Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Erik Loomis

rss feed

Visit Erik Loomis's Website

The Declining Grasslands

[ 30 ] February 18, 2013 |

I’ve long been skeptical of biofuels as a meaningful way out of our energy crisis, especially considering that turning corn into fuel causes a whole lot of environmental problems of its own.

Another big problem with biofuels is turning much of the United States into a gigantic corn monoculture. The rush to plant corn (and soy) on every acre of ground has meant the most intensive farming of our grasslands yet, leading to the decline of those already too rare ecosystems and crashing bird populations. But hey, biofuels makes the Iowa corn industry happy and so it’s not going anywhere.

People Skills

[ 60 ] February 17, 2013 |

Yale has a very exciting new deal with the Department of Defense:

As early as this April, Yale plans to welcome a training center for interrogators to its campus.

The center’s primary goal would be to coach U.S. Special Forces on interviewing tactics designed to detect lies. Charles Morgan III, a professor of psychiatry who will head the project, calls these tactics “people skills.” These techniques would be honed using New Haven’s immigrant community as subjects. Morgan hopes that by having soldiers practice their newly acquired techniques on “someone they can’t necessarily identify with” (read: someone who is not white), they’ll be better prepared to do ‘the real thing’ abroad.

Now we learn of Yale’s plans to train soldiers in “people skills” on our campus only two months before the center is scheduled to open. There was no conversation with the city about how this might impact its immigrant community. There was no conversation with students and faculty about how it might impact campus culture. And there was no conversation at all about the ethics of a project like this. It’s hard to understand where this project came from; the university’s motivations are wholly opaque.

Finally, Morgan’s research and, by extension, this proposed center target people of color — brown people exclusively. According to a Yale Herald article, Morgan listed “Moroccans, Columbians, Nepalese, Ecuadorians and others.” Is there an assumption in Morgan’s desire to use more ‘authentic,’ brown interviewees as test subjects, that brown people lie differently from whites — and even more insidiously, that all brown people must belong to the same “category” of liar?

How might training on lie detection be perceived if it targeted blacks, or if it aimed to answer the question, “How do Jews lie?” That Morgan’s test subjects are compensated does not resolve the ethical questions his project raises. In fact, their participation highlights the structural inequality that this research capitalizes on and that the center would ultimately exploit.

I’m real interested in knowing more about how “consent” for the subjects will be procured.

More general description of the program here.

Republican Responses to the Minimum Wage

[ 62 ] February 17, 2013 |

As always, Roy Edroso ventures deep into crazyland to get the latest writings from rightbloggers. And they were very happy about Obama’s proposed minimum wage hike, as you can imagine:

One real hair-raiser for rightbloggers was Obama’s proposed raising of the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, which would lift the annual income of low-end workers to a princely $18,000. “The largest percentage of minimum wage earners have ‘less than a high school’ education,” reported Warren Beatty at American Thinker. “…The last time I checked, public schooling included high school. And public schooling did/does not directly cost (except for ‘cool’ clothes) those being educated. Dropping out of school is a conscious choice. Yet we consumers are expected to pay higher prices to support what is a bad decision. Some economists suggest that increasing the minimum wages may actually encourage some students to drop out of high school.” So Obama was not only costing businessmen money, he was also contributing to juvenile delinquency.

“There are people who would like to work for $4 an hour,” said Ron Ross at the American Spectator, “and there are employers who would like to hire them for that wage. However, for them to enter into such a transaction is a criminal act. Some far-away clueless politician has arbitrarily decided that $4 an hour is not fair and not enough to live on.” Well, it’s good to see Republicans already working on their 2016 campaign pitch.

Like Roy, I strongly support the Republicans running on this platform in 2016.

Almost Verbatim Emory University President James Wagner: “The 3/5 Compromise is a Model to Which We Should Aspire. Also, the Liberal Arts are Like Slaves and Should Be Treated As Such”

[ 89 ] February 16, 2013 |

The president of Emory University evidently lacks people to make sure he doesn’t say insane, horrible things.

During a Homecoming program in September, a panel of eminent law school alumni discussed the challenges of governing in a time of political polarization—a time, in other words, like our own. The panel included a former US senator, former and current congressmen, and the attorney general for Georgia.

One of these distinguished public servants observed that candidates for Congress sometimes make what they declare to be two unshakable commitments—a commitment to be guided only by the language of the US Constitution, and a commitment never, ever to compromise their ideals. Yet, as our alumnus pointed out, the language of the Constitution is itself the product of carefully negotiated compromise.

One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.




I think we can all be impressed by a bunch of elite southern white men discussing politics and coming to the Three-Fifths Compromise as ideal legislation. That one would say this publicly is even more bizarre–does he not have people to make sure he doesn’t actually articulate the incredibly offensive things he believes? Or, good lord could this be, is this the compromise editorial? If so, I don’t want to see the first draft.

But wait, there’s more. Because see where this ends!!!

Part of the messy inefficiency of university life arises from the intention to include as many points of view as possible, and to be open to the expectation that new ideas will emerge. The important thing to keep in view is that this process works so long as every new idea points the way toward a higher shared ideal, namely truth.

At Emory of late we have had many discussions about the ideal—and the reality—of the liberal arts within a research university. All of us who love Emory share a determination that the university will continue trailblazing the best way for research universities to contribute to human well-being and stewardship of the earth in the twenty-first century. This is a high and worthy aspiration. It is tempered by the hard reality that the resources to achieve this aspiration are not boundless; our university cannot do everything we might wish to do, or everything that other universities do. Different visions of what we should be doing inevitably will compete. But in the end, we must set our sights on that higher goal—the flourishing liberal arts research university in service to our twenty-first-century society.

I am grateful that we have at our disposal the rich tools of compromise that can help us achieve our most noble goals.

As a historian, where does this lead me? I mean, I already know that we liberal arts people probably do in fact count as 3/5 of a person when it comes to university decision making, but if university presidents are going to openly compare us to slaves, well I just can’t wait for the future. Why even pay us at all? The strike of a whip should force us into line!!!

The Understandable Desperation of Cod Fishers

[ 24 ] February 15, 2013 |

To build upon my piece on cod (was going to write “cod piece” but was like, wait that’s something else) from last week, see this letter to the editor of the Providence Journal from a fisherman/PhD student which I think really gets at the desperation those employed for generations as cod fishers feel.

Admittedly, the writing of the op-ed is not all that clear, but what he seems to be saying is that scientific models say one thing but personal observation of the fish stocks say another and that people should therefore be allowed to fish. The problem with this is that a) the models are almost certainly correct and b) there aren’t enough fish to sustain this lifestyle, not to mention the species. He blames industry too:

Perhaps we should all take a minute to think next time that we eat out and have a choice between “sustainable” factory trawled fish or “unsustainable” hand-caught Gulf of Maine cod. Is domination by 200-foot factory trawlers owned by million-dollar businesses how we want the fishing industry to end up? Is an industry of a few large boats truly more sustainable than a few small ones? Or does it simply come down to the reliability of science and management ? In any event, the New England groundfish industry will soon be consolidated into the hands of a few factory trawlers employing tenant-fishermen.

There is a good point here–the industrialization of fishing has been a massive disaster except for a few capitalists. It’s not as if we really needed a huge explosion in fishing in the 1960s and 1970s that started the process toward this crisis. Fishing became a product like plastic–what new things can we figure out what to do with this stuff. That included pet food, fertilizers, the creation of aquaculture operations, glues, etc. On the other hand, science and management does have to rule the day here I think–although like forestry management, it might be quite correct to say that fisheries management basically favors monopoly over small producers. I need to examine this in more detail.

Factory fishing simply is not sustainable for communities or for fish stocks. It drives independent fishers out of work and destroys fishing cultures. And unlike, say, corn–where for all its problems at least you can make an argument that factory farming has the potential to feed the world, factory fishing is the modern day equivalent of factory bison hunting.

The Long-Term Impact of the Timber Economy

[ 54 ] February 14, 2013 |

As some of you know, I have a pretty complex and ambivalent view of the history of the Pacific Northwest, largely because I grew up in a timber-supported household when the industry was disappearing and when environmentalists were suing to end the unsustainable and environmentally unsound forest practices that helped create the crisis of the 1980s. The ambivalence comes from very deep sympathies for working-class people in the Northwest (where by all rights and odds I should be struggling to make ends meet now instead of being a professor in Rhode Island) but at the same time knowing that environmentalists were basically right on all the issues, even if the approach wasn’t always the best.

What I’m not ambivalent on is the responsibility of the timber industry for these problems and the lack of a diversified economy that still plagues the region today. While most people think of the Northwest as Portlandia and beer and mountains, huge chunks of the region are mired in poverty. Much of that poverty, especially on the west side of the Cascades, is directly related to the legacy of the timber industry. That most definitely includes southwestern Oregon, where you have counties that were for decades reliant on funding from the O&C land grant, a defaulted railroad land grant of timber that reverted to the government and which supported the basic government functions of these counties. When the spotted owl crisis was happening, the timber industry used this to their advantage, saying that ending logging on these lands meant the defunding of schools, police, roads, whatever. They were right about that, of course leaving the part out about their own culpability.

Even today, 20 years after the end of most old-growth logging in Oregon, the implications of this are still profound. You have Curry, Josephine, and Lane Counties, basically Eugene and the southwestern corner of the state, absolutely struggling to fund even basic government functions like the police. Because voters don’t want to raise taxes and because there really is no alternative economy in Curry and Douglas counties (outside of untaxed marijuana production), there isn’t much functionality in the county governments. That leads to some pretty severe social problems, as we are seeing.

Historical Valentine’s Day Thought

[ 19 ] February 14, 2013 |

You know who had the worst Valentine’s Day in history? Theodore Roosevelt.

The second worst Valentine’s Day might go to the entire Bolivian nation.

Anti-Legalization Pot Farmers

[ 61 ] February 13, 2013 |

So I found this Doug Fine piece on keeping cannabis production out of corporate hands a little frustrating. Fine’s basic argument is that with the increased likelihood of legalized marijuana production, we have to keep pot farming out of corporate hands.

Now, you might agree with this in principle. Certainly corporate farming has gigantic problems–terrible labor practices, vast monocultures that threaten the long-term health of the ecosystem, fertilizer use that creates a giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, erosion, the squeezing out of small farmers, etc. So it’s not a good model for a sustainable and just food (and other things) system.

But we also have to look at the underlying arguments behind an anti-corporate message. Here it gets quite a bit sketchier. Read this:

The answer has as much to do with simple accounting as the more common outsider assumption: that farmers fear the price drops that come when a prohibitionary economy dissolves (though this is certainly part of the story). When, in three generations of farming, your family has never had to pay taxes, record payroll or meet building code, let alone meet a customer (the Emerald Triangle has an entire caste of middlemen and women who broker wholesale deals, so the farmer doesn’t have to leave the farm), the prospect of coming aboveground — and dealing with the same red tape every other industry does — can be terrifying.

Some of these farmers, like all successful small-business owners in any industry, resist change in knee-jerk fashion by distributing worst-case scenarios the way some people pass around business cards. “Look at tobacco,” Mark told me at the Food Bank. “They’ve made the paperwork crazy complicated so only giant corporate farmers can afford to grow it commercially.”

He’s actually correct. Section 40 of Title 27 of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s regulations has 534 subsections. You need a corporate lawyer on call to endure this document without a migraine. The system favors big producers, and Big Tobacco is at least paying attention to federal drug law: NPR has reported that Philip Morris trademarked the brand “Marley” at the height of Just Say No in 1983 (though this doesn’t turn up at the United States Patent and Trademark site, and the company is mum). And Dan Mitchell reported in Fortune that tobacco company Brown & Williamson “enthusiastically” advised, in a 1970s internal report, that the company start viewing marijuana as “an alternative product line.”

A couple of points.

First, I’m not seeing any of this as a particularly bad thing. You mean, marijuana farmers should have to comply with federal regulations? Um, yeah. And pay taxes? You bet. I’m sure it’s a pain to deal with, but so what? The anti-regulation argument is one I really can’t stomach. Sure, the document causes a migraine to read. So is the answer that we get rid of these kinds of complex federal regulations? What is the alternative here? Fine notes the desire to look at marijuana more like craft beer and that’s fine, maybe the market will fall this way. But those craft brewers also deal with all kinds of regulatory frameworks.

Second, there’s some stories not told here. Marijuana without regulation means crops grown with absolutely no environmental restriction. It means farmers can dump gigantic amounts of rat poison around marijuana plants so that rodents die, which goes right up the food chain, among many other examples. Right now, the marijuana economy also does not have to abide by labor standards. On the farms, my understanding of it is that it’s a lot of transient labor looking for short-term work, but there’s no one enforcing any real labor law at all (though some of you may know more about this than I do). In the California dispensaries, the United Food and Commercial Workers has stepped in to represent these workers. While the article portrays the union as having generally OK relations with employers, the idea that hippies aren’t union-busters doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Hip capitalism is often as rapacious as its traditional counterparts in other industries.

There’s no question that northern California marijuana farmers are acting with their ballots–the risk of prison is worth the profits. Both Mendocino and Humboldt counties voted against Proposition 19 in 2010, despite the fact that marijuana is their prime economic base.

What we need is a fully legalized and very heavily regulated marijuana industry. I know that our regulatory system has problems (largely because of regulatory capture), but I at least prioritize enforcing labor law, environmental regulation, and the tax code over keeping the industry “anti-capitalist,” whatever that means in this situation.

This Day in Labor History: February 13, 1865

[ 12 ] February 13, 2013 |

On February 13, 1865, the Sons of Vulcan, the first American union in iron and steel, ended its strike, leading to the first union contract in American history.

The Sons of Vulcan formed in 1858 in Pittsburgh, including workers laboring in the small but steadily growing steel industry that would explode after the Civil War. Most of these early iron and steel workers were immigrants who came over from the mills of England, Scotland, and Wales. The union consisted of puddlers, who stirred molten iron with iron bars in order to oxidize carbon in the iron and burn it off, as well as manufacturing rollers that shape the steel. Now I don’t know about you, but stirring molten iron with an iron bar and without any kind of workplace protection sounds pretty tough to me. As common at the time, this was really a union of puddlers alone, as they were committed to craft unionism.

When the Civil War began, the Sons of Vulcan found themselves with a lot of power. Their work was absolutely vital to the war effort and because it was skilled labor, employers did not want to fire them, even if they hated unionism. The Sons of Vulcan went out on strike in June 1864 because employers believed the war was winding down and lowered wages. They stayed on strike for 8 months, returning to work on February 13, 1865. Finally, the industry caved and employers agreed to wages based upon the price of iron, union recognition, and the first union contract in American history–quite a victory for 1865! The contract tied wage rates to market prices, ensuring workers a share of growing profit. In the case of a contracting market, the contract also froze wage rates before declining for 2 months to give workers some time, which provided some protections in the boom and bust economy of the Gilded Age.

This led to a rapid expansion for the Sons of Vulcan. Originally a Pennsylvania union, it soon organized locals from Kentucky to Maryland to New York, with widespread support in the steel forges. By 1867, the union had over 1500 members and by 1873, about 3300 members. The Sons of Vulcan’s peak of power was in the 1870s, when it was probably the strongest union in the United States. The Panic of 1873 caused widespread unemployment and union membership declined, but it was still the shining light of organized labor through this crisis.

That said, this is unionism in its infancy and they made a lot of mistakes that later unionists would learn from. First, financial contributions to the union were voluntary rather than dues-based. That made the economic basis of the union shaky even at its best. Second, when a group of people found it necessary to go on strike, union policy was that it was only those people who would strike. The rest of the production process would continue, even with other union members not touched by that particular grievance. This meant that employers could break these little strikes easily. Locals could easily collapse with the combination of these two policies and in fact membership fell by half in 1867 and 1868 after a number of failed strikes and lack of resources undermined over two dozen locals.

Like most unions at this time, the Sons of Vulcan banned black members, which allowed employers to use racism as a unionbusting force. With more African-Americans arriving in Pittsburgh to work in the city’s growing steel mills, employers used them to undermine organized labor. A Sons of Vulcan strike in 1874-75 was undermined by the importation of black labor from the South, specifically experienced puddlers from the steelworks in Richmond. It’s hardly surprising then that the African-American community held the American labor movement with such suspicion through much of the twentieth century. More broadly, the Anglo-Saxon membership of the steel mills would have great difficulty adjusting to the entrance of workers from eastern and southern Europe as well, and the story of how employers could take advantage of ethnic and racial tensions is well-known.

Ultimately, the need to think about steel through the process of industrial rather than craft unionism took hold, a lesson that many unions would not learn for a very long time (I’m looking at you American Federation of Labor). The difficulty of the 1874-75 strike that led to black strikebreakers really scared the puddlers and they began to believe they had to align their interests with other workers. Other craft unions had sprung up in the steel mills and all found themselves unable to halt production when striking. During the 1870s, the Sons of Vulcan began negotiating with these other unions, including the Associated Brotherhood of Iron and Steel Heaters, Rollers, and Roughers and the Iron and Steel Roll Hands of the United States, to merge. In August 1876, the three unions met in Pittsburgh, where they merged into the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, the first industrial union in American history. The old Sons of Vulcan locals made about 85% of the new union at its creation and continued to dominate it well into the 1890s. That union became the organization that represented workers at the Homestead Strike of 1892, which effectively ended the AA’s leading role in American labor, although it would hang around until the 1930s. The continued opposition in the AA to black labor allowed Carnegie to use African-Americans as strikebreakers during the Homestead strike; an 1884 riot against the importation of blacks as strikebreakers certainly did not leave those workers exactly feeling solidarity with whites.

This is the 52nd post in this series. The rest of the series is archived here.

We Are All Maureen Dowd

[ 199 ] February 12, 2013 |

Not sure how many of you are on Twitter, but the progressive Twittersphere exploded in hilarity when Marco Rubio took a drink of water during his response to the State of the Union.

I know, right. Water! Ha ha ha ha?

I’m sure you’ll see plenty of hilarious discussions about this in the next 24 hours.

Look, Marco Rubio is an awful guy. He wants to destroy the middle class, make abortion illegal, etc., etc. The only reason Republicans are looking at him as their savior in 2016 is that he’s brown. There’s all kinds of things to attack him on. Go for it. Tear his horrible ideas to shreds.

But who the hell cares if Marco Rubio got cottonmouth and had to take a drink of water? Is this really what progressives want to be talking about? Are we all Maureen Dowd now, using trivia to make cheap, pointless political jabs based on nothing?

Between this and the George W. Bush paintings, the impossible has happened–I feel bad for right-wing politicians whose ideas I find abhorrent. Thanks!

Official LGM Valentine’s Day Dinner*

[ 55 ] February 12, 2013 |

When I was looking for the recipe for last night’s delightful meal recommendation, I ran across this classic seafood mousse dish that I thought would just be wonderful for all of you who are cooking a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner for your special someone.

Let me know if this helps make your day extra special.

* Not actually officially sanctioned by LGM. Or really, anyone.

Ted Cruz Makes Rand Paul Look Like Henry Clay

[ 62 ] February 12, 2013 |

Today’s hearings on Chuck Hagel just make me stand by what I said last week about Rand Paul not being one of the 3 worst senators.

  • Switch to our mobile site