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Hack Lauds Hack

[ 19 ] January 2, 2015 |

Of course centrist hack Frank Bruni would love Wall Street “Democrat” hack and new Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo. A centrist match made in heaven.

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The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

[ 47 ] January 1, 2015 |

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If you are a football person, obviously you are spending the day cheering for Oregon to defeat Florida St and its rapist quarterback. By the way, comparing Winston to Ben Roethlisberger in a positive way, even if their games are similar on the field, is going to invite comment.

If you are not a football person however, let me sugges an alternative entertainment to ring in the new year. How about The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu? I watched this recently and found it utterly fascinating. It consists of nothing but Romanian state footage of the quarter-century Ceausescu regime. No talking heads, no commentary, no interviews. Just state footage. At three hours, it seemed daunting and too long on the face of it. And I suppose it is a bit long, just like every Romanian film it seems. But it really comes together because this regime constantly filmed itself. It includes both sound and silent footage, scenes of Ceausescu hunting some of the last big game in Europe, visits to factories, visits to food markets where Ceausescu showed his ardor for squeezing loaves of bread, state visits, official speeches, and many other varieties of how the state wanted to show itself to the world and to itself.

I had no idea that Ceausescu publicly rebuked the Soviet Union over the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Because of that, he became the eastern bloc darling of the West for awhile. So Richard Nixon shows up. And Jimmy Carter. Most fascinating was Ceausescu’s visit to North Korea. The film really lingers on this, with those incredibly elaborate North Korean parades to honor their visitor. Plus how many times have you seen Kim Il-Sung on film? After Ceausescu returned to Romania, he tried to recreate the cult of personality around Kim for himself. He was truly smitten with North Korea. This certainly did not help him in the end. When one brave communist functionary dares question his consolidation of power at a party congress, you see him hooted down. I feared for what happened to the man. Of course, the film ends just before his assassination after the 1989 revolution, although it does not show his body, which I remember seeing on CNN when I was a kid. The last footage is the only non-state footage in the film, which is him facing questions from his captors and refusing to answer him.

To some extent, it probably helps to know a bit about the man and his years of rule, which I really didn’t. So there are a few issues in which I was a touch lost. But that’s easy enough to research. It is streaming on Netflix and I highly recommend it.

The Official LGM Signature New Year’s Eve Meal

[ 55 ] December 31, 2014 |

Squirrel in cider, from Frank Kohler’s 1961 book Wild Fowl Game Cookery, replete with cute drawings of the animals you are going to eat.

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The Year in Education

[ 15 ] December 31, 2014 |

Between the growth in parents opting their students out of stupid standardized testing, the rapid retreat of the technofuturists and their program of replacing professors with MOOCs, a real push back against Teach for America and its union busting program, and stories about the corruption of charter schools (and hopefully someone took the subtle anti-charter school message from True Detective), the year in education policy was unexpectedly someone less terrible than usual.

Albums I Liked in 2014

[ 44 ] December 31, 2014 |

I’m not going to make any claims to a “Best of” list for 2014 because there are too many albums out there and my budget is too small to buy very many of them. But here are some 2014 albums I liked, in the order I thought of them. I’m not providing much commentary because I suck at writing about music.

St. Vincent, St. Vincent
My album of the year.

Wussy, Attica!
Of course.

Drive-by Truckers, English Oceans
Not one of their greatest albums, but that still leaves it as quite good.

Tom Ze, Vira Lata na Via Lactea
This ancient Brazilian weirdo is still covering new ground.

Tangerine, Behemoth!
A little indie pop band out of Seattle that I heard on KEXP and just thought were a lot of fun.

Angaleena Presley, American Middle Class
A country album actually about class. Huh. My only criticism is that the linked song below, in its recorded version, opens with Presley’s father talking about working in the coal mines. That’s not middle class. That’s working class. Even in an album about class, it always has to be about the middle class. If coal mining isn’t working class, what is? Well, it’s black people on welfare, which is the subtext of this song and it’s frustrating. This country sometimes. Good album though.

The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers
Always fun. Also, Neko Case’s pants.

The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Good rock album

Lydia Loveless, Someone Else
Awful lot of potential here.

Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Just heard this for the first time. Maybe the best country album of the year. Very Waylon.

Jerry Lee Lewis, The Knox Phillips Sessions
Archival release of the year. Jerry Lee recorded this in the late 70s with Sam Phillips’ son. “Bad Leroy Brown” is a really stupid song. Unless The Killer makes it about himself. Then it’s insane.

The Anti-Police Violence Movement and the Haymarket Riot

[ 35 ] December 30, 2014 |

Bill Fletcher has a great essay about the need to learn from the violence used by the state after Haymarket against the labor movement if the anti-police violence movement is going to survive:

The Haymarket Massacre is still the paradigmatic case of the state using a violent act to justify repression. In 1886, at the height of the movement for an eight-hour workday, a bomb was set off at a worker rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. The rally was called to both protest police killings of worker protesters and to support striking workers fighting for the eight-hour day. When police attacked the demonstration, a bomb was thrown. To this day no one knows who set off the explosive, including whether it was an agent provocateur or an activist.

What is known, however, is that the government used the bombing as a pretext to discredit the protests and the workers movement, suggesting that the entire movement was comprised of supposedly violent anarchists. Charges were brought against key leaders of the movement and in a kangaroo trial, eight individuals were convicted for their alleged involvement in the bombing. Four were subsequently hanged.

The reaction by police unions, the Right and much of the mainstream media today is eerily reminiscent of the aftermath of the Haymarket massacre. In this moment it is critical that progressives forcefully counter these arguments. They are cynical and disingenuous efforts to discredit and derail one of the most important movements of the recent past. Let us be clear about what has transpired.

We must learn critical lessons from the Haymarket massacre and its aftermath. Public opinion can be quickly, and rather easily, manipulated against progressive mass movements in the aftermath of egregious acts. If the movement does not stand strong and pay attention to segments of the population that appear to be wavering in their support for the objectives of the movement, there can be major setbacks.

At the same time, there is nothing inevitable about what happens next. This is why good leadership, organization, and a sophisticated approach to strategy and tactics is so necessary.

I have absolute confidence in the young activists leading today’s movement. I hope that they pay attention to the lessons of history as they continue to battle for justice. They have refocused the attention of much of this country on something that was all but ignored. Now they must press on.

The movement must appreciate that efforts will always be made to discredit it, and to blame the actions of a few on the many. It cannot afford to remain silent or agnostic regarding activities or actions that alienate our base and key supporters and, potentially, isolate the movement itself.

A related point: in making a movement successful, we must pay attention to those in the middle, that is, those who are not as committed to the long-term aims of the movement, but are susceptible to persuasion. The aim is to effectively surround our opponents in such a way that their voice becomes the voice of the discredited minority. When we win over the middle, we have that opportunity.

The need to win the “middle,” however you want to define it, on issues like is what I was getting at in this post, with one deranged person committing violence providing the state with the tools to not only repress a social movement, but to convince that middle that the protestors are a danger to order and the state. Of course, like with Alexander Berkman and the Homestead strikers, there’s nothing those in the anti-police violence movement could do about one violent person committing a single crime. So a solid strategy on how to overcome an incident like this is really important for it going forward.

Can We Create an International Trade System that Protects Labor Standards?

[ 53 ] December 30, 2014 |

In yesterday’s Trans-Pacific Partnership thread, Brian asks:

I understand the issue with “shipping jobs overseas” and how major corporations get near slave labor when they do that. And obviously, there is extensive corruption of the ruling class in the exploited labor’s home countries.

But what I am wondering, what kind of policies (not protests) could the United States realistically implement to better the working conditions of the labor forces in other countries?

And hypothetically, if the working conditions were all up to a general standard considered humane, would free trade agreements still be considered bad? And if so, why?

These are good questions. Let me answer them with some specific examples from the American past and some ideas for the future.

The United States has attempted in the past, on relatively rare occasions, to create and enforce conditions on trade overseas. It can happen and it must happen.

In the 1910s, conditions for seaman were terrible around the globe. When the U.S. improved standards, it undercut its shippers’ ability to compete with its foreign competitors in an industry that was perhaps the first in the world to be truly global. As Leon Fink shows in Sweatshops at Sea, the response of the International Seaman’s Union and the Wilson Administration was to pass the Seamen’s Act of 1915. To quote from Out of Sight:

The ISU publicized the horrors of what happened on the ships, far out of sight from American consumers. It used the Triangle Fire to make its case: “No one will claim it is safe to crowd people into a theater or a shirtwaist factory and then to lock the doors.” Furuseth furiously lobbied President Woodrow Wilson to sign what became known as the LaFollette Seaman’s Act, which he did in 1915. The law banned corporal punishment on ships, gave seamen the right to break their contracts in exchange for half their wages earned to that point on a voyage, and most importantly, made the law applicable to any vessel sailing to an American port. As Fink states, this law created a “race to the top,” as the U.S. government used its power to force foreign nations to agree to American working standards if they wanted to trade in American ports. Conditions for seamen improved around the world as they had the option to walk away any time their ship landed in the trading behemoth that was the United States.

It didn’t work all that well because soon after the U.S. also banned most immigration, which meant that most of these workers couldn’t actually immigrate to the U.S. Moreover, the Harding and Coolidge administrations, not to mention the Department of Commerce, had no interest in actually enforcing this law. The Supreme Court ended up declaring some of the provisions unconstitutional in the 1950s.

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 also banned goods made by slave labor, with the 1997 Treasury-Postal Appropriations Bill adding goods from forced labor or indentured child labor to this list. Similarity, the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) was enacted in 1975. Today, 176 nations have signed the accord. There’s no question these laws are regularly violated. The Chinese used prison labor all the time to make goods for export to the U.S. Just having the laws on the books is far from enough for them to work and there’s not a lot of incentive for the U.S. government to enforce these laws against the Chinese. That’s because we don’t pressure the government to do so. But without the laws, there is no chance of them helping. Right now, we have tools at our disposal that can work if we choose to use them. In the case of CITES, where there is some will to enforce the law, there’s no question it has been a positive force to reduce illegal wildlife trafficking.

We can also borrow from the EU. Again, to quote Out of Sight:

In 2013, the European Union created a new logging code on sourcing timber from tropical nations. Throughout the tropics rainforests are declining in the face of cattle ranches, mining operations, and illegal logging. The EU code places hard penalties upon those trafficking in illegal timber. Timber suppliers must provide documentation of where and how the timber was harvested, keeping detailed paperwork for five years about the timber traders selling the wood. This forces timber companies to take responsibility for the actions of their suppliers. For us, it provides legal precedent for national and regional governance over corporate behavior in a contracting regime. This far outpaces any U.S. law on the timber trade and provides an excellent example of how government can force companies into compliance on standards of sourcing products. There is no reason the U.S. cannot do the same thing with apparel and electronics, as well as timber.

Perhaps the most useful and relevant historical example is not that old. In 1994, organized labor was angry at Bill Clinton for signing NAFTA. When the House initially rejected Clinton’s request to negotiate new trade deals in 1997, it forced him to bargain. One sop he threw labor was its proposal to include in a new trade deal with Cambodia a clause to incentivize the Cambodian government giving more rights to workers. The 1974 Multi-Fibre Agreement placed textile import quotas on the developing world in order to discourage a race to the bottom in the apparel industry. This Cambodian deal increased their quotas in exchange for more workers’ rights, including unionization. And it worked. Workers received $50 a month for a 48-hour week, received a dozen federal holidays, vacation days, sick leave, and maternity leave. This became the only free trade agreement with an enforceable labor provision. Overseen by the International Labour Organization, the deal included inspections and real incentives for apparel factory owners to comply. It wasn’t perfect of course, but it was the best agreement for workers yet made in a trade deal.

But at the end of 2004, both the Cambodian agreement and the Multi-Fibre Agreement expired. With the latter, the modern race to the bottom in apparel production began. And the Cambodian workers’ protections immediately collapsed. Once again from Out of Sight:

Cambodia now had to compete with the rest of the world without inspections or union contracts. Within weeks of the quota ending in 2005, underground sweatshops appeared with terrible working conditions. Now even freer than ever before to concentrate in nations with the worst workplaces standards, Cambodian labor saw its union pacts quickly scuttled and its working conditions and wages plummet to some of the lowest in the industry. Wages fell by 17 percent for Cambodian garment workers between 2001 and 2011. This story starkly demonstrates the differences between a global labor system with and without regulation.

There are more examples as well. In short, the U.S. government can do a lot in these trade deals and in the global economy to ensure basic rights are respected and enforced. But it does not. It rarely has incentive to do so. The elites of most all of the nations involved have little incentive to care about these issues. The U.S. wants good relations with the leaders of Bangladesh and Cambodia and Vietnam, which have little accountability on these issues with their own people. Bangladesh is largely run by the apparel contractors, who hold several seats in Parliament. So of course the Bangladeshi government isn’t going to do anything about the problems of their apparel factories except kill some union organizers. U.S. labor isn’t strong enough anymore to force the American government to enact the kind of international trade standards that would actually protect workers overseas and undermine some of the incentive for American companies to ship production abroad. Meanwhile, the American corporations who can openly buy politicians in a post-Citizens United world very much want the current system to continue, which is part of the reason for Obama’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But none of this means we shouldn’t or can’t make global production standards that give workers rights. We have a few useful historical precedents that should inspire us to know that we can do this. But for the most part, we need to envision what global production standards should be, how we would empower workers to be able to take the lead in enforcing them, what the inspection system would be, and what the enforcement mechanism would look like. These are not easy questions to answer. They are conversations we need to have. I think the U.S. should pass a set of basic standards around labor and environmental regulations and force companies to comply with them by giving workers the right to sue companies in American courts for their enforcement. I’d also like a pony. But if we don’t talk about the world we want to see, that world will never come to pass. I know this isn’t happening as a result of the 2016 elections, no matter who we vote in. But we must fight to make these issues central in the American political system, if for no other reason that the fleeing of American jobs overseas undermines the American working and middle classes.

And it’s important to note that the mere threat of enforcement can make a difference. Again from Out of Sight:

In 1992, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act that would have prohibited importing goods made with child labor to the U.S. that called for both civil and criminal penalties for violators. Indian carpet makers, reliant upon child labor, began moving toward an independent monitoring system working with German unions, although when it became clear that Harkin’s bill would not pass, the Indian carpet industry resisted meaningful monitoring and therefore the system was weakened and easily avoided by the carpet makers. Unfortunately, Congress has never passed the Child Labor Deterrence Act, but the case of the Indian carpet makers suggest suppliers and importers are watching American labor law and will react positively to mandates.

For the last question on the potential of supporting a trade regime that actually protected people and the environment, the answer is that it depends. Were we to see real, enforceable standards on these trade agreements that held corporations and their CEOs specifically accountable for the actions of the companies, we could then debate whether trade agreements were worth it. But it’s pretty clear that, first, fewer American jobs would go abroad if this was the case and, second, that those jobs that are moved abroad would have less reason to again move if workers organized or a government decided to protect its citizens. So the immoral aspect of the global economy would decline and the rate of jobs leaving our borders would too. That’s a win-win. Ultimately, what we need is not all the jobs in the United States and none in poor nations. We need workers to have safe jobs with living wages and the right to organize without worry that the factory will move somewhere else. We need rivers running clean and kids not unable to study because the chemicals from apparel factories in the air and water give them headaches. If this happened, my objections to so-called free trade agreements would probably disappear, but then they wouldn’t be anything like current free trade agreements.

Austerity Can Only Be Failed

[ 70 ] December 30, 2014 |

The Greeks should quit whining about their German-imposed austerity program. What’s 1.3 million jobs, a tax regime shifted to collect from the poor for the actions of bankers and politicians and a lack of hope compared to the puritanical glory of austerity. If it isn’t working, the only answer is more austerity. After all, austerity can never fail. It can only be failed by those who don’t worship at its altar with enough fervor.

The Declining Working Class

[ 51 ] December 30, 2014 |

Young people today are more likely to be poor today than in 1980. With free trade agreements like NAFTA sending decent paying jobs young blue-collar people could go into after high school abroad, it’s hardly surprising. The Trans-Pacific Partnership will just make this worse.

4’33” in Autotune

[ 9 ] December 29, 2014 |

Someone decided to run John Cage’s 4’33” through Autotune. Here are the results:

Today in Republican Minority Outreach

[ 101 ] December 29, 2014 |

Republicans might as well just embrace it at this point:

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House majority whip, acknowledged Monday that he spoke at a gathering hosted by white nationalist leaders while serving as a state representative in 2002, thrusting a racial controversy into House Republican ranks days before the party assumes control of both congressional chambers.

The 48-year-old Scalise, who ascended to the House GOP’s third-ranking post earlier this year, confirmed through an adviser that he once appeared at a convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization.

That organization, founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, has been called a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Could Be the Worst Thing Obama Ever Does

[ 79 ] December 29, 2014 |

Most discussions of politics in the next two years focus on gridlock, with no appointees being confirmed, no bills being signed, effective rule by temporary executive order. But there is one significant area where Obama and the Republicans agree and that is on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP is a free trade deal that would straddle the Pacific Rim, including Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S., and Vietnam. It would create the world’s largest free trade zone. If you liked NAFTA sending millions of jobs out of the United States with no labor or environmental protections for the nations receiving these jobs, you will love the TPP.

So far the TPP has gone nowhere because of Harry Reid and Democrats in the Senate. This law is anathema to senators like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown and should be for any of us who value American jobs and the dignity of the working class. The Obama Administration last year sought fast-track authority for the TPP from the Senate. Democrats refused. Republicans won’t, even with the fireeating caucus who wouldn’t vote to declare war on Japan on December 7, 1941 if a Democrat was president. Obama has said that the TPP will actually improve labor conditions but this is simply not true. Whatever limited agreements are in the agreement that would technically require higher labor standards would not come with any punishment for American corporations using Vietnamese factories and without those legal restrictions, you are looking at the expansion of the post-NAFTA world where Mexico became a home for companies seeking to avoid environmental regulations and labor standards. The limited and non-binding parts of NAFTA to guarantee labor and environmental standards have been almost entirely ignored while Mexican laborers get exploited and the American working class goes into a deep decline.

These trade deals are constantly touted by their promoters as something that will ultimately help the working and middle class in the U.S., if we are willing to sacrifice a bit up front. These are lies. Harold Meyerson on the impact:

By now, even the most ossified right-wing economists concede that globalization has played a major role in the loss of American manufacturing jobs and, more broadly, the stagnation of U.S. wages and incomes. Former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alan Blinder has calculated that 22 percent to 29 percent of all U.S. jobs could potentially be offshored. That’s a lot of jobs: 25 percent would translate to 36 million workers whose wages are in competition with those in largely lower-income nations. Of the 11 nations with which the United States is negotiating the TPP, nine have wage levels significantly lower than ours.

Meanwhile, the promoters of the TPP just blithely ignore where NAFTA has failed, focusing instead on what they see as its good points (i.e., making a lot of money for corporate leaders and shareholders). Meyerson again:

But perhaps the most devastating argument against the kind of trade accords the United States has entered into over the past quarter-century has been that inadvertently made by those defenders of such agreements who have used the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement — it went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994 — to celebrate its achievements. I’ve read many commemorative editorials, columns and speeches in praise of NAFTA, and not one of them has so much as mentioned the agreement’s effect on U.S. employment, wages or trade balance. In October, former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, who was one of NAFTA’s architects in the administration of George H.W. Bush, delivered a lengthy, glowing assessment of NAFTA’s achievements that managed to avoid any of those topics. The champion of avoidance seems to be Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. At a San Diego conference in October, a public radio reporter asked her, “And where has NAFTA not lived up to some of the hopes and promises?” Pritzker replied: “I don’t think about where NAFTA hasn’t lived up.”

And really, why should the Obama Administration think about how NAFTA hasn’t lived up to its promises. It’s only trying to recreate it over the entire Pacific Rim after all.

The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers has said of the TPP, “Let’s not exacerbate the pollution problems of the world and perpetuate human exploitation by including nations like Malaysia and Vietnam in a free trade pact, as the TPP would do.” Now, you can say the IBB has its own interests in mind–which it should. But regardless of how you feel about unions, free trade without legal restrictions on the behavior of international corporations has led to the widespread exploitation of both people and the planet without any ability for the citizens of those nations to win protections for themselves on the job or so their water and air don’t become cesspools of filth. Vietnam has a minimum wage of 28 cents an hour, assuming it is even enforced.

The TPP also includes provisions that would make it far harder for the U.S. to raise global standards on environmental and labor issues:

Based on those drafts, we also know that the draft agreement includes a provision for what’s called “investor-state dispute settlement.”

This little-known mechanism was initially created to protect corporate investments in countries where the rule of law is immature or at risk. In reality, it often empowers corporations to sue sovereign nations over any policies that conflict with their supposed right to the profits of free trade – including health and environmental policies designed to serve the democratically determined public interest.

If that sounds far-fetched, one need look no further than the Lone Pine Resources Inc v The Government of Canada lawsuit, filed in 2013, which arose out of Quebec’s moratorium on hydraulic fracking. Lone Pine claims that the moratorium is “in violation of Canada’s obligations under Chapter 11 of the Nafta”. The case is under arbitration.

Or consider Phillip Morris’s multibillion-dollar lawsuit against the Australian government over cigarette-packaging regulation, which uses an investor-state-dispute-settlement clause established in a 1993 free-trade agreement between Australia and Hong Kong.

These corporate-friendly provisions in trade agreements can and have been used on far-ranging issues, from minimum wage laws in Egypt to environmental remediation in developing countries. The troubling, explosive growth of such cases point to a litigious future where corporate interests increasingly appear to trump national sovereignty with billions of dollars at stake.

Is giving American companies even more incentive to move American jobs abroad what we want from a Democratic president? No. Is giving corporations the ability to defeat national attempts to hold them accountable what we want from a Democratic president? No. Is outsourcing pollution to the world’s poor what we want from a Democratic president? No. Fighting the TPP needs to be central to the political agenda of progressives over the next two years.

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