to change, because powerful interests make sure those subsidizes become naturalized and we don’t think of them as welfare. That’s probably a good thing. It’s in the government’s interest to make sure its citizens have access to affordable energy. The question is which types of energy should we subsidize. Now that the tiny subsidies for solar are just barely beginning to cut into the profit margins of the long subsidized home energy industry that relies upon hydroelectric, gas, and oil, they are crying huge crocodile tears after their future profit margins.

Alarmed by what they say has become an existential threat to their business, utility companies are moving to roll back government incentives aimed at promoting solar energy and other renewable sources of power. At stake, the companies say, is nothing less than the future of the American electricity industry.

According to the Energy Information Administration, rooftop solar electricity — the economics of which often depend on government incentives and mandates — accounts for less than a quarter of 1 percent of the nation’s power generation.

And yet, to hear executives tell it, such power sources could ultimately threaten traditional utilities’ ability to maintain the nation’s grid.

“We did not get in front of this disruption,” Clark Gellings, a fellow at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit arm of the industry, said during a panel discussion at the annual utility convention last month. “It may be too late.”

I am sympathetic to the idea that one form of energy shouldn’t necessarily have to pay for the upkeep of a system that other energy users aren’t paying for. That’s an easy fix–a slight tax on credit for system maintenance. Otherwise, I see no reason at all why the government should take an interest in the profit margins of energy corporations. Again, the government needs to ensure affordable energy. But it also needs to ensure clean and sustainable energy. Home solar is a great way to do that. Like any energy system, it’s almost impossible for an everyday homeowner to install on their own. Government subsidies are necessary. The government already massively subsidizes one type of home energy system. There’s no reason at all that it should pull back from doing so with solar.

Moreover, both of these are good things:

“If the costs to maintain the grid are not being borne by some customers, then other customers have to bear a bigger and bigger portion,” said Steve Malnight, a vice president at Pacific Gas and Electric. “As those costs get shifted, that leads to higher and higher rates for customers who don’t take advantage of solar.”

Utility executives call this a “death spiral.” As utilities put a heavier burden on fewer customers, it increases the appeal for them to turn their roofs over to solar panels.

A handful of utilities have taken a different approach and are instead getting into the business of developing rooftop systems themselves. Dominion, for example, is running a pilot program in Virginia in which it leases roof space from commercial customers and installs its own panels to study the benefits of a decentralized generation.

Last month, Clean Power Finance, a San Francisco-based start-up that provides financial services and software to the rooftop solar industry, announced that it had backing from Duke Energy and other utilities, including Edison International. And in May, NextEra Energy Resources bought Smart Energy Capital, a commercial solar developer.

The government should be subsidizing solar and if there’s more reason to move to clean, renewable energy, then yay! Second, like with wind energy, I think it’s crazy that established energy companies don’t get involved and monopolize that as well. The opposition of oil to wind and home energy to solar makes no sense. If you want to stay ahead of the curve and continue to profit, adjust and dominate the new energy. You have the capital to do it. So I’m glad to see a few big energy companies do this. But most will resist because solar is hippie energy and hippies suck.

Cannibal Lobsters

[ 24 ] July 28, 2013 |

Let’s take massive overfishing and combine it with rapidly worsening climate change. What you end up with is a nightmare of cannibalistic lobsters, not to mention a Maine fishing economy desperately holding on for survival.

Here’s a great infographic explaining what the larger article explores in more detail.

J.J. Cale, RIP

[ 8 ] July 28, 2013 |

J.J. Cale has died. Can’t say I’m a huge fan of a style this laid-back, which can become outright sleepy. But Cale could write some excellent songs.

The Michigan Copper Strike of 1913-14

[ 13 ] July 27, 2013 |

This week marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Michigan copper strike of 1913-14, made famous by the Calumet Massacre, where a company thug’s call of “Fire!” during a Christmas Eve party led to a stampeded against a door held shut from the outside, killing around 75 people, 60 of whom were children. Aaron Goings and Gary Kaunenon have an excellent history of the strike at Labor Online. Well worth your time.

The True Cost of Food

[ 24 ] July 27, 2013 |

An excellent Mark Bittman op-ed about the true cost of food upon those who produce it. Bittman talks about the fast-food strikes of the last few weeks and how only 1 worker has lost their job, which is interesting. Next week there are going to be more strikes. Listen to Bittman here:

Six elements are affected by the way food is produced: taste, nutrition and price; and the impact on the environment, animals and labor. We can argue about taste, but it’s clear that our production system — especially in the fast-food world — is flunking all the others. And if you think food is “cheap,” talk to the people working in the fields, factories and stores who can’t afford it. Remember: no food is produced without labor.

Well-intentioned people often ask me what they can do to help improve our food system. Here’s an easy one: When you see that picket line next week, don’t cross it. In fact, join it.

That’s right. No food is produced without labor. When you see incredibly cheap food at a Wal-Mart, know that the food is that cheap because the world’s largest corporation makes sure its suppliers supply at very low expenses. Sometimes, that creates conditions similar to slave labor. The food system is not at all different from the apparel system that kills 1100 workers in Bangladesh and poisons rivers around the world.

When workers do take the risk to stand up for themselves, we owe it to them to respect that picket line.