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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 17

[ 11 ] February 11, 2016 |

This is the grave of William Clark, copper capitalist and Gilded Age plutocrat.


I have discussed Clark before. He was a miner turned capitalist in Montana who became one of Montana’s three Copper Kings. He’s remarkable not so much for that, but for being the personification of Gilded Age corruption. Clark really wanted to be a senator. Of course, in the 1890s, senators were chosen by state legislatures. So he did what any Gilded Age capitalist who wanted to be a senator would do. He bribed them. Supposedly, he later said, “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.” This was no doubt true. But he was so corrupt that even the Senate, where there was no shortage of open corruption, would not seat him. He became for Mark Twain, the single symbol of the corruption of the period. He later still returned to the Senate, this time not so openly buying people off. He served a term. All of this inspired the 17th Amendment, which some of the right oppose today, being totally fine with rich people subverting democracy and buying off state legislators to control the Senate. None of this affected his massive wealth of course, as the grave above demonstrates.

William Clark is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York


It’s So Hard to Be a Capitalist in 2016

[ 103 ] February 11, 2016 |


Above: Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein

I just feel so bad for the head of Goldman Sachs. He’s so sad about Bernie Sanders’ success:

The head of Goldman Sachs said on Wednesday that Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy “has the potential to be a dangerous moment.”

Lloyd Blankfein, who is chairman and CEO of the bank, was speaking to CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
In January, Sanders was asked by Bloomberg Politics to list an example of corporate greed, and he listed Blankfein.

“I don’t take it personally since we never met,” Blankfein responded.

But he added that Sanders’ attacks on the “billionaire class” and bankers could be dangerous.

“It has the potential to personalize it, it has the potential to be a dangerous moment. Not just for Wall Street not just for the people who are particularly targeted but for anybody who is a little bit out of line,” Blankfein said. “It’s a liability to say I’m going to compromise I’m going to get one millimeter off the extreme position I have and if you do you have to back track and swear to people that you’ll never compromise. It’s just incredible. It’s a moment in history.”

Where “a dangerous moment” means “Bankers might actually be held responsible when they commit crimes.”

Does the head of Goldman Sachs speaking out against Bernie Sanders do anything but give him more credibility with the American public? I mean, not the American public that counts of course, by which I mean Washington elites. But the part that doesn’t count.

Privatizing Air Traffic Control

[ 32 ] February 10, 2016 |


Hard to see what could go wrong with the next target of Republican privatization schemes:

The Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act is intended to prevent an interruption in federal aviation funding next month. It would extend the FAA’s funding until 2022, but the measure would also create a new nongovernmental organization that would take over air traffic control from the agency in approximately three years.

The FAA bill is one of the few must-pass pieces of legislation left on the congressional agenda this year. As such, it also represents an opportunity for lawmakers looking for a vehicle on which to attach pet issues.

Supporters of the bill said separating air traffic control from the FAA would modernize the nation’s aviation system and bring it on par with countries such as Canada that have already set up independent flight navigation systems.

“The United States has led the world in aviation since pioneering this modern mode of transportation. We have the safest system in the world, and we will continue to do so under this bill,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the transportation committee. “But our system is incredibly inefficient, and it will only get worse as passenger levels grow and as the FAA falls further behind in modernizing the system.”

Of course, Congressional Republicans could fund that modernized system but then that wouldn’t accomplish their goal of turning public goods private, even if that ends up costing more for taxpayers, as Democrats claim, likely correctly.

Climate and Empire

[ 30 ] February 10, 2016 |


The question about climate change and empire is sadly ever more relevant as climate change drastically transforms the world. So more research like this is valuable:

A new paper, just published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience, proposes a link between a marked cooling event in the fifth and sixth centuries AD and a period of dramatic social change across Europe and Asia, including a pandemic plague outbreak, food shortages, political turmoil in China, migrations and even the rise of the Islamic empire. It’s impossible to say for sure whether the climatic shift was actually responsible for all the upheaval that went on during that time, the researchers say — but since the two periods coincided, the scientists are proposing that a connection is likely.

“There are a lot of things that occurred at the same time, and now it’s certainly very difficult to disentangle to what degree was it caused by climatic fluctuations,” said the study’s lead author, Ulf Büntgen, who heads a research group specializing in tree-ring science at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research. “But we just cannot exclude it anymore.”

In Europe, the colder climate is believed to have contributed to a decrease in agricultural output, which resulted in widespread food shortages. Around the same time, there was an outbreak of plague in the Byzantine Empire, which started around 541 AD and eventually achieved pandemic status as it spread throughout Europe, killing millions and contributing to the weakening of the Empire.

The researchers have hypothesized that the agricultural declines may have helped the plague bacteria spread from Asia into Europe via wildlife moving into the increasingly abandoned agricultural fields, although they acknowledge in the paper that much remains unknown about the plague’s origin and its link to climate during this time.

Additionally, historians believe there was a great deal of political turmoil in central Asia during this time period, with particular conflict within the regimes governing northern China. Meanwhile, it appears that Slavic populations were spreading across Europe. These events may have also been triggered by social instability caused by famine, crop shortages and disease outbreaks.

The authors have even suggested that there may be a link between climate and the eventual rise of the Islamic Empire. Changes in precipitation patterns, caused by the cooling, may have helped enable the growth of scrub vegetation on the Arabian peninsula, they note in the paper, adding that“larger camel herds may have facilitated transportation of the Arab armies and their supplies during the substantial conquests in the seventh century, during which the reconstructed fraction of human land use seems relatively high in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Guestworker Exploitation

[ 12 ] February 10, 2016 |


When people talk about the undocumented immigration “problem” outside of Republican debates calling for giant fences to keep out brown people, politicians and pundits often speak of a guestworker program as a way to provide the cheap labor American businesses want without forcing people to cross without papers. There can be a sympathetic piece to this argument because thanks to the militarization of the border, those people are forced into very dangerous situations, including crossing way out in the desert when they can and do die of heat exhaustion and thirst. But the history of these programs is one of rank exploitation, with workers having few rights. That was certainly true in the Bracero Program. And it remains so today, as Michelle Chen explores:

 According to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the guestworker labor force provides US employers jobs on the cheap, offering less in wages and virtually nothing in terms of labor rights or benefits.

EPI’s analysis of a decade of data on guestworkers under the H-2B visa program, which pipes immigrants into temporary low-wage service-industry jobs, shows that the visa allows bosses to employ guestworkers at “hourly wage rates that are far lower than state and national averages in the overwhelming majority of cases.” For example, in the most popular H-2B industry, landscaping and groundskeeping, “employers saved on average between $2.59 and $3.37 per hour by hiring an H-2B worker instead of a worker earning the national average wage.”

 This is not the standard protectionist argument about immigrants’ “taking jobs,” it’s about inequality being baked into a contract system that grants legal status in exchange for rights. In a sense, contracted guestworkers are less free than undocumented workers who can at least try to switch employers. As a recent NPR story on agricultural guestworkers points out, despite the dangers of living in the country without papers, undocumented workers at least have relative autonomy (albeit without any legal protections) to try to escape an abusive boss and reenter the underground labor market.

 A civil suit recently brought by a group of Jamaican H-2B guestworkers charges the Kiawah Golf Resorts in South Carolina with systematic wage theft, alleging that the resort violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and never paid the mandated wage set under the program’s guidelines, … in part to various travel costs and fees imposed on the workers as a condition of their employment. Some workers had allegedly been underpaid by as much as $2.20 per hour. They were working as housekeepers, servers, and bell persons for patrons who paid up to $1,000 per night for their lavish service.

Complaining about the system can cost a worker a livelihood and legal status. Shellion Parris, a former H-2B worker from Jamaica, helped launch a federal crackdown when she and coworkers organized an uprising against a Florida staffing agency, charging them with fraud and exploitation after they were denied the hotel housekeeping jobs they were promised and held in squalid conditions. Her hopes of vindication were upturned, however, when her petition for immigration relief foundered, leaving her destitute and stranded abroad after paying thousands. “We were all in debt when we came here,” Parris told The Nation last October. “We’re still in debt.”

These guestworker programs are just too problematic and open for labor exploitation to be part of the solution to immigration and labor problems. Republicans in Congress have of course just expanded the program and lowering the very limited labor protections in the program. Republicans read these stories and think, “yeah, we need a lot more of this, except maybe stopping the workers from filing civil suits. Tort reform!”

Profiles in Courage

[ 61 ] February 10, 2016 |


Paul Ryan is a real leader:

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus said House Speaker Paul Ryan told them he backs a bill to restore portions of the Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court, but won’t bypass his committee chairman to bring it the floor for a vote, The Hill reported.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) told The Hill that Ryan had signaled support for the Voting Rights Amendment Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), at a meeting with the group of black lawmakers Wednesday.

“So somebody was saying, ‘Well, why don’t you go tell your committee chair to do it?’ ” Cleaver said. “And he said, … ‘Look, I can’t do that.'”

According to The Hill, Ryan does not want to step on the toes of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), whose committee has jurisdiction over the legislation. Goodlatte has said that what’s left of the Voting Rights Act is enough to protect the franchise and thus the bill is not necessary. Ryan, a former committee chairman himself, has expressed a commitment to a bottom-up approach to leadership that defers to committees on advancing legislation.

“He said, ‘I told my own conference I’m not going to do it, so I’m not going to come up here and tell you anything differently. … I want it to be the product of the committee,’ ” Cleaver recounted, according to The Hill.

“I support the bill but I’m going to let a white supremacist committee chairman kill it. But I totally support you anyway. Remember that when black voting participation falls thanks to voter suppression tactics meant to keep me in power.”

Now that my friends is what you call brave leadership.

Why I Care More About the General Election than the Primary

[ 210 ] February 10, 2016 |


People don’t understand why I am not FeelingtheBern as much as others. I’m a socialist after all, right? I am actually feeling it to some degree, but between having a cautious nature and being very much a historian, I don’t really do full-throttled cheerleading for anyone. But part of it is also that the general election is about 100 times more important than the primary and that’s what I am gearing up for. This is why it’s more important:

A divided Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to halt enforcement of President Barack Obama’s sweeping plan to address climate change until after legal challenges are resolved.

The surprising move is a blow to the administration and a victory for the coalition of 27 mostly Republican-led states and industry opponents that call the regulations “an unprecedented power grab.”

By temporarily freezing the rule the high court’s order signals that opponents have made a strong argument against the plan. A federal appeals court last month refused to put it on hold.

The court’s four liberal justices said they would have denied the request.

The plan aims to stave off the worst predicted impacts of climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions at existing power plants by about one-third by 2030.

This basically means that the climate requirements are going to be overturned based on the constitutional principle of 5 old conservative men hating hippies. Given my belief that a Sanders presidency isn’t going to be able to do anything close to what he is claiming (and honestly, the recent prison promise seems impossible), to me, the general is just far, far more important and where the real choice is to be made. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t care about the primary. But this is what is shaping my preferring not to write about it too much.

India’s Air Pollution

[ 28 ] February 9, 2016 |

The India Gate monument in New Delhi, India, enveloped by a blanket of smog

While all the dialogue on horrible air pollution in the world focuses on China, it’s really awful in India as well. Josh Busby muses on his recent experience with the air of New Dehli and Mumbai to wonder what improvements India might make in pollution and how it might deal with climate change:

We often talk about climate change policy producing co-benefits for other areas and concerns, as if climate is the primary driver of policy. However, as Sarang Shidore and I argue in a piece we wrote last year on China for the Paulson Institute, that logic has it backwards: dirty air creates demand for policies that potentially produce co-benefits for the climate.

In India, Delhi’s air quality has created a political opening for the local government to enact a 15 day experiment of an odd-even driving scheme, limiting drivers to certain days of the week based on the numbers on their license plates.

As Arunabha Ghosh’s institute has documented, it’s unclear if the policy is working. The sources of air pollution of particulate matter (so-called pm2.5) include many other sources, some of which may be more important than commuter vehicle exhaust, including commercial diesel truck emissions, dust from building construction, power plant emissions, and burning of agricultural waste.

But, as Johannes Urpelainen notes, it may not be as important just yet if the policy works. Rather, the local government has put down a marker that this is an area for policy, and public expectations will likely drive further innovation in this space. While New Delhi as the country’s seat of government provides a special sort of pressure for action in the same way that Beijing does, other cities in India are also polluted and may face similar demand for action. Together, the demand for cleaner urban air could lead to a variety of policies that produce climate co-benefits.

Not all policies intended to reduce air pollution will produce co-benefits for climate (relocating coal burning power plants further away from major cities for one wouldn’t). Still, concerns about air pollution may be a far more potent driver of policy innovation to support renewables, fuel efficiency, and mass transit than climate ever would be on its own.

I’ve long been pretty skeptical that India will be able to manage its environmental problems to become a long-term world power. The messiness of its democracy means that change happens very slowly, while those environmental problems are enormous and growing. I think China has a better chance to change because of its command economy, although that’s obviously not easy either. But we need to hope India moves ahead here, both for the good of its own people and for the rest of us.

The AFL-CIO, Black Lives Matter, and Police Unions

[ 53 ] February 9, 2016 |


This is a good piece on how the AFL-CIO is trying to thread the needle between supporting the rights of police unions to collectively bargain and be part of the labor movement and support the millions of people of color in this country, many of whom are also union members, who rightfully fear the violence of those police union members. My position remains the same–that we all need to support police unionism while shunning the police unions from any other form of support. All workers need the right to collective bargaining and there is absolutely zero evidence that busting their unions would do anything at all to address the concerns of Black Lives Matter activists. That said, the police unions are terrible on all political and racial questions and show no solidarity ever with any other unions. But yes, they do deserve collective bargaining rights. Whether that is in the AFL-CIO or not, that’s another question. I don’t think the AFL-CIO has to provide much support for them and I think the future of unionism is far more with workers of color in service industries than in the older police unions. But some of the building trades unions, which are very powerful within the larger federation because of the decline of the industrial unions and soon to be decline of public sector unions in the wake of Friedrichs, are politically much closer to the police unions than BLM activists. So it’s a tricky situation for Richard Trumka and the AFL-CIO. I am glad Trumka is taking a lead on creating dialogue and participating in what are not always friendly meetings with activists to try and build bridges. That’s the hard work.

The Problem with Economists

[ 204 ] February 8, 2016 |


As has bothered some of you, I think the field of Economics is largely intellectually bankrupt, a field specializing in mathematical formulas that tell us almost nothing about human behavior, a field serving as intellectual hacks for free-market global capitalism that provides justification for the exploitation of the world’s workers without actually caring about those workers, a field that intellectually uncurious and that is only comfortable with policymaking from 30,000 feet, yet a field that has an enormously inflated view of its own importance to the world, often looking down on other academic disciplines. This is not true of all economists of course, but it is true of far too many.

The historian Jefferson Cowie explores these these problems with economists in this Chronicle piece. A couple excerpts.

After reading through a policy speech prepared by John Kenneth Galbraith, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the economist. “You know, Ken,” he said, “the trouble with economics is it’s like peeing in your pants. It feels hot to you but leaves everyone else cold.” One only has to go to an economics seminar to know that Johnson was right.

Yet in an era in which markets have become the method of justifying and adjudicating all things, we cannot afford to have economics leaving us feeling cold and wet. Economics has become the benchmark for other intellectual endeavors; its practitioners rule policy debates; and, sadly, its mathematical modeling has become a closet form of anti-intellectualism — mathematically abstracted, as it tends to be, from real-world problems — that is creeping into other disciplines. While fewer people care that much of the lit-crit crowd stopped talking humanities to humans, economics is too central to political life for such shenanigans. It is time for the “queen of the social sciences” to get off her throne and start speaking to some of the lesser subjects in the kingdom of academe.

My “J’accuse” is this: The field of economics practices the very sin it preaches against ­— protectionism. That is to say, economists are protectionists of the intellectual sort at a time when the need for trade in the market of ideas has never been more pressing.

In a recent article, “The Superiority of Economists,” in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, we learn a number of things that are truly impressive about the field: Its graduates have higher standardized-test scores than political scientists and sociologists; they tend to find places higher up in policy and advisory circles; they are the best at math; and they earn more money and tend to have better career prospects than other graduates do. It’s no surprise that economists also seem to have more intellectual self-confidence than those in other fields. Economics, after all, is the only social science to have its own Nobel prize. Grounded in the present, they look toward the future and only rarely to the past.

On the other hand, smug in their security, economists are the least likely to cite other disciplines. Perhaps the most disturbing thing is the remarkable extent to which graduate training in the field is similar across institutions and departments — a stark contrast to other disciplines. And most of that graduate education is driven by textbooks and textbooks alone. To other social scientists and humanists, that is an astonishing proposition, and evidence of the field’s range of ideas.

As that survey of economic training shows, economics demonstrates more internal control over its own labor market, hiring only those who follow the prescribed formulas. The study of economics appears to be an exercise in the affirmation of orthodoxy.

First, that is classic LBJ. God bless him. Second, as Cowie points out, the Nobel in economics is a ridiculous joke that only exists because the Bank of Sweden wanted to promote itself.

The insularity of economics prompts an enormous irony: Rather than a market, economics borders on a command economy. From inside its fenced-in monocultural landscape, students are taught that they have arrived at the land of objectivity, that they have passed beyond the ideological and into the scientific. Not only is this protectionism, but it creates a rub with democratic theory and practice. It is, essentially, an invitation to opt out of the greater intellectual struggles in which the rest of us are engaged. By protecting itself from the contagion of outside ideas, economics offers up a more extreme version of the Balkanization and creeping anti-­intellectualism that are apparent elsewhere in the academy. Its hegemonic role, however, makes all the more important the need for the field to open up and transcend its preoccupation with the blackboard fictions of economic modeling.

As the Keynes scholar Robert Skidelsky has put it, the methodological presumption of economics is that “a good car [called economic modeling] has been built: Students must learn how to drive it.” But economics should not be a course in driver’s ed; it should empower students to think critically and creatively about the whole system of transportation. We should be inculcating curiosity, a sense of adventure, a greater range of ideas, not shutting them down. After all, it’s not as if economists are simply correct. When the queen asked the faculty members of the London School of Economics and Political Science why they did not foresee the 2008 financial crisis, they said they would get back to her. They later admitted in a letter that they had no answer and that their promise to provide one was an example of “wishful thinking combined with hubris.”

To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in.

The book is more important, of course, for its argument about how the economy works. Piketty’s basic premise is as heroic as it is succinct: The rate of return on capital outstrips economic growth, making capitalism an engine for inequality unless there are countervailing forces.

As powerful and persuasive as Piketty’s work is, truth be told, he is not much of a historian. As much as I admire his data — and use it myself — the American history in his book, where it exists, is often just wrong in both fact and interpretation. He wields history like a chef with a heavy hand on the salt — it’s there every time you taste the dish but it doesn’t really help things. Balzac keeps popping up in Piketty’s book, but there are no unions, the New Deal is not especially significant, and there is not much labor-market policy at all. Taxation and war seem to be the only levers of change and, by association, the only solution to problems. Social history — the history from below — seems like an unknown land.

Neither Cowie nor myself think the field of Economics is irredeemable. Obviously we need people studying the economic system. But as currently constructed, the field causes more problems than it solves and in doing so, directly contributes to the inequality of the modern world. Economists need to do better. Stopping the fetishization of mathematics is a good place to start. Study real people doing real things. Read the work of people in other disciplines. Come off the mountaintop and understand the people you theorize about. Talk to them. Speak to their concerns.

Cowie by the way is one our leading historians. Capital Moves was foundational in the study of capital mobility as a historical phenomenon and was the book that inspired Out of Sight. Stayin’ Alive may be the most important book written on the decline of working-class America in the 1970s. And his new book on the New Deal anomaly promises to be transformational in how we think about social change and inequality in American history.

Oil Tax

[ 18 ] February 8, 2016 |

I know there is no way it will get past Congress, but President Obama is completely correct in calling for a $10 per barrel tax on oil to fund green infrastructure.

The proposal would go toward a $32.4 billion annual push to green the transportation sector by funding public transit, an urban planning initiative and clean vehicle research, the White House said in a fact sheet. Obama will include the plan in the budget request he releases next week.

The plan will likely die in the GOP-controlled Congress, which will vet Obama’s budget request before writing spending bills later this year.

But the proposal represents a new front in Obama’s climate change end-game: After finalizing carbon reduction regulations for the electricity sector last year, he is turning his attention back to the transportation sector, which accounts for 30 percent of American carbon emissions every year.

“The president’s plan does what we need to once again have a transportation system that is a source of American strength while at the same time taking steps to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change,” Jeff Zients, the director of the National Economic Council, told reporters Thursday.

Charging the fee to oil companies, the White House said, is both a funding mechanism for the transportation initiative and an incentive for the private sector to move toward cleaner fuel.

Mostly, this is the correct policy. Now, it’s not without its downsides, in that were this to pass, it would be passed on to consumers, meaning that it would effectively be a regressive tax that made gas and heating bills a larger percentage of income for the poor than the rich. And I have a problem with that, not that there is an easy alternative solution. Otherwise, this is a correct policy in that it specifically targets climate-change inducing industries, incentivizing them, as well as drivers, to use less oil and move toward green energy, while using the money to build the infrastructure necessary to manage this transition. Of course, Republicans are opposed to hippie energy and infrastructure spending alike, so it will die. But this is along the lines of the policy Democrats need to constantly fight for.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 16

[ 17 ] February 8, 2016 |

This is the grave of Henry Ward Beecher.


Beecher was the most prominent minister in mid-19th century America. The son of Lyman Beecher, one of the most important ministers of his generation, Beecher started his ministerial career in 1837 in Indiana. He rejected his father’s neo-Puritan teachings for a doctrine that emphasized joy, pleasure, and reform, fitting for the Second Great Awakening. He became a major social activist, an abolitionist, an temperance advocate, and a supporter of women’s suffrage. He attacked the Fugitive Slave Act and became a leading national voice against it. He also raised funds to send arms to anti-slavery forces in Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas period. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln sent Beecher to Europe to speak against the Confederates, helping turn the tide of European public opinion to supporting the United States.

After the Civil War, he was one of the abolitionists who quickly turned to attacking workers and their unions and to feeling that the government should stay out of the South. He supported Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction plans, was close to the capitalists building their monopolies, and vociferously anti-union. During the Great Railroad Strike, Beecher stated, “Man cannot live by bread alone but the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live.” He became hated by unionists around the country. To his credit, he did embrace Darwin’s theory of evolution and opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

He may have thinketh no evil, but he definitely thinketh lust, as Victoria Woodhull notoriously exposed. Beecher was a notorious womanizer, with rumors about his affairs extending to well before the Civil War. So when he spoke out against Woodhull’s ideas about free love, she decided to write an exposé of Beecher’s hypocrisy, detailing his latest affair in her newspaper. Beecher then had her tried for obscenity, launching a series of trials that dominated national headlines for two years, including Beecher himself going on trial for adultery. He was exonerated in 1875 and died in 1887.

Henry Ward Beecher is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

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