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The Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Democratic Party

[ 57 ] April 24, 2015 |

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Since Obama conned enough Democrats in the Senate to work with the capitalists for fast track authority on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the debate over the TPP within the Democratic Party has been interesting because other than Obama and senators who are not particularly influential to the public debate like Ron Wyden, there has been almost no support for it. Of course there are very good reasons why most Democrats oppose fast track. Eric Schneiderman, attorney general of New York, discusses one of them in detail, which is the TPP’s potential to undermine state and national laws through the Investor State Dispute Settlement provision.

One provision of TPP would create an entirely separate system of justice: special tribunals to hear and decide claims by foreign investors that their corporate interests are being harmed by a nation that is part of the agreement. This Investor-State Dispute Settlement provision would allow large multinational corporations to sue a signatory country for actions taken by its federal, state or local elected or appointed officials that the foreign corporation claims hurt its bottom line.

This should give pause to all members of Congress, who will soon be asked to vote on fast-track negotiating authority to close the agreement. But it is particularly worrisome to those of us in states, such as New York, with robust laws that protect the public welfare — laws that could be undermined by the TPP and its dispute settlement provision.

To put this in real terms, consider a foreign corporation, located in a country that has signed on to TPP, and which has an investment interest in the Indian Point nuclear power facility in New York’s Westchester County. Under TPP, that corporate investor could seek damages from the United States, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars or more, for actions by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Westchester Country Board of Legislators or even the local Village Board that lead to a delay in the relicensing or an increase in the operating costs of the facility.

The very threat of having to face such a suit in the uncharted waters of an international tribunal could have a chilling effect on government policymakers and regulators.

This simply cannot stand. Given how aggressive corporations are increasingly becoming in going after nations who restrict their profits, it’s very much something to worry about. Elizabeth Warren:

Those justifications don’t make sense anymore, if they ever did. Countries in the TPP are hardly emerging economies with weak legal systems. Australia and Japan have well-developed, well-respected legal systems, and multinational corporations navigate those systems every day, but ISDS would preempt their courts too. And to the extent there are countries that are riskier politically, market competition can solve the problem. Countries that respect property rights and the rule of law — such as the United States — should be more competitive, and if a company wants to invest in a country with a weak legal system, then it should buy political-risk insurance.

The use of ISDS is on the rise around the globe. From 1959 to 2002, there were fewer than 100 ISDS claims worldwide. But in 2012 alone, there were 58 cases. Recent cases include a French company that sued Egypt because Egypt raised its minimum wage, a Swedish company that sued Germany because Germany decided to phase out nuclear power after Japan’s Fukushima disaster, and a Dutch company that sued the Czech Republic because the Czechs didn’t bail out a bank that the company partially owned. U.S. corporations have also gotten in on the action: Philip Morris is trying to use ISDS to stop Uruguay from implementing new tobacco regulations intended to cut smoking rates.

ISDS advocates point out that, so far, this process hasn’t harmed the United States. And our negotiators, who refuse to share the text of the TPP publicly, assure us that it will include a bigger, better version of ISDS that will protect our ability to regulate in the public interest. But with the number of ISDS cases exploding and more and more multinational corporations headquartered abroad, it is only a matter of time before such a challenge does serious damage here. Replacing the U.S. legal system with a complex and unnecessary alternative — on the assumption that nothing could possibly go wrong — seems like a really bad idea

If you like corporate control over the world, you’ll LOVE the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The pushback among the Democratic base has some really interesting facets to it because of the question of what Hillary Clinton is going to do here. There is no realistic wedge issue in the primary because there is no meaningful primary regardless of how much Martin O’Malley hopes this can be a wedge issue. But there really could be a real battle within the party over the TPP. Even people such as Matthew Yglesias are noting that all the arguments the administration is making for the agreement don’t really make sense (as for the unions’ opposition which he also says doesn’t make sense, it’s certainly true that there’s nothing keeping the remnant industrial jobs in the U.S. at this point anyway, but unions have to try and stop the bleeding somehow. What else are they going to do? Plus the ISDS provisions could theoretically be used against labor agreements nationally and internationally). So one question worth asking is whether it makes political sense for Hillary Clinton to come out against the deal instead of trying not to provide any meaningful answers about her positions? Certainly doing so would enamor her to the base and really put a stake in any potential primary difficulties. On the other hand, she almost certainly supports the deal and doesn’t want to make Wall Street mad. So I think she’ll probably keep doing what she’s doing. But there is a real risk here because leading senators with national consistencies like Warren and Sanders are going to keep the attack going.

So just from a political perspective this is going to be interesting. As for Obama, he is now engaging in a full attack on his own party over the TPP. The White House blog has been nothing but hatchet jobs in favor of the TPP for a long time, but who really reads that anyway. Obama is now calling up favored reporters to attack Elizabeth Warren and other leading Democrats who oppose the bill. To no small extent, he is wrapping a major part of his legacy up in this bill and he is simply out of touch with working class Americans and the people who elected him president. Obama hasn’t done anything in this agreement to protect everyday Americans. And he deserves the criticism he is getting.

I borrowed the image above from the 350.org petition against the TPP which you can sign here.

The $70,000 Capitalist

[ 130 ] April 24, 2015 |

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The credit card processing executive who decided he would raise the minimum wage for his company to $70,000 a year got a lot of attention this week. It’s certainly an interesting experiment at the very least. Got to give it to the guy–he probably made a really smart long-term business decision because all of a sudden he’s famous and that may well attract a lot of new clients. The exchange of short-term personal profit for long-term growth is pretty unorthodox in this era of the quarterly profit report. Of course this could never ever happen in a publicly traded company. The long-term significance of this experiment is probably not all that great, but at least it’s a sign that income inequality and CEO pay are real issues that at least someone is taking seriously.

What’s more interesting to me is the total right-wing freakout.

Sandi Krakowski, an author and Facebook marketing expert, posted on Twitter: “His mind-set will hurt everyone in the end. He’s young. He has a good intent, but wrong method.”

Patrick R. Rogers, an associate professor of strategic management at the School of Business and Economics at North Carolina A&T State University, wrote in an email: “The sad thing is that Mr. Price probably thinks happy workers are productive workers. However, there’s just no evidence that this is true. So he’ll improve happiness, only in the short term, and will not improve productivity. Which doesn’t bode well for his long-term viability as a firm.”

Perhaps the most prominent attacker was Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio host, who labeled the move “pure, unadulterated socialism, which has never worked.”

He added: “That’s why I hope this company is a case study in M.B.A. programs on how socialism does not work, because it’s going to fail.”

Most critics were not as ideological as Mr. Limbaugh but were nevertheless put off by Mr. Price’s deviation from trusting in the market, both to set wages (his own as chief executive and that of his employees) and to maximize his own profits. Overpaying workers may make them lazy and is likely to inspire resentment among colleagues who once sat on the higher end of the pay divide, they warned.

During an interview with Mr. Price on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” the co-host Mika Brzezinski noted that people would probably say “you’re a terrible manager.”

Another guest, Sam Stein, an editor at The Huffington Post, was simply flummoxed. “Are you crazy?” he asked.

Three things come to mind reading these responses. First, is the religious belief in “the market,” which is presented as this natural force like gravity but which of course is nothing but a serious of decisions made by humans about how to organize their economy. The idea that one would interfere with this natural force that tells you to make as much money as possible and screw everyone else is an apostasy that must be ridiculed and crushed. Second is the lies that well-compensated workers aren’t productive. There is of course an enormous literature suggesting that happy workers are indeed productive workers. Here is just one piece of that literature. The upshot of Patrick Rogers position is that corporations should treat workers as poorly as they can since there is no connection between happy workers and productive workers. So we might as well drive them like slaves. Which is basically the economic ideology of the New Gilded Age. Third, is the idea that this guy is committing class suicide, betraying the world of executives and giving credence to those who think that the government might need to do more to regulate income inequality and CEO pay. Limbaugh blathering about socialism once again shows that he doesn’t actually know what socialism is, but also demonstrates just what a threat this move is for the vast majority of American capitalists and their lackeys.

Acquaintance Cards

[ 27 ] April 24, 2015 |

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It seems that if hipsters really want to be all steampunk, they might as well bring back acquaintance cards and other routines of 19th century versions of courting. Surely someone has done this. Think of the ironic courting statements a good hipster could write on one of these!!!

Hippie Tour

[ 24 ] April 23, 2015 |

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In 1967, a company was giving bus tours of the Haight for squares wondering what this whole hippie thing was about. Here’s a story and some photos taken on one of these tours by a reporter interested in the phenomenon. Cool stuff.

Punishing Protest

[ 32 ] April 23, 2015 |

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Nice that participating in a protest to get your state to accept the provisions of the Affordable Care Act gets one in seriously hot water at the University of Georgia.

Steel and the Trans Pacific Partnership

[ 42 ] April 23, 2015 |

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There aren’t a lot of steel jobs in the U.S. anymore but the ones that remain are about the disappear as U.S. Steel announces more layoffs. At the core of layoffs is unrestricted free trade that undermines the ability of American corporations to sell its own steel because it has to pay workers decent union wages and abide by environmental standards. The Trans Pacific Partnership will just continue to undermine the ability of Americans to work industrial jobs. And before we argue this is a good thing, note that for all the workers, like the rest of the American working class, they face unemployment, decreased earnings, and increased instability in their lives. Every United Steel Workers job lost means less ability for unions to influence American economic and social policy, giving more power to corporations and moving the New Gilded Age another step forward. Those who continue to say that these free trade agreements like the TPP need to reckon with these realities, especially liberals who do not trust corporations at home but want to empower them overseas. Everything that is wrong with this nation in the New Gilded Age can be traced back to the decline of union jobs and the disappearance of working class voices from politics.

A Timeline of DDT and Rachel Carson

[ 16 ] April 22, 2015 |

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Might as well mark Earth Day, that once meaningful day that now gives corporations an opportunity to pretend they care about the planet. Let’s note it a different way. American Scientist put together a useful timeline of the history of DDT and Rachel Carson, particularly how both have been discussed in the media. Quite worthy of a bit of your time.

Today in the History of Cannibalism

[ 77 ] April 22, 2015 |

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Another reason I’m glad the U.S. broke free from these savages in 1776:

Some 14,700 years ago, in a cave in southwest England, humans were dining on the flesh of other humans and drinking from their skulls.

We know of these gory events because the Paleolithic inhabitants of this natural shelter—which is called Gough’s Cave today—left an enormous amount of fossil evidence of cannibalism, in addition to amassing a large cache of animal and human bones.

But wait, it gets creepier. According to a study published this week in the Journal of Human Evolution, the bulk of the disturbing remains were deposited within a short period of time, suggesting a sudden and brutal occupation.

Moreover, the authors of the study, led by paleontologist Silvia Bello of London’s Natural History Museum, identified new evidence of ritual bone modification from the cave.

“The human remains have been the subject of several studies,” Bello said in a statement. “In a previous analysis, we could determine that the cranial remains had been carefully modified to make skull-cups.”

“During this research, however, we’ve identified a far greater degree of human modification than recorded earlier,” she continued. “We’ve found evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow.”

This of course would never happen in a civilized country like the United States.

Journalism in the New Gilded Age

[ 47 ] April 22, 2015 |

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This certainly makes one feel bad about the future of journalism.

One of today’s Pulitzer winners for local reporting isn’t actually a reporter anymore.

The Daily Breeze’s Rob Kuznia won the prize alongside Rebecca Kimitch for a series on corruption in the Torrance, California school district. Now the former reporter, who had more than 15 years’ experience covering local affairs, is celebrating the career high in his new job… as a publicist.

Apparently, as Kuznia co-reported the award-winning series, he was slowly getting squeezed out of the journalism racket.

Appended to the LA Observed’s coverage of the awards was the following bittersweet update:

We should note that Kuznia left the Breeze and journalism last year and is currently a publicist in the communications department of USC Shoah Foundation. I spoke with him this afternoon and he admitted to a twinge of regret at no longer being a journalist, but he said it was too difficult to make ends meet at the newspaper while renting in the LA area.

The effective elimination of the profession that is most likely to expose the problems of the present sure is a great way for corporations and politicians to protect their behavior. What I do isn’t exactly journalism but I can do it because I have a full-time job of a very specific kind. Those I know who are freelancing and trying to make ends meet without being the partner of someone rich is really hard to watch. Its just a constant struggle. Even the best journalists have to leave the profession in order to eat.

Walmart Union Busting

[ 35 ] April 22, 2015 |

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Oh Walmart. You are so evil.

Wal-Mart suddenly closed five stores in four states on Monday for alleged plumbing problems.

The closures could last up to six months and affect roughly 2,200 workers in Texas, California, Oklahoma, and Florida, CNN Money reports.

Wal-Mart employees say they were completely blindsided by the news, having been notified only a couple hours before the stores closed at 7 p.m. Monday.

“Everybody just panicked and started crying,” Venanzi Luna, a manager at a store in Pico Rivera, California, told CNN Money.

All workers will receive paid leave for two months. After that, full-time workers could become eligible for severance, according to CNN Money. But part-time workers will be on their own.

Local officials and employees have questioned Wal-Mart’s reasoning for the closures.

Why were these stores closed? Because they had activist employees.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) said it planned to seek an injunction from the National Labor Relations Board on Monday compelling retailer Wal-Mart to rehire 2,200 employees at five recently closed stores.

The UFCW claims that Wal-Mart Stores closed its Pico Rivera location — one of the five stores — in the Los Angeles area in retaliation for protests by workers there in recent years seeking higher pay and benefits.

The voice of a worker at the Pico Rivera store:

“This is a new low, even for Walmart,” said Venanzi Luna, an eight-year Walmart worker and long-time OUR Walmart member. “It’s just so heartless to put thousands of your employees out of a job with no clear explanation on just a few hours’ notice. We know that Walmart is scared of all we have accomplished as members of OUR Walmart so they’re targeting us. Through OUR Walmart, we’re going to keep fighting back until the company gives us our jobs back. It’s unfortunate that Walmart has chosen to hurt the lives of so many people, just to try to conceal their real motives of silencing workers just like they’ve always done.”

Interestingly, this comes at the same time that the UFCW is pulling back its commitment for the expensive and rather unproductive Walmart campaign is has funded.

I suspect there will be more details about these Walmart closings coming out in subsequent days.

The Graduate Program

[ 64 ] April 22, 2015 |

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Should people in History Ph.D. programs stop taking students because of the job crisis? American Historical Association president Vicki Ruiz is making that decision:

I remain hopeful that our efforts will widen opportunities for current Ph.D.’s. However, this optimism is tempered when I reflect on the job prospects for my recent doctoral graduates. Out of four accomplished junior historians (with seven prestigious research prizes and fellowships among them), only one has secured that elusive tenure-track position. Of the others, one has retreated from view, while the rest remain freeway flyers and/or part-time administrators. Trite as it may sound, it breaks my heart to watch them struggle.

With an additional four mentees in the pipeline, I have placed a personal moratorium on Ph.D. recruitment. I respect and support colleagues who desire to guide a new generation, but my priority remains on the career paths — inside and outside the academy — of people with whom I have a longstanding mentoring relationship. My personal moratorium embodies my hope that the association’s Career Diversity project will stimulate the retooling of graduate programs to prepare our students for wider opportunities. That will take time. In the interim, some of us are likely to slow the pump of history Ph.D.’s into the overflowing adjunct pool.

I have complex feelings about this. A couple of notes. First, I am somewhat associated with the American Historical Association pilot project Ruiz mentions to get programs to rethink graduate training because I am an alum of the University of New Mexico, one of the included schools because it punches way over its weight when it comes to placing PhDs in both academic and nonacademic positions. In February, I went back to UNM to talk about some of the things I do, joining a group of fellow alumni and a few others discussing their experiences. I really don’t know if it was helpful for current Ph.D. students there, but I hope it was. I do have to say that I took verbal exception to what AHA head Jim Grossman had to say and didn’t say at this event, which was basically to a) ignore the fundamental reasons why there are no jobs (the disappearance of history lines and adjunctification) and b) to tell every history PhD to basically be a business major and learn how to read a spreadsheet and learn to budget (a worthy enough skill, but no answer to the problem). On the other hand, it is absolutely vital that we assume that PhD students will not get an academic job, whether at Harvard, New Mexico, or South Carolina. This should be the assumption of every PhD advisor and every PhD student. Sometimes the student will strike it rich and win the lottery from any of these schools! I did and I know some people from all these schools who have in recent years. But usually they won’t. To me, that’s the first step advisors must take. What are students being trained for? Can advisors or other mentors offer skills that will get students actual jobs?

But even outside of that, I think the assumption that we shouldn’t take PhD students is a bit more problematic. Not that I disagree with Ruiz per se, as she takes an obviously defensible position. But the reality is that there aren’t good jobs anywhere in this economy outside of select fields. And some of us–myself included–are very smart in some ways, but not in the ways that this capitalist economy values. So the moral question around accepting PhD students I think revolves around whether they are funded or not. I would not be comfortable accepting students that are not funded. But if they are funded, at least they aren’t going into debt, or much anyway. To me, this is the fundamental difference between the PhD and law school. If the student is just delaying their income earning potential, such as it is in this stage of American capitalism, then that’s one decision and a potentially defensible one. If they are going into debt for that PhD, that’s a horrible idea. I find that a compelling dividing line.

But then I don’t know. There aren’t good answers. And the balance between giving students the opportunity to pursue their intellectual dreams and career goals versus placing them at a disadvantage in their lives going forward is not an easy one to maintain. I figure many of you will have thoughts on this.

Credit Checks on Job Applicants

[ 127 ] April 22, 2015 |

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In a nation that places many injustices and indignities on the poor, it’s good to see at least one of those be alleviated in one place:

But the city where first impressions count for everything is about to make the job market a little less judgmental. New York’s City Council just voted overwhelmingly to outlaw the common practice of letting employers prejudge people based on their credit history—passing an unprecedented ban against employers use of workers’ credit background data.

The legislation, which passed last Thursday following an extensive grassroots campaign by local and national labor and community groups, restricts a boss, prospective employer or agency from “us[ing] an individual’s consumer credit history in making employment decisions.”

The final version incorporates some compromises pushed by the business lobby, such as carve-outs for positions that could involve handling “financial agreements valued at $10,000 or more,” police and national-security related jobs, or workers with access to “trade secrets.” While business groups cited these provisions as wins in a bill they otherwise chafed at, economic justice advocates have nonetheless hailed the law as a promising boost for an emerging nationwide movement.

Sarah Ludwig of the New Economy Project says, “It’s a strong law…and it’s going to cover most New Yorkers [and] most jobs by far and away. It’s a real civil rights victory.”

Enforcement of the law will be driven by a complaint process, which makes it a tricky game for the city authorities relying on workers to come forward. But Ludwig adds, advocates hope the system provides a platform for the city’s Human Rights Commission to gain new prominence under the de Blasio administration’s leadership, since the city has “this unbelievably strong human rights law” on paper but not necessarily in practice.

Not perfect, but a significant improvement. Of course, this should be a nationwide law, for what possible valid reason is there to allow employers to access job applicants’ credit histories, unless the goal is to create a permanent underclass.

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