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The Republican Party: By and For the Koch Brothers

[ 14 ] April 19, 2015 |

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Republicans are paying back their megadonors:

The House on Wednesday with little fanfare passed legislation that would protect major donors like the Koch brothers and Tom Steyer from having to pay gift taxes on huge donations to secret money political groups.

The legislation, which now heads to the Senate, is seen by fundraising operatives as removing one of the few remaining potential obstacles to unfettered big-money spending by nonprofit groups registered under a section of the Tax Code — 501(c) — that allows them to shield their donors’ identities.\\

Critics decry such groups as corrupting, but they have played an increasingly prominent role in recent elections, and they’re expected to spend huge sums in 2016.

And, while fundraising operatives say most donors do not pay taxes on their donations to so-called 501(c) groups, the law is somewhat ambiguous on whether gift taxes could be assessed. That’s left donors fearing that such gifts could bring scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service — which, in fact, has launched probes of major groups’ donors in recent years to determine whether they improperly avoided paying gift taxes.

I guess the advantage of buying a house of Congress means that you can dictate legislation that will protect your future investments in buying the rest of the government.

Is Sullivan’s Travels a Reactionary Film?

[ 46 ] April 19, 2015 |

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I really object to this analysis that calls Sullivan’s Travels “reactionary” toward the poor and poverty. Evidently the writer actually wanted to see “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” or that film Sullivan shows at the movie’s beginning about capital and labor fighting and dying on the train. What Preston Sturges did was make the depiction of poverty and its horrors palatable enough for the public that people would actually watch it. Laughing through poverty for the actual people suffering through the Depression meant Sturges was touching their lives. As the studio executives point in the film, the people who watch hard political intellectual films are politicized intellectuals. And that’s fine–I love Salt of the Earth and I Am Cuba and The Battle of Algiers as much as anyone (in fact, the latter is one of my top 5 all-time favorite films), but there’s no doubt that Sturges represented a truer version of poverty to popular audiences than any of those films. And not just through Sullivan’s Travels either, but in Christmas in July and in Easy Living, which he wrote but did not direct. These are all really sad stories that resonated with people. If they didn’t have the explicit goal of turning people into socialists, that doesn’t mean no viewers thought about their lives in new ways after seeing them. There were several such films in the 1930s. You could say much the same about Gold Diggers of 1933, which might be an absurd fluffy film but which also legitimately portrays poverty and has an entire final scene about the Bonus Army. I guess by these standards because it wasn’t calling for explicit class battle, it’s a reactionary film, but I don’t see it. The author clearly wants a certain kind of political film (he’s writing a book on anarchism and film) but that doesn’t mean a film that doesn’t have an objectively leftist agenda is a reactionary film.

While We’re Young

[ 92 ] April 19, 2015 |

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I saw Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young and found this Molly Lambert piece on the film really good. Like her, I feel myself in this sort of time warp where everyone I know has children and their lives, naturally enough, revolve around them, whereas I don’t and have absolutely no desire to ever do so. So it makes social relationships slightly odd sometimes, even if most of my friends are not like characters in the film and talk about their children constantly. I basically live the life I always have ever since college, with really relatively only slight changes. Lambert is a few years younger than I am so she feels herself somewhere between Gen X and a millennial. I graduated from high school in 1992 so I am prototype Gen X but I hated that whole culture at the time (even if I have later embraced some of it; after all not listening to Pavement is a bad decision). There’s a lot more about millennial culture I find appealing than I did my own at the time. So I’m kind of stuck in the middle as an old man still trying to follow new young rock bands. For example, I’m a technophobe who has become relatively well known by embracing the kids’ technology. However, I will not go down the road of creating value for crap pop culture when it doesn’t exist as they often do. There is about as much good about Meat Loaf or Journey as there is about ketchup.

The movie is pretty good outside of making the aging childless viewers think about their own positionality within the world. I know some people don’t like Ben Stiller, but his schtick works pretty well with Baumbach’s directing. Naomi Watts is always great. Adam Driver is very good at playing annoying hipsters that you want to punch in the face. Charles Grodin is always welcome. There’s lots of good scenes of a couple in a stale relationship, the absurdity of hipster culture, and the excuses people find to never finish anything they start. And while the film doesn’t really end on a high note, by and large it’s a pretty funny satire of both hipsters and somewhat older people like myself who like a lot of the same things as these younger people but who are surely, aggressively even, not one of them. Pretending one is one of them is ripe material for satire and humor. And if Noah Baumbach films are always about immature people dealing with growing up, well, lots of good directors mine the same type of material over a whole career.

Fast Track

[ 31 ] April 18, 2015 |

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Above: President Obama’s trade policy.

Sadly, on Thursday the Senate gave President Obama fast track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

This despite the opposition of American unions, as once again the Democratic Party ignores the needs of the organizations that provide a huge amount of money and GOTV efforts every election.

Obama keeps claiming that this will have real protections for labor and the environment.

President Obama embraced the legislation immediately, proclaiming “it would level the playing field, give our workers a fair shot, and for the first time, include strong fully enforceable protections for workers’ rights, the environment and a free and open Internet.”

“Today,” he added, “we have the opportunity to open even more new markets to goods and services backed by three proud words: Made in America.”

To say the least, I do not believe this. This was the same stuff we heard in 1993 around NAFTA. At least today, the fluff around environmental and labor regulations is being put in before the final passage rather than as a last-second add-on. But none of this is actually in the deal as it now stands. This is the U.S. unilaterally saying that these restrictions will exist. As I argue in Out of Sight, we need real international law protecting labor and nature from the exploitation of multinational corporations. But that only happens if workers and green advocates are at the table crafting the agreement and have real legal options. I will be watching this very carefully to see how any of this develops once Obama’s negotiators take it to the rest of the nations as they finish crafting an agreement. But an agreement written by multinational corporations and their representatives in governments that is intended to promote the global race to the bottom while creating international law to protect corporations from government regulation? Well, color me really skeptical.

I am curious to see how Hillary Clinton responds, although I have absolutely zero doubt in my mind that she would also support these trade deals as president and I have seen no evidence in her long career in public service to think otherwise, however she is hedging now that she is running for president. I suppose this theoretically could create a wedge issue for some candidate like Martin O’Malley to take her on from the left, but I just don’t think enough average Americans care or understand trade policy to make this a meaningful primary topic. And if labor couldn’t stop NAFTA in 1993, a far weakened labor movement is unlikely to defeat Hillary in 2016, assuming that a) she made a strong statement in favor of it and b) labor actually united to get rid of her over it. Both are unlikely.

Like on health care, Ron Wyden decided to get his bipartisan hat on here and make a deal with Orrin Hatch and other Senate Republicans. I guess if the bill was going to pass anyway, Wyden’s additions are at least a bone to throw at displaced workers, but that’s a pretty mild improvement on something terrible for the American working class.

And as for who this benefits, I think Timothy Lee sums up the very real problems with Obama saying “Americans” will all benefit.

And this system for setting global rules has some serious defects. We expect the laws that govern our economic lives will be made in a transparent, representative, and accountable fashion. The TPP negotiation process is none of these — it’s secretive, it’s dominated by powerful insiders, and it provides little opportunity for public input.

The Obama administration argues that it’s important for TPP to succeed so that the United States — not China — gets to shape the rules that govern trade across the Pacific. But this argument only makes sense if you believe US negotiators are taking positions that are in the broad interests of the American public. If, as critics contend, USTR’s agenda is heavily tilted toward the interests of a few well-connected interest groups, then the deal may not be good for America at all.

This is an agreement by the corporations, for the corporations. If you believe in intellectual freedom, in low drug prices around the world because of relatively short monopolies for the pharmaceutical companies, in countries have the sovereignty to pass new labor and environmental regulations without being hauled before the World Trade Organization or other new trade body like is happening to Australia over tobacco regulations, in people having stable jobs, and in global environmental justice, opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership is an absolute must.

Once again, the only real hope here is progressive Democrats aligning with anti-Obama fireeaters to defeat the thing. And that probably only temporarily unless this becomes a really divisive political issue that makes a vote for it toxic. I’m pessimistic.

Early Modern London

[ 15 ] April 18, 2015 |

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Who else is spending the day playing around with this interactive map of Shakespeare-era London?

More info here.

Jefferson’s Vegetable Market Charts

[ 5 ] April 18, 2015 |

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There is evidently no trend in American history historians won’t connect to Thomas Jefferson and that includes the recent emphasis on food. This is an interesting piece on the vegetable market charts Jefferson kept while in the White House that are useful windows into early 19th century food, albeit from a rare gourmand in a nation with an international reputation for horrible, inedible victuals.

The chart also provokes a question about where early nineteenth-century Washingtonians got their food. Before there were trucks and trains to transport food from country to city, with refrigeration to preserve it on the way, suppliers of perishable foods often lived very close to cities, sometimes in them. Market gardeners, many of them women, trundled their produce into urban markets on carts early every morning. Cows and pigs wandered around city streets; milk often came from the cow around the corner. (Frances Trollope, a British visitor to the United States in the late 1820s who lived mostly in Cincinnati, described the “republican cow” who, after being fed and milked “at the door of a house,” wandered away “to take her pleasure on the hills, or in the gutters, as may suit her fancy best.”) Farmers, fishermen, hunters, bakers, and butchers, carried in their goods and displayed them for sale in city markets. The Georgetown market where Etienne Lemaire did his shopping opened in 1796 when Washington was still under construction and the federal government was still in Philadelphia. The Center Market on Pennsylvania Avenue was authorized by Jefferson himself soon after he took office; it opened in December, 1801.

Today in Historical Sex Toys

[ 26 ] April 17, 2015 |

If you ever wanted to read about the discovery of a rather sizable 18th century dildo in Poland, here’s your chance.

Another Attack on Faculty Unionism

[ 60 ] April 17, 2015 |

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The Ohio legislative decided to stick a measure in a funding bill that would redefine all faculty as supervisors since they play some role in university governance. This would make them ineligible to have a union. I’m not at all confident that John Kasich won’t sign this.

Deadwood’s Historical Accuracy

[ 65 ] April 17, 2015 |

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Deadwood is probably my favorite show of all time. That’s for many reasons–the story, the amazing acting of Ian McShane and Brad Dourif among many others, the language. But among the reasons is the way the show gets at the filth and nastiness of the late 19th century. Some people didn’t like it because the show seemed so over the top in language, violence, and the general portrayal of that society. But while people didn’t exactly speak like the characters of Deadwood, the overall brutality was actually quite accurate, especially considering this is a wild frontier town.

I was reminded of this when recently reading Sharon Wood’s The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City. This book is about prostitution and gendered conceptions of the streets in late 19th and early 20th century Davenport, Iowa. Wood put together the lives of women who get called prostitutes (regardless of whether they were by modern standards or not). Remember how in Deadwood women like Trixie and Joanie Stubbs were sold to pimps? That was not uncommon at all.

Josie Mitchell was a downwardly mobile woman who ended up opening a brothel. Her daughter Sevilla married a man at the age of 15. He was soon selling her out as a prostitute and living on the proceeds. Minnie Hagan was homeless at the age of 13 and working as a prostitute to eat. She came from a broken home. She remained a prostitute during her marriage, which was to a pretty violent man. He eventually shot her in the head, but she survived.

Moreover, the age of consent in Iowa until the 1890s was 10. That’s right. 10. As it was in most states. This meant that if a girl came from a house not considered “respectable,” she was open game for sexual exploitation by men without legal means to punish them. It also meant that statutory rape charges could not be issued against men who had sex with young girls. In September 1891, a 10 year old Davenport girl named Ada Ammerman disappeared from her home. After three days she and two other young girls named Dolly Hamerly and Mamie Woods were discovered. Their clothes were soaked with semen. Three men were soon arrested and charged with 8 counts of rape. But they were found not guilty. While reformers wanted to end this practice and save these girls, men, including the entire political establishment of the city, defended the sporting men’s right to sexually use women they found on the streets. Rather, the defense successfully used the argument that these girls’ families had failed the city by allowing their girls on the street where they would be irresistible to men. The girls were already prostitutes by coming from poor families and being on the street. These girls were publicly tainted with this definition of them. Soon after this, Dolly Hamerly was sold to a brothel by her family. Eventually, this trial and other similar events led Iowa to raise the age of consent. To the ripe old age of 13.

In other words, Deadwood‘s portrayal of its prostitutes was not inaccurate. Unfortunately because in knowing that you also know the brutal real stories of women in the 1890s who lacked economic options to do much of anything outside of prostitution if they were poor and who were considered open game on the streets if they did not come from respectable families.

This Day in Labor History: April 17, 1905

[ 19 ] April 17, 2015 |

On April 17, 1905, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Melville Fuller, decided the Lochner v. New York case, overturning a New York law limiting the hours bakers could work to sixty a week. This landmark case gave official SCOTUS sanction to the idea of free contract between employer and employee. Calling such laws, “unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract,” the Court effectively ruled that corporations have full rights to set any conditions of employment they chose. This classic statement of the Gilded Age has inspired conservatives and outraged liberals ever since.

By 1900, the rise of the Progressive movement and an increasingly aggressive American working class that ranged from conservative organizations like the American Federation to Labor to radicals like the Industrial Workers of the World led to a growing amount of state and local laws to regulate labor. The rank exploitation of Gilded Age capitalism had increasingly moved large swaths of Americans, including a growing number in the middle and upper classes, to understand that basic protections must be granted if the nation was to remain socially stable and if future generations would grow up to be good moral Americans.

And this attitude, while often paternalistic toward workers, had its benefits as workers really struggled to live lives of basic dignity in the Gilded Age. The combination of extremely low wages, very dangerous work, strikes met with state violence, and an economy constantly in turmoil thanks to the corruption of politicians and illegal machinations of capitalists meant that the American workforce had few options to improve their lives. They tried but usually failed because of the combination of overwhelming combined state and corporate resistance, something Lochner would reinforce. Accessing middle-class support for basic rights was necessary in order to achieve even the most rudimentary improvements in workers’ lives.

New York was one of these states with a strong Progressive movement. In 1895, the state passed the Bakeshop Act. This law regulated the sanitary conditions of bakeries (a prelude to the national Pure Food and Drug Act that would become law in 1906) and read “no employee shall be … permitted to work in a biscuit, bread, or cake bakery or confectionery establishment more than sixty hours in any one week,” as well as more than ten hours in a day. In 1899, Joseph Lochner, a baker in Utica, was indicted for violating the act by requiring employees to labor for more than 60 hours. He drew a $25 fine. Not learning his lesson, he was charged again in 1901; this time the state fined him $50 ($1400 in 2014 dollars) and sentenced him to up to fifty days in jail if he did not pay the fine.

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Joseph Lochner, standing on right

Lochner appealed this second fine, attempting to overturn the law. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court upheld the law by a 3-2 vote and then the New York Court of Appeals, where he lost 4-3. The Supreme Court was divided on this law. But by a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Lochner and overturned the Bakeshop Act.

John Marshall Harlan, the best justice of the era and often the only one with the welfare of the average citizen in mind, wrote one of his classic dissensions. He wrote that it was “plain that this statute was enacted to protect the physical well-being of those who work in bakery and confectionery establishments.” He went on, “If the end which the legislature seeks to accomplish be one to which its power extends, and if the means employed to that end, although not the wisest or best, are yet not plainly and palpably unauthorized by law, then the court cannot interfere.” Oliver Wendell Holmes also dissented, using his ideology of limited court activism to accuse the majority of asserting their own economic preferences into the Constitution where they did not belong.

The majority in fact did that, but didn’t care. Rufus Peckham wrote the majority opinion. He countered the argument of New York that “has a right to safeguard a citizen against his own lack of knowledge” by stating that citizens “are … able to assert their rights and care for themselves without the protecting arm of the State, interfering with their independence of judgment and of action.” And this really sums up the doctrine of free contract. Theoretically this sounds like the language of freedom because it places control over one’s life in his or her own hands. But of course such an analysis, which libertarians love today, completely ignores power relations. No baker could assert his own rights because it was the employers who constricted those rights. When the option is a) work 65 hours or b) don’t eat, that’s not a freedom of choice.

Moreover, Peckham went into the health of working in a bakery, writing the law was unnecessary because “To the common understanding, the trade of a baker has never been regarded as an unhealthy one.” Of course, such a judgment from a judge should not matter when deciding the constitutionality of the law–the question is whether it is constitutional, not whether the judge personally agrees on the merits of the law. But of course the Supreme Court has long operated as little more than the assertion of personal political position as constitutional principle, a problem which plagues the Court today. Moreover, the question of health and work in the Gilded Age was one of huge importance because work was so starkly unhealthy. It’s entirely possible that compared to paint workers having their brains disintegrated through unbelievable levels of lead poisoning and radium workers dying from horrendous cancers that bakers didn’t have it so bad, but that doesn’t mean that working in unsanitary conditions for long hours did not have an effect on their health. Even when employers and states decided to something about workers dying or suffering grievous injuries on the job, it would take until the establishment of OSHA in 1970 before workplace health per se was really taken that seriously in the United States.

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Rufus Peckham

However, Lochner was also the peak of corporate rights superseding that of workers and the public. The Muller v. Oregon decision three years later carved out room in the freedom of contract ideology for hours limitations on women workers, which began to slowly build toward the principle of government regulating the workforce. From 1905 on, Lochner became the case that progressive labor activists such as Louis Brandeis sought to overturn. Yet this would be a long fight lasting until the New Deal, with the Court reviving the Lochner doctrine in the 1923 case Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, declaring a Washington DC law setting minimum wages for women and children unconstitutional.

Conservatives would like to return to a Lochner-era America today and are working hard to make sure that happens.

This is the 142nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

When a Historian of Sexuality Live Tweets an Abstinence Only School Presentation

[ 132 ] April 16, 2015 |

So the historian of hermaphroditism and intersex Alice Dreger has a son in East Lansing, Michigan public schools. His class received an abstinence-only school presentation in his sex class. Dreger attended and live tweeted and storified it. It’s epic. A couple of highlights.

My favorite is the last:

The Stadium Grift Reaches Rhode Island

[ 110 ] April 16, 2015 |

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Above: Boston Red Sox CEO, co-owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox, and extremely poor man Larry Lucchino.

The Pawtucket Red Sox (or PawSox as they are known) is Boston’s AAA baseball team. The stadium is, frankly, a dump. Historic but not a great place to see a game. So the team’s owners want to move the stadium to Providence. It’s only 5 miles away, but in Rhode Island terms, it’s a whole other world. Of course, they want to bilk Rhode Island taxpayers out of millions for it. The park is estimated to cost $85 million. The owners want the state to pay $120 million over 30 years for it. This is a state with a serious unemployment problem, terrible roads, massive pension payment problems, declining funding for higher education, etc. I hope Rhode Islanders flat out refuse this. Of course, since our politics are so incredibly corrupt, I’m sure a few bribes will take care of any meaningful opposition.

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