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Returning from the Grave

[ 34 ] April 5, 2015 |

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This happy glorious holiday sees both the return of Mad Men and Major League Baseball. Let this be the open thread for both.

Personally, I have experienced too much disappointment to believe the Mariners are one of the best teams in the AL. Then I look at the rest of the AL and reconsider.

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Power and the Land

[ 18 ] April 5, 2015 |

Enjoy this 1940 Rural Electrification Administration documentary on the drudgery of rural work before electricity and how REA cooperatives and the New Deal transforms the lives of farmers. Good stuff. I love the films of the New Deal. There are also useful stories here. Robert Caro’s first LBJ book is a wonderful book on Texas, the main character in its first half. Years later, I continue to recall how he described the drudgery of farm women’s labor in the Texas Hill Country. LBJ helped end that through being a big supporter of public power. That was necessary because with private utilities, profit comes before service. So even as late as 1940, you had American cities in the modern age and American farms basically in the 19th century when it came to life inside the home. The REA played a huge role in changing that. Public power was a justice issue. Naturally, Republicans largely opposed it, the godfather of public power George Norris being the exception that proved the rule as he was a Republican only to keep his seniority and openly attacked Republican presidents over the power issue.

Harvesting the Ripe Grain of Wingnuttery

[ 81 ] April 5, 2015 |

Welcome-to-Kansas

The voters of Kansas elected Sam Brownback governor. Then they reelected them. So now the reap what they sowed:

The economic fallout continues in Kansas, where Republican Gov. Sam Brownback recently signed a public school funding overhaul that cut millions in funding for the current school year.

Two school districts in the state are now ending the academic year early, according to the Associated Press, because they can no longer afford to stay open under the new plan.

The governor’s proposal, which passed the Kansas House in mid-March but was slowed by a court order that challenged parts of the plan, replaces the state’s previous education funding formula with block grants for the next couple years until legislators finalize a new formula. Critics say the proposed formula takes away millions of dollars in much-needed funding, including about $51 million this school year alone.

Brownback has received the brunt of the blame for Kansas’ fiscal woes after he spent his first term slashing taxes and promising an economic boom that never came. Instead, his “real live experiment” in applying conservative tax principles led to debt downgrades, weak growth, and left the state’s finances in ruins.

Sure Kansas children are falling behind those of every other state in the nation. But who doubts that Brownback could win reelection again, term limits notwithstanding? Not I.

Apple: A Corporation of the New Gilded Age

[ 82 ] April 5, 2015 |

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Building off the sociopathy of its founder, Steve Jobs, Apple is banning felons from working on constructing its buildings. It’s nice that capitalists are judging the morals of the American working class while outsourcing production to facilities where conditions are so bad that workers jump to their deaths often enough that suicide nets were erected. But condemning people who have made one mistake in their life or got caught up in the United States’ racist justice system to not being worthy enough to do hard labor on their buildings is a really classy move for Apple to make.

Migrant Workers in Germany

[ 11 ] April 4, 2015 |

index

Migrant workers in Germany are as routinely exploited as they are in the United States.

Migrant workers in Germany’s construction industry are increasingly faced with abusive practices of this kind.

In March 2014, the German union representing construction workers, Industriegewerkschaft Bauen-Agrar-Umwelt (IG-BAU), took on a similar case, defending 50 building workers in Frankfurt who had not been paid for months. The company was finally forced to pay the €100,000 (US$106,230) in wage arrears.

“More and more construction and public works companies are turning to labour subcontractors. As a result, a whole host of firms has sprung up specialising in the supply of cheap labour for construction projects,” explains Frank Schmidt-Hullmann, head of migrant workers’ affairs with IG-BAU.

“They are not genuine construction firms. They look like it on paper, but their only activity is, in fact, to supply labour at a low cost. They are brass plate companies that often only pay wages for the first few months. They then stop paying and expect the workers to keep going until the job is finished, in the hopes that they will be paid at the end of the contract.

“We are constantly coming across situations like this. And we only know about the cases that are presented to a union. It’s the tip of the iceberg.”

Most of the migrant workers in this situation are employed under the status of EU posted workers.

What a surprise that subcontracting is responsible for this rise in exploitation. It’s almost like other nations are looking at the new forms of corporations exploiting labor developing in the United States and learning from it! Glad to see the global influence of our corporate masters leading to a global Gilded Age.

Environmental Groups Supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

[ 13 ] April 4, 2015 |

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The White House blog has been shamelessly claiming how progressive and good for the American people the Trans-Pacific Partnership is. The other day, it sent out a message about how the TPP was good for environmental issues and included quotes from environmentalists who supported it. What? The World Wildlife Fund and Nature Conservancy are supporting the TPP? Here’s Carter Roberts, CEO of the WWF:

A major trade agreement among these countries that includes strong environmental obligations could provide critical new protections for some of our planet’s important natural resources. More specifically, it could disrupt some of the most notorious trading routes that are driving the current global wildlife poaching epidemic.

As nearly four years of negotiations come to a close, TPP countries face a choice. Do they keep their promise to create an ambitious 21st century trade deal with a fully enforceable environment chapter or do they abandon real environmental protections for weak, voluntary promises?

The U.S. has pressed hard throughout the process, and in response to the recent leak of the environment chapter, US Trade Representative Ambassador Mike Froman wrote that our government “will insist on a robust, fully enforceable environment chapter in the TPP or we will not come to agreement.”

It’s great to see the U.S. continue to publicly show its support for the environment. US leadership is paramount to delivering a final TPP with strong conservation protections, but it’s critical that other TPP nations make similar public commitments. As major producers and traders of wildlife, fish and timber, all negotiating nations have a responsibility to ensure that resources are well managed and that illegal trade and subsidies do not contribute to the depletion of fish stocks or increase illegal logging and wildlife trafficking.

Of course, many environmental groups oppose the TPP, although their voices have not been very strong in the debate. The Natural Resources Defense Council:

As a result, any trade agreement with these countries must address the key environmental and conservation challenges facing us in the 21st century, such as destruction of our oceans, wildlife, forests, public health, and climate. The U.S. has pushed for a minimum set of conservation protections in the TPP Environment Chapter – just one of 29 TPP chapters. But the devil is in the details and there are a number of aspects that the U.S. has resisted including in the agreement and provisions that could undermine key environmental safeguards. Unfortunately due to arcane rules pushed by the U.S., we have no idea what is in this agreement and won’t know until the final deal is reached as the documents are kept secret. But we do have some insights into a couple of aspects, including the Environment Chapter, thanks to leaks of earlier versions of the negotiating documents. And the signs from those leaks were troubling enough that NRDC, Sierra Club, and WWF raised serious concerns back in January about the reported language in the Environment Chapter.

So as negotiators make a final push to wrap up agreements this year, thirteen leading environmental and conservation groups – including NRDC, Sierra Club, WWF, League of Conservation Voters, and Oceana – sent a letter to the U.S. government articulating basic minimum conservation protections that need to be included in the final TPP environment chapter. On top of that a number of groups, including NRDC, have raised concerns about other TPP provisions including the inclusion of secret courts that would give new rights to corporations to challenge environmental and other public interest policies in un-transparent trade tribunals and the exclusion of key environmental agreements that address climate change or mercury pollution. At the same time, these trade agreements don’t establish minimum environmental safeguards that each participating country must meet, such as protecting their citizens from dangerous pollution. Here is a basic summary of my organization’s minimum requirements for the TPP. Unfortunately the leaked documents fall well short of these principles.

Interestingly, both sides of this within environmentalism are using the issue of enforceability as the key to their point. A few of the more conservative and less far-reaching groups are pointing specifically to wildlife trafficking protections as the reason to support it while those with a broader agenda see another version of NAFTA, lacking real, meaningful, and enforceable regulations on transnational environmental issues.

It’s worth noting here that some environmental groups decided to support NAFTA in 1993 because they wanted to continue to be part of the conversation and be in a favorable position with the Clinton administration. That strategy worked very poorly for the environment itself given the huge negative impacts on the Mexican environment from American corporations outsourcing production. It’s possible that is what some of the pro-TPP groups are thinking here again. It’s a short-sighted strategy.

You can read the Wikileaks account of the draft environmental passages of the TPP from 2014 here
. It does not look promising.

Baseball Executives Want to Use the War on Drugs to Avoid the Bad Contracts They Signed

[ 51 ] April 4, 2015 |

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Baltimore Orioles

Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton has a long history of substance abuse that nearly derailed his career. But he finally got it together. Of course, substance abuse and addiction are very difficult issues. He had a relapse over the offseason. He could have tried to avoid responsibility. Instead, he told the Angels and MLB voluntarily.

Josh Hamilton signed a 5 years-$125 million contract with the Angels before the 2013 season. This was a great contract for him but a really stupid one for the Angels. Even at the end of his time with the Rangers, Hamilton’s production was falling. He always struggled with plate discipline and the years of substance abuse probably made his skills decline a touch faster than they would have naturally. His strikeouts skyrocketed in 2012. Hamilton, when he hasn’t been hurt, has been a slightly above league average player the first two years of this contract.

The Angels wanted to suspend Hamilton for violating his substance abuse program, even though he came to them voluntarily. Yesterday, an arbitrator ruled that they could not. The response of Angels GM Jerry DiPoto and president John Carpino did not hide the team’s disappointment:

This led to sportswriters ripping the Angels as it became clear this was about saving money and using baseball’s war on drugs to bail teams out of bad contracts, not helping Hamilton. Bill Plaschke:

The team that has already given away Hamilton’s locker is now publicly kicking him to the curb. The organization known for a cuddly primate has bared its teeth and revealed its vindictiveness. This is not only about wanting to make sure Hamilton is off drugs, this is about wanting him off their payroll and out of their lives.

The Angels want Hamilton suspended so they can save the remaining $83 million on his contract, save awkwardness when he returns to a clubhouse, and basically just save themselves the hassle. They don’t care that Hamilton or his teammates are listening, they don’t care that a Southern California fan base that often winces at such intolerance is listening. They just want him gone.

This column is not a defense of the arbitrator’s ruling. The Angels are right that it was wrong. While the ruling technically adheres to baseball drug law, it goes against the spirit of the discipline required to make that law effective. Reportedly one of the factors in allowing Hamilton to avoid discipline is he reported his relapse instead of failing a drug test. That sets a dangerous precedent. So if a player thinks he just tested positive, he can get off the hook by immediately throwing himself on the mercy of the commissioner before the test results become public? That’s a gaping loophole that needs to be closed.

But the Angels should have kept their mouths closed. Why further humiliate a sick player by warning him he’s no longer welcome? Why not let him finish his rehabilitation while finding some inner peace, then leave open the possibility he could play for you again?

And the usually measured Ken Rosenthal on why everything about this case was leaked throughout the process:

Even if the arbitrator had determined that Hamilton indeed violated his program, the entire matter should have remained private, at least until the moment commissioner Rob Manfred issued his suspension. But that’s not what happened, and make no mistake — Hamilton was wronged in the process.

So, who was responsible for the leaks?

As a reporter, I know that information comes from everywhere, and not always obvious sources. The Angels, however, are the one entity that stood to benefit if Hamilton was suspended and forfeited a portion of his $23 million salary in 2015. He also is guaranteed $30 million in both 2016 and ’17, and considering his declining performance in recent seasons, the Angels surely would love to escape that obligation as well.

The initial report on Hamilton from the Los Angeles Times said he was meeting with baseball about a disciplinary issue and that the team was bracing for possible penalties. Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto confirmed that Hamilton was in New York but said nothing else. A scramble then ensued to report why the meeting took place, and both CBSSports.com and New York Daily News reported that his relapse involved cocaine.

I’m not sure the Angels acted properly in confirming Hamilton’s initial meeting in New York. And the club went public again Friday, saying in a statement, “The Angels have serious concerns about Josh’s conduct, health and behavior and we are disappointed that he has broken an important commitment which he has made to himself, his family, his teammates and our fans.”

This, for a player who was deemed not to have violated his treatment program.

Lovely.

I understand why baseball pursued the matter; if Hamilton had indeed violated the program, then it would have been only proper for the sport to enforce its policy. But baseball, too, needs to take responsibility for the way Hamilton was cornered publicly.

He deserved better as a recovering addict. He deserved better as a major leaguer. He deserved better as a human being.

Of course some sportswriters, even wanting to fight the War on Drugs from their computers, are talking about how this is really about the Angels wanting to get Hamilton help, but that’s totally absurd.

I’m curious to see if this affects the Angels with free agents going forward. This isn’t some steroid case where many players really want those players out of the game. This is a sick man who has struggled with life-threatening addiction for a long time. He deserves support from his team, not contempt. But Angels owner Arte Moreno doesn’t want to pay the money he owes Hamilton and so wants to see him suspended. That can’t make the next aging slugger or pitcher Moreno offers a bunch of money feel real great about it. I suspect agents are definitely taking note of this. And whoever was leaking this information about Hamilton to the media probably should be fined or suspended by MLB. Not that it will happen.

Why the Endangered Species Act Matters

[ 14 ] April 3, 2015 |

Murrelet

I think the Endangered Species Act is really quite underrated in the history of transformative American legislation. Everyone knows about it on a basic level, but it’s role in saving entire ecosystems from industrial production is really quite remarkable. Take the marbled murrelet. People know about the northern spotted owl and the role it played in shutting down old growth timber production in the Pacific Northwest. But the murrelet is just as important and in the long run maybe more as the barred owl is eliminating spotted owls on its own. The marbled murrelet only nests on think high branches in old growth forests. Get rid of the old growth and the murrelet goes extinct. The environmental historian Char Miller:

These economic benefits ran right into an interrelated set of ecological deficits for which Furnish and his peers along the northern Pacific coast had to account: steep declines in spotted-owl and salmon populations, as well as troubling data about timber harvesting’s impact on the marbled murrelet. By the late 1990s, federal and state scientists assessing murrelet behavior ranging from the Santa Cruz Mountains north into Oregon had concluded that breeding murrelets exhibit site fidelity, that is, they return year after year to the same nesting area. As such, if a nesting stand is logged off, these particular birds may not breed again.

On the Siuslaw, for example, the data revealed that “nine out of ten mature timber stands had nesting owls and murrelets — which meant no more timber harvest.” What Furnish and his leadership team concluded was that “this incredibly productive landscape could not simultaneously maximize timber products and wildlife.” Because these redwood, spruce, and fir forests were “the womb that sustained this natural abundance,” and because by law this abundance itself must be sustained, “the remaining mature forest in the Coastal Range would stay standing.”

In an effort to undo this principled reasoning, the timber industry has been trying to delist the marbled murrelet as a threatened species, stripping it of its protections and opening the way for a return of clearcutting. As Furnish wrote me in an email: “The timber industry continues to take the narrow, regressive view that the Endangered Species Act simply doesn’t matter.”

But the timber industry consistently fails to win these battles because the ESA language is strong. Theoretically, the next time Republicans control all branches of government, the law could repealed. That wouldn’t surprise me at all. But as of right now, it has saved not only a bird like the marbled murrelet, but the entire ecosystem it relies upon.

Rewriting the Gilded Age in the New Gilded Age

[ 14 ] April 3, 2015 |

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Steve Fraser excerpts some of his new book on what we can learn today from resistance in the Gilded Age in The Nation. A bit from his selection on the Knights of Labor:

Like the Populist movement, it practically constituted an alternative social universe of reading rooms, newspapers, lecture societies, libraries, clubs, and producer cooperatives. Infused with a sense of the heroic and the “secular sacred,” the Knights envisioned themselves as if on a mission, appealing to the broad middling ranks of local communities to rescue the nation and preserve its heritage of republicanism and the dignity of productive labor.

This “Holy Order,” ambiguous and ambivalent in ultimate purpose, nevertheless mustered a profound resistance to the whole way of life represented by industrial capitalism even while wrestling with ways of surviving within it. So it offered everyday remedies—abolishing child and convict labor, establishing an income tax and public ownership of land for settlement not speculation, among others. Above all, however, it conveyed a yearning for an alternative, a “cooperative commonwealth” in place of the Hobbesian nightmare that Progress had become.

Transgressive by its nature, this “strange enthusiasm” shattered and then recombined dozens of more parochial attachments. The intense heat of the mass strike fused these shards into something more daring and generous-minded. Everything about it was unscripted. The mass strike had a rhythm all its own, syncopated and unpredictable as it spread like an epidemic from worksite to marketplace to slum. It had no command central, unlike a conventional strike, but neither was it some mysterious instance of spontaneous combustion. Rather, it had dozens of choreographers who directed local uprisings that nevertheless remained elastic enough to cohere with one another while remaining distinct. Its program defied easy codification. At one moment and place it was about free speech, at another about a foreman’s chronic abuse, here about the presence of scabs and armed thugs, there about a wage cut.

This is a bit romanticized for me. For one, it’s hard to deal with the 19th century working class without dealing with the fact that if there was one thing that tied them together, it was white supremacy. And maybe Fraser deals with that in the larger book. And maybe it doesn’t matter that much. In the end, everyone is going to create the past they want to use to understand their life and what they want the future to look like. Is it more important today that Americans were racist in the 19th century or that they found ways to resist the comically evil capitalists of the Gilded Age? The answer is both. But can we look past the racism of the 19th century to try and find lessons for today? I’d like to think so.

I do definitely think that the recent recasting of the Gilded Age by Fraser, Richard White, and others, is a useful corrective to those who have tried to apologize or explain away the actions of Gilded Age capitalists in the last 20 years.

The Elite Discourse of Higher Education Reporting

[ 98 ] April 3, 2015 |

Classroom2_24622

The other day, Stanford got a ton of publicity for offering free tuition for all students whose families make less than $125,000 a year. My response. Fine, but it’s not a big deal. Three thoughts came to my mind. First, if you are going to take out debt to go to college, doing it at Stanford is far, far more likely to pay off than at almost any other school in the country. Second, while there is certainly nothing wrong with Stanford doing this, in the larger discussion of higher education costs in this country, it is statistically meaningless. The few thousand (tops) this will affect each year at Stanford are dwarfed by the millions of young people at colleges around the nation. Until we deal with their rising debt loads, the problem remains. Third, why does so much higher education reporting focus on elite schools, even though the number of students attending them are so small?

Incidentally, Corey Robin had the same question recently, citing an article discussion conditions of education in prisons that aren’t all that different than a lot of our colleges. Yet they are shocking to the writer.

The reason for this disconnect is clear enough to me. Most reporters come from elite schools. It’s what they know. Their friends and coworkers came from elite schools. Community colleges, Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, or even a good but not elite state school like the University of Rhode Island is basically terra incognita for most of the people reporting on higher education in this country. Like so much else in our society, unquestioned class privilege allows for the reproduction of conversations about higher education that know the millions of people going to college at non-elite institutions exist, but without any real comprehension of their lives or ability to write about them usefully.

Rent Control

[ 233 ] April 3, 2015 |

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The usual discussion among people interested in cities is that rent control doesn’t work. I don’t know the literature enough to have a strong opinion on the matter. But I thought Jake Blumgart’s piece an interesting defense of the practice:

But a comprehensive review of literature by New York housing lawyer Timothy Collins found that the received wisdom regarding rent regulations is overly simplistic—partially because hard ceilings on rents are often imagined, while the reality is more often (as in New York’s case) a more measured approach meant to discourage landlords from dramatically raising rents and displacing tenants.

Collins argues that New York’s two largest building booms took place during times of strict rent controls: the 1920s and the post-war period between 1947 and 1965. (He is not arguing that the regulations provoked the building, just that they didn’t restrain it in the same way strict zoning codes did in the mid-1960s.)

“New York’s moderate rent regulations have had few, if any, of the negative side effects so confidently predicted by industry advocates,” Collins writes. “More important, rent regulations have been the single greatest source of affordable housing for middle‐ and low‐income households. I should note that many of these findings came as a surprise to me. When I first joined the Rent Guidelines Board staff in 1987, I believed that rent regulations in New York City probably did have some long‐term harmful effects. I was proven wrong.”

Outside the city, one economist found that housing construction in New Jersey fell by 52 percent in cities that enacted rent control regulations in the early 1970s—but fell 88 percent in those that didn’t. The policy also did not affect the landlords’ desire to keep their properties in good condition. One study from 1988 found that “there is no basis for economists’ strongly-held belief that rent control leads to worse maintenance.”

Again, I don’t know. Citing “one study from 1988” does not inspire a ton of confidence. But at least it’s an argument worth having and perhaps reconsidering or at least reevaluating the consensus that rent control is always a terrible idea and that it is a major factor in restricting the building of new housing in cities where it exists.

Labels

[ 10 ] April 3, 2015 |

long-labels-2

I love this campaign by the Canadian Fair Trade Network that plays on country of origin labels to describe the working conditions in those nations.

“100% cotton. Made in Cambodia by Behnly, nine years old. He gets up at 5:00 am every morning to make his way to the garment factory where he works,” reads the label on this yellow sweater. “It will be dark when he arrives and dark when he leaves. He dresses lightly because the temperature in the room he works reaches 30 degrees.”

That’s the equivalent of 86 degrees Fahrenheit—a temperature most of us would find difficult to work in for an entire day. The effects of the heat on Behnly are compounded by the room’s atmosphere. “The dust in the room fills his nose and mouth. He will make less than a dollar, for a day spent slowly suffocating. A mask would cost the company ten cents. The label doesn’t tell the whole story,” the tag reads.

Of course, hiding those working conditions is the goal of corporations so that we don’t think of any of that when we shop. Workers may be dying making our clothing, but the sale is so good! Moving production across the globe makes this far easier. We can’t even find Bangladesh on a map so no Triangle reaction here when 1129 workers die to make our clothes. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see country of origin labels challenged under the corporate rights provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, so we’ll see if even this minor knowledge of where our clothes are made remains five years from now.

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