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The Disappearing Middle Class

[ 41 ] July 19, 2013 |

No politician wants to talk about this and most Americans don’t want to admit it, but the middle class is rapidly disappearing in this country, with contingent, part-time, and freelancing employment replacing the stable jobs with solid incomes that made up the middle class in the second half of the twentieth century. With almost every piece of economic news, this becomes ever more clear.

An improving housing market and rising stock prices appear to have done little to increase the take-home pay of the typical U.S. worker. And while the economy continues to heal faster than that of almost any other Western nation, evidence remains strong that the recovery has done little to boost the fortunes of people in the vast economic middle.

The Labor Department reported this month that average earnings have barely grown faster than inflation over the past year. Data from spring show that median earnings — those of the worker smack in the middle of the middle class — have fallen 4 percent since the recession ended, after adjusting for inflation.

Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco reported this week that wage growth across the economy is continuing to slow in the wake of the recession, in a way similar to the past two recessions but counter to previous recoveries in the 20th century. The researchers warned that wage growth is likely to decelerate “long after the unemployment rate has returned to more normal levels.”

Again, the fundamentals of the middle-class are disappearing: the ability to buy a home, an inexpensive college education, stable employment, steady wage growth. The stock market and home prices for the rich can rise and rise and lead to people talking about an economic recovery, but the quality of life for average Americans continues to decline.

The Origins of Stand Your Ground

[ 50 ] July 19, 2013 |

Adam Gopnik with an excellent essay on how Stand Your Ground is basically the American doctrine of maximum violence in a new era:

In France and England, though, duelling was meant to reinstate an aristocratic code of honor against the encroachment of the middle class. (This is dramatized in the strange and wonderful Ridley Scott film “The Duellists.”) But in the ideal European duel it was likely that both parties would survive. In America, around the same time, the code of honor took a very different form. American duels were dangerous, usually fought to the death, and left in their wake that special American thing, the feud. Instead of dissolving personal quarrels in a solvent of honor, the American way of duelling enhanced them. In 1808, for instance, two men fought a duel in Maryland—with rifles, and at thirty steps. During the Jackson Administration, when General Armistead Thomson Mason challenged Colonel John Mason McCarty, McCarty, it’s said, “would only consent to meet him on such terms as would result in the certain destruction of one, or both.” (McCarty had suggested that they fight with pistols at point-blank range on top of a keg of gunpowder.) In Europe, the honor of the duellist was a concept that ennobled and abstracted violence. In America, it was a concept that empowered and invigorated it.

This violent practice was fuelled by a principle of common law, traced brilliantly by the historian Richard Brown, in his book “No Duty to Retreat.” In English common law, there was an old concept of that, if you were engaged in conflict and killed someone, to prove self-defense you had to demonstrate that your back was—in most cases, literally—up against the wall. You had a “duty to retreat.” In America, the new concept was that you had no duty to retreat—indeed, you had an obligation not to retreat. You were more or less required to blast away at anyone who approached you with, as you saw it, ill will. You didn’t have to show that you had tried your best to escape the confrontation. In 1856, Texas law, Brown writes, gave private citizens “wide discretionary powers to kill their fellow citizens legally and with impunity.”

This violence-encouraging doctrine has persisted, and so, too, has the reasoning of the judicial decisions that established it. There is no invocation of natural law. The argument isn’t that all men have an inherent right to kill when threatened. It appeals instead to a kind of implicit cultural law: it is not in the American character to retreat. Beneath the surface of the liberal state and the legal rules designed to limit violence and grant a monopoly of its use to a freely elected government, there is a national character that has to be protected—or, perhaps, has to be invented. Appealing to that shadow nation impels the romance of violence in American life, and gives it practical and legal sanction as well. The legal liberal America is treated as a flimsy effigy, without the spirit to do the things that true Americans do—above all, act out violently with guns. And that identity is regarded as more worthy of protection than their citizenship.

Brown directed my undergraduate honors thesis and I’ll attest to the brilliance of his work on the origins of American violence. The connections between white men and violence run to the heart of national identity and anyone who takes that on receives maximum pushback, as I know too well. Gopnik doesn’t get too deep into the racial component of this violence, but while white men had every right to shoot each other in the street, their right to shoot people of color went almost without saying, helping explaining the everyday racial violence of American history.

Look at What Bipartisanship Can Accomplish

[ 88 ] July 19, 2013 |

I guess Lanny Davis’ dream of bipartisanship taking place over completely meaningless cultural items has come true in Pennsylvania:

Today, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) released the following statement in response to news that the American Mustache Institute has decided to relocate from St. Louis, Missouri to Pittsburgh.

“The American Mustache Institute’s decision confirmed what we already knew- that Pittsburgh is not only one of the country’s most livable cities but one of the most stylish,” Senator Casey said. “From the Handlebar to the Horseshoe, Pittsburghers can do it all. With football season around the corner, this announcement will up the pressure on the Steelers’ Brett Keisel to grow something truly extraordinary this year.”

“Pittsburgh was and continues to be home to many of our Nation’s greatest mustachioed men,” said Senator Toomey. “Whether it be former Super Bowl winning Coach Bill Cowher or current all-star closer Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh has certainly seen its fair share of individuals that succeed due to hard work, ability and intimidating facial hair. With this in mind, it only seems fitting that Pittsburgh be the home of the American Mustache Institute.”

What can’t we accomplish if our senators avoid pointless issues like economic disparity and reproductive rights and instead focus on the truly meaningful things that can bring us all together, like Rollie Fingers’ facial hair.

Fort Wagner

[ 73 ] July 18, 2013 |

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the assault on Fort Wagner, when the African-American 54th Massachusetts so bravely tried to take the fort guarding Charleston Harbor.

Now That’s Higher Education!

[ 55 ] July 18, 2013 |

In all the hubbub about the ridiculous salary CUNY wanted to pay David Petraeus to teach, we never thought to ask what kind of teacher he would be. The answer–he’s using his position to channel corporate-funded research about fracking to students.

According to the syllabus, Petraeus will devote two weeks to energy alone, naming those weeks “The Energy Revolution I” and “The Energy Revolution II.” The two “frackademia” studies Petraeus will have his students read for his course titled “The Coming North American Decade(s)? are both seminal industry-funded works.

One of them is a study written by industry-funded National Economic Research Associates (NERA) concluding liquified natural gas (LNG) exports are beneficial to the U.S. economy, despite the fact that exporting fracked gas will raise domestic home-heating and manufacturing prices. NERA was founded by “father of deregulation” Alfred E. Kahn. The study Petraeus will have his students read was contracted out by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to NERA.

The other, a study written by then-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research professor Ernest Moniz – now the head of the DOE – is titled “The Future of Natural Gas” and also covers LNG exports. DOE oversees the permitting process for LNG exports. That study was funded by the Clean Skies Foundation, a front group for Chesapeake Energy and covered in-depth in the Public Accountability Initiative’s report titled, “Industry Partner or Industry Puppet?”

Noticeably absent from the reading list: studies tackling the climate impacts, air quality impacts, over-arching ecological impacts such as water contamination, wastewater impacts and supply issues (aka diminishing supply).

Together, the two crucial studies on the syllabus reading list – and the lack of critical readings on the topic of fracking – offers a gimpse into the stamp of legitimacy industry-funded studies get when they have the logo of elite research universities on them. It’s also another portrayal of the ascendancy of the corporate university.

For this kind of deep critical study, I don’t see how one could argue with a $200,000 salary!

The Part-Time Reality

[ 139 ] July 18, 2013 |

In our part-time and contingent reality, where workers can’t get 40-hour a week jobs even at the minimum wage, what they really need is their bosses giving them advice on how to live off their meager hours, multiple jobs, and low wages.

[PC] I have some thoughts on this.

In Case You Needed a Good Purge Today

[ 38 ] July 18, 2013 |

If anyone needs to puke, reading Lanny Davis appropriating the Washington Nationals to push his dream of a purple America where everyone in the Beltway can just get along by the Democratic Party moving to the right should accomplish it.

….A reminder of the all-time greatest take down of Lanny Davis.

The ESPYs

[ 15 ] July 17, 2013 |

So the ESPYs are super dumb and self-serving. Unless Norm Macdonald is the host. If you’ve never watched his monologue from when he hosted in 1998, you really should do so. Not only do you get reminded of sports scandals of the past–Anthony Mason!–but there’s the general feeling of discomfort that Macdonald delivers. And of course a OJ joke.

Banning Howard Zinn

[ 101 ] July 17, 2013 |

I certainly have my critique of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a good history book, but it’s power and importance can’t be denied. And that’s why Mitch Daniels wanted it banned from state universities when he was governor of Indiana. Unfortunately for the good people of the Hoosier State, the same Mitch Daniels with his die-hard commitment to academic freedom is now the president of Purdue University. Were there any justice in the world, Daniels would be forced to resign for such an awful goal.

Kevin Drum Wants You To Stop Saying Bad Things About McDonald’s

[ 416 ] July 17, 2013 |

I shouldn’t be surprised by Kevin Drum defending the McDonald’s budget for its workers, but it’s pretty irritating. Moreover, his defense is awful weak, as is that of Tim Lee at the Wonkblog, who also defended the corporation. Drum believes that McDonald’s is not telling its workers to work two jobs but is rather assuming two incomes. Not only is there no actual evidence of this, but even if true, who cares? The average McDonald’s employee has to work two jobs to survive if they are not with an employed partner. And if they are and have kids, they still probably have to work two jobs.

Both Drum and Lee also focus on the fact that these wages are a reality for many workers. So what? That’s true, but it’s a terrible thing. Lee is really the worst on this, since he extrapolates from his own life to say this is a fine budget to plan around. That a Washington Post writer thinks his experience as a 21-year-old sharing an apartment with a friend in St. Louis or whatever has any relevance at all to the vast underclass of service workers struggling along without higher education or the ability to make more than minimum wage says a whole lot about the problems with the Beltway elite. What neither seem to get is that such a budget can be both realistic and cruel.

You’d think the real focus here would be to tell enormously profitable and gigantic corporations like McDonald’s that they should pay their workers more money. But for Drum and Lee, defending McDonald’s current business practices and naturalizing the low wages of the nation’s service workers is evidently more important.

This Day in Labor History: July 17, 1944

[ 48 ] July 17, 2013 |

On July 17, 1944, a munitions explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California killed 320 soldiers, mostly African-Americans loading munitions onto ships. This spurred them to demand improved conditions. When conditions did not improve, a group refused to load the munitions. Charged with mutiny, fifty were sentenced to long prison terms.

Is military work part of labor history? It’s not something we usually consider when we think of the subject. For one thing, soldiers don’t produce profit for capitalists, although one could broadly argue that the U.S. military serves capitalist goals and soldiers are the capitalists’ shock troops. That’s more of an ideological argument than a practical one. Soldiers aren’t traditional workers. But they do work. They labor and they get hurt and die on the job. They also have almost no way to protect themselves as workers. A union of soldiers is probably not practical and maybe not even desirable. But they surely deserve some way to express their rights, especially when they are placed in unreasonable danger, as the Port Chicago story shows.

Racial discrimination was rife in the World War II military. Like in previous wars, African-Americans were segregated and given the worst and most dangerous non-combat jobs. At Port Chicago, today the Concord Naval Weapons Station, all of the workers assigned to load munitions onto ships were African-American. Every officer was white. The sailors were not given proper training in loading ammunition, or really much useful training at all. Munitions loading was seen as low-end work. The military drew soldiers from the lower end of testing at the point of enlistment for this work.

Even the idea of loading munitions scared the sailors. Their officers told them it was safe, that the weapons were not active and could not explode. They lied. On July 17, sailors were loading the S.S. E.A. Bryan with munitions. At 10:18 p.m., an explosion took place on the pier leading to the ship. A few seconds later, the munitions on the ship exploded, creating a gigantic fireball that led to the immediate death of everyone on the ship and pier, a total of 320 people. Another 390 were wounded. African-Americans made up 202 of the dead and 233 injured, 15% of the total African-American naval casualties in World War II. Seismologists registered the explosion at 3.4 on the Richter scale. Of the 320 dead, only 51 bodies could be identified. The rest had been blown to smithereens.

Not only did African-Americans suffer high number of casualties, but the aftermath reinforced the inherent racism in the military. The Navy often gave a 30-day leave for soldiers traumatized by the deaths of their friends in combat. None of the black survivors of Port Chicago received it, even those hospitalized. All of the white officers received it. The Navy asked Congress for a $5000 payment to each victim’s family. When Mississippi Congressman John Rankin found out most of the dead were black, he insisted it be reduced to $2000, Congress compromised at $3000.

The surviving munitions loaders were rightfully scared for their lives. They began to refuse to do the work. On August 8, officers ordered 328 men to resume munitions loading. Each one refused. It was a mass strike. Over the next day, officers badgered 70 of them to change their minds. 258 continued to refuse. All were arrested. After continued pressure, including telling them soldiers fighting on Saipan were dying because of their refusal and threatening them with the death penalty if convicted of mutiny, only 44 men, led by Seaman Joe Small, refused to obey. An additional six joined them in next day. The military charged them with mutiny. They other 208 were sent to the Pacific Theater, forced to do menial duty, and received bad conduct discharges at the end of war, making them ineligible for military benefits.

The young NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall became interested in the case. He observed the trial, which ended in guilty verdicts and sentences of 15 years of hard labor (a judge soon reduced it by a few years for some of the men). Marshall began a campaign to publicize the plight of the prisoners. Marshall received permission from each of the fifty to serve as their attorney for the appeal. Before the judge, he said “I can’t understand why whenever more than one Negro disobeys an order it is mutiny.” The case began to get more attention. Eleanor Roosevelt for one asked Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal to become involved. The attention did move the judge to reconvene the court martial, but in the end the sentences were reaffirmed.

When the war ended in August 1945, there was no good reason to hold these men for such a long period of time and pressure to free them continued. Their sentences were quickly reduced to two years and then on January 6, 1946, 47 of the 50 were released to menial tasks on active duty ships in the Pacific. Two others remained in the hospital recovering from their injuries from the explosion and one was not released due to behavioral problems while a prisoner. They were given a discharge “under honorable conditions” when they left the Navy.

The Port Chicago explosion was not the only example of African-Americans soldiers resisting unsafe work conditions based upon discriminatory racial patterns during World War II. In March 1945, 1000 African-American sailors engaged in a 2-day hunger strike to protest discrimination in their work. The Navy began working toward integration in 1944 and conditions slowly improved for African-Americans.

The Navy officially integrated in 1946. Harry S. Truman desegregated the military in 1948, one of the most important early steps toward the end of legal segregation. Thurgood Marshall of course went on to argue Brown v. Board of Education and become the first African-American Supreme Court justice. People have long attempted to have the Port Chicago prisoners exonerated, but there has never been an official apology or pardon, although Bill Clinton pardoned one sailor who asked for it in 1999. Resistance developed among the still living white officers and nothing came of a 1990 attempt by a group of Congressmen to see some sort of exoneration. The site of the explosion is now a National Memorial, operated by the National Park Service.

This is the 68th post in this series. The others are archived here.

12 Years A Slave

[ 41 ] July 16, 2013 |

Although I could do without the big sweeping Hollywood music in the trailer, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s slave narrative 12 Years a Slave looks to be incredibly promising. Given the deep attention to physical detail in McQueen’s films and the fact that there really are so few good movies that deal with slavery in any serious way, I am more excited about this than any film in the last year.