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Erik Visits an American Grave (V)

[ 38 ] November 4, 2015 |

Below is the grave of one of the great American heroes, Thaddeus Stevens.


Stevens hardly needs to be explained to most LGM readers, but briefly, a Whig lawyer who took an anti-slavery position early, he became a leading Republican at the party’s outset while representing a southern Pennsylvania district. As early as 1837, he fought for the black vote at a Pennsylvania constitutional convention. He helped defend the black defenders of self-emancipated slaves after the Christiana Riot in 1851, helping turn this incident into an attack on the Fugitive Slave Act. During the war, he became the leader of the congressional Republicans demanding immediate action on slavery and to allow African-Americans to play a full and complete role in American civic and social life, a position to put him far to the left of the majority of his own party. After Lincoln’s death, Stevens of course became the great enemy of Andrew Johnson, pressing for Radical Reconstruction and leading the fight against the president. He supported land redistribution for the former slaves, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which Stevens played a major role in moving through Congress as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. The enmity against Stevens became so great that he was the model for the Republican congressman and villain of supporting miscegenation and black rights in D.W. Griffith’s legendary racist 1915 film The Birth of the Nation.

Unlike a lot of Republicans, not only did Stevens’ sympathy with slaves not end with emancipation, but he also supported other oppressed groups as well. He fought against giving states control over reservations, noting that the states would abuse Native Americans far worse than the federal government (almost certainly true even given the horrible treatment that actually did take place under federal authority) and supported an 8-hour day at a time when former abolitionists were talking about the rise of a mild form of American class politics as if a socialist revolution was going to destroy the United States.

Stevens may or may not have had a long-term sexual relationship with his African-American housekeeper, a woman named Lydia Hamilton Smith. Certainly the rumors said he did and this was repeated by Steven Spielberg in the film Lincoln. Either way, Stevens did not oppose interracial marriage, placing way outside of the mainstream for white men of his day. Stevens left Smith most of his inheritance and she lived in his house after he died.

Thaddeus Stevens is buried in Shreiner’s Cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


Corporate Control of Chemical Regulation

[ 7 ] November 4, 2015 |


In These Times has an excellent essay on the corporate control over chemical regulation, including the chemical companies pioneering modeling systems that allows “testing” that provides almost no information on how chemicals will actually affect workers, consumers, or the ecosystems, as well as the EPA openly relying on corporate studies on chemical safety. This of course leads to a disastrous situation where we don’t actually often know just what the impact of chemicals are on people and even if we do have a really good idea of it, even the EPA isn’t really equipped to do anything about it. An excerpt:

A close look at the authors of studies produced by these industry-linked research groups reveals a web of influence traceable to Wright-Patterson (see chart on following page). At least 10 researchers employed at or contracted by Wright-Patterson in the 1980s went on to careers in toxicology at CIIT/Hamner, for-profit consulting firms or the EPA. About half have held senior positions at Hamner, including the co-authors of many of the early Wright-Patterson PBPK studies: Melvin Anderson, now a chief scientific officer at Hamner, and Harvey Clewell, now a senior investigator at Hamner and principal scientist at the consulting firm ENVIRON. “I’m probably given credit as the person who brought PBPK into toxicology and risk assessment,” Andersen told In These Times.

A revolving door between these industry-affiliated groups and federal regulators was also set in motion. More than a dozen researchers have moved from the EPA to these for-profit consultancies; a similar number have gone in the other direction, ending up at the EPA or other federal agencies.

Further blurring the public-private line, CIIT/Hamner has received millions of dollars in both industry and taxpayer money. The group stated on its website in 2007 that $18 million of its $21.5 million annual operating budget came from the “chemical and pharmaceutical industry.” Information about its corporate funders is no longer detailed there, but Hamner has previously listed as clients and supporters the American Chemistry Council (formerly the CMA, and one of the most powerful lobbyists against chemical regulation), American Petroleum Institute, BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow, ExxonMobil, Chevron and the Formaldehyde Council. At the same time, over the past 30 years, CIIT/Hamner has received nearly $160 million in grants and contracts from the EPA, DOD and Department of Health and Human Services. In sum, since the 1980s, these federal agencies have awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to industry-affiliated research institutes like Hamner.

But the federal reliance on industry-linked researchers extends further. Since 2000, the EPA has signed a number of cooperative research agreements with the ACC and CIIT/ Hamner. All involve chemical toxicity research that includes PBPK modeling. And in 2014, Hamner outlined additional research it will be conducting for the EPA’s next generation of chemical testing—the ToxCast and Tox21 programs. Over the past five years, Hamner has received funding for this same research from the ACC and Dow.

Meanwhile, the EPA regularly contracts with for-profit consultancies to perform risk assessments, assemble peer review panels and select the scientific literature used in chemical evaluations. This gives these private organizations considerable sway in the decision-making process, often with little transparency about ties to chemical manufacturers. The upshot: Experts selected to oversee chemical regulation often overrepresent the industry perspective.

These cozy relationships have not gone unnoticed; the EPA has been called to task by both its own Office of Inspector General and by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “These arrangements have raised concerns that ACC or its members could potentially influence, or appear to influence, the scientific results that may be used to make future regulatory decisions,” wrote the GAO in a 2005 report.

Asked for comment by In These Times, the EPA said these arrangements do not present conflicts of interest.

This is a classic case of regulatory capture and in an environment with a badly underfunded EPA, not to mention other regulatory agencies like OSHA, it’s hard to see what else the EPA is likely to do here, even though the problems are vast and the cost to workers and consumers high.

The Need for Aggressive, Anti-Corporate Environmentalism

[ 33 ] November 3, 2015 |


Above: Scoop Jackson, sponsor of the National Environmental Policy Act and probably the greatest environmentalist senator in U.S. history.

Joshua Galperin has a good essay arguing that we need an aggressive environmentalism that seeks transformative solutions to environmental problems instead of what he sees as the piecemeal corporate-friendly environmentalism his students favor today. This is a useful counterpoint to the unexamined cliche that apocalyptic environmentalism turns people away from doing anything at all. People say this all the time but I have never seen a single study that suggests this is actually true.

The need for an aggressive environmentalism that demands widespread corporate behavioral change is threefold. First, the planet and the people who live upon it face enormous challenges, especially climate change. Tweaking corporate behavior around the edges won’t solve that problem. Second, any study of social change in American history strongly suggests that only calls for radical change lead to the struggles that create even moderate change. Third, if you want to create the mass political movement that moves politicians to pass the legislation that encodes these, even relatively moderate demands, you have to touch people’s hearts and get them working for a goal. Moderate environmentalism fails on all three of these levels. Richard Nixon was no environmentalist (and I hate, hate, hate that Galperin cites him as one, not to mention a person who cared about nature, which is just untrue but the cliche that Nixon was a great environmental president has become so widespread that it’s more useful to use him as a rhetorical device to claim environmentalism can become bipartisan than to swim against the current) but he faced a desire for environmental legislation so widespread that transformative legislation was passing the House by votes like 372-15, in the case of the National Environmental Policy Act that there was no point in a veto.

Galperin’s characterization of environmentalist students is not true of all but does largely vibe with my experiences over the past decade:

My students are extraordinary, but many see themselves as “corporate social responsibility consultants,” “ecosystem service managers,” “sustainability leaders,” “industrial efficiency experts,” maybe “clean energy entrepreneurs” — not environmentalists. They avoid that label because they associate it with stalled progress on the issues they care about. But this reinvention is a losing strategy.

I think this is partially a result of the emphasis on apolitical “service” and “leadership” at both the high school and college levels that actually serves to channel potential activism into working with corporations or service organizations in ways that don’t challenge the status quo, an emphasis that becomes stronger when the potential for a job at the end of college in a weak employment market for good jobs is out there. But there are real problems with this kind of thinking, as I stated above. He states this is a “desperate environmentalism,” one that assumes corporate power over the world and hopes that maybe we can work with them to make changes since we can’t challenge them.

What do we need instead?

The environmentalists of old insisted on transformation not marginal gains. The Clean Water Act aimed to restore the integrity of all the nation’s waters by eliminating water pollution. Now we quantify whether such improvement is economically efficient, and we politely ask whether an industrial facility might consider reducing its discharge. Perhaps, desperate environmentalists suggest, such a reduction would improve the bottom line by reducing some costs. Suddenly, economic efficiency moves from being one in a collection of cultural values that drive decisions to the only relevant value.

And the ratchet turns in only one direction. Having conceded so much to conservative approaches, desperate environmentalists cannot advocate what is now a radical idea of the past: Government should force polluters to reduce pollution for the sake of healthy natural systems and human enjoyment.

The problem is, desperate environmentalists strive for a mythical conservative embrace but cooperation from the right is unrealistic. As they move right in an attempt to meet their opponents, the opponents will not, at some undefined threshold of compromise, consent to new policies of protection. Rather, desperate environmentalists could continue to erode their position until environmentalism grows unrecognizable.

He then cites the once-Republican idea for cap and trade that today is hated by Republicans as an example of this bait and switch. What we really need is largely what we need for violations of labor rights–demands for corporate accountability, new laws that create that accountability, and an aggressive regulatory state that assumes corporations are probably guilty and seeks to catch them rather than becoming subject to regulatory capture. We need legislation that puts hands in the power of citizens and workers to hold these corporations accountable and we need to use the tools we have now and the tools we can create to hold the corporations accountable wherever they operate, including outside U.S. borders. And while this sounds utopian, note that the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts already provide a framework that we can build from, even if they exist to promote strictly corporate interests at the present and that we have successfully regulated corporations before and we can do so again. There’s plenty of historical evidence to suggest that these are attainable goals. But we have to stop thinking we are going to work with corporations to make those changes, especially on environmental issues. Because they are not our friends and will fight it the whole way.

Are We Reaching a Milestone in Clean Energy?

[ 32 ] November 3, 2015 |


This article feels rather overly optimistic to me, but I thought it was worth noting it’s argument that we are turning an important corner in the transition to clean energy.

But the intervening two days drive home the likelihood of success in Paris. Even with Europe clean energy investment lagging with its overall economy, on-shore wind now provides the cheapest electrons available in both Britain and Germany.

Europe’s slump is partly driven by a transition pains moving from high cost mechanisms like feed-in-tariffs more efficient tools like reverse auctions.

And the massive European investments from 2010-2013 shaved off the lucrative peak demand loads which made solar panels so lucrative. But having done so, Europe is teed up for the world’s next big task. Even at today’s investment levels, by 2040 a huge fraction of global power will come from variable renewables (wind and solar): Germany 77 percent, China 37 percent, Mexico 32 percent, India 32 percent. (The U.S., BNEF projects, lags at 24 percent because of cheap gas. I think America will in fact catch up).

But this vast influx of clean electrons creates a new investment need: storage and connected transmission to stabilize power supplies and integrate zero cost but variable supply electrons—Europe now becomes the test bed for this phase of the clean energy transition.

Elsewhere clean energy marches on. While the details matter, wind and solar will become cheaper than new build coal and gas everywhere. Michael Liebrich in his keynote flashes a telling quote from Bill Koch: “The coal business in the U.S has kind of died, so we’re out of the coal business,” and points out that compared to 2013, 2015 investment in coal has dropped a stunning 75 percent.

These two forces—clean energy’s growing affordability edge, and the bottom up pressure on national governments from cities and the business community—means that fossil fuel interests could longer prevent climate progress simply by leveraging their sheer size to freeze nation state’s from accelerating the shift to the future. Stephen Harper’s government in Canada refused to embrace climate progress, but Canada’s cities—Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton—are racing forward, as are its major provinces—Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and—very soon, my intelligence suggests, even Alberta. (Now Harper is gone).

Set against these two positive drivers a highly resistant, incumbent fossil fuel complex remains determined to hold on to its market share as long as it can. Coal and Oil have withdrawn from their untenable “never” position. Their next battle ground lies in “when.” The G20 commitment this spring was to decarbonize by “the need of the century.” Climate science has a different calendar—fossils must essentially be gone by 2050. That extra 50 years is, to coal and oil, worth fighting for—and natural gas is oil’s alternative of choice. Their secret weapon? Ever lower prices. Liebrich points out that while the pace of technological progress for wind and solar has been dramatic, so too has been improvements in shale drilling for oil and natural gas.

I think this underestimates the ability to dirty energy to rebound from recent retreats and assumes the best of all possible outcomes for clean energy around the world. Still, I may be too pessimistic. Maybe we are turning a corner. But when a lot of that depends on whether Democrats or Republicans win in 2016, at least for the coal example, I’m not hailing a permanent revolution in our energy sourcing.


[ 46 ] November 3, 2015 |


It’s always sad when the George Washington of a nation dies…

Here at LGM, We Remember Only the Finest in American Cultural Artifacts

[ 36 ] November 2, 2015 |

You’ll thank me for the theme song and Bucky Dent, if not the fine, fine acting and disco. Not to mention Jane Seymour and Bert Convy.


[ 70 ] November 2, 2015 |


Disturbing events at Rider University in New Jersey. The liberal arts school–one with Division 1 NCAA basketball at the very least–is offering quite the education for $38,000.

Facing a potentially crippling budget crisis, Rider University will slash 13 majors and one minor and eliminate more than 20 jobs, including 14-full-time faculty members, the school announced today.

The unprecedented budget cuts at the private liberal arts college are expected to save more than $2 million a year as Rider tries to close its deficit, already at $7.6 million of this year’s $216 million budget, according to the university.

Current juniors and seniors will be able to complete degrees in their major, but sophomores and freshman will need to switch majors or transfer. In total, 272 students, including 123 sophomores and freshman are in the affected programs, university President Gregory Dell’Omo said.

Dell’Omo, who took office in August, announced the cuts Thursday during a town hall meeting with faculty and staff. Letters were also sent to students’ families, he said.

“This is a tough day,” Dell’Omo told NJ Advance Media after the town hall meeting. “But we would not have made this decision unless I really felt these were the right things for the university.”

The cuts were prompted by years of declining enrollment combined with rising costs for instruction, Dell’Omo said. But an official for the school’s faculty union said the faculty and the university have a difference of opinion over the severity of Rider’s financial challenges.

“Our first take on it was this is not necessary,” said Jeff Halpern, contract administrator and chief grievance officer for the faculty union. “A major restructuring without any conversations with the faculty is simply formula for disaster.”

Majors that will be eliminated beginning next fall are art and art history, advertising, American studies, business education, French, geosciences, German, marine science, philosophy, piano and web design. The bachelor of arts program in economics and the graduate program in organizational leadership will also be eliminated.

Three majors — business economics, entrepreneurial studies and sociology — will be offered only as minors, and the school’s minor in Italian will be eliminated.

I don’t really know everything that is going on here, but there’s plenty that is suspicious. First, the new president started in August. That means he basically immediately decided to revamp the university by firing professors and cutting majors without any real knowledge of what is happening on the ground. These things don’t happen in a week. Second, the faculty union sharply disagrees with the president’s description of the school’s financial problems. At the very least, the president could work with the union here. But that’s not happening at all. Instead, the president is just destroying the university. Third, one has to question how the school is struggling like this with a $38K price tag. Seventy-three percent of Rider students receive some kind of aid, but more than that I am unable to find out with the resources I have at hand. It’s $65 million endowment is not fantastic but more than many other schools.

Again, I don’t know the whole story. I do know that the unilateral firing of dozens of professors is something we are seeing more and more as presidents decide to raise their own reputation by restructuring universities in ways that eliminate pesky faculty and their pesky unions. At the very least, one must believe that there was a better way to deal with this than the unilateral firing of professors and elimination of core majors.

And of course the Division 1 basketball team remains untouched.

The Low-Wage New Industrial Jobs

[ 126 ] November 2, 2015 |


When wages and working conditions in the United States get bad enough, a few industrial jobs begin returning to the U.S. But most of those jobs are hard and bad, with low wages and poor working conditions. Companies use the same strategies of employment obfuscation and opacity to protect themselves from having to treat employees with respect that they use in the global race to the bottom while the future of the American working class remains dire. Alana Semuels has a good piece about so-called “onshoring” in Tennessee and how the return of a minimal number of manufacturing jobs creates no good times for the American working class. A couple of quotes, with commentary:

One man, who works for parts supplier Magnetti Marelli, which opened its first lighting-production plant in Tennessee in 2013, told me that employees are required to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. For this, they earn $12 an hour. The man, who didn’t want his name used for fear of retribution from the company, said the job has scarred his hands because he has to work quickly with wire harnesses, but that he can’t quit because he has a family to support.

“The labor laws in the United States ought to stand up and say you can’t do this to a human being,” he told me.

A spokesman for Magnetti Marelli, which is owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, said that the schedule is related to a ramp-up phase ahead of new-product launches.

Magnetti Marelli, like most manufacturing plants in the South, is not unionized. And those who work at such plants likely won’t see the sort of mobility that Conklin has experienced. The compensation for these jobs is not on step with today’s economy: Wages for workers at non-union automotive plants have fallen 14 percent from 2003 to 2013, when adjusted for inflation, according to the National Employment Law Project.

The company has no reason to even deny that it’s crushing workers’ lives in an 84-hour a week job in conditions reminiscent of the Gilded Age. The idea that such a schedule is necessary is of course ridiculous because, you know, the company could hire more workers. But like U.S. Steel in 1905, forcing workers to labor 12-hours days is part of the management prerogative that employers love and they make workers suffer because of it. This is why unions are needed, but with the extreme capital mobility of the early 21st century, Magnetti Marelli may well move their factory to another non-union state or back over the border if the employees unionized. With jobs so scarce and mobility to enhanced, it’s hard to blame them for grasping to such a horrible job. Because what is the alternative?

Darius Mir grew his business 9to5 Seating, which makes office chairs, by moving manufacturing from California to China in the early 2000s. But manufacturing in China became increasingly challenging. The global slowdown shuttered dozens of plants in China, and some skilled workers went home to their villages, Mir told me, so that the company had trouble finding good employees. What’s more, as China devalued its currency, 9to5 Seating had to spend more on wages because of the unfavorable exchange rate, making it less cost-efficient to produce goods in China.

Looking for solutions, Mir did some research and realized that if he could locate a plant somewhere in the central U.S., where he could ship goods to customers in a day, and if he could automate some jobs to save labor costs, producing chairs in the U.S. could work. Thanks in part to automation, he found, a task or order that would take 22 people in China can be done at the Tennessee plant with five. With the help of generous incentives, the company started manufacturing on 100,0000 square feet in Union City, Tennessee, where Goodyear had closed a massive plant in 2011. Mir is now adding 200,000 square feet of space to ramp up manufacturing in the company. (The U.S. part of the company is called Made In America Seating). He employs 40 people, and hopes to grow to 80 by the end of the year, and 500 within five years.

The average wage, Mir told me, will be $38,000 a year, and unskilled employees will start working at $11 an hour.

“A person would be able to without much experience or skills, would be able to start work in the region where we are from $9 to $11 or $12 an hour,” he told me. “We are keeping to the middle of that range.”

$11 an hour is not really a livable wage, even in a relatively poor part of the nation, especially if you have a family. It is however the market wage. If it was a livable wage, would Mir locate his factory in Union City? Given that he has the ability, thanks to unhindered capital mobility, to move anywhere at any time, probably not. But while an $11 hour is better than abject poverty, it certainly doesn’t create a stable working class, nor is it intended to do so. A stable working class might well have the ability to raise those wages and send the jobs somewhere else, thus destabilizing said economically and socially stable workers.

Nissan has made cars in Smyrna since 1983, and the town, and even the county, grew up and prospered around the plant, adding nearly 200,000 residents since the plant opened. But Smyrna suffered during the recession when Nissan, facing huge financial losses, offered buyouts to 6,000 employees in Tennessee and eliminated a night shift. The unemployment rate in Rutherford County reached 11 percent, and did not fall below 7 percent until late 2011.

When Nissan ramped up again after the recession, they hired low-paid temporary workers through agencies such as Yates Services.

Robert Bruhn, 49, was hired by Yates to work at the Smyrna plant three years ago. It was a good job, compared to what he was doing at the time, working for an oven manufacturer for $13 an hour. Yates started him out at $14.50 an hour, although he stood on the line next to people who made $25 or $26 an hour. Other less-skilled Yates employees start out at $12.80 or so, and Yates workers never earn more than $18.50 an hour, he told me. After pushback from workers, Nissan has allowed some workers to transfer to Nissan as part of the Pathway program, though Bruhn told me that the selection of transfers seems random. (He applied a few times before he was finally accepted and transferred in September.)

Still, Bruhn gets less of a bonus and a lower wage than other full-time Nissan employees.

“There’s no way to reach the top here,” he told me. Josh Clifton, a Nissan spokesman, responded that the use of staffing agencies is “standard practice” in the automotive industry, and that Nissan employees in Smyrna receive competitive pay and benefits).

While Nissan will not disclose how many of its workers are temporary, Ed Ensley, a worker who has been at the plant for 30 years, says he thinks only about 30 percent of current full-time workers are Nissan employees. Ensley is a full-time Nissan worker, but he wants to form a union at the plant because he’s disappointed in how morale and quality have suffered since the increase in temporary workers. This is something he’s made clear at the plant, by giving speeches in the lunchroom and by approaching executives from Japan about the need for a union.

So far, he hasn’t made much progress, even as he’s seen the town of Smyrna deteriorate. Some new hires are making less than what he made in 1982, Ensley told me. Along the main drag of Smyrna, there’s been an uptick in payday-loan stores, and Nissan recently instituted a cell-phone lot for people picking up family members from work; Ensley suspects the change is because so many employees can no longer afford to be two-car families.

Meanwhile, the Smyrna plant is becoming the most productive in the nation, and last year produced 648,000 cars. Nissan made $1.57 billion in the first quarter of this year, a 58 percent increase from the previous year.

This use of long-term temporary workers is a big part of Japanese auto makers employment strategies in the South. The Toyota plant in Kentucky does the same. This causes all sorts of problems for workers who are doing the exact same job as the person next to them who works directly for Nissan or Toyota but who makes 50-60 percent of the wages and benefits (if there are any). This is the type of employment obfuscation that brings multiple employers into the same factory, makes unionization all the more difficult, and shields the parent company from financial and sometimes legal responsibility for those workers. Once again, the temporary work industry, which may have reason to exist when Macy’s needs to increase its staff for December alone, has been massively twisted into a Frankenstein that major and highly profitable employers use to increase profits on the backs of workers. Like so many of these labor arrangements such as franchising, subcontracting, outsourcing, etc., long-term temp work needs to be heavily regulated or banned outright if we want American workers to become middle-class people.

In short, American workers need good, well-paying, stable jobs. Even when work has returned, they don’t have that. No increased Earned Income Tax Credit is going to solve this problem. We have to have a jobs program that provides livable wages and dignified lives if we want a stable nation not wholly owned by corporations and if we want to fight poverty and social problems. Unfortunately, even many on the nominal left don’t take this seriously enough, preferring vague and meaningless paeans to education and useful but small policies like an expanded EITC credit as solutions to these problems. It’s not nearly enough.

For workers, the jobs are welcome because they are better than the poverty For Tennessee workers, the jobs are welcome because they are better than the poverty that gets Paul Theroux decried as a moral monster for writing about them instead of African workers. But it doesn’t mean these jobs that once could help a worker into the middle class are nearly enough to provide the stability we need to build American society.

How Employers Deal with Sexual Harassment

[ 21 ] November 2, 2015 |


Sarah Jaffe provides the details of a story that says all too much about how too many corporations deal with sexual harassment on the job. They cover it up, try to shut down the worker, and facilitate the harasser to continue exploiting women.

Not long afterward, as she waited for her carpooling colleague again, the coach came up to Agganis and began rubbing her shoulder. She pulled away. He said nothing then, but in their next weekly “coaching,” Agganis said, he told her one of her metrics was a little below target and that he could write her up for it—but he wouldn’t. “I felt threatened that if I didn’t put up with his behavior he would write me up and make trouble for me,” she said. Agganis began having panic attacks, and was prescribed anti-anxiety medication for the first time in her life.

When she went to human resources to make a complaint, though, she felt dismissed. By that time, she’d googled her coach, Gary Rochon, and according to the legal complaint she’s filed, found that he had lost his medical license in Wisconsin for having a sexual relationship with a patient. Healso lost a job in Maine following accusations of sexual harassment. Agganis questioned T-Mobile’s judgment in hiring someone with his history to manage a workplace staffing mostly young women, and asked for him to be put on suspension while the company conducted the internal investigation she was told would happen. Instead, she said, she was advised to stick it out until the next rotation, when she would be given a new supervisor.

She was asked to sign a confidentiality form, she said. Agganis asked for time to read the form, and was shocked to discover that it seemed to be telling her that if she talked to her co-workers about her sexual-harassment complaint, she could be disciplined or even fired. “I didn’t want to lose my job,” she said. “But I couldn’t stay where I was being harassed.” She was led to believe that if she didn’t sign the form, there would be no investigation. She signed it, and then she resigned from her job.

Luckily this woman knows the power of a union:

Agganis didn’t give up. Instead, she reached out to the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents many telecom workers, including some at T-Mobile, but not at the Oakland call center. The union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on her behalf, arguing that the confidentiality agreement violated the National Labor Relations Act’s protections for workers—the act specifically allows workers to discuss “issues related to their terms and conditions of employment,” and act collectively to change those conditions. This August, an NLRB Administrative Law Judge ruled in her favor, requiring T-Mobile to rescind the confidentiality agreements and post notice to its employees at the Maine and South Carolina sites, informing them that it had violated the NLRA and informing them of their rights under the act.

And then this month, backed by CWA, Agganis went public. She’d filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Center and the Maine Human Rights Commission, which issued her a Right to Sue letter. She filed suit in the United States District Court in Maine, charging sex discrimination and wrongful discharge in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Maine Human Rights Act. On October 6, she held a news conference near the T-Mobile call center, and she and her supporters handed out flyers to T-Mobile employees informing them of her complaint.

That’s great for her and it once again shows how unions are so, so much more than just a vehicle for workers to get more money. But a lot of workers don’t have access to unions or don’t know who to reach out to for help on the job. These confidentality agreements employers make employees sign are deeply disturbing and should be illegal. When the employer prioritizes sweeping information under the rug over making sure workers are not sexually harassed (or otherwise exploited or made to labor in unsafe workplaces or whatever) they are acting in a manner that should have legal ramifications.

Water Hogs

[ 28 ] November 1, 2015 |


Who are the biggest water hogs in California? Well, in the Bay Area, the worst is a Chevron exec. Second is some venture capitalist. You’d expect these two types to lead. Third? Billy Beane!

Oakland A’s big cheese Billy Beane, famous for his statistical money-saving approach to assembling a baseball team, has been far less economical with his water, according to an East Bay Municipal Utility District roster that places him among the top water hogs in the East Bay.

The baseball team’s executive vice president, for whom the phrase “Moneyball” was invented, has been slopping nearly 6,000 gallons of water a day on the grounds of his Danville estate and his swimming pool, placing him third on a preliminary list of excessive water users released Friday.

The average residential customer uses about 250 gallons a day per household.

The list of 1,108 names is not complete, according to Abby Figueroa, district spokeswoman, including only about a third of the district’s residential customers — essentially those who received penalties for guzzling more than 1,000 gallons of water per day. Still, it is an indication of the huge disparity in water use among the 1.3 million customers in 35 East Bay cities that receive water from the district.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District as a whole has cut water use by 21 percent since Jan. 1.

Beane issued a statement Friday saying that it wasn’t really his fault.

“Multiple irrigation leaks and a significant pool leak were recently discovered and are in the process of being corrected,” said the man who was using 5,996 gallons a day at home while his baseball team wallowed in last place. “We are more than displeased and embarrassed by the usage and are taking immediate action.”

More on this issue in California broadly.

The Textbook Scam

[ 101 ] November 1, 2015 |


Henry Farrell is speaking some truth here about the textbook scam.

I teach international relations at a university where political science is the most popular major. As well as teaching intensive seminars, I sometimes teach big entry level courses with 300 students. Every year I do this, I get free textbooks during the summer from academic publishers who want me to assign them. I get phone calls and e-mails from publishers’ reps, asking if they can come around and talk to me about all the great books that they have on offer. Occasionally, publishers contact me to see if I’ve any interest in writing a textbook myself. I politely decline all these gracious offers on ethical grounds. I simply don’t think it’s right or fair to force college students to pay hundreds of dollars, in addition to their tuition, for books that replicate knowledge which is freely available elsewhere.

I completely agree. I teach a 125-student intro to U.S. history course every fall. For the past 2 years, I have not used a textbook at all. Why should I have my students pay $80 or $90 when the tests are based strictly on course material and the papers on outside readings? I used to assign one so they could have one to back up the lecture material, but I realized that they were spending a bunch of money for nothing. And I’m opposed to this. I do assign a rather expensive source reader, a book called Discovering the American Past. But there is a concrete reason for this. I teach discussion sections. Unlike nearly every other source reader, which is an afterthought for the textbook writers because that’s not where the real money is, this book avoids the “let’s throw together 8 documents on the American Revolution that collectively lead us nowhere” for the strategy of creating a chapter of documents on a very specific issue that helps students understand what historians do. For instance, last week they read a bunch of documents on how Jefferson and Madison thought the French of Louisiana were not smart enough to be Americans after the Louisiana Purchase and how the Cajuns had to fight for their rights. This is a good set of documents that also helps students think about what it means to be an American today. It’s about $90 new but there are so many copies of this floating around that they can get it cheaper. It’s also the only book I assign except for a separate $20 reader that allows them to write a paper through reading a book with dozens of primary sources on the same topic. This is what I assigned this semester. So that’s a total of $110 or so for the whole semester, if they buy the books new. That’s still too much. But compared to a lot of courses, it’s better. And if it was a smaller class and I was assigning 5 or 6 short books, the cost would be about the same. But it’s the best I can do. And I’m certainly not going to then drop a big textbook on top of it. Maybe I can find a way to do this cheaper without a decline in quality, but again, there aren’t many source books out there that have conceptualized the classroom effectively.

However, next year, the new edition of my reader is coming out. And about half the chapters are indeed new. So I’m not sure what to do because if I assign the new edition, the students lose the used market. I may wait a year.

Farrell wonders why economists don’t talk about this issue more seriously. And the answer is fairly obvious–because writing textbooks can be a major cash cow and a lot of leading economists are in on it.

It may be that economists are blind to the problems of this market because they are themselves involved in it. Take, for example, Gregory Mankiw, who is the Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics and former head of the Council of Economic Advisers. He has also regularly taught Harvard’s required introduction to economics course, where he has required students to buy his own textbook (which now costs a smidgeon under $300), while refusing to consider donating his profits from this captive market to charity. I suggested seven years ago, that Prof. Mankiw, who is skeptical of regulators and strongly committed to free markets, consider taking his actions to their logical economic conclusion.

If I were him, … I’d claim that I was teaching my students a valuable practical lesson in economics, by illustrating how regulatory power (the power to assign mandatory textbooks for a required credit class, and to smother secondary markets by frequently printing and requiring new editions) can lead to rent-seeking and the creation of effective monopolies. Indeed, I would use graphs and basic math in both book and classroom to illustrate this, so that students would be left in no doubt whatsoever about what was happening [to them]. This would really bring the arguments of public choice [economics] home to them in a forceful and direct way, teaching them a lesson that they would remember for a very long time.

Inexplicably, Prof. Mankiw has yet to take up this suggestion. Doubtless, he thinks that his textbook is the very best introductory textbook on the market. However, it is equally likely that the chair and vice-chair of Prof. Bourget’s department have the same opinion of their required textbook. This doesn’t change the underlying economics of the situation, or of the textbooks racket.

There’s no question that too many professors are subjecting their students to real financial burden unnecessarily. I know that there are not very many ways for academics to make extra money that is more than peanuts. Elite professors writing textbooks is one of those ways, although obviously an opportunity only for the very few. But it’s pretty awful to buy that vacation home directly on the backs of your students, especially when they have so many other financial pressures on them.

How Economics Became a Right-Wing Field

[ 35 ] November 1, 2015 |

Ely-Richard-TRichard Ely

Conservatives never include their beloved Economics departments in their denunciations of left-wing academia because what they actually want is the whole of the university to reflect Economics and providing intellectual justifications for greed and the personal predilections of the wealthy. Economics has not always been that way and it’s always had a minority who took a more honest view of the field. Marshall Steinbaum and Bernard Weisberger on the origins of the right-wing take over of the field in the Gilded Age:

Meanwhile, Ely’s economics colleagues were moving in the other direction, and not simply under duress, as Adams had been. University presidents seeking stature for their institutions appealed to rich donors among the period’s Robber Barons, and that appeal was unlikely to be successful when rabble-rousers in the economics department were questioning the foundations of American capitalism, in particular the monopolization and labor exploitation that made the Robber Barons rich in the first place. At the same time, some of the more moderate members of the economics old school were making overtures to moderates in the new, recognizing the threat that manifestly improved scholarship posed to their authority in the field. Also in 1886, Charles Dunbar, the chair of the Harvard department, brought out the first issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, an alternative peer-reviewed channel to the AEA’s Proceedings (now the American Economic Review, to date the leading journal in the field), which was under Ely’s iron grip. His opening essay welcomed the empirics of the AEA’s cohort but denounced any tendency to political or social reform—a direct challenge to Ely.

Between 1886 and 1892, Ely’s control over the AEA weakened. Adams and Clark plotted to oust him from the Secretaryship in 1887, though they were dissuaded, and in 1888 the organization’s platform was modified to be more conciliatory over Ely’s objection. In 1890, a publications committee was put in place, expressly removing him from sole authority over the Proceedings. The final straw came in 1892, when Ely made a bid to re-assert authority by holding the AEA’s summer meeting at Chautauqua itself. That appeared to signal a public partnership between the professional organization and a popular reform movement. A compromise was brokered wherein at that meeting, Ely surrendered the Secretaryship and left the organization. The new regime was led by Dunbar himself.

What had happened was that economists realized there was much to be gained in terms of professional stature and influence from making themselves appealing to the establishment, so they banished those elements that tainted them by association. In 1895, one of Ely’s students, Albion Small, the founding chair of the new, Rockefeller-endowed University of Chicago’s Sociology Department, did not come to the aid of another Ely student, Edward Bemis, after the latter’s public criticism of the Chicago traction [streetcar] monopoly brought down the wrath of the university’s president William Rainey Harper and its conservative chair of economics, J. Laurence Laughlin. Despite episodes like those of Adams and Bemis, economics was by no means as conservative then as it eventually became starting in the 1970s, but neither would it countenance a direct challenge to the economic status quo nor affiliate itself with radical elements in organized labor or elsewhere. Even Ely himself eventually came around after his own notorious trial before the Wisconsin Board of Regents in 1894. He returned to the AEA as its President in 1900, and though he was long affiliated with the “Wisconsin Idea” and its progressive exponent, Governor Robert LaFollette, he was careful not to stray far from the new, milder orthodoxy.

What was lost in the eclipse of radicalism at the AEA? The economic tracts of that era began to enshrine the perfectly competitive market at the center of the intellectual firmament in economics—work then being formalized mathematically overseas by Leon Walras and Alfred Marshall, to be imported to the US by the likes of Clark and Irving Fisher and embellished by their successors in the mid-to-late 20th century. There has always been disagreement within the academic economics establishment, but it has largely adhered to the establishmentarian bent set down in 1892—and won itself great intellectual prestige in so doing. What political involvement there is in the field is almost exclusively on the Right, as attested by recent cases of donor influence on economics departments at Florida State, Kansas, and numerous others, aimed at routing out any challenge to free market orthodoxy. Much more notable than those cases of overt politicization is the broader alliance of economics with the country’s business establishment, in the form of lavishly funded business schools and research programs to the benefit of the field, far and above what’s available to any other discipline.

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