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A Box of Grass

[ 20 ] May 31, 2013 |

The country music response to the hippies led to many songs that ranged from belligerent to hilarious to bizarre. Such as Buck Jones’ “A Box of Grass.”

Coal Companies Eliminate Pensions

[ 68 ] May 31, 2013 |

A couple of months ago, I noted how coal giant Peabody Coal had created a spinoff corporation called Patriot Coal with the explicit mission of sending it toward bankruptcy in order to eliminate 20,000 pensions.

A Missouri bankruptcy judge has ruled in favor of Patriot here. Mike Elk with more:

Unless the parties come to another agreement, the ruling means that Patriot Coal’s healthcare obligations will be turned over to the Voluntary Employees Benefits Association (VEBA), a fund that would be administered by the union. According to the UMWA, Patriot will only guarantee to pay in a total of $15 million, plus $0.20 per ton of coal mined, which the UMWA calculates will cover only $5 million a year in retiree benefits. Retiree healthcare for Patriot Coal’s 20,000 beneficiaries currently costs $7 million a month, the union says.

According to the UMWA, Patriot Coal has offered the union a 35 percent stake in the company that the union can choose to sell in order to better fund the VEBA. The union, however, says that “since the current and future value of the company is unknown, there is no way of knowing how much money this could provide for healthcare benefits or when such funding would be available.” The company has also proposed a profit-sharing mechanism to help fund VEBA, the UMWA says, but it estimates the plan would provide only an additional $2 million a year.

Basically, another judge has conspired with corporate America to send thousands of old people into poverty.

Battery Recycling

[ 7 ] May 31, 2013 |

As I’ve said before, the recycling business can be pretty nasty. We say something is “recycled,” which really means “I think I did something good and now I don’t have to pay attention to my role in the consumer chain.” But the reality is that once we put stuff in those nice green bins that our sanitation workers pick up or put an old phone in a box or I dispose of a car battery in way we are told is responsible, anything can happen and often does. Here’s a good piece on the problems with battery recycling and lead contamination, in the United States and around the world.

Given the very real effects of lead contamination on populations, exposing the impoverished people near these sites to lead could even lead to a higher chance of children becoming criminals.

The Ultimate Slatepitch

[ 320 ] May 31, 2013 |

Um, no.

Showgirls, as certain critical circles have begun to embrace, is not “so bad it’s good.” Showgirls is good, or perhaps great, full stop. But one of the more intriguing things about the film is that it has so widely and so consistently been misunderstood by critics and audiences alike, despite the fact that its director, Paul Verhoeven, made a career in Hollywood out of highly commercial satires that freely indulge in the trash they’re mocking. It’s a constant throughout Verhoeven’s career: nearly every one of his American films, each of which is fiercely intelligent and provocative in its own way, was received at the time of its release with a combination of confusion and contempt, each in turn not so much rejected as a failure as, more frustratingly, dismissed as unworthy of serious thought.

Has Slate already signed Calum Marsh to a multiyear contract?

Furnishing Color

[ 53 ] May 30, 2013 |

There haven’t been enough forestry posts here lately and since it’s been determined that my interest in extremely obscure things that no one else in the world cares about is what’s allowing this blog to break the trend of liberal media to lose followers in recent months, here’s something especially tasty.

In 1965, the Willamette National Forest (which is the national forest in the Cascades in the mid-portion of the state west of the mountain crest) published its timber management plan. In 1965, all the United States Forest Service cared about was cutting timber, but they had to pay lip service to the idea of multiple-use, which meant pretending to care about tourism. This is what the plan said about clearcutting:

“Clearcuts break the monotony of the scene, and deciduous brush in these areas furnish fall color and spring flowers for at least 10-15 years.”

Can’t you see the beauty?

Today in the Coming Republican Coalition

[ 192 ] May 30, 2013 |

Like every day, the Republicans are moving forward in their plans to stay relevant in the 21st century.

We have Phyllis Schlafly calling for a return to openly white supremacist politics.

Erick Erickson is saying that female breadwinners are defying nature.

Tea Partiers are making jokes about shooting Susan Collins
.

In other words, a normal day in the coming Republican coalition.

Must Be the Cat Boxing Videos

[ 72 ] May 30, 2013 |

It seems there’s a general decline in the liberal media since the election, both at MSNBC and on liberal blogs.

On the other hand, LGM readership is up slightly since the election and saw none of the expected post-election readership slump.

Are MOOCs Soon to Be Obama Administration Policy?

[ 144 ] May 30, 2013 |

Well, this is disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of higher education:

On Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the online courses could increase access and keep costs down. “I am very, very, very interested in MOOCs,” he said. “We need some disruptive innovation in higher education.”

No one doubts that the cost of higher education has skyrocketed in unacceptable ways. And everyone would like to increase access to education. However, Duncan’s statement on MOOCs screams of the classic “we need to do something and here’s something so let’s do it!” style so frequently used by those who seek to turn social institutions into profit-making enterprises. Why exactly do we need “disruptive innovation?” Precisely what is the problem in higher education that requires “disruptive innovation?” If it is the cost, there are plenty of things we can do. State legislatures can return funding levels to what they were 20 years ago. We can reduce administrative positions to what they were 20 years ago. We can cut expensive college football programs, most of which lose money.

Do we need “disruptive innovation” in order to increase access? We can do that through increasing on-line access in small virtual classrooms with real interaction between students and between students and faculty through discussion forums and the like. We can reduce the prohibitive cost of education through the funding mechanisms I discuss in the previous paragraph.

Turning our higher education system into the University of Phoenix seems like precisely the kind of “innovative disruption” we don’t need. The idea of teaching writing, critical thinking, public speaking, or intensive reading in a MOOC is laughable. While MOOCs assauge the egos of scabs certain highly-paid professors, they will likely lead to terrible retention rates and little real progress toward meaningful degrees.

The Obama Administration’s record on education is probably at the bottom of all its domestic programs. Obama’s support of Arne Duncan, Rheeism, and now, one wonders, MOOCs is a sign of the perniciousness of the so-called education reform movement, by which reform equals profit for investors and lower standards of education for students.

It’d be nice to put pressure on Obama and Duncan to take back this statement, but of course that isn’t going to happen.

The Cost of Illegal Marijuana to Owls

[ 56 ] May 29, 2013 |

Here is more evidence that illegal marijuana plantations on national forest land leads to significant problems to wildlife:

In the West Coast marijuana-growing region known as the Emerald Triangle, scientists want to know whether the rat poison spread around illegal pot plantations is killing northern spotted owls, a threatened species.

But because it is so rare to find a spotted owl dead in the forest, they will be looking at an invasive cousin owl from the East that has been pushing spotted owls out of their territory since the 1990s.

Mourad Gabriel, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, said Tuesday they are testing 84 barred owls from Northern California killed in the course of research on whether removing them allows spotted owls to reclaim lost territories. Those owls were collected primarily by the California Academy of Sciences and Green Diamond Resource Company, which grows redwood for timber.

Among the first roughly 10 barred owls tested, about half have been positive for the poison. Two spotted owls found dead in Mendocino County in Northern California also tested positive for the poisons, Gabriel said.

I’ve talked about this before in context of the rare Pacific fisher. A very good reason to legalize and regulate marijuana production is to eliminate these environmental threats to animals. Right now, you have marijuana farmers dumping whatever poisons they want on their plants with no consequence. This goes right up the food chain, into meat-eating forest mammals and birds of prey. It’s probably not widespread enough to affect fish populations on a general level, but some local studies near busted pot farms would be interesting.

Right now you have insatiable demand for a product operating completely outside the nation’s regulatory structures. This has very real consequences, including to other species.

Union Contracts and Romanticizing the IWW

[ 219 ] May 29, 2013 |

Daniel Gross’ discussion of IWW Local 8, the iteration of the Wobblies on the Philadelphia docks during the 1910s is interesting, but it’s a lot more problematic as a lesson that “could transform the labor movement,” as the article’s title states.

Local 8 wasn’t just created by a direct action—and that’s what is so remarkable and instructive about its example. Each and every gain on the job and in the industry—from big-picture issues like wages and hours, to fighting back against everyday management abuse—was won by direct organizing, rather than representation by union officials.

Startling and even unfathomable to many unionists today, Local 8 did not sign contracts with employers and was adamantly against doing so. Fletcher himself vehemently condemned unionists who would enter into contracts with employers.

The exclusive collective bargaining agreement between company and union as well as the employer collected-dues that come with it are sacred cows in the contemporary labor movement. How did Local 8 maintain a union industry with a union standard without signing contracts?

Dues-paying members of Local 8 wore pins that indicated that they were in good standing for a given month. If a worker showed up to unload a ship without the pin for the month, he’d be approached by his union co-workers. The worker would be informed or reminded that this was a union job, with the higher standard of living and dignity that came with organized work. At that point, ideally, the worker would get his dues paid to one of his co-workers serving as an elected delegate of Local 8.

If the worker couldn’t be persuaded to join or get paid up and the boss allowed him to undermine the standard by working non-union, workers would strike on the spot. In the highly time-sensitive business of unloading a ship, it wouldn’t be long until the fellow worker would pay up, move on or get laid off until getting into good standing. A union job secured not by operation of a contract but by the initiative and power of worker self-activity is the hallmark of solidarity unionism and the Local 8 model.

I’m fairly uncomfortable with the emphasis a lot of labor activists today place upon individual empowerment and vague ideas of solidarity as a way forward. It’s quite fitting in a post-Occupy period–Occupy members often have very strong and positive ideas about the IWW. Given the number of labor activists, including insiders within the AFL-CIO who openly talk of moving to a post-labor law period, all options are on the table for the future. But while this kind of ultra-democratic unionism enforced by group solidarity sounds great, there’s one big problem. The IWW never accomplished anything long-lasting, precisely because its avoidance of union contracts meant that companies had the long-term advantage. Note the next part of Gross’ piece:

Local 8 never received the support it would have needed to endure against the multitude of forces arrayed against it. Battered by the unjust imprisonment of its leaders, relentless employer attacks, aggressive pressure from a government favored union, and its own internal strains, Local 8 of the IWW was defeated in the years after World War I. The federal National Labor Relations Act followed in 1935 and the consolidation of the traditional union model, now unraveling, was largely complete.

A lot going on in that paragraph. Local 8 never received the support it needed in part because it didn’t have the structure to demand long-term changes. One reason for that was because it eschewed union contracts. It’s rather easy to say that this democratic utopia had all these enemies and that’s why it failed. While that’s not untrue, there were also problems inherent to the IWW organizing model that helped doom it and every other Wobbly union. We also need to know more about the internal strains Gross discusses.

I know the American Federation of Labor circa 1915 is not a model anyone, including myself, wants to emulate today. But unlike the IWW, it actually could win real gains for the workers it chose to represent. What is great about the early CIO is how it combined the mass movement politics of the IWW with the realistic understanding of how American corporations and politics operated it borrowed from the AFL. The CIO was top-down as all heck (the steelworkers didn’t even have the right to vote on their own contracts), but it also could win, one big reason why millions of workers flocked to it who never became Wobblies.

In short, I’m not sure there is any organizing model from American labor history that provides a sure-fire way forward. But the IWW most certainly does not. In fact, I’d argue the IWW has some real pitfalls that I see a lot of well-meaning people fall into.

How to Lose What We Have

[ 17 ] May 28, 2013 |

1950′s “How to Lose What We Have” is first-rate capitalist propaganda precisely because it lacks anything even remotely approaching subtlety, unless you count its conflation of the New Deal with Stalinism. The only disappointment here is that because of the time period, the filmmakers threw in a sop about unions being legal when you know they wish it wasn’t so.

The Core Reason for the Humanities Crisis

[ 207 ] May 28, 2013 |

Leon Wieseltier asks the right question in his graduation speech at Brandeis: “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?”

Unfortunately, his answer is totally wrong.

So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man. As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.” You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it.

The problem is not science and technology. For one, science, technology, and the humanities can be blended in very interesting ways. Second, science and technology are not the enemy.

The enemy of the humanities is corporate capitalism and their bought political cronies. We are indeed living through the greatest crisis in the humanities in American history. That’s because corporations control educational policy, corporate heads sit on the board of trustees of universities, and the right-wing correctly sees higher education as the last place in the United States where one can hear open critiques of capitalism. The attack on the humanities happens in higher education policy–through telling students they can’t get jobs with a liberal arts degree, through paying professors in Business and Physics departments vastly more than in History and English, through “running universities like a business,” which of course means isolating any field of study that doesn’t bring in outside monies. At the base of all of this is a capitalist war against its critics. And it’s hardly surprising that Wieseltier would miss this. Criticizing capitalism makes people uncomfortable. Criticizing technology is easy. But in this case, it’s wrong.

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