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The Problems with the Trans Pacific Partnership

[ 0 ] November 28, 2015 |


Last week, the New York Times editorial board nailed the fundamental problem with the Trans Pacific Partnership on labor issues:

Obama administration officials say the T.P.P. goes further on labor standards than those earlier pacts. For example, the T.P.P.’s labor chapter requires all 12 countries to adopt minimum wage, working hour and occupational safety regulations. That is an improvement, but it could turn out to be mostly symbolic because the agreement does not specify how countries should set minimum wages. Nor does it establish any minimum standard for safety regulations.

Experts say the most important labor provisions are found in side agreements the Obama administration reached with Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei individually to address specific problems like barriers to union organizing and the treatment of immigrant workers from countries like Myanmar. These countries will have to change their labor laws in specific ways before they are allowed to export goods duty-free to the United States.

The agreement with Vietnam, a country run by a communist government, would require that workers be permitted to form independent unions that are not affiliated with the Communist Party and would have the right to bargain collectively and to strike. This should help workers who have been exploited to demand better pay and better working conditions.

American labor leaders are unconvinced these side deals and the labor provisions that apply to all countries will sufficiently improve union power. They have long worried that trade encourages a race to the bottom, hurting American workers. But offshoring to developing countries has been going on for years, and the T.P.P. is unlikely to change that. Labor leaders rightly point out that even under the pact, the Vietnamese government does not have to let new unions form federations to represent workers at the national level for up to five years after the agreement becomes effective, which is expected to happen in 2017 if it’s ratified by Congress.

By far the biggest concern, aside from the particulars of the side deals, is whether President Obama’s successor will actively enforce the T.P.P.’s provisions. The Obama administration has been slow to bring significant cases against countries like Guatemala when they violate existing trade agreements.

In 2008, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Guatemalan workers’ organizations filed a complaint against the Guatemalan government for failure to enforce its own labor laws, as mandated by the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement. After years of negotiations with Guatemala, the Obama administration took that case to arbitration last year to force the country to prosecute abusive employers and make it easier for workers to form unions.

And let’s point out that while I’m glad Obama took the Guatemalan case to arbitration, this has been going on for 7 years now before even reaching this step which in itself does nothing for Guatemalan workers. A process this glacial is not one that is useful for workers. If this is the best we can do within these trade agreements, then the trade agreements are the enemy of workers in the developing world. Many of these workers know this, which is why they oppose the TPP. Without an independent enforcement power that workers themselves can access, without real and delineated punishments for nations who violate the labor provisions of trade agreements, and without consequences for wealthy nation companies who are complicit in these violations, these agreements simply will not work in workers’ favor.


Wilson, Roosevelt, Jefferson: Debating America’s Racial Legacy

[ 11 ] November 28, 2015 |


Above: Theodore Roosevelt, Virulent Racist

The recent debates over which Americans to honor with statues, building names, and other monuments, is welcome. History should be debated. The present is not under any obligation to the past to keep something named after John C. Calhoun. Right now, the biggest flash point is around the memory of Woodrow Wilson. The 28th president was certainly an unreconstructed racist, although I do wonder how much of his bad reputation comes from his notorious approval of Birth of a Nation, which did not exactly separate him from the average Democrat in 1915. But as I’ve argued before, the relationship between symbols and protest is important and often hard to understand for those who don’t see protest as the primary mode for change. Those symbols are particularly salient at Princeton, where Wilson was president before becoming governor of New Jersey.

Wilson is known for many progressive policies and for idealistic views about the spread of democracy around the world. But historians have also noted that he was an unapologetic racist who took many actions as president of the United States that held back even minimal rights for black people. And while many argue against judging people from earlier generations by today’s standards, this essay by William Keylor, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, notes that Wilson moved federal policy on racial equality backward. He undid moves toward desegregation by federal agencies, and he defended segregation.

In an essay last month in The Daily Princetonian, the Black Justice League outlined its case for removing honors on campus for Wilson.

“We owe nothing to people who are deeply flawed,” the essay says. “There is an impulsive reaction to want to ignore uncomfortable or questionable legacies. However, what does it say about our society if we continue to glorify legacies without acknowledging — and at the very least caring about — the continuous promotion of unrectified inequalities and injustices? … By not recognizing the importance of this discourse, the university is telling its marginalized community and the outside world that it values its bleached-clean version of history over the prolonged discomfort and alienation of students of color. This erasure is especially dangerous in the present context of state-sanctioned violence against black people that prolongs this genocide.”

Despite my hatred of the word “discourse,” the general point is of course correct. We do owe nothing to people whom we decide no longer represent our values. Wilson is largely vilified by progressives and the left today for a few reasons. First, it’s that he was influential to neoconservatives and the designers of the Iraq War. This is somewhat unfair. Second, it’s his approval of The Birth of a Nation. Third, it’s that he segregated the federal government in new ways. The last two are pretty bad. Does this make him uniquely racist for his time or even unusually racist? No, not really and I think Dylan Matthews actually does a disservice to us by claiming he was especially racist. The early 20th century was a horrible time for racial minorities of all kinds. Wilson represented them well, no question, but he represented preexisting desires for extreme segregation and racial violence. None of this is defending Wilson at all, but rather simply stating the reality and ubiquity of white supremacy at the time.

I also want to compare Wilson to Theodore Roosevelt. The latter is often compared favorably to Wilson but this is really letting the vastly overrated TR off the hook. Basically, Roosevelt’s racial moderate reputation relies on the sole incident of him eating dinner with Booker T. Washington. And fair enough, that’s certainly something Wilson would not have done. But outside of that Roosevelt was a hell of a racist. Roosevelt’s utterly vile conduct in the treatment of the Brownsville soldiers is appalling:

Although there was no trial, and the men were not given a hearing or the opportunity to confront their accusers, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered 167 black infantrymen discharged without honor because of their alleged conspiracy of silence. Some of the men dismissed had over twenty years of service and were only a short time away from retirement with pensions. All of this was taken away from them. Blacks were furious at Roosevelt’s action, and Booker T. Washington was anguished over the unjust action. Although he did not criticize the president publicly, he protested in private; still, Roosevelt dismissed his plea to reconsider. Even some whites criticized the President. A United States Senate committee investigated the episode in 1907-08 and upheld Roosevelt’s action.

This might not be a racist act quite on the level of Wilson’s segregationist policies, but it was an extraordinarily racist act that needs to be acknowledged.

I will also note once again that race in the United States is not just about the oppression of African-Americans, which is often forgotten about even today. Roosevelt was not only a believer in white supremacy, but an active player in genocidal politics against Native Americans. This is a man who said:

“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

That’s certainly as awful as anything to ever come out of Wilson’s mouth. He also of course was the imperialist president and between 1901 and 1911 approximately 250,000 Filipinos died resisting an American imperialist expansion explicitly based upon ideas of racial superiority. Roosevelt was not only a eugenicist who freaked out about race suicide and the impact of immigrants upon American society, but he was also close friends and long-time associates with Madison Grant, author of the notorious 1915 book The Passing of the Great Race. And while one might argue it is unfair to taint people with their friends, in this case, there’s little to no evidence that Roosevelt disagreed with Grant’s racial assumption in any way. In fact, he wrote:

“This is a capital book–in purpose, I vision, in grasp of the facts our people must realizes it shows an extraordinary range of reading ad a wide scholarship. It shows a habit of singular seriousness thought on subjects of most commanding importance. It shows a fine fearlessness in assailing the popular and mischievous sentimentalities and attractive and corroding falsehoods which few men dare assail. It is the work of an American scholar and gentleman; and all Americans should be sincerely grateful to you for writing it.”

If we are going to go after Woodrow Wilson’s legacy, let’s do the same with Roosevelt.

We can also wonder how far this questioning of our past will go before even liberals push back on it. Thomas Jefferson represents an interesting case. Jefferson is a polarizing figure in modern America because he was a hypocrite. It’s impossible not to note that hypocrisy in a man who wrote some of the finest language about liberty ever written also refusing to free his slaves. Should we continue to name things after Jefferson? I don’t have a good answer to this. I just don’t know. Certainly there is a very good case to be made here.

At William & Mary, Jefferson’s alma mater, the notes on the statue just appeared, without an individual or group claiming responsibility or formally asking for the statue to be removed. Officials have noted that the protest has not actually damaged the statue, so they are not treating the incident like vandalism.

“A university setting is the very place where civil conversations about difficult and important issues should occur. Nondestructive sticky notes are a form of expression compatible with our tradition of free expression,” said a spokesperson via email.

Students have been debating the issues raised by the notes on social media and in columns in the student paper.

At Missouri, the Jefferson statue became an issue last month as tensions were rising over a range of issues raised by black students, who cited incidents of racial harassment as well as campus culture issues, such as the prominence given to a Jefferson statue.

A petition is circulating calling for the statue to be removed. The petition notes the history of Jefferson’s involvement with slavery. “Thomas Jefferson’s statue sends a clear nonverbal message that his values and beliefs are supported by the University of Missouri. Jefferson’s statue perpetuates a sexist-racist atmosphere that continues to reside on campus,” the petition says.

I don’t know that a Jefferson statue actually perpetuates a sexist-racist atmosphere on campus, but maybe it does. What about George Washington, although at least he freed his slaves on his death? James Madison? Should we rename those universities entirely?

Again, I don’t know. But as a historian, I strongly welcome these conversations over the meanings of our venerated figures of the past. History lives and rather than remain the repository of right-wing ideology and mythology, it’s great that we are having public conversations about the actual actions of these people. The more grounded they are in real historical scholarship, the better. So far, I am not disappointed in this aspect of the conversations.

Underdeveloped Nations and the Left

[ 137 ] November 26, 2015 |


Above: Gamal Abdel Nassar

I’ve long thought Jacobin is at its best when it is moving the conversation on what it means to be a leftist ahead in the post-Soviet era, as opposed to commenting on the issues of the day. It’s certainly my long-standing contention that the way to a viable left in the 21st century is not romanticizing the left of the 20th century and instead figuring out what they did wrong, either adjusting or rejecting those mistakes entirely, and rethinking what a more egalitarian and democratic future might look like. Only when that happens can an articulate, meaningful, powerful, and long-standing challenge to capitalism can exist.

I was reminded of this when reading Bhaskar Sunkara’s excellent interview with sociologist Vivek Chibber, much of which had to do with two fundamental mistakes on the left in the late 20th century and today. The first was the widespread belief that newly developed states would ally with local capitalists. The problem of course was that Brazilian and Indian and Mexican capitalists are as evil as those of the United States and Britain and France. Capitalists exist strictly to profit. In other words, the idea of the globally brown nations uniting against the globally white nations failed because it did not take into account the fact that class would trump race. The second is the belief in top-down national development as the ultimate solution in a post-imperialist world. The problem with this of course is that these frequently abused the power, engaged in wholesale corruption, and otherwise did not do much if anything to improve the lives of the population as a whole. An excerpt:

Q: This calls for a project driven by workers — something radically different than many of the postcolonial projects of the twentieth century. And yet, there is this kind of nostalgia of academics like Vijay Prashad and others who pose that those newly independent nations, the “darker nations,” formed a new bloc with some sort of emancipatory potential.

A: I think that’s a distorted view of the era. There’s something to it in that there was something called a Non-Aligned Movement, and they did try to rest some degree of autonomy for developing countries in the global economy. Nevertheless, we have to be careful about calling it a “project” as Prashad does.

The implication there is that things like the Bandung Conference had some kind of mass support, and there was a vision that differed in some important way from the vision of its domestic ruling classes, and that description, I think, is wrong.

First of all, this Non-Aligned Movement, the effort to bring together developing countries through things like the Bandung Conference, was essentially an elite project. It was really something that catered to particular designs that local industrialists had and went down to some parts of the intelligentsia and the middle classes. It wasn’t something that resonated with most workers and peasants, so to characterize it as a movement is misleading.

Secondly, because of its narrow base, it was something that was entirely servant to, and constrained by the visions of, the domestic elites. And so it was right from the start very limited in its ability to project an alternative project to what postwar capitalism globally was representing.

I think it rests on a very romanticized view of the national bourgeoisie. It attributes to it a broader vision and progressive intention that it didn’t have. What it was trying to do was to carve out a bigger space for its interests in the global economy, not anything that we might call national interests, much less the interests of working people.

Q: There are others who seem to even resist the idea that Brazilian capitalists can be just as bad as American capitalists and Indian capitalists just as bad as Canadian ones.

A: I think the problem goes even deeper. On the intellectual left, in the United States over the past fifteen years, there’s a very pronounced discomfort in thinking in class terms at all. And this kind of romanticism about the Third World and the Third World nations is actually not the first time we’ve seen it.

It actually was first around in the 1970s in a certain part of the Left, and it was called Third Worldism. At the time, the critics of Third Worldism were mostly Marxists.

Q: Though much of this Third Worldism had Maoist roots.

A: Sure, it came out of Maoism, but the critics of that were also Marxists. Why is it resurfacing now? Certainly not because Maoists have suddenly become dominant on the Left. It’s part of an inclination, a desire, to think of the world in racial terms and national terms rather than in class terms.

And that’s why it makes it easy to think in terms of nations of darker people in the South versus the white North, rather than acknowledging and recognizing that those nations themselves are racked with class divisions where their ruling classes are as vicious as the ones in the North.

Q: And that’s why you get narratives where people like Nehru are champions of progress.

A: Yes, I’ve seen Nehru and Nasser represented as visionaries of social justice and national self-determination. Nehru, under whom India unfolded one of the longest military occupations of the postwar era, in the northeast states of India; Nehru who went back on every promise he made to the Kashmiris for local autonomy, and whose daughter and grandson imposed a brutal military occupation there; Nasser, who was virulently and unrelentingly anti-communist and hostile to the Left, and had expansionist plans of his own in the Middle East.

These are basically representatives of local ruling classes who had some progressive thrusts, not because they had a different vision, but because in all these countries, workers and peasants had some real strength, which created a more forward-looking ethos within the ruling classes for a brief period, which was reflected, and had echoes, in conferences like Bandung.

But we must understand that the agenda of people like these leaders was to contain and to roll back the power of the laboring classes, not to represent them in some way. And nostalgia towards that is, I think, entirely misplaced.

Forgive the length of the excerpt, but I thought it highly instructive and valuable. Read the whole thing if you are avoiding family and watching the Eagles-Lions. Now back to tending my roasted vegetables.

This Day in Labor History: November 26, 1910

[ 7 ] November 26, 2015 |

On November 26, 1910, a factory building in Newark, New Jersey caught on fire, killing 25 textile workers. This should have been a call to arms for workplace safety reform, but because it was in Newark and wealthy people did not see the people making their clothing die, nothing happened. The situation would be very different after those wealthy people did see workers die precisely four months later in New York during the Triangle Fire.

The working conditions of the Gilded Age were extremely dangerous. The 1842 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Farwell v. Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation established the doctrine of workplace risk, by which workers were said to have agreed to labor in unsafe conditions when they took the job and thus had no legal recourse to compensation if they were hurt or killed. This was one of a series of 19th century court decisions that allowed companies to do whatever they wanted in the name of progress, whether it was kill workers or decimate ecosystems. Workplace deaths became commonplace. Particularly in mining, workplace disasters that killed 100-200 workers, but more often, a dozen or more, would be all too common. Other industries would often kill workers one by one, through production that designs that threw a single worker into a sawblade every other day but would not kill the dozens needed to gain national headlines. By 1910, discontent with this systems had manifested itself that some judges and juries were beginning to find for dead and injured workers in court cases, scaring companies about their potential financial liability and pushing them toward recommending weak workers compensation laws to protect their interests. The first of these would pass in 1911.

The Wolf Muslin Undergarment Company, which made nightgowns, occupied part of a four-story building in Newark. On November 26, 1910, at about 9:30 a.m., a fire broke out in the factory. Owned by a New York woman named Barbara Glass, this was a circa 1860 factory building that lacked any fire extinguishing technology. There were several different factory operations in the building. The first floor was a box factory and a machinist shop. On the second was another box factory while the third floor was a light bulb manufacturer. There were a total of about 200 workers in the building as a whole, of which 75 percent were women. The fire actually started in the light bulb factory. The description of this process makes you wonder why there weren’t more fires. Basically, to carbonize filaments for electric light bulbs, the workers connected the filaments to two poles in vulcanized cork placed in the mouth of a small metal can. An iron pipe connected this can to a can of gasoline used to carbonize the filaments with an electric current shooting through the gas-filled can for the carbonization. Someone would manually fill the gas cans with a big barrel of gasoline sitting outside the factory. Gasoline spilled on the floor and somehow, possibly because smoking was not uncommon in factories, the gas caught on fire. The workers immediately threw sand on the fire and it seemed to kill it, but in fact it was still smoldering and a few minutes later it exploded anew, jumping to the ceiling. There was a firehouse directly across the street from the factory, but even so there was nothing the firefighters could do to extinguish in flames. In fact, several firefighters were injured rescuing workers.

The workers on the bottom floors escaped, but not on the fourth floor. Six of the workers burned to death while 19 jumped. Forty more were injured while escaping. Most of these women were young. The oldest was 59-year old Catherine Weber while the youngest was Mildred Wolters, age 16. Three sisters by name of Millie, Tillie, and Dora Gottlieb all died. They were 19, 21, and 29 years old respectively.

As was not uncommon with these Gilded Age disasters, the fire got a lot of publicity, with national news stories covering it. But it did not lead to any broader calls for workplace safety reforms. The Progressive reformers trying to improve the lives of workers did act. The Women’s Trade Union League assigned Ida Taub to investigate the fire and testify before the relevant bodies. She sent a letter to the coroner’s jury, asking to be heard at the January hearings. They said yes, but almost immediately dismissed her as soon as she started. The foreman stated, “unless you have a complaint of criminal negligence on the part of an official, you had better take your stories to the Corporation Counsel and have him prosecute for violations.” The coroner’s jury decided, “They died from misadventure and accident.” And thus nothing was done. In the end, the Gilded Age doctrine of workplace risk still held sway, with most juries, even as late as 1910, finding in favor of widespread corporate murder of their employees.


The mayor set up a relief fund for the families of the deceased and contributed $100. There were some other contributions. And that was it. There was no meaningful compensation for survivors or the families. The fire did worry officials concerned with a similar situation in their city. The New York fire chief said, “This city may have a fire as deadly as the one in Newark at any time. There are buildings in New York where the danger is every bit as great as in the building destroyed in Newark. A fire in the daytime would be accompanied by a terrible loss of life.” And indeed it would.

Ultimately this story and the story of Triangle are key to understanding not only the awful working conditions of the Gilded Age but how change occurs. As many scholars have pointed out, most workplace safety legislation in the United States only passes after a horrible disaster galvanizes attention. Often even that is not enough, as we see from the Newark fire. It wasn’t until Triangle, with the physical connection between workers and consumers becoming disturbingly manifest, that meaningful change took place. Today, that physical connection is largely impossible. At best, when workers die at the Kader factory or Rana Plaza, the best we can hope for is enough media attention that it stays in the news for a cycle. It took over 1100 deaths to move European companies to do anything about the terrible conditions of labor in modern sweatshops. For American companies, that was not enough. With us unable to even find Bangladesh on a map, there is certainly no Triangle-like pressure for force corporate reforms. But hey, it’s OK for Bangladesh to have worse workplace safety conditions than other nations…. Only workers’ lives we are talking about here.

So little has been written on the Newark fire, except in the context of mentioning it for Triangle, that I had to go hunt up old insurance industry journals from the time to write this post. The March 29, 1911 issue of The Insurance Press provided most of the details about the fire itself and what was happening in that factory building.

This is the 161th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Setsuko Hara, RIP

[ 14 ] November 25, 2015 |

Setsuko Hara, one of the greatest actors in film historym has died. Hara worked with most of the great Japanese directors of the postwar era, but her finest work was in the wonderful films of Yasujiro Ozu, including the transcendent Tokyo Story, where she plays the widowed daughter-in-law who cares more about her aging in-laws than any of their surviving children. Not a lot happens in Ozu films except talking but given that he largely shot the films with the actors speaking directly to the camera, the personal power of these family stories transcend postwar Japan and created some of the finest films ever made. Her performances radiated a powerful independent grace in a transitioning Japanese society. She disappeared from the public eye in the early 1960s and I didn’t even know she was still alive. In fact, she died in early September at the age of 95 and it was never reported until today.

What? My House is Next to a Former Smelter?

[ 21 ] November 25, 2015 |


When you bought your house (this is strictly theoretical in my case since I doubt I will ever be able to buy a house), did your real estate agent tell you what toxic industries have historically been located near your new house? I’m guessing not. And if you are a homeowner near the old ASARCO smelter in Tacoma, Washington, the answer is definitely not.

Tacoma’s industrial history confronted Alex Stillman on a late spring morning while she was up to her wrists in front-yard dirt.

A neighbor saw the 27-year-old school nurse, part of the city’s influx of new homeowners, digging to plant a hedge outside her North 40th Street house and walked over to share some friendly insight about the neighborhood. The conversation sent Stillman inside to start learning things no real-estate agent or inspector had explained to Alex or her husband, Bryce, when they bought the place in fall 2014.

It fell to Google to tell her about the long-gone Asarco copper smelter that operated less than a mile from where her tidy 1940s bungalow stands, and that the lead and arsenic emitted from its 571-foot-tall smokestack for several decades had polluted her yard and thousands of others with agents linked to cancer and other serious health problems.

“How many people my age would even know what a smelter is?” asked Alex Stillman, who grew up in Snohomish.

In a deindustrialized age with very few of the unionized but dirty working class jobs of the not so distant past, probably not very many would in fact know. Not surprisingly, the history of this smelter is highly contested within Tacoma, with many of the old-time residents still blaming environmentalists for its closure (really it was about copper import prices) and holding on to that smelter identity that defines a lot of dirty industry towns that have died, or drastically changed in the case of Tacoma. With such a huge smokestack, the impact of this smelter pollution is spread over a much wider area than most dirty industries. There isn’t nearly enough testing of the long-term impact of this smelter on health but we do know the soil contains significant poisons. How this affects Tacoma property values will be interesting with so many people now moving there to escape Seattle housing prices.

They Couldn’t Wait Until After Thanksgiving

[ 38 ] November 25, 2015 |


U.S. Steel decided they couldn’t wait until after Thanksgiving to lay off 2000 workers at its Granite City, Illinois facility. What a lovely holiday those unemployed workers will have. At the same time, U.S. Steel is demanding 20,000 union workers give away much of their contract in current negotiations, no doubt using the threat of Granite City and another recent shuttered factory in Birmingham as a threat. It’s true enough that the remnant American steel industry is not in great financial shape but one could also try to work with the United Steelworkers to deal with the situation instead of using it as an opportunity to attack organized labor. And there’s no excuse for laying off people the week of a holiday. At least have the common decency to wait until Monday. But that’s capitalism for you.

How Do You Create the Labor Force for the Maquiladoras and to Work in the Gardens of Rich Americans?

[ 24 ] November 24, 2015 |


Above: Honduran sweatshop workers, i.e., people with histories

One of the worst parts of the debate on the globalization of production is the discussion of workers. For promoters of uncontrolled capital mobility, workers are just sitting there in horrible poverty, waiting for the gift of a low-wage job. But that totally ignores the history of those people, including how American agricultural policy is culpable for that. So often, these workers actually lived on farms and would prefer to live on those farms still, but agricultural policy, land concentration, the dumping of cheap American agricultural products on foreign markets, and the growth of high-cost specialty crops to return to the United States all lead to farmers unable to survive on the land any longer. I go into this issue in some depth in Out of Sight. These aren’t just people waiting for a nice American corporation to provide them with a job. They are people who have already been screwed over by both their own government and American corporations, forcing them into a situation where they are in fact desperate for that industrial job, or in the case of Mexicans and Central Americans, become willing to undergo the significant risk to their own lives it takes to cross the American (and Mexican) border without documentation.

This leads us to Honduras. In 2009, a right-wing coup against President Manuel Zelaya, who among other things was going to give land titles to people farming the land where they lived, took place. It was not supported by the United States government, but the right-wingers in Congress cared about this more than the Obama administration, and the latter eventually recognized the government. Honduras has since become the nation with the worlds’ highest murder rate, with the American military engaging in widescale operations in the country to fight the drug trade, which just fuels even more violence.

The kleptocrats who run Honduras are now creating a larger labor force for the maquiladoras in their country (and once again, the people who point to Asia for why globalized production works need to explain why it does not work in Central America if they want to make an honest argument) by engaging in widespread land theft:

Ortiz and his neighbors, however, are part of a new chapter of that fight. Their community of Playa Blanca is one of 10 longstanding communities engaged in a protracted fight between the peninsula’s campesinos — a term for peasant farmers — and wealthy landowners who are snapping up territory as the area is primed for a government orchestrated transformation. That struggle, in turn, is part of a larger one taking place across Honduras as the country embarks on a radical free market experiment.

In more than a dozen areas dotted throughout the country, including the region encompassing Zacate Grande, the government has designated swaths of land as possible sites of Zones for Employment and Economic Development (known by their Spanish acronym ZEDEs) — semi-autonomous cities allowed to write their own laws and field their own judges. The ZEDE project is overseen by a 21-person committee comprised of free market libertarians, and the projects will be beholden to their investors, not the Honduran people. Only a small handful of the committee’s members are Honduran, amplifying fears of foreign control in a country whose fertile land, cheap labor, and natural resources have long been exploited by transnational capital while its masses languish in poverty. Honduras’ congress passed a law authorizing ZEDEs in 2013. After a similar “model city” measure failed to pass constitutional muster the previous year, the four Supreme Court justices opposing the law were replaced with judges who supported the concept. Construction is expected to begin in the next several years, though no one knows for sure when.

As many of the sites are in territories occupied by marginalized indigenous and rural communities, the kind of land grabs that Ortiz described may only become more common as the ZEDEs are developed. The ZEDE law gives eminent domain powers to the government, allowing for unchecked land expropriation for private development if owners choose not to sell. Though information about the implementation of ZEDEs is shrouded in confusion and beset by rumors, the stories of those living on the front lines highlight the hardship they are already causing.

This is how you create people who have no choice but to either a) involve themselves in the drug trade, b) move to San Pedro Sula or Tegucigalpa to work in the maquiladoras, or c) flee north to find work in the United States. And who is supporting this land centralization? You’d better sit down before reading further because it is truly shocking:

The ZEDEs, however, are not without their defenders. Libertarian and neoliberal policy advocates have supported them as a pathway to economic growth by importing successful development models from elsewhere. Mark Klugmann, a political strategist who served as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, is on the ZEDE oversight commission. He claims that ZEDEs would create investor-friendly enclaves that would circumvent corruption, entice foreign investment, and foster the good governance and economic development that is impeded by weak state institutions. According to a 2014 interview with Klugmann in World Post, the project, “if it accomplishes what it’s capable of doing, will demonstrate inside of Honduras and to the world that capacity of solving problems and creating jobs in particular can go forward with a velocity that very few people have been expecting.”

A former Republican speechwriter is supporting stealing land from the poor? To the fainting couch! If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that creating libertarian enclaves within Honduras will truly create paradise for the poor….

Heat Stress as Global Health Crisis

[ 5 ] November 24, 2015 |


With climate change leading to the warming of the planet, we need to start thinking about heat stress as a major global health problem that deserves serious attention. This story on Central American sugar workers should alarm you and move you to thinking about these issues more carefully.

Protecting agricultural workers from heat exposure is more problematic. Back in El Salvador, supply chain NGO Solidaridad has been piloting a project at sugar cane mill El Angel with partner La Isla Foundation to see if new tools and cutting methods, as well as better working conditions (providing shade and water, and enforcing breaks), can help improve health and productivity. Sven Sielhorst, global sugar cane programme manager for Solidaridad, says: “We need strong partners to make sure that these improved work practices get broadly adopted in Central America and any other region where this disease occurs.”

Trabanino is calling on employers to take a lead on reducing workers’ exposure to heat stress both now and in the future. “Small changes in working conditions can have a big impact,” he argues, adding that “prevention [of heat-related illnesses] is not only cheaper, it’s far easier than treatment.”

Of course, given the sugar industry’s long indifference toward its workers (not to mention history of just working slaves to death), the less than robust believe in workers’ rights in nations like El Salvador, and the utter and complete indifference of American and European food companies who buy the sugar (or the vast majority of American companies for that matter) to the conditions of their supply chain, I’d say the chances of seriously protecting Central American sugar workers from dying of heat stroke seems remote. We could do something by demanding the Corporate Responsibility Act I lay out in Out of Sight that would make corporations legally accountable for those supply chains. Sadly, that is not happening anytime soon.

Academic Job Applications

[ 69 ] November 24, 2015 |


Above: And should include no more

This post is probably only of interest to academics, but then that probably describes half the readership. Increasingly, universities are asking for ridiculous amounts of material for job applications. It needs to stop. It’s unfair to the job applicants, who are already subject to all sorts of unfair and exploitative practices, most egregiously having to spend over $1000 to go to a big conference for what is often a single first-round interview. David Perry calls for a simplified application process:

California State University-Channel Islands is hiring a premodern European historian. The online job ad requires all the usual documents: CV, cover letter, teaching statement, and syllabi examples. Midway through the application process, however, surprises lurk.

First, there’s a spot to upload a writing sample, even though no writing sample is required. The university wants scanned teaching evaluations, but allows only up to 2 megabytes of data. Worst of all, as a candidate works through the online application, nine mini-essay questions with text boxes pop up with no warning. If you want to be considered as a candidate for this job — one of a relatively small number of positions open for a pre-1848 Europeanist — you’d better get writing.

We all know the supply of Ph.D.s looking for full-time work vastly outstrips the available pool of full-time jobs, and academia is struggling for solutions to that macro problem. But one thing we could do: Make the process of locating, applying for, and tracking jobs far more humane. I’ve already advocated that we put an end to costly in-person first-round interviews, move the date on which governing boards vote on an appointment to earlier in the hiring cycle, and formalize the hiring of adjuncts in order to treat them like the professionals they are.

The Cal State job ad points to yet another solvable problem: hyperspecificity in the application requirements.

Mind you, this is all for a 4-4 job that won’t pay you enough to live decently in southern California. Certainly not enough to own a home. What are the essays they make candidates answer?

What do you think about the CSUCI mission statement?

If you are a new Ph.D., briefly describe the topic, significance, and publication plans of your dissertation.

If you are not a new Ph.D., describe your current research project(s), significance, and plans for publication.

Please list those courses you would like to teach at CSUCI in the future.

What makes you a good candidate to work at a young university with plans for rapid growth?

Please explain how your career exemplifies the teacher-scholar model.

Describe one innovative idea that you implemented that enhanced student learning or success, and why you think it was so successful.

Please describe your experience with and commitment to interdisciplinarity including what it means to you.

Please describe your commitment to working with diverse populations, including how you would define “diversity.”

This is totally ridiculous. First, there’s no good reason to ask these questions. Second, the search committee is highly unlikely to read the answer. For a premodern Europe job like this, Perry suggests perhaps 300 applicants. That seems reasonable. That means 2700 short essays for the search committee, which probably consists of 3 people, to read. You know what the chances of them reading those 2700 essays are? 0%. Maybe when they cut it to a short list they would get to it. But it’s not actually possible to read 2700 essays, in addition to all the other material requested. This does nothing more than exploit people already desperate for work in an extreme buyers’ market. CSU-Channel Islands should be ashamed.

Factual Accuracy is For Evil Liberals

[ 136 ] November 24, 2015 |

In Texas, this is just a worker.

Texas gonna Texas:

Top Texas education officials rejected Wednesday letting university experts fact-check textbooks approved for use in public-school classrooms statewide, instead reaffirming a vetting system that has helped spark years of ideological battles over how potentially thorny lessons in history and science are taught.

The Board of Education approves textbooks in the nation’s second-largest state and stood by its vetting process — despite a Houston-area mother recently complaining that a world geography book used by her son’s ninth grade class referred to African slaves as “workers.” The publisher, McGraw-Hill Education, apologized and moved to make immediate edits.

Republican board member Thomas Ratliff had proposed bringing in academics to check textbooks only for factual errors, but his measure failed 8-7 after lengthy discussion.

We all know that factual accuracy is for libtards and America-haters. Assertions about the awesomeness of America not backed up with facts is the education our children will need, at least if they are going to be good shock troops in the Trump Youth.

Corporate Inversions

[ 39 ] November 23, 2015 |


Another giant corporate merger so that American corporations can escape American taxes:

The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer said on Monday that it had struck a $160 billion deal, including debt, to merge with Allergan, the maker of Botox, in one of the biggest takeovers in the health care industry.

The agreement would also be the biggest deal in what has been a banner year for mergers, driven in part by consolidation in the health care and pharmaceutical sectors. Merger and acquisition activity worldwide surpassed $4 trillion as of Thursday, for only the second time since Thomson Reuters began keeping records in 1980.

The deal is the latest — and the largest — to be aimed at helping an American company lower its taxes by reincorporating overseas, a practice known as a corporate inversion.

President Obama has called inversions “unpatriotic.” His administration has tried to crack down on the strategy this year, with the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service announcing additional rules last week meant to further restrict the practice. The United States government has already lost billions of dollars in tax revenue from inversions, particularly in recent years.

Of course, corporations don’t care about patriotism unless they can wring profit from it. Their only loyalty is to cash. Democrats have introduced bills to stop corporate inversions, but of course they have gone nowhere in a Republican Congress ready to serve as the lapdog of industry. This Economist piece is flawed but gets at the two major issues. First, we have a relatively high corporate tax rate that nobody pays because of the endless loopholes. Those loopholes should be closed and perhaps a lower overall rate is a reasonable compromise if they are in fact closed. Second, the U.S. attempts to tax all corporate profit regardless of what country it was generated in. Other nations don’t do that, incentivizing American companies to limit their ties with the U.S. The problem here isn’t a mean American taxation system, it’s a matter of enforcement, as well as other nations not taxing corporations enough, which admittedly we can do nothing about.

Perhaps this Pfizer deal will move the needle on this issue a bit, but I doubt it.

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