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I Guess Imperialism and Colonialism Never Happened

[ 112 ] October 1, 2015 |


One of the many people who owe the West for all the benefits of colonialism and climate change

Cass Sunstein said some no good, very bad things in his article rejecting the idea of climate reparations for poor nations. Now, one can wonder why a major figure felt the need to repudiate an idea that is never going to come to fruition anyway. And one can also suggest that climate reparations are probably not a very workable idea, to some extent for reasons Sunstein suggests. But then Sunstein decides to tell these poor nations that, despite this tiny problem of climate change, the West has brought them so much and made their lives so much better!

Their contention is that rich nations, which created the problem of climate change, have an obligation to fix it, not least by providing compensation for the high costs that, in their view, global warming has already imposed. Their argument adds that rich countries have gotten rich as a result of cheap energy (mostly coal); poor countries should be paid if they are to be deprived of the same opportunity.

That isn’t entirely crazy, but like other arguments for reparations, it runs into serious objections. For one thing, it depends on notions of collective responsibility. Most people in wealthy nations — whether rich or poor, or whether American or British or German — did not intend, and are not personally responsible for, the harms faced by citizens of India. Are they nonetheless obliged to pay reparations?

The corrective justice argument also conflates current generations with past generations. Much of the current “stock” of greenhouse gas emissions was produced by the actions of people who are now dead. The median American was born in 1979. How, exactly, does he or she owe reparations to people now suffering from warmer climates in India, Vietnam or Bangladesh?

It’s nice of Sunstein to copy the arguments of conservatives talking about it was their ancestors who owned slaves so what do we have to do with racial inequality today? Yes, the people of Britain and Germany might not have personally burned the coal that is leading to the inundation of Bangladesh–but they are sure benefiting from it in their rich nation society. The same for dead Germans and English and Americans. So this is a shockingly stupid argument. But it gets worse.

There is a subtler problem. Through industrial activity, trade, and technology, rich countries have conferred big benefits on poor ones, not least in the form of improved health and opportunity. Consider the recent response to the Ebola crisis, life-saving medical innovations or the dissemination of cell phones throughout the world.

A full accounting might require poor countries to pay the rich ones back for those benefits. No one in rich nations is asking for any form of restitution. (And they shouldn’t.) But if we are really interested in measuring who has helped and hurt whom, a claim for reparations puts the issue on the table.

So…… Rich nations have provided nothing but benefits to poor nations and maybe those poor nations should pay back rich nations for those benefits? I mean, sure 10-11 million slaves were taken from west Africa between 1500-1800, but some Nigerians owe us today because they use cell phone technology developed in the United States! And hey, sure the British let Indians starve during El Niño-induced famines in order that they maintained the proper level of exports back to the home country, but they also now speak English and call work in call centers! What gifts we have brought them!!! And let’s not forget the enormous debt the people of Congo owe the Belgians!

And certainly it’s quite clear that even though the U.S. blasted their Pacific island colonies after World War II with nuclear weapons and today those islands are disappearing because of climate change, the people who live actually owe us because they have television and sliced bread.

How did an article like this get through the editing process? Or is Cass Sunstein now like Niall Ferguson and can say any old horrifying thing with impunity because of who he is?


Irving Fields

[ 6 ] October 1, 2015 |

The other day I was listening to an album by the great Irving Fields, the brilliant pianist who merged jazz, the sort of Jewish-American popular music I associate with Catskills resorts in the 1950s, and Latin music in the 1950s, making legendary albums like Bagels and Bongos and Champagne and Bongos, which are just flat out pleasant and fun albums to listen to. I knew Fields was still working even though he is very old. I did a little research and found out that he just turned 100 and still plays at an Italian restaurant in New York. I’ve actually known about that for awhile and have never gone when I’m in the city, which is a huge error, even when time is limited as it often is there. The video in the attached article plays him up a bit as a lovable and slightly silly very old man, unfortunately not uncommon in a society that infantilizes the very old. But he can still play. And if you haven’t heard Bagels and Bongos, do it. He also recorded some excellent albums for Tzadik, John Zorn’s label, and the one with the percussionist Roberto Rodriguez is really fantastic. Highly recommended.

Lynd on Alinsky

[ 58 ] September 30, 2015 |
Saul Alinsky in 1965. (Tribune Archive photo) ..OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS,  NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT..

Saul Alinsky in 1965. (Tribune Archive photo) ..OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS, NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT..

I have no idea why the right has so demonized Saul Alinsky as the greatest evil of all time, although that was really more a 2008-12 demon than today. But in any case, his organizing strategies were certainly influential. But there’s a strong critique to made against them from the left and the radical historian and colleague of Alinksy, Staughton Lynd, makes it. It’s not an easy thing to excerpt, so I would recommend just reading it for Lynd’s stories of trying to work in an Alinsky organization after 1968 and had quickly it all fell apart.

In so many cases, the building of the organization was actually the point of Alinsky’s style of organizing, which could be disastrous in the case of the United Farm Workers, when Cesar Chavez actively opposed empowering workers who could threaten the organization and frankly preferred working with white volunteers who would simply do whatever he told them. Chavez would purge members who disagreed with him, take resources away from the lettuce workers who actually wanted to organize to focus on the grapes where Chavez decided the fight should exist, etc. Focusing on building around preexisting issues and fostering natural leaders are certainly good strategies, but it’s long been clear to me that Alinksy-style organizing had very real limitations, including lacking a broader agenda or long-term goal, centralizing authority in a few people’s hands, and could deemphasize or even demonize the political agenda of members. Coming out of the New Left falling apart, some of that makes sense in some circumstances–organizing is hard and complicated and there’s no clear way to do it–but Alinsky and his followers went way too far. Alinsky-style organizing may provide useful strategies for current organizers but it’s hardly a model to follow to the letter.

Which brings us back to the bizarre question of why Alinsky is so scary for conservatives, but then I don’t really have a good answer for that except to say that he was key in the founding of the community organizing model, Barack Obama was a community organizer for 5 minutes, and therefore Kenyan Muslims come to power illegally or something.


[ 64 ] September 30, 2015 |


A couple of years ago, the NFL changed its kickoff rules to minimize this dangerous play. Moving the kick up has allowed for more touchbacks, which means less returns, and less damage to players’ bodies. I suppose it might have taken a little excitement out of the game and it’s certainly created a lot of bad decisions by players taking out from 6 yards deep and returning it to the 11. College football did something of the same thing by creating a stronger incentive not to return kicks by making a touchback bring the ball out to the 25.

It’s certainly time to do the same with punting, probably banning the practice entirely. It’s the most dangerous play in football.

One week earlier, a sixteen-year-old freshman football player in Winnsboro, Louisiana, was fatally injured during a punt return in the fourth quarter of a Friday-night high-school game. His neck was reportedly broken when an opposing player hit him. “He loved his family, his team, and the game of football. He will be missed,” his school’s Facebook page read. It was Tyrell Cameron’s first and last high-school football game. His coffin was decorated with the colors of his Franklin Parish Patriots.

“Sure, it’s one of the more dangerous positions,” the Atlanta Falcons return specialist and receiver Devin Hester, who holds the N.F.L. record for punt-return touchdowns and total return touchdowns, told me recently. Football is thrilling and dangerous at every level, as fans of the game are increasingly aware. A 2013 study by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research found that a dozen high-school and college football players die each year during practices and games. There hasn’t been a death during an N.F.L. game since 1971, but the league itself expects a third of all its retired players to develop some form of long-term cognitive problem, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, as a consequence of head injuries endured on the gridiron. And a new independent report conducted by researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University found that chronic traumatic encephalopathy—or C.T.E., a disease caused by repeated head trauma, which can result in depression and dementia—affected ninety-six percent of N.F.L. players and seventy-nine percent of all football players whom researchers examined. (The researchers have examined the brain tissue of one hundred and sixty-five former players.)

Obviously, the CTE problem is much larger than punting but subjecting players to getting their bodies smashed, usually for not much as the average punt return is around 8-9 yards, means that a real step forward in safety would be a “punt” that just gave possession of the ball to other team 40 yards down the field, or perhaps halfway to the goal for punts inside the opponents’ 50. Something like this anyway. That’s the kind of adjustment that can actually make the game somewhat safer.

Pharmaceutical Price Gouging

[ 103 ] September 30, 2015 |


Last week, we all got a refresher on the problems with capitalist markets in pharmaceuticals. Martin Skhreli raised the cost of an HIV drug by 5000 percent, causing an outrage that forced him to backtrack (although as soon as he said that, all the media attention went away and so he’s probably still going to raise the price by a lot, just not as much as he originally said). There’s no good reason for companies not to do this, not when the American government lets them. Drug companies are doing the same thing with cancer drugs:

And now, research reveals the yawning gap between the price of widely used cancer drugs and their actual cost.

The true cost — what drug makers have to spend to get those pills to your local pharmacy — is made up of the active ingredient and other chemicals, their formulation into a pill, packaging, shipping and a profit margin.

British researchers, in a report to be delivered this weekend at a European cancer conference, say the price of five common cancer drugs is more than 600 times higher than they cost to make.

For instance, the analysis figures the true cost of a year’s supply of Gleevec (generic name imatinib), used to treat certain kinds of leukemia, at $159.

But the yearly price tag for Gleevec is $106,322 in the U.S. and $31,867 in the U.K. A generic version costs about $8,000 in Brazil.

“We were quite surprised just how cheap a lot of these cancer drugs really are,” pharmacologist Andrew Hill of the University of Liverpool said in an interview. “There’s a lot of scope for prices to come down.”

And the implications stretch way beyond these specific cancer drugs. Overall prices for cancer medications have been going up at a fast clip. Dr. Peter B. Bach of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York has documented a nearly 100-fold increase in cancer drug prices since 1965 after adjusting for inflation.

“The rate of rise exceeds the rise in benefits from these drugs,” Bach says. “This is a ginned-up pricing structure that isn’t a product of careful analysis. It’s not a bunch of guys in green eye-shades but a bit of dart-throwing and chutzpah. And if there’s a critical Op Ed piece or a Twitter avalanche [in response to a high price] they’ll lower it.”

Bach speaks from experience. Three years ago, he and two other colleagues announced in a New York Times Op Ed piece that Memorial Sloan Kettering would not be prescribing a new colon cancer drug because it didn’t improve outcomes despite its high price tag. The manufacturer responded by halving the price.

I grant that in some of this pricing comes from the cost of research. However, a lot of this price gouging is from capitalists like Skhreli who buy up drugs and never put a dime of research into them. Also, a lot of drug research is federally-funded. So what we are really seeing here is an American medical system that rewards killing people who can’t afford these drugs because just enough can to keep these companies making money. Even with the advances of the ACA, the American medical system is still a hot mess and greed is at the core of the problem. Really, only the government can solve this problem and politicians need to turn away the Big Pharma money and look toward acquiring affordable drugs for Americans that has some connection to the cost of production plus a reasonable profit for the companies, with “reasonable” not defined by venture capitalists or shareholder wishes.

Sometimes, It’s Good to Know Who to Blame

[ 325 ] September 30, 2015 |


Scott is not incorrect that a major problem with bagels is the ridiculous amount of cream cheese. I am fairly agnostic on the point as I like cream cheese, but the point is fair. But a far greater problem is the terrible quality of the 99% of the bagels in the United States. It drives me absolutely crazy that 80 miles outside of New York City, no one bothers to prepare bagels properly and everyone, including the ex-New Yorkers, seem perfectly happy to accept Dunkin’ Donuts bagels, or even more atrocious, bagged and frozen bagels, products not deserving of the name. We are in a major food renaissance in this country, with middle and upper-class white people appropriating food cultures from around the world for their own tastes, focusing on fusion, new experiences, regional foods of Mexico and Thailand instead of what has become broadly known as Mexican and Thai food in the U.S., local ingredients, organic, whatever. And yet, for all the hipsters who have come in and out of Brooklyn in the last 10 years, it seems that no one has decided that a great idea would be to combine the food artisanship of the time with learning how to make good bagels and then moving to Portland/Austin/other hipster site of the moment and opening a first-class (or even second-class) bagel shop. Instead, we are in a world of poor bagels except for the rare times most of us get to New York (or Montreal–I don’t want to offend those who believe in that tradition, which I have never had since I’ve never been there).

So who is responsible for the terrible bagels of America? There are probably many perpetrators, including Murray Lender, a man Yglesias lauds precisely for his mediocre product, because of course. but one is a man named Daniel Thompson, who just died. His “contribution?”

Daniel Thompson, who five decades ago automated the arcane art of bagel making, a development — seen variously as saving grace and sacrilege — that has sent billions of mass-produced bagels raining down on the American heartland, died on Sept. 3 in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 94.

His family announced the death last week.

A California math teacher turned inventor, Mr. Thompson was a shaper of postwar suburban culture in more than one respect: He also created the first wheeled, folding Ping-Pong table, a fixture of American basements from the mid-20th century onward.

But it was for the bagel machine that Mr. Thompson remained best known. The invention changed the American diet, ushering in the welter of packaged bagels — notably Lender’s — now found in supermarkets nationwide, and making the bagel a staple of fast-food outlets.

“There was a kind of schism in bagel-making history: pre-Daniel Thompson and post-Daniel Thompson,” Matthew Goodman, the author of “Jewish Food: The World at Table,” said in an interview on Monday. “What happened with the advent of the automated bagel-making machine was that bagel makers were capable of producing far more bagels than had ever been imagined.”

I like defeating my brother at ping pong, so I give the man some credit. But his bagel machine was clearly a mixed blessing, if one can call it that. I guess that maybe–maybe–one can argue that without mass popularized bagels, it would have fallen by the wayside like a number of other Jewish foods and instead there is the potential for a demand for a better product. This is basically what Yglesias argued about Lender in the link above. On the other hand, given that New Yorkers, or a lot of them anyway, still demand a quality product produced properly, I doubt it. But if we assume this argument might have some legs, I guess we could look at the rise of Taco Bell moving into more sophisticated Mexican food as maybe a path to bagels, although again, here the increasingly popularity of a better class of Mexican food is really related to larger immigration patterns and the exposure of whites to that food through randomly stopping in an Oaxacan restaurant (although the reality is that Oaxacan-owned restaurants in the U.S. only serve a small fraction of what Oaxacans actually eat, including few of the best dishes for reasons that I think are about modernity and work practices but that’s for another post).

Anyway, most of the bagels we eat are pointless lumps of carbs with little value. Daniel Thompson is partially to blame. Demand better bagels!

It’s also worth noting how the bagel machine was used to bust the bagel makers’ union.

Bagel-making was still a skilled trade then, restricted to members of the International Beigel Bakers Union, as the name was Romanized after the organization was founded in New York in 1907. (Until well into the 1950s, the minutes of the union’s board meetings were taken down in Yiddish.)

The bagel-maker’s craft was passed down from father to son, fiercely guarded from outsiders’ prying eyes. In a contingency that seemed straight out of Damon Runyon, or perhaps “The Untouchables,” nonunion bakers trying to make and sell bagels risked paying for it with their kneecaps.

“Every bagel that was made in New York City up until the 1960s was a union bagel — every one,” Mr. Goodman said. “The reason why this union was strong was that they were the only ones who knew how to make a proper bagel. And that was the keys to the kingdom.”

The union — New York’s Local 338, with some 300 members — could hold the entire metropolitan area gastronomic hostage and, in disputes with bakery owners over working conditions, often did.

“Bagel Famine Threatens in City,” an alarmed headline in The Times read in 1951, as a strike loomed. (It was followed the next day by the immensely reassuring “Lox Strike Expert Acts to End the Bagel Famine.”)

Then, in the early 1960s, Mr. Thompson’s machine changed the bagel forever.

That’s really written in an anti-union fashion, given the use of the term “gastronomic hostage” to describe what seem to be bad working conditions. You know what would be great? Quality food made by unionized workers who are well-paid in safe conditions. Instead we have low quality food made by non-union workers who are paid peanuts. Welcome to America.

Oregon and Climate Change

[ 10 ] September 30, 2015 |


One of the many awesome features of Oregon is that you can ski in the summer on Mt. Hood. Not that I am a skier personally, but for those who are, this is an unusual feature of the state. But this summer has seen the combination of a severe drought (which is rare but historically possible) with skyrocketing temperatures now going back for years (which is about long-term climate change). This has had a major effect on that summer ski season, which, because of its public nature, can serve as a warning signal for the region.

Oregon has more mountain ice than most (it’s second only to Alaska), but experts say the region’s disappearing summer skiing and shrinking snowpack are leading indicators that major climate shifts are happening. “It’s not just about skiing, but it is this canary in the coal mine — it’s really, really visible,” Anne Nolin, professor of geography and head of the mountain hydro- climatology research group at Oregon State University, says. “When things go from bright white, glittering snowpack to brown dirt and flaming forests, everyone sees it.”

With the smaller snowpack, Nolin and a team of OSU researchers took streamflow measurements this summer that were the lowest they’ve ever seen. That has a ripple effect beyond the ski area. When less meltwater flows into the streams, economies that depend on summer recreation suffer, too. This season, rafting companies experienced some of the fewest viable days for kayaking and rafting on the nearby Deschutes River. “Our society tends to ignore the fact that rural communities depend on what others might consider an elitist sport,” Nolin says. “I’m concerned about the loss of income to rural communities that depend on summer and winter recreation — everyone hurt financially this year.”

Those economic impacts are real. Oregon in 2015 is not Oregon in 1985. The timber jobs are gone and for many small communities, tourism is the lifeline. With the huge forest fires affecting the region this year and the never-ending above average temperatures, the future of outdoor recreation, water supplies, and economic sustainability in much of the Northwest is in question. That’s scary.

Out of Sight Goes to Cambridge

[ 18 ] September 29, 2015 |


Hey, Cambridge/Boston/surrounding area folks! I am going to speaking about Out of Sight at Porter Square Books in Cambridge next Tuesday, October 6, at 7 p.m. You should come! I will be signing books. Even better, I’ll be in conversation with the excellent labor writer Laura Clawson from Daily Kos, so you can meet her too. Maybe I’ll even start telling Harvard jokes!

Addressing the Nation’s Most Important Issue

[ 112 ] September 29, 2015 |


Friends, we have a lot of serious problems in this nation. But none are more serious than the abuse of Beetle Bailey by Sarge. Luckily, a cranky old soldier is on it, through the classic communication method of the old crank, the letter to the editor:

As a retired member of the U.S. military I am concerned about the impression left by the cartoon “Beetle Bailey” carried by your paper. Readers of the cartoon could possibly get the impression from the cartoon that it is acceptable for a senior noncommissioned officer (as depicted by Sarge) to physically assault a junior enlisted man.

It seems that quite often the story line of the cartoon depicts Sarge brutalizing or threatening to brutalize Beetle. I am aware that the cartoon has been around for quite some time and it was based on the U.S. Army during the time frame of around the Second World War, but even then, it was something not sanctioned or tolerated by the military. If any concerned family members were to take the actions depicted in these supposedly funny frames as the norm in the U.S. military, then the Walker family is doing a disservice to our military members.

I certainly wouldn’t encourage any son or daughter of mine to become a member of such an organization. The truth of the matter is that any officer or noncommissioned officer found to be physically abusive to a junior enlisted man would be up on charges and, at a minimum, demoted if not removed from the service. I am sure that there have been instances of abuse at times in the military service, but the habitual abuse depicted in the cartoon would not have been tolerated. When Gen. George Patton slapped an enlisted man back in World War II it caused an outrage that almost ended his career.

If the Walkers can’t find a different story line for their cartoon, maybe they should end it. In my years in the military I never met a senior staff NCO or an officer who didn’t treat junior enlisted men with anything but care and concern. Even when trying to push men to test their ability to withstand pressure that nowhere near replicated combat, which included plenty of pressure and loud voices, it never included the kind of beatings that are commonplace in the cartoon “Beetle Bailey.” Hopefully readers recognize this as fiction.

I mean, I think this cartoon should end too, but that’s because it’s been horrible for 25 years, like almost everything else on the comics page, not because of cartoon violence. But it is pretty clear that cartoon violence does lead to real life violence. That’s why all those years of watching Itchy and Scratchy on the Simpsons has led me to wrap my brother’s intestines around a rocket and shoot him to the moon and why today’s military routinely has noncoms beating loafing privates who pull their hats down too far over their heads. Won’t somebody think about the children?

Environmental Risk and Race

[ 23 ] September 28, 2015 |


I doubt any readers of LGM will be that shocked that people of color are exposed to toxic environments at rates far higher than whites. But the differential, at least in California, really is awful:

“What’s unique about this study is that we are looking at multiple hazards at once and including factors that make populations more vulnerable to the effects of pollution, such as age and disease status,” lead study lead author Lara Cushing, a Ph.D. student at Berkeley, said in a press release. “Still, it is surprising to see such a consistent and stark disparity by race when it comes to the burden of environmental health hazards. It was a bigger factor than income.”

Risk exposure for Hispanics was 6.2 times higher than whites, and 5.8 times higher for African Americans. Asians and Native American face double the environmental health hazard risks compared to whites.

“The findings indicate that people of color — especially African American and Latino Californians — are much more likely than white Californians to be exposed to both environmental and social stressors that impact health,” said Cushing. “People can’t use this environmental justice screening tool to calculate the probability that they will develop cancer or asthma, but it can and should be used by state regulators and others to focus their efforts to benefit disproportionately impacted communities.”

There’s little reason to believe that results around the country would be significantly different. Would like to see more studies along this line to know for sure.

This Day in Labor History: September 28, 1874

[ 31 ] September 28, 2015 |

On September 28, 1874, the U.S. military defeated the Comanche in Palo Duro Canyon, south of modern Amarillo, Texas, largely by stealing their horse herds. This forced the Comanche to the reservations where they had refused to live by taking away the technology that defined their lives and their work. This was essentially the end of an entire way of labor for the Comanche and indicative of the importance of work to the conquest of Native Americans.

The Comanche were, up until the late 17th century, a relatively small tribe living primarily in Colorado and Kansas. This all changed with the advent of the horse. The Spanish had introduced horses into North America when they defeated the Aztecs after 1519. It became clear to Native Americans very quickly the huge advantage for both battle and work that horses could provide. The horses began moving north, largely following Spanish colonial expansion, but increasingly from horse thefts. That the Spanish largely left the horses to roam on their own made that easier. Certain indigenous cultures began valuing them for work and for war, others less so. One that truly committed to horse pastoralism was the Comanches, a group that split off from the Shoshones around 1500. The first time they appear in the written record was in 1706 when the Spanish recorded a group called the Comanches attacking Puebloan peoples.

The Comanches, like other peoples after them such as the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Crow, made a conscious decision to change their life and work cultures upon the acquisition of large horse populations. They became horse cultures, with this technology redefining their work, culture, and social structure. The horse allowed the Comanches to commit full-time to bison hunting, warfare, and raiding to replenish their population lost in war. But they weren’t operating in a vacuum. Like many indigenous peoples, the Comanche took to the Euro-American market economy keenly, seeking to offer their goods–bison skins–in exchange for the other things they needed, including guns, the food they no longer grew because they were in constant motion, pots, horses, etc. They also traded horses for these things, as their growing skills in horse-breeding made then desirable by everyone they traded with, including the Native Americans peoples to the north who began to do much the same as the Comanche had become horse cultures.

A new, gendered system of work developed with the transition to horses. By 1750, Comanche herds had grown large enough that they began moving around specifically to care for them. This meant they needed a large territory strictly for horse foraging, especially because the lack of water and need for wintering grounds limited the number of destinations that could sustain large herds, even for a short time. They began to look more like the Mongolians than other tribes in the United States. As is common in pastoral societies, strongly gendered notions of work developed. The daily herding of the horses was the world of teenage boys. Each boy, according to an 1849 account of a Comanche village, herded about 150 horses, with the most valuable of them rounded up each evening for a night watch and the others left to roam. Men were responsible for the decisions around the pastoral economy, such as when to move. They also were the warriors, which they saw specifically as an act of production, fueling a market-oriented pastoral economy with the necessary raw materials of horses, women, and children.


George Catlin painting of Comanches hunting bison

The status of women declined in Comanche society with the new emphasis on war and horses, both male realms. Women were responsible for raising children, cooking, processing bison meat, and constructing tipis. That grew to processing the bison skins for the Euro-American market and helping out with the horse herds. The practice of polygyny, a marriage system where men have multiple wives, grew rapidly with the horses as wealthy men began to acquire large horse herds and then needed women to process the bison and herding. In other words, marriage became a way to enlarge the labor pool (observers at the time noted that these wives were really servants) as well as introduced a sort of class-based division into Comanche society, as obviously not all men could do this. In many ways, Comanche polygyny and Southern slavery both were responses to labor shortages arising from market production that rested upon patriarchal systems that reduced women to objects of male honor and militarism. Of course, the Comanche also took slaves, and although their system of slavery was much more fluid than the chattel slavery of the South, it was brutal nonetheless (rape and torture with the intent of destroying their will and American/Spanish/Indian cultures and making them docile workers) and again was related in part to their entrance into the market.


George Catlin painting of a Comanche village, 1834

This new culture made the Comanche the dominant empire on the 18th and early 19th century Great Plains. At their height, around 1850, the Comanchería extended from the edge of the southern Rockies into central Texas and central Kansas. They raided much further, especially into Mexico, where they frequently went as far south as Durango to take captives and horses. This went far to shape the region. The Spanish and then the Mexicans wanted to move north but could not defeat the Comanches. The need for a buffer zone helped convince Mexico to invite Americans into Texas, who then became the victims of Comanche raiding. But the lack of Mexican settlement meant that the U.S. could easily take the northern half of Mexico during the Mexican War. But they then had to conquer the Comanches, which was extremely difficult. As late as 1860, white expansion in Texas was quite limited due to Comanche raiding.

This system of work and culture made the Comanches very difficult for the American military to defeat. To do so, post-Civil War military planners went to a more sophisticated strategy developed in the second half of that war by generals such as Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan: total warfare. Rather than defeat these small, fast bands, undermining their way of life through the American industrial machine made more sense. Thus, the military decided to exterminate the bison. Bison populations plummeted in the years after the war, starting with the southern herds that sustained the Comanche economy and moving north. Market hunting was a piece of it, but this was a military strategy first and foremost. Without the bison and the work in hunting, processing, and trading them, the Comanche could not sustain itself. The second part of this strategy was to take away the Comanche’s horses, the transportation tool that facilitated this way of life. This strategy was tremendously successful, albeit increasingly controversial as the 1870s went on and total warfare against Native Americans outraged eastern reformers. Starvation and warfare decimated Comanche numbers, reducing them to about 8000 by 1870. They began relying on the U.S. government for rations, giving the U.S. much power over them. They refused to stay on the reservations that developed in the late 1860 and early 1870s, but leaving also brought warfare that was harder for the Comanche to sustain with the decline in bison, horses, and people. Finally, after the battle in Palo Duro Canyon, isolated badlands in the Texas panhandle, the Comanche largely moved to the reservations for good. The bison were gone anyway.

Undermining traditional ways of work would remain central to the post-conquest strategy of dealing with Native Americans. The Dawes Act of 1887 served to both alienate reservation land from Indians while also forcing them into the subsistence farming lifestyle white Americans had decided was appropriate for Native Americans. By 1920, there were only 1500 Comanche left in the wake of the destruction of their culture through conquest, land dispossession, Indian schools, and the despair all of this created. Like most other tribes however, Comanche numbers grew after that and continue to grow today, although with a very different set of cultural traditions and work life than that of the past.

I borrowed liberally from Pekka Hämäläinen’s prize winning book The Comanche Empire in writing this post. You should read this book.

This is the 159th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Hidden Wealth and Government Incentives

[ 31 ] September 27, 2015 |


Marshall Steinbaum has a very useful overview of a major problem that we don’t talk about enough–the hidden and therefore untaxed wealth of corporations.

But if the economics is so clearly against tax havens and the policy solutions are straightforward, then how did we get to where we are? The answer is not that a few villainous, self-serving countries act as parasites on the world economy by offering rich people a way out of their responsibilities. Unfortunately the situation isn’t that straightforward.

In fact, U.S. policymakers tacitly encourage the proliferation of tax havens and the chicanery that enables rich people and corporations to stash their money beyond the reach of the Internal Revenue Service (with a few notable exceptions, including the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act of 2010). Even now, Congress is debating a “Repatriation Holiday,” which would allow companies who strategically book large profits at overseas subsidiaries to avoid corporate taxes by returning their cash stockpiles to their U.S. shareholders. Even talking about such a policy furthers such tax avoidance, since it signals to companies that they won’t have to pay up if they hold out long enough.

Speaking of Luxembourg, Zucman writes, “Starting in the 1970s, the government initiated an unheard-of enterprise: the sale to multinationals throughout the world of the right to decide their own rate of taxation, regulatory constraints, and legal obligations for themselves.” In other words, companies get to choose their own tax rates by strategic use of low-tax jurisdictions to earn profits and conduct some of their operations, and wealthy individuals do as well. That is not a privilege available to ordinary citizens. But the trend has been mimicked everywhere, directly by authorities in havens and indirectly by those in productive economies who tolerate them.

Moving beyond tax havens in particular, the ideological justification for low and falling rates of taxation on capital is the Chamley-Judd Theorem, which “proves” that the optimal tax rate on capital is zero in the long run. According to the theorem, anything more destroys the incentive to save and thus the productive capacity of the economy. That is why, the same thinking goes, even workers who don’t own any capital should prefer zero taxes on capital. Whatever its theoretical merit–and recent research suggests it doesn’t have much–the intellectual influence of the theorem has been strong. In the United States, as in most countries, the individual tax rate on capital is below the income tax rate precisely in order to incentivize people to save, and recent proposals involve eliminating capital taxes altogether for that reason.

Why is the Chamley-Judd result relevant to international tax havens? Unfortunately for the rich, public sentiment is not always as enlightened as mathematical economics, especially in the voting booth, and the possibility exists that a dangerous capital-taxing radical might sweep to power. That “threat” can be neutralized if the wealthy avail themselves of tax havens. All of this is part of the larger trend among policymakers to be too credulous about formal “optimal policy” results in theoretical economics.

Basically, it’s sheer greed and the only way to stop that is for the government to crack down and take the money. But it doesn’t do that. Instead, it provides incentives to keep doing it through proposing the repatriation holiday. Criminalizing the behavior and arresting and prosecuting the tax frauds who do this would be a lot more effective. As we see over and over, carrots do not work for the rich. Like with Volkswagen executives taking advantage of industry self-regulation to cheat the pollution standards, being nice to corporations leads to terrible policy outcomes because they are going to cheat the system any way possible. And with the chances of being caught relatively low and the government accommodating to corporate interests in most cases, the wealthy will continue with this sort of behavior.

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