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Setsuko Hara, RIP

[ 14 ] November 25, 2015 |

Setsuko Hara, one of the greatest actors in film historym has died. Hara worked with most of the great Japanese directors of the postwar era, but her finest work was in the wonderful films of Yasujiro Ozu, including the transcendent Tokyo Story, where she plays the widowed daughter-in-law who cares more about her aging in-laws than any of their surviving children. Not a lot happens in Ozu films except talking but given that he largely shot the films with the actors speaking directly to the camera, the personal power of these family stories transcend postwar Japan and created some of the finest films ever made. Her performances radiated a powerful independent grace in a transitioning Japanese society. She disappeared from the public eye in the early 1960s and I didn’t even know she was still alive. In fact, she died in early September at the age of 95 and it was never reported until today.


What? My House is Next to a Former Smelter?

[ 17 ] November 25, 2015 |


When you bought your house (this is strictly theoretical in my case since I doubt I will ever be able to buy a house), did your real estate agent tell you what toxic industries have historically been located near your new house? I’m guessing not. And if you are a homeowner near the old ASARCO smelter in Tacoma, Washington, the answer is definitely not.

Tacoma’s industrial history confronted Alex Stillman on a late spring morning while she was up to her wrists in front-yard dirt.

A neighbor saw the 27-year-old school nurse, part of the city’s influx of new homeowners, digging to plant a hedge outside her North 40th Street house and walked over to share some friendly insight about the neighborhood. The conversation sent Stillman inside to start learning things no real-estate agent or inspector had explained to Alex or her husband, Bryce, when they bought the place in fall 2014.

It fell to Google to tell her about the long-gone Asarco copper smelter that operated less than a mile from where her tidy 1940s bungalow stands, and that the lead and arsenic emitted from its 571-foot-tall smokestack for several decades had polluted her yard and thousands of others with agents linked to cancer and other serious health problems.

“How many people my age would even know what a smelter is?” asked Alex Stillman, who grew up in Snohomish.

In a deindustrialized age with very few of the unionized but dirty working class jobs of the not so distant past, probably not very many would in fact know. Not surprisingly, the history of this smelter is highly contested within Tacoma, with many of the old-time residents still blaming environmentalists for its closure (really it was about copper import prices) and holding on to that smelter identity that defines a lot of dirty industry towns that have died, or drastically changed in the case of Tacoma. With such a huge smokestack, the impact of this smelter pollution is spread over a much wider area than most dirty industries. There isn’t nearly enough testing of the long-term impact of this smelter on health but we do know the soil contains significant poisons. How this affects Tacoma property values will be interesting with so many people now moving there to escape Seattle housing prices.

They Couldn’t Wait Until After Thanksgiving

[ 38 ] November 25, 2015 |


U.S. Steel decided they couldn’t wait until after Thanksgiving to lay off 2000 workers at its Granite City, Illinois facility. What a lovely holiday those unemployed workers will have. At the same time, U.S. Steel is demanding 20,000 union workers give away much of their contract in current negotiations, no doubt using the threat of Granite City and another recent shuttered factory in Birmingham as a threat. It’s true enough that the remnant American steel industry is not in great financial shape but one could also try to work with the United Steelworkers to deal with the situation instead of using it as an opportunity to attack organized labor. And there’s no excuse for laying off people the week of a holiday. At least have the common decency to wait until Monday. But that’s capitalism for you.

How Do You Create the Labor Force for the Maquiladoras and to Work in the Gardens of Rich Americans?

[ 24 ] November 24, 2015 |


Above: Honduran sweatshop workers, i.e., people with histories

One of the worst parts of the debate on the globalization of production is the discussion of workers. For promoters of uncontrolled capital mobility, workers are just sitting there in horrible poverty, waiting for the gift of a low-wage job. But that totally ignores the history of those people, including how American agricultural policy is culpable for that. So often, these workers actually lived on farms and would prefer to live on those farms still, but agricultural policy, land concentration, the dumping of cheap American agricultural products on foreign markets, and the growth of high-cost specialty crops to return to the United States all lead to farmers unable to survive on the land any longer. I go into this issue in some depth in Out of Sight. These aren’t just people waiting for a nice American corporation to provide them with a job. They are people who have already been screwed over by both their own government and American corporations, forcing them into a situation where they are in fact desperate for that industrial job, or in the case of Mexicans and Central Americans, become willing to undergo the significant risk to their own lives it takes to cross the American (and Mexican) border without documentation.

This leads us to Honduras. In 2009, a right-wing coup against President Manuel Zelaya, who among other things was going to give land titles to people farming the land where they lived, took place. It was not supported by the United States government, but the right-wingers in Congress cared about this more than the Obama administration, and the latter eventually recognized the government. Honduras has since become the nation with the worlds’ highest murder rate, with the American military engaging in widescale operations in the country to fight the drug trade, which just fuels even more violence.

The kleptocrats who run Honduras are now creating a larger labor force for the maquiladoras in their country (and once again, the people who point to Asia for why globalized production works need to explain why it does not work in Central America if they want to make an honest argument) by engaging in widespread land theft:

Ortiz and his neighbors, however, are part of a new chapter of that fight. Their community of Playa Blanca is one of 10 longstanding communities engaged in a protracted fight between the peninsula’s campesinos — a term for peasant farmers — and wealthy landowners who are snapping up territory as the area is primed for a government orchestrated transformation. That struggle, in turn, is part of a larger one taking place across Honduras as the country embarks on a radical free market experiment.

In more than a dozen areas dotted throughout the country, including the region encompassing Zacate Grande, the government has designated swaths of land as possible sites of Zones for Employment and Economic Development (known by their Spanish acronym ZEDEs) — semi-autonomous cities allowed to write their own laws and field their own judges. The ZEDE project is overseen by a 21-person committee comprised of free market libertarians, and the projects will be beholden to their investors, not the Honduran people. Only a small handful of the committee’s members are Honduran, amplifying fears of foreign control in a country whose fertile land, cheap labor, and natural resources have long been exploited by transnational capital while its masses languish in poverty. Honduras’ congress passed a law authorizing ZEDEs in 2013. After a similar “model city” measure failed to pass constitutional muster the previous year, the four Supreme Court justices opposing the law were replaced with judges who supported the concept. Construction is expected to begin in the next several years, though no one knows for sure when.

As many of the sites are in territories occupied by marginalized indigenous and rural communities, the kind of land grabs that Ortiz described may only become more common as the ZEDEs are developed. The ZEDE law gives eminent domain powers to the government, allowing for unchecked land expropriation for private development if owners choose not to sell. Though information about the implementation of ZEDEs is shrouded in confusion and beset by rumors, the stories of those living on the front lines highlight the hardship they are already causing.

This is how you create people who have no choice but to either a) involve themselves in the drug trade, b) move to San Pedro Sula or Tegucigalpa to work in the maquiladoras, or c) flee north to find work in the United States. And who is supporting this land centralization? You’d better sit down before reading further because it is truly shocking:

The ZEDEs, however, are not without their defenders. Libertarian and neoliberal policy advocates have supported them as a pathway to economic growth by importing successful development models from elsewhere. Mark Klugmann, a political strategist who served as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, is on the ZEDE oversight commission. He claims that ZEDEs would create investor-friendly enclaves that would circumvent corruption, entice foreign investment, and foster the good governance and economic development that is impeded by weak state institutions. According to a 2014 interview with Klugmann in World Post, the project, “if it accomplishes what it’s capable of doing, will demonstrate inside of Honduras and to the world that capacity of solving problems and creating jobs in particular can go forward with a velocity that very few people have been expecting.”

A former Republican speechwriter is supporting stealing land from the poor? To the fainting couch! If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that creating libertarian enclaves within Honduras will truly create paradise for the poor….

Heat Stress as Global Health Crisis

[ 5 ] November 24, 2015 |


With climate change leading to the warming of the planet, we need to start thinking about heat stress as a major global health problem that deserves serious attention. This story on Central American sugar workers should alarm you and move you to thinking about these issues more carefully.

Protecting agricultural workers from heat exposure is more problematic. Back in El Salvador, supply chain NGO Solidaridad has been piloting a project at sugar cane mill El Angel with partner La Isla Foundation to see if new tools and cutting methods, as well as better working conditions (providing shade and water, and enforcing breaks), can help improve health and productivity. Sven Sielhorst, global sugar cane programme manager for Solidaridad, says: “We need strong partners to make sure that these improved work practices get broadly adopted in Central America and any other region where this disease occurs.”

Trabanino is calling on employers to take a lead on reducing workers’ exposure to heat stress both now and in the future. “Small changes in working conditions can have a big impact,” he argues, adding that “prevention [of heat-related illnesses] is not only cheaper, it’s far easier than treatment.”

Of course, given the sugar industry’s long indifference toward its workers (not to mention history of just working slaves to death), the less than robust believe in workers’ rights in nations like El Salvador, and the utter and complete indifference of American and European food companies who buy the sugar (or the vast majority of American companies for that matter) to the conditions of their supply chain, I’d say the chances of seriously protecting Central American sugar workers from dying of heat stroke seems remote. We could do something by demanding the Corporate Responsibility Act I lay out in Out of Sight that would make corporations legally accountable for those supply chains. Sadly, that is not happening anytime soon.

Academic Job Applications

[ 66 ] November 24, 2015 |


Above: And should include no more

This post is probably only of interest to academics, but then that probably describes half the readership. Increasingly, universities are asking for ridiculous amounts of material for job applications. It needs to stop. It’s unfair to the job applicants, who are already subject to all sorts of unfair and exploitative practices, most egregiously having to spend over $1000 to go to a big conference for what is often a single first-round interview. David Perry calls for a simplified application process:

California State University-Channel Islands is hiring a premodern European historian. The online job ad requires all the usual documents: CV, cover letter, teaching statement, and syllabi examples. Midway through the application process, however, surprises lurk.

First, there’s a spot to upload a writing sample, even though no writing sample is required. The university wants scanned teaching evaluations, but allows only up to 2 megabytes of data. Worst of all, as a candidate works through the online application, nine mini-essay questions with text boxes pop up with no warning. If you want to be considered as a candidate for this job — one of a relatively small number of positions open for a pre-1848 Europeanist — you’d better get writing.

We all know the supply of Ph.D.s looking for full-time work vastly outstrips the available pool of full-time jobs, and academia is struggling for solutions to that macro problem. But one thing we could do: Make the process of locating, applying for, and tracking jobs far more humane. I’ve already advocated that we put an end to costly in-person first-round interviews, move the date on which governing boards vote on an appointment to earlier in the hiring cycle, and formalize the hiring of adjuncts in order to treat them like the professionals they are.

The Cal State job ad points to yet another solvable problem: hyperspecificity in the application requirements.

Mind you, this is all for a 4-4 job that won’t pay you enough to live decently in southern California. Certainly not enough to own a home. What are the essays they make candidates answer?

What do you think about the CSUCI mission statement?

If you are a new Ph.D., briefly describe the topic, significance, and publication plans of your dissertation.

If you are not a new Ph.D., describe your current research project(s), significance, and plans for publication.

Please list those courses you would like to teach at CSUCI in the future.

What makes you a good candidate to work at a young university with plans for rapid growth?

Please explain how your career exemplifies the teacher-scholar model.

Describe one innovative idea that you implemented that enhanced student learning or success, and why you think it was so successful.

Please describe your experience with and commitment to interdisciplinarity including what it means to you.

Please describe your commitment to working with diverse populations, including how you would define “diversity.”

This is totally ridiculous. First, there’s no good reason to ask these questions. Second, the search committee is highly unlikely to read the answer. For a premodern Europe job like this, Perry suggests perhaps 300 applicants. That seems reasonable. That means 2700 short essays for the search committee, which probably consists of 3 people, to read. You know what the chances of them reading those 2700 essays are? 0%. Maybe when they cut it to a short list they would get to it. But it’s not actually possible to read 2700 essays, in addition to all the other material requested. This does nothing more than exploit people already desperate for work in an extreme buyers’ market. CSU-Channel Islands should be ashamed.

Factual Accuracy is For Evil Liberals

[ 132 ] November 24, 2015 |

In Texas, this is just a worker.

Texas gonna Texas:

Top Texas education officials rejected Wednesday letting university experts fact-check textbooks approved for use in public-school classrooms statewide, instead reaffirming a vetting system that has helped spark years of ideological battles over how potentially thorny lessons in history and science are taught.

The Board of Education approves textbooks in the nation’s second-largest state and stood by its vetting process — despite a Houston-area mother recently complaining that a world geography book used by her son’s ninth grade class referred to African slaves as “workers.” The publisher, McGraw-Hill Education, apologized and moved to make immediate edits.

Republican board member Thomas Ratliff had proposed bringing in academics to check textbooks only for factual errors, but his measure failed 8-7 after lengthy discussion.

We all know that factual accuracy is for libtards and America-haters. Assertions about the awesomeness of America not backed up with facts is the education our children will need, at least if they are going to be good shock troops in the Trump Youth.

Corporate Inversions

[ 39 ] November 23, 2015 |


Another giant corporate merger so that American corporations can escape American taxes:

The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer said on Monday that it had struck a $160 billion deal, including debt, to merge with Allergan, the maker of Botox, in one of the biggest takeovers in the health care industry.

The agreement would also be the biggest deal in what has been a banner year for mergers, driven in part by consolidation in the health care and pharmaceutical sectors. Merger and acquisition activity worldwide surpassed $4 trillion as of Thursday, for only the second time since Thomson Reuters began keeping records in 1980.

The deal is the latest — and the largest — to be aimed at helping an American company lower its taxes by reincorporating overseas, a practice known as a corporate inversion.

President Obama has called inversions “unpatriotic.” His administration has tried to crack down on the strategy this year, with the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service announcing additional rules last week meant to further restrict the practice. The United States government has already lost billions of dollars in tax revenue from inversions, particularly in recent years.

Of course, corporations don’t care about patriotism unless they can wring profit from it. Their only loyalty is to cash. Democrats have introduced bills to stop corporate inversions, but of course they have gone nowhere in a Republican Congress ready to serve as the lapdog of industry. This Economist piece is flawed but gets at the two major issues. First, we have a relatively high corporate tax rate that nobody pays because of the endless loopholes. Those loopholes should be closed and perhaps a lower overall rate is a reasonable compromise if they are in fact closed. Second, the U.S. attempts to tax all corporate profit regardless of what country it was generated in. Other nations don’t do that, incentivizing American companies to limit their ties with the U.S. The problem here isn’t a mean American taxation system, it’s a matter of enforcement, as well as other nations not taxing corporations enough, which admittedly we can do nothing about.

Perhaps this Pfizer deal will move the needle on this issue a bit, but I doubt it.

Today in Reasonable Conservatives

[ 5 ] November 23, 2015 |


Remember when Mitch Daniels, Reasonable Conservative, was a thing when pundits were talking about Republican presidential candidates? Those were good times. Well, Daniels is now president of Purdue. There have been a lot of racist incidents during his presidency:

Last December, more than 150 Purdue students marched to Daniels’ office in a “Purdue Can’t Breathe” rally. The year before, hundreds of students chanted, “Mitch, let’s face it/It’s time to deal with racists.”

Students of colors have told stories about others on campus hurling racial epithets at them and even physically assaulting them. There were also more high-profile incidents, like when someone scrawled the N-word across a picture of Dr. Cornell Bell, a prominent African American academic and advocate for minority students, or when the words “white supremacy” were written in the Black Cultural Center. Two anonymous Twitter accounts dedicated to mocking Asian students at Purdue also elicited protests. In 2012, the FBI announced that Purdue had reported the second largest number of hate crimes on campus, including five incidents of racial bias in one year.

The 2013 protests demanded the administration take specific actions to improve the culture on campus, including doubling the number of minority faculty and students in the next years, requiring racial sensitivity workshops for faculty, and creating a zero-tolerance policy that results in expulsion for racist acts. The 2014 rally followed up with more demands, saying Daniels was too slow to act.

So his response to the protests at Yale and Missouri? Congratulations on his own great leadership.

With that kind of leadership, maybe Daniels should write a book about how his brand of leaderocity and leadertude can inspire a whole generation of leadership studies students! Because being a university president is nothing but an exercise in self-promotion and justifying your own actions to make yourself look good.

Oh White People

[ 100 ] November 23, 2015 |


My god….

In a new poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) on Tuesday, a whopping 43 percent of Americans told researchers that discrimination against whites has become as large a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minority groups. And an even bigger share of Americans — 53 percent — told pollsters American culture and “way of life” have mostly changed for the worse since 1950.

First, there are some real and large differences in the way that different groups of Americans answered those two questions up above. Half of white Americans — including 60 percent of the white working class — told researchers that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Meanwhile, 29 percent of Latinos and 25 percent of black Americans agreed. White Americans feel put-upon and mistreated — and large shares of non-white Americans do not seem to have any knowledge of the challenges that white Americans say they face.

This is the base of the Trump voter and rise of proto-fascism in the United States in the last few years. White people frankly want a return to their romanticized vision of the white dominant past in ways that would not look unfamiliar to supporters of Hitler and Mussolini. Race has always been a zero-sum game for many American whites and periodically large numbers of whites enter into a period of full-fledged racial hysteria, even if to the rational community who can look at any number of metrics, this makes no sense. I will however say that the numbers of the white working class are particularly important because the economic insecurity of an outsourced and automated economy, the effects of which are swept under the rug by the many proponents of unrestricted globalization, are very real. I have said for a long time that if you want a stable society you have to have good paying jobs. Without those jobs, racial and religious prejudice becomes even more powerful than it usually is. That is part of what we are seeing in this recent rise of proto-fascism. It’s scary and should make us rethink a lot about the society we want to build before it’s too late.

Battery Recycling and Toxicity

[ 8 ] November 23, 2015 |


One does not want to live around a lead battery recycling facility:

In the wake of a growing lead pollution investigation in neighborhoods around the now shuttered Exide Technologies plant in Vernon, state toxics regulators have ordered a second lead battery recycler in nearby Industry to test soil outside its property for lead contamination.

The state Department of Toxic Substances Control has given Quemetco, Inc. until the end of the month to submit a schedule for testing, beginning with a half-mile radius around the facility at 720 S. Seventh St. Each day, the plant processes up to 1.2 million pounds of scrap and lead.

As with Exide, testing may eventually stretch up to a mile away from the plant if initial findings indicate the possibility of wider spread contamination.

Dot Lofstrom, a division chief overseeing cleanup programs at DTSC, said the soil testing around Quemetco comes in part because of growing pollution concerns around Exide. In August, her agency announced lead dust from the Exide may have fouled as many 10,000 homes.

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t really get into the demographics of the neighborhood. I’d be shocked if it wasn’t a poor neighborhood of color.

This also gets to the point that while we think recycling is a great thing, it’s very much a out of sight-out of mind thing and in fact the wages of recycling are really nasty for both workers and nearby residents.

Labor’s Decline and Fall

[ 20 ] November 22, 2015 |


Above: Sewing workers strike, 1937

If you haven’t read Rich Yeselson’s discussion of why organized labor has declined so far from its postwar height, you should do so. It’s a pretty right-on analysis that combines how mechanization and efficiency has undermined unions throughout the developed world with the unique political scene of the United States that has led to a much more fundamentalist hatred of unions among employers than Europe (which the sociologist Kim Voss notes in her comparison between the U.S., Britain, and France extends back to the Knights of Labor era in the U.S.) that has created a political scene in this nation that has always made it harder for unions to succeed. The the South has always had outsized political influence here makes it all the harder.

With the brief exception of the late 1930s followed by the anomalous period of the Second World War when the government needed the active support of unions to maximize military production, labor has never had a juridical and statist presumption that it should institutionally survive, let alone flourish. For much of its history, and to this very day, the courts, business, and conservative media and politicians have sought to diminish labor’s power, if not crush it outright. With the exception of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (which opponents immediately sought to undermine and whose legal fate was unresolved for two years), there has never been a statist framework in the US that explicitly sought to ensure labor’s institutional viability across the branches of the federal government and state governments. And without that statist presumption, unions had to confront what historian Nelson Lichtenstein has labeled a special form of “American exceptionalism”: “the hostility managers have shown toward both the regulatory state and virtually all forms of worker representation.” Lichtenstein goes onto note that the absence in the U.S. of “self regulation or cartelization” found in Europe and parts of Asia. Decentralized “competitive disorder” made non-rationalized wage and benefit increases imposed by firm-by-firm unionization (rather than the sectorial model of collective bargaining found in Europe in which the extra cost burdens of unionization was socialized across economic sectors) a great threat to companies and triggered a particularly vicious, sometimes violent, response. The brief period of labor’s zenith did not diminish the desire of its enemies to undermine it—on the contrary, it was a persistent provocation: a reminder of the power business had lost and wished to regain. Thus when, via the decline in manufacturing and a corresponding loss of political influence, unions weakened in the 1970s, the business class seized that moment and, by the construction of politically and intellectually influential think tanks and a massive increase in their congressional lobbying, counter-mobilized to crush them. It only took a decade or so of labor’s increased vulnerability to prove how wrong Eisenhower’s benign notion was that “only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries” wished to bust American unions. In fact, the entire business class of the United States, large and small companies alike, wished to bust American unions and when, given a chance to do so, seized it.

The structural reasons for union diminution, i.e., trends in political economies that affected the entire advanced world, are well known, if sometimes distorted and misread under the rubric, “globalization.” Yes, millions of first world jobs in manufacturing and mining have disappeared since the Second World War. Manufacturing and mining jobs peaked in 1953 at about a third of total employment. After a steady decline through the 1973-74 recession, they briefly returned to a 22% figure in 1978, but a steady decline from there accelerated in the 21st century. Today, manufacturing represents fewer than 9% of all jobs (although productivity increases make manufacturing a significantly larger share of GDP). Many of these jobs did go overseas. But many others were just lost to productivity gains. In mining, for example, there are, perhaps 80,000 jobs today compared to over a half million—almost all of which were unionized–in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Coal provided close to 2/3rds of our energy then—making the imperious president of the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis, one of the most powerful people in the country, Now, coal provides under a third of our energy and, as climate change policy becomes more pressing, it is an industry which, like tobacco, has taken on an anti-social cast.

Very much worth your time.

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