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The Prison Labor Complex

[ 57 ] November 19, 2014 |

The California Attorney General’s office opposed the release of inmates because the state wanted to use them as cheap firefighter labor.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that attorneys in Harris’ office had unsuccessfully argued in court that the state could not release the prisoners it had agreed to release because “if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.” Those prisoners, the Times reported, earn wages that range from “8 cents to 37 cents per hour.”

In a Sept. 30 filing in the case, signed by Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney but under Harris’ name, the state argued, “Extending 2-for-1 credits to all minimum custody inmates at this time would severely impact fire camp participation — a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”

Approximately 4,400 California prisoners help the state battle wildfires, at wages of about $2 a day. There is an exception in the agreement that allows the state to retain firefighters — but only firefighters — who are otherwise eligible for release.

Like incarcerated firefighters, inmates who perform “assignments necessary for the continued operation of the institution and essential to local communities” draw from the same pool of inmates who pose a limited threat to public safety, the state argued in a September filing. Therefore, reducing that population would require the prisons to draw more incarcerated workers away from its firefighting crews.

This is the reality of the labor force today–states actively rely on incarcerated labor for work. I don’t think I need to list the many problems with this.

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Prosecute the Apparel Companies

[ 13 ] November 19, 2014 |

Sweatshop factories in California are making a non-zero amount of your clothes:

Workers in the California garment industry are enduring poor working conditions and insufficient pay, the US Department of Labour has found. More than 1,500 Southern California garment workers are owed over $3 million in unpaid wages, the government department found following a year-long survey – which also concluded that American companies Nasty Gal, Macy’s, Nordstrom and JC Penney, among others, were producing garments in the factories concerned.

You want to stop this? Charge huge fines to Nasty Gal, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and JC Penney for doing business with people who make clothes in this manner. That’s how you stop it. We make decent working conditions part of the cost of doing business. This so often gets portrayed as an issue of “ethical sourcing.” That’s not incorrect, but it misstates the problem. The problem isn’t sourcing production with the right contractors. It’s the entire system of apparel contracting. It’s that the apparel industry gets away from washing its hands of responsibility through it’s don’t ask don’t tell position about its contractors. Only by holding these companies fiscally and legally responsible will clothing be produced ethically

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Tales From the Dark Ages of the Internets

[ 51 ] November 18, 2014 |

People with long memories for trivia may remember beloved HIV troofer and advocate for executing journalists insufficiently deferential to George W. Bush, Mr. Dean Esmay. He’s apparently found a new gig as a men’s rights crank. Hopefully he’s thrown some work to Kim Du Toit and Stephen Den Beste!

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Well, That’s Troubling

[ 59 ] November 18, 2014 |

If you’re anything like me, you grew up with a debilitating, Bloom County-induced terror of being eaten by a walrus.

It has become clear that, if anything, Opus wildly understated the problem.

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Keystone

[ 56 ] November 18, 2014 |

The Senate bill was filibustered to death. The effect of this on Mary Landrieu’s re-election chances will be essentially nothing, as the effect of any other outcome would be.

Based on this vote, the next Senate would not have the votes to override a veto.

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An awkward kind of justice

[ 142 ] November 18, 2014 |

“It’s very awkward,” O’Donnell said. “Isn’t it awkward?”

“It’s more than awkward, it’s a tragedy,” co-host Nicolle Wallace responded. “Either 13 women were raped by someone too powerful to face the criminal justice system or an innocent man is being falsely accused.

The kind of informal public shaming ritual to which Bill Cosby is now being subjected is obviously a potentially dangerous sort of social practice, at least in the abstract. In the concrete circumstances presented by what appears to be a very long history of serial sexual assault, it may be the only justice available to a perpetrator’s many victims. If the fourteen women who are known to have accused Cosby of sexual assaulting them are to be believed — and it’s almost impossible to come up with any plausible explanation for the collective nature of their stories other than that those stories are true — then of course the number of women Cosby has actually assaulted is likely to be much larger. (Update: Another woman, the model Janice Dickinson, has come forward with another accusation of sexual assault that closely tracks the details of the other stories).

For obvious reasons the criminal justice system is now of no use in regard to extracting any retribution for these crimes, although perhaps that system might still have deterrent value as to Cosby’s future acts, given the attention these accusations are now getting. As for lawsuits, women raped by rich and famous men rarely sue them, for reasons that are even more obvious. (One of Cosby’s accusers did sue him. The case settled out of court, but not before thirteen other women offered to testify that they too had been sexually assaulted by Cosby).

So the present spectacle may be, in the case of Cosby and his alleged victims, the only justice to be had.

(Several comments in the couple of previous threads on this subject have suggested that these accusations are only getting attention — from the media in general and from mighty LGM in particular — because Cosby is African American. [Edit: Denverite points out that the precise claim made by commenters in previous threads was that accusations of sexual assault against African American men are more or less automatically believed. But that's really just another way of saying such charges are given unjustified attention, since charges that are treated as unbelievable won't get nearly as much attention.] It’s difficult to describe the absurdity of this claim. What’s truly remarkable is that, nine years ago, fourteen women announced they were willing to testify under oath that one of the most famous entertainers in America sexually assaulted them, and the matter got relatively little media attention at the time — Scott noted this past February in the context of the Woody Allen story that he wasn’t aware that Bill Cosby had been accused by multiple women of sexual assault; I was similarly unaware of that fact, which by itself doesn’t prove anything, but is suggestive regarding the level of coverage the story received. If anything, this suggests that the role racism played in this story was to keep accusations against a “beloved” –i.e., acceptable to white people — black man from getting the attention they otherwise would have gotten.)

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The Leather Industry and Outsourced Pollution

[ 34 ] November 18, 2014 |

Jason Motlagh and Josh Eidelson have an excellent piece up on the horrors of the Bangladeshi leather industry. When you buy leather goods, where do you think the leather comes from? How does it become leather? Of course you don’t ask yourself that question. You just like the shiny jacket. But it is just awful:

The worst conditions are endured by 8,000 to 12,000 tannery workers, who toil 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week for less than $2 a day, according to the local Tannery Workers Union. Abdul Kalam Azad, head of the union, says even experienced workers with 10 or more years on the job rarely earn more than $150 a month.

In one factory, which supplies black leather to wholesalers in Hong Kong, Korea, and Italy, hides are churned in giant wooden drums filled with toxic chemicals such as chromium sulfate and arsenic, which are used to soften them. Many workers handle the barrels without gloves and walk barefoot on floors covered in acid. “They are working in those conditions with little or no protective equipment and little or no concern for their health care from the tannery owners,” says Richard Pearshouse, who investigated factory conditions in 2012 for Human Rights Watch. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals has been known to cause cancer.

Nur Mohammad, 35, a veteran worker, has severe chemical burns on his hands and feet. “I’m always in pain,” he says. Workers risk being fired if they take time off to seek medical treatment, he says. “Sure, I would like to find a different job, but I have six children to support.” A factory manager, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution, says his tannery provides first aid and a medical stipend of as much as $20 a month. He concedes that while allowances are made for longtime employees to take leave, an excess of cheap labor ensures workers can easily be replaced.

On top of this is the effect of this pollution on surrounding people who live near this hellhole that exists for our consumer preferences. That’s a mere 160,000 people.

I talk a bit about this industry in Out of Sight and the fundamentals are the same as most of the rest of globalized capitalism–developed world nations are offloading the worst parts of the industrial process onto the world’s poor, keeping these realities far away our consumers’ eyes and brains, and ensuring that they hold no responsibility for what happens. The only way this really gets improved is for global standards that empower workers and the people of these communities to seek financial compensation from and legal repercussions for every company that makes or contracts goods that comes from this leather. Even if Bangladesh cleaned up its leather industry, the clothing companies and other big leather buyers would find an even poorer country to move it too. That’s why global standards have to follow industries no matter where they travel. It must be our goal in the apparel sweatshops, the food industry, the leather industry, and everything else.

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“Or We Could Try To Appeal to a Broader Group of Voters.” [pause] “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

[ 124 ] November 18, 2014 |

Simpsons 1

Just in case vote suppression isn’t enough, some Republicans are proposing to take the United States even further from democracy:

Last week, Michigan state Rep. Pete Lund (R) revealed a plan that would rig the Electoral College to ensure Republican victories in 2016 and beyond if it were enacted in a sufficient number of states. Like similar proposals from GOP lawmakers who proposed rigging the Electoral College in the past, Lund’s proposal takes advantage of the fact that there are several large states that tend to support Democrats in presidential election years but that are currently controlled by Republicans.

Right now, nearly every state allocates 100 percent of its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state as a whole. Lund’s proposal would change that calculation in the blue state of Michigan, however, while continuing to award each red state’s full slate of electoral votes to the Republican candidate for president. If this plan had been in effect in 2012, for example, Mitt Romney would have won a quarter of Michigan’s electoral votes despite losing the state to President Obama by nearly 10 points…

The electoral college is a horrible, indefensible anachronism.  You can tell this not only because it has no international influence, but because the states that otherwise slavishly followed the federal model in designing their political institutions don’t use it.  But norms like electors following the will of the voters and winner-take-all allocation in almost every state have allowed it to work tolerably well in most cases.  For the electoral college to subvert the popular vote, you now generally need an unusual confluence of circumstances — a razor-close vote and voter purges and administrative incompetence and a mendaciously narcissistic vanity candidate and a nakedly partisan Supreme Court.  But the problem is that the electoral college and the fact that the states are given the discretion to unilaterally change the way they allocate the votes just lies around like a loaded weapon, waiting for a party to just say the hell with it, if it’s formally legal and might allow our candidate who gets drubbed in the popular vote to take office, let’s do it.  I suspect it will happen sooner rather than later.

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Today In People Insulting Your Intelligence

[ 124 ] November 18, 2014 |
  • Shorter David Brooks: “If Obama takes unilateral action on immigration, congressional Republicans will stop cooperating with his initiatives!”
  • Shorter Lambert Strether: “We would totally have had single-payer if it wasn’t for the meddling of President, Speaker of the House, Senate Majority Leader, Secretary of State, Chief Justice of the United States, and longtime don of the Gambino crime family Jonathan Gruber.  Also, I have no idea what was actually in the Heritage health care proposal, and think that governors rule Massachusetts like kings.”
  • Shorter Verbatim Megan McArdle: “So what would I have done, when Obamacare was tanking in the polls and Scott Brown was elected to the Senate on an anti-Obamacare platform? I would have passed something more modest that still significantly expanded coverage, expanding Medicaid to 150 to 200 percent of the poverty line and creating a national high-risk pool to insure anyone who’d been turned down for coverage more than twice in the past 12 months, at prices comparable to what a healthy person of their age would pay in the insurance market. Again, much cheaper, much less intrusive, no blowback from people who lost their policies, and very unlikely to have been tampered with by the Supreme Court.“  Oh, yes, the Supreme Court tampering with an expansion of Medicaid — that’s unpossible!
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Coal’s Decline

[ 21 ] November 18, 2014 |

Zach Colman’s longish piece is good for getting at the real reasons behind coal’s decline in West Virginia. The people of that state want to blame Obama. And there’s no question that Obama has issued new regulations to move us away from the dirtiest of all energies. But overall, his administration has played only a minor role in a collapse long in coming:

Production in West Virginia hit 156.5 million tons in 1924, when the industry employed 116,000 people, according to the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training. Output stayed relatively steady for decades, but new technology cut the workforce to 68,000 by 1956, when output totaled 150.4 million tons.

The region’s low-sulfur coal became a hot commodity when Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970. Power companies could not afford the pollution scrubbers needed to continue burning dirtier coal under the law’s new standards, so cleaner coal from Central Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee was suddenly in demand. Once the easiest coal was extracted, production dipped in the 1980s before peaking again in 1997 at nearly 300 million tons. West Virginia’s production of 182 million tons that year, just 17 years ago, was a record.

Wage costs rose sharply after that as the coal was harder to reach. And by then, power plants had installed technology that allowed them to burn dirtier Midwestern coal.

Decline accelerated when the shale boom began in the late 2000s. Plentiful supplies of natural gas pushed prices to record lows, making it competitive with coal. Power companies built cheaper generators to run on gas. Buyers for Central Appalachia’s coal went away. Regulations have encouraged the shift from coal to gas. The writing was on the wall for electric utilities when Congress nearly passed a sweeping cap-and-trade bill in 2009. It passed in the House but fizzled in the Senate.

Coal employed 22,096 people in West Virginia in 2012, according to state records. That’s up from 16,233 at the 1997 production peak. The figure shows that the struggles of West Virginia’s coal country can’t be pinned solely on the Obama administration.

That’s right, more people are employed in coal in West Virginia than in 1997. Obama is not the enemy here. It’s a century of coal industry profit-taking, terrible political leadership, poor planning on the county and state level, and structural disadvantages related to the region’s long-standing poverty. Coming out of Oregon logging towns collapsing in much the same way during the 1980s and 90s that have not recovered today, I get the despair and hatred of outsiders that is animating the people of coal country. But like it was not environmentalists’ fault in Oregon in 1990, it’s not the Obama administration now. But protecting your culture by blaming outsiders is the easiest thing to do. When they are a bunch of long-haired tree huggers or are a black guy in the Oval Office, it’s even easier.

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“No, no, I mean He Should Have Passed A Bipartisan Affordable Care Act.”

[ 57 ] November 18, 2014 |

Ron Fournier makes himself look ridiculous. Because a man in Ron Fournier’s position can apparently afford to be made to look ridiculous:

On health care, we needed a market-driven plan that decreases the percentage of uninsured Americans without convoluting the U.S. health care system. Just such a plan sprang out of conservative think tanks and was tested by a GOP governor in Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.

Instead of a bipartisan agreement to bring that plan to scale, we got more partisan warfare. The GOP resisted, Obama surrendered his mantle of bipartisanship, and Democrats muscled through a one-sided law that has never been popular with a majority of the public.

Even leaving aside the “conservative think tanks” issue (please!), what aspect of Travaglinicare did Fournier see missing in the ACA? Was it that the ACA “convoluted” the American health care system because it expanded Medicaid? Well, it’s hard to know because this is a word that does not mean anything in this context. But it would be a strange argument, given that Travaglinicare provided free insurance to a greater percentage of the population than the Medicaid expansion did.

What the argument this, then — see also Krugman on this point — is that Obama should have passed the ACA, but in a way that was…bipartisan. The fact that Republicans had an explicit strategy of not voting for anything that would give Obama a major policy achievement, and hence requiring bipartisanship would mean that the United States would not get the health care reform that Fournier concedes the country needs, it to Fournier beside the point. Anachronistically identifying the Massachusetts health care reform exclusively with Mitt Romney helps to make this sound a little less ridiculous — he was the Republican candidate for president! He supported something like the ACA! — but when you bring the massive supermajorities of Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature back into the picture, the fact that Romney signed the bill the legislature put on his desk (after some overridden vetoes) makes the ridiculousness comes back into focus.  The Massachusetts health care reform tells us less than nothing about what congressional Republicans could support.

But when you believe that whether a law is “bipartisan” is more important than its content, and believe that bipartisanship is something the president can conjure out of thin air, you’re going to push Both-Sides-Do-Itism to a point at which the word “parody” seems grossly inadequate again and again.

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Immigration Politics

[ 76 ] November 18, 2014 |

I tend to agree with Marshall here–there is very little downside to Obama acting unilaterally on immigration. There’s tons of precedent for such a move, including by St. Ronnie on immigration itself. Any subsequent president can undo such an executive action. So if the Republicans are actually going to impeach him for it, which I don’t think they will, they don’t have much of a leg to stand on, even for them. More importantly, the politics going forward on this are very much in the Democratic Party’s favor. The anti-immigrant people are already voting and they are voting Republican. Obama’s actions would likely have little concrete negative reaction for Democrats in 2016 since the people who would be angry about it are already a highly motivated voting bloc. But effectively declaring the end of most deportations forces Republicans to run for deportations, creating real difference between the two parties on the issue and likely vastly increasing Latino turnout in 2016 since it will be so clear which party more stands with them. Republicans have to do something because they’ve campaigned on it, but fighting it exposes their racism to the populace.

This is one of those situations where Obama acting would be morally correct and politically savvy.

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