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Train Funding

[ 83 ] May 15, 2015 |

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John Boehner may think discussing Amtrak funding in the wake of the crash is “stupid” but of course it isn’t. Boehner notes that the crash was caused by the train going too fast, not infrastructure. But it’s not like high-speed trains are unknown in the world. Instead, Republicans prefer to attack the terrible national train system we already have because only those urban hippies ride trains, not good truck drivin’ folk. We could invest in super-modern high-speed trains that could zip Americans around the nation. We could also invest in better safety infrastructure so that such train wrecks don’t happen if they are the fault of the conductor. Instead, the rail industry and its Republican friends are pushing for the reduction of train crews on freight trains, which would only cause more crashes.

So Democrats should absolutely push for greater Amtrak funding in the wake of the crash. I don’t expect Boehner or any Republican to take any real heat for opposing this, but at least it makes their moral position on these issues more clear.

Today in Apparel Industry Disasters

[ 5 ] May 15, 2015 |

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Another horrible disaster in the global apparel industry. This time it was in the Philippines where at least 72 are dead after a fire burned a slipper factory. There might not have been many deaths, despite the fact that the sparks set off chemicals used in making the slippers, had the owners not put bars on the second floor windows. It does seem that this factory was producing strictly for the Philippine market. But that doesn’t mean the types of global labor standards I argue for in Out of Sight could not have an impact in a situation like this. Since I advocate the U.S. to more strongly regulate the goods entering the country and the factory conditions of American companies operating abroad while empowering workers to have the power to take these matters into their own hands, these standards would have a race to the top effect by making it harder for companies with substandard conditions and unsafe factories to operate. If workers could leave for safer factories, they would and other companies would presumably have to improve conditions to play catch-up. Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t be as effective as I think, but we have to ensure that apparel made by American companies or for American consumers is produced ethically. Hopefully it would have cascading effects.

Borders

[ 45 ] May 14, 2015 |

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National borders are usually pretty weird and unsettling places. But the story of the India-Bangladesh border is especially odd.

Race and Food Injustice

[ 47 ] May 14, 2015 |

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One of the reasons I vastly prefer Mark Bittman to Michael Pollan among famous food writers is that Bittman gets that injustice is a major issue whereas Pollan is mostly happy to talk about the glories of foraging for mushrooms and longing for women to go back into the kitchens, blissfully ignoring most issues of poverty and food. Bittman has his own blind spots, no doubt. But at least he tries. Bittman’s good side has come out again. In the wake of the protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Bittman notes how racism and food access intersect:

And — since I’m the food guy, it’s worth pointing out — without access to good food or nutrition education. This is murder by a thousand cuts. The rate of hunger among black households: 10.1 percent. Among white households: 4.6 percent. The age-adjusted rate of obesity among black Americans: 47.8 percent. Among white Americans: 32.6 percent. The rate of diabetes among black adults aged 20 or older: 13.2 percent. Among white adults: 7.6 percent. Black Americans’ life expectancy, compared to white Americans: four years less. (The life expectancy of black men with some high school compared to white men with some college: minus 14 years.)

These numbers are not a result of a lack of food access but of an abundance of poverty. Lack of education is not a result of a culture of victimhood but of lack of funding for schools. And rather than continuing to allow these realities to divide us, we should do the American thing, which is to fix things. Which we can do, together.

Not long ago African-Americans were enslaved; until recently they were lynched. Isolated racist murders still occur, but they are no longer sanctioned or tolerated, and we’re seeing the vestiges of that as both national and local attention is paid to violence by the police against black people.

But oppression and inequality are violence in another form. When people are undereducated, impoverished, malnourished, un- or under-employed, or underpaid and working three jobs, their lives are diminished, as are their opportunities. As are the opportunities of their children.

This is unjust and intolerable. The bad news is that we should be ashamed of ourselves: As long as these things are true, this is not the country we say it is or the country we want it to be.

The good news is that it’s fixable, not by “market forces” but by policies that fund equal education, good-paying jobs, and a good food, health and well-being program for all Americans.

He doesn’t pretend that food access is going to solve larger problems, which is an issue among many food writers who see food as a mystical experience. But he notes that we can solve the interconnected issues of poverty, injustice, and food access through good policy. Which is absolutely true and the position that the entire food movement should be taking on the recent uptick in protest against racism.

Nail Salons

[ 135 ] May 14, 2015 |

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You probably read Sarah Maslin Nir’s excellent investigative report on the labor conditions inside New York nail salons, which are brutal and including wage theft, poisoning from breathing in cosmetics, and physical abuse. There are relatively simple answers to solving these problems, which are strong labor enforcement of state and federal law. The report convinced Andrew Cuomo to announce “emergency measures” to help these workers, including more inspections and a multilingual attempt to inform workers of their rights. We’ll see how real this is once people stop paying attention.

Anyway, the unfortunately most common response is what we often see from empowered individualistic consumers, which is “how can I consume ethically.” The question turns the issue from being about the workers to about the consumer. We see this in apparel activism too often from people who think that buying second-hand clothing is an answer to sweatshop labor. Michelle Chen answers the question about what you can do quite simply–support worker organizing–and she provides plenty of information about how that is shaping up. Amanda Marcotte takes on the middle class guilt part of this debate more directly (with plenty of links of this sort of thing if you are so inclined). She writes:

I don’t mean to pick on people,I really don’t. These huge labor and immigration issues can feel overwhelming and I get that people want to know what part, however small, they can play. But that leads to this unfortunate tendency to frame these issues around middle class complicity, as if that were the main problem and not just a sideshow. The problem with that is that these sort of individualized rituals of self-sacrifice in the name of purity do almost nothing to actually improve the lives of marginalized or exploited people. In some cases, it might make it worse—in this case, for instance, the end result will be that a smaller proportion of customers in nail salons will be good tippers who are nice to the workers. Great.

To be fair, some writers cleverly used the “how to assuage your guilt” click bait headlines to compel people to take real action, such as calling the authorities when they discover a salon is breaking labor laws or to surreptitiously distribute materials informing workers of their rights in their native language. These are still small actions, but they are actions that might actually help a real person who actually needs help, and that’s not nothing. But most of what I saw out there was focused on how you personally can feel better about yourself. That’s not helpful to people who actually need help.

And then she says what you actually can do, which is to make this a political issue and call your politicians to demand they do something about it. Like just about everything else when it comes to workers, the way to solve these problems is to give workers power. That means actively taking power from employers. The nail salon workers are the modern version of immigrant sweatshop labor a century ago and while we’ve outsourced that work to people we can exploit far out of our sight, the need for service labor means there are still workers who we do see. We can demand the rigorous inspections of these agencies with shutdowns and heavy fines for employers who violate the law.

Of course, if you are a libertarian, your hot take on all this is that there’s no way we should do anything about these workers. After all, how can we know what they want since we are not them? Of course we could ask workers what they want but that would mean libertarians talking to real people and I mean, c’mon. Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown:

Getting more government involved when it’s not at the behest of these workers, however, is only going to lead to more hardship for those most marginalized. When state investigators find a bunch of undocumented immigrants working as unlicensed manicurists—yes, being a manicurist in New York technically requires a state permission slip—for under the minimum wage, do you think they’re going to stop with forcing employers to institute a pay hike? Do you think salon owners under more investigative scrutiny from government agents are going to be more attune to requests from their underground employees?

I don’t want to diminish the concerns of workers in these communities. But this top-down, outsider, progressive, law-and-order view concerns me. Would workers be better off with no jobs or means to support themselves? Living back in their home countries? Maybe in some cases, yes, but we don’t know because we are not them. And I tend to believe that immigrant salon workers, being as intelligent and rational as the rest of us, are capable of weighing their own interests and situations and acting accordingly.

This of course is nothing more than the same Gilded Age arguments conservatives have always loved, that workers make rational decisions and that if they didn’t think it was in the interest to work in dangerous jobs, they wouldn’t do so. Nevermind that government can actually make that work less dangerous or that the unions these people inevitably oppose can do the same or that workers don’t actually have choices if the “choice” is work or starve. For conservatives, this is all a fun theory they can sit in their comfy houses and pontificate about. They aren’t interested in actual workers and their lives.

Then there’s this:

Increased FDA oversight can’t educate nail workers about the importance of leaving the job when they’re pregnant, or help make doing so financially feasible; it can’t instill simple best practices, like wearing gloves, that could mitigate skin problems; it can’t encourage salon owners to install work on better ventilation systems. These sorts of education and outreach efforts are best undertaken by public health nonprofits and people in these communities. And they would have a much more immediate effect than the years or decades it could take to get accomplish similar feats via federal regulation.

Actually increased oversight can do those exact things. Maybe not through the FDA but through OSHA. OSHA can educate workers. OSHA can instill best practices and mandate wearing gloves. OSHA can fine employers for not installing ventilation systems. And if there’s a reason that it is hard to make federal regulation work on these issues, it’s because people like Brown and her plutocrat masters spend money opposing these regulations.

Quite the hot take there.

A Centrist Weepy

[ 62 ] May 14, 2015 |

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This Robert Draper profile of a Democratic Party supposedly in turmoil because its base is demanding politicians stand up for values outside of Beltway centrism is ridiculous. Note that the only non-politician who gets any major play here is Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way. And that’s what this whole article is–a lament that the Democrats are stepping away from Broderism. There’s little that causes more concern trolling among the Washington press corps than Democratic voters demanding that Democratic politicians stand up for liberal values, especially on economics. Certainly when the most inane journalism awards of the 2016 elections are held there are going to be worse articles than this. But it should at least get an honorable mention.

The FBI and Keystone

[ 22 ] May 14, 2015 |

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Above: Obvious environmental extremists

It’s ridiculous that the FBI was violating agency protocol by going to rather extreme measures in monitoring those protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline. Calling the opponents “extremists” (because nothing screams extremist, near-terrorist activity like Bill McKibben…), the FBI cultivated informants and connected its monitoring of the protesters to anti-terrorism investigations. This is pretty bad. But it also suggests how law enforcement sees basically all protestors as enemies and essentially serves not as a neutral agent in society but rather as one defending power.

Organizing the Silicon Valley

[ 33 ] May 13, 2015 |

Labor has made some positive gains recently in organizing the working-class employees of the Silicon Valley. But what’s really interesting here is the aggressive attitude of labor:

The state’s labor movement has been “very good at being the opposite of Wisconsin,” Paulson said. Unions have traditionally been strong in Wisconsin, but over the past few years a state government has dealt a series of crushing blows to the labor movement, including passing a law restricting collective bargaining for public employees and a law that bans union shops. Labor in California has remained strong enough to make such attacks unlikely, but Paulson said he and others in the movement have tired of focusing so much on simply avoiding disaster.

“Over the last few years, some of us have just said, fuck that,” Paulson told Al Jazeera. “Let’s do what we want to do to fight for workers. And so the state federation of labor in particular decided that we are going to put our resources into organizing. Into real organizing, that is going to result in a collective bargaining agreement at some time or another, and people being in a labor union, and officially having a voice at work.”

The California Labor Federation selected three particular campaigns on which to combine resources: The SEIU-USWW drive to organize Silicon Valley security officers, as well as a UFCW-backed campaign to organize workers at Walmart and a similar Teamster-driven campaign at food processing plants in California’s Central Valley. Every union in the federation is expected to contribute something to those three campaigns, regardless of whether the campaigns have anything to do with their immediate interests, Paulson said.

“Even school employees, we’re going to send them to the Walmart campaign,” he said. “We’re going to send them to food processing and help the Teamsters out in Central Valley. All of us central labor councils, we’ll organize civil disobedience and actions outside of Google and Apple in order to reinforce organizing for security officers.”

After the security officers campaign began to pick up supporters and public attention, the labor movement started throwing itself behind other organizing drives in the Silicon Valley area, according to SEIU-USWW organizing director Sanjay Garla. The most prominent of those campaigns is the Teamsters’ effort to unionize shuttle drivers — but, Garla said, “there’s a lot of talk about how food-service workers are also part of this fight.”

“Everyone sat down and said, ‘How do we back up these security officers that are going up against these major giants?’” he said. “It was really about supporting the security officers, and it’s turning into something more.”

Cajoling all the unions into contributing something for organizing is a good idea and being aggressive is a great one. There can be good reasons to play defense, but labor also must press its advantages where possible. And if it isn’t possible in California, it isn’t possible anywhere.

Arctic Drilling

[ 17 ] May 13, 2015 |

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I am extremely disappointed that President Obama and Interior Secretary Jewell decided to open up Arctic oil drilling. Certain environmental conditions are supposed to be met, but as we all know too well, the oil industry is inherently dangerous and terrible accidents occur all the time (Exxon Valdez, BP disaster, Santa Barbara spill of 1969, etc., etc.). That the administration has granted these rights to Shell is even worse given that company’s awful record:

When the Obama administration announced on Monday that it would let Shell drill for oil off the Alaskan coast this year if it met certain conditions, environmentalists were outraged — not just by the administration’s decision to allow drilling, but by its decision to give Shell, in particular, the green light.

They said that the company’s track record in the Arctic should rule out another chance for it. Shell tried to drill in the Arctic in 2012, and the company’s multibillion-dollar drilling rig, the Kulluk, ran aground. The operator of a drill ship hired by Shell also pleaded guilty to eight felony offenses and agreed to pay $12.2 million over shoddy record-keeping that covered up hazardous conditions and jury-rigged equipment that discharged polluted water.

“Shell has already proven itself not up to the challenge of development in the Arctic Ocean,” said Franz Matzner, the director of the Beyond Oil Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But it’s not just Shell. The fact is, there’s no safe way to pursue oil exploration in the frozen wastes of the Arctic Ocean.”

He added, “This is an inexplicable decision to do something that is dirty, dangerous and unnecessary.”

Shell, Europe’s leading oil company, has spent about $7 billion in the Alaskan Arctic over the last decade, and drilled two shallow wells during the 2012 attempt.

But the federal government did not allow the company to reach the deeper oil-bearing formations because the containment dome designed to cap a runaway well had been destroyed in testing.

Shell executives said they had shaken up their Alaska team, putting in new management that would emphasize better management of contractors, readiness for any problems and contingency plans to care for any accidents.

Trust us, we know what we’re doing! Don’t pay attention to our long and terrible history!

Bad Arguments

[ 48 ] May 13, 2015 |

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In the world of libertarian economists, Bryan Caplan really isn’t the worst, but arguing that the Shah was “strong on civil liberties” is about the dumbest thing one can possibly say about the history of Iran.

Strong on civil liberties, weak on economic liberties – it almost seems like American liberals should have liked the Shah.

Herpty derpty. What did actual Iranians say about the Shah’s glorious civil liberties? From a 1979 piece written by Iranians in the Harvard Crimson:

SAVAK conducted most of the torture, under the friendly guidance of the CIA. which set up SAVAK in 1957 and taught them how to interrogate suspects. Amnesty International reports methods of torture that included “whipping and beating, electric shocks, extraction of teeth and nails, boiling water pumped into the rectum, heavy weights hung on the testicles, tying the prisoner to a metal table heated to a white heat, inserting a broken bottle into the anus, and rape.”

From Muhammad Sahimi:

The Shah’s regime responded violently in kind, establishing the infamous Joint Committee to Fight Terrorism, which was headed by Sabeti in practice, though it always had a military officer as its figurehead chief. “By 1970,” writes Dr. Abbas Milani in The Persian Sphinx, Sabeti’s “power permeated all facets of Iranian life.” Torture, beatings, show trials in military courts, executions, and even extra-judicial killings were all normal modes of operation for the SAVAK and the Committee. For example, Mehdi Rezaei, an MKO member, was arrested in April 1972 and executed that September at the age of 20, after enduring horrific torture. Ali Asghar Badizadegan, one of the MKO’s founders, was forced into an electric oven according to his comrade Lotfollah Meysami. He was burned so badly that he became paralyzed, and the SAVAK refused to turn over his body after he was executed in May 1972. As Ali Gheissari writes in Iranian Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century, under Sabeti the Committee was also “responsible for the arbitrary detention, interrogation, and torture of many university students during that period.”

Two classmates of mine, Mohammad Ali Bagheri, a pious Muslim, and Hamid Arian, a secular leftist, were lost to the political violence of the era. We were all students at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Tehran, having been admitted in 1972 after passing the national entrance examination, or concours. Bagheri was executed by the regime, while Arian was killed in an armed clash with the SAVAK. Four other good young men that I personally knew, all secular leftists, who were a year or two ahead of me in the engineering department, were also killed: Mahmoud Vahidi and Saeed Kord were poisoned in the notorious Evin Prison, while Mansoor Farshidi and Mahmoud Namazi were killed in an armed clash. Numerous other students, including many friends in the engineering department, were imprisoned, beaten, and given long jail sentences.

To comprehend the atmosphere of terror that dominated the political arena at that time, consider the following. The house of a student friend of mine was raided by the SAVAK, and an engineering book was found there that he had borrowed from the engineering department library. In those days, the borrower’s name would be written on a card attached to the back of the book. One of the students who had previously borrowed the book was Nastaran Al-e Agha, an engineering student and a major figure in the Fadaian who was killed on June 22, 1976, in an armed confrontation with the SAVAK. Because the book had been borrowed previously by Al-e Agha, my friend was held in jail for months, just to make sure that there was no connection between the two. Such was the state of terror in the days when Sabeti was at the helm of the Committee and the leading figure in the conflict between the opposition and the Pahlavi regime. His name was identified with a host of brutal acts. He would appear on national television and talk about what had happened every time the regime declared a “victory” against the opposition, and in particular the “terrorist” MKO and Fadaian.

From Darius Rejali:

I remember one distinguished expert who reviewed my work said,
basically, how can Rejali say torture is part of modernity? If that was
true, America would torture too. It really was amazing, in retrospect,
how willfully blind people wanted to be. I grew up in Iran at a time
when the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, did not hesitate torturing
Islamic and Marxist insurgents. No one thought torture was something
incompatible with cars, fast food, washing machines and other parts of
modern life. I remember talking to a high-ranking SAVAK officer years
after the Shah was gone, and he certainly felt he played an important
role in modernization. It wasn’t the last time I’ve heard torturers say
how important they are in making their country safe for economic
opportunity.

Another point: Everyone forgets that the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979
was the revolution against torture. When the Shah criticized Khomayni as
a blackrobed Islamic medieval throwback, Khomayni replied, look who is
talking, the man who tortures. This was powerful rhetoric for
recruiting people, then as it is now. People joined the revolutionary
opposition because of the Shah’s brutality, and they remembered who
installed him. If anyone wants to know why Iranians hated the US so,
all they have to do is ask what America’s role was in promoting torture
in Iran. Torture not only shaped the revolution, it was the factor that
has deeply poisoned the relationship of Iran with the West. So why trust
the West again? And the Iranian leadership doesn’t.

So right, strong on civil liberties.

Obama at Nike

[ 91 ] May 12, 2015 |

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I get that President Obama is frustrated with Democratic opposition to his beloved Trans-Pacific Partnership. But his behavior shows just how out of touch he is with the party base on economic issues. First, holding a big TPP event at Nike offices in Oregon is outrageous, but also quite telling. For Obama, Nike is a success story because it creates a lot of high-paying jobs in Oregon while sending all of its production to Vietnam and other Asian countries.

But there are huge problems with the Nike model, even outside of how it treats its workers and the fact that it was a pioneer in outsourcing shoe production. Virtually none of those jobs in the US are blue collar jobs and these are the people most in need of decent employment opportunities. While quite a bit of middle management, design, and other jobs actually could be outsourced (and I suspect will be quite rapidly) probably most well-educated upper middle class Americans are going to do OK going forward. These are Obama’s success stories because there is so much emphasis in conventional wisdom speak about spurring economic creators and innovators. But none of this does anything for the poor. Had Obama spoken at a New Balance factory, which at least makes some shoes still in the U.S., he would come across as less indifferent to the lives of working class Americans who did not benefit from NAFTA nor the many other trade deals of the last 50 years that shipped most blue-collar jobs overseas. Obama doesn’t seem to get that this is where job creation needs to take place, not with the innovators.

Core to the problem here is that while Obama keeps saying the TPP has stronger trade and environmental provisions than previous trade agreements, there’s no evident reason to take this claim seriously or believe it meaningful. First, we still don’t know what the specifics of these provisions are, but we won’t know before fast track is voted on so we have to go with what we have. Second, it’s far from clear whether all the nations involved are on board with said provisions, whatever they may be. Third, it is almost 100 percent positive that these provisions will not include any ability for workers or citizens themselves to go after companies. Since no trade agreement has ever empowered citizens, my guess is that the so-called improvements will likely consist of little more than vague language, but again, we are going to have to wait and see. Combined with the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts that have a strong likelihood of being used by corporations to override governments from taming corporate behavior, and as many have pointed out, the TPP is really more a pro-corporate interest agreement than a trade agreement per se.

And as Elizabeth Warren and Rosa De Lauro write, once fast track is granted, the ability to Congress to stop the process or make any kind of changes to the deal is basically dead. So the TPP must be stopped now.

What An Asshole

[ 161 ] May 11, 2015 |

Yesterday’s jerk du jour, Emory professor Mark Bauerlein, who wrote an op-ed shaming other professors for not turning on their students to idolize them and discover how real learning happens outside the classroom (and frankly using the type of language that reminds one of a professor justifying sex with students), doubles down today. LD Burnett wrote a response at the U.S. Intellectual History blog. She ended her essay by writing “That ain’t right Bauerlein.” His response:

Finally, I note that you are a graduate student. May I offer you some counsel. It is certainly the case that popular intellectual discourse has slipped into banter and smartalecky-ness. It’s a way of getting noticed, and people take pleasure in cheap shots. We have to accept that in headlines and book titles (like one of my own). But once we get into the meat, you should leave the pseudo-witticisms behind (“du jour,” “ain’t,” . . . and Bloom’s book was not “breathless”). Knowingness is not wisdom They detract from a serious argument, and only level you with the mob of scribbling women and men.

In response, let me throw out a big “fuck you” to Bauerlein. I mean, I know I am only a lowly assistant professor and all so perhaps I should take counsel from the lordly Mark Bauerlein. Personally, I’d take 100 ain’ts over riffing off Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sexist comments about mobs of scribbling women and condescension toward graduate students daring to write in public. I ain’t in no mood to put up with this kind of garbage at all.

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