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Zoning and Nuisance Industries

[ 64 ] April 18, 2013 |

One of the fundamental questions about the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion is why a fertilizer plant was located right in a town, with a nursing home, middle school, and homes close enough to be destroyed if the plant blew up. Fertilizer plants are a ticking time bomb. We don’t know too much yet about the history of the plant, though we do know that it filed a document with the EPA saying it presented no risk for fire or explosion. Given the lack of regulatory capability in the modern American government (with current staffing, it would take OSHA inspectors 129 years to inspect every worksite in America), we have decided to trust corporations to self-regulate. Last night is an example of why that is a very bad idea and why we need a much more activist government with regular inspections of all workplaces and significant fines for violations.

Part of the problem here is the history of American land use and the lack of state control over development. Texas is especially bad on this point, since several cities, including Houston, have no zoning at all. But there is a history, albeit relatively limited, of cities declaring industries as nuisances and banishing them outside of town. Between 1692 and 1708, several Massachusetts towns, including Boston, Salem, and Charlestown, banished so-called “nuisance trades” outside of town. These were mostly slaughterhouses and tanneries.

But outside of New England, there was never much tradition of separating people from industry no matter how bad the health risk. The meatpacking district of Gilded Age Chicago might be the most notorious, but there are any number of examples. The rise of zoning in the 20th century helped alleviate some of these problems. By creating industrial districts, it served to protect Americans from the health hazards of manufacturing. But industrial zoning was largely a municipal rather than federal or state project, meaning that corporations had a tremendous amount of influence on the process. Zoning is not a perfect solution, largely because its local control means that racial prejudice can easily be replicated onto the landscape, but for the purpose of keeping Americans safe from hazards, it’s the best tool we have.

As commenters have pointed out, the fertilizer plant in West is hardly the only example we have of poorly sited industrial projects that threaten large numbers of people. But in examining this tragedy, we have to ask what we could have done to mitigate it. One question revolves around how the fire started and turned into an explosion. That’s under investigation, but when you are dealing with fertilizer there are very real risks. A vigorous regulatory program and strong unions would help a lot, but neither would completely eliminate risks in a nuisance industry like fertilizer. So given the inherent dangers of nuisance industries, why are they located near cities? The answer of course is corporate control over American life.

The move of meatpacking out of Chicago and into the rural Midwest was in part a union-busting move, and in fact meatpackers treat their largely immigrant labor forces terribly, but it actually does make sense to site meatpacking plants in southwestern Kansas, where they will harm fewer people. The same is true of fertilizer production. The government needs to play a more active role in deciding where dangerous and nuisance industries will be located. I am a historian and not a journalist, so I don’t have the time to investigate the specific history of the factory in West. But it doesn’t really matter for the broader point. If factories preexist neighborhoods, zoning needs to keep residents out. If neighborhoods preexist factories, zoning needs to move factories to more isolated places. After all, it’s not like you couldn’t build that factory 10 miles west of West and have it in a much less populated and safer place, basically the scrub country where George W. Bush used to show off his brush-cutting skills in order to score cheap political points.

Let me close by quoting Bill Minutaglio from the Texas Observer:

Because I wrote a book about The Texas City Disaster, my phone began ringing last night with reporters asking about parallels between West and Texas City. A public radio producer who said he wasn’t from Texas wanted to know if it was common to have industrial facilities, like the ones in West, close to residential areas, to schools, to a nursing home. He wanted to know if that kind of thing was “grandfathered” in.

I told him it was complex, and we talked about an inherited political and economic ethos in Texas. That the anti-oversight credo runs deep. It’s in the state’s bedrock. And that, over time, the results are painfully predictable: There will be another explosion (there have been others, more recent ones, in Texas City). There will be more loss of life. And the same questions will emerge—and probably dissipate: What could have been done? Was there enough oversight?

Of course there wasn’t enough oversight. But it’s a cultural problem. We believe capitalists look out for everyone’s interests and that as a society we should cater to the needs of the rich. When we do that, people pay with their lives.

….Here’s an aerial map of West, showing the fertilizer plant’s proximity to the rest of town.

Rheeism in One Quote

[ 161 ] April 18, 2013 |

Like most elite supporters of destroying public eduction unions and handing the future of education over to capitalists and flawed testing systems that make or break people’s careers, Michelle Rhee is a total hypocrite when it comes to her own kids.

In the interview, Rhee also confirmed that one of her two daughters attends a private school in Tennessee, where the girls live with their father, that state’s top education official. Rhee is now married to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

She has previously described herself as a “public-school parent.” An aide repeated that phrase when The Times asked directly if Rhee’s children were in public or private school.

“I try to maintain some level of privacy for my kids by not divulging too much information,” Rhee said. “I say I’m a public-school parent when my kid goes to private school.

“I believe in parental choice,” she said. “I think I should be able to choose … and every parent should have that option too.”

As is the norm for so-called education reformers, Rhee advocates a form of testing for everyday children to which she would never subject her own child.

The West, Texas Disaster

[ 402 ] April 17, 2013 |

As you may have heard, a fertilizer plant has exploded in the town of West, Texas. This town, the Czech cultural capital of Texas and home of a mighty fine kolache at the Czech Stop, not to mention outfielder and stolen base maven Scott Podsednik, is a town well-known throughout the state. It’s also a place where, as of the most recent reports, 60-70 people have died, a nursing home has caved in, and every house within a 4 block radius was destroyed. Hopefully, it is not this bad. Yes, that’s right, a fertilizer plant was placed in a neighborhood. Or a neighborhood grew up around a fertilizer plant. In any case, there are already lessons we can draw from this developing story. First, non-union states often have terrible working conditions that can lead to horrible accidents. They might rarely be this bad, but they kill. Second, a state with notoriously bad zoning and where capitalists are effectively allowed to do whatever they want is going to be a state where terrible things happen.

I’m sure I’ll have more on what seems to be the worst workplace disaster in the United States in many years.

…I don’t actually recommend watching this, but this is footage of the explosion taken by some guy. Not embedding and I warn you. But this is what happened.

And Michelle Malkin sends her flying monkeys at me for talking about this event in terms of unions. Classy!

…In February, a school in West evacuated because of a fire at this fertilizer plant. PDF.

…As much as I want to keep following this story, at some point I need to sleep. Like now. As we speak, there are at least 2 confirmed dead and the town’s emergency management system director is saying 60-70 possible dead. By the time I wake up, I hope this was just a nightmare and didn’t occur.

…[SL] Welcome flying monkeys! I know the points here are hard to understand, but here’s a primer.

Williams on Winters

[ 16 ] April 17, 2013 |

Robin Williams can be annoying, but this is a wonderful reminiscence of the great Jonathan Winters.

A Message to Certain Administrators at a Certain Ocean State Institution

[ 116 ] April 17, 2013 |

Dear People Who Hold My Future in Your Hands,

When you distanced yourself from this lowly history professor last fall for daring to use a violent metaphor against moral monster and NRA head Wayne LaPierre, this awful individual, one Glenn Reynolds, is the person who did more than anyone to spearhead the attacks against me and is the person you empowered through your actions.

Obviously I’m the one involved in these debates who speaks outside of acceptable conversation……

Memorable Summer Meals, Colorado Edition

[ 70 ] April 16, 2013 |

I guess the answer to what goes best with beef is supposed to be Jello, but the real answer is whiteness.

I also so want some Western Roundup Salad, the name of the recipe at the bottom.

Maybe This Deliciousness Will Make You Feel Better

[ 61 ] April 15, 2013 |

A terrible day what with this horrifying Boston violence. I have nothing to offer at this point except for that. And an attempt at lightheartedness that might make people feel a bit better. There’s no better way to do that except through food. Especially Crevettes dans de la Gelatine. Which seems to translate as seafood and sliced cherry tomatoes inside Jello molds. Memorable summer meal indeed.

The Decline of Left-Wing Terrorism

[ 58 ] April 15, 2013 |

Despite the violence fetish of some leftists, the reality is that left-wing terrorism has declined to almost nothing in the United States since 1980. We do face severe domestic terrorist threats, but those threats exist almost exclusively on the right, including recent white supremacist violence against law enforcement. Yet in popular media, the face of scary left-wing terrorists, usually environmentalists, dominate our images of domestic terrorism. While the 1990s saw a rise in radical environmentalists who sometimes engaged in property violence, such as certain cells of the Earth Liberation Front, the idea that “ecoterrorism” means some idiots burning SUVs is absurd.* Yet a visit to the museum at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing is all about ecoterrorism and not about right-wing terrorism at all. It’s a crazy and highly politicized disconnect.

This is a good thing considering that any left-wing violence in the United States would be met with an overwhelming state force and fail miserably. It’d be nice to beat back this damaging mythology though.

* One key lesson from the ELF group based out of Eugene that burned a science building at the University of Washington. If your cell leader is a heroin addict, you might want to reconsider your actions.

Delaware: The American Cyprus

[ 26 ] April 15, 2013 |

You might think the Cypriot banking system is little more than a corporate off-shore scam. And you’d be at least partly right. But the U.S. has some pretty special state banking laws and tax schemes as well:

Hundreds of thousands of businesses are incorporated in Delaware, where corporations take advantage of the state’s forgiving tax code and disclosure laws. In fact, the number of corporations housed in Delaware exceeds its population, and has cost other states roughly $9.5 billion tax revenue over the past decade, according to a 2012 New York Times article.

The people who have sheltered their money in Delaware include disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout.

Delaware is not the only state to function as a tax haven.

“Delaware is the biggest state provider of offshore corporate secrecy, but Nevada and Wyoming are the most opaque,” writes journalist Nick Shaxson in Treasure Islands, his book on shadow banking and tax havens. “They allow bearer shares, a vehicle of choice for mobsters and drug smugglers, and they are particularly lax on allowing company directors and other officers to be named, hiding the identities of the real owners.”

Wyoming in particular has become a locus for corporate secrecy. In 2011, Reuters reported that a single house in Cheyenne, Wyoming served as the registered address for more than 2,000 companies. The house is run by a company called Wyoming Corporate Services, which specializes in helping clients form miniature corporations.

I hoped all honest people out there enjoyed paying their taxes as much as I did on this Tax Day.

The Left’s Gun Fetish

[ 263 ] April 14, 2013 |

When I was going through my hate campaign from the NRA, there was a weird set of internet anarchists also hoping I would lose my job. Calling myself and others who were defending me “statist leftists,” they thought guns were central to their hope of fomenting their fantasy revolution and that leftists who supported gun control were delusional defenders of state oppression. As a symbol of that state oppression through opposing uncontrolled gun ownership, I was part of the oppressive machine that needed to be overthrown.

I recalled this oddity reading this Truthout essay by Arun Gupta where he tries to distance himself from the gun fetish of a certain sector of lefty.

Before you equate radical with bomb-thrower, realize Americans, with few exceptions, support state violence. Yet some support gun rights and some oppose it. Many leftists are in the former camp. To confirm this, I asked a couple thousand Facebook “friends” if they opposed gun control and their reasons why. The responses came pouring in:

“Is a state monopoly on arms in the best interests of the working class?”

“Gun laws, much like drug laws, are used to oppress the poor and people of color.”

“We can’t have a revolution without them.”

“Governments already have too much of a monopoly on violence and we will one day have to bring this one down.”

“I’ll be damned a cop can have a gun but I can’t.”

“Gun control laws … are another step down the incline to a full-fledged police state.”

“[I support] the right to bear arms – because I’m horrified that racist whites are heavily armed in areas of the country that oppose democratic rights.”

Judging from these comments, many leftists agree with the right that the biggest threat to society is not mentally ill shooters like Adam Lanza. It’s the state. The implication is that the solution to a society with too many guns is more guns. That’s why leftists tend to shrug off gun control. They see it as impinging on their freedom, or at least as something that doesn’t affect them.

We’ve all known these people, wearing their Che shirts, talking a big game about revolution and the need for violence, even though they’ve probably never held a gun themselves. There’s a romanticization of violence among many on the far left, a line that starts with Lenin, goes to Castro and Che, the PLO and Mao, and then back to the United States through Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and the American Indian Movement.

Although a lot of these leftists would claim (perhaps rightfully) a commitment to gender equality, there’s a strongly masculine ideology behind the leftist using violence to overthrow a state. Che’s sexiness and Malcolm’s rhetoric reinforce highly masculine cultures of the left, a gendered division of revolutionary labor that most certainly flowed through the movements themselves at the time.

The left’s embrace of violence today is largely held by its anarchist side, which unfortunately makes up a large percentage of younger activist leftists. Here, the individual has the right to engage in violent behavior outside of a chain of authority and can not be concerned about the consequences. We’ve this in real time, both in the WTO protests in Seattle and Occupy protests in New York and Oakland.

The moral case for using violence in complex and contingent upon the situation. We can all think of cases where violent resistance was not only justified and necessary. There is some history of success against a colonial power whose real interests and will to fight to death in a place far from the home country may be limited. Within the United States however, it’s a total disaster. We might make an argument that the Black Panthers were justified in embracing violent self-defense. Urban African-Americans in the 1960s were completely ignored by the state, received almost no social services, and most importantly suffered from massive and sustained police violence. The same goes for Native Americans in the cities; AIM began in Minneapolis as a reaction to police brutality.

But the reality was that threatening violence was a complete disaster. It not only led to the state suppression of these movements. It led to a tremendous amount of violence and death from intra-movement conflicts. Resisting violence “by any means necessary” might have meant the white state, but Malcolm also came out of a movement more than happy to use any means necessary to eliminate dissenters in its own ranks, including Malcolm himself. The Weather Underground was a complete failure. In Germany, the Baader-Meinhof gang were sociopaths who did nothing good for society.

Ultimately, the problem with violent tactics within the United States today is fairly simple (outside of the rather obvious point that while the US might be messed up in very real ways, it’s hardly bad enough to convince any more than an extreme fringe to use violence). You will lose. Leftists might point to Castro in 1958 as an example of a romantic violent revolution overthrowing a corrupt state, but the US in 2013 is a very different place than Batista’s Cuba. Surveillance technologies are far superior to any time in the past. So are ways of co-opting a population. Who is really going to commit to revolution if they can afford cable television? Even if you managed to gain enough weapons and not have your movement infiltrated before you managed to do something, the federal government has something called air power. You don’t.

There’s simply no good strategic argument for using violence. Who knows what the future holds. But supporting gun control in 2013 is not going to stop your fantasy revolution from coming true. Largely because if you use your gun against the state, you are going to die very quickly or be put in a deep dark hole for the rest of your life. If we really believe in emancipating people from the shackles of oppression, one really good way to do that is to help keep them alive. Another is to help make them not scared of being shot.

That Gaffney Magic

[ 65 ] April 13, 2013 |

Frank Gaffney is working his racist magic in Oklahoma, convincing the Oklahoma legislature (a willing group no doubt) to pass an anti-Sharia law by enormous margins, thus protecting the good people from Oklahoma from the impending horrors of global islamofascism or something.

When Historians Provide Bad Policy Ideas

[ 186 ] April 13, 2013 |

I’m all for historians entering public debates. I am less enthused when they advocate utterly terrible ideas in major publications, such as University of Texas historian Jeremi Suri, who calls for the United States to bomb North Korea.

Hard to see what could go wrong in that scenario!! Love this paragraph as well:

China’s role in a potential war on the Korean Peninsula is hard to predict. Beijing will continue to worry about the United States extending its influence up to the Chinese border. If armed hostilities erupt, President Obama should be prepared for direct and close consultations with Chinese leaders to negotiate a postwar settlement, in a larger multinational framework, that respects Beijing’s legitimate security interests in North Korea. The United States has no interest in occupying North Korea. The Chinese are unlikely to pursue an occupation of their own.

China’s role in a potential war on the Korean Peninsula is hard to predict. Well then. Might as well just bomb North Korea and see what happens!

Jeremi Suri is the kind of historian that Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney could love.

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