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Confederacy of dunces

[ 48 ] March 25, 2015 |

american stars and bars

I have a piece on the Confederate flag license plate case:

What’s most objectionable about confederate flag specialty plates isn’t that some people might mistakenly think that the Texas state government is endorsing the political views of people who display confederate flags (they will likely not commit this error). Rather, it’s conceivable that people will conclude that the state is willing to do just about anything to make a buck, including turning its license plates into a free-fire advertising zone, where anybody can sell anything as long as they’re willing to give a cut of the proceeds to the Lone Star State.

There’s a perfectly constitutional way for Texas not to allow people to feature confederate flags on the state’s license plates, which is not to sell the right to advertise their political beliefs on those plates to anyone to begin with. But that would require ever-so slightly raising some tax rate or another to make up for the lost revenue, so the state would rather try to violate the First Amendment.

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This Day in Labor History: March 25, 1947

[ 9 ] March 25, 2015 |

On March 25, 1947, the Centralia Coal Company’s No. 5 mine in Centralia, Illinois exploded, killing 111 workers. This disaster, caused by extremely unsafe working conditions from employers utterly indifferent to the lives of their workers, helped move forward, however slowly, the nation’s push toward safer working conditions in coal mines.

In the Centralia No. 5 mine, workers labored up to 3 miles underground. In the late afternoon of March 25, coal dust exploded. Fire flashed through the tunnels. Poison gas that builds up after a mine explosion, known as afterdamp, began accumulating in the mine, severely threatening the lives of those not killed in the explosion and fire. 142 men were in the mine. 65 died from burns and 45 by afterdamp. An additional individual died of afterdamp in the hospital. Only 31 miners survived. As the surviving workers began succumbing to the gas, they scratched final goodbyes to loved ones on the mine walls. One scribbled “”Dear wife, Goodbye. Forgive me. Take care of all the children.” Sad stuff.

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Bringing out the dead in Centralia

In the six months prior to the explosion, the Centralia mine had undergone two inspections by federal mine inspectors and both had found serious violations of the Federal Mine Safety Code. The second investigation took place a mere five days before the explosion. But the enforcement power of the government was weak and nothing was done. Centralia did have to pay small fines, but the company decided it was a good value to just pay the fines rather than fix the safety in the mines. A year before the explosion, UMWA Local 52 recording secretary William Rowenkampf wrote to Illinois governor Dwight Green, asking him to get involved in the unsafe conditions at the Centralia mine. He wrote:

This is a plea to you, to please save our lives, to please make the department of mines and minerals enforce the laws at the No. 5 of the Centralia Coal Co. before we have a dust explosion at this mine like just happened in Kentucky and West Virginia.

Green ignored the request.

United Mine Workers of America president John Lewis made workplace health and safety a major issue for his union as World War II concluded. In 1946, Lewis led over 300,000 workers on strike in demand for an employer-paid health plan. President Harry Truman responded by seizing the mines and Lewis began negotiating with Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug (Interior has regulatory responsibility for most mines) instead of the employers. The Krug-Lewis Accord was signed in May 1946 and established a jointly operated health plan between the UMWA and the government funded by a five cent tax per ton of coal. However, the operators resented both federal intervention and the entire agreement and Krug did little to enforce it either. The miners continued to seethe over the lack of safety and health on the job.

Lewis announced a six-day national walkout after the mine disaster, using the union’s right to call memorial days to remember dead comrades. Lewis was furious. He attacked Krug for failing to enforce existing mine safety legislation. He stated, “The killing must stop. Coal is heavily saturated with the blood of too many brave men and the tears of too many widows and orphans.” Lewis demanded that President Truman fire Krug. Truman refused (and it’s not like Lewis had that many friends in the highest reaches of the Democratic Party in 1947 anyway). Rather, Truman and his advisers believed that Lewis called the walkout as a way around an injunction against a previously planned strike to begin April 1. However, this did elicit a response from the Truman administration. Krug ordered 518 mines to remain closed for federal inspection even after the UMWA walkout ended.

Unlike the many mine disasters of the past, this one got the attention of Congress. Both the House and Senate conducted hearings on mine safety. Lewis furiously attacked Krug for failing to enforce the heath plan of the previous year. He testified:

If we must grind up human flesh and bone in the industrial machine we call modern America, then before God I assert that those who consume coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men first, and we owe security to their families if they die.

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John L. Lewis testifying before Congress, 1947

Congress began to move toward a more permanent regime of federal mine inspection, which was extremely weak in 1947. The House and Senate passed a joint resolution urging the Bureau of Mines to continue inspecting mines for safety and passing along any found violations to the respective state regulatory agencies. But of course state regulations are almost always extremely pro-business and the reporting to the states provision demonstrates just how weak the federal presence was in workplace safety as late as 1947. Congress also passed Public Law 328, which asked the states to comply with federal mining regulations. Yes, asked them. There was no enforcement. Of the 26 coal mining states, 17 reported fully, 2 partially, and 7 not at all. Even Congress wasn’t really that serious here; the Senate’s appropriation for the investigation of the disaster was all of $5000. Finally, the U.S. Bureau of Mine Safety admitted that only 2 mines in the entire nation actually were safe for workers.

Eventually, in 1952, the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act passed which for the first time gave federal mine inspectors the ability to shut down mines in extremely dangerous conditions. Yet this still remained a relatively weak law and it would not be until 1969 and miners’ own activism against the indifference of their union leadership at that time before a strong act would pass to protect them on the job. Even today, the health and safety of coal miners is treated with contempt by companies and indifference by the regulatory agencies of the government.

To remember the Centralia mine victims, Woody Guthrie wrote “The Dying Miner.”

Some of this material is borrowed from James Whiteside, Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry. See also Daniel Curran, Dead Laws for Dead Men: The Politics of Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Legislation. The letter from the UMWA to the Illinois governor is found in Joe Allen, People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago.

This is the 139th post in this series. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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On Marijuana Policy Reform, Senate to Do What it Does Best: Nothing

[ 16 ] March 25, 2015 |

Proponents of the strongest version of the War (On Classes Some People Who Use Some) Drugs ain’t going down without a fight:

But the Senate Judiciary Committee is emerging as a serious buzz kill for the pro-reform set.

The powerful panel is stacked with some of the most senior lawmakers in Congress, many of whom came to power during a tough-on-crime era of the drug wars that saw stiffer penalties for drug possession. Several of them openly gripe about what they call the Obama administration’s lack of enforcement of existing federal drug laws — and they certainly aren’t willing to send a signal that Congress is OK with the movement to liberalize pot.

“I’m probably against it,” Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the most senior Senate Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said of the cannabis bill

“I don’t think we need to go there,” added Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican and former Texas attorney general and state Supreme Court justice. “This is a more dangerous topic than what a lot of the advocates acknowledge.”

Republicans most recently made news on the marijuana front in December, adding language to a spending bill that effectively blocked sales of pot in the District of Columbia — where, a month earlier, voters overwhelmingly approved a legalization measure.

But the slow boring of hard etc.  Good for Gillibrand et. al for putting this on the agenda.

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Grift American style

[ 132 ] March 24, 2015 |

elmer gantry

Salon has an interview with Rick Perlstein, in which Perlstein explains how Mike Huckabee’s hawking of some magic beans that purportedly cure diabetes is all of a piece with the intersection of New Right politics and good old fashioned American hucksterism:

[O]nline publications like Human Events and Newsmax— which is files and files of their horrible con games— would rent out their good name and their lists. You’d see something in your email like, Dear Human Events reader… and something about a 99-cent cancer cure. You never could tell where the grift begins and the politics end because there would always be rhetoric about how there’s a liberal conspiracy to hide this knowledge from the public; that this particular cancer cure was used by Ronald Reagan, et cetera, et cetera. . .

I believe that in the 1990s, The New Republic did an exposé of how Pat Buchanan had turned running for President into a business, so it didn’t start with Ben Carson or Mike Huckabee.

One of the many things I admire about Perlstein’s work is that he’s not contemptuous toward the people who are getting conned by this sort of thing, but rather understands the worldly success of the likes of Pat Robertson and Glenn Beck as a product of structural social and cultural factors, rather than evidence of individual stupidity and/or culpable naivete on the part of their marks:

A lot of this stuff comes from Evangelical culture, which is a culture of witness, so the hawking of miracles is absolutely baked into the cake. Someone like Pat Robertson was followed by a figure like Pat Buchanan or any number of candidates in the last two or three Republican primary seasons, who make a lot of noise by doing decently well in early polls but then fade out once the seasoned pros take over and the money becomes preeminent.

If this historical pattern holds, Mike Huckabee, if he does well early, will flame out before the second or third inning but I see no impediment whatsoever for him to be disqualified by the conservative rank-and-file, simply because this stuff has been going on without much complaint since the 1970s. This is part of the hustle, right? If Huckabee can claim to have been victimized because of his activities, he can always claim it’s the conspiracy of the liberal elites… and then it’s off to the races. . . .

Glenn Beck is a Mormon and this stuff is baked into Mormon culture even more than Evangelical culture. There’s the whole culture of multilevel marketing— or pyramid schemes, as they’re more derisively known— which is basically a system where you buy a franchise for some kind of product but you really only make money by selling a chunk of the franchise to your neighbor. The further down the line you are, the less likely you are to realize any profits, and most people lose lots of money on this stuff. MLM, some people joke in Utah, stands for “Mormons losing money” and so these guys are masters of the stuff. There’s also a culture of Evangelical or Mormon witnessing; being able to cry on cue when telling the story of your victimization is very important. This goes back to Elmer Gantry as portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the film of the same name.

There is or was a right-wing talk radio station in Denver, and awhile back I listened in rapt fascination to the Michael Savage show while stuck in a traffic jam. I was particularly struck by how between all the frothing at the mouth, Savage would pitch every kind of snake oil imaginable — miracle medical cures of course, but also financial miracles via no money down real estate pyramid schemes, gold bug propaganda, survivalist kits, you name it.

Anyway, all this makes me think of (what else?) law schools, but really you can apply a grifter-style frame to a huge number of social institutions, from the most disreputable to the most respectable. (For instance climate change denialism lends itself very well to this typology.)

I propose the following typology, using the current crisis in legal education as an exemplar. Any successful sustained grift (the term of art is a “long con”) will feature three sorts of promotional characters. These character types have fuzzy boundaries, and indeed a single person may at any one time exhibit traits of two or all three of them, as well as moving between types over time.

The Wise Guy

This guy (or gal) is on the grift and knows it. He therefore has a certain purity to him. Example: The people running Sterling Partners, the Chicago private equity firm that figured out how to gorge itself on federal loans by opening up for-profit open-enrollment law schools. Sterling Partners knows exactly what it’s about, which is profit-maximization courtesy the American taxpayer.

The Bullshitter

These are the classic sales types. Asking them if they believe their own pitches is like asking an actor if he really is the character he’s playing. In other words the question itself involves a category mistake. Examples: Basically every law school dean when he’s playing the role of a law school dean.

The Zealot

This person really believes. It’s of course extremely tempting to believe things that one wants to believe are true, and plenty of people give in to that temptation, even if doing so requires performing certain unnatural intellectual acts (Flaubert: “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.”).

I could add plenty of illustrative links but reading Perlstein makes me feel a certain sympathy for the devils, so readers can come up with their own favorites.

I do wonder where Erwin Chemerinsky fits into this maze however.

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Racial Thursdays

[ 36 ] March 24, 2015 |

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Look, the Army boys just need a little time to blow off some stress by indulging in open racism….

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We Must Kill the Free Market In Order To Protect It, NCAA Cartel Edition

[ 212 ] March 24, 2015 |

bcs_200Above: A Sponsorship That Must Have Been Given Away For Free Because the Noble Ideals Of Amateurism (TM)

This genre of NCAA lickspittlism might be my very favorite. “NCAA players have absolutely no value that contributes to a billion-dollar industry. People cheer for laundry, coaches, and administrators, not specific players. In conclusion, we need to completely eliminate the market so that players cannot be paid.” I mean, “we must preserve the Noble Ideals of Amateurism” is a terrible argument that is neither attractive in itself nor remotely relevant to the actually existing NCAA, but at least its assumptions don’t immediately collapse on themselves even in theory.

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The Development of White Collar Work

[ 5 ] March 24, 2015 |

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Longreads.com was not messing around when it chose that name. Sometimes, things are now long reads primarily because the internet makes it possible, as opposed to using the most effective length to get a point across. That’s the case with this extraordinarily long excerpt of Nikil Saval’s new book on the development of white collar labor in the 19th century. Despite (or maybe because of) this, if you want to know about how explicitly white collar labor developed, with a sort of class consciousness of its own, this is a really good place to start. Given how culturally valued white collar labor is over blue collar in 2015 America and how this was very much the opposite before the Civil War, it’s worth exploring this history.

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“The Liberal Benghazi”

[ 91 ] March 24, 2015 |

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Richard Cohen, America’s least favorite racist uncle, just can’t help himself, calling outrage over cops murdering black people in places like Ferguson, “the liberal Benghazi.” Fred Hiatt of course is fine with this.

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Hillary Clinton and Education

[ 26 ] March 24, 2015 |

Since she lacks a credible primary challenger, it might be awhile before we know whether Hillary Clinton is as in the pocket of the wealthy education privatizers and Rheeists as Barack Obama. Given her close relations with the teachers’ unions and the Wall Street Democrats, she is definitely being pulled in different directions. Where she does eventually fall may tell us much about what her presidency might be like for progressives.

I confess that I am not confident.

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Somewhere, Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Guiliani are Green With Envy

[ 116 ] March 24, 2015 |

Arbitrary police harassment of citizens in Chicago is remarkably pervasive:

Perhaps the most startling finding of the ACLU report is that during the summer of 2014, CPD conducted more than a quarter million stops of civilians that did not lead to an arrest. When comparing that number of stops to population in Chicago versus New York City at the height of that city’s controversial use of the stop-and-frisk practice, Chicagoans were stopped more than four times as often as people in New York. Stops per 1000 residents was 93.6 in Chicago, compared to 22.9 (at the highest point in 2011) in New York City. The New York police have been forced to curb significantly their use of stop-and-frisk after a federal judge found the use in that city to be unconstitutional.

4 times more often than Bloomberg’s New York? Jesus.

You may be unsurprised that these arbitrary stops were not conducted in a racially neutral manner:

According to data from calendar year 2014 analyzed by the ACLU, African Americans represent nearly 72% of all the stops in the City of Chicago, as compared to the reality that African Americans represent only about 32% of the City’s population. The data analyzed by the ACLU shows that stops most commonly take place in the districts with the largest minority populations. For example, in 2014, police conducted 266 stops per 1000 people in the Englewood area (which is predominantly African American) while the rate in predominantly white Lincoln/Foster district was just 43 per 1000 people.

However, the data also shows that African Americans are much more likely to be the target of stops in predominantly white neighborhoods. Thus, in Jefferson Park where the population is just 1% African American, African Americans account for a full 15% of all stop-and-frisks in that area. In the Near North District, where the African American population is 9.1%, African Americans are subjected to more than one-half (57.7%) of all the stops. The ACLU report concludes that “black citizens are disproportionately subjected to more stops than their white counterparts.

Equally unsurprising is that many of the stops were not legal even under the very forgiving standard established by Terry v. Ohio:

The report also explores the problems with the reasons for many of the stops are taking place. Each time a Chicago Police officer makes a stop, the officer is required to fill out a “contact card” collecting information about the person who was stopped and why the stop took place. The ACLU’s review of a randomly-selected number of contact cards from selected months in 2012 and 2013, they found that in half of all stops reviewed the officer failed to record a legally sufficient reason for initiating the stop. In a number of other instances, police stated that they stopped someone for a reason that was unrelated to criminal activity (associating with others who were suspicious, for example) or asserting that someone “matched a description” without any explanation of how or what description was matched. In spite of this poor performance, the City reported that it has no record of police officers receiving additional training after the academy in proper procedures for stop and frisks—training that seems to be needed greatly.

What’s even better about these systematic violations of civil liberties is that there’s no evidence that they actually improve public safety.

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The Cruz Candidacy

[ 96 ] March 24, 2015 |

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I don’t think Cruz is likely to win the nomination, but I do think he will play an important role nonetheless:

Cruz is a long shot to win the nomination, but he is a canny politician with enough of a base of support to act as an ideological enforcer during the primaries. And one of the most important orthodoxies he will be policing is total, uncompromising opposition to what will invariably be referred to as “Obamacare.”

Another notable aspect of Cruz’s announcement was the date: Monday was the fifth anniversary of President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act. The significance of this was swiftly grasped. Republican power broker William Kristol explained the symbolic importance of the date to his Twitter followers, and added that if “he makes zeal for repeal AND real plan to replace a centerpiece of his run, has a shot.”

Somehow I doubt that Cruz will propose that replacement.

It’s nice that Bill Kristol has come up with a zingy one-liner to describe the drive to take health insurance away from more than 10 million people.  (The fact that he thinks Cruz has a shot is reassuring, though.)

Some additional links: Nate Cohn has a good explanation of why Cruz is a longshot; Dara Lind explains why Cruz is eligible to run for president despite having the distinction of being born in Calgary; and Josh Israel has a good tip of the iceberg of Cruzian wingnuttery.

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Why Tenure Matters

[ 33 ] March 24, 2015 |

An object lesson:

A former administrator at Chicago State University has accused its president and other officials of firing her in part because she refused their demands that she file a false sexual-harassment charge against a faculty member critical of the leadership.

LaShondra Peebles, who was fired last June as interim vice president for enrollment and student affairs, said in court filings that other administrators, including Wayne D. Watson, the president, had pressured her to file the charge against Phillip A. Beverly, an associate professor of political science. Ms. Peebles said the other administrators had hoped to use false charges against Mr. Beverly to justify his dismissal and to shut down a blog in which he and other faculty members routinely published criticisms of Mr. Watson and other top officials at Chicago State.

Administrators pressured her at several meetings to file the false charge and accused her of “not being a ‘team player’” when she refused, Ms. Peebles said in a sworn statement submitted in federal court on Thursday. The statement was made in connection with a lawsuit in which Mr. Beverly and another faculty member have accused Mr. Watson and two university lawyers of violating their free-speech rights

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