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The Cambodian Crackdown

[ 55 ] January 11, 2014 |

The Cambodian government has pretty much completed its violent crackdown against the apparel industry workers protesting the terrible conditions of their lives as they toil away in unsafe factories for low wages making the clothes you buy and might be wearing as you read this.

GRASSROOTS protestors, folk songs and labor rights activists converged at Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom Penh last week as garment workers campaigned to raise their minimum wage from $80 a month to $160. After the Ministry of Labor approved a wage increase to $95 a month, trade unions and workers took to the streets, demanding $160. According to rights activists, the approved $95 wage is simply not enough to live on. So the campaign continued, galvanized by the support of Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which had joined the protest in support.

Yet the peaceful protest ended in riots as the military closed in, shot and killed five garment factory workers and injured over 30 others on January 3. A ban on gatherings of groups larger than 10 has been put in place. Twenty-three protesters and labor leaders were missing for a week after their arrest.

“Garment workers and sex workers are blamed as causing public disorder and social insecurity when they organize and protest for better working conditions,” Kun Sothary, of the Messenger Band, told Asian Correspondent. The Messenger Band is an all-woman group made up of six former garment workers which collects the oral histories of garment workers, farmers and sex workers.

“We are all the same victims of a free trade system and development that is not ethical. We learned of the common problems of garment workers, sex workers and farmers through our field visits… poverty, exploitation and human right violation,” Kun explained.

Once again, this is why these arguments made by developed world consumers, including many liberals, that Cambodians need to take care of Cambodia if they want to improve their lot is a morally bankrupt argument. When they do try to change the working conditions of their country, they die. Meanwhile, you keep on buying inexpensive Cambodian (or Bangladeshi or Vietnamese or Sri Lankan) made clothing. The system exists to provide you cheap clothing. Just because apparel corporations have outsourced production overseas does not make you a morally neutral agent in the process.

Free Lunch

[ 44 ] January 11, 2014 |

Jack Kingston, Georgia congressman, is basically the perfect Republican for 2013.

We last met Congressman Jack Kingston (R-GAH) when he was going on about how he wanted all the poor kids getting subsidized lunches to have to work as janitors in order to teach them the beautiful life lesson of how there is no such thing as a free lunch. You know, because all the rich kids whose parents are able to afford their lunch obviously toil away in the coal mines after school to earn theirs. Also because the greatest criminals in our country are hungry children.

Now, the other shoe has dropped, as it is wont to do.

An investigation by Georgia’s WSAV-TV revealed that our fiscally responsible, “no such thing as a free lunch” hero has been expensing many of his own lunches and his staff’s lunches over the past three years since he’s been in office. To the tune of $4,182. Which, according to Talking Points Memo, would have funded 2,000 school lunches.

Like the millionaires of the first Gilded Age who bilked taxpayers at every turn while bellowing about the Gospel of Wealth and bemoaning even charity work for the poor, Kingston no doubt sees taxpayer-funded lunches for the rich as a perk that should naturally come to the deserving. But the poor 8 year olds who Kingston wants to see clean toilets for lunch, well they shouldn’t drink so much or be brown or whatever heartless excuse of the day the plutocracy is presently using to denigrate the poor.

Because AIDS is Hilarious

[ 100 ] January 11, 2014 |

As the political figures of my youth pass away, I realize how few of them I really know much about, even though I’m a pretty political guy obviously. That’s especially true of the Reagan Administration. I could probably name 40 or so Reagan appointees without working too hard, but that’s not that many. But I do figure that when one dies, that person was probably involved in some nasty or evil stuff. Take the death of Reagan’s quasi-press secretary Larry Speakes, who passed away yesterday at the age of 74. I didn’t remember him at all. But those more knowledgeable than I started working. And they reminded me and other that Speakes, like many others in the Reagan Administration, thought AIDS was hilarious. From the June 13, 1983 White House press briefing.

Q: Larry, does the President think that it might help if he suggested that the gays cut down on their “cruising”? (Laughter.) What? I didn’t hear your answer, Larry.
MR. SPEAKES: I just was acknowledging your interest—
Q: You were acknowledging but—
MR. SPEAKES: —interest in this subject.
Q: —you don’t think that it would help if the gays cut down on their cruising—it would help AIDS?
MR. SPEAKES: We are researching it. If we come up with any research that sheds some light on whether gays should cruise or not cruise, we’ll make it available to you. (Laughter.)
Q: Back to fairy tales.

Oh I haven’t laughed that loud since Richard Nixon made his 5000th racist joke. Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration’s response to AIDS was the greatest public health failure in the history of the United States, when the government helped doom thousands of people to die because they were gay or used heroin or were otherwise not the kind of people Reagan cared about. Compare the response to AIDS to that of Legionnaire’s Disease or SARS or West Nile virus. A few people dying led to national health alerts and huge research budgets. AIDS? It took until Reagan’s own friend Rock Hudson died for any real funding to get started.

If anyone hasn’t read Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, one the great pieces of journalism in American history, I highly recommend it for the blow by blow details of the Reagan’s Administration complicity in thousands of deaths.

The Necessary

[ 86 ] January 10, 2014 |

I visited Mount Vernon recently. While some might think George Washington’s dentures are the most impressive thing you can see and others might look from Washington’s porch and imagine themselves as him overlooking the Potomac and Maryland, there’s no question that the more sophisticated reading of Washington’s estate sees the reconstruction of his 3-seat outhouse, or “necessary” as it was called at the time, as the best thing ever.

Now normally you might think, like others at the time. that Washington used his multi-person outhouse simultaneously with others. It was a far less private and far smellier time in the 18th century after all. But I don’t think so in Washington’s case. As this documentary footage of General Washington suggests, a man this phallic would probably have a number of anuses as well. That’s science my friends. Science.

A-Bomb Sunrise

[ 56 ] January 10, 2014 |

This is an excellent set of photographs documenting how atmospheric nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site lit up the night sky in Los Angeles:

The light from the tests seems to light up the entire sky, a dull incandescence sharply outlining anything between it and the camera. At first, the images seem rather mundane for looking so much like a sunrise — the difference of course is that this fission-born light comes straight from man’s handiwork, and heralds the beginning of an arms race that in the 1960s tilted perilously close to Armageddon. An interesting theme in the handwritten captions accompanying these photos is the regular reminder that the blast is much more powerful than any previous, which makes sense given that during this period the yields of nuclear tests were definitely on the rise.

The pictures with people in them demonstrate the utter (and now seemingly morbid) fascination with nuclear weapons that many Americans had at the time (e.g the Hulk). The Nevada detonations became such a source of interest for the City of Angels that on April 22, 1952, local TV station KTLA joined several other networks in broadcasting the massive Tumbler-Snapper test detonation. The event got surprisingly high ratings for 5:30 in the morning — before that, they had to broadcast tests secretly. Unless a TV station told you tune in for one, the only way anyone within eye- or ear-shot of a test would know a bomb had gone off was when they saw or heard it announcing itself over the horizon.

Freedom

[ 139 ] January 10, 2014 |

I now see why the Republicans passed the bill to gut Superfund. It’s clearly unnecessary, what with a company actually named Freedom Industries taking care of the good people of West Virginia.

Schools and restaurants closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and state legislators who had just started their session canceled the day’s business after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston shut down much of the city and surrounding counties even as the cause and extent of the incident remained unclear.

The federal government joined the state early Friday in declaring a disaster, and the West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. About 100,000 water customers, or 300,000 people total, were affected, state officials said they reported in requesting the federal declaration.

Shortly after the Thursday spill from Freedom Industries hit the river and a nearby treatment plant, a licorice-like smell enveloped parts of the city, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued an order to customer of West Virginia American Water: Do not drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.

The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and overran a containment area. Officials from Freedom, a manufacturer of chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries, hadn’t commented since the spill, but a woman who answered the phone at the company said it would issue a statement later Friday.

Now that’s some clean coal! Freedom indeed!!!

Oil Trains

[ 17 ] January 10, 2014 |

In my forthcoming book on capital mobility, I’m dedicating a chapter to energy production. It details how we can follow Americans’ interest in the costs of energy production based upon whether Americans actually see energy being produced. When the Santa Barbara oil spill takes place in 1969, Americans are outraged. Same with the Exxon Valdez or BP oil spill in Louisiana. When these things happen all the time in Nigeria or Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, Americans couldn’t care less. The same goes with other forms of energy. Fights over how wind turbines will affect the views of rich people in New England say a lot about Americans’ relationship with energy and the natural world.

But the thing about energy (and food, to a lesser extent) is that unlike apparel, it can’t be produced everywhere. It is dependent upon the nature humans wish to harness. And so while we have outsourced a huge amount of our energy production and managed to source a lot of the domestic production in quite isolated places (West Virginia mountaintops, Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, Alaska, platforms in the Gulf), the nation’s continued need for energy can create resistance against the system of corporate energy production when it again appears where Americans live.

Recent oil train derailments are becoming one site of resistance (actions around earthquakes and fracking is another). The derailment in Quebec certainly got the attention of many Canadians complicit in their nation’s fossil fuel policies. It and others has also gotten the attention of American politicians, and thus Jay Rockefeller and Ron Wyden are calling for a federal evaluation of current rules regarding trains carrying oil. With the very high likelihood of the Keystone pipeline being built, the chances are that the United States will see a lot more oil spills in coming years. I don’t really believe that the Obama Administration will take Rockefeller and Wyden’s request all that seriously and two senators does not a movement make, but it’s a good sign and I suspect will be followed by a lot more questioning from politicians and resistance from locals as future American energy production unfolds.

Terrible Republican Ideas, Part 24,209

[ 52 ] January 10, 2014 |

House Republicans passed a bill yesterday gutting Superfund. Yes, that’s right, the Republican Party supports the exposure of Americans to toxic waste.

Of course, as we all know there is no meaningful difference between the parties and thus Rand Paul is the only true progressive alternative in 2016 because of some grandstanding speeches on a single issue that he has taken no concrete actions to change.

War on Poverty

[ 188 ] January 8, 2014 |

The greatest war in American history turns 50 today. That’s the War on Poverty.

Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the House and Senate, my fellow Americans:

I will be brief, for our time is necessarily short and our agenda is already long.

Last year’s congressional session was the longest in peacetime history. With that foundation, let us work together to make this year’s session the best in the Nation’s history.

Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens; as the session which reformed our tangled transportation and transit policies; as the session which achieved the most effective, efficient foreign aid program ever; and as the session which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic.

All this and more can and must be done. It can be done by this summer, and it can be done without any increase in spending. In fact, under the budget that I shall shortly submit, it can be done with an actual reduction in Federal expenditures and Federal employment.

We have in 1964 a unique opportunity and obligation–to prove the success of our system; to disprove those cynics and critics at home and abroad who question our purpose and our competence.

If we fail, if we fritter and fumble away our opportunity in needless, senseless quarrels between Democrats and Republicans, or between the House and the Senate, or between the South and North, or between the Congress and the administration, then history will rightfully judge us harshly. But if we succeed, if we can achieve these goals by forging in this country a greater sense of union, then, and only then, can we take full satisfaction in the State of the Union.

While Johnson’s Great Society was not perfect, it was a brave and noble attempt to fight entrenched poverty in the world’s largest economic power. But largely today, we’d have to call this war lost. The New Gilded Age is by definition a resounding defeat of the War on Poverty by the plutocrats and the shareholders, with quarterly reports meaning more than childhood nutrition and end of the year Wall Street bonuses a higher priority than homelessness, racial equality, or education. Capital mobility is the weapon of the rich, undermining the job security necessary for people to make demands on corporations and making politicians desperate for the good will of corporate leaders for both campaign donations and jobs for their constituents.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t take LBJ as an inspiration and fight a new war on poverty, one that is increasingly needed a nation defined by enormous income inequality, long-term unemployment, and devastating debt loads.

This Day in Labor History: January 8, 1811

[ 54 ] January 8, 2014 |

On January 8, 1811, the largest armed slave uprising in U.S. history took place. The German Coast Uprising in Louisiana had up to 500 participants marching to New Orleans to attempt a Haitian Revolution in the United States. Only 2 whites died in this uprising, showing the extreme difficulty any slave revolt had in succeeding or even making a dent in the slave power within the United States. Yet for the significance of this event, it is almost completely unknown in popular American history, even compared to the rest of slavery history.

Louisiana developed a significantly different slave tradition than the rest of the United States. Whereas most early British North American slavery was in tobacco (and rice in South Carolina) and then cotton in the 19th century, Louisiana money was made in sugar. This made it much more like the Caribbean. There was a lot more money in sugar than the other crops. This meant wealthier planters and higher concentration of slaves. The German Coast of Louisiana, generally speaking St. Charles Parish and St. John Parish, had these concentrations. Some have estimated a 5:1 ratio although census records suggest a more even ratio. This matters because the larger the predominance of the slaves, the better the conditions were for organized rebellion, something whites knew and a fact that scared the bezeejus out of them, especially after the success of the Haitian Revolution.

From the perspective of the United States government and the nation’s white supremacist ideology, Louisiana was also a troubled place. While Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had close relationships with the French, after purchasing Louisiana, they did not believe the Creoles of Louisiana could govern themselves (they used the typical rhetoric of children needing to learn good government from the Americans that would be used against Native American tribes, the Philippines, and Latin America). Part of the discomfort was Louisiana’s different racial hierarchy, with a wealthy free black community and common consensual interracial sex that led to skin tone rather than one drop rules dominating the racial hierarchy. Jefferson and Madison resisted granting Louisiana statehood, clearly guaranteed in the Louisiana Purchase agreement, until 1812. So when the slave revolt took place, it happened in a Louisiana undergoing rapid changes.

As for much about the history of slavery in this period, the specific details of even such a major event are pretty hazy. Planning for the revolt began on January 6, just after the end of the brutal sugar harvest. The leader seems to have been Charles Deslondes, with men named Quamana and Harry also playing major roles. Quamana and another slave named Kook were Asantes, evidently warriors, who had been imported from Africa around 1806. Deslondes summed up the fear of race mixing and the French system of slavery for American whites, a green-eyed man with greater education and access to the world than the average slave. He was the son of a white planter and black slave and evidently was used as a slave driver.

The revolt began at the home of plantation owner Manuel André, about 36 miles north of New Orleans along Lake Ponchartrain in an area known as the German Coast because of a number of German planters in the area. André was struck with an axe and wounded and his son chopped to death. Deslondes brought the slaves from a plantation owned by widows where he was enslaved. Deslondes led the slaves into the plantation cellar for muskets and militia uniforms.

The precise numbers of slaves involved are unclear and estimates varied. The original revolt consisted of between 64 and 125 participants. As these slaves marched toward New Orleans, they picked up people along the way, leading to a final number of between 250 and 500. It’s thought that between 10 and 25% of slaves from the various plantations affected joined the rebellion, mostly single young men under 30. Armed with hand tools, knives, and a few guns, they marched for two days, covering twenty miles. The historical documentation is sketchy. But there is at least limited evidence that the slaves were aware of the Haitian Revolution and modeled this after that, a possibility given that many Haitian planters had fled to Louisiana with their slaves during the Revolution. It also seems that some of the slaves had military experience in Ghana and Angola before their capture. We do know that the slaves marched in military formation so someone had some military training at some point.

Area whites panicked, fleeing to New Orleans, fearing a Haiti in their midst. And in fact, it does seem that Deslondes and the slaves wanted to conquer New Orleans. Later, after this was over, a slave named Jupiter was asked why he participated. He answered that he wanted to kill white people.

The response to the uprising was utterly brutal. Whites came at the slaves with maximum force. The U.S. military combined with French planters to suppress the rebellion. They came close to New Orleans before being turned around at Jacques Fournier’s plantation and crushed near modern-day Norco, Louisiana, on or very near the site of what is today the Waterford 3 Nuclear Power Plant. As they fled into the plantation backcountry and bayous, whites hunted them down. Another 44 were tried and executed. The total number of dead was around 95. What makes this response different than other slave rebellions is the brutality. Slave owners recognized the rebellion as a very real threat and wanted to be clear of the consequences. So they cut off the heads of the slaves, placed them on pikes, and lined the roads with them, in the most public and brutal suppression of slave agency in the nation’s history. The territorial legislature compensated the owners for the loss of their property by paying them $300 for each dead slave.

The federal-planter alliance to crush the rebellion helped smooth over the hard feelings about the federal treatment of the territory. Louisiana would become a state the next year. It also helped commit the federal government to the defense of slavery. Slowly Louisiana’s system of race and slavery would become more like the rest of the American South.

The most prominent book I know of on the 1811 rebellion is Daniel Rasmussen’s American Uprising, and some of the information for this post comes from there.

This is the 88th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Desalination

[ 74 ] January 7, 2014 |

Yesterday, we discussed the serious problems the American West has with its water supply and the very real threats this portends for the region’s future. Those who truly believe technology can solve our problems sometimes turn to desalination plants as a cure. Sarah Goodyear sums up many of the reasons why these are really problematic:

First among these is cost. Desal plants are hugely expensive to build and operate. Water companies would have to pass those costs along to customers. Fluctuating demand can make this type of massive capital investment even riskier for utilities. The plants are also are energy intensive — another factor in the operating expense — and could be significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

The environmental costs of desal are still only partially understood, according to a new report from the Pacific Institute. The possible negative effect on marine ecosystems has emerged as a major stumbling block to the construction of desal on the California coast.

Then there’s the disposal of the super-salty brine left over after the desalination process is complete. That liquid, produced in huge quantities — roughly one gallon for every gallon of desalinated water — is denser than normal seawater and could cause its own set of problems, particularly for desal plants located in areas without a lot of tidal flow.

All these factors, combined with the strong environmentalist constituencies in many coastal California communities and strict state regulations, mean that developing desal plants can turn into an expensive headache for water companies. In 2006 the number of proposed plants in California was 21. Now it’s down to 17, despite strong support for developing desal among many elected officials.

I am extremely skeptical of desalination as a reasonable solution for all these reasons. The impacts are likely to be massive–to the pocketbooks of customers and to the environment. Because the long-term impacts on ecosystems are poorly understood, like fracking and other energy projects that we rush into without sufficient study, desalination is likely to have unexpected consequences that will lead to difficult problems down the road. And while politicians and the public love these things in theory because they don’t see consequences, I don’t think they can either build enough of these to solve the water problems in California or that the cost of the produced water will be worth the effort.

Mapping Child Labor, 1933

[ 20 ] January 7, 2014 |

The Department of Labor provided some useful maps in 1933 of the United States’ patchwork regulations on child labor. One map.

Seems to me that Arkansas was infringing on the freedom of 8 year olds to work given that 4th grade requirement.

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