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Category: General


[ 25 ] October 29, 2014 |

As it happens, Frank Bruni’s tenure as an op-ed columnist  (not to mention his tenure as a reporter) is an excellent rebuttal to the assertion that once you eliminate tenure you will then eliminate mediocrity.

How Many Products That You Buy Drive Human Rights Abuses? Many.

[ 24 ] October 29, 2014 |

This Vox piece on 5 products you buy that drive human rights abuses is good enough. I talk about the shrimp industry at some length in my forthcoming capital mobility book. If you are buying frozen shrimp, just assume you are either supporting slave labor or something way too close to it. The apparel industry is of course notorious for its exploitation, as is chocolate production.

But the larger point that the author doesn’t make is that most of the products you buy engage in outright exploitation because the system of capital mobility allows corporations to exploit workers and destroy ecosystems around the globe with impunity and the outsourcing and subcontracting system further makes protects corporations from accountability. So sure, these are horrible industries but if we want to do anything about them we have to think systemically about the system of modern global capitalism that creates these horrors. And the article doesn’t really do that.

Non-citizens voting

[ 39 ] October 28, 2014 |

A good post here from John Ahlquist and Scott Gehlbach, and another from Michael Tesler here, responding to a rather sensational, oversold post from David Earnest and Jesse Richman, which was greeted with much enthusiasm by those who’ll take their justification for voter suppression wherever they happen to find it. The Earnest/Richman post was frustrating in its eagerness to over-extrapolate from some really small numbers to get a splashy headline. I haven’t read the paper (gated) they were discussing; but there’s reason to hope it might be better with the data than the blog post suggests. Earnest has done good work before; I’ve learned a great deal from his earlier work on patterns and practices of enfranchizing non-citizens, which are considerably more common than most people realize (mostly, but not exclusively, in local elections). 

Walking While Female

[ 204 ] October 28, 2014 |

But, clearly, she should be grateful to know how many creepy strangers find her sexually attractive!

Amanda Hess has more.

A World of Dams

[ 20 ] October 28, 2014 |


Plumer has a good rundown of the complexity of dam building around the world
. The world’s rapidly growing demand for energy means that every way we can turn the natural world into power is going to be considered. Given how many of those methods of energy production also transform the climate in horrible ways, hydropower seems smart. But hydropower also has its own major problems. It forces sometimes hundreds of thousands to move from their homes. It drastically transforms aquatic ecosystems, imperiling fish and other species. It may well create unintended consequences that undermine its clean energy reputation. Building dams also reflects power differentials in society as a whole. Thus you have a nation like Chile seeking to dam rivers over the desires of the people who occupy the land, i.e., the Mapuche. So dam building becomes another round in the 500+ year history of colonialism and racism against indigenous peoples in the Americas.

And mostly, we don’t really know what we are doing when we build dams. In the U.S., this led to a lot of bad dams that provided little power but had significant negative consequences for people and ecosystems. That’s almost certainly happening around the world today.

As with all energy questions, there are no easy answers. But hydroelectric is not a panacea either and should be expanded with the kind of caution one would want to see with gigantic projects that will reshape entire parts of the world. Unfortunately, that rarely happens.

He. Didn’t. Even. Try.

[ 128 ] October 28, 2014 |

If only Obama had given one more speech, the Democratic caucus in the Senate would have totally supported a Swedish-style single payer health care system:

One of the most interesting examples of the reform effort are the “copper plans” being proposed in the Expanded Consumer Choice Act, which is being pushed by seven moderate Senate Democrats: Mark Begich, Mark Warner, Heidi Heitkamp, Tim Kaine, Mary Landrieu, Angus King, and Joe Manchin.

The bill has been around for a few months, but it’s gained more attention in recent weeks because Begich — one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the 2014 election — is using it as proof that he really does want to fix Obamacare, rather than just protect it. If he wins his election, it could become a model for Democrats trying to run on Obamacare going forward. It might even end up being part of a Republican reform package.

Copper plans cover 50 percent of expected health costs (or, as the health wonks put it, they have an “actuarial value” of 50 percent). That means premiums are cheaper than the platinum, gold, bronze or silver plans — the consulting group Avalere Health estimates that copper plan premiums would be 18 percent lower than bronze plan premiums.

But if you get sick, the deductibles and co-pays are much higher. Larry Levitt, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, says that the deductibles would have to be in the range of $9,000 — which would make them higher than the $6,350 out-of-pocket maximum that the law currently allows.

In other words, a significant percentage of the Democratic caucus is looking to fix the ACA by making it a lot worse for poor people.

When someone tells me how Obama was supposed to get votes 53-60 for a better health care bill–in a Democratic caucus that was worse in 2009 than in 2014, let me know.

Building the “World of Ice and Fire”

[ 92 ] October 28, 2014 |

As you might have noticed, there’s a new book by George R.R Martin out today…and it’s not The Winds of Winter (the eagerly anticipated next book in the Song of Ice and Fire series). Instead, it’s the “World of Ice and Fire,” a fictional history and travelogue of Westeros and lands beyond. For the hardest of hardcore fans, this is methadone until the sixth book actually arrives; for causal viewers of the TV show, this is a good opportunity to figure out exactly who everyone is and how they’re all related, and who’s the third bearded guy in that one scene. But it’s also a great opportunity to talk about the intersection between genre fiction and academics…

Read more…

The BDSM Red Herring

[ 49 ] October 28, 2014 |

As this blog’s token Canadian, I suppose it behooves me to comment on the firing of once beloved CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi. Andrea Zanin, Amanda Marcotte, and Sarah Seltzer all correctly identify the heart of the issue. Ghomeshi’s preemptive strike notwithstanding, it is almost certain that he was not fired because of his kinky but consensual sexual proclivities (which of course would indeed be indefensible.) He was fired because he was credibly accused by 3 women of sexual assault and 1 woman of sexual harassment. The firing might be unjust based on the extremely remote possibility that all 4 of these women are lying, but not because the CBC is too prudish. And in case you’re tempted to think that the anonymity of these women should seriously undermine their credibility, I will note that a woman who wrote that Ghomeshi was, at the least, an entitled envelope-pusher unwilling or incapable of reading basic social cues when young women he wanted to screw are involved was subjected to substantial harassment for writing about it. (See Heather Malick on this point as well.)

While we’re here, I can say with certainty that he can be convicted of writing this:

Moxy Fruvous – Stuck In the 90s from Tim Hamilton on Vimeo.

NEVER TRY THE INCISIVE SOCIAL COMMENTARY IN SONG AGAIN MY GOD. One more of these and I think I’d start sending money to the RNC.

…Kate Harding has more. Also, IANAL and correct me if I’m wrong, but a lawsuit that doesn’t even allege a breach of his employment contract does not seem very likely to get anywhere.  Even if his extremely implausible story is true I’m still unclear what his legal claim is.

They’re Just Trying to Make It What They Want

[ 81 ] October 28, 2014 |

I’d like for this to be the last post I write about Gamergate. I could be being optimistic, but I just feel like we may be saying “goodbye and good riddance” to it soon. Yesterday, I checked the hashtag’s activity and the most popular tweets belonged to people who are anti-gamergate. Not the case today. But I saw yesterday’s activity as a good sign that perhaps GG was past its sell by date. Let’s face it: everybody who  matters is anti-GG. Prominent voices in gaming and popular culture have denounced GG because they recognize it as the thinly-veiled excuse for misogyny that it is. And, honestly, I just don’t think most of the Gamergaters are even trying anymore. The linked article is about some GG dead-enders and their get-together at a strip club. There they railed about Social Justice Warriors. So, to tally: two token women, ignored strippers and lotsa arglebargle about Social Justice Warriors. Gosh, it’s almost like Gamgergate is about silencing women who game or have opinions about gaming rather than ethics in journalism.

Ken White has a good take on this mess. Most of his points are incisive, though he tries to “both sides” things a bit. But the tinfoil-hatters in his comment section make it a fun read. My favorite was from a gamer (I guess) who–purporting to speak for all gamers (I guess)–huffed that “gamers don’t like identity politics.” OK, but…MANY OF GAMERGATE’S CRITICS ARE…ALSO GAMERS. YOU F*CKING DUMBSHIT.

I will be so glad when I don’t have to post about this anymore.

Slavery and Higher Education

[ 11 ] October 28, 2014 |

It’s hardly surprising once you think about it, but you probably don’t think about it, so it’s worth noting the role slavery had in building so many of our older institutions of higher education. Finally, some institutions are becoming serious about remembering that history and commemorating the unfree labor who worked on these campuses. Brown University is probably the most famous case, but the University of South Carolina has also done good work on this. It’s important stuff and we need more of it.

Surely We Can Strive for 1929 by 2015!

[ 33 ] October 28, 2014 |


Good times:

The debate over inequality often focuses on income, or how much money people earn. But perhaps even more important is wealth, or how much money people have. A person’s income can vary significantly from one year to the next, but wealth tends to be more durable, not just from year to year but from generation to generation. In this paper, the authors construct a new time series on wealth from Federal Reserve, Internal Revenue Service and other data. They find that wealth inequality, like income inequality, has increased significantly in recent decades. In 1978, the richest 0.1 percent of households held about 7 percent of all household wealth; in 2012, they controlled 22 percent. (The top 0.1 percent in 2012 comprised about 160,000 families with net assets above $20 million.) But wealth inequality still isn’t as high as it was in 1929, when the top 0.1 percent had 25 percent of all wealth. Overall, the authors find that the bottom 90 percent haven’t seen any increase in wealth since the mid-1980s after adjusting for inflation.

Daddy Warbucks for President!

This Day in Labor History: October 28, 1793

[ 29 ] October 28, 2014 |

On October 28, 1793, Eli Whitney submitted a patent for his invention known as the cotton gin. Perhaps more than any technology in American history, this invention profoundly revolutionized American labor. Creating the modern cotton industry meant the transition from agricultural to industrial labor in the North with the rise of the factory system and the rapid expansion and intensification of slavery in the South to produce the cotton. The cotton gin went far to create the 19th century American economy and sharpened the divides between work and labor between regions of the United States, problems that would eventually lead to the Civil War.

People had long known of the versatile uses of cotton. This plant produced fibers that could be used for many things, but most usefully clothing, which in the 18th century was often scratchy and uncomfortable for everyday people who could not afford finer fabrics, including cotton. The problem was the seed inside the cotton boll, to which the plant’s fibers stuck. Thus, the labor it took to process it made it a luxury good. The cotton gin solved that problem by mechanically separating the fibers from the seeds. This made cotton a universal product and the production of it an international business that would radically change the entire United States and transform work.

Whitney, from Massachusetts, became interested in the problems of cotton production while visiting a plantation in Georgia. Helping out the plantation’s owner (the widow of Revolutionary War general Nathaniel Greene), he created the cotton gin. On October 28, he send his patent application to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. He hoped to make a lot of money on it but American patent law was weak at the time and others copied him. Quickly the invention spread around the South.


The cotton gin immediately transformed the South. By 1815, cotton became the nation’s leading export, tying the Southern elite to the factory owners and investors of Great Britain. By 1840, it was worth more than all other American exports combined. The system of chattel slavery that had under-girded the colonial tobacco economy had become heavily strained during the 18th century. Declining soil fertility and the expansion of tobacco production around the British empire meant that the plantation owners were not making the money off of slavery that they did 100 years earlier. The lack of an economic imperative for the institution went far toward the abolition of slavery in the North after the American Revolution. In the South, it combined with Enlightenment ideals to at least make plantation owners question the institution. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry both admitted the institution was bad but could not imagine freeing their slaves because of the lives of luxury the system provided them. Others were slightly less selfish and either freed their slaves in the 1780s or freed them upon the master’s death, such as George Washington. The general assumption though was that slavery was going to disappear, even if Georgia and South Carolina wouldn’t like it much. As Oliver Ellsworth said at the Constitutional Convention, “Slavery in time will not be a speck in our country.”

The cotton gin ended this equivocation on slavery among the plantation elite and destroyed the myth of disappearing slavery in the North. Combined with the conquest of rich land in the hot climates of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana over the next few decades, the planters found new ways to make money using slaves. The southern discussion of slavery transformed from a “necessary evil” to a “positive good.” Thus we would enter the “classic” period of American chattel slavery, replete with the large plantation agriculture you probably think of when envisioning slavery. The lives for slaves were terrible under this system, with rape, beatings, whippings, murder, and the breaking up of families normal parts of life. Further advances in cotton farming created breeds that incentivized working slaves as close to death as possible while keeping them just alive to pick more. As the nation moved toward the Civil War, the southern labor system wrought by the cotton gin was becoming only more entrenched and more brutal for the laborers. Slaves would resist this in any number of ways–breaking tools, running away from masters, even revolt, such as Nat Turner’s revolt or Denmark Vesey’s supposed conspiracy. But by and large the system of racialized violence that kept the labor force in place doomed slaves to miserable lives. In 1787, there were 700,000 slaves in the United States. In 1860, there were 4 million and rising. Around 70 percent of those slaves were involved in cotton production.


In the North, the revolution caused by the cotton gin was just as profound. Samuel Slater had opened the United States’ first modern factory, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, a couple of years earlier. The textile industry would explode in the next several decades with all the newly available cotton. By the 1820s, New England had already undergone a massive economic shift toward textile mills that moved this region from rural to urban, with courts and politicians serving the interests of the industrialists over workers, farmers, and fishers. At first, this transformation was along the region’s copious waterways–at Pawtucket, Lowell, and Manchester. But further technological advances would for steam power meant owners could build factories anywhere and they dotted the region after the Civil War.

The impact upon northern workers was truly revolutionary. The agricultural economy certainly did not disappear but it soon became secondary to the textile factories in much of the region. The wealth spawned by textiles created other industries and new transportation technologies like the steamship, canal, and railroad, and by 1860, the growing northern industrial might had reshaped the nation. It took workers out of the farms and small shops that defined 18th century work and into giant factories. Eventually, the Industrial Revolution that the cotton gin brought to the U.S. meant that workers would lose control over their own labor, the ability to set their own hours of work, the possibility of drinking on the job, and the artisanship of American craft labor. Replacing it would be the factory floor, the time clock, and the foreman. This is largely in the relatively distant future from 1793, but the transformations began soon after.

Cartoon or Sketch of Mill Woman_0

It also brought women into the economy in new ways. Supposedly because of their nimble fingers but really because employers could pay them less, women became desirable workers in the cotton factories. This upended gender roles and when American women resisted the treatment they faced in the factories, spurred the migration of immigrants from Ireland and then eastern and southern Europe to fill these low-paid jobs. In the early factories, work was hot, stuffy, and exhausting, with 14-16 hours days not uncommon. The creation of textile work as women’s work and thus highly exploitative never ended and continues today in the sweatshops of Bangladesh, Honduras, and many other nations. The fight to tame the conditions of industrial labor wrought, in part, by the cotton gin, remains underway today.

This is the 123rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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