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The Necessary

[ 86 ] January 10, 2014 |

I visited Mount Vernon recently. While some might think George Washington’s dentures are the most impressive thing you can see and others might look from Washington’s porch and imagine themselves as him overlooking the Potomac and Maryland, there’s no question that the more sophisticated reading of Washington’s estate sees the reconstruction of his 3-seat outhouse, or “necessary” as it was called at the time, as the best thing ever.

Now normally you might think, like others at the time. that Washington used his multi-person outhouse simultaneously with others. It was a far less private and far smellier time in the 18th century after all. But I don’t think so in Washington’s case. As this documentary footage of General Washington suggests, a man this phallic would probably have a number of anuses as well. That’s science my friends. Science.

A-Bomb Sunrise

[ 56 ] January 10, 2014 |

This is an excellent set of photographs documenting how atmospheric nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site lit up the night sky in Los Angeles:

The light from the tests seems to light up the entire sky, a dull incandescence sharply outlining anything between it and the camera. At first, the images seem rather mundane for looking so much like a sunrise — the difference of course is that this fission-born light comes straight from man’s handiwork, and heralds the beginning of an arms race that in the 1960s tilted perilously close to Armageddon. An interesting theme in the handwritten captions accompanying these photos is the regular reminder that the blast is much more powerful than any previous, which makes sense given that during this period the yields of nuclear tests were definitely on the rise.

The pictures with people in them demonstrate the utter (and now seemingly morbid) fascination with nuclear weapons that many Americans had at the time (e.g the Hulk). The Nevada detonations became such a source of interest for the City of Angels that on April 22, 1952, local TV station KTLA joined several other networks in broadcasting the massive Tumbler-Snapper test detonation. The event got surprisingly high ratings for 5:30 in the morning — before that, they had to broadcast tests secretly. Unless a TV station told you tune in for one, the only way anyone within eye- or ear-shot of a test would know a bomb had gone off was when they saw or heard it announcing itself over the horizon.


[ 139 ] January 10, 2014 |

I now see why the Republicans passed the bill to gut Superfund. It’s clearly unnecessary, what with a company actually named Freedom Industries taking care of the good people of West Virginia.

Schools and restaurants closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and state legislators who had just started their session canceled the day’s business after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston shut down much of the city and surrounding counties even as the cause and extent of the incident remained unclear.

The federal government joined the state early Friday in declaring a disaster, and the West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. About 100,000 water customers, or 300,000 people total, were affected, state officials said they reported in requesting the federal declaration.

Shortly after the Thursday spill from Freedom Industries hit the river and a nearby treatment plant, a licorice-like smell enveloped parts of the city, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued an order to customer of West Virginia American Water: Do not drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.

The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and overran a containment area. Officials from Freedom, a manufacturer of chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries, hadn’t commented since the spill, but a woman who answered the phone at the company said it would issue a statement later Friday.

Now that’s some clean coal! Freedom indeed!!!

Oil Trains

[ 17 ] January 10, 2014 |

In my forthcoming book on capital mobility, I’m dedicating a chapter to energy production. It details how we can follow Americans’ interest in the costs of energy production based upon whether Americans actually see energy being produced. When the Santa Barbara oil spill takes place in 1969, Americans are outraged. Same with the Exxon Valdez or BP oil spill in Louisiana. When these things happen all the time in Nigeria or Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, Americans couldn’t care less. The same goes with other forms of energy. Fights over how wind turbines will affect the views of rich people in New England say a lot about Americans’ relationship with energy and the natural world.

But the thing about energy (and food, to a lesser extent) is that unlike apparel, it can’t be produced everywhere. It is dependent upon the nature humans wish to harness. And so while we have outsourced a huge amount of our energy production and managed to source a lot of the domestic production in quite isolated places (West Virginia mountaintops, Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, Alaska, platforms in the Gulf), the nation’s continued need for energy can create resistance against the system of corporate energy production when it again appears where Americans live.

Recent oil train derailments are becoming one site of resistance (actions around earthquakes and fracking is another). The derailment in Quebec certainly got the attention of many Canadians complicit in their nation’s fossil fuel policies. It and others has also gotten the attention of American politicians, and thus Jay Rockefeller and Ron Wyden are calling for a federal evaluation of current rules regarding trains carrying oil. With the very high likelihood of the Keystone pipeline being built, the chances are that the United States will see a lot more oil spills in coming years. I don’t really believe that the Obama Administration will take Rockefeller and Wyden’s request all that seriously and two senators does not a movement make, but it’s a good sign and I suspect will be followed by a lot more questioning from politicians and resistance from locals as future American energy production unfolds.

Terrible Republican Ideas, Part 24,209

[ 52 ] January 10, 2014 |

House Republicans passed a bill yesterday gutting Superfund. Yes, that’s right, the Republican Party supports the exposure of Americans to toxic waste.

Of course, as we all know there is no meaningful difference between the parties and thus Rand Paul is the only true progressive alternative in 2016 because of some grandstanding speeches on a single issue that he has taken no concrete actions to change.

War on Poverty

[ 188 ] January 8, 2014 |

The greatest war in American history turns 50 today. That’s the War on Poverty.

Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the House and Senate, my fellow Americans:

I will be brief, for our time is necessarily short and our agenda is already long.

Last year’s congressional session was the longest in peacetime history. With that foundation, let us work together to make this year’s session the best in the Nation’s history.

Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens; as the session which reformed our tangled transportation and transit policies; as the session which achieved the most effective, efficient foreign aid program ever; and as the session which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic.

All this and more can and must be done. It can be done by this summer, and it can be done without any increase in spending. In fact, under the budget that I shall shortly submit, it can be done with an actual reduction in Federal expenditures and Federal employment.

We have in 1964 a unique opportunity and obligation–to prove the success of our system; to disprove those cynics and critics at home and abroad who question our purpose and our competence.

If we fail, if we fritter and fumble away our opportunity in needless, senseless quarrels between Democrats and Republicans, or between the House and the Senate, or between the South and North, or between the Congress and the administration, then history will rightfully judge us harshly. But if we succeed, if we can achieve these goals by forging in this country a greater sense of union, then, and only then, can we take full satisfaction in the State of the Union.

While Johnson’s Great Society was not perfect, it was a brave and noble attempt to fight entrenched poverty in the world’s largest economic power. But largely today, we’d have to call this war lost. The New Gilded Age is by definition a resounding defeat of the War on Poverty by the plutocrats and the shareholders, with quarterly reports meaning more than childhood nutrition and end of the year Wall Street bonuses a higher priority than homelessness, racial equality, or education. Capital mobility is the weapon of the rich, undermining the job security necessary for people to make demands on corporations and making politicians desperate for the good will of corporate leaders for both campaign donations and jobs for their constituents.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t take LBJ as an inspiration and fight a new war on poverty, one that is increasingly needed a nation defined by enormous income inequality, long-term unemployment, and devastating debt loads.

This Day in Labor History: January 8, 1811

[ 54 ] January 8, 2014 |

On January 8, 1811, the largest armed slave uprising in U.S. history took place. The German Coast Uprising in Louisiana had up to 500 participants marching to New Orleans to attempt a Haitian Revolution in the United States. Only 2 whites died in this uprising, showing the extreme difficulty any slave revolt had in succeeding or even making a dent in the slave power within the United States. Yet for the significance of this event, it is almost completely unknown in popular American history, even compared to the rest of slavery history.

Louisiana developed a significantly different slave tradition than the rest of the United States. Whereas most early British North American slavery was in tobacco (and rice in South Carolina) and then cotton in the 19th century, Louisiana money was made in sugar. This made it much more like the Caribbean. There was a lot more money in sugar than the other crops. This meant wealthier planters and higher concentration of slaves. The German Coast of Louisiana, generally speaking St. Charles Parish and St. John Parish, had these concentrations. Some have estimated a 5:1 ratio although census records suggest a more even ratio. This matters because the larger the predominance of the slaves, the better the conditions were for organized rebellion, something whites knew and a fact that scared the bezeejus out of them, especially after the success of the Haitian Revolution.

From the perspective of the United States government and the nation’s white supremacist ideology, Louisiana was also a troubled place. While Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had close relationships with the French, after purchasing Louisiana, they did not believe the Creoles of Louisiana could govern themselves (they used the typical rhetoric of children needing to learn good government from the Americans that would be used against Native American tribes, the Philippines, and Latin America). Part of the discomfort was Louisiana’s different racial hierarchy, with a wealthy free black community and common consensual interracial sex that led to skin tone rather than one drop rules dominating the racial hierarchy. Jefferson and Madison resisted granting Louisiana statehood, clearly guaranteed in the Louisiana Purchase agreement, until 1812. So when the slave revolt took place, it happened in a Louisiana undergoing rapid changes.

As for much about the history of slavery in this period, the specific details of even such a major event are pretty hazy. Planning for the revolt began on January 6, just after the end of the brutal sugar harvest. The leader seems to have been Charles Deslondes, with men named Quamana and Harry also playing major roles. Quamana and another slave named Kook were Asantes, evidently warriors, who had been imported from Africa around 1806. Deslondes summed up the fear of race mixing and the French system of slavery for American whites, a green-eyed man with greater education and access to the world than the average slave. He was the son of a white planter and black slave and evidently was used as a slave driver.

The revolt began at the home of plantation owner Manuel André, about 36 miles north of New Orleans along Lake Ponchartrain in an area known as the German Coast because of a number of German planters in the area. André was struck with an axe and wounded and his son chopped to death. Deslondes brought the slaves from a plantation owned by widows where he was enslaved. Deslondes led the slaves into the plantation cellar for muskets and militia uniforms.

The precise numbers of slaves involved are unclear and estimates varied. The original revolt consisted of between 64 and 125 participants. As these slaves marched toward New Orleans, they picked up people along the way, leading to a final number of between 250 and 500. It’s thought that between 10 and 25% of slaves from the various plantations affected joined the rebellion, mostly single young men under 30. Armed with hand tools, knives, and a few guns, they marched for two days, covering twenty miles. The historical documentation is sketchy. But there is at least limited evidence that the slaves were aware of the Haitian Revolution and modeled this after that, a possibility given that many Haitian planters had fled to Louisiana with their slaves during the Revolution. It also seems that some of the slaves had military experience in Ghana and Angola before their capture. We do know that the slaves marched in military formation so someone had some military training at some point.

Area whites panicked, fleeing to New Orleans, fearing a Haiti in their midst. And in fact, it does seem that Deslondes and the slaves wanted to conquer New Orleans. Later, after this was over, a slave named Jupiter was asked why he participated. He answered that he wanted to kill white people.

The response to the uprising was utterly brutal. Whites came at the slaves with maximum force. The U.S. military combined with French planters to suppress the rebellion. They came close to New Orleans before being turned around at Jacques Fournier’s plantation and crushed near modern-day Norco, Louisiana, on or very near the site of what is today the Waterford 3 Nuclear Power Plant. As they fled into the plantation backcountry and bayous, whites hunted them down. Another 44 were tried and executed. The total number of dead was around 95. What makes this response different than other slave rebellions is the brutality. Slave owners recognized the rebellion as a very real threat and wanted to be clear of the consequences. So they cut off the heads of the slaves, placed them on pikes, and lined the roads with them, in the most public and brutal suppression of slave agency in the nation’s history. The territorial legislature compensated the owners for the loss of their property by paying them $300 for each dead slave.

The federal-planter alliance to crush the rebellion helped smooth over the hard feelings about the federal treatment of the territory. Louisiana would become a state the next year. It also helped commit the federal government to the defense of slavery. Slowly Louisiana’s system of race and slavery would become more like the rest of the American South.

The most prominent book I know of on the 1811 rebellion is Daniel Rasmussen’s American Uprising, and some of the information for this post comes from there.

This is the 88th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.


[ 74 ] January 7, 2014 |

Yesterday, we discussed the serious problems the American West has with its water supply and the very real threats this portends for the region’s future. Those who truly believe technology can solve our problems sometimes turn to desalination plants as a cure. Sarah Goodyear sums up many of the reasons why these are really problematic:

First among these is cost. Desal plants are hugely expensive to build and operate. Water companies would have to pass those costs along to customers. Fluctuating demand can make this type of massive capital investment even riskier for utilities. The plants are also are energy intensive — another factor in the operating expense — and could be significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

The environmental costs of desal are still only partially understood, according to a new report from the Pacific Institute. The possible negative effect on marine ecosystems has emerged as a major stumbling block to the construction of desal on the California coast.

Then there’s the disposal of the super-salty brine left over after the desalination process is complete. That liquid, produced in huge quantities — roughly one gallon for every gallon of desalinated water — is denser than normal seawater and could cause its own set of problems, particularly for desal plants located in areas without a lot of tidal flow.

All these factors, combined with the strong environmentalist constituencies in many coastal California communities and strict state regulations, mean that developing desal plants can turn into an expensive headache for water companies. In 2006 the number of proposed plants in California was 21. Now it’s down to 17, despite strong support for developing desal among many elected officials.

I am extremely skeptical of desalination as a reasonable solution for all these reasons. The impacts are likely to be massive–to the pocketbooks of customers and to the environment. Because the long-term impacts on ecosystems are poorly understood, like fracking and other energy projects that we rush into without sufficient study, desalination is likely to have unexpected consequences that will lead to difficult problems down the road. And while politicians and the public love these things in theory because they don’t see consequences, I don’t think they can either build enough of these to solve the water problems in California or that the cost of the produced water will be worth the effort.

Mapping Child Labor, 1933

[ 20 ] January 7, 2014 |

The Department of Labor provided some useful maps in 1933 of the United States’ patchwork regulations on child labor. One map.

Seems to me that Arkansas was infringing on the freedom of 8 year olds to work given that 4th grade requirement.

The Beef Monopoly

[ 84 ] January 7, 2014 |

It’s not so much that the beef monopoly is evil. We all know that. It’s that the beef monopoly is an evil subsidized directly by taxpayer dollars. That’s a problem.

I’d also argue that the beef pictured in the link was a bit overcooked.

Corporate Income Taxes

[ 81 ] January 6, 2014 |

I really don’t think Lawrence Kotlikoff’s idea to abolish all corporate income taxes is very good.

In recent decades, American workers have suffered one body blow after another: the decline in manufacturing, foreign competition, outsourcing, the Great Recession and smart machines that replace people everywhere you look. Amazon and Google are in a horse race to see how many humans they can put out of work with self-guided delivery drones and driverless cars. You wonder who will be left with incomes to buy what these robots deliver.

What can workers do to mitigate their plight? One useful step would be to lobby to eliminate the corporate income tax.

That might sound like a giveaway to the rich. It’s not. The rich, including Boeing’s stockholders, can take their companies and run — and not just from Washington State to, say, North Carolina. To avoid our federal corporate tax, they can, and often do, move their operations and jobs abroad. Apple’s tax return says it all: The company, according to one calculation, paid only 8.2 percent of its worldwide profits in United States corporate income taxes, thanks to piling up most of its profits and locating far too many of its operations overseas.

While Kotlikoff makes the not unreasonable suggestion that corporate taxes be replaced by taxes on dividends, the reality is that policy makers are going to take this, slash the corporate taxes, and not tax dividends or income. And while he might not be wrong that corporate taxes are an incentive to corporations moving around the world to maximize profit, they are doing that anyway to avoid labor standards, environmental regulations, and every social responsibility in exchange for an awesome next quarterly report.

The Rightless Workplace

[ 42 ] January 6, 2014 |

Former NLRB member Craig Becker on an extremely disturbing decision by the 5th Circuit that effectively creates what he terms a “rightless workplace.”

Unnoticed except by employment lawyers, the United States Court of Appeals in New Orleans last month issued what might be the most important workers’ rights opinions in decades. The decision permits employers to require workers, as a condition of keeping their jobs, to agree to arbitrate all workplace disputes and to do so as individuals, standing alone against their employer. The ruling could spell the end of employment class actions that were instrumental to breaching the barriers of both race and sex discrimination after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and remain critical to enforcement of minimum wage and other labor standards laws.

The case involved D.R. Horton, a home-builder operating in 27 states with annual revenue over $6 billion. The company required all employees to sign an agreement providing that employment disputes would be resolved by binding arbitration and that the arbitrator “may hear only Employee’s individual claims.” When one employee tried to pursue a claim that D.R. Horton had misclassified an entire category of workers as exempt from the protection of federal overtime law, the company insisted that each worker had to file his or her own claim.

The employee sought relief from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which held that the “agreement” to waive the right to join with co-workers in pursuing workplace claims violated federal labor law, which not only gives employees a right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining, but also to “engage in … concerted activities for the purpose of … other mutual aid or protection.” More than 30 years ago, the Supreme Court recognized that labor law protects employees when “they seek to improve their working conditions through resort to administrative and judicial forums.” After all, if employees have a right to strike together for higher wages, surely they can sue together to obtain the same result. And that is what the board held: Just as employers cannot require employees to “agree” not to join a union by signing what’s known as a “yellow dog contract,” neither can they require employees to “agree” not to file a class action.

The New Orleans Court of Appeals, by a 2-1 vote, reversed the board’s decision, concluding that employees’ longstanding labor-law right to act collectively was trumped by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which was enacted in 1925 to require courts to enforce private parties’ lawful agreements to resolve disputes out of court. But the FAA does not say anything about class actions and does not require enforcement of arbitration agreements that violate another law, such as the National Labor Relations Act. The court’s holding was guided instead by recent Supreme Court decisions giving the FAA an expansive reading—for example, permitting AT&T Mobility to enforce an arbitration clause appearing in the fine print in its form contract with cell-phone users, precluding consumers from bringing a class action.

Forgive the long block quote but it’s necessary to understand what’s going on. Effectively, Republican judges are continually pushing the United States toward the New Gilded Age, where employees no longer have rights but employers have expansively defined rights that happen to coincide with Republican policy beliefs about the workplace. Think of Gilded Age courts not enforcing Sherman Antitrust Act against the corporations the legislation originally intended to regulate but instead being used to bust unions, as was the case in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for a comparison. Courts are effectively ending a long tradition of workers using the institutions for their rights through defining laws to end class action suits.

The Republican Party and its court appointees have basically deified corporations. Whether we believe corporations should be our masters are not is irrelevant, since the courts will decide the question for us.

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