Evidently, there’s a South American plant that uses gigantic spines to ensnare sheep until they starve to death, at which point decompose and fertilize the plant. I assume this will be adapted into some horror movie soon.
Author Page for Erik Loomis
It’s fairly unlikely that I’ll read George Packer’s new book, The Unwinding of America. But I did read this excerpt, presumably from the introduction. Packer bemoans the decline of the fabric that held American society together, leading to today’s plutocracy, individual aggrandizement, and dysfunctional government. In part:
This deterministic view is undeniable but incomplete. What it leaves out of the picture is human choice. A fuller explanation of the Unwinding takes into account these large historical influences, but also the way they were exploited by US elites – the leaders of the institutions that have fallen into disrepair. America’s postwar responsibilities demanded co-operation between the two parties in Congress, and when the cold war waned, the co-operation was bound to diminish with it. But there was nothing historically determined about the poisonous atmosphere and demonising language that Gingrich and other conservative ideologues spread through US politics. These tactics served their narrow, short-term interests, and when the Gingrich revolution brought Republicans to power in Congress, the tactics were affirmed. Gingrich is now a has-been, but Washington today is as much his city as anyone’s.
It was impossible for Youngstown’s steel companies to withstand global competition and local disinvestment, but there was nothing inevitable about the aftermath – an unmanaged free-for-all in which unemployed workers were left to fend for themselves, while corporate raiders bought the idle hulks of the mills with debt in the form of junk bonds and stripped out the remaining value. It may have been inevitable that the constraints imposed on US banks by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 would start to slip off in the era of global finance. But it was a political choice on the part of Congress and President Bill Clinton to deregulate Wall Street so thoroughly that nothing stood between the big banks and the destruction of the economy.
Much has been written about the effects of globalisation during the past generation. Much less has been said about the change in social norms that accompanied it. American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behaviour: a senator only resorting to the filibuster on rare occasions; a CEO limiting his salary to only 40 times what his average employees made instead of 800 times; a giant corporation paying its share of taxes instead of inventing creative ways to pay next to zero. There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing.
Earlier this year, Al Gore made $100m (£64m) in a single month by selling Current TV to al-Jazeera for $70m and cashing in his shares of Apple stock for $30m. Never mind that al-Jazeera is owned by the government of Qatar, whose oil exports and views of women and minorities make a mockery of the ideas that Gore propounds in a book or film every other year. Never mind that his Apple stock came with his position on the company’s board, a gift to a former presidential contender. Gore used to be a patrician politician whose career seemed inspired by the ideal of public service. Today – not unlike Tony Blair – he has traded on a life in politics to join the rarefied class of the global super-rich.
Packer misses one big thing here: the decline of labor unions. He talks of the Roosevelt Republic and its collapse. The New Deal state was complex and came into being for a cluster of reasons. Organized labor was not really one of them, not at first anyway, with the AFL neutral to uncomfortable with much of the New Deal. But the primary factor allowing the New Deal state to stay in place for forty years was the political power of organized labor.
Packer likes moralistic bromides. For example, I just finished Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture today. Rodgers writes an intellectual history of the fragmentation of American thought and society in the late 20th century. He quotes Packer after 9/11: “What I dread now is a return to normality, to the hedonisms of the past. Instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines.” OK, OK, we get it, we are a nation of sinners.
What Packer’s moralism about the choices elites make misses is that they always made those choices when they could. The Roosevelt Republic only changed their behavior because of the combined strength of a federal government seeing corporate behavior as destabilizing the nation and threatening capitalism with tens of millions of unionized workers providing the votes and public pressure to cower corporations as best they could. One frequently sees progressive commentators today cite some business exec or Republican politician from the 1950s or early 60s on the need for labor unions or Social Security or some such thing. It always makes me chuckle because it is out of context. Rarely did these people truly believe in such social programs. And when they actually did, it was because the power of the American working class to demand these programs had become internalized within them, so they could not fathom eliminating them.
It’s one thing to leave labor unions out of such an analysis. But when you start your piece by talking about the decline of Youngstown, you really have to talk about organized labor. It was unions who improved the working and living conditions of the American working class. It was unions who fought for increased wages and shorter hours, for OSHA regulations and safety committees. Without unions, all of this has collapsed, along with Youngstown and so many other places.
The decline of labor unions isn’t the only reason for the collapse of the Roosevelt Republic. But Packer can’t understand his subject without making unions central to his inquiry. And at least from the excerpted piece, he fails to do so. I hope he does in the book.
I’ve talked about this issue before a couple of times, so I’m really glad to see the New York Times report on the awful environmental impact of unregulated marijuana production in northern California.
The animal, a Pacific fisher, had been poisoned by an anticoagulant in rat poisons like d-Con. Since then, six other poisoned fishers have been found. Two endangered spotted owls tested positive. Mourad W. Gabriel, a scientist at the University of California, Davis, concluded that the contamination began when marijuana growers in deep forests spread d-Con to protect their plants from wood rats.
That news has helped growers acknowledge, reluctantly, what their antagonists in law enforcement have long maintained: like industrial logging before it, the booming business of marijuana is a threat to forests whose looming dark redwoods preside over vibrant ecosystems.
Hilltops have been leveled to make room for the crop. Bulldozers start landslides on erosion-prone mountainsides. Road and dam construction clogs some streams with dislodged soil. Others are bled dry by diversions. Little water is left for salmon whose populations have been decimated by logging.
And local and state jurisdictions’ ability to deal with the problem has been hobbled by, among other things, the drug’s murky legal status. It is approved by the state for medical uses but still illegal under federal law, leading to a patchwork of growers. Some operate within state rules, while others operate totally outside the law.
The environmental damage may not be as extensive as that caused by the 19th-century diking of the Humboldt estuary here, or 20th-century clear-cut logging, but the romantic outlaw drug has become a destructive juggernaut, experts agree.
Once again, the only way to stop these problems is to legalize and regulate marijuana, turning the enforcement mechanism away from busting people who grow to busting people who grow in antisocial and antiecological ways. Inevitably in posts like this, someone comes around in comments to talk about how our agricultural system is broken and treating marijuana like other crops within our economic system is a defeat for the little guy. Either way, big marijuana growers are capitalists engaging in a capitalist market. The question is whether they are allowed to engage in a black market capitalism with very real negative consequences for local ecosystems and wildlife populations or whether they are forced to acquiesce to our, admittedly deeply flawed, regulatory system. The only responsible answer is the latter.
The irony in all of this is that the marijuana economy originally started by people who saw the Humboldt County forests as a treasure to be saved, rejecting not only the timber industry but much about the ecologically destructive economy of the 1960s and 1970s. And then people started making real money.
On June 21, 1877, ten alleged members of the Molly Maguires, an Irish secret society blamed for labor radicalism in the anthracite country of Pennsylvania, were executed.
The Molly Maguires began in Ireland before their members immigrated to the United States. In both places, they became known for radicalism (in Ireland, primarily over land tenure issues) and violence, especially against employers and their enforcers. The extent to which we can really call this a labor movement is debated, but they definitely stuck up for their interests as miners. The group probably came over to the United States sometime around the Civil War, although this is conjecture. Historians don’t even know all that much about the movement since they didn’t leave written records. To quote the historian Kevin Kenny, it’s not possible to “disentangle the strands that went into the violence, from rudimentary trade unionism, and from draft resistance to robbery, intimidation, and drunken brawling.”
Northeastern Pennsylvania became a major supplier of industrializing America’s coal in the mid 19th century. By the 1870, this was full-fledged coal country. Conditions, like those experienced by most of industrial labor, were terrible. Occasional violence occurred against mine operators and their interests. Between 1862 and 1868, six mine operators or supervisors were murdered. The extent of Molly Maguires involvement in these particular cases is unknown, but they were accused of the killings later on, as they would be of other mine official deaths and just any random industrial violence across the region. Of the 22,000 miners working in Schuylkill County, about 5500 were under the age of seventeen, some as young as seven. Disasters happened all the time. Sometimes 1 or 2 workers died. On September 6, 1869, 110 died in the Avondale mine fire in Luzerne County. A union formed in the area called the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. Thousands joined in the aftermath of Avondale. Many of these were Irish miners who were also members of the Mollies. Probably 85% of the workforce joined the union by the mid 1870s. The WBA had some initial success, including forcing the companies to raise wages.
Like much about the Irish, the Molly Maguires scared Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans. Being Irish, Catholic, and secret confirmed all the fears the forces of order had against these recent immigrants. Add unionization, well that was too much. The Panic of 1873 gave employers added ammunition to destroy worker resistance to employer demands. Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, consolidated control over the region’s mines during the early 1870s. Now the leading anthracite mine owner, Gowen hired Allan Pinkerton to crack down on the union and the Mollies. Pinkerton made his name in 1861, shepherding Abraham Lincoln to Washington under a serious assassination threat. Like the rest of the Republican Party, Pinkerton moved seamlessly to supporting the plutocracy in the 1870s. Pinkerton sent his rising detective James McParland to lead the investigation. McParland, an Irish immigrant himself, joined the organization when his liquor store burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
In December 1874, Gowen announced a 20% pay cut, knowing the union would strike, which would allow industry to eliminate it. Gowen ordered McParland to target the Mollies, writing, “The M.M.’s are a species of Thugs… Let Linden get up a vigilance committee. It will not do to get many men, but let him get those who are prepared to take fearful revenge on the M.M.’s. I think it would open the eyes of all the people and then the M.M.’s would meet with their just deserts.” On December 10, 1875, 3 men and 2 women, identified by McPharland as Mollies, were attacked and killed in their home by the Pinkertons, satisfying Gowen’s desire for blood.
Gowen fed newspapers around the region made up stories about Mollie violence. Some random fire in Indiana? Mollies! He also had the police arrest the strike leaders. Then McParland managed to infiltrate the Mollies. The strike collapsed after six months with arrests of the strike leaders. The workers took the 20% pay cut. But the Mollies kept up the fight. Support grew for the underground organization. With the courts, police, and mine owners all controlled by the English and Welsh (or their descendants) and the crushing of the union, the miners and their families were humiliated, poor, and desperate. At least according to McParland’s testimony, the Mollies were planning violent revenge. But as these things often go, this moved slow, most plans were aborted, and those attempted were botched. Finally, they managed to kill a couple of cops they particularly hated. One was killed while changing a streetlight at this location in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania. The sign is very exciting. I saw it when I was there in January.
I really need to take that Mollie Maguires driving tour.
In addition, a mine boss, bartender, and justice of the peace all died, possibly killed by Mollies. At least McParland said so and that’s all that mattered. The cops conducted mass arrests. The trials were a total farce. The District Attorney for Schuylkill County, where the trials took place? Why one Franklin Gowen, mine plutocrat! Gowen named himself special prosecutor for the trial. McParland’s personal testimony was enough to get someone a death sentence. One Mollie went state’s witness, but it’s entirely possible he was lying the whole time to save his skin. His wife was so disgusted with him for doing so, that she accused him of a murder on the witness stand. Who knows who did what. Twenty men were given death sentences. Ten were executed on Black Thursday, June 21, 1877. An additional ten were executed over the next year.
Mining interests used the Mollies to taint any labor organizing among Irish miners, whether in Pennsylvania, Leadville, or Butte, as Molly terrorism, an effective tool in the public relations battle against unionization.
The anthracite miners of Pennsylvania continued to suffer in poverty, die on the job, and be murdered by coal barons and their thugs for several decades.
McParland would go on to be the Pinkertons’ top labor crusher. He worked for Jay Gould to suppress the Knights of Labor railway strike in 1886. He later headed the Pinkertons’ Denver office, where he placed spies in the Western Federation of Miners and United Mine Workers. This included sabotaging union relief programs during a strike, ensuring that workers starved and the union was divided. He also trumped up the charges that led to the arrest of Bill Haywood and others for the murder of former Idaho governor Frank Stenuenberg. Arthur Conan Doyle created a character in The Valley of Fear based on McParland.
In other words, James McParland is one of the most horrible human beings to ever live in the United States.
This is the 66th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
Major bummer that the Worldport at JFK is going to be demolished. I suppose it was pretty well inevitable given the space considerations at the airport, but it’s a pretty bloody cool piece of Cold War architecture. It’s also a good time to note that the National Trust for Historic Preservation named its 11 Most Endangered Places this week, including the Worldport. All are pretty interesting. I found the one-room Montana schoolhouses especially fascinating, given that you could probably just as fairly list the towns themselves these schools were in. Anyone who has traveled in the rural West, especially on the High Plains, knows these towns that are in complete collapse, some completely abandoned. The Rancho Cucamonga Chinatown House is pretty amazing as well. That, the Abyssinian Meeting House in Maine, and the Alaskan salmon cannery should be taken over by the National Park Service.
While this piece is perhaps a bit too condescending to middle-aged homeowners, it does get at a very real problem. The entire structure of the postwar housing market is extremely shaky. Not only the larger financial issues and housing bubbles creating by profiteering. There’s also a very deep generation divide that plays along two levels. First, the overwhelming debt loads of young people means that home buying is simply not a possibility for many. Were they earning enough on the job to make meaningful incursions into that debt, that might be one thing. Instead, they are offered unpaid internships and $9 an hour jobs that require a BA and 4 years of work experience. Second, many young people are uninterested in suburban living. They want diversity, walkability, public transportation, and nearby shops. The entire infrastructure of 20th century life does not provide them these things. But they are demanding it anyway and making decisions based upon these desires.
This hardly means the end of the suburbs. Continued growth in immigration could keep this system afloat. And obviously a large number of young people will indeed end up in the suburbs. But these changes, both economic and attitudinal, are real and will have impacts for decades. For older people, that means that it’s quite feasible that no one will buy their house, at least once the speculators realize that the dreamed of return to the market of the 2000s isn’t happening. Given the debt held by people entering retirement who may be relying on selling their house to stay afloat as they age, this could become a real crisis.
West Virginia turns 150 today. Forged in the rejection of treason in defense of slavery, the state developed into a medieval fiefdom of the coal industry with much of the nation’s worst industrial violence, endemic poverty, and resource exploitation. Even as coal withdraws from the state, it looks at the state’s residents as a bunch of inbred yokels and attempts to turn the historical sites of labor violence into more profits. It is still cursed with some of the nation’s worst politicians. May the next 150 years tell happier stories.
In case you don’t already know, today is National Martini Day. I assume you are celebrating appropriately. That not only means that you are drinking a martini, but that the martini is made with gin. Because if it has vodka, you are consuming some other cocktail. I mean, if the substitution of onions for olives creates an entirely new drink (the Gibson), the substitution of the core spirit certainly does as well. Also, the extra dry martini that either doesn’t use vermouth or barely uses it shouldn’t really count either. Vermouth is a wonderful thing. Get used to it. And while I do like an olive in my martini, the dirty martini is an abomination. Who wants to drink olive brine? I also recommend a more active gin than your standard London dry. Damrak is the nectar of the gods, if you can find it. Death’s Door is quite delicious recent addition to my world of gins. My brother describes it as “gamey,” which I think is accurate. If you are going with the more mass market gins, I have recently found New Amsterdam somewhat more interesting than Tanqueray or Bombay, although I certainly wouldn’t say anything bad about those gins, especially Tanqueray. Again, I have come to like a wet gin in my doddering old age.
Normally, National Martini Day would be cause to celebrate. Unfortunately, James Gandolfini’s death makes that harder. I am going to watch one of his last roles with my martini–Zero Dark Thirty, which I haven’t seen. If the torture scenes are too intense, I’ll just have to make a second martini.
….Also, here is a 1988 article about people moving from apartment to apartment in New York, featuring the 26 year old part-time actor Jim Gandolfini.
Evidently, the New York Times now publishes political narratives that would make Politico blush. Because this John Harwood piece makes the argument that Obama’s problems in states with old, white, rural populations is that he never visits them. Seriously.
So Mr. Obama has not given North Dakota his time. It is one of six states he has not visited as president, along with South Dakota, Arkansas, Idaho, South Carolina and Utah. He has gone just once to Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Tennessee and Wyoming.
Mr. Obama’s near-complete absence from more than 25 percent of the states, from which he is politically estranged, is no surprise, in that it reflects routine cost-benefit calculations of the modern presidency. But in a country splintered by partisanship and race, it may also have consequences.
America’s 21st-century politics, as underscored by the immigration debate now embroiling Congress, increasingly pits the preferences of a dwindling, Republican-leaning white majority against those of expanding, Democratic-leaning Hispanic and black minorities. Even some sympathetic observers fault Mr. Obama for not doing all he could to pull disparate elements of society closer.
“Every president should make an attempt to bridge the divide,” said Donna Brazile, an African-American Democratic strategist. “It’s a tall order. I wouldn’t give him high marks.”
Al Cross, who directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, said, “You’re president of the whole country.” By all but ignoring the state, he added, Mr. Obama has allowed negative sentiment toward his presidency to deepen and harden.
Ah, so if only Obama visited Bismarck and Provo and Little Rock, he would totally win over these populations. Why I bet if he had given a big bully pulpit speech in Cheyenne, both John Barasso and Mike Enzi would have immediately caved to the massive public support he would have received from the land of Dick Cheney and voted for Obamacare!
A good bit of the left-wing criticism of President Obama partially misses the mark because it assumes a unilateral presidency where presidents can do what they want. On the other hand, there’s plenty for progressives to criticize about Obama, particularly in his choice of appointments. Take for instance his choice to head the Federal Communications Commission:
President Obama’s nominee to head the Federal Communications Commission told a Senate committee on Tuesday that his experience as the leader of lobbying groups for the cable television and cellphone industries had convinced him that the agency needs to promote competition over regulation.
The nominee, Tom Wheeler, told the Senate Commerce Committee that the F.C.C.’s championing of competition was especially important given Americans’ heavy dependence on communications networks in education, public safety and consumer services.
“Competition is a power unto itself that must be encouraged,” he said. “Competitive markets produce better outcomes than regulated or uncompetitive markets.”
The playing down of the role of regulation could worry Democrats on the committee and advocates of consumer-friendly oversight of industries that are growing rapidly — perhaps too fast in recent years for government overseers to keep track of them.
It is his experience in those industries rather than as a regulator, Mr. Wheeler said, that provides his primary strengths.
Obama’s nomination to head a major regulatory agency who brags about being an anti-regulatory industry lobbyist says a lot about how the president sees the proper role of corporations in government, the tug of war between regulation and corporate control, and the extent to which government should regulate society. He’s clearly part of the pro-corporate, deregulatory wing of Democratic Party that has controlled the party since Carter. We see this in his public lands policy, his education policy, his communications policy, his trade policy. This should be hardly be surprising to anyone in 2013, but it’s another reminder both of the obstacles we face in creating positive change within the Democratic Party. That doesn’t mean we should abandon the best tool we have within the political system, but we have to take control of the party apparatus and policy making decisions from the corporate overlords who have controlled it for 35 years.