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Impressment Riot

[ 6 ] November 19, 2014 |

I trust you spent the week celebrating the 267th anniversary of the Boston Impressment Riot appropriately.


Is Climate Change the Next Gay Marriage?

[ 39 ] November 19, 2014 |

This piece argues that climate change could be the next gay marriage in terms of young Republicans supporting meaningful action on it while old Republicans hate the idea of even considered it. Well, maybe. But I think there are some problems here. Primarily, I’m not sure how this manifests itself in policy. Gay marriage has a simple solution: making gay marriage legal. But climate change is far more complicated with no clear situation. Polling showing young people would pay $20 extra a month in home heating have some value but let’s be clear, that ain’t solving climate change. So what happens then? And the mechanism for change is much murkier. Ballot measures mean people can vote to legalize gay marriage. Lawsuits can force states to do the same. There isn’t really a similar mechanism for climate change. Weaning us off coal is great, but it doesn’t solve the problem either. So I’m glad to see young Republicans reasonable on this issue, but it’s not gay marriage.


[ 83 ] November 19, 2014 |

They are an endangered species, but there are a few capitalists who see the income inequality of the New Gilded Age as a threat to capitalism, as they should. One is Nick Hanauer, who was an early investor in Amazon. He writes a lengthy essay in Politico about how awful it is that overtime for workers has gone away and what President Obama can do about it:

So what’s changed since the 1960s and ’70s? Overtime pay, in part. Your parents got a lot of it, and you don’t. And it turns out that fair overtime standards are to the middle class what the minimum wage is to low-income workers: not everything, but an indispensable labor protection that is absolutely essential to creating a broad and thriving middle class. In 1975, more than 65 percent of salaried American workers earned time-and-a-half pay for every hour worked over 40 hours a week. Not because capitalists back then were more generous, but because it was the law. It still is the law, except that the value of the threshold for overtime pay—the salary level at which employers are required to pay overtime—has been allowed to erode to less than the poverty line for a family of four today. Only workers earning an annual income of under $23,660 qualify for mandatory overtime. You know many people like that? Probably not. By 2013, just 11 percent of salaried workers qualified for overtime pay, according to a report published by the Economic Policy Institute. And so business owners like me have been able to make the other 89 percent of you work unlimited overtime hours for no additional pay at all.

In my defense, I’m only playing by the rules—rules written by and for wealthy capitalists like me. But the main point is this: These are rules that President Barack Obama has the power to change with the stroke of a pen, and with no prior congressional approval. The president could, on his own, restore federal overtime standards to where they were at their 1975 peak, covering the same 65 percent of salaried workers who were covered 40 years ago. If he did that, about 10.4 million Americans would suddenly be earning a lot more than they are now. Last March, Obama asked the Labor Department to update “outdated” regulations that mean, as the president put it in his memo, “millions of Americans lack the protections of overtime and even the right to the minimum wage.” But Obama was not specific about the changes he wanted to see.

So let me be specific. To get the country back to the same equitable standards we had in 1975, the Department of Labor would simply have to raise the overtime threshold to $69,000. In other words, if you earn $69,000 or less, the law would require that you be paid overtime when you worked more than 40 hours a week. That’s 10.4 million middle-class Americans with more money in their pockets or more time to spend with friends and family. And if corporate America didn’t want to pay you time and a half, it would need to hire hundreds of thousands of additional workers to pick up the slack—slashing the unemployment rate and forcing up wages.

The Obama administration could, on its own, go even further. Many millions of Americans are currently exempt from the overtime rules—teachers, federal employees, doctors, computer professionals, etc.—and corporate leaders are lobbying hard to expand “computer professional” to mean just about anybody who uses a computer. Which is almost everybody. But were the Labor Department instead to narrow these exemptions, millions more Americans would receive the overtime pay they deserve. Why, you might ask, are so many workers exempted from overtime? That’s a fair question. To be truthful, I have no earthly idea why. What I can tell you is that these exemptions work out very well for your employers.

I’m not a labor lawyer, so I will leave the legal specifics to others. But according to Hanauer, Obama can unilaterally change the overtime regulations. And the president has acted a bit on this issue. There is no good reason for Obama not to make a really significant change to the overtime rules except that he, like most Democrats in Washington, actually believe that corporate leaders are correct when they talk about “burdensome regulations” and themselves as “job creators.” Hanauer says these are outright lies, later going into what the capitalists actually spend their money on (note: it may make you angry). But that ideology is so incredibly powerful among the American political elite, an ideology backed up by the need for massive campaign contributions in a post-Citizens United world, that the reality matters less than pleasing the plutocrats. And that’s the Democrats. As for the Republicans, impoverishing the American working class is an outright goal.

The Prison Labor Complex

[ 58 ] November 19, 2014 |

The California Attorney General’s office opposed the release of inmates because the state wanted to use them as cheap firefighter labor.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that attorneys in Harris’ office had unsuccessfully argued in court that the state could not release the prisoners it had agreed to release because “if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.” Those prisoners, the Times reported, earn wages that range from “8 cents to 37 cents per hour.”

In a Sept. 30 filing in the case, signed by Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney but under Harris’ name, the state argued, “Extending 2-for-1 credits to all minimum custody inmates at this time would severely impact fire camp participation — a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”

Approximately 4,400 California prisoners help the state battle wildfires, at wages of about $2 a day. There is an exception in the agreement that allows the state to retain firefighters — but only firefighters — who are otherwise eligible for release.

Like incarcerated firefighters, inmates who perform “assignments necessary for the continued operation of the institution and essential to local communities” draw from the same pool of inmates who pose a limited threat to public safety, the state argued in a September filing. Therefore, reducing that population would require the prisons to draw more incarcerated workers away from its firefighting crews.

This is the reality of the labor force today–states actively rely on incarcerated labor for work. I don’t think I need to list the many problems with this.

Prosecute the Apparel Companies

[ 13 ] November 19, 2014 |

Sweatshop factories in California are making a non-zero amount of your clothes:

Workers in the California garment industry are enduring poor working conditions and insufficient pay, the US Department of Labour has found. More than 1,500 Southern California garment workers are owed over $3 million in unpaid wages, the government department found following a year-long survey – which also concluded that American companies Nasty Gal, Macy’s, Nordstrom and JC Penney, among others, were producing garments in the factories concerned.

You want to stop this? Charge huge fines to Nasty Gal, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and JC Penney for doing business with people who make clothes in this manner. That’s how you stop it. We make decent working conditions part of the cost of doing business. This so often gets portrayed as an issue of “ethical sourcing.” That’s not incorrect, but it misstates the problem. The problem isn’t sourcing production with the right contractors. It’s the entire system of apparel contracting. It’s that the apparel industry gets away from washing its hands of responsibility through it’s don’t ask don’t tell position about its contractors. Only by holding these companies fiscally and legally responsible will clothing be produced ethically

The Leather Industry and Outsourced Pollution

[ 34 ] November 18, 2014 |

Jason Motlagh and Josh Eidelson have an excellent piece up on the horrors of the Bangladeshi leather industry. When you buy leather goods, where do you think the leather comes from? How does it become leather? Of course you don’t ask yourself that question. You just like the shiny jacket. But it is just awful:

The worst conditions are endured by 8,000 to 12,000 tannery workers, who toil 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week for less than $2 a day, according to the local Tannery Workers Union. Abdul Kalam Azad, head of the union, says even experienced workers with 10 or more years on the job rarely earn more than $150 a month.

In one factory, which supplies black leather to wholesalers in Hong Kong, Korea, and Italy, hides are churned in giant wooden drums filled with toxic chemicals such as chromium sulfate and arsenic, which are used to soften them. Many workers handle the barrels without gloves and walk barefoot on floors covered in acid. “They are working in those conditions with little or no protective equipment and little or no concern for their health care from the tannery owners,” says Richard Pearshouse, who investigated factory conditions in 2012 for Human Rights Watch. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals has been known to cause cancer.

Nur Mohammad, 35, a veteran worker, has severe chemical burns on his hands and feet. “I’m always in pain,” he says. Workers risk being fired if they take time off to seek medical treatment, he says. “Sure, I would like to find a different job, but I have six children to support.” A factory manager, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution, says his tannery provides first aid and a medical stipend of as much as $20 a month. He concedes that while allowances are made for longtime employees to take leave, an excess of cheap labor ensures workers can easily be replaced.

On top of this is the effect of this pollution on surrounding people who live near this hellhole that exists for our consumer preferences. That’s a mere 160,000 people.

I talk a bit about this industry in Out of Sight and the fundamentals are the same as most of the rest of globalized capitalism–developed world nations are offloading the worst parts of the industrial process onto the world’s poor, keeping these realities far away our consumers’ eyes and brains, and ensuring that they hold no responsibility for what happens. The only way this really gets improved is for global standards that empower workers and the people of these communities to seek financial compensation from and legal repercussions for every company that makes or contracts goods that comes from this leather. Even if Bangladesh cleaned up its leather industry, the clothing companies and other big leather buyers would find an even poorer country to move it too. That’s why global standards have to follow industries no matter where they travel. It must be our goal in the apparel sweatshops, the food industry, the leather industry, and everything else.

Coal’s Decline

[ 21 ] November 18, 2014 |

Zach Colman’s longish piece is good for getting at the real reasons behind coal’s decline in West Virginia. The people of that state want to blame Obama. And there’s no question that Obama has issued new regulations to move us away from the dirtiest of all energies. But overall, his administration has played only a minor role in a collapse long in coming:

Production in West Virginia hit 156.5 million tons in 1924, when the industry employed 116,000 people, according to the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training. Output stayed relatively steady for decades, but new technology cut the workforce to 68,000 by 1956, when output totaled 150.4 million tons.

The region’s low-sulfur coal became a hot commodity when Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970. Power companies could not afford the pollution scrubbers needed to continue burning dirtier coal under the law’s new standards, so cleaner coal from Central Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee was suddenly in demand. Once the easiest coal was extracted, production dipped in the 1980s before peaking again in 1997 at nearly 300 million tons. West Virginia’s production of 182 million tons that year, just 17 years ago, was a record.

Wage costs rose sharply after that as the coal was harder to reach. And by then, power plants had installed technology that allowed them to burn dirtier Midwestern coal.

Decline accelerated when the shale boom began in the late 2000s. Plentiful supplies of natural gas pushed prices to record lows, making it competitive with coal. Power companies built cheaper generators to run on gas. Buyers for Central Appalachia’s coal went away. Regulations have encouraged the shift from coal to gas. The writing was on the wall for electric utilities when Congress nearly passed a sweeping cap-and-trade bill in 2009. It passed in the House but fizzled in the Senate.

Coal employed 22,096 people in West Virginia in 2012, according to state records. That’s up from 16,233 at the 1997 production peak. The figure shows that the struggles of West Virginia’s coal country can’t be pinned solely on the Obama administration.

That’s right, more people are employed in coal in West Virginia than in 1997. Obama is not the enemy here. It’s a century of coal industry profit-taking, terrible political leadership, poor planning on the county and state level, and structural disadvantages related to the region’s long-standing poverty. Coming out of Oregon logging towns collapsing in much the same way during the 1980s and 90s that have not recovered today, I get the despair and hatred of outsiders that is animating the people of coal country. But like it was not environmentalists’ fault in Oregon in 1990, it’s not the Obama administration now. But protecting your culture by blaming outsiders is the easiest thing to do. When they are a bunch of long-haired tree huggers or are a black guy in the Oval Office, it’s even easier.

Immigration Politics

[ 76 ] November 18, 2014 |

I tend to agree with Marshall here–there is very little downside to Obama acting unilaterally on immigration. There’s tons of precedent for such a move, including by St. Ronnie on immigration itself. Any subsequent president can undo such an executive action. So if the Republicans are actually going to impeach him for it, which I don’t think they will, they don’t have much of a leg to stand on, even for them. More importantly, the politics going forward on this are very much in the Democratic Party’s favor. The anti-immigrant people are already voting and they are voting Republican. Obama’s actions would likely have little concrete negative reaction for Democrats in 2016 since the people who would be angry about it are already a highly motivated voting bloc. But effectively declaring the end of most deportations forces Republicans to run for deportations, creating real difference between the two parties on the issue and likely vastly increasing Latino turnout in 2016 since it will be so clear which party more stands with them. Republicans have to do something because they’ve campaigned on it, but fighting it exposes their racism to the populace.

This is one of those situations where Obama acting would be morally correct and politically savvy.

Cruz ’16!

[ 17 ] November 18, 2014 |

Ted Cruz is writing some great attack ads for his opponents in 2016.

“Ted Cruz: He wants to double the cost of your internet access.”

Now that’s a surefire path to the presidency!

A Glimpse Into a Lost World

[ 18 ] November 17, 2014 |

In 1938, a couple of Jewish Americans went on vacation to Poland, where one of them was from. They made films of their trip. Some of them survived. Thanks to their grandson finding them and donating them to the Holocaust Museum, you can now watch 3 minutes of film of the Jewish section of Nasielsk, Poland just before World War II. Powerful, haunting stuff given what is about to happen there. Of the 3000 Jews who lived there in 1938, about 80 survived the war.

Solving the Palm Oil Problem

[ 9 ] November 17, 2014 |

Palm oil is a very efficient way of producing cooking oil and is thus in high demand around the world. One huge problem is that it is turning the incredibly diverse rain forests of southeast Asia into a region-wide monoculture. Deforestation for palm oil plantations is a major problem. Luckily, this has led to significant criticism of the food industry. So many of the big palm oil producers have recently signed agreements to limit or eliminate deforestation in the production of palm oil.

That’s great, I guess. Certainly it’s better than nothing. However, I want to stress that just like agreements to improve labor conditions in southeast Asian sweatshops, there is very little incentive for companies to actually follow through. There is no stick to go along with that carrot. Without a way to enforce that agreement, you are relying on corporate beneficence. From the corporation’s perspective, they are waiting for attention to be drawn to something else. Without a way for people to sue or prosecute the companies over violating these agreements, the long-term benefit may well be negligible.

Remembering U.S. Complicity in Salvadoran Military Crimes

[ 18 ] November 17, 2014 |

25 years ago yesterday, the Salvadoran military massacred six Jesuit priests and two women who worked for them. The National Security Archive has collected documents showing how the Bush administration refused to acknowledge that its client state’s military could have committed such an atrocity, when in fact it committed human rights violations all the time. This isn’t just a past event without relevance to the president. A Spanish court is attempting to extradite of the indicted offices for the tragedy. U.S. support of that effort would partially remediate American complicity in the mass deaths that plagued El Salvador in the 1980s and continue to destabilize that nation today.

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