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Lou Reed: Unionist

[ 9 ] October 29, 2013 |

Knew I liked that guy for some reason.

Sriracha Emissions

[ 155 ] October 29, 2013 |

Among the many products we probably don’t actively think of as having a major pollution impact in Sriracha.

But in Irwindale, where the hot sauce’s production facilities are, residents are complaining of burning eyes, irritated throats and headaches caused by a powerful, painful odor that the city says appears to be emanating from the factory during production. The smell is so aggressive that one family was forced to move a birthday party indoors after the spicy odor descended on the festivities, said Irwindale City Atty. Fred Galante.

The city of Irwindale filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Monday, claiming that the odor was a public nuisance and asking a judge to stop production until the smell can be reduced.

“Given how long it’s going on, we had no choice but to institute this action,” Galante said.

Irwindale officals repeatedly met with representatives from Huy Fong Foods to discuss methods of reducing the odors, according to the suit. Huy Fong representatives cooperated at first but later denied there was an odor problem, saying their employees worked in similar olfactory settings without complaint, Galante said.

There’s obviously pretty serious emissions violations going on here. For that matter, the smell of fresh bread wafting outside of an industrial bakery also largely consists of emissions violations, but when it is chiles and fish sauce and such, that’s not good. This is why we need a vigorous regulation and inspection program. Sriracha is tasty, but we also need to make sure the people of Irwindale are protected from its byproducts.

Who Will Be Lucky Number 10,000

[ 77 ] October 29, 2013 |

Since the Newtown killings last December, at least 9900 Americans have died from guns. The total mass political movement from this has been the recall of two Colorado legislators who voted for gun-control legislation.

Update [PC]: The 9,900 figure is, as Slate notes, a massive underestimate, since for among other reasons the reporting method ends up excluding almost all gun deaths from suicides (suicides outnumber homicides by about two to one). Using CDC estimates, the actual number of gun deaths in the US since the Newtown killings is around 28,700.

Weak Anti-Faculty Union Arguments

[ 49 ] October 29, 2013 |

University of Illinois professor Nicholas Burbules’ anti-faculty union arguments are laughable. They are laughable precisely because he ignores the reality of 21st century administration-faculty relationships and what administrations are trying to do to faculty. Burbules thinks that shared governance is a real and serious thing today:

By contrast, shared governance begins with a presumption of shared commitment to the constitutional principles and to the best interests of the institution. Faculty and administrators view themselves as partners in a common project; this is what the “shared” in shared governance means. This certainly doesn’t mean that the parties always agree—but even where there are disagreements, they are usually respectful and collegial.

Under shared governance, administrators assume that the feedback and advice of the faculty will help them make better decisions, and that those decisions will be better understood and supported by professors when they grow out of consultation and openness. They respect the faculty’s fundamental rights and control over academic matters, and involve them in a broad range of other decisions as well—even when they may not be strictly required to do so.

Faculty members, for their part, respect that administrators have an accountable responsibility for making certain decisions and sometimes have information and considerations that cannot be widely shared. They recognize that senior administrators are faculty members, share the values of the faculty, and understand the concerns of the faculty. The governance roles of administration and professors are viewed as complementary, having legitimate spheres of authority that need to respect each other.

Right…. Senior administrators totally share the values of the faculty, such as eliminating the German, French, and Philosophy departments, replacing tenure-track faculty with adjuncts, reducing budgets, and generally squeezing the faculty while padding administration with more positions and six-figure salaries. And the administration oh so much cares about faculty feedback to their bad ideas. I mean, in my 7 years as a faculty member, I’ve seen nothing but respect and positive responses to feedback from faculty. In my fantasy world, I’ve seen administrators realize their ideas were bad, restore funding for departments, take the humanities and social sciences seriously, reinforce the values of a liberal arts education, support professor free speech, and respect the traditional role of a higher education in shaping a new generation and exposing them to new ideas. It’s a fantasy world because the real world of academia is mostly terrible. Which is why we need unions.

If it wasn’t for my AAUP union, I would not have a job anymore. Burbules claims that faculty are professionals, not workers, but not only is that an arbitrary distinction, but it also doesn’t represent the reality of the 21st century university. There’s a reason why more and more faculty members are unionizing, including a major recent victory at the University of Oregon. I’m sure Burbules however is on his way to a nice administration sinecure through this essay and what is no doubt his other anti-union activities at his home campus at the University of Illinois.

Hitler the Pig

[ 29 ] October 28, 2013 |

Evidently, a pig in 1942 was extra, well, piggish and ate too much. So its owner named it Hitler. And painted the name on it.

Adbusters

[ 111 ] October 28, 2013 |

I’ve long thought Adbusters brought out the worst in the left–lazy, self-congratulatory, conspiratorial, lacking a critique of power, relying on clever images rather than articulating an interesting politics. Basically, a love of Adbusters was probably a sign I didn’t need to take you very seriously. I’m glad to see Ramon Glazov and Jacobin take it on. And boy, this stuff is crazy:

This March, Adbusters jumped into what ought to seem like a marriage made in hell. It ran a glowing article on Beppe Grillo – Italy’s scruffier answer to America’s Truther champion Alex Jones – calling him “nuanced, fresh, bold, and committed as a politician,” with “a performance artist edge” and “anti-austerity ideas… [C]ountries around the world, from Greece to the US, can look to [him] for inspiration.” Grillo, the piece gushed, was “planting the seed of a renewed – accountable, fresh, rational, responsible, energized – left, that we can hope germinates worldwide.”

Completely unmentioned was the real reason Grillo is so controversial in Italy: his blog is full of anti-vaccination and 9/11 conspiracy claims, pseudoscientific cancer cures and chemtrail-like theories about Italian incinerator-smoke. And, as Giovanni Tiso noted in July, Grillo’s “5-Star Movement” also has an incredibly creepy backer: Gianroberto Casaleggio, “an online marketing expert whose only known past political sympathies lay with the right-wing separatist Northern League.” Casaleggio has also written kooky manifestoes about re-organizing society through virtual reality technology, with mandatory Internet citizenship and an online world government.

Adbusters could have stopped flirting with Grillo at that point, but it didn’t. Another Grillo puff-piece appeared in its May/June issue. Then the magazine’s outgoing editor-in-chief, Micah White (acknowledged by the Nation as “the creator of the #occupywallstreet meme”) recently went solo to form his own “boutique activism consultancy,” promising clients a “discrete service” in “Social Movement Creation.” Two weeks ago, in a YouTube video, White proposed that the next step “after the defeat of Occupy” should be to import Grillo’s 5-Star Movement to the US in time for the 2014 mid-term elections:

After the defeat of Occupy, I don’t believe that there is any choice other than trying to grab power by means of an election victory … This is how I see the future: we could bring the 5-Star Movement to America and have the 5-Star Movement winning elections in Italy and in America, thereby forming an international party, not only with the 5-Star Movement, but with other parties as well.

That’s an awesome idea. If there’s one thing that the American left needs, it’s to promote quasi-fascist Italian groups. Add the weird pop psychology Scientology-esque ideas, the belief that the real problem in America is advertisements rather than the power behind them, and the idiotic belief that the left has something in common with the Tea Party and you have a publication that I have even less respect for than I did before.

Why Would Someone Named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions Think Government Funding to Study the Past a Threat?

[ 77 ] October 26, 2013 |

The august senator from Alabama declares war on the NEH funding the H in its name. And with his own name, you can see why he’d be opposed to the government giving money for studying the past.

Better Economic Advisors Please

[ 68 ] October 26, 2013 |

I wish the economic advisors of Democratic presidents would improve. Sadly, no.

Here’s some of what Sperling had to say. He led off with the importance of entitlement cuts. (All emphasis is mine):

“Sometimes here [in Washington] we start to think that the end goal of our public policy is to hit a particular budget or spending or revenue metric—as if those are the goals in and of itself. But it’s important to remember that each of these metrics … are means to larger goals. … Right now, I think there is among a lot of people a consensus as to what the ingredients of a pro-growth fiscal policy are. It would be a fiscal policy that—yes—did give more confidence in the long run that we have a path on entitlement spending and revenues that gives confidence in our long-term fiscal position and that we’re not pushing off unbearable burdens to the next generation. That is very important.”

That’s a vague, guarded, jargon-y Washington way of saying, “We’re going to have to accept entitlement cuts—get used to it.” Then came the justification, which was the weakness of the economic recovery:

“You have to think about this as part of an overall pro-growth, pro-jobs strategy. Also, there’s no question that right now we still need to give this recovery more momentum. We cannot possibly be satisfied with the levels of projected growth when we are still coming back from the worst recession since the Great Depression.”

This Day in Labor History: October 26, 1825

[ 14 ] October 26, 2013 |

On October 26, 1825, the Erie Canal opened, eight years after construction commenced. This engineering marvel would have enormous impacts on the future of American work, including spurring ever-greater industrialization, helping cement the Great Lakes states as a center of American industrialization, and ensuring New York would be the long-term center of American commerce. It also came at a cost of over 1000 dead workers.

The engineers who designed the Erie Canal thought of their project as a uniquely American achievement, a sign of the glorious republicanism of the new nation flexing its increasingly powerful muscles. As economic and technical elites would do throughout American history, these engineers and politicians used national rhetoric to hide the very real muscles they relied on to build their marvel. And those workers were treated poorly.

Americans were used to hard work in the 1820s. Farm work was pretty tough and in some ways had much in common with canal digging. Working on either meant you might cut trees, dig ditches, divert streams and labor in cold weather. Most canal workers labored seasonally, but I don’t have to tell you all how cold an upstate New York winter can be so for those who did labor through the winter, the working conditions were awful.

Epidemics were a huge problem and contributed significantly to the dead workers. In 1819, more than 1000 workers got sick from some sort of disease that came from working in a swamp that went on for 30 miles (in our significantly ditched, diked, and drained landscape of the east, it’s hard to imagine such enormous swamps, although they do still exist in some areas). Only a few of these workers died, but most were disabled for long periods of time. Other epidemics were far worse. For workers who did avoid sickness, widespread disease did lead to increased wages, however briefly. One contractor had to raise wages from $12 to between $14 and $17 a month due to an epidemic, about which he complained bitterly.



Building the Erie Canal

The use of gunpowder killed a lot of workers. The care given to explosions was pretty low through the 19th century and workers were blown up all the time or killed by rocks blown through the air. Canal collapses were also common, burying workers. Workers fell to their deaths building the locks and aqueducts. Orrin Harrison was exhausted from too much work. He fell asleep resting against a balance beam on a lock. Dozing, he fell into 8 feet of water where his legs were caught in the lock’s gates and he drowned. The death toll rose daily from these sorts of incidents.

At first, the workers were mostly American-born, but this quickly changed as labor needs increased and the reality of just how brutal this work was became more real. Thus very quickly, the Canal became a prime job site for the nation’s growing numbers of Irish immigrants. We usually associate Irish immigration a couple of decades later with the potato famine, but it had already begun by the late 1810s, with an 1817 famine what was pushing them out. The Irish would take the most difficult and dangerous jobs in the pre-Civil War north and become despised by the nation’s Protestants for it, later leading to the Know-Nothing Party and other anti-immigrant sentiment. By the end of the Erie Canal’s construction, the Irish made up a sizable percentage of the labor force.

Within the national framework of republican free men working for oneself as a craftsman or farmer, laboring as canal diggers was the lowest of work. That living conditions were so awful for these workers seemed irrefutable evidence that these workers were morally deficient, for who would live in such conditions? When the Irish then took these jobs, it reinforced the prejudice many New Yorkers had against the Irish, especially since they already saw them as living in filth. Contractors housed their workers in shanties that were frequently compared to barns that stood physically removed from towns and farms, isolating these workers physically and socially. Plus farm workers had warm beds and good food. Canal diggers did not. The work’s seasonality was also far more unpredictable than farming, meaning economic and personal insecurity.

Mostly, the laborers who came to the U.S. to work on the project found their experience disappointing. William Thomas had immigrated from Wales. He wrote back home: “I beg all my old neighbors not to think of coming here as they would spend more coming here than they think. My advice to them is to love their district and stay there.” Thomas considered returning to Wales, although we do not know if he did.

Dangerous and deadly work in the United States would grow and grow in coming decades as the Industrial Revolution transformed the nation. Some of it would be in the kind of grunt work of building a canal (or a railroad soon after). Some would take place in the factories, some in digging or cutting the raw materials for it all. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century, the death toll would be of little concern to bosses and certainly not to the capitalists financing this growth. Immigrants would provide much of this labor, as would African-Americans in some areas. Others would advise their families and friends to love their district and stay there too but millions would choose possible death over permanent poverty and come to work in the dangerous trades and unsafe worksites.

I relied on Carol Sheriff’s book, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 to write this post.

This is the 80th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

I Guess We Know Where the Giants Got the Money to Pay a Fading Tim Lincecum $35 Million

[ 26 ] October 24, 2013 |

What a surprise that billionaire sports owners would steal from their poorest employees:

Two Major League Baseball clubs–the San Francisco Giants and Miami Marlins—are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor for possible federal wage law violations. The investigations come amid wider concern about questionable pay practices throughout professional baseball, according to interviews and records obtained by FairWarning under the Freedom of Information Act.

Labor Department spokesman Jason Surbey confirmed the investigations of the Marlins and Giants, but would not give details. However, emails reviewed by FairWarning show that possible improper use of unpaid interns is a focus of the Giants probe. It is the Labor Department’s second recent investigation of the Giants over pay practices involving lower level employees.

An attorney for the Giants said the team would not comment on the current investigation. A Marlins spokesman said the club does not believe “that any of the Marlins’ current labor practices are improper….We can confirm that the Marlins have been and will continue to cooperate fully with the Department of Labor.” Major League Baseball officials could not be reached.

Officials with the department’s Wage and Hour Division announced in August that the Giants had resolved the prior case by agreeing to pay $544,715 in back wages and damages to 74 employees. Many were clubhouse workers the agency said were paid at a daily rate of $55, but who sometimes worked so many hours that they got less than minimum wage and no overtime. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

Ronald Shannon Jackson, RIP

[ 25 ] October 24, 2013 |

The great free jazz drummer has passed. Here’s a clip of him in possibly my favorite jazz band of all-time, Last Exit, with Peter Brotzmann, Bill Laswell, and Sonny Sharrock. This clip really features Jackson’s work.

I know after watching that, everyone is ready for a nice smooth mellow evening, just like after listening to a little Kenny G. I love Last Exit so much because for all the craziness, Jackson still grounds it in a big blues-rock beat that drives the music like a hammer.

Check this out too:

Mr. Jackson was born in Fort Worth on Jan. 12, 1940. His mother, Ella Mae, played piano and organ at a Methodist church and his father, William, was the proprietor of Fort Worth’s only black-owned record store and jukebox supplier. The saxophonists King Curtis and David (Fathead) Newman were relatives; among the musicians who preceded him at I. M. Terrell High School were Mr. Coleman and the saxophonists Dewey Redman and Julius Hemphill. Mr. Jackson played his first public engagement, with the saxophonist James Clay, at age 15, then worked with Ray Charles’s band in Dallas. In 1966 he went to New York, where he enrolled at New York University. That year he made his first recording, with the Charles Tyler Ensemble, and joined Ayler’s band. His work with Ayler is documented on two roughly recorded but urgently played volumes of “Live at Slug’s Saloon.”

So the same Fort Worth high school produced Ornette Coleman, Julius Hemphill, Dewey Redman, and Shannon Jackson. Huh. Whatever was in the water out there was pretty potent.

Layaway

[ 237 ] October 24, 2013 |

Alex Tabarrok’s piece at Marginal Revolution about the bad economics of layaway makes sense on one level. It got all the appropriate and expected twitter hits this morning (Yglesias, Klein, etc). I’m not going to argue against the the post on its merits. Layaway exists as a way to transfer money from people to corporations, it is a bad economic investment for the consumer, etc. Tabarrok can’t figure out why people would agree to do this–stores rarely run out of goods and if they do they are replaced with something else, it’s a big pain to make the payments, etc. And I agree that Consumer Reports probably shouldn’t be calling layaway a good idea.

But like so many ultimately well-meaning articles about the poor I read on the internet, it’s seems to me that Tabarrok doesn’t understand layaway because he’s never been poor (although I don’t actually know). Let’s imagine a situation for layaway. You are 11 years old. It’s July. Your family doesn’t have much money. Getting new school clothes is a big deal because you don’t get very many new clothes in a year and you want to wear them on the first day of school. Your parents are really worried about this. They want to buy you the new clothes. They also know that they will have a really hard time actually saving the money to purchase them all at once. So they put them on layaway at the Target or Walmart and make the payments, hoping to have them all paid off before school starts.

How would I come up with this scenario? Because I was that 10 or 11 year old and my parents used layaway to get me those new clothes I wanted. In fact, in the scenario I am recalling, they actually couldn’t make all the payments and I really wanted those clothes and somehow we talked the store into giving us some of the clothes up front and breaking up the layaway, which probably only worked because I was there and nearly hysterical that I would have to wear old clothes on the first day of school.

In a so-called rational economic world, layaway might not make sense. In the real world that actually people live and operate in it makes a ton of sense, even if it is bad economics. People can’t save money easily. It’s actually a more secure investment to pay some of it up front, which commits the individual to buying the product and makes acquiring it probable, but also gives the buyer some leeway if disaster strikes.

Economists try to understand why people make the decisions they do. The growing field of behavioral economics is mercifully bringing that back into the real world. What has driven the decisions of working-class people in the 20th century more than anything is a desire for security, broadly defined. Whether we are talking about Social Security, Medicare, the union contract that rolled over with few substantial changes except better benefits for 20 years, the ability to own a home after World War II, many of our major policy and labor decisions since the 1930s was driven by the desire for security now mobilized through the American labor movement. The CIO especially centered security as a broad goal and crafted policy to increase working-class security. And it worked, at least for members of the white male working-class, for several decades. Today it has mostly collapsed in an era of contingent labor, union busting, capital mobility, massive debt, and income stagnation.

But I don’t think the desire for security is just a broad policy goal in union offices in Washington, Congress, or the Department of Labor. It also drives people’s daily lives. The struggle to survive and to make ends meet is ultimately a struggle to find some level of security in your life. Sometimes, the desire for security might even drive behavior economists see as irrational. But layaway is a form of security for you to buy your 11 year old his school clothes. So on the fundamental level of seeing your child happy and your home at peace, layaway might be a perfectly rational decision.

What bothers me about articles like this is the lack of understanding of working-class behavior. Tabarrok can’t understand why people would use layaway. But it’s easy to gain that understanding. Ask some poor people why they use it.

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