Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Erik Loomis

rss feed

Visit Erik Loomis's Website

Minimum Wage Hikes

[ 9 ] January 9, 2016 |


In the new year, 14 states had minimum wage hikes go into effect.

As the United States marks more than six years without an increase in the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, 14 states and several cities are moving forward with their own increases, with most set to start taking effect on Friday.

California and Massachusetts are highest among the states, both increasing from $9 to $10 an hour, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. At the low end is Arkansas, where the minimum wage is increasing from $7.50 to $8. The smallest increase, a nickel, comes in South Dakota, where the hourly minimum is now $8.55.

The increases come in the wake of a series of “living wage” protests across the country, including a November campaign in which thousands of protesters in 270 cities marched in support of a $15-an-hour minimum wage and union rights for fast food workers. Food service workers make up the largest group of minimum-wage earners, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

I can’t say I’m sure what the rational is to raise the minimum wage by a mere nickel, but it’s South Dakota. In any case, this shows the continued popularity of growing minimum wages, even in conservative states like Arkansas. If there was any real accountability for members of Congress, they would raise the national minimum wage by at least $1, but with gerrymandering and corporate funding, Congress can completely ignore most of the will of the voters and serve their corporate masters with no threat to their jobs.


The Brazil Mining Disaster, Updated

[ 4 ] January 8, 2016 |


In November, I discussed the awful Brazil mining disaster sending tons of toxic mud down the Rio Doce toward the Atlantic. Well, it has now reached the Atlantic. It’s not pretty.

Since millions of gallons of mining waste burst from an inland iron ore mine a month ago, 300 miles of the Rio Doce stretching to the Atlantic Ocean has turned a Martian shade of bright orange, and the deadly consequences for residents and wildlife are just beginning to emerge.

At least 13 people died in the initial flooding, and many in communities along the river have suffered from diarrhea and vomiting as the toxic mud seeped into their water supply.

Eleven of the 90 native fish species in the river were already at risk of extinction prior to the spill, according to federal environmental officials, and experts believe that wide-ranging forms of animal and plant life will be wiped out as entire ecosystems are destroyed.

With Brazil’s level of biodiversity, the die-off is likely to include an untold number of species that have yet to even be discovered.

Several days ago, the toxic sludge, which continues to spew from the mining site, reached the Atlantic Ocean in the city of Linhares north of Rio de Janeiro, as workers undertake a series of emergency projects to mitigate the damage along the river and into the Atlantic.

“There’s never been a disaster like this before, so there’s no guidebook for what we’re supposed to do,” said Rodrigo Paneto, environmental secretary for Linhares, who is overseeing an emergency dam project to protect the city’s water source. “We’re in war mode, just running around responding to dangers as they appear.”

Meanwhile, residents of Linhares, nearby Colatina, and myriad inland communities join long lines to receive bottled water from the military.

Experts say diseases related to water supply issues will likely result in deaths of riverside residents. Authorities, meanwhile, struggle to learn what other types of toxic material have spewed from the broken dam. So far, they know that the mud contains extremely high levels of iron and manganese; dangerous levels of arsenic have also been detected.

We’ll see if anyone is really held accountable for this. Or whether, as is more likely, business-as-usual mining will go on around the world with more disasters like this inevitably occurring.

Black Pain, Past and Present

[ 31 ] January 8, 2016 |


I liked this Lisa Wade piece connecting the desperate attempts by ex-slaves to reconstruct their families through placing newspaper ads in the late 19th century to Black Lives Matter today in the terms of how white people consistently denigrate and ignore the emotional pain African-Americans have felt over the centuries over the violent destruction of their families and their bodies. It includes a link to this newly released digital collection of these advertisements. Wade’s conclusion:

I worry that white America still does not see black people as their emotional equals. Psychologists continue to document what is now called a racial empathy gap, both blacks and whites show lesser empathy when they see darker-skinned people experiencing physical or emotional pain. When white people are reminded that black people are disproportionately imprisoned, for example, it increases their support for tougher policing and harsher sentencing. Black prisoners receive presidential pardons at much lower rates than whites. And we think that black people have a higher physical pain threshold than whites.

How many of us tolerate the systematic deprivation and oppression of black people in America today — a people whose families are being torn asunder by death and imprisonment — by simply failing to notice the depths of their pain?

The Historic Home Tour

[ 29 ] January 8, 2016 |


Historic homes of famous old white people was one of the first ways Americans began remembering their past. But they have tons of problems. Largely, those problems can be summed up in the word boring. These were originally created, such as George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, as ways to revere great past leaders. And they were ways to save old homes from destruction. But they always largely served an old, white, conservative audience, telling stories of continuity and comfort for people who wanted to hear them. These stories almost never included slavery, dispossession, violence, or anything other than fitting some obscure 18th century figure into narratives of American greatness.

But that doesn’t really play anymore. Most historic home tours are awful, saying nothing about the times and really nothing about the person either. They are just houses full of antiques, fussy and musty. So I love this story on a self-described “anarchist” rethinking the historic home and trying to make it relevant again, attempting to bring in local communities, creating signs in *gasp* Spanish and generally trying to tell stories about real human beings.

One of Vagnone’s best test cases is the Dyckman Farmhouse, a Dutch colonial-style house in Inwood that recently reopened after hiring a new executive director. That director, Meredith Horsford, was formerly Vagnone’s deputy at the Historic House Trust and contributed to the ideas within the Anarchist’s Guide. The farmhouse, along with three other homes (the Wyckoff Farmhouse in Brooklyn, the Bartow-Pell Mansion in the Bronx, and the Old Stone House in Brooklyn), has received $5,000 to test out innovative ideas, as part of a Historic House Trust initiative funded by the 1772 Foundation in partnership with the Chipstone Foundation.

The Dyckman Farmhouse receives about 6,000 visitors a year, and Horsford and her team are trying to up those numbers. Not surprisingly, Vagnone, at a planning meeting for the house, is willing to do whatever might be necessary to make the house more appealing, even if it means starting from scratch: “My first thought is, I wonder if you took everything out of the house and it’s a brand new house. What would you talk about? What stories would you tell?”

The Dyckman team has ideas: they’ve removed the wrought iron art deco barriers that had blocked the doorways into some of the rooms for decades. They are introducing Spanish text into the museum’s interpretive materials. This fall, museum studies graduate students from Cooperstown will troubleshoot some potential aesthetic changes to the home.

Even these fairly moderate changes drive the conservative old people who run these museums crazy.

At Dyckman, the staff members pondered ways to show the perspective of the free black man and woman who had lived in the house and were listed at the bottom of the family tree that was on display in the museum. Little information about them remains in the in-house archive. In the discussion, another example of Anarchist Guide-style thinking emerged: “What if we literally take that [family tree] and flip it upside down?”

These kinds of ideas are provocative in the historic house community. At some of his talks around the country—and even once before a New York City board—Vagnone says he has been confronted by audience members, had listeners walk out of his talks, and been called “a menace,” “nuts,” and an “idiot.”

Not only would stories like this be more interesting and challenging, but they would make more people care about history. Yet making more people care about history seems to actually be opposed by a lot of the people invested in these museums, not if it means making Spanish-speakers and poor people and LGBT communities finding things they can relate to in these places.

Should Tariffs Be Part of Our Economic Conversation?

[ 63 ] January 7, 2016 |


Even among progressives today, the idea of tariffs are usually shunned and made fun of like an old racist uncle you have to tolerate at Thanksgiving. Tariffs are what steel workers in out of fashion mustaches support and we are oh so much more urbane than that. In Out of Sight, I also didn’t support the idea of tariffs as a solution to global economic and environmental exploitation. There were a couple of good reasons for that. First, I don’t think they build the international labor solidarity necessary to combat global capitalism. Second, I don’t think they are a political possibility today. They are backwards looking in an age of globalization that mostly we support, even if we don’t think we do. And I stand by both of those points and would not consider myself a supporter of tariffs as a major part of our economic policy, although I do recognize that nations have a very strong interest in keeping its citizens employed.

But should we take tariffs seriously? Should they at least be part of our conversation? We all know what happens when someone suggests them. Annie Lowrey and Dylan Matthews and Matt Yglesias call them moral monsters while these elites blithely ignore the plight of the American working class, calling for minor adjustments to the American welfare state rather than articulating any reasonable job policy for working-class people. This attitude is at least as much social signification as economic policy. But maybe we should rethink them. At least Matthew Cunningham-Cook thinks we should. Now, I don’t think all his arguments are fully fleshed out here. But let’s at least take them seriously.

The decision by progressives to focus exclusively on income and corporate taxation and not tariffs and export taxes is a mistake. Here’s why:

1) Tariffs and export taxes slow down the speed of capital.

As I wrote in November, what Wall Street has always desired is capital that can move at the speed of light. Critical to Wall Street’s success in the last 25 years is its ability to externalize–moving capital that prior was reinvested in Europe and the United States to tax shelters and to (partially) industrialize places like Mexico and Vietnam.

That’s exactly why Wall Street hates tariffs and export taxes. Because they limit the ability to move capital and goods around at will to maximize profitability.

In a way, tariffs perform a similar function to a financial transactions (Tobin) tax: it places sand on the gears of international capital, limiting the ability of banks and hedge funds to manipulate international commodity and capital markets.

There is no question that we have completely failed to slow capital mobility. As I argue in great detail in Out of Sight, this is an enormous problem that we simply have to solve if we want to create stable working and middle classes not only in the United States but around the world. This is also something that apostles of globalization refuse to deal with in their analyses. They wave their hands at the social problems of unrestricted capital mobility. But this is also part (and only part but a real part) of the Trump voter. If you have large numbers of working class people without jobs because their jobs have been shipped abroad, this leads to very real social and political consequences in the nation where you live. It is in everyone’s interest to stop these problems.

So maybe tariffs are useful here. On the other hand, a financial transaction tax and other forms of restricting capital mobility may also work instead.

2) Tariffs and export taxes promote industrialization.

Let’s list some great industrial powers–the UK, the US, Japan, and China. How did such industrialization come about? Very, very high tariffs. By isolating the domestic economy from countries with a higher level of industrialization, it allows for the internal means of production to develop without the specter of commodity-dumping from more advanced nations.

There’s a reason why Britain engineered the infamous War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay in the mid-nineteenth century–Paraguay’s decision to move towards autarky (basically no foreign trade whatsoever) would inevitably lead to it becoming an industrial powerhouse with the capability to challenge–at the time–Britain’s unquestioning dominance of South America.

I need this argument about the War of the Triple Alliance fleshed out more here. I know a bit about this and given the Opium Wars, it’s hardly unknown for the British to start wars in the poorer parts of the world to promote its own trade. However, the War of the Triple Alliance was not with Britain and somehow, I’m not buying this idea of Paraguay as an industrial powerhouse, even if it doesn’t suffer one of the greatest national disasters in human history as a result of this war. It is true that isolating the domestic economy does help build industrialization, as China shows. But all those industrial products also need to be exported somewhere if domestic consumption can’t handle it so it’s not as if everyone can engage in a protectionist economy if this will work.

This feels like the weakest of the five arguments to me. I could perhaps be convinced otherwise with more evidence.

3) Tariffs and export taxes promote food stability and local supply chains.

It’s the great, barely-told story of the 1990s–the massive migration of Mexican farmers displaced by the dumping of heavily subsidized American grain on the Mexican market. NAFTA’s mandate that Mexico abandon tariffs on grain forced millions of Mexicans off of the land they had tilled for generations.

In another example, as a condition of allowing Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return to power in Haiti, the US mandated that Haiti lower its rice tariff to 5%–completely displacing Haitian rice farmers who could not compete with the grain-dumping from the United States.

For all the talk about local economies, few–if any–advocates have actually argued for the types of policies that allow localized economies to flourish: barriers to entry and exit. Local economies cannot compete with exogenous pricing structures, so the only way to make them sustainable is to separate them via tariffs and export taxes.

This is a pretty good point. The impact of free trade agreements on farming communities is utterly disastrous, unless you have the money for major capital investments, which of course small farmers in Mexico and Haiti and Vietnam do not. Agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are great for American agribusiness. But they are terrible for poor farmers. They lead to people fleeing from their land and a lifestyle they often want to continue living, forcing them into urban poverty and migration, creating the labor force for maquiladoras and sweatshops that American capital takes advantage of. The argument in favor of this is that this cheap food creates lower prices for urban dwellers in Mexico City and Hanoi and Port-au-Prince. It can do this, but it also places those markets squarely within the vagaries of commodity capitalism. And when it becomes of interest for the growers of agricultural commodities to shift their product elsewhere, as it did in for American corn growers during the ethanol craze of the mid-2000s, it can have serious impacts on food prices in those developing countries. Thus you had the rapid rise of tortilla prices in Mexico in 2007, creating a national crisis, as well as rising food prices around the world at that time. American consumers could largely handle this. Mexican and Haitian and Vietnamese consumers could not.

It may well be in the interests of social stability for Mexico, Haiti, and Vietnam to protect its agricultural markets. And as the next argument will suggest, there are real downsides to American agriculture’s massive overproduction of crops that means there’s an environmental argument to be made here as well.

4) Tariffs and export taxes are ecologically sound.

Let’s be clear: the international commodity distribution system is the driver of the climate crisis. Transporting massive amounts of goods around the world constantly requires a huge amount of energy and creates an absurd amount of toxic waste. And then there’s artificial deflation of the actual cost of products because they are produced in countries with little environmental regulation–the radio example that Annie Leonard discusses in the must-watch Story of Stuff.

Were the United States–the world’s largest consumer–to drastically decrease the amount of imports, the result would be an ecological boon. A huge amount of US imports are socially unnecessary, involving a colossal degree of waste that is not internalized into the price.

A similar story exists with exports from the US–a massive reduction could only be a good thing for homo sapiens, a species beset with multiple and converging ecological crises. The top ten list of US exports has oil clocking in at No.3, aircraft and spacecraft at No.5, and plastics at No.8. All three industries need to be significantly reduced in size for humanity to have any chance of surviving the climate crisis.

So this argument has its upside and downside. The U.S. sends its enormous production of corn around the world, producing so much of it that agribusiness has to find new uses for it like High Fructose Corn Syrup or corn-based packing pellets. This comes at a very real ecological cost, as we can see in the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the climate change that results from petroleum-based fertilizers. Reducing our corn production is actually good for the land and probably good for small farmers, if we used some tariffs to reduce import-based agriculture that created new markets for products grown in the U.S. Of course there are limitations to this argument. We aren’t going to grow enough limes and avocados to fulfill the U.S. market. Neither will Mexico grow a lot of crops eaten there today, like apples. So you do have to have something of a global trade in agricultural products unless you are asking people to eat a smaller variety of food. And while you could ask that of them, they aren’t going to like it very much.

Also, the global export market absolutely does market in products that are drastically changing the climate. And those who promote the unfettered globalized economy have absolutely no answer to that problem. But again, if the answer is telling people in developing countries to not live like Americans, which is sort of what Cunningham-Cook is doing here, that’s a hard argument to make effectively, because there is a justice component here that he must account for. And if the protection of national economies through tariffs is just going to stimulate Argentina and India to create their own plastic production, as is his argument about tariffs stimulating national industrialization, I don’t see how this actually then deals with climate change at all.

5) Tariffs stabilize employment and communities.

You can tell that there’s really no intellectual justification for finance capitalism when the best they can come up with is that it engages in “creative destruction.” Who in their right mind would want their system for resource allocation to be based off of “destruction”? Alfred Nobel and other associated war profiteers, but really nobody else.

Drive through the Rust Belt–or take a stroll through the South Bronx–and you’ll see what “creative destruction” looks like.

But because tariffs limit the ability for Wall Street to offshore capital and manipulate the commodities market, high tariff environments mean that unionized plants stay open and people continue to have stable, living wage jobs and community.

This is pretty much true all the way down the line. The arguments for finance capitalism are totally bankrupt when it comes to dealing with local communities. If it’s not policy made from 30,000 feet, the prophets of globalizations lack any sort of answer with what to do with Flint or Buffalo or the Mississippi towns Paul Theroux expressed sympathy for, of course making him the greatest moral monster since Stalin if you are part of the Vox crew.

Say what you will about tariffs, but they do help create stable American communities. And we need stable American communities. If you support unfettered capital mobility and the global economy as it stands, it is your moral and perhaps even patriotic duty to come up with concrete answers that you are willing to tell an unemployed American worker as to what they should do and what you are going to do for them. Similarly, those who do support tariffs need to come up with concrete answers for Bangladeshi workers and Honduran workers too. In a global economy like we have now, we can’t just throw a bunch of workers overseas out of a job too. Or we can, but it’s hardly less problematic than the current situation.

The one difference of course between American workers and Honduran workers is that I and most of you have to live in the United States. Millions of unemployed and underemployed and employed but in three jobs to make ends meet is a recipe for social instability. There are concrete political and social reasons to emphasize putting Americans to work in good-paying jobs where they can have a union if they want one. That has to be a real priority for us, as we are seeing in a period of rising fascism. It can happen here.

Are tariffs part of the answer? They probably can be. I don’t think Cunningham-Cook makes the strongest possible case here, although he is hurt by the lack of space to really lay out his points. At the very least, I think he makes a pretty good case that tariffs should be on the table. And I think those who promote the current economic system have to make a much stronger case as to how this is good for Americans than they ever have to this day.

Sunken Cities

[ 23 ] January 7, 2016 |


Rather than start off our day with the usual doom and gloom, how about something cool? Like the rediscovery of an Egyptian city that was known about but not thought to be important until more excavations were done. And now they find out it’s a big trading center.

Geophysical and other surveys paint a vivid picture of the city. “It is clear from this new evidence that much of [Naukratis] was populated with tall tower houses that commonly had three to six storeys. These are similar in construction to those found to this day in Yemen. We should imagine a mud-brick Manhattan, populated with tall houses and large sanctuaries, befitting a large cosmopolitan city.”

Thomas added that the excavations show Naukratis as having been more densely inhabited than had been thought, supporting a population conservatively estimated at around 16,000.

He said the finds also cast new light on the lives of women in the city: “There are more Greek inscriptions of the sixth century from Naukratis than in any Greek sanctuary. They tell us a lot about the traders: there are some women represented; usually it’s just male traders. There are characters that also appear in other Greek cities, so we can start to track where people are coming from.”

Naukratis was a place where cultures mixed and goods from the ancient world were traded. Egyptian grain, papyrus and perfumes were exchanged for Greek, Cypriot and Phoenician silver, wine and oil. Cooking pots in both Egyptian and Greek styles have been found alongside bread platters, dishes and a wide variety of amphoras and figurines from the fifth and fourth centuries BC, ritually deposited during Egyptian festivals related to the inundation of the Nile, such as the “festival of drunkenness”. Terracotta figurines include depictions of Hathor, goddess of the sky, women and love, and of a worshipper carrying a phallus and a wine jar.

I am an ancient scholar in no sense and I have essentially zero knowledge of this stuff. But I do love the idea of recovering lost knowledge so every new discovery and every scrap of paper with some sort of writing on it from these ancient civilizations adds to our knowledge. Just neat.

Erik Visits an American Grave (IX)

[ 7 ] January 7, 2016 |


Now this is a grave you can set your watch to.

That’s right, this is the grave of Johnny Unitas, 9th round pick out of Louisville, Baltimore Colts legend, 10 time Pro Bowl selection, 3 time NFL MVP, 5 time first team All-Pro, and 1979 Hall of Fame inductee. He was also an extra in the film Runaway Bride.

Johnny Unitas is buried in Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, Timonium, Maryland.

Pierre Boulez, RIP

[ 56 ] January 6, 2016 |

The great composer and conductor and general prophet of modernism in music has died at the age of 90.

Ten Great Labor History Books

[ 12 ] January 6, 2016 |


Miners coming out of mine shaft, Virginia City, Nevada, 1867

Backlist asked me to submit a list of ten books on U.S. labor history I would recommend for a broader audience. It is here, with explanations. Without explanations, the ten books are:

Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World
Joseph McCartin, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America
Kathleen Barry, Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants
Jefferson Cowie, Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor
Matt Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement
James Green, The Devil Is Here In These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom
Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise
Frederick Douglass, The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass
Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Jack Metzgar, Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered

Sagebrush Rebellion Politics

[ 125 ] January 6, 2016 |


I have resisted commenting on the Bundy occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge so I could gather my thoughts on what is an important topic to me. That this is happening at an extremely busy time personally doesn’t help me write what should be a long essay, some op-eds, etc. For me the Bundys and their idiot supporters are inherently mockable as the sewers of the American West are evidently running toward Burns at this moment. Shakezula’s posts have explored this side of the question here at LGM and I don’t see too much reason to talk about them.

This is all a little more personal to me than most of you because I spent time growing up around them. My aunt and uncle had a ranch way up in Wallowa County, Oregon, bordering the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, not too far from where Oregon meets Washington and Idaho. My dad, who was by far the youngest child, spent his summers working the ranch up there and we went there when I was a kid. The politics of the transforming rural West away from the natural resource based economy of the 20th century and into the tourism and tech based economy of the 21st played an enormous role in my life growing up and make up the core of my scholarship.

More interesting to me than the Bundys is the Hammond family, who instigated this mess by poaching deer and then setting wildfires to cover it up on two separate occasions. That they thought this was a good idea shows that they are idiots–after all, setting wildfires in the drylands of the West is tantamount to suicide and murder given how fast they can spread. And indeed one of the fires did nearly kill people. The Hammonds themselves are violent extremists with a long history of violating their grazing leases on the Malheur refuge, where the leases should be bought up and retired in any case, and of threatening violence to government officials. These people are horrible.

But it’s also worth noting that people like the Bundys and Hammonds are also the extremist wing of a huge amount of sentiment among whites in the rural West. The Hammonds and many others like them in the rural West have created a history that they are the rightful occupiers of land that they own. This is the core of the Sagebrush Rebellion. Never mind that they don’t own very much of that land–it’s federal land. Never mind that their lifestyle on the land of running cattle, often in ecologically sensitive places, has one of this nation’s biggest forms of welfare for more than a century. And of course never mind that the the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is on stolen Paiute land. This is their land. These people see themselves as the descendants of pioneers, carving a living out of a hard landscape. That project always had a complicated relationship with the government. The ancestors of the Hammonds and of my family wanted the government to kick out Indians, provide cheap land, and get their crops to market. They also wanted absolutely no regulation on their activities and assumed that even after the establishment of agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, that government should work for the ranchers and loggers. And for most of their history, those agencies did, often leading to severe environmental degradation.

But this began to change by the 1970s, with the rise of a very different Northwest and the rise of a national environmental movement. Bipartisan environmental legislation passed that would begin to hold ranchers accountable for their ecological footprint. The EPA, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and other legislation began to give environmentalists tools to start ensuring a clean environment for all Americans. Young suburbanites grew up spending their youthful leisure in nature during the 1950s and 60s and as they grew up, they began to bring a strong environmental sensibility to national environmental politics, creating the demand for saving old-growth forest and creating national wildlife refuges. The Northwest in particular became known as Ecotopia, to borrow from Ernest Callenbach’s influential if terrible 1975 novel of that name and people from around the country began moving to Oregon and Washington to enjoy the natural splendors of the region. They didn’t spend much time out in Burns or Harney County, but they did begin to influence state politics and the state legislature. That so many of these young people came from influential backgrounds and, moving out of their hippie phase, went back to law school or created tech companies in the Portland area provided powerful legal and economic engines that were opposed to the ranchers’ and timbermen’s interests and that began to be reflected in state politics. Relatively suddenly, these rural westerners found the ground shifting from below them. When combined with larger economic changes–mechanization and the exportation on unprocessed timber to Japan in timber and the rise of feedlots and the global beef market for the ranchers–the world began spinning out of control. For both, environmentalists and the government were far easier to blame than complicated social and economic forces.

Nancy Langston provides some key history of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and also contextualizes the Sagebrush Rebellion. I will build on her analysis here.

Years ago, when I first visited the refuge, I stumbled upon five dead coyotes tossed across a trail, their necks sliced open, blood clotted on their fur, paws hacked off, entrails draining into the river. Ranchers on the edge of failure feel threatened by predators snatching away their calves, and some lash out against that threat. But these five dead coyotes signaled more than just economic anxiety — they were emblematic of past hatreds that are still a powerful force in the Malheur basin. Anger at predators, environmentalists and federal managers who threaten the mythic past of cowboys on the range is as strong there as anywhere in the West.

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, many Western ranchers, miners and loggers felt increasingly threatened, partly by globalization, which created new competition, and partly by federal regulations that seemed to value wildlife more than people. What became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion gave locals a focus for their concern.

Environmentalists, they argued, were conspiring to destroy America, starting with rural communities. Many ranchers bitterly complained about the federal land management agencies. They felt powerless, hemmed in by policies they had little hand in shaping. They feared that economic gains were passing them by.

These complaints contain elements of truth: Rural communities in the West are poorer than urban communities, and environmental protections enacted since the 1980s have reduced grazing on federal lands. But locals told an interesting version of this history. Before the federal agencies came, they said, we lived in paradise. The grass was thick, the water was abundant and the towns were thriving. We were independent, working out our problems. When the feds came, they stole our resources, and our economies collapsed.

The implication was clear: If they got rid of the federal government, they’d have control over their land and lives again.

Basically the West has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, as have the rest of the nation. And as have whites around the nation generally, rural white Westerners have created mythology of better days in the past to explain why things have gotten bad for them. In many ways, this is not too different from the white-working class mythology of a better past that has fostered their support for Trump or for Christian conservative mythology of a moral past that has moved them against abortion and gay rights. The belief that the past was better is not only powerful but impervious to actual facts as to what the past is like and why things really have changed. The reality is that even if the government was to leave and turn all the land over to individual farmers, prosperity would not revolt. Areas like southeast Oregon have been violent and poor ever since whites started living there. None of the broader social and economic trends would change. But the environment would be devastated. These ranchers might blame the government for reintroducing wolves or protecting birds or demanding grazing permits (even if heavily subsidized), but their economic way of living is irrelevant and antiquated. Yet despite words about the free market and government interference, when environmental groups began buying up grazing permits on public lands and retiring them, cattlemen’s organizations flipped out and made this illegal because all of a sudden the supposed “free market” threatened their cherished government-protected industry, which is what they really want.

Everything I am saying here is opposed to the Hammonds and opposed to the ranchers’ position on grazing rights, wolves, and environmentalism, not to mention their view of themselves. And yet, I also think there is something a little sad here. These are the dying protests of a people whose of way of life is becoming increasingly irrelevant. And while the Bundys and Hammonds are menaces, we at least have to ask whether the chopping up of these ranches into developments so the urban wealthy can have second homes in the West is really any better for the region’s environment? This is one area where greens and ranchers have found common ground, because ranchettes and exurban development is disastrous for wildlife and the for the landscape. So what replaces the Hammonds when they finally disappear is a question we also need to ask ourselves, while we are mocking their awful actions.

Prop 13

[ 42 ] January 6, 2016 |


Sasha Abramsky makes the argument that maybe California voters have finally had enough of the impact of Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot measures that decimated the state budget and set in motion the anti-property tax movement nationwide that has contributed to a variety of problems, including spiraling tuition rates for college as states reduce their contributions to higher education in response to lower tax revenues. Not surprisingly, Prop 13 has served the interests of the extremely wealthy, as they have developed fictions to get around its limitations while allowing it to retain its electoral magic. Tax reformers are pushing for what’s call a split-roll approach to property taxes. An explanation:

 Coupal and his allies have recently come out in favor of a legislative fix to tackle the sorts of “abuses” embodied in the Dell case. They support a law that defines “ownership change” as having occurred whenever at least 90 percent of a property shifts hands, regardless of whether any one owner ends up with more than 50 percent. But they have drawn a line in the sand against the idea of a “split-roll tax,” which would impose a higher burden on corporations. Coupal accepts that such a tax would easily boost state revenues in the short term by several billion dollars annually. But his organization, the California Chamber of Commerce, and other opponents of change argue that the cost in lost jobs and leakage from businesses relocating out of state would more than cancel out the benefits in the long run. “Our position has always been that if you’re going to have a tax increase, it should be broad-based and universally applicable,” says California Chamber of Commerce policy advocate Jennifer Barrera. “A split-roll tax treats residential property differently from commercial property, so it’s discriminatory.”

 Reform advocates, however, believe that a split-roll tax is exactly the way to go, and their polling research suggests that, for the first time in a generation, they have a decent chance of persuading a majority of the electorate to support them. Over the last few years, they have been calling for a reform that would protect homeowners and renters while taxing corporations at closer to the market value of their properties. Far from being discriminatory, they argue, it is simply a matter of equity: In an era of growing inequality and wealth concentration, this reform would generate desperately needed funds to maintain and expand vital public services.

Economists at the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity were recently hired by Make It Fair, a statewide coalition of reform groups seeking to put a split-roll-tax initiative on the ballot. When the PERE team crunched the numbers on more than 1 million properties across the state, they reached an astonishing conclusion: If a reform were enacted that maintained lower tax rates for residential homes but raised them to market rates for commercial and industrial properties, the state would generate $8.2 billion to $10.2 billion in additional annual revenues. It’s a figure large enough to restore the state’s education system, improve its mental-health infrastructure, and reform many of the other areas that have been left to lag in the decades following the 1978 tax revolt.

You can color me skeptical that this passes, but I’d love to be wrong. Abramsky cites California’s changing demographics, and that’s certainly true. But mobilizing young voters of color for criminal justice reform is a different beast than mobilizing them for property tax reform because the former is more obviously a justice issue, even as the latter is in reality as well. And the money pouring into California from corporations to defeat this is going to be amazing. But I am at least glad to see this issue on the table and maybe something positive will happen.

2015: Women and Sports

[ 84 ] January 6, 2016 |


Was 2015 the year women moved significantly toward something like equal to men in the sporting world? Zirin makes the argument.

 In many ways 2015 could not have ended with a moment that was more on the nose. Serena Williams was named Sports Illustrated Sports Person of the Year: a glaringly obvious choice after three grand slams at the age of 34. Yet a small sector of social media erupted with anger that the award—for Sports Person of the Year, remember—did not go to a horse, triple-crown winner American Pharaoh. It was dead-enders showing their own irrelevance, while Serena literally took the throne.

Time will tell, but I believe that we will remember 2015 as a pivot point when women in sports took it to that next level and through their play offered the sharpest possible rebuke to what has at times seemed over the years like an anchored, immobile state of second-class citizenship. Let’s see what 2016 and beyond will bring, but for the father of a daughter who often thinks sports is not for her and a son we’re trying to raise in the 21st century, 2015 was a game changer. This was the Year of Women in sports, and over the next years I think we will see the reverberations of last 12 months well beyond the playing field.

Maybe, although in my world equality means pay equality first and foremost and we know that ain’t happening for female athletes anytime soon. No question however that Serena Williams dominated the year like no one else, while the media attention around Ronda Rousey was nearly unprecedented for a female athlete in anticipation for a single event (even if she was walloped by New Mexico state legend Holly Holm). The U.S. women’s soccer team was followed nationally as least much as the men during the World Cup. These are all positives. On the other hand, the WNBA is barely followed at all while professional sports leagues for those female soccer players languish, with them having to play on inferior surfaces to the point of effectively going on strike.

But at the very least, it was a very good year for women. We’ll see if it is a blip or something that gets built upon for greater structural equality in sports.

Page 10 of 379« First...89101112...203040...Last »