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In Which Erik Hangs Himself

[ 129 ] May 25, 2013 |

Ugh, ugh, ugh.

President Obama held a private meeting with top national security journalists on Thursday afternoon following his national security policy address at the National Defense University in Washington, POLITICO has learned.

Present at the meeting were Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist; Gerald Seib, The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief; Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post; David Igantius, The Washington Post columnist; Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic correspondent and Bloomberg View columnist; and Joe Klein, the Time magazine columnist.

The meeting, which was scheduled to last for one hour but lasted for two, was held in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

Where’s the rope?

Luckily for myself, I don’t know how to tie a knot.

Was Western Meadowlark the official state bird of the entire Louisiana Purchase and they just kept it after becoming states?

[ 46 ] May 25, 2013 |

This post on what each state should have as its state bird is much funnier and more worth reading than you’d expect.

The Mekong

[ 21 ] May 25, 2013 |

The decline of wildlife along the Mekong River, and really in all of Southeast Asia, has reached crisis levels. Between widespread development and the Chinese desire to kill every mammal in existence, there isn’t much left. On the Mekong, home of many now rare and amazing species, we are at crunch time in what is probably a losing battle. Among the fundamental problems when it comes to aquatic life is that you have to convince fishermen that not killing as many animals as possible is worth their effort. The only way to do that is cash because for poor people, every fish, every deer, every thing period, counts toward feeding their families. Of course, paying off large segments of a population has never been tried and probably would not work anyway, but without state intervention or convincing people to not kill the last of these animals, the Mekong ecosystem will be pretty well denuded of animal life.

Food Stamp Hypocrisy

[ 49 ] May 25, 2013 |

A special day for Republican hypocrisy on food stamps.

In the Senate, you have our old friend, Louisiana’s David Vitter:

Vitter presented the bill as prohibiting “convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles” from food stamp benefits. And in general those are the categories – murder, rape, aggravated sexual assault, domestic violence where sexual assault is involved, child molestation, and so on. No senator would vote to “give” violent offenders federal benefits, and in this case they didn’t have to. Rather than put the amendment up for a vote, the manager of the farm bill, Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, merely accepted the amendment into the base bill. The amendment was agreed to by unanimous consent, which is to say that nobody objected to it on the floor. In reality, it’s unlikely that most senators even knew the amendment’s contents.

Vitter conveniently left solicitation of prostitution off his felony list. Wonder why.

In the House, Stephen Fincher, Tea Partier extraordinaire who represents TN-8.

The Tea Party caucus member from Tennessee’s 8th district justifies taking food out of the mouths of millions of hungry children and their parents by quoting the Book of Thessalonians: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” He also quoted, a verse from the 26th chapter of Matthew, which says the “poor will always be with us.”

“The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other,” the congressman concedes, but quickly adds “not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.”

He’s a principled man about these issues:

How much exactly has the Tennessee legislator received from hard working American taxpayers? Together with his father and brother, who farm over 2500 acres for cotton in five counties, roughly 8.9 million dollars in cotton subsidies over the last 10 years, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Rep. Fincher, who is the second largest recipient of farm subsidies in the United States Congress– and that is saying a lot– wants to increase federal crop insurance by a whopping 9 billion dollars over the next 10 years. The congressman has not said how much more he would personally reap if these additional federal subsidies are enacted.

Can’t make this stuff up.

Destination Earth

[ 12 ] May 24, 2013 |

I love classic capitalist propaganda. Take for example, 1956′s “Destination Earth.” A cartoon produced by the American Petroleum Institute, it shows that oil + competition=getting rid of that dastardly Stalin Ogg, leader of Mars.

CNBC and Fox are pretty lame capitalist propagandists compared to this.

Who Else is Excited for Lent Next Year?

[ 60 ] May 24, 2013 |

My Catholic friends, I think it is time to go old-school next Lent.

In addition to disease, the European settlers also brought Catholicism with them, and successfully converted a large proportion of the indigenous population. And the native Americans and Canadians loved their beaver meat.

So in the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec approached his superiors in the Church and asked whether his flock would be permitted to eat beaver meat on Fridays during Lent, despite the fact that meat-eating was forbidden. Since the semi-aquatic rodent was a skilled swimmer, the Church declared that the beaver was a fish. Being a fish, beaver barbeques were permitted throughout Lent. Problem solved!

I’m going to suggest it to the in-laws.

Not So Sure About that Whole Eating Her Curds and Whey Thing

[ 48 ] May 24, 2013 |

Modern Farmer with a long look at a major problem with the Greek yogurt industry–endless amounts of very gross whey that is quite toxic to riparian ecosystems. New York produced 150 million gallons of acid whey last year from its Greek yogurt industry. Dealing with that stuff is, to say the least, a big problem.

Via this Alternet article, which I thought was an unfair attack on Chobani since it seems that it is a problem inherent to all Greek yogurt companies.

Just another part of our industrial food system and its endless supply of toxic byproducts.

America’s Collapsing Infrastrucutre

[ 110 ] May 24, 2013 |

It’s no secret that the United States has an aging and increasingly dangerous infrastructure. An embarrassment compared to Europe or Japan, Americans have decided that it is far more important to fight unnecessary wars and give our plutocrats lower taxes than to act like a modern country, creating a functional train system or repairing our vast roadways. Sinkholes are appearing in Washington D.C. and our state capital cities (not to mention everyone’s favorite winter game in Providence called “Pothole or Archeological Dig.” I felt like I was driving in Costa Rica or Honduras in February and March.) In the wake of the horrifying 2007 bridge collapse on I-35W in Minneapolis, the nation did basically nothing. Here’s a good graph on public construction spending:

Last night, a bridge on I-5 over the Skagit River north of Seattle collapsed. Amazingly, no one was killed. Very lucky. It has been 6 years since the Minneapolis disaster. Some states have prioritized bridge reconstruction but not Washington. The bridge at hand was rated as “functionally obsolete,” which is not the same thing as dangerous, but it was very old, built in 1955. State funding to make bridges safe from earthquakes is going away in 2015. Washington infrastructure gets a particularly poor rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers, especially on roads and transit systems. The ASCE said, “Bridges were awarded a C-, in part due to the nearly 400 structurally deficient bridges in Washington State. 36 percent of Washington’s bridges are past their design life of 50 years.” And last night we saw the effects of the state’s lack of infrastructure spending.

It’s also worth noting Andrew Rice’s essay on the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River, which will not exactly give you confidence to drive over that thing. Not that you have a lot of choice.

In short, we need a massive federal works program just to keep our infrastructure at a stable, functional, and safe level, not withstanding the need for high-speed rail and other new projects to keep the United States competitive with the rest of the world.

Cocaine Blues

[ 94 ] May 23, 2013 |

Roy Hogsed’s 1948 version of “Cocaine Blues”

Country Music History 101 teaches everyone that Johnny Cash did not write that song, though he did a good version of it. I will save most of my Johnny Cash rant for now, which in brief is that Cash was awesome in the 50s, declined rapidly after about 1963, was a washed-up has been putting out bad album after bad album (see Christgau’s review of 1978′s Greatest Hits Volume 3–”who today would think of ranking him with George Jones, Willie Nelson, or Merle Haggard?”) until Rick Rubin brought him back with 1 great album, 1 fine album, and a few meh albums with a good song or two on them, and that many of the people who think he is the ultimate in country music are in part falling for a marketing campaign.

Which isn’t to say that Cash wasn’t one of the finest artists in the history of country music or that his version of “Cocaine Blues” isn’t one of the very best. But given the centrality of the song to his popular image, it’s worth noting that not only is it not a Cash song, but that he built upon dozens and dozens of earlier versions of this popular song in its various and sundry iterations. The Hogsed version is much closer to how Cash played it than many others.

The Low Wages of Federal Contract Workers

[ 119 ] May 23, 2013 |

Mike Elk has a really great piece on the 1-day federal contract workers strike. It’s simple. First, our government should not be allowed to contract with employers who have a history of labor law violations. Second, all workers toiling for the federal government, whether directly or through subcontracts, should make a living wage. An excerpt:

“I work at Quick Pita in the food court of the Ronald Reagan Building. I work nearly 12 hours every day serving lunch to the thousands of people who work in the building. But I am not here to tell you how hard I work. I am here to tell you that my employer does not follow the law,” testified Antonio Vanegas before a hearing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus yesterday.

Vanegas is one of 100,000 low-wage workers in the Washington, DC area, according to Good Jobs Nation, many of whom are employed by federal contractors or in federally owned buildings like Union Station, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and the Ronald Reagan Building. He and about 100 of his colleagues went on a one-day strike yesterday in order to draw attention to their low pay. Despite provisions in the federal Service Contract Act stating that federal contract workers like Antonio Vanegas should make at least the local prevailing wage, up until a few weeks ago Vanegas was making $6.50 an hour–less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and well below the D.C. minimum wage of $8.25. Additionally, Vanegas works 60 hours a week, but claims he receives no overtime pay for hours he works past 40, in violation of the Federal Labor Standards Act.

“There are many workers in the food court who are like me, who don’t make enough to pay the rent, put food on our tables and take care of our families,” said Vanegas in his testimony. “That’s why I’m here and why so many workers like me are on strike today. We want the federal government to be a good landlord and rent prime retail space to employers who follow the law. We want the government to lead by example and guarantee that all workers who do work on behalf of the federal government earn a legal and living wage.”

This strike has made an impact within the Democratic caucus. Whether Nancy Pelosi’s vow to bring it to Obama leads to the president actually doing something about it, I don’t know. But he needs to. Again, raising the working standards of federal workers is something he can do without congressional approval, so there are zero good reasons why he should not act.

Allow me to also note how subcontracting is a malignant plague upon the working conditions of all people. Whether it is the Gap subcontracting in Bangladesh to avoid any responsibility to the workers making its products or the federal government looking to cut costs by outsourcing labor, subcontracting hurts working-class people. There is no good reason why it should exist. Corporations and governments can employ people directly.

Ogallala Aquifer

[ 52 ] May 23, 2013 |

I share the general opinion of many that our industrial food system is in crisis. But I generally disagree as to the real problems. Dislike of something like GMOs (or fluoride in the water for christ’s sake) are rooted in the empowerment of the individual body and the personal as political life we lead–a phenomenon that has had tremendous benefits on our society, but that also redefines much of our lives as a series of consumer choices that I think often obscures both class solidarity and larger structural problems that are not easily solved by personal choice. In the case of food, the waste of basic food-producing resources is I believe is the biggest problem. Take for example soil erosion, as our national bounty flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Or Americans’ increased need to import phosphorous from an unstable African territory quasi-controlled by Morocco. Or the draining of the Ogallala Aquifer. The decline of the Aquifer is a huge threat to our food production on the western Great Plains. With climate change and extreme drought, the long-term sustainability of our water resources for food are questionable at best.

Most of these problems actually do have solutions–we could subsidize land conservation instead of corn production, press for farmers to adapt drip irrigation, create manure recycling programs to reclaim phosphorous. But none of this will happen because of the control gigantic agribusiness corporations like Monsanto have over the majority of senators.

Legally Binding Safety Regulations

[ 8 ] May 23, 2013 |

Stephen Greenhouse on how American retailers like Wal-Mart and Gap are opposing proposed regulatory plans for factory conditions that produce clothing precisely because they might be legally binding and thus mean something. Now they probably aren’t actually legally binding, thanks to our lovely Supreme Court, which in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum decided that the Alien Tort Statute does not apply outside the United States (I wonder how reasonable conservative Sam Alito voted on that!).

John C. Coffee Jr., a professor of corporate law at Columbia University, said American companies generally faced a higher risk of litigation than overseas competitors, largely because the court systems differ significantly. Unlike the system in the United States, courts in Europe generally prohibit class-action lawsuits, do not allow contingency fees for lawyers who win cases and require losing parties to pay legal fees for both sides. Those policies often discourage lawyers and plaintiffs from filing lawsuits.

But Professor Coffee also cited a Supreme Court decision last month that could greatly reduce the ability of overseas factory workers and their families to file lawsuits in United States courts.

“It may be that those retailers who worry about legal liability are pointing to an outdated sense of what liability is for actions taken abroad,” Professor Coffee said. He added that if an accident occurred abroad — for instance, at a factory in Bangladesh — “there is an increasing doubt that the American retailer could be sued in the United States,” because the Supreme Court ruling, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, went far to curb such lawsuits under the Alien Tort Claims Act.

So a Court attempting to recreate the Gilded Age is a huge problem for those who want to create regulations that would transcend national boundaries. Yet for the apparel companies this isn’t good enough. Given that they profit off a system of maximum exploitation, they want nothing more than to say they care without actually caring one iota. That’s why without meaningful penalties for violations, any agreement is worthless. There is of course another alternative–corporations could sacrifice a tiny bit of profit so that 12 year old girls can go to school and workers toil in factories that don’t collapse on top of them. But what kind of a fantasy world am I living in to even dream of such a future!

“This whole fear of lawsuits is a straw man,” said Philip J. Jennings, general secretary of Uni Global Union, a worldwide federation of 20 million retail and service workers, who has negotiated with various retailers to develop the plan and persuaded them to join it. “If these American retailers get 20 lawyers in a room, they start hyperventilating about lawsuits and they’ll have a communal anxiety attack.”

Matthew Shay, president of the National Retail Federation, gave another reason for opposing the Bangladesh plan, saying it “seeks to advance a narrow agenda driven by special interests,” a reference to the labor unions that helped shape the plan and then pressed retailers to sign on.

This as opposed to the narrow agenda driven by another group of special interests to keep Bangladeshi workers dying on the job.

Still, at least we are talking about this now and exposing the barriers to humane treatment of Asian workers by American corporations.

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