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Nostalgia for the Clinton Years

[ 74 ] June 25, 2015 |


Remember when Bill Clinton thought it was a good idea to write laudatory letters to the Daughters of the Confederacy? That was in the long ago epoch of 1994. And those were good times.

“For 100 years, the United Daughters of the Confederacy has maintained and built upon the wonderful legacy of your founders. The strength of your organization today is a testament of the vision of your founders and to your commitment to your shared goals.”

“I congratulate you on your achievement, and I extend best wishes for many years of continuing success,” he concluded.

I suppose at some point we can bring in the argument of not reading too much of our current values into the past. Except that in 1994, it should have been anathema for anyone to say anything nice to a neo-Confederate organization except upon its disbanding and donation of the group’s assets to civil rights organizations. So I can’t give Clinton a pass here.


How Not to Talk About Sweatshops

[ 35 ] June 25, 2015 |


Active defenders of sweatshops really get under my skin because they combine a celebration of labor exploitation with cherry picking historical examples in order to create a false narrative of sweatshops leading to future national economic success.

Not so, says Benjamin Powell, a professor of economics and business at Texas Tech University who, controversially, argues that sweatshops are economically and socially beneficial to the countries they’re in.

“If you care about the consequences for the lives of developing nations workers I believe it is ethical to buy products made with sweatshop labor,” he says. Powell argues that sweatshops are not exclusive to poor countries in our modern, globalized world.

“My ancestors worked in the mills in Massachusetts. For the United Kingdom and the US, the process of development took more than 100 years to move through the sweatshop phase,” in which women and children worked in cotton mills, factories and manufacturing, he says.

Powell doesn’t suggest that sweatshops should be permanent fixtures but a stage in the development of developing nations, and they “often pay far above the levels of extreme poverty that exist in these countries and often even better than the countries’ average incomes. In 1960, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea all had sweatshops,” he says, but “in a generation they jumped from a pre-industrial standard of living to first world status.”

Major eyeroll here. First, sweatshops are not beneficial for these countries. They are rank exploitation. The sweatshops themselves did not lead to the economic explosion of South Korea and Taiwan. It’s not like those sweatshop workers were gaining skills that led to an information economy in Korea. And it’s not like the long-term sweatshops of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala has led to those nations rising economically. Rather, they have just been a next stage in a century of post-colonialist exploitation by American corporations. Note that the people making these arguments that sweatshops are great never reckon with the Latin American examples. They only focus on the Asian Tigers. But those nations have alternative reasons for their economic rise that include a) being close Cold War allies of the United States that led to massive economic growth as part of US foreign policy and b) steel and other heavy industries building huge new factories that out-competed the outdated US steel mills of the 1970s and 1980s, eventually forcing them to close. The heavy industry of China is a big reason why that nation has risen economically. Neither of those factors are likely to repeat themselves in the low-wage sweatshop economy of Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In other words,

And Lowell and the Triangle Fire were not necessary moments in the history of the rise of the American economy. The idea that the heavy exploitation of women workers in apparel factories is somehow required to have economic growth is completely absurd. Rather, these are highly avoidable situations where modern companies could still take advantage of relatively cheap labor while also not killing these workers, forcing them to undergo sexual harassment, pregnancy tests in order to work, stolen wages, etc. These are false choice offered by the defenders of the global race to the bottom. Back to the linked article:

“About 4 million people in Pakistan work in the textile industry and 95% of them never get the paperwork to prove it,” says Nasir Mansoor, deputy director of Pakistan’s Nation Trade Union Federation. “This means there’s no way for them to fight for their rights if something isn’t right.” The garment sector, he says, has some of the worst conditions for workers in the country.

“All garment factories, by law, have to register with the Pakistani government, but we estimate that 90% fail to do so and the government doesn’t enforce the law. It wasn’t too long ago that even inspecting the factories that were registered became outlawed in some provinces so there was no way to know what was happening in them either.”

It was only after the Karachi garment factory fire of 2012 that killed nearly 300 people and injured a similar number that the inspection ban was lifted.

Sajida Khanum, a 45-year-old, has only ever worked in sweatshops. She doesn’t want to disclose which factory she’s working in now for fear of losing her job and being blacklisted from working in factories again.

She says there is no security in her job, and that sometimes, when there is not enough work to do, she has to beg her contractor for work. Khanum gets paid about 40 cents per item she makes. “We have to work fast because we get paid per dozen garments.”

Khanum has been working in garment factories for 15 years. She says most workers live the contradictions of working in sweatshops. “We all do it because its necessary, what else are we to do? I’m uneducated, all I know is this job.”

It might be a hard pill to swallow, but what Pakistani garment industry workers Ahmad and Khanum say reflects what Powell has found in his research.

“When workers choose to take employment in a sweatshop, it demonstrates that they believe it is the least bad option available to them,” he says. “That means that, relative to their previous situation, these sweatshops improve their lives.”

Despite the rather specious reasoning over worker choice offered above (what other choice do these workers have, starvation? prostitution?), I do agree that we should not shut down these factories if we aren’t going to replace them with something else for these workers. After all, Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladeshi workers’ movement, urges developed world consumers not to boycott these clothes because these workers need jobs.

So how do we fix these conditions while also empowering women workers and helping the world’s poor increase their economic status? As I’ve said in Out of Sight (now available for a Madison presidential election price of $18.08!), we have to create international standards that allow the poor of the world to live dignified lives and create middle classes of their own in ways that do not accept rampant exploitation. That must place power in the hands of workers to sue these corporations like Walmart and Gap if they or their contractors violate international standards of wages, working conditions, and pollution. This is how you create middle classes in nations like Bangladesh while taking away the incentive for these multinational corporations to move to the next nation as soon as these workers succeed in forming a union or enforcing a minimum wage. This is how you work toward international labor solidarity and it’s how you push back against defenders of the exploitation and murder of poor workers on the job.

Labor Picketing

[ 19 ] June 24, 2015 |


This opinion piece by Catherine Fisk and Edwin Chemerinsky is quite interesting. Did the Supreme Court accidentally set a precedent to eliminate bans on labor picketing?

Reed v. Town of Gilbert’s reasoning makes it clear that restrictions on labor picketing can no longer survive First Amendment scrutiny. Sections 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) of the National Labor Relations Act prohibit speech, including peaceful picketing, if a “labor organization” or its agents is the speaker and based on the message. Section 8(b)(7) prohibits picketing urging workers to join a union or employers to recognize one if the picketing lasts longer than “a reasonable time” not to exceed 30 days. Thus, the National Labor Relations Board’s enforcement arm sought to enjoin workers affiliated with Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) from picketing with signs saying “Stand Up, Live Better,” “Walmart, respeta a los trabajadores” (Walmart, respect workers), and “Let Walmart Associates Speak Out.” And under 8(b)(7) fast food workers can picket outside restaurants with signs asking to be paid $15 an hour or that the city adopt a $15 minimum wage ordinance, but they cannot picket for more than a reasonable time urging workers to demand $15 and a union. Section 8(b)(4) prohibits picketing urging secondary boycotts, and thus prohibits members of a labor union from picketing at a retail store urging a boycott of the store because its low prices are the result of low wages paid by a subcontractor that produces goods sold in the store or that operates the warehouse whence the store’s goods are shipped. But a store employee would be allowed to picket to urge customers to shop at the store because of its low prices.

The 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) restrictions on picketing clearly violate the First Amendment as the Court interpreted it in Reed v. Town of Gilbert. They prohibit speech based on its content because they, as the Court explained, “single[] out specific subject matter for differential treatment.”

Therefore, the picketing restrictions in section 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) can be upheld only if they are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest. In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Court assumed for the sake of argument that the government has a compelling interest in regulating aesthetics and traffic, but rejected the Town’s contention that the regulations were narrowly tailored to protect the Town’s aesthetic appeal or traffic flow because the law was under-inclusive – it allowed signs with some messages but not others. The government might argue that 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) serve the compelling interest of preventing unjustified work stoppages and consumer boycotts. Eliminating work stoppages and consumer boycotts is, in our view, not a compelling governmental interest. But even if it were, prohibiting picketing is both overbroad and under-inclusive. Any group other than a labor organization is free to urge a consumer boycott or that workers strike to demand higher wages, and even labor organizations are allowed to use leaflets (rather than picket signs) to urge boycotts or strikes. The picketing prohibitions are under-inclusive if the goal is to eliminate encouragement of boycotts and strikes. And 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) are over-inclusive to the extent that they prohibit peaceful advocacy rather than actually striking or boycotting.

I guess my views on this are like my usual belief about the Supreme Court–that the justices will create ways to enforce their own personal political preferences. This is quite the development and may create a path forward but it’s hard for me to believe that Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia care one whit for precedence when it might help a labor union.

Climate Change and the Navajo Nation

[ 21 ] June 24, 2015 |


The sprawling Navajo Nation that covers northeast Arizona and parts of southeast Utah and northwest New Mexico is a huge chunk of land that is beautiful, unique, and fragile. This largely high desert area can certainly sustain life but it’s dryness means that climate change makes it highly prone to long-term changes that severely limit that ability to sustain life. There was a major report on the impact of climate change on Navajo lands prepared last year that certainly covers these issues in detail.

Yet we have to be careful about how we lump all environmental change in with climate change. This article talking about how sand dunes have made one-third of the Navajo Nation uninhabitable and blaming climate change is a case in point. There’s no question that climate change is making this problem worse. But at the end of the piece, someone mentions overgrazing. And in this case, that’s the real issue. Ever since the return of the Navajo from the Bosque Redondo to a piece of their native lands in 1868, enormous herds of sheep have roamed this fragile landscape, causing widespread erosion and most of the problems mentioned in this article. Part of this return meant the Navajo had to give up their raiding ways and although their reservation was large and became larger, was not nearly the extent of land where they had previously lived. This all meant more emphasis on the sheep economy. As early as the 1930s, the erosion was clearly visible on the land. This is when John Collier, as part of his Indian New Deal, intervened and forced the Navajo to cull their herds. This was a total disaster. While Collier was a welcome change from the usually corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs for most tribes and the Indian New Deal a step in the right direction, with the Navajo, Collier had no idea what he was doing. As Marsha Weisiger details in her excellent book Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country, Collier’s methods in dealing with the erosion problem undermined women’s status in Navajo society, increased class divisions by favoring wealthy herders, and probably most significantly, created long-term suspicion of conservation methods as anti-Dine in Navajo society. So sheep herding grew again and continued almost unabated.

That’s what is primarily creating this desertification on the Navajo Nation. I don’t doubt that climate change is a factor. But this is largely a socioeconomic/colonialist creation.

Are Investor State Dispute Settlement Courts Unconstitutional?

[ 42 ] June 24, 2015 |


This claim that the ISDS courts in the Trans Pacific Partnership are unconstitutional is certainly an interesting one. I’m not a lawyer so I’ll leave the analysis to the experts. But I’m intrigued:

Under the TPP, the arbitrators will act like judges, deciding legal questions just as federal judges decide constitutional claims. However, unlike judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution, TPP arbitrators are not appointed by the president or confirmed by the Senate, nor do they have the independence that comes from life tenure. And that presents a significant constitutional issue: Can the president and Congress, consistent with Article III, assign to three private arbitrators the judicial function of deciding the merits of a TPP investor challenge?

The Supreme Court has not ruled on this precise question. But the collective reasoning in four of its recent rulings bearing on the issue leans heavily toward a finding of unconstitutionality. The Court has placed significant limits on the ability of Congress to assign the power to decide cases traditionally handled by the courts to people other than Article III judges, even when the judicial substitutes are full-time federal officials, such as bankruptcy judges or the heads of federal agencies. Moreover, in each case in which the Court approved of a dispute being taken away from federal judges, there was judicial review at the end of the process, which is not the case with TPP. Moreover, although the Justice Department issued a lengthy opinion in 1995 on when arbitration can be used to replace court adjudication, it did not then, and has not since then, defended the constitutionality of arbitration provisions like those in the proposed TPP.

As it presses for the passage of TPP, the administration needs to explain how the Constitution allows the United States to agree to submit the validity of its federal, state, and local laws to three private arbitrators, with no possibility of review by any U.S. court. Otherwise, it risks securing a trade agreement that won’t survive judicial scrutiny, or, even worse, which will undermine the structural protections that an independent federal judiciary was created to ensure.

Thoughts? My sense is basically that current U.S. courts will defer to most issues if they help corporations and hurt working people, which will almost certainly be the result of the ISDS courts.

For Once, Bill Kristol is Actually Correct

[ 122 ] June 23, 2015 |

That’s right Bill, and it’s great.

Philanthropy in the Two Gilded Ages

[ 73 ] June 23, 2015 |


I’ve said this before and I’ll probably say it again–the judge of a wealthy person is in my book about 10% what they do when they have achieved massive wealth and 90% their personal behavior when acquiring that wealth. The sins of Andrew Carnegie could never be washed over by building a bunch of libraries. Interestingly, about half the Pennsylvania towns where he offered to build a library rejected him because they knew the money came from the blood of his workers.

The same is true of today’s capitalists. We should take their money if they want to give it to us. And I suppose I’d rather Bill Gates give his money to global health than invest it in that other status symbol of the two Gilded Ages, a huge art collection. But that doesn’t mean our primary evaluation of these people shouldn’t be on their behavior when collecting that loot. For many capitalists today, there is a whole lot of sin to answer for.

Fast Track

[ 107 ] June 23, 2015 |


I knew that the House Democratic defeat of Trade Adjustment Assistance as a way to undermine fast track for the Trans Pacific Partnership would be short-lived. There was a lot of celebration but I remembered being burned too many times to be any more than cautiously optimistic. Even that was too much as the Senate has passed fast track. Basically the Democrats we thought would not pass fast track without TAA of course would do that very thing, the most predictable thing ever.

I guess we are going to have to just keep documenting the horrors of the global trade system and fight for one that is more fair. Keep fighting for another day. But this is very depressing to me.

Russia and Texas

[ 112 ] June 23, 2015 |


I love the idea of the Russians going full Zimmerman Telegram and actively supporting Texas secessionists. I’m not even sure that stopping this is a bad thing for the rest of the nation.

How Fast Track Hurts American Families

[ 102 ] June 23, 2015 |


There are somewhat weird arguments liberals make about trade that allows people to easily justify the loss of millions of American jobs because of slight improvements in income for the Vietnamese and Bangladeshi workers who replace them. There are a couple of serious problems with these arguments. First, it is essentially pro-capitalist, reinforcing the idea of employers as “job creators” who ultimately benefit society, as opposed to the profit-seekers who are willing to undermine any nation’s working class for the next quarterly report. Second, it shows shockingly little sophisticated analysis over how this process actually affects their own nation. The rise of Citizens United and the Koch Brothers’ control over American politics is directly linked to the decline of working-class voices in those politics that happened when the industrial unions were crushed. If you like high levels of income inequality and plutocrat control over America, fast track is for you. Third, these arguments allow for a sort of consumer myopia over their own role in the supply chain. By saying that American employers are improving the lives of workers overseas, it means that we don’t really have to worry about the actual conditions of work in these factories–child labor, slave labor, sexual harassment, forced pregnancy tests, beating by supervisors, unsafe working conditions, low wages, buildings collapsing on workers. All of these things are terrible and unnecessary.

Finally, it also undermines a basic fact–that nations need to have an interest in creating good jobs for its own citizens. I’m no believer in old-school protectionism, but unless the nation is creating good jobs for working Americans–moving the emphasis in our job creation from the creative class and highly-educated to average Americans–income inequality will continue to grow, as will societal instability. This is where United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard comes in, telling stories about how fast track hurts his members and working Americans.

They should, for example, pay attention to Kori Sherwood. When she got a job two years ago as a millwright at U.S. Steel’s Minntac facility in the Minnesota Iron Range, it changed her life and that of her young daughter. But in March, U.S. Steel sent layoff notices to 680 of Minntac’s 1,500 workers, citing an international glut of steel. Prices are at a 12-year low as mills in China continue to produce and ship massive amounts of steel and sell it at below market prices made possible by improper government subsidies and support.

Under international trade law, countries can prop up industry with government subsidies when the products are sold internally. Beijing may give its steel industry no-interest loans and free electricity when the rebar or pipe or I-beams are sold for construction projects in China. But international trade law forbids such subsidies when the goods are sold internationally because government aid suppresses product prices in what is supposed to be a free market. Some countries, however, routinely flout the rules. Then American companies that don’t get no-interest government loans or free electricity or other subsidies can’t compete on price.

They shut down mills and lay off workers. Unions and manufacturers are forced to pay millions to petition for import duties on the subsidized foreign goods to level the playing field. To win such a case, industry must prove financial injury and workers must suffer layoffs and lost income.

Kori Sherwood got one of U.S. Steel’s layoff notices and lost her job at Minntac on May 26. China’s violation of international trade rules dashed Sherwood’s hopes and plans. “You finally think you get your life in order – buy a truck, buy a home, and it all falls apart,” she said.

Import-adoring lawmakers should talk to tire builders from Tuscaloosa and Gadsden Ala., Findlay, Ohio, and Salem, Va., who have watched with endless anxiety over the past decade as American manufacturers closed plants and cut production because Chinese producers dumped subsidized passenger and light truck tires into the U.S. market.

After the USW petitioned for relief, the U.S. imposed import duties on Chinese tires beginning in 2009 and imports declined significantly. American producers regained market share and invested in American factories. They recalled laid off workers and even hired new ones.

But the second the duties expired, Chinese producers resumed dumping. American companies once again cut production, reduced workers’ hours and furloughed staff. The USW petitioned for trade relief again a year ago, and the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed preliminary duties. Since then, U.S. tire companies have ramped up production and increased workers’ shifts.

In testimony earlier this month before the U.S. International Trade Commission seeking permanent duties, David Hayes, president of the USW local union at Goodyear’s tire plant in Gadsden, talked about how the waves of dumped foreign tires have denied his fellow 1,500 workers job stability as layoffs followed each import surge.

These are actually important issues that liberals need to take seriously. The Kori Sherwood’s of the world need good jobs if we want the United States to be a stable nation in the 21st century that treats its citizens with respect. Supporters of the Trans Pacific Partnership need to articulate what happens to Kori Sherwood. NAFTA supporters used to say that the creative economy would take care of these people. Of course those were delusional statements of true believers in the religion of free trade. Now supporters of the TPP aren’t even trying to answer that question, including President Obama.

If we are going to have these trade agreements, we need to have international rules that protect workers wherever the jobs are located. Out of Sight is my answer to free trade advocates who claim that Americans who want the American working class to have good jobs don’t care about the poor overseas. But I haven’t heard any reasonable articulation of what happens to Kori Sherwood from advocates of the Trans Pacific Partnership. Maybe she can get a job at McDonald’s or work a temp job that never becomes permanent.

The National Review Turns on Supply Side?

[ 18 ] June 23, 2015 |


This National Review tongue bath of Scott Walker is gross, but if you read far enough down, you can see the magazine turn harshly on GOP orthodoxy of cutting taxes only for the top earners, using Kansas as an example of how not to do things. Of course, the way that NR can do that is to reframe its mythical Reagan to fit its new ideas. Still, one has to say that any move by the leading right-wing publication against Republican economic orthodoxy for 30 years is noteworthy. Even taken to its extreme in Kansas with predictable disaster wouldn’t have led me to think the magazine would actually begin to shift its position.


[ 1 ] June 22, 2015 |


I was on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC this afternoon talking about Out of Sight. We really didn’t get into climate change too much, despite the title of the segment. But it was great. Probably as close to media royalty as I’ll ever get.

My favorite part was Lopate quoting my Don Blankenship post from the other day when I called him “one of the worst human beings living in the United States today.” And then I got to talk about why this is true.

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