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[ 9 ] August 29, 2013 |

Well, doesn’t this just make you feel comfortable about the safety of our workplaces and our communities:

A Dallas Morning News analysis of more than 750,000 federal records found pervasive inaccuracies and holes in data on chemical accidents, such as the one in West that killed 15 people and injured more than 300.

In fact, no one at any level of government knows how often serious chemical accidents occur each year in the United States. And there is no plan in place for federal agencies to gather more accurate information.

As a result, the kind of data sharing ordered by President Barack Obama in response to West is unlikely to improve the government’s ability to answer even the most basic questions about chemical safety.

“We can track Gross National Product to the second and third decimal, but there is no reliable way of tracking even simple things like how many [chemical] accidents happen,” said Sam Mannan, a nationally recognized expert on chemical safety who recently testified before a congressional hearing on West.

Let’s be clear, this is intentional. Corporations don’t want you to know where things are produced or under what conditions. Business has ensured that the relevant government agencies that could effectively track this information remain chronically underfunded. We can blame government and there’s no question that it isn’t enough of a priority for either political party. But one party is opposed to the sheer existence of these agencies and that makes it awfully hard to craft an effective regulatory system.

Beer TV

[ 72 ] August 28, 2013 |


Things are looking up for Delaware’s Dogfish Head. Not only were recently voted America’s best craft brewery over at the Daily Meal, there are also murmurs that a sitcom is in the works based on the brewery’s founders, Sam and Mariah Calagione.

The show would feature funnyman Ken Marino (“The State,” “Party Down,” and the Ben Stiller-produced web comedy “Burning Love”) and his writer/actress wife Erica Oyama (“Burning Love,” “Children’s Hospital”) as the husband-and-wife owners of a funky craft brewpub. Marino was Sam Calagione’s college roommate at NYU, and remains one of the brewer’s closest friends.

“It was actually my wife’s idea – she does most of the thinking in our partnership.” Marino quipped to “We pitched it to Sony TV earlier this summer and they loved it.”

Fox also loved the idea, enough to purchase the exclusive rights to the show, Calgione confirmed. A pilot is in the works, and if Fox likes what they see, the show could make it to the airwaves.

This sounds disastrous. I suppose it would be funny the first time they made a Dogfish Head joke about putting pig snouts, caviar, and truffles in a beer. The 57th time, less so. But hey, I’m sure the woman will have an Asian best friend and one of the people working at the brewery will be black so success is assured.

A Metaphor for Conservative America

[ 126 ] August 28, 2013 |

Oh dear:

A special spirit day at Oral Roberts University took a tragicomical turn last week when a bald eagle released into the school’s Christ Chapel by a professional handler crashed into a window just as students began chanting “USA! USA!”

The eagle was unharmed, but many of the students could be heard screaming at the sight of America’s national animal wiping out in metaphorical fashion.

The bird had apparently become disoriented from the crowd’s patriotic hollering.

“It was a bit shocking to see, but we’re thankful the eagle is OK,” an ORU spokeswoman told Tulsa World.

After the eagle’s trainer recovered the bird, university president Dr. William M. Wilson continued with the service, at one point urging students to become “eagles for Christ.”

Ooh, can I be an eagle for Christ? Does that mean that other religions are tasty salmon that I can tear from limb to limb with my sharp beak and claws?

America’s Deadliest Job

[ 14 ] August 28, 2013 |

I’m sure the timber industry is glad it retook its historically appropriate title America’s most dangerous job.

An excerpt from my book manuscript draft, part of which explores the history of worker safety in logging. Sadly, things aren’t always so different today:

On August 28, 1905, Clise Houston reached to clear an obstruction from the saw he worked when he fell into it, killing him. Finnish immigrant John Koski found a job with the Simpson Logging Company in a camp near Matlock, Washington. On June 18, 1904 nearby tree fallers shouted “Timber!” He did not move and the tree landed directly on top of him, crushing him beyond recognition. Koski had no family in America and his co-workers had no way to inform his relations in Finland of his demise. The company paid for the burial. Karl Carlson worked in the Anderson & Middleton mill in Aberdeen, Washington. In 1905, a belt fell off its course and Carlson tried to guide it back on to the pulley with a shovel. The shovel became entangled with the belt and he lost control of it. The machine tore the shovel from his hands and plunged it, handle first, through his body. Carlson died the following day, leaving behind a wife and child.

Many workers survived their grievous wounds. Morris Campbell worked in J.E. Nichols’ sawmill in La Conner, Washington. In the last days of 1899, he caught his arm in a mill saw. It was amputated at the shoulder. In 1900, Frank Lang lost most of his left hand running a band saw in the Centralia Shingle Mill in Centralia, Washington. In 1901, Martin Boyer’s foot got caught in machinery in a Centralia mill. Doctors amputated. In a nation without a social safety net, injured workers often fell through the cracks into a lifetime of poverty. Workers like Campbell, Lang, and Boyer faced grim futures as disabled persons, as did many people disabled on the job before the passage of the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act in 1920, which provided occupational training and job placement for those injured on at the workplace.

Guaranteed Basic Income

[ 60 ] August 28, 2013 |

Matt and I have had our share of arguments over how to create a better life for working people, but I mostly endorse his statement about Guaranteed Basic Income.

The minimum wage typically gets debated in terms of econometric studies about disemployment impacts. But the problem with the minimum wage isn’t the alleged disemployment, it’s the freedom. Imagine a worker earning just slightly above the minimum wage, and also working under some kind of conditions that he finds annoying. He goes to the boss and asks for a change. Turn the heat up a little in the winter. Or let him pick which music plays rather than sticking with some dumb playlist that’s been assigned from the top down. Or get a more comfortable chair. Or manage the line this way rather than that one. There are dozens and dozens of little non-wage decisions in any given workplace that impact a person’s happiness and life satisfaction. But the manager looks at it and says there are sound business reasons for sticking with the status quo. Now the problem with the minimum wage is that even if the worker values the change much more highly than he values an extra 2 cents an hour, he’s not allowed to trade 2 cents an hour for an improvement in his working conditions.

Conversely, I strongly suspect that one reason empirical studies often don’t disemployment effects of minimum wage hikes is that there are a lot of non-wage dimensions to the employer-employee relationship along which things can change.

The problem with no minimum wage, however, is that the kind of freedom involved in allowing for unconstrained wage bargaining is that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” The ideal solution to these problems, however, lies not in the workplace but outside of it. Exactly where King and Henry George thought it belonged—in guaranteeing to everyone a minimum standard of living whether or not they work. With that in place, employers will face a de facto minimum job quality. Your job has to beat “unemployment + living off the GBI” rather than “unemployment + homelessness.” You can reach that job quality threshold with money. Or you can reach it by providing valuable training and experience for the future. Or by having a really enjoyable atmosphere of some kind. Realistically, it’ll be a mix.

There are multiple reasons for the minimum wage, which I obviously think should be much, much higher. But part of it is that it was an achievable victory during the New Deal in a way GBI never was. It was part of the piecemeal construction of workers’ rights that reached its pinnacle between 1938 and 1965. Union recognition was also central to that and what people often forget about unions is that they weren’t only or even predominantly about wages, but about dignity at the workplace.

Matt brings up the example of the chair. Let’s expand on that. In the 1970s, the International Woodworkers of America, the union that makes up the heart of my logging book manuscript, fought very hard for the ergonomic workplace. The IWA made alliances with workers and scholars and researchers in Japan, Sweden, and Germany to bring ergonomic timber mills into the Pacific Northwest. This was part of a larger attempt to empower workers on the shop floor through enforcing OSHA regulations. The IWA was among the nation’s leading unions in this task; whereas many unions chose to focus on other issues or fell for job blackmail and employer propaganda that OSHA regulations would force companies to move factories abroad (which they were planning on doing anyway), the IWA centered these issues and made real differences in workers’ lives. If you have GBI, unions could focus even more on the importance of dignity at the workplace, however workers themselves define it. Everyone’s life is better.

As for Henry George’s Single Tax, as I’ve stated before, such one-trick ideas were too simplistic for the modern workings of capitalism, even though that simplicity appealed greatly to 19th century Americans who believed so strongly in the system and just wanted it tweaked to put it back in control of everyday people. But moving toward a tax or a system that would provide GBI is a noble goal. Once you have Guaranteed Basic Income, the world of working-class possibilities opens up. You can work to raise the GBI. Or, if it is at a respectable level, you can fight for an ergonomic workplace, the importance of which can’t be overstated for those who have suffered from its lack.

Read of the Day

[ 24 ] August 28, 2013 |

Gabriel Winant’s long-form book review of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. A brief excerpt:

People, too, suffered the violence of abstraction. Over the first half of the 19th century, up to a million slaves were transported into the Cotton Kingdom from the older slave states (the origin of the saying “sold down the river”). Shipped in barges, or marched southwest in chains, slaves were ripped out of their social worlds, alienated from the learned skills and bodily traits that had enabled them to survive in Virginia or Kentucky. The masters tried to un-people these slaves, to reconstruct them in a form dehumanized enough that they could be moved from place to place and fitted into the production process just like any other commodity. To do so, as Johnson explains in one of many resonant examples, they kept their slaves awake. Sleep deprivation was a technique of power, “implemented,” Johnson writes, “as an offshoot of bizarre anthropological theory.” Johnson goes on to quote a contemporary source, which held that it was “common opinion among the people that the Negro requires less sleep than the white man.” Sleep deprivation was one of any number of techniques “by which human life was turned into cotton: the torturous conversion of labor to capital, and of living people to corpses.” Slaves were physically reconditioned for cotton-field work and for the noxious health conditions of the lower South—a process masters called “seasoning.” Planters exchanged tips in trade journals for tormenting the bodies of slaves until they were properly fitted to the cotton production system. Slaveholders didn’t just tell slaves what to do; they managed their bodies—“a recoordination of nerves and muscles, eyes and hands, which extended their dominion beyond the skin of its subjects, into the very fabric of their form.”

The simplification of bodies and the simplification of nature went together. A well-controlled labor force did the work of clearing and maintaining the physical geography of the Cotton Kingdom. In turn, a controlled landscape allowed for controlled labor. The planter’s power extended, in a sense, only as far as he could see; he or his overseer—note the word—thus removed all visual obstructions and patrolled the fields on horseback, the cotton rows serving as “a visual grid they could use to measure their slaves’ labor.” In turn, a slave’s most reliable strategy was to go “off the grid,” to hide out in the swamps and forests. (Recall: “skulking around.”) Going to ground like this, more often than making a dash for the Mason-Dixon Line, was what it meant to run away. Constant, brutal violence maintained the grid’s disciplinary force. The Cotton Kingdom, by consequence, was less “a fixed bastion of slaveholding power than an excruciating becoming: a landscape being fiercely cleared in a counterinsurgency campaign to which there could be no end.”

Very interesting discussion of Eugene Genovese as well.

I Prefer “War of Southern Treason to Defend Slavery”

[ 154 ] August 28, 2013 |

The fact that Jefferson Davis played a role in giving the Civil War its name and that the name is a product of the losers writing the history of a war they started to defend the enslavement of black people makes me want to banish the term.


[ 23 ] August 27, 2013 |

Freshmen in the 15th century had it rough:

“Statute Forbidding Any One to Annoy or Unduly Injure the Freshmen. Each and every one attached to this university is forbidden to offend with insult, torment, harass, drench with water or urine, throw on or defile with dust or any filth, mock by whistling, cry at them with a terrifying voice, or dare to molest in any way whatsoever physically or severely, any, who are called freshmen, in the market, streets, courts, colleges and living houses, or any place whatsoever, and particularly in the present college, when they have entered in order to matriculate or are leaving after matriculation.”

Leipzig University Statute (1495)

Luckily we have thrown off the chains of the past and can haze freshmen in any way we like, including making them attend classes and turn in papers on time.

Yet Another Example of the Huge Differences Between the Two Parties

[ 23 ] August 27, 2013 |

In a Democratic administration, OSHA makes alliances with women’s groups to improve health and safety for women who work in construction.

In a Republican administration, OSHA is controlled by industry hacks who prioritize industry profits over keeping workers alive.

Glad to see OSHA make this step. Won’t change the world, but it’s positive.

Copper Mines Seeking to Pollute New Mexico Groundwater

[ 9 ] August 27, 2013 |

The mining industry, conducting its usual anti-social, anti-environmental, and exploitative behavior, is pushing for new rules in New Mexico to escape having to go through a variance process to pollute the groundwater below its mining sites, reports the Santa Fe New Mexican The law could allow more industries to do the same, including the state’s two national laboratories. Mining has dominated the economy of southwestern New Mexico for more than a century and with a Republican governor in office, the industry is seeking to capitalize. There’s no good reason to allow high-polluting industries to get around water quality regulations. None at all.

In Case You Needed Another Reason to Not Drink Yuengling

[ 119 ] August 26, 2013 |

Yuengling owner Dick Yuengling, Jr. is an anti-union extremist who thinks Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett is “a great man,” hates unions, and is leading the Keystone State fight to make the state right to work.

I have to carry on with my normal behavior and avoid drinking that overrated swill.

Arkansas’ Anti-Tattoo Legislation

[ 159 ] August 26, 2013 |

I’ll preface this by saying that I’m a member of the 1%: the one percent of Americans under the age of 40 who remains without a tattoo. So while I have no personal stake in the issue, the Arkansas bill banning “untraditional” tattoos or body modifications, whatever that means, is completely ridiculous. It’s unenforceable, unconstitutional, and outrageous. It also makes Arkansas look like a bunch of reactionaries fighting against the hippies, stereotypes that the Natural State does not want to reinforce through grotesque legislation. While I’m real curious as to the future of this tattooing fad, in many ways it’s not too different from the fight against long hair on men that led to violations of civil liberties in the 60s and 70s.

Maybe I’ll go get a hammer and sickle tattooed on my face and then drive to Arkansas.