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Exxon and Climate Change

[ 21 ] September 24, 2015 |


In modern America, perhaps no industry is as demonized as tobacco. That’s because they knew that their products killed people and responded by hiding that evidence and asserting their product was safe. But the energy industry has done the exact same thing with evidence about climate change and those companies deserve the same level of disdain. The film Merchants of Doubt, which I sort of recommend (it really drags at the end and if you already know about this stuff, you don’t need to watch it), gets into this comparison in some detail. Bill McKibben explores this further, asking what Exxon knew and when did it know it:

Everyone who’s been paying attention has known about climate change for decades now. But it turns out Exxon didn’t just “know” about climate change: it conducted some of the original research. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the company employed top scientists who worked side by side with university researchers and the Department of Energy, even outfitting one of the company’s tankers with special sensors and sending it on a cruise to gather CO2 readings over the ocean. By 1977, an Exxon senior scientist named James Black was, according to his own notes, able to tell the company’s management committee that there was “general scientific agreement” that what was then called the greenhouse effect was most likely caused by man-made CO2; a year later, speaking to an even wider audience inside the company, he said that research indicated that if we doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere, we would increase temperatures two to three degrees Celsius. That’s just about where the scientific consensus lies to this day. “Present thinking,” Black wrote in summary, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”

Those numbers were about right, too. It was precisely ten years later—after a decade in which Exxon scientists continued to do systematic climate research that showed, as one internal report put it, that stopping “global warming would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion”—that NASA scientist James Hansen took climate change to the broader public, telling a congressional hearing, in June of 1988, that the planet was already warming. And how did Exxon respond? By saying that its own independent research supported Hansen’s findings? By changing the company’s focus to renewable technology?

That didn’t happen. Exxon responded, instead, by helping to set up or fund extreme climate-denial campaigns. (In a blog post responding to the I.C.N. report, the company said that the documents were “cherry-picked” to “distort our history of pioneering climate science research” and efforts to reduce emissions.) The company worked with veterans of the tobacco industry to try and infuse the climate debate with doubt. Lee Raymond, who became the Exxon C.E.O. in 1993—and was a senior executive throughout the decade that Exxon had studied climate science—gave a key speech to a group of Chinese leaders and oil industry executives in 1997, on the eve of treaty negotiations in Kyoto. He told them that the globe was cooling, and that government action to limit carbon emissions “defies common sense.” In recent years, it’s gotten so hot (InsideClimate’s exposé coincided with the release of data showing that this past summer was the United States’ hottest in recorded history) that there’s no use denying it any more; Raymond’s successor, Rex Tillerson, has grudgingly accepted climate change as real, but has referred to it as an “engineering problem.” In May, at a shareholders’ meeting, he mocked renewable energy, and said that “mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity,” which would stand it in good stead in the case of “inclement weather” that “may or may not be induced by climate change.”

McKibben goes on to note that while Obama has stood up to the coal industry, he has largely acquiesced to the desires of the oil industry, opening up a lot of new drilling, including in the Arctic. Oil’s power is tremendous and it is killing us and our descendants through climate change as the tobacco industry killed us. We need to take on this industry and defeat it, something that will require real leadership from Washington to move our energy investments toward renewables and to rip power from sociopaths like Rex Tillerson.


The New Slavery

[ 83 ] September 23, 2015 |


Michelle Alexander has called the prison system The New Jim Crow for how it replicates the racial discrimination of the past. That’s only part of it though becuase a racist justice system combined with seeing prisoners as cheap labor means that black people are once again laboring against their will for nothing (or almost nothing) under white supervisors with weapons. This my friends is what you call slavery.

Some viewers of the video might be surprised to learn that inmates at Angola, once cleared by the prison doctor, can be forced to work under threat of punishment as severe as solitary confinement. Legally, this labor may be totally uncompensated; more typically inmates are paid meagerly—as little as two cents per hour—for their full-time work in the fields, manufacturing warehouses, or kitchens. How is this legal? Didn’t the Thirteenth Amendment abolish all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude in this country?

Not quite. In the shining promise of freedom that was the Thirteenth Amendment, a sharp exception was carved out. Section 1 of the Amendment provides: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Simply put: Incarcerated persons have no constitutional rights in this arena; they can be forced to work as punishment for their crimes.

Angola’s farm operations and other similar prison industries have ancestral roots in the black chattel slavery of the South. Specifically, the proliferation of prison labor camps grew during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, a time when southern states established large prisons throughout the region that they quickly filled, primarily with black men. Many of these prisons had very recently been slave plantations, Angola and Mississippi State Penitentiary (known as Parchman Farm) among them. Other prisons began convict-leasing programs, where, for a leasing fee, the state would lease out the labor of incarcerated workers as hired work crews. Convict leasing was cheaper than slavery, since farm owners and companies did not have to worry at all about the health of their workers.

In this new era of prison industry, the criminal “justice” system, the state determined the size of the worker pool. Scores of recently freed slaves and their descendants now labored to generate revenue for the state under a Jim Crow regime.

More than a century later, our prison labor system has only grown. We now incarcerate more than 2.2 million people, with the largest prison population in the world, and the second highest incarceration rate per capita. Our prison populations remain racially skewed. With few exceptions, inmates are required to work if cleared by medical professionals at the prison. Punishments for refusing to do so include solitary confinement, loss of earned good time, and revocation of family visitation. For this forced labor, prisoners earn pennies per hour, if anything at all.

Angola is not the exception; it is the rule.

Over the decades, prison labor has expanded in scope and reach. Incarcerated workers, laboring within in-house operations or through convict-leasing partnerships with for-profit businesses, have been involved with mining, agriculture, and all manner of manufacturing from making military weapons to sewing garments for Victoria’s Secret. Prison programs extend into the services sector; some incarcerated workers staff call centers.

This might not quite be the chattel slavery of the pre-1865 South, but slavery takes on many forms, as we know today in the modern labor force (sex slavery, slave labor on Asian fishing boats, the debt slaves of Los Angeles sweatshops, etc). Slavery took on many forms in the 19th century too, including major differences between urban and rural slavery in the South, not to mention slavery within Africa and Native America compared to chattel slavery. So let’s be clear, this prison slavery is on the slavery continuum and we need to approach it that way. This violates the 13th Amendment. I know the Supreme Court wouldn’t see it this way, but one can clearly make a reasonable case for it. And the comparison between prison labor and slavery needs more attention.

The (Near) Perfect Capitalist

[ 55 ] September 23, 2015 |


Sure Martin Shkreli is human scum. But as a capitalist, isn’t he doing what he is supposed to be doing? The goal is to make money. Anything getting in the way of that is irresponsible to that singular goal. So why shouldn’t he force people to die in order to make profit? After all, as I have blogged about here almost daily for over 4 years, capitalists force people to their deaths in order to profit every day. They do so in the chemical industry, in apparel, in steel, in oil, in coal, in timber, in agriculture, in industry after industry, sometimes in this country, more often outsourced or contracted factories overseas. We ignore this, largely because, unlikely pricey pills, it doesn’t affect us. Such unregulated capitalism is at the core of American mythology, if not Shkreli’s arrogance.

Really, Shkreli is an honest breath of fresh air. Now everyone has an opportunity to know how evil capitalism is at its core.

Of course, we don’t have to allow capitalism to control the medical system. But we do.

The story of Daraprim’s giant price increase is, more fundamentally, a story about America’s unique drug pricing policies. We are the only developed nation that lets drug makers set their own prices — maximizing profits the same way that sellers of chairs, mugs, shoes, or any other seller of manufactured goods would.

In Europe, Canada, and Australia, governments view the market for cures as essentially uncompetitive and set the price as part of a bureaucratic process — similar to how electricity or water are priced in regulated US utility markets.

Other countries do this for drugs and medical care — but not other products, like phones or cars — because of something fundamentally unique about medication: If consumers can’t afford the product they could have worse odds of living. In some cases, they face quite certain odds of dying. So most governments have decided that keeping these products affordable is a good reason to introduce more government regulation.

When drug companies set their American prices, they don’t focus on the price of making the pills. Instead, they look at what their competitors already charge for similar products — and try to land their price somewhere in that same range, regardless of production costs or how good the drug actually is. Since most drugs are already expensive, new drugs keep matching those prices.

And, if you’re a drug company that produces the best cure for a disease (as Turing does for toxoplasmosis), this makes a ton of sense: you have consumers whose life, quite literally, depends on buying your product. This is what Shkreli talked about, quite bluntly, in his Bloomberg interview.

“We know these days that modern pharmaceuticals and cancer drugs can cost $100,000 or more,” he said. “Daraprim is still underpriced compared to its peers.”

The real question at the heart of the Daraprim outrage isn’t why one pharmaceutical company decided to hike a drug price. The real question is why other companies aren’t taking advantage of the pick-your-price nature of American pharmaceutical policy — and whether they will ultimately follow in Turing’s steps.

The cure for this particular problem is of course socialized medicine and government price controls. But I’ll note again that people die all the time making phones and cars and clothing around the world for these same nations that have made the decision to regulate medicine. If Bangladeshi workers die making clothing, they don’t care much. But if their own consumers die because of high priced medicine, that’s worth state intervention. I agree on the latter obviously, but there’s a lot of hypocrisy from these nations, as well as the same divide we see in this country, where consumer-based activism can sometimes have fast results, but worker-based activism is ignored. If our vegetables have chemical residue on them, that can (and has) to a major consumer movement. But if to avoid this, as was the solution, new generation of pesticides were developed that worked hard and fast but also massively exposed workers, consumers couldn’t care less.

There is one thing that makes Shkreli a less than perfect capitalist. His own hubris brought attention to himself and created the rare public pressure that forces a price down. Had he raised the price slowly but consistently, he could have sacrificed some short-term profits in favor of longer-term success. So he is flawed. But it’s also almost refreshing to have someone so evil that they are willing to strip away all the concealment that allows us to escape the daily knowledge of the human costs of unregulated or poorly regulated capitalism, because he just doesn’t care what we think about it (until it starts costing him money). It’d be nice if we recognized that capitalists kill people every day and do something about it.

The True Price of a Good Paint Stripping Product

[ 13 ] September 23, 2015 |


Jamie Smith Hopkins has a long story on methylene chloride, a chemical used for paint-stripping and carpet gluing that has an unfortunate tendency to kill the people using it. It’s not a huge killer in terms of numbers–56 known deaths in the U.S. since 1980 although that’s probably an understatement. But each of those deaths are completely avoidable. The EPA is slowly moving toward some kind of stricter standards. But it is very difficult for the agency to go hard after a chemical. The industries are powerful, have a lot of friends in Congress and within the EPA and other regulatory agencies, and the government’s power is limited. The methylene chloride industry is estimated to be worth nearly 900 million dollars worldwide by 2020, which is not huge by some standards but we are talking about paint stripping here. Most of the people who have died are workers, some are consumers. How many more suffer brain damage or other physical aliments from being constantly light-headed from exposure at work is unknown. What is known is that this is another example of industry not caring about the lives of its laborers and of unsafe workplaces being a long-term problem in the United States.

Bronx Commutes

[ 72 ] September 23, 2015 |


You might think that compared to where you live, New York has a pretty good public transportation system. And by some metrics, that’s probably true. But New York needs a massive infusion of money for upgraded public transportation, both in improving the current infrastructure and for new routes. Because the commute times are insane for city residents:

Bronx residents now have the country’s second-longest average commute to work, with its fellow outer boroughs close behind.

According to a POLITICO New York analysis of data released by the United States Census Bureau this week, the average Bronx worker needed an estimated 43.1 minutes to get to their jobs. This was quicker than only Charles County, Maryland, where the daily trek many residents make to Washington brings the total up 44.2 minutes each way.

“The good news is that at least Bronx residents are back in the labor force,” said former Bronx Assemblymember Michael Benjamin.

The third through fifth slots in the country were occupied by Queens (42.8 minutes), Staten Island (42.7 minutes), and Brooklyn (42.2 minutes). However, the margin of error in the census numbers is large enough that it’s feasible that any one of these counties occupies the country’s top spot in reality. For example, including the Bronx’s margin of error indicates the average travel time was between 42 and 44.1 minutes; in Brooklyn, it was between 41.7 and 42.7 minutes.

Of course given Albany’s control over the city, the chances of this happening are somewhere between nil and a black hole.

The Atlanta Stadium Mess

[ 84 ] September 22, 2015 |


From the moment the Atlanta Braves announced they were moving from their downtown stadium that is all of 20 years old to the Cobb County suburbs, I was disgusted. Choosing to base your future on the model of the Texas Rangers as opposed to the many teams that have built in the city where public transportation is at least possible said far too much about Atlanta. Turner Field is just south of downtown and you know who lives down there don’t you? That’s right, black people. That’s what a lot of this was about–white people fearing black people, which dominates so much of Atlanta-era politics and has forever, including suburbs refusing to allow MARTA to build out there because of fear that they would come.

But the political machinations and corruption that have gone into this new stadium make this whole story even more gross.

Ah, the Braves bridge. It’s a mess. It has always been a mess. The concept first appeared in November of 2013, shortly after Cobb County stunned the sports world by announcing that it was luring the team out to the ‘burbs. (To keep the negotiations a secret, it later was revealed, county commission chair Tim Lee had secretly hired a lawyer with commission money without telling any of his colleagues, and then made some commission members stand outside in hallways while others met behind closed doors to evade open-meetings laws. The democratic process.) At the time, no one knew how much the bridge would cost, or exactly how it would be paid for. Those details would be worked out in due time.

Two weeks later, the Cobb County commission passed the Braves stadium deal—or most of it, anyway. Still to be negotiated was a “transportation agreement” that would spell out things like any highway ramps or, say, bridges that might need to be built to enable Braves fans to get to games. But that would happen soon, just you wait.

One year later, with construction on the stadium underway, the bridge remained on the drawing board. Cobb County officials, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, “still don’t know how much the bridge will cost or how the county will pay for its half.”

This summer, things got much, much worse, as the Journal-Constitution reported that the bridge might not be ready until September 2017, five months after the stadium opens. That would leave almost an entire season where Braves fans would have to park their cars, then edge their way along the side of a eight-lane highway, underneath an overpass, to finally arrive at their seats. It’s walkable, but as one local noted in a web comment, only in the way that “the road in the game Frogger was walkable”— so probably not the sort of stroll anyone will want to attempt after nine innings and a few beers.

That brings us up to this week, when Lee finally admitted that the bridge won’t be open until at least the stadium’s second season, at the earliest. The Marietta Daily Journal, meanwhile, is reporting that the actual owners of the parking lot that the Braves plan to use—both the state authority that runs the neighboring convention center and the private owners of the office towers that sit nearby—have no interest in allowing the Braves to build a bridge at all, which could result in sad, desperate fans driving to the stadium only to sit forlornly in their cars, listening to games on the radio and wondering what life is like on the other side of I-285.

So backroom dealing, giving lip service about transportation with no actual plan to fund or implement it, and forcing taxpayers to pay hundreds of millions of dollars? All in a day’s work. At least visitors won’t have to see any black people!

How to Decide the GOP Primaries

[ 27 ] September 22, 2015 |


The only way the Republican primaries should be decided is in the ring, WWE style. Tag-team preferred. Given the predilection to violence among various Republican staffers, this is the only clear option. Unfortunately, Scott Walker dropped out before someone could break a chair over his head. Luckily, someone could still do that to Ted Cruz. Of course, if the Republicans had any class, this would be done with lucha masks, but then that would reek of foreign taint, and who knows how many of those lucha dudes are actually Muslim terrorists/drug dealers/job thieves/scary brown people?

Meat vs. Rice

[ 51 ] September 22, 2015 |


How are you all this morning? Enjoying yourselves? Well, that’s nice and all, but let’s change the mood by delving into the legacy of American racism. Here is the 1908 pamphlet by American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers and Herman Gutstadt, “Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Will Survive.” And really, the title says most of what you need to know. And the pamphlet has most everything you need to teach about anti-Asian racism. You have the Chinese compared to cancer, pretending like Americans care about Filipinos by comparing them favorably to the Chinese horde, fears of the Chinese outcompeting whites, comparing the Chinese to African-American slaves, fears of the Chinaman and his horrible living standards, not to mention his sweet, sweet opium; sections of the pamphlet titled “Do Asiatics Have Morals?” (short answer, no!), etc. Not to mention the utterly bizarre although expected to the historian of the period equation of food and race.

And of course, the most important person in the American labor movement being involved with this (I don’t know to what extent Gompers wrote this as opposed to signed his name to it, I’d guess he wrote none but endorsed all) is just wonderful. Worth remembering yet again the the American labor movement’s first national legislative victory was the Chinese Exclusion Act. White solidarity almost always trumps class solidarity in the United States, then and now.

Good times.

Starting next year, I am finally going to get to teach U.S. Labor History since the (quite great) individual teaching it forever is retiring). I am wondering to what extent to expose them to this kind of thing. Not sure.

The Most Successful Walker Campaign in U.S. Political History

[ 12 ] September 22, 2015 |

I’d like to credit Robert Altman with crafting the most successful political campaign by someone named Walker in American presidential history. Because Scott Walker sure as hell doesn’t beat this, not to mention have Lily Tomlin singing with a black choir or have Jeff Goldblum riding a motorcycle-like vehicle.

Today in Human Scum

[ 124 ] September 22, 2015 |


The worst person in the entire world may well be the pharmaceutical capitalist Martin Shkreli.

Specialists in infectious disease are protesting a gigantic overnight increase in the price of a 62-year-old drug that is the standard of care for treating a life-threatening parasitic infection.

The drug, called Daraprim, was acquired in August by Turing Pharmaceuticals, a start-up run by a former hedge fund manager. Turing immediately raised the price to $750 a tablet from $13.50, bringing the annual cost of treatment for some patients to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This is not the first time the 32-year-old Mr. Shkreli, who has a reputation for both brilliance and brashness, has been the center of controversy. He started MSMB Capital, a hedge fund company, in his 20s and drew attention for urging the Food and Drug Administration not to approve certain drugs made by companies whose stock he was shorting.

In 2011, Mr. Shkreli started Retrophin, which also acquired old neglected drugs and sharply raised their prices. Retrophin’s board fired Mr. Shkreli a year ago. Last month, it filed a complaint in Federal District Court in Manhattan, accusing him of using Retrophin as a personal piggy bank to pay back angry investors in his hedge fund.

Mr. Shkreli has denied the accusations. He has filed for arbitration against his old company, which he says owes him at least $25 million in severance. “They are sort of concocting this wild and crazy and unlikely story to swindle me out of the money,” he said.

Of course Shkreli is only using the logic of capitalism in his decisions:

Noting that the pill sold for $13.50 and the course of treatment “to save your life was only a $1,000,” Shrkeli said he had to make a change.

“We know, these days, in modern pharmaceuticals, cancer drugs can cost $100,000 or more, whereas these drugs can cost a half of a million dollars,” he explained. “Daraprim is still under-priced relative to its peers.”

Asked if the pill really only costs $1 to manufacture, Shkreli agreed and said, “It costs very little to make Daraprim.”

Shkreli then listed off manufacturing, distribution, and FDA costs as well as paying the people “who make it to specifications.”

Pressed even further on the $750 cost per pill, the CEO defended the price by noting how much it brought into the pharmaceutical company annually.

“This drug was making $5 million in revenue,” he said with a smile. “And I don’t think you can find a drug company on this planet that can make money on $5 million in revenue.”

Shkreli stated that the drug is made for a “very very tough disease.”

“It requires a lot of attention and focus. The drug company needs to partner with the patients and make sure that it’s a very cared for community. And that costs a lot of money too,” pointing out that the company also “gives away” the drug for $1 for those who can’t afford it.

In other words, Shkreli is simply doing what any capitalist would do if they are following the ideological precepts of their system. It’s up to us to reject capitalism and demand that these drugs be free or very inexpensive if we want to defeat people like this. But so long as we believe in the profit motive, it’s hard to really see the logical alternative here. Otherwise, the people marketing these drugs are simply being bad at their jobs. If people die or go bankrupt to stay alive, well, what is that to the capitalist? I mean sure Shkreli is an utterly loathsome human who adds nothing positive to the world by staying alive. But he just represents an economic system that Americans love and adore.

Free Market/Slave Labor: L.A. Edition

[ 6 ] September 21, 2015 |


Yesterday I talked about the California bill for a meaningful wage theft law. On this particular issue, the problem is not Walmart or McDonald’s. The problem are employers who rely on immigrant labor who don’t have an easy ability to speak out about their exploitation. But in these industries, especially the apparel sweatshops of Los Angeles, are not just rogue employers at the global economic margins. Rather, they are central to global capitalism, just the kind of employer we might expect more in Bangladesh than the United States. The apparel industry, which has operated on a system of extreme exploitation since its beginning, rewards employers who can steal as much from workers as possible while the department stores and apparel brands get off scot free. Charles Davis has more, particularly about Thai migrants to the United States. A brief excerpt:

Outraged that identified trafficking victims had to fight to stay, activists then fought for legislation that would grant future victims an automatic visa: the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000. Now those the government considers “trafficked” can work legally while receiving medical care and housing. But the problem has become a labeling issue. Extreme cases warrant condemnation and the “trafficking” label—the El Monte case was even prosecuted as slavery—but other low-wage immigrants who are victimized by their employers, denied money they are owed and forced to work in dangerous conditions, are ignored or even treated as criminals. “I have experienced workers coming forward, reporting abuses, who are undocumented and then get summarily deported after getting picked up,” says Martorell, “and, of course, denied justice and their back wages.” Those who aren’t immediately kicked out of the country have the option of working behind bars, scrubbing floors for 13 cents an hour in an immigrant detention center.

“I see it as a manifestation of what the U.S. has done abroad,” Martorell says of those who come here hoping for a better life, only to suffer even more indignity. We “talk about democracy,” she says, “then end up installing puppet governments that support the U.S. at the expense of their own people.” Those people then come here; a few are officially recognized as victims, considered the rescued prey of traffickers. But many more are deemed exploited, perhaps, but their victimhood not worthy of asylum. All of them suffer.

It’s to protect these workers that we need a strong national wage theft law and to stop seeing the workplace as a site to enforce immigration law, which empowers employers to exploit workers. Right now, there are situations of not only wage theft but slave labor in these sweatshops. It hasn’t received nearly as much attention from policymakers as it should. That needs to change.

Sprawl Notes

[ 56 ] September 21, 2015 |


A bunch of stories about urban sprawl that deserve attention:

1. If you live in Louisville, Miami, or Salt Lake City, you suffer the nation’s highest urban heat island effects.

2. Even in liberal California, a meaningful state climate bill had to sacrifice the goal to reduce the state’s gasoline consumption in order to pass. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is going to get in the way of Americans love to drive.

3. What will traffic look like in the Washington DC area by 2040 with expected population growth? It will suck.

4. Chinese sprawl, 1988 and 2015. Dang.

5. At least one area of sensitive habitat in the Bay Area is protected from a housing development for now at least.

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