Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Erik Loomis

rss feed

Visit Erik Loomis's Website

Reasonable Moderate

[ 64 ] June 25, 2013 |

Not only does reasonable moderate Sam Alito show us that there is no difference between the two parties and elections don’t matter and therefore because of Edward Snowden we should all vote for Gary Johnson or whoever the Green Party spits up in 2016, but he’s also just a classy guy who treats his colleagues with the respect they deserve!

Strengthening the Fair Labor Standards Act

[ 20 ] June 24, 2013 |

The labor historian Jefferson Cowie on why the government desperately needs to recommit to and strengthen the Fair Labor Standards Act:

It’s true that we are in the middle of a seismic shift in the way we structure our work lives. Both workers and employers want more flexibility. But that similarity of interests shouldn’t mask the fact that employers will always have more power than their employees, and that it’s in their interests to make those employees work as long and as cheaply as possible.

In Roosevelt’s day, the courts found most wages and hours legislation unconstitutional based on the doctrine of “liberty of contract.” The idea was as simple as it was pernicious: wages and hours legislation violated an individual’s freedom to make an independent (read: worse) deal with his employer.

We can’t afford to drift further back to the bad old days of liberty of contract. Americans are drastically overworked and underpaid compared to workers in other advanced countries, and our workers are trapped in a rigid pattern of inequality that has ended a historic claim to being the nation of upward mobility.

Roosevelt did not bother with economic arguments when it came to hours and wages. He offered a simple framework, both moral and patriotic. “A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy,” he proclaimed, “can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling workers’ wages or stretching workers’ hours.” That is as true today as it was then.

Smart Corporate Behavior

[ 77 ] June 24, 2013 |

It doesn’t really surprise me that the big whiskey corporations are doing such a good job of pivoting to the demand for higher quality hooch.* They have the preexisting capital investment, a vested interest in controlling a changing market, and brand identity. Microdistillers have a rough road because of the sheer time it takes for good whiskey to develop and the high investment in purchasing a bottle, unlike microbrewers who can move product quickly and with a palatable economic commitment from a curious consumer. I know I’m far more inclined to take a shot on a $10 4-pack of something than spend $35 on a bottle of a new whiskey that I’m stuck with if I think it mediocre.

What I don’t understand is why more corporate behemoths don’t act this way. Two quick examples come to mind. First is the brewing industry, where the industrial lager makers response to microbrews has been to try and corner the market through legal shenanigans and through making bad fake microbrews like Blue Moon. The second is the oil industry, which instead of deciding to make huge profits off wind and solar by cornering those markets and establishing monopolies early on is instead fighting tooth and nail to kill anything that competes with their core business. This seems incredibly short-sighted to me and reeks of decisions made upon the principle of hating hippies rather than smart business practices.

* The exception to this rule very much seems to be in gin, where we are seeing a large number of very high-quality new products coming on the market.

It’s Always the Fault of Postmodernism

[ 124 ] June 24, 2013 |

There’s a certain class of conservatives that love to blame postmodernism for everything. One of them is David Brooks, who blames it for the decline in the humanities:

The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.

To the earnest 19-year-old with lofty dreams of self-understanding and moral greatness, the humanities in this guise were bound to seem less consequential and more boring.

Studying race, class, and gender=boring and not about Truth.

Ah. I see.

It’s hardly surprising that David Brooks would find these topics boring, he doesn’t care about them as a fifty-something year old man. You’d like to think that he’d have enough self-awareness to not extrapolate that all 19-year olds find them boring. But of course he doesn’t. For David Brooks, studying the humanities only has value in so far as we can limit those studies to long dead white males. That he closes by talking about his favorite teacher, who taught ancient Greece, is quite telling. Personally, I find European history before 1500 or so pretty boring. But I also see the value in teaching it. Which is part of what the humanities is–studying human history and values and art from a multiplicity of perspectives, even the ones you don’t care about.

That Brooks waxes about “private morality” and then yearns for us to teach more about a society whose elite men routinely had sex with children says plenty as well.

On the Recent Events in Brazil

[ 20 ] June 24, 2013 |

This is a guest post from Colin Snider of Americas South and North.

As many by now know, the last 10 days have seen an incredible degree of social mobilization in Brazil. On the surface, it began with a twenty-[Brazilian]-cent hike in bus fares in São Paulo. Protesters marched peacefully, By the end of the night, the police response to violence had created a broader sense of outrage, leading one Brazilian on Twitter to comment, “It’s no longer about the fares. Fuck the fares. This has become much greater than the question of fares.”

And indeed, it was always about much more than the fares. As I outlined earlier last week, the reasons for now are complex, and are as much about historical inequalities, a fact reflected in the variety of demands: from educational reform to anger at the $13.3 billion spent on the World Cup; from Congress’s disconnection with the people it ostensibly represents to decades of generally-unchecked police violence; all of these, and more, are the causes people are raising in the streets. It’s not even about a single political party; while President Dilma Rousseff and the center-left Workers Party [PT] have been targets of outrage and slogans, so have the other other parties on the left and right. In terms of politics, it’s not as much about partisanship as it is about the broader system of political cronyism and oligarchical politics that goes back centuries. So the protests did not come out of nowhere. In fact, the writing has been on the wall for some time; at the beginning of the year, Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, a TV clown who ran for Congress (and won) in an attempt to show the absurdity of politics, commented that “Either this thing [Brazilian politics] changes, or people are going to go crazy.”

So in many ways, it’s about broader political inequalities and absurdities within a functioning electoral democracy. And though politics is an important part of it, it’s not the sole issue at play; the economy, both in real terms and in terms of Brazilians’ material expectations, is an important part of the discourse of unrest as well. The twenty cents was a not-insignificant amount of money for a working class that is often underpaid even while living in the 12th most expensive city in the world, ahead of New York City, Los Angeles, or any other city in the US. And although nationwide, Brazil continues to enjoy near-record low unemployment rates, unemployment in São Paulo has been above the national average for Brazil, compounding the problem for many paulistanos [those from São Paulo city].

But these are problems limited to São Paulo – how did it go national? The national economy is a part of the issue, but it’s not the whole picture. Yes, Brazil has recently seen inflation increase, growth rates slow down, and currency devalued, making well-paying jobs harder to come by and lessening the overall value of incomes among both the working and the middle classes in Brazil. But it’s as much about the representation of the national economy as it is about actual economic factors. For about ten years now, politicians, analysts, and foreign commentators had all pointed to Brazil as having finally becoming an economic powerhouse in the world. They pointed to its status as the seventh largest economy in the world; its growing role in global trade; and even its recent debt forgiveness in Africa as symbols of this strength. Winning the bids for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics were hailed as final evidence Brazil had “made it.”

But, as is all too often the case amongst neoliberal analysis, they falsely equated growth to development. Sure, Brazil’s economy had grown, but it also retained one of the higher levels of income inequality in the world. And the government spent $13.3 billion for FIFA to host the World Cup in Brazil, money that went to stadiums rather than to infrastructure projects that would help a majority of Brazilians. And this while educational levels and adequate health care continue to be major problems for millions of poor and middle class families throughout the country. Brazilians had been told for ten years that things had improved, that Brazil had finally “arrived,” and that they were now enjoying material and social benefits that they’d always been excluded from. And in some ways, there were real gains in the 2000s – the purchasing power of the working class and middle class strengthened somewhat, and programs like Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero helped millions of poor families. But at the first sign of economic instability, it all threatened to come apart, even when their expectations had already increased, and even after ten years of being told that this time it was different. And yet, the socioeconomic inequalities remain in a system where politicians still seem to ignore or be completely unaware of the issues facing tens of millions of Brazilians.

But, if all of these issues have been latent for a long time, why now? The short answer is: it’s complicated, and there’s no definite “quotient” that meant demonstrations on the scale of millions was inevitable. Indeed – this video does a really good job of showing how all of these issues have come together, with the World Cup as a symbol of all that’s wrong with Brazilian inequalities.

All of the above issues have certainly contributed to the unrest and anger. But this is where police violence in São Paulo played a key role. While the police in Brazil have used violence and operated with impunity all too often, the violence last week was one straw too many. That police responded so disproportionately against peaceful protesters exercising their right to speech and assembly, led to broader anger throughout the country. The images that emerged from such violence were so surreal and so grotesque, it only further ignited anger in Brazil, prompting more people to take to the streets, and leading to more surreal scenes throughout the country and even greater police violence, and so on and so forth. In that way, what had apparently started as popular anger at bus fare hikes in Brazil’s largest city became the beginning of nationwide demonstrations from Brazilians who had simply decided they’d just had too much.

And the protests expanded rapidly. On Monday night (the 17th), 230,000 people took to the streets nationwide to protest, in what at the time seemed like a high number. Yet by the middle of the week, the protests were growing; in response, nearly a dozen cities (including São Paulo and Rio) rolled back bus fares. But it was too late. By Thursday night (the 20th), nearly 2 million people across 483 municipalities throughout the country had mobilized. And while two million in a country of 190 million is still a tiny number relatively speaking, the support is much broader, with a poll finding 75% of Brazilians supported the mobilization. Nor was the mobilization limited to a single socioeconomic group, as people from the favelas in Rio joined people from the middle-class Zona Sul on Thursday, leading to at least 300,000 (and perhaps more) in the streets for the largest urban rally in Rio since at least 1984, when the country mobilized for direct elections as the twenty-one-year military dictatorship wound down.

Of course, the events in Brazil have rippled throughout the region in the world. In Paraguay, around three thousand people took to the streets to protest corruption in their own country, with participants openly admitting the events in Brazil had inspired the Paraguayans to speak out as well. More ridiculously, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said that the unrest in his own country and now in Brazil is due to foreign conspirators who want to destabilize both countries (though Erdogan was silent in explaining why, out of all the countries in the world, vague “foreign” threats would target Turkey and Brazil). Of course, such allegations are ridiculous, as citizens of both Turkey and Brazil are responding to the abuses of power and national contexts within their own countries. Beyond that, the most obvious similarity between Turkey and Brazil is the police’s overwhelming and disproportionate use of force in each case, based on privatized weaponry and brutality against unarmed protesters found in police forces not just in Turkey, but Davis, New York, and now, Brazil.

What happens next is uncertain. Already, the location of the protests has ebbed and flowed; 300,000 in Rio one night, 100,000 in Recife another night, 60,000 in the largest protest yesterday in Belo Horizonte. That a different city has had the largest protests each day demonstrates just how national the discontent is. Still, what change they can have remains to be seen. In some ways, Brazilians face challenges not-dissimilar to those the Occupy movement faced; a broad movement with a variety of concerns and demands that forswears any particular political party or organization. Though the protests may slow down or peter out in the next few weeks [and they may not], it would not be surprising to see them return periodically, particularly as the World Cup takes place next year; after all, those stadiums, with their billions of dollars spent in renovations, will physically remain to remind Brazilians of how little the World Cup actually improved their lives, even while proving extremely expensive. But, while the World Cup will serve as a useful symbol, the protests won’t undo that $13.3 billion.

Perhaps the way these demonstrations could have the longest effect is through political mobilization. In addition to being home to the World Cup, Brazil also holds elections next year. Politicians who choose to disregard the voice of the electorate may find they can no longer do so with disregard. For the first time in twenty years, Brazilians have taken to the streets to express their anger; the last time, in 1992, it led to a president resigning over corruption. For a generation, though, such a sense of empowerment, of being able to shape national politics, was lacking, not out of will, but out of experience. Now, that has changed – there is a new sense that politicians do not rule in an ivory tower, that the people can make themselves heard. A common refrain throughout Brazil this week was that, with millions gathering and making their voices heard, “O gigante acordou – The giant awoke.” Whatever the outcome of these demonstrations, this has been a historic week in Brazil, with demonstrations and popular mobilization that ranks up there with 1968, 1984, or 1992; yet each of those years, the mobilizations were defined by particular terms (protests against a dictatorship; demands for direct elections; calls for the resignation of the corrupt Fernando Collor). 2013 is different – the demands are more open, the people more insistent, and the potential outcomes more diverse. Even if the demonstrations disappear in the coming weeks, the issues behind them will not go away so easily, and it will be worth continuing to watch to see if and how this moment shapes society and political culture in Brazil going forward.

The History of Native American Voting

[ 22 ] June 23, 2013 |

This is a great overview of attempts to suppress the Native American vote after they received full citizenship rights in 1924. In short, they were treated by western states not too different from African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.

When Andrei Tarkovsky Took Polaroids

[ 13 ] June 23, 2013 |

Yeah, they look way more awesome and beautiful than anyone else’s Polaroids.

Rhode Island in a Nutshell

[ 39 ] June 22, 2013 |

Former Providence mayor (for 21 years!) and now talk show blowhard Buddy Cianci, in the New York Times magazine:

Q:You once said you were convicted of being mayor of Providence. Admittedly, they got you on very petty offenses.

A: Oh, it was nickel and dime. They convicted me because an aide of mine took a thousand dollars on tape from an F.B.I. plant. They couldn’t get me at the ballot box, and so they got me that way. The world wasn’t any safer because I was at Fort Dix. But, hey, this is the business that we’ve chosen.

Q: Buddy I ended when you resigned after pleading no contest to charges that you assaulted a onetime friend whom you suspected of having an affair with your ex-wife. It was reported that you held him hostage, beat him up, threw an ashtray at him and threatened him with a burning log.

A: There was no kidnapping; he was free to go. No. 1, I picked the log up and threw it in the fireplace. He said he thought I was going to throw it at him. The prosecutor said that was putting him in reasonable apprehension of bodily harm, so that’s assault. As far as ashtrays and all these myths, that’s all bull. No. 2, no one ever urinated on anybody.

Q: I actually never even heard anything about that.

A: Oh, yeah. That’s been public. I never did that.

Q: It was a huge story when the local press discovered that in 1966 a woman you met while in law school accused you of raping her at gunpoint.

A: It didn’t happen the way the press said it happened. I was never charged with anything, never indicted, never arrested, never nothing. Was there an incident? Yeah. Was it a rape? Absolutely not. We had a togetherness, a one-night stand kind of thing.

Q: Your biographer, Mike Stanton, reported that the detective investigating the incident called it “one of the most clear-cut cases of rape” he’d seen and said that the woman passed a lie-detector test while you failed three times.

A: I never took three lie-detector tests. I never took any lie-detector test, so I don’t understand where he gets that information. That’s why I have trouble with the book.

Q: Do you think your state deserves the centuries-old nickname Rogue Island because of its long history of corruption?

A: Rhode Island could make a lot of improvements, but we love this place. The problem is, we’re too small, and everybody knows each other’s business.

I could not explain Rhode Island any better than this.

Breastfeeding Daguerreotypes

[ 9 ] June 22, 2013 |

A fascinating discussion of mid-19th century women who used their opportunity to pose for daguerreotypes and the first photographs to show themselves breastfeeding.

And this is a great collection of historical breastfeeding images. Really cool stuff.

The Wonders of Nature

[ 41 ] June 22, 2013 |

Evidently, there’s a South American plant that uses gigantic spines to ensnare sheep until they starve to death, at which point decompose and fertilize the plant. I assume this will be adapted into some horror movie soon.

Organized Labor: The Missing Piece of George Packer’s Equation

[ 42 ] June 21, 2013 |

It’s fairly unlikely that I’ll read George Packer’s new book, The Unwinding of America. But I did read this excerpt, presumably from the introduction. Packer bemoans the decline of the fabric that held American society together, leading to today’s plutocracy, individual aggrandizement, and dysfunctional government. In part:

This deterministic view is undeniable but incomplete. What it leaves out of the picture is human choice. A fuller explanation of the Unwinding takes into account these large historical influences, but also the way they were exploited by US elites – the leaders of the institutions that have fallen into disrepair. America’s postwar responsibilities demanded co-operation between the two parties in Congress, and when the cold war waned, the co-operation was bound to diminish with it. But there was nothing historically determined about the poisonous atmosphere and demonising language that Gingrich and other conservative ideologues spread through US politics. These tactics served their narrow, short-term interests, and when the Gingrich revolution brought Republicans to power in Congress, the tactics were affirmed. Gingrich is now a has-been, but Washington today is as much his city as anyone’s.

It was impossible for Youngstown’s steel companies to withstand global competition and local disinvestment, but there was nothing inevitable about the aftermath – an unmanaged free-for-all in which unemployed workers were left to fend for themselves, while corporate raiders bought the idle hulks of the mills with debt in the form of junk bonds and stripped out the remaining value. It may have been inevitable that the constraints imposed on US banks by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 would start to slip off in the era of global finance. But it was a political choice on the part of Congress and President Bill Clinton to deregulate Wall Street so thoroughly that nothing stood between the big banks and the destruction of the economy.

Much has been written about the effects of globalisation during the past generation. Much less has been said about the change in social norms that accompanied it. American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behaviour: a senator only resorting to the filibuster on rare occasions; a CEO limiting his salary to only 40 times what his average employees made instead of 800 times; a giant corporation paying its share of taxes instead of inventing creative ways to pay next to zero. There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing.

Earlier this year, Al Gore made $100m (£64m) in a single month by selling Current TV to al-Jazeera for $70m and cashing in his shares of Apple stock for $30m. Never mind that al-Jazeera is owned by the government of Qatar, whose oil exports and views of women and minorities make a mockery of the ideas that Gore propounds in a book or film every other year. Never mind that his Apple stock came with his position on the company’s board, a gift to a former presidential contender. Gore used to be a patrician politician whose career seemed inspired by the ideal of public service. Today – not unlike Tony Blair – he has traded on a life in politics to join the rarefied class of the global super-rich.

Packer misses one big thing here: the decline of labor unions. He talks of the Roosevelt Republic and its collapse. The New Deal state was complex and came into being for a cluster of reasons. Organized labor was not really one of them, not at first anyway, with the AFL neutral to uncomfortable with much of the New Deal. But the primary factor allowing the New Deal state to stay in place for forty years was the political power of organized labor.

Packer likes moralistic bromides. For example, I just finished Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture today. Rodgers writes an intellectual history of the fragmentation of American thought and society in the late 20th century. He quotes Packer after 9/11: “What I dread now is a return to normality, to the hedonisms of the past. Instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines.” OK, OK, we get it, we are a nation of sinners.

What Packer’s moralism about the choices elites make misses is that they always made those choices when they could. The Roosevelt Republic only changed their behavior because of the combined strength of a federal government seeing corporate behavior as destabilizing the nation and threatening capitalism with tens of millions of unionized workers providing the votes and public pressure to cower corporations as best they could. One frequently sees progressive commentators today cite some business exec or Republican politician from the 1950s or early 60s on the need for labor unions or Social Security or some such thing. It always makes me chuckle because it is out of context. Rarely did these people truly believe in such social programs. And when they actually did, it was because the power of the American working class to demand these programs had become internalized within them, so they could not fathom eliminating them.

It’s one thing to leave labor unions out of such an analysis. But when you start your piece by talking about the decline of Youngstown, you really have to talk about organized labor. It was unions who improved the working and living conditions of the American working class. It was unions who fought for increased wages and shorter hours, for OSHA regulations and safety committees. Without unions, all of this has collapsed, along with Youngstown and so many other places.

The decline of labor unions isn’t the only reason for the collapse of the Roosevelt Republic. But Packer can’t understand his subject without making unions central to his inquiry. And at least from the excerpted piece, he fails to do so. I hope he does in the book.

Unregulated Marijuana’s Plague upon Nature

[ 31 ] June 21, 2013 |

I’ve talked about this issue before a couple of times, so I’m really glad to see the New York Times report on the awful environmental impact of unregulated marijuana production in northern California.

The animal, a Pacific fisher, had been poisoned by an anticoagulant in rat poisons like d-Con. Since then, six other poisoned fishers have been found. Two endangered spotted owls tested positive. Mourad W. Gabriel, a scientist at the University of California, Davis, concluded that the contamination began when marijuana growers in deep forests spread d-Con to protect their plants from wood rats.

That news has helped growers acknowledge, reluctantly, what their antagonists in law enforcement have long maintained: like industrial logging before it, the booming business of marijuana is a threat to forests whose looming dark redwoods preside over vibrant ecosystems.

Hilltops have been leveled to make room for the crop. Bulldozers start landslides on erosion-prone mountainsides. Road and dam construction clogs some streams with dislodged soil. Others are bled dry by diversions. Little water is left for salmon whose populations have been decimated by logging.

And local and state jurisdictions’ ability to deal with the problem has been hobbled by, among other things, the drug’s murky legal status. It is approved by the state for medical uses but still illegal under federal law, leading to a patchwork of growers. Some operate within state rules, while others operate totally outside the law.

The environmental damage may not be as extensive as that caused by the 19th-century diking of the Humboldt estuary here, or 20th-century clear-cut logging, but the romantic outlaw drug has become a destructive juggernaut, experts agree.

Once again, the only way to stop these problems is to legalize and regulate marijuana, turning the enforcement mechanism away from busting people who grow to busting people who grow in antisocial and antiecological ways. Inevitably in posts like this, someone comes around in comments to talk about how our agricultural system is broken and treating marijuana like other crops within our economic system is a defeat for the little guy. Either way, big marijuana growers are capitalists engaging in a capitalist market. The question is whether they are allowed to engage in a black market capitalism with very real negative consequences for local ecosystems and wildlife populations or whether they are forced to acquiesce to our, admittedly deeply flawed, regulatory system. The only responsible answer is the latter.

The irony in all of this is that the marijuana economy originally started by people who saw the Humboldt County forests as a treasure to be saved, rejecting not only the timber industry but much about the ecologically destructive economy of the 1960s and 1970s. And then people started making real money.