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The End of the Asian Forests

[ 23 ] March 24, 2014 |

The burning of Asian forests, particularly but not exclusively in Indonesia, continues unabated. This is usually reported on for the public health aspects of it since the smoke from Sumatra wafts over the rest of southeast Asia. That’s a huge problem, but of course there is also the destruction of the ecosystem. When I traveled in Sumatra in 1997, I saw some of this and it was mostly poor people engaging in slash and burn farming. That’s not the case anymore. Today, it’s big landowners burning land for palm oil and paper plantations. The method of clearing land is horrible because of the environmental cost to people’s lungs, but that’s not what I want to focus on here.

In the 1980s, as environmentalists rallied to save the last ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, workers, who considered themselves environmentally responsible stewards of the land, were angry because of their lost livelihood. Of course, the companies were lying to the workers as they were already moving operations to other forests, but leave that aside for now. One point the two timber workers unions made repeatedly was that the United States was now exporting its forestry to countries with far fewer environmental restrictions on forestry than the U.S. By moving timber production to Brazil or Indonesia, we were dooming other forests while doing nothing about consumption in the United States. And that’s basically a correct analysis of the situation. That doesn’t mean that we should have cut down the last old-growth forests, in fact environmentalists were completely correct on this. But the saving of American forests in no way reduced consumption of forest products. The transformation of tropical forests into plantations for the export market is one result of this.

Exxon Valdez

[ 42 ] March 24, 2014 |

Happy 25th Anniversary to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Those were some good times. What did biologists discover from it? That the oil industry is horrible for wildlife:

Scientists had traditionally believed that oil basically had to cover an animal or embryo to hurt it. But the evidence they saw in Alaska suggested it didn’t take much oil to do a lot of damage. And that damage could manifest in different ways.

For example, oil under rocks and in sediments contaminated clams that sea otters ate. It didn’t kill the otters outright: Wildlife biologist Dan Esler of the U.S. Geological Survey says it shortened otters’ lives and suppressed the population for 20 years.

“The understanding that lingering oil could have chronic effects on wildlife populations was a new and important finding, and one that we did not anticipate at the time that we started the research,” Esler says.

Through years of research, scientists discovered another unexpected effect, this time related to fish eggs. The clue came from pink salmon, which weren’t doing well even years after the spill. To figure out why, Rice’s team exposed pink salmon embryos to tiny amounts of oil.

“We were dosing them with oil that you couldn’t see [and] you couldn’t smell. But we were doing it for a really long time,” Rice says. “And six months later, they had abnormalities.”

Rice says it was one of the many “wows” that came from his years heading up a NOAA team researching the spill’s effects.

But hey, I’m sure everything is back to normal in the Gulf after the BP spill and that we should continue right on drilling like nothing ever happened.

The Answer is Class

[ 132 ] March 23, 2014 |

This Times op-ed on why people born in certain counties dominate Wikipedia entries spends a lot of words to miss the obvious answer. An excerpt:

The first striking fact in the data was the enormous geographic variation in the likelihood of becoming a big success, at least on Wikipedia’s terms. Your chances of achieving notability were highly dependent on where you were born.

Roughly one in 1,209 baby boomers born in California reached Wikipedia. Only one in 4,496 baby boomers born in West Virginia did. Roughly one in 748 baby boomers born in Suffolk County, Mass., which contains Boston, made it to Wikipedia. In some counties, the success rate was 20 times lower.

Why do some parts of the country appear to be so much better at churning out American movers and shakers? I closely examined the top counties. It turns out that nearly all of them fit into one of two categories.

First, and this surprised me, many of these counties consisted largely of a sizable college town. Just about every time I saw a county that I had not heard of near the top of the list, like Washtenaw, Mich., I found out that it was dominated by a classic college town, in this case Ann Arbor, Mich. The counties graced by Madison, Wis.; Athens, Ga.; Columbia, Mo.; Berkeley, Calif.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Gainesville, Fla.; Lexington, Ky.; and Ithaca, N.Y., are all in the top 3 percent.

Why is this? Some of it is probably the gene pool: Sons and daughters of professors and graduate students tend to be smart. And, indeed, having more college graduates in an area is a strong predictor of the success of the people born there.

But there is most likely something more going on: early exposure to innovation. One of the fields where college towns are most successful in producing top dogs is music. A kid in a college town will be exposed to unique concerts, unusual radio stations and even record stores. College towns also incubate more than their expected share of notable businesspeople.

Or, it’s because you are born rich or you are born poor and that fact goes a very long ways in determining your future in this nation. Even his discussion of African-Americans and immigrants shows this–his examples are people born into the elites of these groups. It’s remarkable how obvious this is and how he totally misses this in a 21st century America where class-based analysis is unfashionable.

The mention of “genes” is basically playing with eugenics, although I’m sure this is unintentional.

The Foxes

[ 152 ] March 23, 2014 |

I should start this post by saying that I couldn’t care one way or the other about the success of FiveThirtyEight. Nate Silver has done good work on both sports and elections, but that doesn’t mean that he is inherently better at reporting or shaping news than a lot of other people. I certainly don’t wish him bad luck because I want quality analysis to read. But it’s notable how strongly negative the response to the rollout of the new site has been. Krugman has perhaps the most important run-down, if for no other reason than that’s the type of writer to whom Silver is supposed to appeal. First, there was the ridiculous manifesto. Then there was the bizarre idea that one could somehow be objective about data and therefore non-ideological, an absurd claim. But whatever. A lot more problematic is the idea that all subjects are equally reported poorly and thus he needs to save the day by hiring people who can bring data to the problem. Silver has brought known climate skeptic Roger Pielke on board to write about climate. Pielke’s first article basically says that natural disasters aren’t increasing and not to worry about climate change caused disasters in any case because the world’s getting richer so we can clean them up. The final paragraph:

When you next hear someone tell you that worthy and useful efforts to mitigate climate change will lead to fewer natural disasters, remember these numbers and instead focus on what we can control. There is some good news to be found in the ever-mounting toll of disaster losses. As countries become richer, they are better able to deal with disasters — meaning more people are protected and fewer lose their lives. Increased property losses, it turns out, are a price worth paying.

A price worth paying for what precisely? And what are the limits of this price? This is the kind of data-centered reporting we were promised by Silver? Uh…. People who actually know climate data, i.e., the kind of data Silver is supposed to provide, are more than unhappy by Pielke’s article and worried about what FiveThirtyEight is going to bring to climate reporting. Given Silver’s prominence, these sorts of stories could do real damage to the battle to build support to fight climate change. Bad stuff.

Silver probably should understand that there are some fields where ridiculous fact-free bloviating dominates and some where it doesn’t. It exists in politics because of the need to fill 24 hours of cable content and generate website hits. It does in sports because sports don’t really matter that much. It does not in climate science–except from the kind of people Silver himself is hiring. If Silver wants to be serious about climate data, it’s there in a gigantic literature that pretty much all agrees on what’s happening. Allowing sketchy climate skeptics to present “data” to question the actual data is basically him becoming what he says he hates.

In the end, creating a website primarily to massage your own enormous ego may come with problems.

Molly Pitcher

[ 22 ] March 23, 2014 |

Like you ever thought Molly Pitcher wasn’t the Kool-Aid pitcher.

English Oceans

[ 11 ] March 22, 2014 |

If you saw the Drive-by Truckers last night at the House of Blues in Boston, well, consider yourself unlucky enough to have been in my presence. It was a pretty great show as always, although the one downside of seeing a band touring to support a new album is that they play most of it, including the tunes that maybe aren’t as strong or that don’t translate as well live. As for the album, I’d say it’s decent. Like the last couple, it has a few really good songs. Cooley’s contributions are much stronger than the last two, but Hood’s aren’t quite his best work as a whole. One of the stronger cuts is “Made Up English Oceans,” which also led off last night’s show.

The set list:
1. Made Up English Oceans
2. When He’s Gone
3. Marry Me
4. Do It Yourself
5. Pulaski, Tennessee
6. Sink Hole
7. Uncle Frank
8. Pauline Hawkins
9. Shit Shots Count
10. Lookout Mountain
11. Primer Coat
12. The Part Of Him
13. Til He’s Dead Or Rises
14. The Night G.G. Allin Came To Town
15. Where The Devil Don’t Stay
16. Puttin’ People On The Moon
17. Hearing Jimmy Loud
18. Hell No, I Ain’t Happy
19. Birthday Boy
20. Girls Who Smoke
21. Zip City
22. Ronnie and Neil
23. Shut Up and Get On The Plane
24. Grand Canyon

This was the 8th time I’ve seen them and Do It Yourself is an old song, but this was the first time I’d heard it live. So that takes one off that list, although I’ve still never managed to see a live version of 72 or Space City or Birmingham. This was also the first show that I didn’t get to hear Women Without Whiskey, but such things happen when touring behind a brand new album.

Oceans 14

[ 175 ] March 22, 2014 |

Forget robbing casinos. The real money for Clooney and the gang to go rob in elaborate, fashionable, humorous, and fairly pointless ways is from megachurches like Joel Osteen’s.

Joel Osteen recently reported the theft of $600,000 from the safe in his church, but the theft wasn’t the only information of interest revealed. After finding out that this large chunk of money was from just one weekend of Osteen’s collected church donations, jaws dropped around the nation.

According to News Max on March 18, it didn’t take long for folks on the outside to do the math. Based on Osteen’s reported amount of money in this theft, it appears his Lakewood Church takes in $32 million a year. Calculator keys were punched around the nation taking the $600,000 for Olsteen’s weekend donation collection and timing this by the 52 weeks in a year.

Many consider this a conservative estimate of donations this church receives, as March is just an average month with no holidays for the church. The spirit of giving around the holidays has to net this church more than the average week. Then there’s Easter and other

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And it’s not like grifters like Osteen are somehow more upright and moral than Steve Wynn.

Heads in the Sand

[ 33 ] March 21, 2014 |

Republicans are smart in cutting science funding. Because if you can cut it enough, the nation will close the institution that has longest measured carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and if you don’t measure carbon dioxide, obviously climate change can’t be happening.

The Anti-National Park Party

[ 30 ] March 20, 2014 |

Things Republicans hate: National Parks.

Talking about the Poor

[ 76 ] March 20, 2014 |

How do you talk about the poor? Are they you or are they someone else, someone who we need to enact some policy

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upon? Are they your brothers and sisters or are they objects of sympathy? My former co-blogger Sarah Jaffe has an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post about how journalists and activists talk about the poor:

It’s a particular kind of emotional labor that we ask of these workers. In addition to the strength and courage to tell the boss, to his face, that you’re walking out because you’re sick of how you’re being treated, we demand that you perform the role of the poor person for us, and we squabble over the right things to do for you. Our discourse on poverty is fed by stories of misery; it gorges itself on tales of cracked ceilings and no heat and feeding the family on a few dollars a week. But this is just another way that the poor must prove themselves “deserving” and for the better-off to feel righteous for helping them.

The right claims that raising the minimum wage will make these jobs disappear altogether and that if they don’t like jobs they’re in, they can get another one. (Perhaps they will like being a home health care or personal care aide, since according to Department of Labor statistics those are the fastest-growing career paths for most Americans, and they pay a whopping $20,000 a year.)

The left wants to raise the minimum wage, which is a good start, and perhaps even endorses fast-food workers’ demand for a union. But too often we — and I do mean to include myself here — erase the agency of the workers, debate whether they’re really demanding these things of their own volition , talk about them as though they are easily manipulated children rather than adults making a decision. We, too, talk about them as though they are not us.

Of course they are most of you (certainly me anyway) with a missed paycheck. The punditocracy, which I suppose I am part of too, values analysis over solidarity, serious sensible thinking about immediate political ends over long-term movement building, criticism over support. I guess it’s a bit easier for me to see through this because I grew up in the working class, but that hardly makes me immune from these problems or this language either. This is one reason why Sarah’s piece is so important–it’s the all-too rare calling out of how journalists actually operate. Another reason is to remind us all of the importance of seeing ourselves as workers in the same (or similar) boats as fast food or home care workers. Not only does the instability of the modern economy mean that such is quite likely our future (mine too, I have no confidence that I be able to retire as an academic and not because I think I will be denied tenure), but we need to craft meaningful alliances that prioritize solidarity with workers so that together we can build a movement to take back this nation and world from the plutocrats. Without that, you and I fall together.

The Idea of Workers “Choosing” Their Hours, Pay or Conditions is Bogus

[ 158 ] March 20, 2014 |

I have a long-running hate of the Times Room for Debate feature. Giving a bunch of people 100 words to make a case just feeds both sides do it syndrome. That’s especially true since the feature consistently combines scholars and experts with crazy people. Take last week’s subject of the 40 hour week. Plenty of good people but they had to have a conservative. And what a doozy. Amity Shales ladies and gents:

People decide to work more (or less) than 40 hours a week because of a variety of factors including family life, education, hobbies and leisure time in general. But the biggest reason may be as simple as one word: taxes.

Americans would willingly work longer hours, earn more and be more productive if their marginal tax rates were lowered.

Across nations and decades, the Nobel-winning economist Edward Prescott found, tax rates largely determined the hours that workers put in. Heavily taxed workers in Europe put in fewer hours than more lightly taxed workers in the United States, he determined.

More precisely, taxes limited the hours that Europeans work on the books. In countries like Germany, he wrote, people work just as much as Americans; they merely record less of that work for the government by working in the black or gray markets, where their earnings are untaxed or less taxed.

What does that mean for the workweek in the United States? A progressive rate structure like ours starts out alluringly low, then raises rates as you earn more, taxing the last dollar earned more heavily than the first. The more progressive a rate structure, the less attractive working that extra hour, or getting that promotion, becomes.

Though most workers aren’t taxed at the top and heaviest rates, they can still feel the load of some rate increases. And most people are aware in a general sense that harder work has limits to its rewards because of the effect of progressivity.

If we flattened the code, so that the last dollar is taxed at the same rate as the first one, people would want to work more.

The hours we work should be a matter of genuine, individual choice, not determined by government policy.

Whatever planet Shales lives on doesn’t have actual workers. Choice? Who chooses to work certain hours? Yglesias used this formulation in his classic “it’s ok for Bangladeshi workers to die on the job because their country is modernizing” response to me after the Rana Plaza collapse. It makes no sense because it is totally disconnected from how people actually act. When the choice is “work or starve” that’s not a choice. People work because they are told they are working this long, whether it is a 20 hour week or a 50 hour week. The only things that have ever gotten in the way of this are unions and governments. Today, the former doesn’t have the power and the latter increasingly lacks the inclination.

The rest of it is just bog standard flat tax idiocy, hiding corporate greed in a rhetoric of worker freedom. But people who say workers “choose” these things are showing me they have no idea what actual working class life is like.

This Day in Labor History: March 20, 1854

[ 27 ] March 20, 2014 |

On March 20, 1854, the Republican Party was founded at a meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin. Ideas of labor, both free and slave, were central to Republican Party ideology and would have massive implications for decades, not only with the end of slavery during the Civil War, but for white labor through the Gilded Age.

When Republicans organized in the wake of the Whig Party’s collapse (This was not a third party. It was filling a vacuum created by the decline of the period’s second party), it was building off of common ideas about labor in the antebellum period. Labor was seen broadly as the work done by anyone outside of the financial sector or lawyers, making most people “workers” whether they employed people or were employed. The industrial system was supposed to work for all these people, allowing them to rise and fall according to their merits, but ultimately helping most people advance. This would lead to a broadly middle-class life of individual farmers, small employers, and entrepreneurs without great wealth. All labor was noble in this ideology. What made Republicans different than Democrats was the desire to use the power of the state to create policies that would advance this goal, such as high tariffs, government support of transportation networks, etc.

This idea of intertwined personal and national advancement was at the heart of the Republican critique of the South. Most Republicans certainly did not think of black people as equals. But they did see slavery undermining American progress. They saw a North of manufacturing, of railroads, of canals and they saw a rapidly growing nation of progress. They saw a Southern elite of landed wealth who did no work for themselves, who had militaristic values and a violent culture. They saw undemocratic politics with entrenched poverty of the region’s poor whites and they indicted the entire system as a anchor upon the advancement of the union as demonstrated by northern capital investment and industrialization. The threat of slavery was its expansion because the institution only grew more powerful through the 1840s and 1850s. From not being a major part of the American political landscape, the nation had fought a war to allow its expansion by stealing half of Mexico. This threat had to be dealt with for the future of white landholders and entrepreneurs because slavery threatened the white republic. Blacks themselves were more the objects of concern than the subjects. It’s not that black labor didn’t matter. But most Republicans assumed the proper role for black labor was toiling on plantations for white overseers, as in fact we would see at the end of the Civil War when northerners would reorganize the plantation system despite ex-slaves wanting to end it entirely.

Free labor ideology was a very individualistic system and free labor ideology was from the outset strongly anti-union. Even though Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens argued that it was bad to blame the poor for their own poverty, the idea that labor would combine against capital was anathema to Republicans. Horace Greeley referred to strikes as “industrial war” as early as 1853. Instead, Republicans believed the poor should simply move west to the safety valve of the frontier. Free labor ideology struggled to adapt to the reality of wage labor after the Civil War. The ideology assumed the natural harmony between labor and capital and when capital exploitation of labor during the early years of the Gilded Age, particularly in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873, Republican leaders assumed the problem was workers breaking this natural state. Thus when George Pullman created his company town outside of Chicago, he used free labor language to justify his paternalism and control over workers.

Although among regular people, the early Republican distrust of corporations did not go away, for those who had access to the money and power within this new system, it definitely did as the great potential for wealth under Republican rule during the Civil War became ever more apparent. The individualistic side of free labor ideology could lead to great greed, especially when combined whit the self-justification of the pseudo social Darwinism of its early days. It was no great turn for the same people we laud for their role in ending slavery to attack the white working class with a vengeance, both as businessmen and as politicians. If Jay Gould became incredibly wealthy off of cheating people, he could justify it through the language at the core of the ideology.

Leading Republicans began to fear by the 1870s that both southern blacks and northern whites were agents of disorder that threatened the smooth relations between labor and capital. They saw blacks demanding labor rights and believed they were a class that threatened the social fabric of the republic. Demands for federal assistance were just as threatening as northern white labor’s demand for the right to strike. Both white and black labor made leading Republicans fear the Paris Commune coming to the U.S., a theme Horace Greeley and others wrote about as they talked of anarchy reaching American shores every time American black or white labor complained about anything after 1871. This helps explain how Republicans were willing to end Reconstruction and condemn black labor to exploitation. In the end, for most Republicans anti-slavery politics was not about anti-racism, it was about ending a particularly institution they saw holding back the nation. Wage exploitation, that was fine. Ideal even.

The consummation of Republican free labor ideology toward unions became apparent in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, when newly elected Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes used U.S. troops to crush the strikers. It wasn’t just Hayes–most leading Republicans wanted them crushed. The shock to the populace would lead to a number of social and labor movements intended to get things right again. The Populists, Single Taxers, Bellamyites, Chinese Exclusionists, 8 hour day organizers, unemployment marchers, Knights of Labor–all of these movements would be heavily influenced by the idea of making capitalism doing what everyone thought it was supposed to do–support the free, hardworking white male citizen who wanted to support himself. It would not be until the influx of new immigrants after 1880 that had no connection to free labor ideology that the American working class would move more realistic cures for what ailed it.

The question everyone wants to know is whether Lincoln would have been as anti-white organized labor as other Republicans. This is of course a counterfactual–who knows! And counterfactuals’ primary value come during drunken conversations. People like to cite a couple of Lincoln quotes about the primacy of labor to capital. But this ignores the context–Republicans said things like this all the time and then a few years later were calling for military intervention to crush strikes. The quote lacks the context of what Republicans meant by labor and capital. Lincoln was the consummate moderate Republican on pretty much every policy issue, including slavery. I think, like other Republicans, Lincoln could have easily reconciled his earlier statements with a later support of monopoly capitalism and fears of the dangers of unions. Sure, I’d like to think otherwise, but a few quotes from the early 1860s isn’t a lot of evidence when placed in context of Lincoln’s relationship with the ideology of his party and how that party changed over time.

The key book on Republican free labor ideology is Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. You should all read it. On the changing views of Republicans toward black labor after emancipation, see Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901.

This is the 100th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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