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Category: General

New AV Club/Internet Film School column in which I argue that Divergent is worse than Saving Christmas

[ 75 ] January 27, 2015 |

So please feel free to … enjoy?

Book Review: Marina Welker, Enacting the Corporation: An American Mining Firm in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia

[ 47 ] January 27, 2015 |

In Enacting the Corporation, the anthropologist Marina Welker seeks to humanize corporate behavior by examining how the Denver-based mining conglomerate Newmont attempts to enact the principles of Corporate Social Responsibility in its dealings at a mine site on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. Welker argues that rather than seeing corporations as monoliths concerned only about profit, it is far more useful to examine how different actors seek to “enact” the corporation to meet their own interests, whether as employees, activists, executives at the company’s Denver headquarters, consultants, etc. In doing so, Welker “humanizes” the corporation through understanding as a collective subject that remains unstable because of so many actors affecting it.

The Corporate Social Responsibility movement came out of the late twentieth century, urging corporations to take a more complex view of their relationship with the communities where they worked. Especially important in poor communities within the U.S. and overseas, it asked companies to think of social investment in communities as good for the bottom line because it would assuage dissent and provide good relationships with workers and community leaders. For Newmont in Indonesia, this means portraying the company as Islam-friendly, even if the minority Christian workers there are uncomfortable with it, a lot of charity work that some see as taking away from the prime mission of mining, and running educational programs for nearby farmers, among other activities.

Not surprisingly, corporate executives have widely disparate views on the CSR movement. They express a great deal of frustration because the locals don’t think like the capitalists they want to deal with; in fact, making capitalists is part of the mission. Some see it as a good economic move for the company, others wish they didn’t have to deal with people at all. The CSR workers themselves often see themselves as isolated within the larger company, the “hippies” getting in the way of getting out the color. Battles rage within the company between different models and methods of development, and Welker does an excellent job of delineating the complexities and struggles in implementing CSR.

In Indonesia, the response to the mine is even more complex. While Welker discusses local elites organizing violent opposition to Indonesian critics of Newmont, the people of Sumbawa also demand a lot from the company. People demand roads and bridges and donations. People resist development because they want their farms or jobs for themselves and their family members. The programs don’t always go as expected. Farmer training programs weaning locals off Green Revolution techniques make little difference to people who mostly want more pesticides, and cultural differences make the trainings themselves frustrating to pretty much everyone. Indonesians have different ways of judging the role of the mine. Welker emphasizes an Indonesian term that translates as “social jealousy” which is a sort of relationship-based way of judging your own place in the world that demands relative parity in economic advancement. The issue is important enough to convince Newmont to build a bunch of houses for people with no connection to the mine in order to smooth things over.

Where Newmont faces a lot of criticism is from environmentalists, both inside and outside Indonesia. The Newmont repsonse is pure contempt for green critics. They are seen as outright enemies, accused of lying and deceit for their claims. Managers attack NGOs and individual activists. Welker accesses documents showing how Newmont attacks NGOs, providing a useful window into corporate anti-environmentalist strategy. They provide anti-activist material to village elites, fomenting a response to defend their employer and their jobs that led to violence against a group of activist women.

Welker received significant corporate access to write this book, much more than one would expect from a modern corporation that has been so controversial over the years. It’s slightly unclear to me why a corporation would allow this level of access (maybe it was part of the larger CSR strategy) and while I’m sure Welker was not limited in what she could say, she certainly doesn’t portray Newmont as particularly objectionable. So on one hand, Welker has provided a nuanced understanding of the reality of corporate relationships with communities and the internal struggles over how to do this. On the other hand, Newmont is a tremendously awful corporation, and while Welker doesn’t deny this fact, she certainly doesn’t emphasize it either. Newmont has had to pay millions for cyanide dumping in Ghana, engaged in terrible mining practices in Peru, and was heavily invested in mines during the apartheid regime in South Africa. She mentions its frequent pollution at the mine site and all the toxic waste it is dumping in the ocean, but that plays a surprisingly small part in her story.

Plus, while Welker might not want to see corporations as profit-maximizing monoliths, they are profit-maximizing monoliths. All these CSR programs, charity, and corporate welfare exist for one reason–to create an atmosphere for Newmont to profit. There’s no social agenda here except to smooth over problems with relatively small expenditures in order to get the ore. That doesn’t mean her insights aren’t valuable–profit-maximizing monoliths can in fact be made up of a variety of different actors, but they all feed into the requirement of a corporation, which is to maximize profit. That there are employees within the company who have a social commitment or that the company invests a pittance into local investment does not mitigate the fact of why Newmont exists and why it is in Indonesia. It is there to maximize profit, pure and simple, even if the details can get a bit messy.

My greatest frustration with Enacting the Corporation however is not the somewhat squishy view of the morality of Newmont, but rather with the field of cultural anthropology. I recognize that this is a somewhat unfair critique since books should be evaluated on their own terms and I certainly would never begrudge a graduate student or assistant professor for adhering to the conventions of their field, but I definitely feel that the conventions of anthropology get in the way of telling powerful stories to a much wider audience. Rigor and good writing are not mutually exclusive. Welker pours on the theoretical constructs and literature discussions, and not only in the introduction. I’ve long felt that anthropologists would be better off thinking of themselves more like journalists—a bit like historians do—and focus on telling a story that would engage a broader public. There’s a lot of great and insightful material here for the general reader interested in these issues, but that narrative is so often interrupted by a discussion of this or that theory, that the general reader is going to give up on this pretty quickly. And that’s too bad because it’s a pretty useful book.

Blizzard Prep

[ 84 ] January 26, 2015 |

If civilization is going to end with the approaching blizzard at least let the past help you prepare to go out the right way.

B8TuyKFCcAAULTm

The Silver Downside

[ 16 ] January 26, 2015 |

If this is true — and Sherrill is a very sharp analyst — here’s a reason not to break out the champagne after the arrest of Sheldon Silver:

Silver is the most powerful ally that unions and tenants-rights groups had “and the criminal charges will tilt the politics of state government inevitably to the right,” said Ken Sherrill, Hunter College political-science professor emeritus. “It will be a huge change because the next speaker will be more under the control of the governor, someone the governor thinks will not cause him any problems, not someone with an independent power base.”

 

Saying the Quiet Parts Loud

[ 48 ] January 26, 2015 |

Well, they’re being honest, you have to give them that:

Senate Republicans revealed this week that they have eliminated the phrase “civil rights and human rights” from the title of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee charged with overseeing those issues.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee this month and announced the members of the six subcommittees this week. With Grassley’s announcement, the subcommittee formerly known as the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights suddenly became the Subcommittee on the Constitution.

Austerity Cannot Fail, and Can Only Be Failed

[ 53 ] January 26, 2015 |

Greece edition:

You see, the economic projections that accompanied the standby arrangement assumed that Greece could impose harsh austerity with little effect on growth and employment. Greece was already in recession when the deal was reached, but the projections assumed that this downturn would end soon — that there would be only a small contraction in 2011, and that by 2012 Greece would be recovering. Unemployment, the projections conceded, would rise substantially, from 9.4 percent in 2009 to almost 15 percent in 2012, but would then begin coming down fairly quickly.

What actually transpired was an economic and human nightmare. Far from ending in 2011, the Greek recession gathered momentum. Greece didn’t hit the bottom until 2014, and by that point it had experienced a full-fledged depression, with overall unemployment rising to 28 percent and youth unemployment rising to almost 60 percent. And the recovery now underway, such as it is, is barely visible, offering no prospect of returning to precrisis living standards for the foreseeable future.

What went wrong? I fairly often encounter assertions to the effect that Greece didn’t carry through on its promises, that it failed to deliver the promised spending cuts. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Greece imposed savage cuts in public services, wages of government workers and social benefits. Thanks to repeated further waves of austerity, public spending was cut much more than the original program envisaged, and it’s currently about 20 percent lower than it was in 2010.

Yet Greek debt troubles are if anything worse than before the program started. One reason is that the economic plunge has reduced revenues: The Greek government is collecting a substantially higher share of G.D.P. in taxes than it used to, but G.D.P. has fallen so quickly that the overall tax take is down. Furthermore, the plunge in G.D.P. has caused a key fiscal indicator, the ratio of debt to G.D.P., to keep rising even though debt growth has slowed and Greece received some modest debt relief in 2012.

 

Historical Places Obama Should Protect Through the Antiquities Act

[ 12 ] January 26, 2015 |

In December, Congress passed and President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act. Included in the bill was a bunch of new national parks. A couple of them were the traditional big nature parks that come to mind when you think of national parks, such as the Valles Caldera in New Mexico. There were some new historical parks as well. Here in Rhode Island, along with neighboring Massachusetts, the Blackstone Valley, site of the Industrial Revolution reaching the U.S., will be a national park. Slater Mill in Pawtucket, the first factory in America, is already run in conjunction with the National Park Service, including ranger-led tours, so this isn’t too new. Harriet Tubman’s home in upstate New York will now be a national park, as well the Colt gun factory in Hartford, another key site of early industrialization. The long-planned Manhattan Project sites park will also be realized, with spots in Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford available for public viewing, albeit probably only a couple of times a year and with some sort of security screening required (I did some historic preservation work at Los Alamos when I was writing my dissertation and this was already in planning at that time).

The U.S. government probably does a better job than any other nation in the world in protecting historical sites and interpreting them for the public. How many World War I or World War II battlefields are protected parks in Europe compared to Civil War or Revolutionary War battle sites in the U.S.? Of course, Republicans have drastically underfunded the NPS ever since the Gingrich takeover of the House, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to interpret our past in this way. These parks can also be great examples of small-scale stimulus programs. If you don’t think Pawtucket businesses could use a little extra money from tourists stopping by the new park, well, you’ve never been to Pawtucket then.

So what other sites should Obama prioritize in protecting during his last two years. Here’s a list of eight sites I think would be great inclusions to the national parks. I don’t know that we will see another bill that passes a Republican Congress, but Obama can also use the Antiquities Act to create National Monuments and then give authority over them to the NPS. So he doesn’t need Congress.

1. Pullman

Recent years have seen a significant improvement in protecting sites of early industrial history. There’s Lowell, which is great. The newish Paterson Great Falls site in New Jersey added to this, and now there’s the Blackstone and Colt sites. But our labor history is horribly remembered, whether inside or outside the NPS. Homestead is a mall. The Everett Massacre site seems to be some fenced off area of the port (or at least I couldn’t find it at all when I tried to). Even the Triangle Fire is just marked with a small plaque. So the first three of these are going to be about remembering labor history.

There is not a more obvious site in the nation for the NPS to interpret than Pullman. The site of the legendary 1894 strike is basically a fenced off ruin. A few of the key buildings still remain and could be restored. The company housing is still occupied. There are so many stories to tell here–the strike. Eugene Debs. African-American work on the railroad. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The growth of Chicago, which lacks a park site at all. It’s a clear call and one I hope happens soon.

2. Blair Mountain

If Obama is declaring a war on coal, he might as well go all the way and save the site of the largest insurrection since the Civil War from being subject to mountaintop removal. So much to interpret here.

3. Ludlow

Right now, all there is at the Ludlow Massacre site is a small monument run by the United Mine Workers of America and the chamber where the women and children suffocated to death when the company thugs burned the camp down. Otherwise, it’s a big open space with plenty of possibilities for a cool museum. There’s a lot in southern Colorado that could also be included. I think the prison where Mother Jones was placed in Walsenburg still stands. There’s also the Colorado Fuel & Iron facility in Pueblo. So many stories here too. Not only the massacre, but the immigrant miners (and the NPS really doesn’t do enough to tell Mexican-American stories), the coal industry, and the rise of company unionism with John D. Rockefeller’s response to the criticism he faced after Ludlow.

4. Auto Industry

I’m not sure precisely which building in Detroit or Flint the government should make a national park to talk about the auto industry, but it is so central to our history and there are so many empty factories that it needs to do something like it did with Lowell and do some interpretation. Maybe the Fisher Body Plant where the Flint Sit-Down Strike took place. Maybe part of the River Rouge plant where Ford busted unions. Doesn’t even have to be a place where a major union struggle took place. But the auto industry is so important to our history and to the regional identity of Michigan that something is needed.

The second area I’d like to see more interpretation on is Asian-American history. So here’s three good sites for this.

5. Wintersburg, California

This site, which is threatened by demolition, would be a great way for the National Park Service to tell the story of the Japanese that focused on something other than the tragedy of the concentration camps.

6. Angel Island

How is Angel Island not already a national park? The Ellis Island of the West Coast and the site where Chinese attempting to get into the U.S. after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 is such an obvious site. I know it is a California State Park and receives some protection but this should be a federal operation.

7. Rancho Cucamonga Chinatown House

The NPS has done a great job integrating African-American history into its interpretation, but outside of Japanese internment, has not done so well with Asian-Americans. Turning this old store into a park would save one of an increasingly few buildings from that era and significantly resolve the Asian-American issue.

8. Marias Massacre. I talked about the Marias Massacre site in Montana here. This clearly needs to be brought into public interpretation since there is basically nothing out there.

There are lots of other worthy places as well. The aggressive expansion of the national parks is the kind of thing we should all be able to get behind.

Reports: Emperor Still Wholly Devoid of Clothing

[ 102 ] January 26, 2015 |

Area conservatives discover that Sarah Palin’s speeches are randomly assembled collections of resentful non-sequiturs, and are shocked that Matt Drudge takes possibility of lazy grifter running for president seriously.

“A Lethal Gap”

[ 31 ] January 26, 2015 |

Under existing practices, it takes four votes for the Supreme Court to grant cert, but five to issue a stay. For Charles Warner, this procedural issue turned out to be highly significant: he was executed under a death penalty protocol whose constitutionality the Supreme Court has now agreed to consider. Liptak has very valuable background on the decline of the “courtesy stay.”

The practical effects of this are potentially just a question of timing; the unwillingness of Kennedy to vote to grant the stay seems a pretty strong indication that when it comes to torture-by-lethal-injection he remains indifferent.  But it’s still an outcome that’s hard to defend.

Adding another item to her increasingly impressive civil liberties record, Sotomayor’s dissent from the decline of a stay is very much worth reading:

Petitioners’ likelihood of success on the merits turns primarily, then, on the contention that midazolam cannotbe expected to maintain a condemned inmate in an unconscious state. I find the District Court’s conclusion that midazolam will in fact work as intended difficult to accept given recent experience with the use of this drug. Lockett was able to regain consciousness even after having received a dose of midazolam—confirmed by a blood test—supposedly sufficient to knock him out entirely. Likewise, in Arizona’s July 23, 2014, execution of Joseph Wood, the condemned inmate allegedly gasped for nearly two hours before dying, notwithstanding having been injected with the drug hydromorphone and 750 milligrams of midazolam—that is, 50% more of the drug than Oklahoma intends to use. Moreover, since the District Court denied the request for a preliminary injunction in this case, Ohioannounced that it would no longer employ a similar two-drug cocktail involving midazolam and hydromorphone, which it used in a January 2014 execution during which the condemned inmate reportedly gasped and snorted for more than 20 minutes.

[…]

I am deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol. It is true that we give deference to the district courts. But at some point we must question their findings of fact, unless we are to abdicate our role of ensuring that no clear error has been committed. We should review such findings with added care when what is at issue is the risk of the needless infliction of severe pain. Here, given the evidence before the District Court, I struggle to see how its decision to credit the testimony of a single purported expert can be supported given the substantial body of conflicting empirical and anecdotal evidence.

I believe that we should have granted petitioners’ application for stay. The questions before us are especially important now, given States’ increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution. Petitioners have committed horrific crimes, and should be punished. But the Eighth Amendment guarantees that no one should be subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death. I hope that our failure to act today does not portend our unwillingness to consider these questions.

Could the Fast Food Industry Pay $15 an Hour?

[ 122 ] January 25, 2015 |

Of course it could pay $15 an hour. It just prefers its workers living in poverty. At least it provides helpful advice on how to live on the minimum wage. From the report:

This paper considers the extent to which U.S. fast-food businesses could adjust to an increase in the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 per hour to $15 an hour without having to resort to reducing their workforces. We consider this issue through a set of simple illustrative exercises, whereby the U.S. raises the federal minimum wage in two steps over four years, first to $10.50 within one year, then to $15 after three more years. We conclude that the fast-food industry could absorb the increase in its overall wage bill without resorting to cuts in their employment levels at any point over this four-year adjustment period. Rather, we find that the fast-food industry could fully absorb these wage bill increases through a combination of turnover reductions; trend increases in sales growth; and modest annual price increases over the four-year period. Working from the relevant existing literature, our results are based on a set of reasonable assumptions on fast-food turnover rates; the price elasticity of demand within the fast -food industry; and the underlying trend for sales growth in the industry. We also show that fast-food firms would not need to lower their average profit rate during this adjustment period. Nor would the fast-food firms need to reallocate funds generated by revenues away from any other area of their overall operations, such as marketing.

I also found this amazing:

This is true, despite the fact that, after correcting for inflation, today’s $7.25 federal minimum is about 33 percent lower than the $10.85 figure as of 1968—46 years ago. This long-term deterioration in the real value of the minimum wage is even more dramatic after we recognize that average labor productivity has risen by roughly 135 percent since 1968. This means that, if the federal minimum wage had risen in step with both inflation and average labor productivity since 1968, the federal minimum today would be $25.50 an hour.

Noam Scheiber: The Left Must Never Walk *and* Chew Gum!

[ 63 ] January 25, 2015 |

There hasn’t exactly been a dearth of terrible argumentation today, but here’s one more example for the case files – and it’s a doozy. According to Noam Scheiber, author of The Escape Artists, Bill DeBlasio has erred:

instead of transcending the Obama coalition, Mr. de Blasio has become its prisoner…from the get-go, Mr. de Blasio’s campaign fused two distinct strands of progressivism. The first was economic populism. The second was what some have called “identity group” liberalism, which appealed to black and Latino voters as blacks and Latinos, not on the basis of economic interests they shared with whites…The problem for Mr. de Blasio is that only the first approach has widespread appeal.

In other words, we’re back to the old fight between class-based vs. identity politics on the left, because apparently it’s impossible to do both at the same time.

Let’s examine this argument, shall we?

Read more…

Kill the Poor

[ 112 ] January 25, 2015 |

If I wrote an op-ed that said my ideology created policy preferences that might lead to the execution of the rich but, hey, we have to make trade-offs, I would not only not get that op-ed published, but I’d probably be reported to the FBI.

If I wrote an op-ed that said my ideology created policy preferences that might lead to the death of the poor, but, hey, we have to make trade-offs, I’d be Fred Hiatt’s new best friend. Such as Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute:

Say conservatives have their way with Obamacare, and the Supreme Court deals it a death blow or a Republican president repeals it in 2017. Some people who got health insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act may lose it. In which case, liberals like to say, some of Obamacare’s beneficiaries may die.

During the health-care debates of 2009, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) brought a poster on the House floor: “The Republican Health Care Plan: Die Quickly.” In the summer of 2012, when Obamacare was threatened by a presidential election, writer Jonathan Alter argued that “repeal equals death. People will die in the United States if Obamacare is repealed.” Columnist Jonathan Chait wrote recently that those who may die are victims of ideology — “collateral damage” incurred in conservatives’ pursuit “of a larger goal.” If these are the stakes, many liberals argue, then ending Obamacare is immoral.

Except, it’s not.

In a world of scarce resources, a slightly higher mortality rate is an acceptable price to pay for certain goals — including more cash for other programs, such as those that help the poor; less government coercion and more individual liberty; more health-care choice for consumers, allowing them to find plans that better fit their needs; more money for taxpayers to spend themselves; and less federal health-care spending. This opinion is not immoral. Such choices are inevitable. They are made all the time.

Saying of the ending of Obamacare, even if it leads to the deaths of thousands of poor, “it clearly would not be immoral,” Strain goes on into absurd comparison country, throwing out the type of arguments by brother did when he was 10. It swings from “we let people drive cars and sometimes people die in them so why bother with a good healthcare system” to “oh yeah libs, well what would you say to spending 3/4 of our GDP on health care,” i.e., arguments no one is making except in American Enterprise Institute drinking parties.

I mean, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that “kill the poor” is now something you can say in the op-ed section of the Washington Post. I look forward to this argument becoming a central tenet of the 2016 Republican primaries.

[SL] Shorter:

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