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Where Are the Obama Pardons?

[ 117 ] March 31, 2016 |


President Obama rightfully noted the injustice leading to so many people, largely people of color, thrown in prison for long periods of time because of drug crimes. He wanted to pardon many of them. But that hasn’t happened, despite a few yesterday. This led to the resignation of the attorney in charge of the process a few days ago. Why? This is a good piece on the limits of rapid presidential action on complex issues like this.

The pardon office didn’t have the resources it needed to process all the applications it was receiving. Partly this is the fault of Congress, which responded to the Obama administration’s moves in 2014 by trying to defund them. As a result, the office couldn’t hire the extra attorneys it needed to process the new petitions coming in. That’s what Leff’s letter was referring to when she says that “the requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard.”

But this isn’t entirely Congress’s fault. Leff says she’s been “instructed to set aside thousands of petitions for pardon and traditional commutation” in order to look at the applications the Obama administration asked prisoners to send in 2014. The letter makes it seem that the Obama administration was already dealing with a backlog when it solicited thousands of new applications, without a plan for how it was actually going to process either the new ones or the existing ones.

The pardon attorney didn’t have enough of a role in the pardon process. The president makes the final decision on all pardons and commutations. But before an application reaches the president’s desk, a recommendation is made by the pardon attorney, then by the White House Counsel.

Leff, however, writes that she didn’t have any access to the White House Counsel’s office to explain her recommendations. Furthermore, she says, in an “increasing number of cases,” the Department of Justice “reversed our recommendations.” Given the stinginess of commutations so far, it’s reasonable to assume this means the Department of Justice has been stepping in to recommend that commutations be denied, even when the pardon attorney’s office says they should be granted.

In other words, the president is not all-powerful and big initiatives like this take a lot of resources and attention. The president saying he support something can get a ball rolling, but it can’t go very far without a lot of resources in the face of other parts of the government protecting their own interests by resisting.


Bernie’s Path Forward

[ 301 ] March 31, 2016 |


Is there still a path for Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic nomination? Yes, but it’s awfully challenging, requiring him to build on his momentum over the last caucuses in the West to win most of the remaining states, some by large margins. Of course, “win” can have multiple meanings in this context and I think there’s no question that if Clinton wins, her Cabinet will be significantly farther to the left on economic and labor issues than it would have been without Sanders. The rise of the openly left flank of the party is a good thing for all involved and I think it will have a concrete presence within a Clinton administration.

From Rugs to Riches

[ 42 ] March 31, 2016 |

SEK used to have his Internet Film School. I make no such claims about teaching anyone anything about film. But I have watched a lot of them. Many of them are odd. It’s time to start showing some of them here. Some I may have mentioned before. Here’s one of those, Jonathan Winters’ “From Rugs to Riches,” from 1960.

Outsourced Oreos

[ 94 ] March 30, 2016 |


It’s no wonder that growing number of Americans would be attracted to either socialism or fascism when economic stagnation and working-class decline are the reality for millions of people. A key part of this of course is outsourcing industrial production to other nations, which destroys the ability of working-class people without college educations to live a dignified life. Given that the core Trump supporters are working-class whites, this is an issue that we need to take seriously and try to fix or stop if we want social stability within the United States. Thus when Nabisco decides to outsource Oreo production to Mexico, it drives more Americans into economic crisis.

On Chicago’s South Side, about 1,200 workers have been baking chocolate wafers and mixing the cream filling for Oreo cookies for decades at a plant on South Kedzie Avenue. The whole neighborhood smells fantastic.

Last summer, managers held a companywide meeting. The workers expected to hear updates for a planned $130 million upgrade to the facility.

Instead, the company demanded its workers swallow $46 million in wage and benefit cuts. Otherwise, the investment would go south of the U.S. border, said Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Mondelez International, which owns Nabisco. Rosenfeld received almost $200 million over the past eight years in pay and benefits.

This is how CEOs use a bad trade deal as a club to beat workers.

Sure enough, at the end of July, managers announced a plan to shift some production from Chicago to a factory in Salinas, Mexico.

And once that facility begins to make Oreos and other treats, 600 employees in Chicago will lose their jobs, said managers at Mondelez, the global food giant.

The above is by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union president David Durkee. They damn the trade agreements such as NAFTA for destroying working-class jobs, note how Nabisco’s corporate giant could save money other than union-busting and outsourcing, and argue they will defeat the TPP. I’m awfully skeptical of the latter claim, but of course they should try because NAFTA and the TPP are disasters for American workers. I don’t doubt that such agreements are great for the American elite, corporations, and maybe foreign policy. But for the American working-class, they are terrible, unmitigated disasters. And they are an important part of the reason why the white working-class is attracted to the fascism of Donald Trump.

Geography and Law in the Evenly Divided Court

[ 90 ] March 30, 2016 |


Is that flag at half-staff for Scalia or for the future of the American court system?

A couple of people in the Friedrichs posts yesterday were saying, “hey, this divided court thing ain’t too bad.” Well, that’s true so far as it goes. But it also causes a lot of problems. Among them is that because 4-4 splits just revert to the relevant circuit court without precedent, law begins to be divided by geography, creating potential long-term problems. Dayen:

Unlike a majority Supreme Court ruling, a 4-4 split doesn’t make binding precedent for the entire nation; it just upholds the ruling of the circuit court of appeals where it was decided, in this case the 9th Circuit. A separate challenge from another circuit court could produce a different interpretation of the law, and if the Supreme Court remains deadlocked, the same issue could have different legal outcomes in different parts of the country.

This is already happening. A case about giving gender-discrimination protections to spouses of borrowers of bank loans produced a 4-4 tie last week. The 8th Circuit had ruled that the bank didn’t have to extend Equal Credit Opportunity Act protections to spouses, and the Supreme Court affirmed that ruling; but the 6th Circuit separately made a different one, saying that spouses are eligible. So if you take out a loan in Missouri, jurisdiction of the 8th Circuit, you can legally be treated differently than if you take one out in Michigan, home of the 6th.

Theoretically, at least, this situation favors Democrats. Since Democratic presidents have had the opportunity to nominate judges in 16 of the last 24 years, the appeals court system has more Democratic appointees. In the 13 different circuits, Democrats have appointed the majority of judges in nine of them, while four (the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th) have a majority of Republican appointees. However, there are at least two Republican-appointed judges in every circuit court, meaning that across the federal judiciary, you can still draw a three-judge appellate panel with a Republican majority.

Since appellate courts often (though not always) follow Supreme Court precedent, a deadlocked Court also has the effect of locking in legal interpretations for the indeterminate future. Whether you see that as a good thing depends on how you feel about current law in a particular area. It likely means continuing to allow corporations and wealthy individuals to make unlimited donations to super PACs in line with the Citizens United ruling. It also means maintaining a woman’s right to choose in line with Roe v. Wade.

However, in cases with unsettled law or unique addendums, the regional Supremes can make very consequential rulings. For instance, in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the 5th Circuit ruled last year that Texas’s regulations for abortion providers—including requirements that abortion doctors have admitting privileges to hospitals and that facilities maintain the same standards as surgical centers—didn’t impose an “undue burden” to getting an abortion and were therefore legal. If the Supreme Court splits 4-4 in the case, which it heard earlier this month, that ruling would be upheld for Louisiana and Mississippi as well as Texas, limiting abortion access for millions of women.

In the short-term, this might not be a huge deal. Were this to go on for years, as Dayen says, it would be a disaster for the nation.

This Day in Labor History: March 30, 1930

[ 32 ] March 30, 2016 |


On March 30, 1930, the Hawk’s Nest tunnel project near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia began. This tunnel was designed to divert the New River to help Union Carbide increase its energy efficiency at a downstream plant. However, this mountain contained an unusual amount of silica. The largely African-American workers were not given any protection. While in normal cases, it takes years for silicosis to develop and kill a worker, of the 3000 workers, perhaps up to 1000 died of silicosis, some within a year. This is one of the more horrifying workplace safety disasters in American history, one heavily conditioned by racial prejudice.

To build this project, Union Carbide contracted with a Charlottesville, Virginia construction company to recruit labor. As was common for hard labor projects, most of the workers were African-American, and they came from around the southeast. As was also common, African-American workers labored in more dangerous conditions with fewer safety protections and were housed in segregated housing. The company didn’t expect there to be this much silica in the rock. When the high silica rates were discovered, the company was thrilled because the deposits were dense enough they could be sold commercially for steel production. Thus, the radius of the tunnel was expanded to pay for the project. Drilling and blasting were the standard ways to create tunnels. It can be done with a lot of water. Wet drilling reduces the dust and thus the silica. But this did not happen at Hawk’s Nest. Moreover, the workers were immediately sent into the mine to gather the blasted rock instead of allowing the dust to settle. Once again, the employers simply did not care because these were largely black workers.

After 6-day weeks of workers breathing in silica-laden dust, their health deteriorated quickly. The tunneling work ended in September 1931 and the entire project was completed in 1934. It did not take long for workers to being dropping dead, which began happening as early as the first half of 1931. The survivors, many of whom were also horribly sick, began to file lawsuits against their employer in 1932. By mid-1933, the contractor faced lawsuits with a total liability of $4 million. It agreed to settle out of court, paying a total of $130,000, half of which went to the attorneys. The compensation was much higher for the relatively small number of exposed white workers than it was to black workers. The judge determined that a single black man would receive only $400 and a married black man $600 while a single white man got $800 and a married white man received $1000. During this whole process, there is significant evidence that the contractor worked to bribe witnesses and tamper with juries. However, this story is hard to be precise about because the contractor destroyed all the records, including any information about the afflicted workers.

By the time the tunneling was done, many of the workers were too sick to return home and they died nearby. The contractor threw their bodies into unmarked graves without identification, hiring a mortician at twice the normal rate for paupers to deal with the problem quietly. Even when families were around, the bodies were immediately buried. George Robison later testified, “I knew a man who died about 4 o’clock in the morning in the camp and at 7 o’clock the same morning his wife took his clothes to the undertaker to dress her dead husband and when she got there they told her the husband had already been buried.” In 1972, a highway project in the area uncovered 45 of these graves. Between 750 and 1000 people died of silicosis on the Hawk’s Nest project in the years after it. About three-quarter were African-American, with the rest made up of local whites.

This tragedy was so profound that even though it was mostly black workers involved, it received national attention. A few local newspapers had begun reporting on the deaths in 1931, but Union Carbide intimidated the journalists and squashed the story. But it received attention when somehow Albert Maltz, a screenwriter later blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten, became aware of the story and wrote a successful short story about it in New Masses that featured a white (unsurprisingly) worker who got sick in the tunnel. This brought it broadly to the attention of the left and then the nation. The People’s Press reported on the incident, trying to raise money for the survivors. It wrote in 1936:

In the name of greed, 476 men—at least—are dead. Another 1,500 are doomed of whom 200 probably are dead in other places.

The dying are unable to get state or federal relief.

The doomed who can still work cannot get jobs. Employers know they are doomed.

The wives and children of the dead, the families of the dying and the doomed live at the edge of the starvation line.

Greed put them there.

In the name of humanity, the People’s Press asks you to help them.

Any sum, large or small, $100 or 1¢ will make life a little easier for this Town of the Living Dead.

They will not get help from the millionaires who kill 2,000 men for a few dollars. That we know.

So we urge you to help them. Everything given will go directly to these people in desperate need.

Josh White, performing under the pseudonym Pinewood Tom, also recorded “Silicosis Is Killin’ Me,” about the dead Hawk’s Nest workers, in 1936.

That same year, a congressional committee launched an investigation. There it was revealed that the engineers and bosses knew there was a severe risk of silicosis. They protected themselves by wearing masks. But they of course gave no masks to the workers, even though this is an incredibly inexpensive form of protection. The committee was deeply critical of Union Carbide and the contractor. But they took no action against the perpetrators. The worried mining companies did what timber companies, railroads, and other employers in dangerous workplaces had done since 1911, which was lobby to include their workers under state worker compensation programs. Those programs largely existed to protect employers from lawsuits and liability, providing very limited compensation to workers that fell far below the money they made on the job. West Virginia added tunnel diggers in 1935 with relatively long employment periods that excluded short-term workers so that companies would not have high liability rates in the future.

This would not be the last time Union Carbide was involved in a massive industrial disaster.

Silicosis is still a problem in the American workplace. The Department of Labor’s recent regulations hope to move closer to solving that problem.

Much of the material for this post came from Martin Cherniack, The Hawk’s Nest Incident: America’s Worst Industrial Disaster.

This is the 174th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

A Reprieve for Public Sector Unions

[ 149 ] March 29, 2016 |


Thanks to Antonin Scalia dying, public sector unions still have a future in this country. Had he survived, they would have just been gutted in Friedrichs.

A case that seemed poised to deal a major blow to public unions ended in a 4-4 tie on Tuesday at the Supreme Court, effectively delivering a big victory to the unions.

When the case was argued in January, the court’s conservative majority seemed ready to say that forcing public workers to support unions they had declined to join violates the First Amendment.

But the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February changed the balance of power in the case, which was brought by California public schoolteachers who chose not to join unions and objected to paying for the unions’ collective bargaining activities on their behalf.

A ruling in the teachers’ favor would have affected millions of government workers and weakened public-sector unions, which stood to lose fees from both workers who objected to the positions the unions take and those who simply chose not to join while benefiting from the unions’ efforts on their behalf.

Under California law, public employees who choose not to join unions must pay a “fair share service fee,” also known as an “agency fee,” typically equivalent to members’ dues. The fees, the law says, are meant to pay for collective bargaining activities, including “the cost of lobbying activities.” More than 20 states have similar laws.

Government workers who are not members of unions have long been able to obtain refunds for the political activities of unions like campaign spending. The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, No. 14-915, asked whether such workers must continue to pay for any union activities, including negotiating for better wages and benefits. A majority of the justices seemed inclined to say no.

In other words, no matter how much you dislike Bernie or Hillary, everyone on the left has an obligation to vote for the winner of the Democratic nomination. That’s true for many reasons, but among them is not voting for Bernie/Hillary, with the Court nomination on the line, helps destroy public sector unionism in this country.


[ 134 ] March 28, 2016 |

Will it surprise anyone that HA! Goodman was an open Rand Paul supporter before Bernie came along? Shocking, I know. The best part of this is HA! starts by admitting the president can’t really do that much, then goes on to talk about how Hillary is the devil and therefore can’t be president. Amazingly, naming Supreme Court justices that will protect the reproductive rights of women is nowhere to be found in this essay!

Here’s his big pro-Paul essay. It includes this howler:

Rand Paul could bring back an era in American politics when conservatives and liberals socialized with one another. This alone would solve some of the gridlock in Washington. Paul has worked with 7 leading Democrats on a number of issues; working on everything from judicial reform, NSA surveillance, the limits of presidential authority to launch strikes in Iraq, and other issues. Imagine Ted Cruz reaching out to Nancy Pelosi, or Mitch McConnell having lunch with Hillary Clinton. Rand Paul, on the other hand, has worked to emulate this picture.

Dude…..Imagine when President Paul makes weed legal, Mitch and Ted will totally hit a bong with Nancy and Hillary. We will end DRONEZ!!!, pull all our forces back into the United States, listen to Phish, and America will become the great bipartisan nation it always wanted to be.

An Easter Celebration

[ 28 ] March 27, 2016 |


I approve of this Mexican Easter celebration:

Whom would you build, if you had to make a monster of mythical proportions? An evil equal to a biblical scourge? A traitor to be burned in effigy whose fiery demise would cleanse our corrupted souls?

In Mexico, that would be Donald J. Trump. (J for Judas?)

Or at least a 10-foot-tall papier-mache version of him: eyes wide, mouth agape, with a painted-on business suit and golden mane. On Saturday night, just as every year on the day before Easter, Mexicans gathered on street corners and church squares to celebrate the Holy Week and set fire to their Judases, a popular ritual in this heavily Catholic country. Those demons are typically forked-tongue devils and flaming dragons, and often, like this year, reviled politicians.

“For Latinos here and in the U.S., he’s a danger, a real threat,” said Leonardo Linares, a 52-year-old artist who built a Trump effigy over the past week in his Mexico City studio. “He’s a good man to burn as a Judas.”

Mexicans take special pleasure in skewering Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner who has threatened to deport millions of Mexicans and claims he will build a giant wall across the United States’s southern border and have Mexico pay for it. Since he launched his campaign last summer calling them “rapists” and “criminals,” Mexicans have fired back with a variety of satires. A pair of comedians put on a play, “The Sons of Trump,” featuring greedy villains bumbling around in blond wigs. Trump’s likeness has been crafted into pinatas and bashed, digitized into a video game character and pegged with tomatoes. His name is the brunt of folk-song jokes.

There has also been more earnest criticism, from former Mexican presidents and current senior government officials, who have warned that Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric is damaging relations between the two countries.

“He’s crazy,” said Alberto Rueda, a 30-year-old shopkeeper who attended the Trump burning in the La Merced neighborhood. “His ideas are not the solution. On the contrary. If he builds a wall, people will build tunnels.”

I’ve always thought Judas got screwed over in Christianity. He’s necessary for the whole thing to go down! He should seen as the best apostle, not a traitor. So really, Trump is the far greater villain. And they don’t mess around in Mexico:

The dolls seemed to stay in character. The Islamic State fighter exploded his payload in one chaotic blast; Obama’s fuse was lighted repeatedly but refused to blow. When it came time for the climax, Trump went slowly, gruesomely, one leg blasting off, then the other, as the by-then boozy crowd chanted “Death! Death!” When his head exploded, there were thunderous cheers.

Sinoizing Chinese Place Names

[ 29 ] March 27, 2016 |


China is extremely worried that its citizens are being good to Chinese because they are naming things like housing developments after foreign places. Evidently, this will “violate the socialist core values and conventional morality,” showing once again that socialism in China has absolutely nothing in common with anything having to do with actual socialism. Of course, China is fighting what is no doubt a losing battle, especially considering those who care about this the most are probably the same wealthy people who are increasingly internationalized.

Once a name is in use, though, changing it can be problematic. Officials tried to rename a street in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, ostensibly because the Chinese character used to represent its foreign name was often mispronounced by people unfamiliar with the place, China National Radio said. But residents objected and filed a lawsuit to block the change, citing the potential loss of historical identity.

Previous efforts to change foreign place names in China have not been wholeheartedly embraced, either. In the southeastern city of Fuzhou, a housing development known as Fontainebleau was ordered by local officials to change its name, which became Gaojiayuan. Afterward, one resident complained to a local newspaper that she missed her bus stop after the signs were changed.

And a real estate agent confessed that while the official name was now Gaojiayuan, for the purpose of selling houses it would always be called Fontainebleau.

Personally, I am just amused that the Chinese are building houses that are supposed to emulate log cabins in Jackson Hole, although in a nation that populated, it’s a horrible use of land.

What’s the Sentence for Being a White Man Found Building a Bomb to Blow Up a Mosque?

[ 113 ] March 27, 2016 |


90 days.

William Celli, a 55-year-old man from California, will spend 90 days in jail after being caught in possession of an explosive device and threatening to kill Muslims. Celli took a plea deal that places him on probation for a further three years and bans him from operating an active Facebook profile.

Celli was arrested on Dec. 20, 2015 after yelling “I’m going to kill you all” outside the Islamic Society of West Contra Costa County in Richmond, California. Police later found and detonated an explosive device at Celli’s residence after receiving tips that he was constructing homemade explosives.

Celli had taken to social media in the past to express his admiration of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. “Donald trumps on again I’m happy leaders okay but this guys a great point man I’ll follow this MAN to the end of the world,” Celli wrote on Facebook in October.

90 days. Did I mention this individual is white?

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 25

[ 41 ] March 27, 2016 |

This is the grave of John Winthrop.


The kindest, gentlest man ever to walk the soil of North America, Winthrop was the governor and founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the man who gave the famous “City Upon a Hill” speech that began a long tradition of white Americans thinking the rest of the world should copy everything we do. Born in 1588 in England to a wealthy family, he became deeply involved in religious matters at a young age, attracted to the Puritanism sweeping Britain. He led the group moving from England in 1630 arriving at Salem and spreading along the coast. Winthrop settled in Boston, acquiring a large parcel of land along the Mystic River. Winthrop was governor most of the rest of his life and was deeply conservative, leading the attacks to expel both Roger Williams (reluctantly) and Anne Hutchinson (with hateful glee). Of Hutchinson, he said she was “a woman of haughty and fierce carriage, of a nimble wit and active spirit, and a very voluble tongue, more bold than a man.” This was not a compliment. The meetings she held were a “thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God, nor fitting for your sex.”

He also supported the extermination of the Pequots in 1637. He opposed democratic decision making, fighting against an attempt in 1634 to create a representative assembly. He also enjoyed the tight control he had over the Puritan colony and was angry when Connecticut was founded away from his control. After Anne Hutchinson was deported to Rhode Island, he gleefully noted all the terrible things that happened to her, including her stillborn child and her death by Native Americans in 1643, as signs that God hated the heretic. He opposed incorporating Native Americans and Africans into the Puritan church and co-wrote the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first document explicitly sanctioning slavery in the English North American colonies. John Winthrop died in 1649 at the age of 61.

John Winthrop is buried in King’s Chapel Burying Ground, Boston, Massachusetts

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