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Category: General

The Slope Is Permanently Slippery

[ 76 ] December 2, 2014 |

Eric Posner on Obama’s immigration executive order:

What might these ends be? Imagine a President Rand Paul entering office in 2017. An enormous regulatory structure will greet him, nearly all of it the creature of liberal policy-making going back to the New Deal, and it’s his to defer action on. Financial regulation required by the hated Dodd-Frank act, health regulation under the even more hated Obamacare, climate regulation despised by the coal industry, antitrust regulation opposed by big business—in all cases, President Paul will be able to argue that he can follow in President Obama’s footsteps and “defer action.”

To be sure, President Paul will not enjoy complete freedom to defer enforcement. The Constitution’s take-care clause would block him from disregarding the law entirely. Legal precedent establishes that he can’t refuse to spend congressional appropriations on enforcement. Many regulatory agencies enjoy independence from the executive, and private parties can sometimes force agencies to act. The courts say that the executive must comply with specific statutory mandates. And immigration law, as I have argued, falls uniquely under executive authority, as a matter of history and tradition. Still, because most of the regulatory statutes contain pockets of vagueness, and the immigration-law arguments bleed over to those other areas of the law, President Paul’s power to lift regulatory burdens through non-enforcement will be extensive.

The point is not just that Republican presidents can do what Obama has done. It is that enforcement discretion creates an advantage for Republicans—it favors conservative governance and hurts liberal governance. The reason for this asymmetric effect is that the great bulk of federal law is liberal economic regulation, not conservative morals regulation.

This is a good summary of the kind of things the next Republican president will do, and I also think it’s right that there’s an asymmetry where selective non-enforcement is more likely to favor conservative goals. What I continue to dispute is the assumption that Obama’s executive order will play any causal role in this process. Congressional Republicans have relentlessly discarded norms in order to use formally legal mechanisms to advance their goals. Does anyone think that the next Republican occupant of the White House will be any different? This is the political universe we’re already in — as Posner’s work with Adrian Vermeule has quite convincingly demonstrated — and you can’t enforce norms through unilateral disarmament.

I’d also note that there’s nothing new in Republican administrations being, ah, less than aggressive about enforcing liberal regulations. Clarence Thomas’s tenure heading the EEOC is both an excellent rebuttal to the myth that he’s an intellectual lightweight and strong contemporaneous evidence that he was very reactionary. Hans von Spakovsky worked on — and, therefore, against — voting rights in the Bush administration. And so on.

I’d say something similar about David Savage’s speculations that Obama’s order might cause John Roberts to side with ACA trooferism. I think Roberts will do what he wants to do and Obama’s order will be neither here nor there. I can’t resist quoting this, however:

Ilya Shapiro, a lawyer for the libertarian Cato Institute, said the immigration order is the “starkest example” of what he called the president’s “pattern of lawlessness.”

Except for the fact that it doesn’t actually, you know, break any laws. Maybe Shapiro can explain how the executive order is “lawless” after he finally explains what constitutional provision Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act violated…

And now, a word from President Camacho about feminism

[ 21 ] December 2, 2014 |


I understand everyone’s shit’s emotional right now. But I’ve got a three point plan that’s going to fix everything. Number 1: Women are people and men’s right movement types are the Taliban and ISIS

SEK on Graphic Policy Radio: Constantine, The Walking Dead, The Legend of Korra, and of course, Homicide

[ 6 ] December 2, 2014 |

I spent two glorious hours on Graphic Policy Radio last night ostensibly talking about NBC’s Constantine, but as the title of this post indicates, we got a little digressive. You can listen to the entire podcast below:

Check Out Pop Culture Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with graphicpolicy on BlogTalkRadio

This Day in Labor History: December 2, 1984

[ 32 ] December 2, 2014 |

On December 2, 1984, a gas leak in a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India killed somewhere between 3787 and 16,000 people. Perhaps the worst industrial disaster in world history, the Bhopal disaster shows the criminal negligence by which American corporations treat people of the developing world and why corporate leaders choose to site production facilities in poor parts of the world.

Union Carbide had one of the longest histories in India of any American company, going back to a battery plant opened in Calcutta in 1924. In 1969, Union Carbide opened its first pesticide plant in Bhopal, part of the Indian government’s Green Revolution program that would rely on massive chemical inputs to grow unprecedented tons of crops. By 1983, Union Carbide had 14 plants in India, making chemicals, batteries, pesticides, and other dangerous and highly polluting products. At its Bhopal plant, it produced a pesticide named Sevin. A brand name for carbaryl, Sevin is the third-most sold insecticide in the United States, used by home gardeners, agribusiness, and foresters. Carbaryl contains methyl isocyanate, an extremely toxic substance. What is poisonous to insects is often poisonous to humans in large doses.

On the night of December 2, 1984 and into the next morning, between 200,000 and 500,000 of the city’s 800,000 residents were exposed to 93,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals after water entered a side pipe and mixed with the chemicals. The use of non-stainless steel pipelines to save money allowed this to happen. A chemical reaction quickly raised the heat and pressure of the chemicals and the emergency venting of the tank was undertaken. This sent a poisonous cloud spreading southeast from the plant over the city of Bhopal. We don’t know how many people died. The official release said 2259. The local government said 3787. Others put the total at up to 16,000, including those who died later from the illnesses they contracted after exposure. Who knows.

Union Carbide could have easily prevented this leak. But it shut off some of its safety systems in order to save money, sacrificing safety for profit. Operating manuals were in English but most workers read only Hindi. Local officials worried about processing these chemicals in a big city like Bhopal, but Union Carbide executives overrode their concerns because they wanted to centralize production at that facility and sell it to other Asian nations. The limited pollution prevention system in the plant was completely overwhelmed by the size of the factory, with UC putting no money into ensuring such an event did not happen. Between 1980 and 1984, UC laid off half its safety employees in the plant in order to save money.

Not surprisingly, the plant had severe workplace safety issues as well. A 1976 accident blinded a worker. A 1981 leak killed one worker and injured two others. A leak in 1982 nearly killed 28 workers, although none died in the end. There were many more similar incidents. A 1982 safety audit suggested major changes but there is no evidence UC implemented any of them.

Real accountability to Union Carbide officials was never going to happen. UC claimed India forced it to produce the chemical in Bhopal because it wanted domestic production, but this is a) quite possibly a lie and b) says nothing about the lack of safety procedures in the plant. After the disaster, Union Carbide sought to escape all responsibility. It claimed without evidence that someone must have sabotaged the plant. When an Indian court ordered the company to pay $270 million in damages, Union Carbide continued appealing the decision, allowing it to delay payments. In 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million in compensation but little of this money reached the affected people and what did hardly paid for the long-term health problems faced by the survivors. The deal was so minimal that UC stock rose $2 a share the day of the announcement.

Dodging responsibility certainly did nothing for the people of Bhopal, who suffered (and continue to suffer) long-term respiratory problems and lung disease. The chemicals also created severe liver, spleen, and kidney problems for many survivors. By 2001, no more than half of survivors’ compensation cases had been processed. The factory closed in 1986. Union Carbide, later purchased by Dow, has taken no responsibility for remediation of the factory site, while 91 percent of people living in a resettlement colony near the factory site use water contaminated by its legacy. Meanwhile, when Union Carbide’s West Virginia plant that also produced Sevin released a toxic plume of aldicarb oxime and methylene chloride in August 1985, sending 135 people to the hospital, it led to Congress passing the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1986. This law provided local governments with information about toxic chemicals in order to support emergency planning measures. No such act came to India. In 2010, 8 Indian workers at the plant were convicted of crimes connected to the incident and the seven still living were given 2 years in prison, but no Union Carbide executive faced any legal consequences. Using the Alien Tort Claims Act, the survivors attempted to sue in U.S. courts in 1999 to hold the company accountable for both the victims and the remediation of the site, but the lawsuit was dismissed in 2012.

It is precisely that companies can poison workers in India or kill workers in Bangladesh without real consequences that they move away from the United States. The West Virginia incident created an additional layer of accountability for Union Carbide and other chemical companies. With increasingly mobile capitalism, there is no reason for companies to accept such a thing. Easier to just move to a country where people won’t have access to the power structures necessary to create meaningful accountability over wages, working conditions, or pollution. The lives of poor people are meaningless for Union Carbide, Wal-Mart, Target, or thousands of other American corporations involved in the exploitation of the developing world today.

Between 120,000 and 150,000 people in Bhopal today still struggle with the impact of the chemical leak that transformed their lives thirty years ago today. Long term birth defects are another result of the massive contamination that remains on and near the site, including in the drinking water for thousands. Said a recent report on Bhopal’s legacy:

“There is a very high prevalence of anemia, delayed menarches in girls and painful skin conditions. But what is most pronounced is the number of children with birth defects,” said activist Satinath Sarangi from the Bhopal Medical Appeal which runs a clinic for gas victims.

“Children are born with conditions such as twisted limbs, brain damage, musculoskeletal disorders … this is what we see in every fourth or fifth household in these communities.”

But of course there has never been an in depth study to prove the connections. Just a coincidence, no doubt.

There is of course a great deal of material on Bhopal. A bit of this I took from my upcoming book, Out of Sight</a>. I also relied upon Ward Morehouse’s 1993 article “The Ethics of Industrial Disasters in a Transnational World: The Elusive Quest for Justice and Accountability in Bhopal.”

This is the 126th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

“Genetics’ embarrassing, cranky old uncle”

[ 89 ] December 2, 2014 |

As Laura Helmuth explains, James Watson has always been a definitive case study in the perils of thinking that being an expert on one thing makes you an expert on everything:

One of his earliest sins: Watson didn’t credit Rosalind Franklin, a chemist also working on DNA at the time, for her crucial research on X-ray diffraction images, without which he and Francis Crick would not have been the first to discover the double helix structure. (Linus Pauling and others were right behind them and would have figured it out.) In Watson’s The Double Helix memoir, he calls Franklin “Rosy” (not a nickname she used), critiques her clothing and makeup, and characterizes her incorrectly as another scientist’s assistant.

Watson was also famously insulting and arrogant as a professor at Harvard, even for a professor at Harvard. Fellow faculty member E.O. Wilson described Watson in the 1950s and ’60s as the “Caligula of biology” for his contempt of scientists who studied anything other than molecules. Wilson wrote that, unfortunately, due to Watson’s stroke of genius at age 25, “He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously.”


And, of course, Watson fundamentally misunderstands research on race, genes, and intelligence. Scientists have been debunking ideas like his since well before The Bell Curve made a mockery of statistical analysis. The latest for-crying-out-loud-do-we have-to-do-this-again moment came this year with the publication of Nicholas Wade’s book Troublesome Inheritance, which Watson blurbed as “a masterful overview of how changes in our respective lineages let us begin to understand how human beings have evolved.” Anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and pretty much anybody with real expertise explained why the book’s assumptions about race-based traits were wrong—and Wade is much more sophisticated in his thinking than Watson is.

Watson had a major insight 61 years ago about the physical structure of DNA. He is one of the founders of a very important but very specific subset of modern biology, and he devoted most of the rest of his career to the study of cancer biology. But he knows fuck all about history, human evolution, anthropology, sociology, psychology, or any rigorous study of intelligence or race. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works for him to think that his expertise at one level of analysis—a molecular level—predicts anything at a higher level of analysis. The structure of DNA does not predict the workings of a cell, which does not predict the shape of a body, which does not predict the characteristics of a culture. It’s not as if the idea that people with dark skin are genetically inferior to people with light skin is some horrible secret that scientists had been trying to hide from the world until Jim Watson came along and revealed the truth. It’s simply incorrect.

Helmuth is also very good on the passive-aggressive self-pity of Watson auctioning off his Nobel Prize — he’s been extremely well-compensated for decades, but like many privileged white supremacists he’s always looking for a chance to whine in public.

Did Feminists Stop the ARRA From Having Infrastructure Funding? (SPOILER: No.)

[ 103 ] December 1, 2014 |

It must be said that Glenn Harlan Reynolds identifies a real problem in his column today — namely, a lack of infrastructure spending and the resultant loss of working-class jobs. There are plenty of people you can blame from this fact. Most obviously, you must blame the Republicans who strongly oppose infrastructure spending and have used their control of key veto points to stop in from happening. You could talk about Republican governors who turned down federal infrastructure money because it would provide actually useful infrastructure rather than the ridiculously useless boondoggles he would prefer to waste state money on. On the ARRA specifically, you can blame the Republicans and conservative Democrats who used their vetoes to make the stimulus smaller and more tilted towards tax cuts than spending or state aid. Since Reynolds is both a Republican hack and a world-class concern troll, we can guess who he blames:

So if Democrats want to win back the white working class — and they kind of need to, if they want to win elections, because it’s an enormous demographic — maybe they need to start thinking about honoring and encouraging work, rather than talking about race or class. One person who has some ideas in this direction is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who suggests that the government invest heavily in infrastructure, which would create a lot of blue-collar jobs.

That was actually an original part of Barack Obama’s stimulus plan, but it was derailed by feminists within the Obama coalition who thought it would produce too many jobs for men. Christina Romer, then-chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, reported: “The very first email I got … was from a women’s group saying ‘We don’t want this stimulus package to just create jobs for burly men.’ “

The women did it! If you look at the linked piece, however, you’ll noticed that while feminist groups were (rightly!) concerned about gender equity in stimulus spending, they did not oppose infrastructure projects or get any stripped from the ARRA. Women’s groups wanted additions, not subtractions, and got them. The idea that women’s groups, rather than conservative Republicans, are the reason for the lack of infrastructure spending is risible bad faith even by Reynolds’s standards.

…feminism has been very busy lately; not only has it stopped infrastructure spending, it caused the Ferguson shooting.

Great Momements In Winger Analysis

[ 103 ] December 1, 2014 |


The “hands-up-don’t shoot” gesture made by Rams players was going to lead to plenty of crackpottery. But Roy has found the funniest example, in the person of Mr. Rick Moran. The setup:

What this very public display of ignorance may do to the team chemsitry of the Rams is another question.

The punchline. Even if you adjust for the fact that the Rams were playing competition that can only very generously be called NFL caliber, the chemistry seems OK to me…

The Need For Federal Intervention In Ferguson

[ 38 ] December 1, 2014 |

As I mentioned over the holiday, I have a #Slatepitch in what is hopefully the non-pejorative sense about what actions the federal government should be taking even if they don’t think that Wilson could be successfully prosecuted for civil rights violations:

But indicting Wilson for civil rights violations does not exhaust the possibilities of federal intervention. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice is empowered by statute to file civil charges if it finds a “pattern or practice” of violating civil rights on the part of local law enforcement. The DOJ can obtain a court order or negotiate a settlement that requires changes in police practices and maintains federal supervision to ensure that the changes are implemented.

These civil interventions can be very important. “Department of Justice’s civil pattern-or-practice investigation has the potential to make a real systemic change in the way policing is done in Ferguson,” explains Samuel Bagenstos, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School who served as principal deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights under the Obama administration. “It could lead to a consent decree or other agreement that changes the way the police hire, screen, train, and monitor officers, alters use-of-force policies, and so forth. I think the pattern-or-practice cases, far more than the criminal ones, are where DOJ can make real change to policing practices.”

As Josh Voorhees argued in this virtual space earlier this year, the importance of reforming police practices in Ferguson can hardly be overstated. In a tour de force of investigative reporting for the Washington Post, Radley Balko found that the police departments in Ferguson and other small towns in St. Louis County collaborated with local courts to function in large measure as a white supremacist protection racket. Overwhelmingly white police forces impose arbitrary fines for minor legal violations on overwhelmingly African-American residents, which are often compounded by penalties for failure to appear in court or to pay fines. (The average citizen of Ferguson has three outstanding arrest warrants!) Not surprisingly, there is good evidence that these draconian enforcements are racially discriminatory.

In case you’re having any doubts about whether to click through to this article, I would like to note that it’s been endorsed by…your wife. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Rumors that Heather Locklear will be blurbing Erik’s book are unconfirmed but probably accurate.

Mining Companies Lie About Their Environmental Impact. To the Fainting Couch!

[ 9 ] December 1, 2014 |

This is 2 months old but I am doubtful any of you are familiar with the story. I was not until yesterday.

Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining companies, decided to open a new copper mine in Mongolia. That nation of course has a long tradition of nomadic herding and is also arid. That means those herders rely on scarce fresh water supplies. Rio Tinto promised they would use only deep aquifers that would have no impact on the herders’ water. You may not be surprised to discover that the company lied.

When companies build exploration wells that touch different water sources, like those outside Oyu Tolgoi, they must be sealed with impermeable material. This ensures water from a shallower source cannot cascade into a deeper one.

The contractor didn’t build those seals at Oyu Tolgoi’s wells. The construction plan shows only gravel where an impermeable barrier should be.

A “technological mistake,” Oyu Tolgoi’s vice president called it.

At least five other wells were cascading too, a specialist brought in by the government later confirmed. Rio Tinto blames its drilling contractor, RPS Aquaterra, saying the company constructed the wells incorrectly.

But Rio Tinto should have been able to adequately oversee the work of its contractors, said mining expert Paul Robinson of the Southwest Research and Information Center, a New Mexico-based nonprofit focused on natural resource protection.

“What they did completely defeats the purpose of what was committed to and agreed to,” he said. “It is really bad performance.”

There are no public scientific studies or data that show how much water was lost.

White pointed to a company report that says the cascading does not have a “measurable impact” on the shallow aquifers upon which the herders rely.

Even so, the shallow and deep aquifers now appear to be connected, according to an independent 2013 audit. That can cause the contamination of the freshwater aquifer if the cascade reverses, a problem that’s potentially as serious as water loss.

Herders like Khayandorj said that since the exploration wells went in, plants that had survived years of drought have died.

“Yes, there were two to three years of severe drought,” he said, sitting in his yurt over bowls of salty milk tea. “But right after they set up those wells, families had to move away because of changes in the grass.”

Two wells he once used now are dry. He told Oyu Tolgoi, which has promised to find a new water source for any herder with a dry well. The company has dug several new, deeper wells for other herders. But in his case, the efforts didn’t work.

“They came. They dug with their machinery,” he said. “Nothing. It’s dry.”

Khayandorj and his family spent the entire summer, usually a time of rest for nomads, setting up temporary camp, constantly on the move for sufficient grass and water for their herds.

The nomads have suffered other affronts during Rio Tinto’s mine development. The company replaced a natural spring that was a place of worship with what looks like a man-made drainage ditch. It also dug up sacred elm trees, according to the US Agency for International Development.

Lkhamdoorov Battsengel’s family, along with 10 others, used to live and graze their herds on pastureland of the Turquoise Hill, as the area is known. His family alone had 600 sheep and goats, 100 camels and dozens of horses and cows. When the mining company fenced in its land, it forced the families to relocate.

The land where Battsengel resettled couldn’t sustain his herds. He is down to 100 animals in total.

He’s now started a nonprofit environmental organization called Gobi Soil to influence Oyu Tolgoi’s environmental policies. It has banded with bigger nonprofits to file formal complaints with the International Finance Corporation, which is considering a $1.4 billion financing package to develop the mine further.

“We still have time to turn things back,” he said.

Battsengel now supports his family by collecting trash for Oyu Tolgoi.

This basic story takes place around the world, especially in poor nations as multinational corporations seek mineral rights in areas with few meaningful environmental regulations and little chance of real consequences if they violate them. The impact on the world’s poor is devastating.

Specious Arguments In American History

[ 72 ] December 1, 2014 |

The National Review wonders why the shooting of Michael Brown is getting disproportionate attention:

“While I understand the people are concerned about the use of deadly force by the police, by far — about 50 to 1 — more blacks in St. Louis are killed by other blacks as compared to white police officers,” Klinger told KMOX-TV.

Meanwhile, 98 percent of black murders go virtually unremarked. Where are the angry crowds demanding justice for blacks such as these, who were wiped out in St. Louis by other blacks in recent memory?

Yes, it’s a real puzzle! Scocca beat me to the shorter:

The best part is that Murdock doesn’t even hide the fact that the cases he cites involves people who were actually indicted. NRO presumably believes that it’s impossible to insult the intelligence of its core readership, and in fairness they’re almost certainly correct.

Citizen Nuclear Science

[ 2 ] December 1, 2014 |


Even today, government and industry proceed ahead with new technologies with nothing close to appropriate monitoring and testing to demonstrate its effects on people before they happen (see fracking for one example). That was even more true during the Cold War, when atmospheric nuclear testing was taking place without the slightest clue how all that radiation might affect humans far away from the test sites. In St. Louis, citizens worried about radioactive fallout devised a plan to collect baby teeth from children to see what was happening.

This group, the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI), brought together physics, biology and dentistry faculty from Washington University and Saint Louis University with laypeople (many of them volunteers from civic and social organizations such as the League of Women Voters) in its membership. Members wrote essays for publication in general-interest magazines, stuffed envelopes, and gave talks to local Kiwanis Clubs and other interested members of the public about the basics of atomic science, explaining what we knew—what isotopes are, for example—and what we didn’t know—most pressingly, how radioactive fallout from nuclear testing affects the body. Members also took part in what turned out to be more than a decade of scientific data collection for a project inspired by Herman Kalckar’s short article on teeth as sources of data on radioisotope absorption levels.

Kalckar’s article established a method by which researchers could chart the levels of radiation absorbed by human bodies. Yet establishing baseline exposure levels for the years prior to massive multiple test detonations would require immediate action. In 1951, only about 24 nuclear test detonations had taken place, many of them relatively small compared to the kiloton or megaton levels of tests between 1952 and 1958. If scientists acted quickly, they could collect the data inscribed in deciduous teeth during the period preceding the 1952 and 1954 detonations of hydrogen bombs. The evidence of those baseline levels of absorbed radiation from the early years of testing was all around, in the mouths of children. It slept in their jaws, was nestled under their pillows and thrown away or stashed in drawers after being exchanged for fifty cents from the “Good Fairy.”

CNI initiated the Baby Tooth Survey in December of 1958 with a grant from the United States Public Health Service (later funding came from subsequent Public Health Service grants, along with funds from the Leukemia Guild of Missouri and Illinois.) Louise Reiss, an internist at the St. Louis City Health Department, helmed the study, which aimed to collect 50,000 teeth a year from children in the St. Louis area in order to acquire sufficient quantities of tooth material for testing.

Such an ambitious effort required the participation of every school in the St. Louis area and a publicity blitz to match. Reiss met with the superintendents of each school system. She met with dentists, school librarians, YMCA directors, local dental and pharmaceutical professional groups. A 1964 report on the study detailed the extraordinary support Reiss won from the community:

During the weeks of the semi-annual Tooth Round-ups, public service time is given generously by radio and television stations to publicize the needs of the Survey. Mayor Raymond Tucker has proclaimed Tooth Survey Week. Last December the Veiled Prophet queen, St. Louis’ traditional reigning beauty, celebrated the Survey’s fifth birthday with a party at Children’s Hospital. A large model of a tooth (with a child inside) gives out forms in department stores. And, most important, dentists are reminded by letter and at conventions how helpful it will be if they make the forms available in their offices. So well known has BTS become that letters from children, addressed simply “Tooth Fairy, St. Louis,” reach their destination at the CNI office.

Pretty bad that it took everyday citizens to develop even the most basic monitoring of how nuclear fallout was affecting children. But then that’s the Cold War for you.

White American Riots

[ 16 ] December 1, 2014 |

I’d say this list significantly underestimates the amount of white American rioting in American history. But in popular white ideology today, rioting is only something that black people do.


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