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Harold Ramis, RIP

[ 169 ] February 24, 2014 |

Harold Ramis has passed.

My favorite scene from his greatest film.

Incidentally, I visited Punxsutawney in August. It is not a nice place.

To Noam Chomsky and Everyone Else: Richard Nixon Was Not a Liberal

[ 294 ] February 24, 2014 |

Oh Noam:

Three Democrats have held the position of commander-in-chief since the Richard Nixon era, but if you ask philosopher Noam Chomsky, it was the 37th president and infamous Watergate casualty who was truly the last liberal to preside in the Oval Office.

During a discussion on HuffPost Live, Chomsky weighed in on the minimum wage debate, blaming neo-liberals for keeping talk of wage increases off the table until now.

“It’s a shame that it’s taken so long to even be a discussion,” Chomsky said. “As for support, we may recall the last major program for helping families at the level of survival was under Richard Nixon. In many respects Nixon was the last liberal president.”

Sigh. Perhaps some images will help here. This is a liberal.

This is not a liberal.

I see this argument about Nixon all the time and it drives me crazy. It is deployed by progressives to express their frustration at the current political climate. Richard Nixon did this and that, say progressives. He signed all this environmental legislation. He amended the FLSA, says Chomsky. What has Carter, Clinton, or Obama done!

Richard Nixon was a liberal in no way. Richard Nixon was however a very shrewd politician operating in the time of the postwar liberal consensus. Nixon didn’t like signing those bills. He would have LOVED to rule in the 1980s when he could slash the welfare state, kill Central American commies, ignore the AIDS crisis, and undermine environmental regulations. But he couldn’t do that between 1969 and 1974. Nixon really wanted two things–to fight the Vietnam War and look like a world leader. He didn’t care much about domestic policy one way or another. Sure, if he had his druthers, he would have ruled conservatively. As it was, he wanted to build support for the war by signing relatively liberal legislation.

Perhaps some concrete examples will help. Nixon signed a spate of environmental legislation, ranging from the National Environmental Policy Act to the Occupational Safety and Health Act to extending the Clean Air Act to Marine Mammal Protection Act. But as Brooks Flippen has shown in his book analyzing Nixon’s environmental record, Nixon’s was completely indifferent to anything usually considered the natural world. You weren’t going to see Richard Nixon out hiking. He received no joy from nature at all. He weakened this legislation where he could. But Nixon recognized environmentalists for the political power it was. He thought that if he could sell himself as an environmental president, greens would then support his efforts in southeast Asia, or at least vote for his reelection. Beginning in 1972, when he didn’t need their help anymore, he indeed did begin vetoing legislation, such as the Clean Water Act of 1972. Because he hated the whole idea of it. Moreover, he knew that much of this legislation was passed with veto-proof majorities. He wasn’t going to burn political capital he needed in foreign policy on a useless veto for principle’s sake. He was a conservative in a time when he could not rule like a conservative.

What’s happening today is that even smart progressives are using Nixon as a uncontextualized figure to compare to everything they dislike about today. But this gives the presidency way too much power and essentially fetishizes the power of the presidency at the cost of a meaningful analysis of how political change is made in the United States. Unfortunately, if a law gets passed, the entire credit or demerit for it rests in the popular mind on that president and not on Congress or the millions of Americans who wanted it. This is a mistake.


The framing of this sums up the problem.
Richard Nixon didn’t do these good things for the environment, or at least certainly not by himself. Congress and the American people did. Nixon was making a shrewd political calculation by signing this legislation. He was more scared of environmentalists than business. Environmentalists held more legislative power than business in the early 1970s. It wasn’t until after the Powell Memo in 1971 that corporations got in gear and began pushing back. That coincided with the economic troubles and oil crises of the 1970s and the decline of the liberal consensus, opening the door for decades of conservative counterrevolution that continues today.

By thinking of our past and present entirely in terms of presidential politics, we make enormous mistakes in understanding how change occurs. No president is ever going to create the change we want. Only through organizing for policy changes does this happen. It’s not Barack Obama that is making gay rights a reality. It’s millions of gays and lesbians and their supporters demanding equality. Such was the same with civil rights and Johnson or New Deal policies and FDR. Electing the right president is important, but if you have enough power to scare politicians, they are likely to do more of what you want them to do than your enemies want them to do. That’s why Richard Nixon signed that environmental and economic legislation.

So I’d not only argue this Nixon as liberal construction is wrong, I’d argue it is dangerous because it distracts us from creating the change we want.

BP: Class All the Way

[ 69 ] February 24, 2014 |

As you recall, BP was responsible for a tiny little oil spill in 2010 called the Deepwater Horizon disaster. This only crushed tourism to New Orleans for several months, made people afraid to eat Gulf Coast seafood, and reminded Americans for weeks of their reliance upon dirty energy (which they promptly forgot as soon as it wasn’t a story anymore). Not surprisingly, BP had to pay some damages for its actions. It settled a class action lawsuit for $4 billion. Now, as Michael Hiltzik reports, the company is bitter and angry and lashing out at people it doesn’t want to pay:

But in recent months BP has mounted a frontal assault on the settlement. The firm has placed full page ads in major newspapers, ridiculing supposedly fraudulent claims blithely paid by the settlement administrator, Louisiana lawyer Patrick Juneau — including $8 million to “celebrity chef” Emeril Lagasse.

Last week BP turned up the heat by sponsoring the daily Playbook web page and email blast aimed at Washington opinion makers, among many other people, by the Politico news website. Each day’s Playbook message from BP pinpoints a different, ostensibly absurd case with the tag line, “Would you pay these claims?” Sample: a $173,000 award to an “adult escort service.” (What, an escort service can’t be harmed by a fall-off in tourism?)

But that’s just the PR side of things. The company also has mounted an intensive legal attack on Juneau in federal court in Louisiana. It has obtained a restraining order preventing further payments for the moment and is seeking a permanent injunction so that the policies governing the settlement awards can be recrafted.

Nice. But I suppose this shouldn’t surprise us, not in a nation where corporations take greater control by the day, where the sheer whiff of responsibility to the public is something to be fought off like their corporate future depended upon it.

So far the courts are having none of it. And it’s unclear what the heck BP hopes to get out of it, since it is reminding everyone of their misdeeds. It agreed to the settlement. And no politician is going to defend BP here. It seems like a very bad corporate strategy, as Hiltzik points out.

Today In Republican Jim Crow Nostalgia

[ 32 ] February 24, 2014 |

NRO’s Kevin Williamson uses the Arizona Jim Crow bill for gays to lament the courts overturning segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Barry Goldwater, who set the great precedent for Arizonans’ shocking liberal sensibilities, had been an instrumental figure in the Phoenix desegregation effort but opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because he believed that by expanding the federal mandate it would lead to cumbrous and byzantine federal micromanagement of social affairs, and about that much he has been proved correct. The concept of “public accommodation” has been so inflated that as a practical matter no private sphere exists outside the home when the question of discrimination arises. That situation does not inculcate mutual toleration and respect, but the opposite.

Ah yes, public accommodation is so awful that it might be unconstitutional for private business to discriminate against people because they don’t like them. I haven’t heard such a violation of our rights since Texas had to stop arresting people for having anal sex.

Sure, Williamson follows this by saying that the situation blacks faced was unique and that the feds had to do something, but it’s completely unclear what the functional difference is between Jim Crow laws in the 1950s and new Jim Crow for gays in the 2010s. Actually, there is one key difference–Williamson knows he’s not supposed to say what he just said so he tries to deflect it, even though he completely opposes anything today that would address racial inequality. He says it’s not 1964, but I think that might be disappointing to him; certainly the changes of 1964 were disappointing to the founders of his publication and to many who write there today.

In any case true oppression for Williamson is federal courts doing anything to stop discrimination. I’m sure that applies to Texas and North Carolina suppressing the black vote after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. If you’ll notice, that’s the federal courts getting involved in state decisions in order to facilitate discrimination. But that’s totally OK.

Dead Horses in American History (IX)

[ 7 ] February 23, 2014 |

Aftermath of the Rochester, Minnesota tornado, August 21, 1883. There’s a whole page at the NOAA site of photos documenting the aftermath of this F5 tornado.

Also, this series has become so popular that people are now helping me with it. Friends of the blog Jacob Remes and Jonathan Dresner created this graph of the use of “beating a dead horse” versus “flogging a dead horse” in the English language. I presume the predominance of “flogging” is a British thing.

The U.S. Military and Apparel Worker Exploitation

[ 7 ] February 23, 2014 |

I’ve talked a bit before about how U.S. government contracting priorities contribute to the exploitation of apparel workers overseas. So I want to highlight this report from the International Labor Rights Forum detailing the role of the U.S. military specifically in this problem. You can download the entire report at the link but here’s an excerpt from the summary:

However, the International Labor Rights Forum(ILRF) has learned that the military exchanges are, in effect, “flying blind,” sourcing their private-label clothing from factories in Bangladesh without taking any independent action to investigate or remedy safety hazards and illegal conditions. Instead, the military exchanges rely on either the factories’ own unverified statements of compliance with labor law or the social audits of companies such as Walmart and Sears—audits that have historically failed to protect workers—to confirm safe and decent working conditions. In some cases they simply cut off relationships with suppliers when presented with evidence of violations, leaving workers behind in potential deathtraps. This recklessness toward working conditions in their supply chains first came to light when Marine Corps licensed apparel was found in the rubble of the Tazreen Fashions factory, where 112 workers were killed in November 2012.

The exchanges’ inaction in the face of dangerous working conditions in their supply chains weakens the Obama administration’s efforts to get U.S. brands and retailers to do more to promote workers’ safety and labor rights in Bangladesh. The appearance of a double standard for the U.S. government’s own retailers diminishes the administration’s credibility and weakens its ability to promote human rights in Bangladesh and elsewhere. The U.S. military exchanges, the Administration, and Congress should work together to eliminate this double standard and ensure that the U.S. government’s own retailers take advantage of their unique position as U.S. government representatives and buyers in the private marketplace to become an example for private-sector retailers to follow.

There are challenges to the U.S. doing something concrete to change policies, particularly budgetary concerns and congressional pressure to cut costs. But this is also an area where an Obama executive order around the military exchange, factory inspections, and ethical sourcing could also do a lot of good in setting the U.S. government as institution contributing to a solution rather than a problem.

Class Identity

[ 108 ] February 23, 2014 |

A very interesting report showing that despite the constant discussion of the middle class in the media and by our politicians, as many Americans openly identify as working class as they do middle class:

Pew doesn’t include working class as an option in its survey, but the long-running General Social Survey (GSS) includes both working class and lower class as options. In the chart below, I use the GSS to track class identification between 1980 and 2012 (the most recent year for which GSS data is available). As it shows, at 44 percent, the share of Americans identifying as working class in 2012 was the same as the share identifying as middle class. Only about 8 percent of Americans identified as lower class, slightly higher than the roughly 5 percent on average who identified as lower class before the Great Recession.

This is important because it shows how the media and political class work to obscure class in this country, naturalizing the middle class as important while denigrating the working class as lazy or irrelevant. It shows at least the potential for some kind of more concrete class politics in this country. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Americans vote according to political class the way many progressives would like them to vote, nor does it mean that they believe their working-class status makes capital an antagonist to their interests. These are complex questions and can’t be reduced to dollars and cents.

The Coordinated Anti-UAW Campaign

[ 94 ] February 23, 2014 |

Great reporting here detailing the coordinated anti-UAW campaign between the right-wing Norquist forces and anti-union workers inside the plant. In part:

While the UAW has focused much of its post-election ire on Corker, anti-union activists say a key player in their effort in Chattanooga was Patterson, a little-known Norquist lieutenant who heads the Center for Worker Freedom.

Patterson began laying the anti-union groundwork in Chattanooga last spring, while still working for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He began writing a series of opinion pieces for newspapers and helped organize local events.

“I thought if the UAW was going to have a victory in the South, then this was going to be the place where they had the best chance,” Patterson said in an interview.

Patterson was one of the featured speakers at an anti-union town hall last July in Chattanooga. The event was organized by Mark West, head of the Chattanooga Tea Party, and his neighbor Don Jackson, former head of VW’s Chattanooga plant.

Anti-union activists deny coordinating their efforts. But West and Jackson said Patterson shared information, including newspaper articles and opinion pieces, with Mike Burton, 56, a paint shop worker at the VW plant who last summer began organizing anti-UAW workers in Chattanooga and later formed a group called Southern Momentum.

Burton, who became a poster boy for the anti-union movement, raised more than $100,000, mainly from workers and local citizens, according to Maury Nicely, a Chattanooga attorney retained by Southern Momentum.

Some of the money was used to create a website, www.no2uaw.org, develop a YouTube video and print anti-UAW fliers

.

This may help the UAW’s complaint with the NLRB, since this is a lot more detailed information than it was able to provide for its complaint about coordinated anti-union efforts.

Film Blog (VI)

[ 35 ] February 22, 2014 |

I’ve put up another set of short reviews on my tenth-rate film blog. Read if you care. In short:

Leave Her to Heaven (Stahl, 1945)–I know people love this film, but I’ve seen in a couple times and can’t get over the huge plot problems.

Women Without Men (Neshat, 2009)–Beautifully shot film about Iranian women during the 1953 coup, major plot issues.

Climate of Change (Hill, 2010)–Unsuccessful documentary about people doing various things to fight climate change, makes no concerted attempt to speak truth to power. Tilda Swinton narrates in rhyme.

Gloria (Lelio, 2013)–Not going to change your life, but a pleasant enough film that embraces the sexuality of people in their 50s. Worthy.

The Oyster Princess (Lubitsch, 1919)–One of the first really complete and successful feature-length comedies. Lots of people doing the same thing does indeed turn out to be funny.

I Don’t Want to Be a Man (Lubitsch, 1918)–A mind-blowing gender bending comedy. Never let it be said silent films didn’t play with sexuality.

Our Daily Bread (Geyrhalter, 2005)–Kind of interesting film about the industrial food system that is incredibly powerful when showing meat production, less successful otherwise because of no narration or interviews.

Aurora (Puiu, 2010)–Another fast-paced Romanian film! Not enough of a payoff for such a long film. I know Puiu was the first of the modern Romanian directors to strike it big internationally, but I tend to find him less satisfactory than the others.

North Country (Caro, 2005)–I really wish this was better than it is.

The Front Line (Hun, 2011)–Fairly blase Korean film about the pointlessness of the last two years of the Korean War.

The Harder They Come (Henzell, 1972)–Sure the plot is a cliche but the music is great and it was probably the first piece of culture projecting the poverty of Kingston to the world. Fun stuff too.

Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, 1959)–As awesome as advertised. Can’t believe I went this long without seeing it.

Divorce, Italian Style (Germi, 1961)–Quality satire of Italian gender roles, good thing that’s irrelevant to modern Italy….

The Congressional Science Commitee, Brought to You by Chevron

[ 89 ] February 22, 2014 |

The Congressional Science Committee is at present basically the legislative arm of the Chevron octopus:

For Chevron, the second-largest oil company in the country with $26.2 billion in annual profits, it helps to have friends in high places. With little fanfare, one of Chevron’s top lobbyists, Stephen Sayle, has become a senior staff member of the House Committee on Science, the standing congressional committee charged with “maintaining our scientific and technical leadership in the world.”

Throughout much of 2013, Sayle was the chief executive officer of Dow Lohnes Government Strategies, a lobbying firm retained by Chevron to influence Congress. For fees that total $320,000 a year, Sayle and his team lobbied on a range of energy-related issues, including implementation of EPA rules under the Clean Air Act, regulation of ozone standards, as well as “Congressional and agency oversight related to offshore oil, natural gas development and oil spills.”

Sayle’s ethics disclosure, obtained by Republic Report, shows that he was paid $500,000 by Chevron’s lobbying firm before taking his current gig atop the Science Committee.

In recent months, the House Science Committee has become a cudgel for the oil industry, issuing subpoenas and holding hearings to demonize efforts to improve the environment. Some of the work by the committee reflect the lobbying priorities of Chevron.

Hardly surprising of course since Republicans control the House. This does highlight a couple of key points. First is the importance Democrats need to place on congressional races, which of course the Democratic Party does, but the base does not. Progressives especially emphasize the presidency far too much in comparison to Congress. Not that the presidency isn’t vitally important, of course it is. But we judge Obama for not doing enough on climate because Green Lantern presidency when, well duh, look who controls Congress. And then of course there’s the huge challenge of getting this nation to do anything about climate or a green energy policy when dirty energy controls one political party.

Oil Train Voluntary Safety Standards

[ 17 ] February 22, 2014 |

The oil industry has agreed to voluntary standards to improve safety on oil trains after a spate of recent accidents. Of course it’s voluntary which means that it’s unenforceable. So color me skeptical. The government can still threaten actual regulations so there is some leverage for real improvements. It’s better than nothing.

Pro-Keystone Unions Donating to the Chamber of Commerce

[ 58 ] February 22, 2014 |

Head, meet desk:

Several construction labor unions have decided to lend their support to the Keystone XL. Though critics charge that the pipeline will lead to a drastic increase in carbon emissions, the unions, including Laborers International Union and the International Union of Operating Engineers, have endorsed the project in exchange for several thousand short-term jobs and only 35 permanent jobs.

Trading a few jobs now for environmental destruction might seem like short-sighted strategy, but apparently such thinking runs deep in both unions.

According to a search of Department of Labor records, both the Laborers and the Engineers provided the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest anti-union lobbying group in the country, with $50,000 each.

Wow. It’s one thing for LIUNA and the Operating Engineers to support building Keystone. I disagree with this decision very strongly, for many reasons, including the very few permanent union jobs it will create, not to mention the divisions created with labor’s badly needed allies in the environmental movement. But OK, I get it.

Donating to the Chamber of Commerce is a whole other deal. Does LIUNA and the Engineers need reminding that the Chamber of Commerce opposes card check? Supports right to work laws? Opposes a higher minimum wage and the enforcement of labor law? The Chamber of Commerce is opposed to everything the labor movement believes in. Except I guess the building of the Keystone pipeline. Donating union dues to the Chamber is a betrayal of members’ interests regardless of where the union leadership stands on the pipeline. It’s embarrassing and it shows just how poor some internationals are at separating short-term interests from long-term interests.

More here.

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