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World War I Centennial

[ 13 ] June 11, 2014 |

In my latest at War is Boring I talk up the National World War I Museum in Kansas City:

The National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, is gearing up for the centennial of the Great War.

I just visited. You should, too. It’s a good experience despite the institution’s flaws.

In preparation for the first months of the centennial, the museum has opened the new exhibitions On the Brink—covering the pre-war July Crisis—and Over By Christmas which highlights the world’s growing realization that the war would last longer than a few months.

The new exhibits are a mixed bag, but the overall museum experience is a rich one.

Homogeneity Gets More Homogenous

[ 109 ] June 10, 2014 |

To follow-up on Paul’s point below, I note that the Republican congressional conferences now have a grand total of zero non-Christian members. 

Light Carriers!

[ 16 ] June 10, 2014 |

Latest entry in the endless debate over aircraft carrier classification:

The “aircraft carrier” designation has become a bit of a joke among defense commentators on Twitter, with one Popular Science writer deciding to avoid controversy by referring to everything from the Japanese Izumo to the USS Nimitz as a “floaty movey flyer holder.” The definitional becomes more significant when we range beyond the relatively small community of defense and aviation specialists, and try to explain to the laity why a 45,000-ton ship that carries supersonic jet fighters is not, in fact, an “aircraft carrier.”

Cantor sings the blues

[ 221 ] June 10, 2014 |

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor loses the primary election in his district to this guy.

Apparently Cantor’s primary sin in the eyes of the Tea Party was being “soft” on immigration.

If Cantor accepts defeat (he could run a write-in campaign I suppose) this will reduce the number of Jewish GOP House members by 100%.

As of now, the general election is shaping up as a Randolph-Macon faculty throw down, with likely debate topics to include “The Atlantic Slave Trade: Historical Atrocity, or Pareto-Maximizing Market Solution?”

Public Opinion of the Past

[ 60 ] June 10, 2014 |

Why don’t we pass more social programs today? Maybe because the priorities of Americans aren’t the same as in the 1960s.

2/3 of Americans supporting retraining for the unemployed. Far and away the most popular political program. It’s no wonder that the Great Society would be soon to come. When Americans’ biggest desire is to fight economic inequality again, we will again see politicians prioritize it. Not before.

Blaming the Rape Victim: “Data” Edition

[ 110 ] June 10, 2014 |

Yes, the WaPo posted an article with the subhed “The data show that #yesallwomen would be safer hitched to their baby daddies.”

I would hope most of our audience can immediately see what’s wrong with this, but just in case see Tara Culp-Ressler. 

The Decline of Meatpacking Wages

[ 115 ] June 10, 2014 |

This is a great graph on the decline of meatpacking wages compared to industrial work as a whole. All industrial work has stagnate for 35 years (real wage decline of 1.5% since 1979). Meatpacking–real wage decline by a mere 28.3%.

How did this happen?

Meatpacking has a somewhat unique position in the American economy. Like many other industries, it found capital mobility a great way to cut wages and increase profits. It discovered this early on, busting unions by the 1960s through transition production out of the cities and into small Midwestern towns. But unlike other industries like textiles, the vast majority of the work has remained in the United States. Over 99 percent of our chickens, 92 percent of beef, and 97 percent of pork are produced domestically. This means it has basically found ways to create as exploitative conditions as possible within the U.S. The history of union-busting (which I discussed in detail here) in the meat industry (a phenomenon in fact closely related to the exploitation of truckers since trucking companies played a leading role in this new economy) led to plummeting wages, making it a dangerous and low-paid job in 2014.

Monarch Butterfly Decline and Ever More Intensive U.S. Farming

[ 14 ] June 10, 2014 |

The decline of the monarch butterfly results from multiple causes. The one that gets the most play is logging (often illegal and done by the cartel) in its wintering ground in Mexico. Brad Plumer’s piece suggests a bigger reason is the rapid growth in intensive farming in the U.S. that has plowed under the small pieces of semi-wild land around the edges of farms that allowed monarchs (and many other species) to thrive.

Now a new study in the Journal of Animal Ecology suggests that the decline of milkweed is, in fact, the main factor here. The study, by a team of researchers from the University of Guelph, modeled the variations in butterfly populations. They found that habitat destruction in Mexico was no longer driving the decline — possibly because the country has put new conservation measures in place to protect those forests.

But butterfly populations were very sensitive to changes in milkweed. The study noted that milkweed plants had declined 21 percent between 1995 and 2013. These losses were concentrated in areas where monarchs breed — and 70 percent of the milkweed loss was located in agricultural areas. (The rest of the decline was on conservation lands or public areas such as the medians of roadways.)

And the outlook here is pretty bleak — the authors predicted that the monarch population would decline another 14 percent if milkweed loss continues.

Still, not everyone’s convinced that herbicides are the only reason for the decline of native plants near agricultural fields. Another recent study by scientists at the US Department of Agriculture and Penn State found that herbicide-tolerant native plants around farmland in Pennsylvania were declining at the same rate as less-tolerant plants. That study suggests that other factors may be at work here.

The Penn State researchers pointed out that farmers have made a lot of changes in recent decades besides rising herbicide use — they’ve simplified their crop rotations, segregated crops and livestock, and employed new mechanical farming methods. What’s more, woodlots, hedgerows, pastures, and wetlands have all been cleared to make way for bigger fields. So there may be more going on than just GMOs and herbicides.

Much of this intensification of farming is the production of corn for high fructose corn syrup and the ever-growing corn-based industrial products. It’s not really to feed ourselves that we need to do this. We could mandate a certain amount of wild land per 100 acres or whatever in agricultural zones, but instead, we grow more corn to burn it in our cars.

Wal-Mart Trucking Abuses Kill

[ 169 ] June 10, 2014 |

The man who fell asleep at the wheel of his truck and rammed the back of Tracy Morgan’s limousine of course worked for Wal-Mart and had not slept for 24 hours.

This is not surprising at all. Wal-Mart has long been accused of pushing truckers to the limit. All the companies push drivers to the limit for profit, endangering not only the drivers but also everyday drivers on the road.

Of course, Republicans think that drivers falling asleep at the wheel is OK:

Days before Morgan’s accident thrust trucking safety into the news, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would undo rules that only went into effect last year that mandated certain rest periods for truck drivers. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) added an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill that would suspend a regulation that truck drivers rest for 34 consecutive hours, including two nights from 1:00 AM to 5:00 AM, before driving again.

“With one amendment, we’re doing away with rules we worked years to develop,” Izer said Monday.

Another reminder that “moderate Republicans” are only moderate on social policy; on labor issues they are as bad as any Tea Partier.

The Supreme Court, Democracy, And Political Change II: Against Unilateral Disarmament

[ 41 ] June 10, 2014 |

My first objection to Rob Hunter’s recent piece on the Supreme Court was its somewhat unsophisticated assumption of a zero-sum relationship between the Supreme Court and the elected branches. There is, however, an even bigger problem of unsophisticated zero-sum assumptions: namely, an anachronistic, pre-Rights At Work theory of the relationship between litigation and political activism:

The original defenders of judicial review were conservatives who distrusted democracy. Today, the importance of relying on the Supreme Court to act as a brake on democratic politics is an accepted article of faith in liberal political philosophy. Pursuing progressive policy through appellate litigation is central to the strategies of an array of liberal political organizations. Democratic presidential candidates promise to appoint judges who will defend decisions like Roe v. Wade and strike down decisions like Citizens United, but they don’t promise to lead movements to expand and guarantee meaningful access to abortion, or to curb the usurpation of democratic prerogatives by plutocrats and personified corporations. Technocratic liberalism has eclipsed the vistas of deepened democracy and full social freedom that were glimpsed, however dimly, during episodes like Reconstruction and the civil rights movements of the twentieth century.


There is another approach to constitutional politics, however; one known to the Left: the expression of constituent power. That means articulating grievances, confronting opponents, and promoting solidarity. These forms of politics are constitutive of alternative regimes and counter-institutions, and express the Left’s challenge to ossified constitutional discourses of procedure and formal rights. But so long as liberals remain attached to the Supreme Court’s aura of authority and finality, they will fail to see what political theorist Chantal Mouffe has called “the constitutive character of social division.” Such division and antagonism are central to democracy.

Organizing large coalitions and confronting powerful institutions should be at the forefront of democratic politics — not judicial subtlety and clever interpretations of superannuated texts. Durable abortion rights are more likely to be secured through a broad coalition demanding universal access to single-payer healthcare than through appeals to protect the legacy of Roe. The reform of racist and violent policing through judicial interpretations of the Fourth Amendment is meaningless in the absence of the political will to bring paramilitarized cops to heel. Confronting patterns of gross inequality with respect to gender and sexuality is a project best pursued through intersectional alliances, not disputes over constitutional doctrine.

A few observations:

  • All of this is premised on the idea that either progressives must use litigation or mass movement politics, a fatal problem since it’s entirely possible to use both, and indeed it’s entirely possible for the two to constructively work together.  To make this argument in the context of the civil rights movement (which certainly didn’t abjure litigation where it could work) is self-refuting.  The pre-Crenshaw/Williams conception of “ossified” rights discourse is equally anachronistic and useless.
  • It’s true that the courts, acting alone, are unlikely to produce major political changes.  But this means less than it seems, since 1)often favorable judicial rulings will have enough political support to be implemented, and 2)in the complete absence of political support no strategy is likely to be effective.
  • I haven’t seen the Ben Wittes-style “just let go of Roe and fight for abortion in the legislatures, things will be better” argument in a while, perhaps because it’s so obviously wrong.  The idea that the fate of reproductive freedom should be tied to a particularly difficult political goal, though, is a new (if also self-refuting) twist.
  • Bringing single-payer into it is particularly telling, however.  The tendency of the self-consciously antiliberal Hunter’s political imagination to fixate on the bad aspects of judicial review causes them to overlook the much more important protections offered to the status quo by veto points like bicameralism and the gross malapportionment of the Senate.  The procedural barriers in Article I and II are far, far more important barriers to single-payer than Article III courts, and (with the exception-that-proves-the-rule of the abolition of slavery) this is why the elimination of the national health insurance industry would be unprecedented.  This doesn’t mean that the goal should be abandoned — in the long run, you never know what might be possible.  Buzzwords like “intersectional alliances” and “promoting solidarity” in this context throw up a fog that obscure barriers to transformative political change that it’s important to be clear-eyed about.

Would American politics be better without judicial review? Possibly!  But it’s there; as long as it is, there’s no reason not to use litigation in contexts where it could work.  The cards will almost always be stacked against progressive change, no matter how much change is demanded or how many alliances form.  To leave tools that can sometimes work in the toolbox is a terrible idea.  There’s nothing emancipatory about telling women and gays and lesbians that they should wait for the Single Payer and Many Other Ponies Act Of Sometime After We’re All Dead Act to pass instead of using strategies that can achieve important goals in the shorter term.

Ill-Advised Brazil 2014 Predictions

[ 115 ] June 10, 2014 |

The World Cup begins on Thursday, and runs until the 13th of July.  I’ll be in England for most of it, but tomorrow I fly to the US for a week, then back to England, then back to the US a few days before the final is played, so I’m going to miss the odd significant chunk here and there. Like the final, where I agreed to a camping trip in Oregon with my wife, stupidly without having consulted the World Cup calendar in advance, so that one’s on me pretty much entirely.

As I did for 2010, I’m offering up some predictions, with an eye towards generating discussion. Note, the 2010 predictions were before we migrated from where we were to where we are now, so formatting and comments were lost. Presciently, towards the end of the group stages I revisited those original predictions (and while I missed a few, I didn’t do too bad).

So, for 2014, with some limited commentary:

Group A

1. Brazil 2. Mexico 3. Croatia 4. Cameroon

Brazil suffer in the FIFA rankings (currently third, behind Spain and Germany) as they really haven’t had to play too many non-friendlies, having the automatic berth as hosts. They did have a stellar Confederations Cup campaign, but then remember in the 2009 Confed Cup that the USA finished runner up to Brazil (that after going 2-0 up), and beating Spain along the way. How did that work out for both Brazil and the USA in 2010?  The US lost to Ghana in the first knockout round, and Brazil lost to eventual runners-up Holland in the quarters. Mexico is magnificently fortunate to even be here of course, but El Tri have somewhat stabilised after a disastrous qualifying campaign. Only somewhat, however, and they benefit from being in one of the easier groups and should make the knockout round.

Key Match: 23 June, Croatia v Mexico

Group B (aka ‘sucks to be Australia’)

1. Spain 2. Chile 3. Netherlands 4. Australia

This is a tough group to peg. It’s easy to go either way with Chile and Holland. As much as it pains me (the Oranje are my backup national side after the USMNT on account of my stint in Holland for three years before moving to England), the injury to Roma’s Kevin Strootman, and the subsequent last minute switch to an un-Total Football 5-3-2 formation don’t help the Dutch, while Chile is playing very well, and on its home continent. Of course, Chile, too, has experienced some injury problems, so this one really could go either way.

Key Match: 23 June, Netherlands v Chile

Group C

1. Colombia 2. Ivory Coast 3. Greece 4. Japan

Seriously, this is a World Cup Finals group?  Colombia takes this one with relative ease, if not all nine points, then seven, and the following three can be interchanged at random. I know Greece has a high FIFA ranking at present (12th), and they’ve established a reputation for defensive solidity since Euro 2004, but Ivory Coast should be able to break that down. And hell, Japan are always underestimated at the tournament, though this is one of the weakest Japan sides in the past dozen years.

Key Match: 24 June, Greece v Ivory Coast

Group D

1. England 2. Uruguay 3. Italy 4. Costa Rica

Go ahead, laugh. Yes, I have Italy not making it out of the group. Even more cringe-worthy, I have England winning the group. From my vantage point in England, England are the most consistently over-rated team in any sport anywhere ever and always. That said, I think part of the key to England this tournament is that, for perhaps the first time in the history of the game (and definitely in the over ten years I’ve lived on this island), England and its supporters are being cautiously guarded, even realistic, about their chances. There’s no pressure. While I would have taken Jermain Defoe, the squad as selected is young and playing for the future. The weight of expectation surrounding the golden generation has finally been lifted (because, let’s face it, they weren’t that golden). I hate the obvious cliche, but England’s chances depend on the Wayne Rooney that shows up. If picking England ahead of Uruguay is risky, picking Italy to not make it out of the group is downright foolish. That said, they’re winless in their last seven, their defense is problematic, they seem to lack the ‘fox in the box’ on the attack, and they didn’t have a stellar qualifying campaign against a weak group.

I’ll get at least one of those two quite wrong, of course. Just watch, it will be Italy Uruguay England Costa Rica in the end.

Key Match: 14 June, England v Italy

Group E

1. France 2. Switzerland 3. Ecuador 4. Honduras

Like Mexico, France are fortunate to so much as be here. Also like Mexico, they’re fortunate to be in an easy group. They’re playing better now than they did throughout qualification, but the late loss of Ribery is a blow. Not a fashionable choice to top this group, I originally had Switzerland down to win it, but then had a better look at the France squad, and Ribery’s replacement (Antoine Griezmann, Real Sociedad), so cooler heads have prevailed. That said, FIFA have the Swiss ranked 6th while France is 17th. To hedge the bets, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ecuador snuck out of the group somehow.

Key Match: 20 June, Switzerland v France

Group F

1. Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina 4. Iran

Argentina take all nine points. Nigeria and Bosnia could flip. Don’t underestimate Iran. Does it show that I’m in thrall of Group F?

Key Match: 21 June, Nigeria v Bosnia

Group G

1. Germany 2. Portugal 3. USA 4. Ghana

Well, shit. I’d have taken Donovan, as a sub, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. Germany win this tough group, and if things break just right, the US can come out of it. It would take another 2002-style surprise against Portugal, however, and I don’t think that will happen. Progressing out of this group would be to me more impressive than the 2002 run or the 2009 Confederations Cup. In the positive, the three warm up friendlies went OK, including beating both Turkey and Nigeria. If Portugal suffers an injury, if the US finally beats Ghana, and remember that Portugal had a mediocre qualifying campaign. There’s a chance.  Maybe a one in three chance that the US makes it out of the group.

Key Match: for the USMNT, all of them. We need all three off of Ghana, and all three off of Portugal, to ensure progression. If a strong Ghana side emerges to take points off of Portugal and possibly Germany, four points could get us through. I don’t see us taking a point off of Germany.  Or scoring a goal.  I don’t see Ghana being strong enough to help us, either. At least I think we’ll finally beat Ghana, who did us in the Group in Germany and the knock out round in South Africa.

Group H

1. Belgium 2. Russia 3. South Korea 4. Algeria.

Belgium are being touted by some as a dark horse for this tournament. I don’t think they’re that good, but they’re good enough to win this group. Russia might win it, but the distance between those two and South Korea and Algeria is pretty severe.

Key Match: 22 June, Belgium v Russia.

In order to clean up after the wreckage that reality will mete out to my predictions above, I’m going to revisit the following after the group stages are complete. For now, it’s just for fun.

Knockout Stage: Brazil > Chile; Uruguay > Colombia; France > Nigeria; Germany > Russia; Spain > Mexico; England > Ivory Coast; Argentina > Switzerland; Portugal > Belgium.

Quarters: Brazil > Uruguay; Germany > France; Spain > England; Argentina > Portugal.

Semis: Brazil > Germany;  Spain > Argentina

Final: Brazil > Spain


Slave Labor in the Thai Fisheries

[ 32 ] June 10, 2014 |

If you buy southeast Asian seafood, which includes most of the shrimp in the frozen section of your grocery store, you are buying a product produced with slave labor.

A six-month investigation has established that large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand are integral to the production of prawns (commonly called shrimp in the US) sold in leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.

The investigation found that the world’s largest prawn farmer, the Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, buys fishmeal, which it feeds to its farmed prawns, from some suppliers that own, operate or buy from fishing boats manned with slaves.

Men who have managed to escape from boats supplying CP Foods and other companies like it told the Guardian of horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings. Some were at sea for years; some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them.

Fifteen migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia also told how they had been enslaved. They said they had paid brokers to help them find work in Thailand in factories or on building sites. But they had been sold instead to boat captains, sometimes for as little as £250.

“I thought I was going to die,” said Vuthy, a former monk from Cambodia who was sold from captain to captain. “They kept me chained up, they didn’t care about me or give me any food … They sold us like animals, but we are not animals – we are human beings.”

Another trafficking victim said he had seen as many as 20 fellow slaves killed in front of him, one of whom was tied, limb by limb, to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea.

For a more complete view of labor exploitation in the Thai shrimp industry, see this report from the Environmental Justice Foundation (PDF).

Of course, Wal-Mart and the other companies don’t care. They are happy to bring in fish sourced with slave labor. In fact, its own fish contractors in the U.S. have followed this model as closely as possible.

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