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Outrage Where Outrage Is Due

[ 38 ] April 26, 2013 |

Rick Perry, relatively indifferent to the West, Texas fertilizer explosion, outraged at Jack Ohman editorial cartoon that would blame Texas’ lax regulatory climate for it.

Go Jets

[ 88 ] April 26, 2013 |

If there’s one thing the Jets needed, it was another high-profile, questionable-talent quarterback like Geno Smith to go along with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow. Since both of the latter are miraculously still on the team, that’s going to be a great locker room.

George Jones, RIP

[ 109 ] April 26, 2013 |

Oh this is not good.

The great George Jones has passed. Arguably, the best singer in country music history, Jones’ collection of amazing songs is almost unmatched. Its true he did everything he could to waste his prodigious talent with massive drinking. There were long fallow periods by the 1970s. It took over a year to record “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” partly because Jones thought the song too maudlin and so resisted singing it, but mostly because he was too drunk all the time to work. I was living in Nashville in 1999 when a drunk Jones got into a car accident. This was the story of the year in that town, partially because George Jones still held such sway there and partially because of the sadness that he was still engaging in that kind of behavior.

Still, we shouldn’t focus too much on his personal life. Instead, we should remember his amazing voice and wonderful songs. Here are my 5 favorites:

5. “Once You’ve Had the Best.” At Farm Aid!

4. “The Right Left Hand.” Theoretically, this is the relationship he’s not going to screw up.

3. “Golden Ring” with his then wife Tammy Wynette. The life cycle of a relationship.

2. “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Nothing needs to be said to explain this. Except that it’s another song about a destroyed relationship.

1. “The Grand Tour.” Probably my favorite divorce song of all time. And let’s face it, there’s some really stiff competition for that. Including from the Possum himself, as we see here.

Also, the link to “Choices” in my previous post was totally coincidental. I probably would have included that in my top 5 because it’s a great song. So consider it an addendum.

One of the true all time greats, not only in country music, but in all of American popular music.

A very sad day for me.


[ 32 ] April 26, 2013 |

Turns out that Bangladeshi workers do make choices for themselves outside of theoretical “choices” about working dangerous jobs. In fact, they choose to engage in massive protests after over 250 deaths in the collapsed building this week.

Police inspector Kamrul Islam said the workers had attacked several factories whose bosses had refused to give employees the day off.

“They were protesting the deaths of the workers in Savar,” he said, referring to the town outside Dhaka where Wednesday’s collapse of an eight-storey building housing five garment factories took place, injuring more than 1,000 people.

“Many wanted to donate blood to their fellow workers,” he added.

Some 1,500 workers marched to the Dhaka headquarters of the main manufacturers association, demanding the owners of the collapsed factories be punished.

“The owners must be hanged,” one protester cried, as others tried to lay seige to the headquarters.

Some workers smashed windows and vehicles before they were chased away by police, Wahidul Islam, a deputy commissioner of Dhaka police, told AFP.

I believe the academic term for this is “worker agency.” This is one way workers seek to improve their lives. They choose not to die on the job.

Also of course:

Mining and Water in Chile

[ 13 ] April 25, 2013 |

Mining companies have played an outsized role in Chile for a long time. Bitterness at foreign mining corporations helped bring Salvador Allende to power in 1970. Defending mining interests helped spur CIA support for Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973. Little has changed. Today, mining corporations are using so much water that supplies are threatened for much of the nation, leading to protests calling to nationalize the water system that Pinochet privatized in 1981.

The latest setback for the organisations was a supreme court verdict this month that ruled it was not illegal for a mining company to not pay for extracting groundwater on land it had been granted under concession because it was merely “exploring” for minerals in the water, rather than “exploiting” the water.

Environmentalists warn that the ruling could set a legal precedent for mining corporations to use water without any controls, even until a water source has been exhausted.

The ruling was in favour of the Sociedad Legal Minera NX Uno de Peine company, which Chile’s water authority had denounced for using groundwater without a permit. But the supreme court ruling said the groundwater pumping operation in question was authorised by the exploration concession and did not require a permit from the water authority, as stated in article 58 of the water code.

“We’re talking about water that was in the basins, which enables Chile’s valleys to survive,” said Villablanca. “In a word, they are leaving all of Chile without water.”

That’s real problematic for the long-term sustainability of large parts of Chile.

More on Workplace Safety

[ 7 ] April 25, 2013 |

I was on the Rick Smith Show last night talking about workplace safety and the need to hold corporate heads criminally and civilly liable for deaths that happen in their factories and the factories where they subcontract production. Check it out if you care.

Workplace Safety and the Gilded Age Theory of Risk

[ 395 ] April 25, 2013 |

Matt Yglesias had an odd response to my post yesterday calling for American corporations to be held to American labor standards no matter where in the world they site their plants or whether they subcontract the work out. Yglesias said that less safe conditions in poorer countries was OK and in fact helped the people of Bangladesh.

I think that’s wrong. Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.

The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary USA that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk-reward spectrum. There are also some good reasons to want to avoid a world of unlimited choice and see this as a sphere in which collective action is appropriate (I’ll gesture at arguments offered in Robert Frank’s The Darwin Economy and Tom Slee’s No One Makes You Shop At Walmart if you’re interested) but that still leaves us with the question of “which collective” should make the collective choice.

Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you’ll get rules that are appropriate for nobody. The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine. American jobs have gotten much safer over the past twenty years and Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer.

There’s a number of problems here. I want to be brief, so let me focus on just a few.

Yglesias deploys a Gilded Age theory of risk and work. This I found remarkable and it suggests just how far unregulated capitalism has come back in the minds of even people on the left side of the political spectrum. In saying that workers agree to take on risk when they choose a particular job, Yglesias is fundamentally following the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Farwell v. The Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation. In 1842, Massachusetts decided that employers were not liable for workers’ getting hurt or dying on the job because workers personally assumed a risk when they agreed to work. Farwell set the standard for Gilded Age assumptions of risk on the job that led to a legal system granting workers no rights at work throughout the 19th century.

I know that Yglesias doesn’t go this far, but assuming that people agree to take risks by working dangerous jobs places the onus for safety on workers and not the corporations who could easily grant workers safe working conditions. It rationalizes away antisocial corporate behavior. By deploying a fatalistic history of the Industrial Revolution that countries must go through periods where their workers have no safety before they advance, Yglesias provides a structure to justify the death of 200 workers yesterday.

The Progressive Era and New Deal and Great Society, not to mention the work of unions for the last century once chipped away at this antiquated notion of risk, through workers compensation, union health and safety committees, OSHA, and many other things. But today, the structure of Gilded Age capitalism is again in the ascendant, both at home and overseas, as Yglesias’ argument suggests.

There’s also the issue of democracy and choice. What are workers actually choosing when they make these theoretical choices to enter the plant? They choice many tried to make was not to work in unsafe conditions. They were threatened with severe pay loss that placed their families’ already precarious economic system in even more danger. Bangladeshi workers have tried to organize into unions. What happened? Their organizers were murdered. The building is owned by a local political elite. What chance did workers have to create change? Workers try to make choices. Those choices are denied them by an international corporate-political alliance. The choices are made for workers by Wal-Mart, by their corrupt elites, by the bullet from a police officer’s gun.

Frankly, this line of thinking that Yglesias deployed about risk and choice exists only in university Economics departments, corporate offices, and in the minds of the punditocracy. People don’t actually think and act this way because their “choices” are constrained by such things as government, family, violence, and survival.

A more minor point is Yglesias’ idea that more dangerous work is better paid work. This is just not true. I pressed him on this in the Twitter conversation and he sent me data showing that fallers within the timber industry make more money than other logging jobs. Yeah, sure within industries people get paid more for more dangerous work, especially under union contracts, but I don’t see what that has to do with the point at hand. Across the economy, dangerous work is also low-paid work. Ask Joe Griego, a New Mexico farmworker who was stomped by a bull and who doesn’t qualify for workers’ comp laws. Ask the people of West Virginia, where 125 years of working dangerous coal jobs has led to entrenched poverty. Ask my family in the timber industry.

But what really matters here is that workplace safety is incredibly cheap. Once you start talking about, say, putting in technologies to reduce smoke from steel production you can need to implement relatively expensive technologies. But for basic workplace safety, there is no reason that we can’t implement international standards. The building that collapsed in Bangladesh had huge cracks in it and the workers didn’t want to go in. I think a building that meets basic safety codes is pretty reasonable. So are proper fire escapes, fireproof doors, and sprinkler systems. So are hand protections from saws, face masks for welders, and other extremely inexpensive technologies that save a lot of lives. So Yglesias can talk in these broader theoretical terms about workers and risk and different safety standards being OK. But in the end, that argument leads you to rationalizing American corporations setting up a system that allows 200 people to die because simple fire safety wasn’t followed. That’s a workplace safety standard that should exist everywhere.

….I see Scott has also written a response below, which covers some of the same ground.

…..Also, definitely read David Atkins’ response to Yglesias.


[ 94 ] April 25, 2013 |

I have one thought about this study questioning the value of Advanced Placement testing. I graded AP U.S. History exams for 3 years. The pass rate was about 55% (assuming a 3 is a pass). I would argue the number of students who wrote a test that showed even a minimally competent knowledge of the material, one that would get, say, a B- or C+ in a college level freshman class, was about 10%. The idea that students are getting college credit for this stuff is a joke.

The Terence Malick Effect

[ 86 ] April 24, 2013 |

This is an interesting essay on the Malick Effect, which can be summed as up people copying Terence Malick by having hands run through grain for effect:

That Green was initially able to pull off this plagiaristic trick is somewhat amazing, given what a careful balance Malick strikes between poetic inquiry and narrative plotting. But as evidenced by Undertow, his third film, even Green found that mimicking Malick posed the threat of reducing the director’s work to just its rudimentary building blocks, a problem that’s also undercut many subsequent copycats. Sean Penn (who co-starred in both The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life) performed a pale impersonation with his directorial job on 2007′s Into the Wild, wielding pseudo-Malick landscape cinematography and accompanying voice-over blabber in a thoroughly blunt, leaden manner. Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford gussies up its Malick-isms (meditative and mournful narration over naturally lit vistas of the West and its existentially wounded characters) with smeary visual expressionism that makes the film play, in large part, like a beautiful cover song. However, at least Jesse James has a clear sense of itself; last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, on the other hand, comes off as the nature-is-ugly-yet-magical stepchild of George Washington, a third-hand piece of recycling made by someone who knows the moves but has none of the mysterious soul. By the time John Hillcoat — an accomplished director whose The Proposition also commingles natural beauty, violence, and religious turmoil — helmed this Levis ad, it was clear that, for many, Malick had become merely a collection of tricks and devices, the simple sum of various parts. Just ask Zach Snyder, whose initial Man of Steel teaser trailer, with its portentous narration, soaring music, and shots of sun-dappled butterflies and clotheslines swaying in the breeze, awkwardly evokes what a superhero blockbuster helmed by a second-rate Malick might resemble.

Unfortunately, Malick himself has moved closer to self-parody with each passing movie in his latter phase of actually finishing films. The brilliant The Thin Red Line devolved into the decent The New World which then devolved further into the largely unwatchable The Tree of Life. The reviews on To The Wonder do not sound promising, although I suppose I’ll watch it. Unfortunately, with The Tree of Life, Malick fully gave into his most self-indulgent impulses (more dinosaurs and galaxy shots in a movie ostensibly about growing up in the 1950s please!). It’s too bad because Malick is indeed so brilliant and does have so much to offer other filmmakers in terms of style, even if they misuse his methods for their own self-indulgent ends.

I Heard that Dog Whistle!

[ 41 ] April 24, 2013 |

Photoshopping really is the right-wing dog whistler’s favorite tool.

A conservative group connected to Colorado’s Secretary of State has been sending political mailers — including a picture of a darker-skinned woman whose face was digitally removed and replaced with a white woman’s face — in an attempt to oppose a landmark voting bill that may soon become law.

Colorado is currently considering a major piece of legislation to improve the state’s voting laws by implementing Election Day Registration, automatically sending mail ballots to every voter, and creating a real-time voter database to detect and prevent fraud. It passed the House last week and will now be taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a frequent speaker at True The Vote events who uses his perch to warn about the supposed threat of voter fraud, is leading opposition to the bill, which is supported by a number of Republican County Clerks and the Colorado County Clerks Association.

Now, a dark money group named the “Citizens for Free and Fair Elections”, which lists its address as that of Gessler’s former firm, the Hackstaff Law Group, is sending out photoshopped mailers in an attempt to pressure the election clerks into switching their position.

You can see the photoshopping job in a series of images in the attached link. Classy stuff.


[ 32 ] April 24, 2013 |

The Rhode Island Senate has passed a marriage equality bill by a 26-12 vote. Governor Lincoln Chaffee has already come out in support of it. After a long battle played out within the bizarre entity known as the Democratic Party (all 12 no votes were from Democrats), the pressure became too much for Senate Majority Leader Teresa Paiva Weed to resist.

A fine day in the Ocean State!!

Holding Corporations Responsible for Workplace Deaths

[ 83 ] April 24, 2013 |

We don’t hear too many stories anymore like last week’s fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, where the death toll has now risen to 15. This is because we have outsourced our industrial risk to Asia and Latin America.

An 8-story building containing a clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh has collapsed, killing at least 87 people. This is on top of the 112 burned to death 5 months ago in another Bangladesh clothing factory. How many people have to die making our clothes before we pay attention?

If this all sounds like the Triangle Fire in 1911, there’s a reason for that. Clothing corporations, manufacturers, and big box stores actively want the Triangle model to exist. If you are an American or European corporation, you don’t want to employ the people who make your clothes directly. You want to order out for what you need with no responsibility. You want low prices, so you pressure contractors to keep wages and conditions as low as possible. That probably actually goes unsaid but everyone knows what “keep costs low” means. You want to split workers up into a variety of workplaces so that they can be more easily controlled and can’t unionize. Putting them on an upper floor of a building, just like at Triangle, is a perfect way to control that labor with no supervision.

The question we must ask is to what extent the corporations demanding this labor model are responsible for the unsafe working conditions of the employees? We know at least that these workers made clothes for Benetton, Dress Barn, and The Children’s Place. Should these corporations be held accountable when workers die? Wal-Mart denied having any its clothes made in the factory that caught fire, but they were proved liars on the matter. It also seems that Wal-Mart had some contracts in this factory, according to this factory profile sent out by Stephen Greenhouse of the Times on his twitter account.

I argue that we should apply U.S. labor law to all American corporations, no matter where they site their factory. If a worker dies in a factory that makes clothing for your company, the company is responsible. In my mind, this is the only way to fight the outsourcing epidemic that provides a cover for irresponsible corporate policies. The injured workers and the families of the dead deserve financial compensation. The American corporations who buy the clothes produced by this factory should be required to pay American rates of workers compensation. Ultimately, we need international standards for factory safety, guaranteed through an international agency that includes vigorous inspections and real financial punishments. Of course, we are a long ways from any of this. But we have to begin at least talking in these terms, demanding accountability for workplace deaths, whether in the United States or in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, building on yesterday’s discussion of media coverage of these events, only 2 of 63 cable news segments on the West Fertilizer explosion noted that the plant was in violation of federal standards for holding ammonium nitrate. Bad reporting on workplace conditions helps people see these events as accidents and not as the fault of specific choices corporate leaders make and for which they should be held criminally and civilly responsible.

Moreover, it’s not as if the state plays no role in allowing these violators to operate. Rather, the state actually helps them to do it. For instance, the Dallas Morning News has asked the state of Texas for a list of all factories, facilities, and dealers in the state holding ammonium nitrate (as there was also a massive fertilizer fire in Bryan in 2009 that luckily did not kill anyone because the fire fighters gave up on putting it out and instead put up a perimeter around the blaze). The state chemist’s office, which is at Texas A&M, is resisting this request and the state attorney general will decide if such information should be made public. Given that Rick Perry has said that his state’s lax regulations are fine and that further regulations would have made no difference in West, we can guess what the attorney general’s response will be.

We have a lot of work to do to make our workplaces and communities safe. Simply gathering information and publicizing what we can is the first step, one that faces significant resistance of its own.

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