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America’s Deadliest Job

[ 14 ] August 28, 2013 |

I’m sure the timber industry is glad it retook its historically appropriate title America’s most dangerous job.

An excerpt from my book manuscript draft, part of which explores the history of worker safety in logging. Sadly, things aren’t always so different today:

On August 28, 1905, Clise Houston reached to clear an obstruction from the saw he worked when he fell into it, killing him. Finnish immigrant John Koski found a job with the Simpson Logging Company in a camp near Matlock, Washington. On June 18, 1904 nearby tree fallers shouted “Timber!” He did not move and the tree landed directly on top of him, crushing him beyond recognition. Koski had no family in America and his co-workers had no way to inform his relations in Finland of his demise. The company paid for the burial. Karl Carlson worked in the Anderson & Middleton mill in Aberdeen, Washington. In 1905, a belt fell off its course and Carlson tried to guide it back on to the pulley with a shovel. The shovel became entangled with the belt and he lost control of it. The machine tore the shovel from his hands and plunged it, handle first, through his body. Carlson died the following day, leaving behind a wife and child.

Many workers survived their grievous wounds. Morris Campbell worked in J.E. Nichols’ sawmill in La Conner, Washington. In the last days of 1899, he caught his arm in a mill saw. It was amputated at the shoulder. In 1900, Frank Lang lost most of his left hand running a band saw in the Centralia Shingle Mill in Centralia, Washington. In 1901, Martin Boyer’s foot got caught in machinery in a Centralia mill. Doctors amputated. In a nation without a social safety net, injured workers often fell through the cracks into a lifetime of poverty. Workers like Campbell, Lang, and Boyer faced grim futures as disabled persons, as did many people disabled on the job before the passage of the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act in 1920, which provided occupational training and job placement for those injured on at the workplace.

Guaranteed Basic Income

[ 60 ] August 28, 2013 |

Matt and I have had our share of arguments over how to create a better life for working people, but I mostly endorse his statement about Guaranteed Basic Income.

The minimum wage typically gets debated in terms of econometric studies about disemployment impacts. But the problem with the minimum wage isn’t the alleged disemployment, it’s the freedom. Imagine a worker earning just slightly above the minimum wage, and also working under some kind of conditions that he finds annoying. He goes to the boss and asks for a change. Turn the heat up a little in the winter. Or let him pick which music plays rather than sticking with some dumb playlist that’s been assigned from the top down. Or get a more comfortable chair. Or manage the line this way rather than that one. There are dozens and dozens of little non-wage decisions in any given workplace that impact a person’s happiness and life satisfaction. But the manager looks at it and says there are sound business reasons for sticking with the status quo. Now the problem with the minimum wage is that even if the worker values the change much more highly than he values an extra 2 cents an hour, he’s not allowed to trade 2 cents an hour for an improvement in his working conditions.

Conversely, I strongly suspect that one reason empirical studies often don’t disemployment effects of minimum wage hikes is that there are a lot of non-wage dimensions to the employer-employee relationship along which things can change.

The problem with no minimum wage, however, is that the kind of freedom involved in allowing for unconstrained wage bargaining is that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” The ideal solution to these problems, however, lies not in the workplace but outside of it. Exactly where King and Henry George thought it belonged—in guaranteeing to everyone a minimum standard of living whether or not they work. With that in place, employers will face a de facto minimum job quality. Your job has to beat “unemployment + living off the GBI” rather than “unemployment + homelessness.” You can reach that job quality threshold with money. Or you can reach it by providing valuable training and experience for the future. Or by having a really enjoyable atmosphere of some kind. Realistically, it’ll be a mix.

There are multiple reasons for the minimum wage, which I obviously think should be much, much higher. But part of it is that it was an achievable victory during the New Deal in a way GBI never was. It was part of the piecemeal construction of workers’ rights that reached its pinnacle between 1938 and 1965. Union recognition was also central to that and what people often forget about unions is that they weren’t only or even predominantly about wages, but about dignity at the workplace.

Matt brings up the example of the chair. Let’s expand on that. In the 1970s, the International Woodworkers of America, the union that makes up the heart of my logging book manuscript, fought very hard for the ergonomic workplace. The IWA made alliances with workers and scholars and researchers in Japan, Sweden, and Germany to bring ergonomic timber mills into the Pacific Northwest. This was part of a larger attempt to empower workers on the shop floor through enforcing OSHA regulations. The IWA was among the nation’s leading unions in this task; whereas many unions chose to focus on other issues or fell for job blackmail and employer propaganda that OSHA regulations would force companies to move factories abroad (which they were planning on doing anyway), the IWA centered these issues and made real differences in workers’ lives. If you have GBI, unions could focus even more on the importance of dignity at the workplace, however workers themselves define it. Everyone’s life is better.

As for Henry George’s Single Tax, as I’ve stated before, such one-trick ideas were too simplistic for the modern workings of capitalism, even though that simplicity appealed greatly to 19th century Americans who believed so strongly in the system and just wanted it tweaked to put it back in control of everyday people. But moving toward a tax or a system that would provide GBI is a noble goal. Once you have Guaranteed Basic Income, the world of working-class possibilities opens up. You can work to raise the GBI. Or, if it is at a respectable level, you can fight for an ergonomic workplace, the importance of which can’t be overstated for those who have suffered from its lack.

Read of the Day

[ 24 ] August 28, 2013 |

Gabriel Winant’s long-form book review of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. A brief excerpt:

People, too, suffered the violence of abstraction. Over the first half of the 19th century, up to a million slaves were transported into the Cotton Kingdom from the older slave states (the origin of the saying “sold down the river”). Shipped in barges, or marched southwest in chains, slaves were ripped out of their social worlds, alienated from the learned skills and bodily traits that had enabled them to survive in Virginia or Kentucky. The masters tried to un-people these slaves, to reconstruct them in a form dehumanized enough that they could be moved from place to place and fitted into the production process just like any other commodity. To do so, as Johnson explains in one of many resonant examples, they kept their slaves awake. Sleep deprivation was a technique of power, “implemented,” Johnson writes, “as an offshoot of bizarre anthropological theory.” Johnson goes on to quote a contemporary source, which held that it was “common opinion among the people that the Negro requires less sleep than the white man.” Sleep deprivation was one of any number of techniques “by which human life was turned into cotton: the torturous conversion of labor to capital, and of living people to corpses.” Slaves were physically reconditioned for cotton-field work and for the noxious health conditions of the lower South—a process masters called “seasoning.” Planters exchanged tips in trade journals for tormenting the bodies of slaves until they were properly fitted to the cotton production system. Slaveholders didn’t just tell slaves what to do; they managed their bodies—“a recoordination of nerves and muscles, eyes and hands, which extended their dominion beyond the skin of its subjects, into the very fabric of their form.”

The simplification of bodies and the simplification of nature went together. A well-controlled labor force did the work of clearing and maintaining the physical geography of the Cotton Kingdom. In turn, a controlled landscape allowed for controlled labor. The planter’s power extended, in a sense, only as far as he could see; he or his overseer—note the word—thus removed all visual obstructions and patrolled the fields on horseback, the cotton rows serving as “a visual grid they could use to measure their slaves’ labor.” In turn, a slave’s most reliable strategy was to go “off the grid,” to hide out in the swamps and forests. (Recall: “skulking around.”) Going to ground like this, more often than making a dash for the Mason-Dixon Line, was what it meant to run away. Constant, brutal violence maintained the grid’s disciplinary force. The Cotton Kingdom, by consequence, was less “a fixed bastion of slaveholding power than an excruciating becoming: a landscape being fiercely cleared in a counterinsurgency campaign to which there could be no end.”

Very interesting discussion of Eugene Genovese as well.

I Prefer “War of Southern Treason to Defend Slavery”

[ 154 ] August 28, 2013 |

The fact that Jefferson Davis played a role in giving the Civil War its name and that the name is a product of the losers writing the history of a war they started to defend the enslavement of black people makes me want to banish the term.

Freshmen

[ 23 ] August 27, 2013 |

Freshmen in the 15th century had it rough:

“Statute Forbidding Any One to Annoy or Unduly Injure the Freshmen. Each and every one attached to this university is forbidden to offend with insult, torment, harass, drench with water or urine, throw on or defile with dust or any filth, mock by whistling, cry at them with a terrifying voice, or dare to molest in any way whatsoever physically or severely, any, who are called freshmen, in the market, streets, courts, colleges and living houses, or any place whatsoever, and particularly in the present college, when they have entered in order to matriculate or are leaving after matriculation.”

Leipzig University Statute (1495)

Luckily we have thrown off the chains of the past and can haze freshmen in any way we like, including making them attend classes and turn in papers on time.

Yet Another Example of the Huge Differences Between the Two Parties

[ 23 ] August 27, 2013 |

In a Democratic administration, OSHA makes alliances with women’s groups to improve health and safety for women who work in construction.

In a Republican administration, OSHA is controlled by industry hacks who prioritize industry profits over keeping workers alive.

Glad to see OSHA make this step. Won’t change the world, but it’s positive.

Copper Mines Seeking to Pollute New Mexico Groundwater

[ 9 ] August 27, 2013 |

The mining industry, conducting its usual anti-social, anti-environmental, and exploitative behavior, is pushing for new rules in New Mexico to escape having to go through a variance process to pollute the groundwater below its mining sites, reports the Santa Fe New Mexican The law could allow more industries to do the same, including the state’s two national laboratories. Mining has dominated the economy of southwestern New Mexico for more than a century and with a Republican governor in office, the industry is seeking to capitalize. There’s no good reason to allow high-polluting industries to get around water quality regulations. None at all.

In Case You Needed Another Reason to Not Drink Yuengling

[ 119 ] August 26, 2013 |

Yuengling owner Dick Yuengling, Jr. is an anti-union extremist who thinks Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett is “a great man,” hates unions, and is leading the Keystone State fight to make the state right to work.

I have to carry on with my normal behavior and avoid drinking that overrated swill.

Arkansas’ Anti-Tattoo Legislation

[ 159 ] August 26, 2013 |

I’ll preface this by saying that I’m a member of the 1%: the one percent of Americans under the age of 40 who remains without a tattoo. So while I have no personal stake in the issue, the Arkansas bill banning “untraditional” tattoos or body modifications, whatever that means, is completely ridiculous. It’s unenforceable, unconstitutional, and outrageous. It also makes Arkansas look like a bunch of reactionaries fighting against the hippies, stereotypes that the Natural State does not want to reinforce through grotesque legislation. While I’m real curious as to the future of this tattooing fad, in many ways it’s not too different from the fight against long hair on men that led to violations of civil liberties in the 60s and 70s.

Maybe I’ll go get a hammer and sickle tattooed on my face and then drive to Arkansas.

The Eleventh Commandment of Graduate School: Be Nice to People!

[ 121 ] August 26, 2013 |

Claire Potter has her Ten Commandments of Graduate School, all of which I recommend highly.

Thou shalt not rack up unnecessary credit card debt. You may need to take out student loans to pay for things like shelter, food, medical care and a decent laptop computer. But don’t take out loans to pay for things you bought just to make yourself feel better. Try to make a budget for yourself that includes fun and going out to dinner with friends, but not all kinds of stuff you will end up throwing away when you have to move. And just because it’s a book doesn’t mean you need to own it. One of the great weaknesses of academics is buying books they never get around to reading.

Thou shalt not neglect thy dental or health care. Every tooth of mine that gets worked on in middle age became a problem in graduate school. I am totally serious about this.

Thou shalt find an excellent thrift store. You will gradually build yourself a wardrobe of professional clothes (ok, if you are like me, you will build a wardrobe of black tee shirts) and you needn’t buy anything new. Go to the swanky neighborhoods near your university and buy the really nice things other people discarded. If you don’t know how to shop, get someone to teach you.

Thou shalt not assume that merit systems are determinative. If there is anything I hate seeing on the Interwebz, it is people claiming that the person who got the job/fellowship/prize isn’t as smart or deserving or credentialed as they are. It’s the, “Gee I wrote four articles and have a book contract, and *that* person only wrote one article and a review essay” syndrome. I always wonder, Hmmm….maybe you didn’t get the job because the other person was nicer. #Everthinkathat? Academic success is not about racking up points and head to head competition. It’s about other people making choices that you have no control over. Do your best work, and then let it go.

Thou shalt have an excellent professional back-up plan. Tape this to your mirror. Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to learn things that will give you options if that dream job — or any tenure stream job — does not materialize. Things digital, things foundation oriented, things administrative. Yes, the Ph.D. program is designed to educate you, but this is the moment to educate yourself.

Thou shalt become an excellent colleague. Be generous with the others in your cohort. Look for people’s good sides and try to ignore their annoying qualities. And if you must, be honest with someone, whether it’s a hygiene issue or something that is just getting on your nerves. Beginning any comment with, “Hey, it’s probably just me, but…..”

Thou shalt join thy professional organization. It is a false economy to be out of touch with what is going on in the larger world of your field (particularly if it’s not a terribly large world, like Scandinavian Studies or something.) While you are at it, keep educating yourself about academia in general by reading Inside Higher Ed, this publication (some of the best blogs are free, but a two year subscription is cheaper than a month of your cable bill), and academic blogs (particularly those in your field that will alert you to books long before the reviews appear in a journal.) There are many voices: listen to all of them, decide what you think and what you care about. Professionalize yourself. Even if you end up leaving academia, you will know why — and how to use your experience to do something that suits you better.

Thou shalt not suck up to thy mentors nor have sexual congress with them, nor shalt thou, when a TA, cross the line thyself. Need I elaborate? An excellent way to shred your career right at the beginning is to be part of a sexual harassment suit. Or a co-respondent in someone’s divorce. Here’s another hint: undergraduates and graduate TA’s are not “students” in the same way. Even if you are only a year or two older.

Thou shalt not gossip and spread hurtful calumny, nor write vituperative email, nor bcc when chastising others. Many of the ways you may have behaved on email as an undergraduate will erode your reputation as a graduate student. For example: telling tales out of school on the faculty or on other graduate students; expressing resentment and anger to an audience; or writing long, enraged emails that you copy to other people. Particularly in the latter case, that email may be out there forever. Don’t assume your university email is private either: make sure you have another account that only the NSA can get into.

Thou shalt use the word discourse sparingly; likewise neoliberalism, and other theoretical catchphrases designed to obscure that thou hast not fully thought through thine ideas. The best part of the first year in graduate school is immersing yourself in the theoretical tools of your discipline or interdisciplinary field. You will feel like a big, wonderful sponge. But, as the wise Carroll Smith-Rosenberg once said to me, “Wear your theory lightly, my dear.” Don’t sound smart: be smart. Intellectuals don’t want to have Michel Foucault, or Michael Warner, or Gayatri Spivak, or Anthony Appiah read back to them: they want to know what you think. Make sure you know, and learn to speak and write it in the most inviting way you can.

Thou shalt remember that this was supposed to be fun. If you aren’t having fun, it is essential to find out why. Seek out appropriate counsel.

Claire gets at my larger point in a few of her commandments, but if there’s one thing I would say to graduate students, it would be to be nice to other people. Be nice to your fellow grad students. Be nice to your professors. Be nice to the students in classes you TA for. Never ever ever do something like sabotage fellow students by running to the library and hiding their books (this may in fact be an urban legend, but for whatever reason graduate students in history at Chapel Hill were always accused of this to me. Who knows.) Don’t undermine fellow people. Don’t talk bad about your peers. Don’t complain that someone got funding and you didn’t. Even if your fellow graduate students aren’t very nice, why engage with this? Stay positive, which means being positive to other people. Your fellow graduate students shouldn’t be seen as competitors with you. Instead, express solidarity with them through your fellow class interests.

Even though, as Claire points out, academia is no meritocracy (I have my job because I am lucky, not because I am so much better than all these other people), at the end, if your work is better, you will have a better shot at jobs. Being a jerk isn’t going to make your work better. It’s going to make you a bitter mean person who no one will want as a colleague. That matters a lot because departments don’t want to hire people they won’t want to see in the halls and exchange pleasantries with. That might not be the case at the very tippy top elite schools, but at the vast majority of institutions, it is. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of three departments, each of which range from being cordial with each other to having a lot of true friendships. And I don’t think anyone in these departments would allow great research and brains to overcome an unpleasant personality.

In short, as with most of life, be nice.

Peak Water

[ 165 ] August 26, 2013 |

If you don’t read Peter Gleick on water and the West, you really need to because he’s the most important journalist focusing on this vital issue. And if he says we have reached peak water, then we’ve probably reached peak water. After a long list of really depressing facts about water in the West (and the country more broadly), Gleick offers some wise advice:

First, we must acknowledge that we’ve reached peak water in the American west. We have promised more water to users than nature provides. Until demand and supply are brought back into balance, groundwater levels will continue to drop and our rivers will continue to run dry, destroying natural ecosystems. Second, we must acknowledge that there are limits to new supply and that we must turn to the demand side of the problem. This means figuring out how to use water more efficiently and productively, and thinking about moving some water-intensive activities and products to more water-abundant regions. Maybe it is time to grow less rice, alfalfa, cotton, and pasture with flood irrigation. It is past time to retire the green lawn as an acceptable landscape option in arid climates. All toilets and washing machines should be water- and energy-efficient. Finally we have to stop assuming that the water available for future use is the same as in the past. Climate change ensures that it won’t be, but until politicians start to heed the warnings of climate scientists and the on-the-ground evidence of the current water situation, our water problems in the west, and elsewhere, will worsen.

Absolutely true. Of course, we’ve barely begun to admit that these are real issues and we have to change our lifestyles in very real ways.

Monopoly and the Single Tax

[ 34 ] August 26, 2013 |

Now this is an interesting history of the boardgame Monopoly:

Hardly cosmetic, the changes introduce a whole new animating ideology to a game created to critique, not celebrate, corporate America. Contrary to popular board game lore, Monopoly was invented not by an unemployed man during the Great Depression but in 1903 by a feminist who lived in the Washington, D.C., area and wanted to teach about the evils of monopolization. Her name was Lizzie Magie.

Seventeen years before women could vote, Ms. Magie, a fiery stenographer, poet, sometime actress and onetime employee of the United States Postal Service’s dead-letter office, ginned up a game that mirrored what she perceived to be the vast economic inequalities of her day. She called it the Landlord’s Game and saw it as an educational tool and gamy rebellion against the era’s corporate titans, John D. Rockefeller Sr., Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan.

Ms. Magie was an ardent follower of Henry George, who advocated a single tax on land. She cleverly designed two sets of rules: one in which the object was to get rich quick, the other as an anti-monopoly game in which all players benefited from wealth created. Historical evidence suggests that the more vice-laden monopolist game resonated with earlier players. “It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” Ms. Magie told The Single Tax Review in 1902. “It might well have been called the Game of Life, as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seem to have, i.e., the accumulation of wealth.”

I find it really interesting exploring how Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries tried to figure out what the heck to do about the excesses of capitalism. Many hoped for that one big idea that would fix everything–the Single Tax, Bellamyism, silver inflation, Chinese exclusion, the 8-hour day, eventually communism and anarchism. Of course, the answer was that it would take a multiplicity of complex laws merely to tame capitalism in the most basic way. I’m glad to know Monopoly was part of it.