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Class as Part of the American Freedom Struggle

[ 102 ] December 8, 2015 |


I really appreciate this point Bernie Sanders made recently:

People are not truly free when they are unable to feed their family,” he said. “People are not truly free when they are unable to retire with dignity. People are not truly free when they are unemployed or underpaid or when they are exhausted by working long hours. People are not truly free when they have no health care.”

It’s a provocative argument, not least because it suggests that the thing we take to be the cornerstone of American identity—freedom—isn’t actually enjoyed by many Americans. According to the 2014 Census, 47 million Americans live in poverty today, including 20% of American children and 36% of black children. According to Sanders, these people have been barred from the individual liberty that is the birthright of every American citizen.

But is it true to say there is no liberty without basic economic security? And if so, has Americans’ conception of freedom as a mostly political condition been, in some sense, impoverished?

When we tell stories of the American road to freedom, which is how we do frame a lot of our historical narratives in popular memory, we talk about white male democracy as a sort of baseline, and then women’s suffrage, immigrants from Europe, the Civil Rights Movement, Cesar Chavez, etc. Today we are finding room in this narrative for the gay rights movement. It’s possible that we sometimes include the union struggles of the 1930s in this narrative, although I think that’s more of an explicitly left telling of that narrative as opposed to the stories that spark Americans’ belief in themselves as a great nation getting better all the time. There is really very little room in this popular narrative for class, as the way we tell these stories to each other precludes a slowly expanding circle of Americanness that is ultimately fairly frictionless process where there are bad guys but they unreasonable and the good thinking people can look down upon them. That’s why there’s room for Martin Luther King fighting in Birmingham but call for the end to educational disparities based upon race that might inconvenience those “good thinking” white people in 1970 or 2015 and people freak out. This narrative I’m laying out is obviously impressionistic for the most part, but can basically be placed in data points on this issue with the rise of the Wallace campaign in the North, opposition to busing, etc.

So if this process is supposed to be mostly frictionless there isn’t much room for criticizing capitalism since that’s our true national ideology, more so than Christianity. Americans’ reluctance to criticize the tenets of capitalism has always served business interests well, helps explain why the U.S. has never had a strong left compared to European nations, etc. And of course it’s powerful today, only now finally coming under some mild rebuke because of the extreme nature of income inequality, a rebuke that makes business owners think of a moderate mid-20th century-style liberal like Bernie Sanders as Ho Chi Minh and Occupy New York as the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution.

But do Americans have freedom if they do not have access to good lives? Do they have freedom without jobs, without good schools, without access to healthy food or medical care? I would certainly argue the answer is no and I would say we need to frame these questions more centrally in the basic struggle for American freedom and that doing so would help us make these arguments more salient to everyday people.

On a similar topic, allow me to strongly recommend James Green’s new book on the West Virginia coal wars. I am reviewing it for an academic journal so I can’t do so here, but he expertly argues that we need to see the struggles of the coal miners in the early 20th century as absolutely central to our popular narratives of freedom. Given the utterly horrible treatment these workers received, including murder below ground and above, the widescale violations of civil and human rights, and the use of private armies to police the area, it’s a very compelling case to make. It’s also just a great read that would work as a holiday gift to someone interested in these issues.


Republican Frontrunner Understands His Market

[ 110 ] December 8, 2015 |


The creep towards fascism accelerates:

But Donald Trump eventually became bigger news. Hours after the Monmouth poll was released, the billionaire released a statement to press demanding “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Trump said the ban would apply to refugees, tourists, and even American citizens who happened to be traveling abroad. It was objectively the most Islamophobic of all his Islamophobic statements, the most aggressively divisive proposal in a campaign defined by aggressive divisiveness.

Today In Corporate Shakedowns

[ 24 ] December 8, 2015 |


Students who don’t purchase meal plans getting charged a food tax anyway:

Before his 35-mile commute through Appalachian hills to classes here at the University of Tennessee, Michael Miceli eats a gigantic breakfast. It is his way of getting through the day without spending money on a campus lunch.

Food deprivation is merely one trick Mr. Miceli uses to minimize his college debt, now creeping past $22,000. So the $300 bill he got from the university this semester — for food — sent him into a tailspin.

“I was in near panic at the thought of having to borrow more money,” said Mr. Miceli, 23, a linguistics major.

For the first time this year, the University of Tennessee imposed a $300-per-semester dining fee on Mr. Miceli and about 12,000 other undergraduates, including commuters, who do not purchase other meal plans. The extra money will help finance a $177 million student union with limestone cornices, clay-tiled roofing and copper gutters, part of a campus reconstruction plan aimed at elevating the University of Tennessee to a “Top 25” public university.

But, hey, at least somebody tends to benefit from this kind of thing:

Other colleges have deals that offer sweeteners — renovations to the president’s house, private parties catered for employees, free meals for athletic officials in exchange for free football tickets.

These arrangements, which auditors have criticized, can create revenue streams outside the normal budgeting process for funding pet projects, raising the potential of abuse.

At South Carolina State University, a historically black institution, a 2014 audit found that students paid $343 a year in “hidden costs” for food. The money was rebated to the institution by its vendor, Sodexo, a French company, partly to pay for a $5 million wellness center, which was never built. The university, under new leadership, said it has ceased the practices described.

How to troll a troll

[ 16 ] December 7, 2015 |

Mayor Rick Kriseman provides a quick tutorial.


When You’ve Lost…

[ 35 ] December 7, 2015 |

So this afternoon I was at the YMCA, managing affairs in the men’s locker room.  There’s a large TV in this particular locker room, and a gaggle of older white men had gathered about it.  This scene is exactly as you would imagine, and as you’ve undoubtedly seen if you’ve ever spent any time in a men’s locker room; four or five old, mostly naked white men standing around, talking politics or sports, utterly oblivious to the absurdity of the situation.  I join them (I am only a few short years from joining this demographic, after all), and note that the subject of attention is CNN’s discussion of the Laquan McDonald shooting. CNN plays the video, with the anchor explaining the Chicago PD’s account of what happened, which is that McDonald, on the ground, already shot several times, was nevertheless lunging at the firing officers.

The old white dude collective, not a demographic normally known for its anti-police radicalism, reacted to this claim with a degree of incredulity that should make Rahm shudder.  ‘Twas mildly heartening that even this demographic reacted poorly to the flat-out massacre of a young black man by the police, and it’s hopefully indicative that BLM is making some headway.

Memorializing Triangle

[ 5 ] December 7, 2015 |


What a great project to give the Triangle Fire victims a proper memorial.

The memorial would include several long steel panels running along the building’s facade. One horizontal panel would be 13 feet high and have 146 names stenciled into the steel; below it would be a shiny, shin-high panel that would reflect the names from the stenciled panel above. The bottom panel would contain a narrative history of the fire, and a vertical panel would extend to the ninth floor.

New York University now owns the former factory building, at 29 Washington Place, and uses it mainly for its biology and chemistry laboratories. The university is backing the memorial.

The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition sponsored a design competition in 2013 and selected a proposal by Richard Joon Yoo, an architectural designer, and Uri Wegman, a professor of architecture at Cooper Union. The winner of the competition was awarded $5,000, which was donated by the faculty union at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

“What makes this memorial unique is it’s about the past, but also so much about the present,” said Mr. Yoo, who noted that around the time of the competition in 2013, 112 workers died in a factory fire in Bangladesh and then over 1,100 died in a factory collapse there.

“It’s 100 years after the Triangle fire, but some of the exact same factors were at work,” he said. “It’s appalling. It’s like you can have the Holocaust happen all over again, and zero lessons were learned.”

Lessons were learned. And then corporations managed to escape those lessons by sending those jobs abroad to recreate the Triangle Fire in other nations. But hey, it’s OK for Bangladesh to have lower workplace standards. Someday maybe they can have a cool memorial to their tragedies too!

Right now, the Asch Building just has a couple of small plaques. People make pilgrimages there. I’ve been there a few times. It’s a powerful place and will be more so once it is finally memorialized in a proper way. The U.S. actually puts a lot of resources into official remembrances of its past, primarily through the National Park Service. Yet our labor struggles are not part of the battles for American freedom that get remembered. The new Pullman National Historic Site will help remedy that a little bit. Private action can help too and this project is commendable.

Was the Southern Strategy Effective?

[ 298 ] December 7, 2015 |
Richard M. Nixon, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, is seen arriving at the airport in Atlanta, Ga. with his wife, Patricia, on May 31, 1968. A crowd of about 350 people greeted them as Nixon visits the South to meet with delegates from various states. (AP Photo)

Richard M. Nixon, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, is seen arriving at the airport in Atlanta, Ga. with his wife, Patricia, on May 31, 1968. A crowd of about 350 people greeted them as Nixon visits the South to meet with delegates from various states. (AP Photo)

I am not in the habit of reviewing older books I read. But I recently read Matthew Lassiter’s 2006 book, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South. Lassiter strongly questions the effectiveness of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. I mentioned this on Twitter and Thus Blogged Anderson asked me to lay this argument out on the blog. OK.

Lassiter’s book explores the intricacies of suburban politics around public schools and integration in the South, comparing how Atlanta becomes a place that does not integrate and Charlotte does, with busing, urban expansion to take control over the suburbs, and the politics of “moderate” whites revolving around the Chamber of Commerce and business communities playing a huge role in shaping how this plays out. Central to his argument is the development of a suburban politics that keeps most schools functionally segregated through “a bipartisan political language of private property values, individual taxpayer rights, children’s educational privileges, family residential security, and white racial innocence.” (304)

In other words, while the image in our mind of resistance to integration is frothing rural whites killing civil rights workers, Lassiter convincingly shows that politically, the politics of the growing Sunbelt suburbs were far more important. Those suburban peoples may well have supported integration in theory and may well have been totally fine with a few black kids in their schools, but rejected residential integration and the busing that would have brought actual educational equality of opportunity to children, effectively reinforcing racism without having to say they were racist.

Now, we all know the basic story around the Southern Strategy, which is effectively that Lyndon Johnson said when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that he had handed the South to the Republicans, that Nixon built on Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority to do so and that through Nixon’s 1972 sweep of the South and then Reagan’s 1980 speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the South was on the road to becoming truly Republican. But Lassiter strongly pushes back against this story because it ignores electoral analysis. Nixon did try to follow Phillips’ strategy in 1970 and race bait his way to Republican victories. But it was a disaster throughout Southern states that had large suburban populations. In other words, George Wallace could race bait his way back into the Alabama governor’s office in 1970. Nixon tried to copy that. And it failed. Democrats moved toward the center in many states, arguing for following the law, moderation, and for general principles of public education. That didn’t mean an outright support of actual school integration. But it made the big suburban populations comfortable. Combined with African-American voters, this was often enough for victory, even in states like South Carolina where Nixon and Thurmond completely flopped in 1970. Dale Bumpers defeated Orval Faubus in the Democratic primary on a law and order platform. This was the election that saw the rise of Jimmy Carter, Lawton Chiles, Reubin Askew and other “new” Democrats that reinvigorated the Democratic Party in the South for a generation, paving the way for people like Bill Clinton. The Nixon/Phillips southern strategy was a completely failure.

By 1972, Nixon had learned this and embraced the more suburban values of law and order and de facto segregation in opposition to busing, turning his back on the politics of massive resistance personified by Wallace. This was not a southern strategy, it was a suburban strategy that played in Atlanta, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Of course, that’s not the only reason southern states did not vote for McGovern, but it showed that the new politics of the post-civil rights movement would promote suburban values of school choice, property values, and personal choices for your children that just so happened to ensure that schools and neighborhoods were nearly lily-white but without any vocal support of segregation. Lassiter goes on to argue that these politics became bipartisan by the late 20th century, especially in the Clinton presidency.

I will also remind readers that the arguments made in 2015 by liberals who choose to move to the suburbs to the schools reinforce this same racist scenario created in the 1960s and 1970s by other suburban whites who made the same arguments about their children. Choosing to move to the suburbs for schools or sending your kids to private schools because the schools are “bad” is a racist act that comes right out of the anti-busing movement. I don’t care if you are a liberal college professor, it’s still a racist act that shows hostility to the Brown decision even today.

One other thing. Since a lot of you are political junkies or you wouldn’t be reading this blog, let me point out that Lassiter’s book is in the outstanding Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America series at Princeton University Press and there are many books in this series well worth your time.

Construction Deaths

[ 12 ] December 7, 2015 |


You may not be surprised that the combination of non-union worksites and a weak regulatory enforcement structure kills construction workers:

Most construction sites where workers died failed to take basic steps to prevent them from falling. Workers frequently did not wear harnesses or helmets, as required by law. Supervision was often lacking. In many of the projects, a premium was placed on speed, causing workers to take dangerous shortcuts.

About a quarter of the deaths took place in Midtown, attracting a vast majority of news media attention for such accidents. But the rest occurred, largely unnoticed, all over the city. They usually involved smaller projects, using nonunion workers, who were often poorly trained. Often the contractors had been previously cited for safety violations and failed to pay penalties.

Seven workers have died on the job since July, including three in a nine-day stretch before Labor Day, according to records of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.

The city’s Buildings Department keeps its own count of construction deaths, injuries and accidents, offering a broader look at safety year over year. There were 10 construction-related fatalities in the most recent fiscal year, from July 2014 to July 2015, according to city figures. In contrast, the annual average over the previous four years was 5.5.

Meanwhile, 324 workers were injured in the last fiscal year, a jump of 53 percent, and the Buildings Department recorded 314 accidents over all, an increase of 52 percent from the year before. The total was more than two and a half times what the city tallied in 2011. In comparison, permits for new construction projects grew by only 11 percent in the last fiscal year and permits for renovation and other work by 6 percent.

“There is absolutely no doubt that there is a real problem with construction safety,” said Mark G. Peters, the commissioner of the city’s Investigation Department, which looks into construction fatalities.

An improving economy and low interest rates helped fuel the current building boom, but there are signs that more is to come. Mayor Bill de Blasio is embracing vertical construction to help make housing more affordable. And uncertainty over the future of a lucrative tax abatement program for developers caused many to rush to file new construction permits this year.

The deaths make clear that the city is being built, or in some cases rebuilt, heavily on the backs of recent immigrants, particularly from Latin America, most of them not authorized to work in this country.

It’s quite simple really. If you want safe workplaces, two things need to happen. First, union contractors should be strongly encouraged. Unions often ensure safe workplaces because safety is not laughed at, nor left up to individual workers who may in fact chafe at the union’s efforts to keep this safe (I talk about this point among loggers in Empire of Timber). Second, you fine the hell out of contractors with safety violations, you follow up with those fine, and you seize the contractor’s assets if they don’t pay and prosecute them personally for violations and contempt. But there are far, far too few regulators for the amount of places they need to inspect, a problem throughout the American regulatory structure. This is a major advantage for employers, who fight with their Republican allies to undermine these regulatory agencies for exactly this reason. The result is dead workers.

Trite Arguments About University Costs

[ 56 ] December 7, 2015 |


On November 25, Steven Pearlstein made an argument that is guaranteed to get one’s op-ed accepted in a major newspapers: attacking professors. Basically, he looked at 4 reasons he thinks university costs have skyrocketed and what we can do about it. The first is capping administrative costs, which is largely a good idea although it’s worth noting that we also demand a lot of services from our universities today, including mental health, that add to this. Of course there’s no question that top administrator pay is ridiculous and the growth of vice-deans for this and that is a big problem. So OK, this is mostly but not completely correct.

Then Pearlstein goes off the rails. First he wants universities to be open year-round and stop giving professors their cushy summer vacations. This is stupid on so many levels. First, while he might say that these are buildings that aren’t being used all the time, he neglects to deal with any of the implications of such an argument. First is that professors aren’t on vacation, they are working on the rest of their job descriptions. Second is that a lot of professors are in fact teaching overload classes to make ends meet. That includes tenured and tenure-track professors. Third, it’s entirely unclear that there is a demand to use these buildings for classes, especially at the tuition rates students are forced to pay today. Where does that money come from? Fourth, he assumes that professors will start working 52 week years without an increase in pay, which is not possible to implement. Pretty badly argued.

Third is the more teaching, less research canard. He blithely claims that most research, especially humanities research, is worthless and so professors should be forced to teach more instead. What he fails to realize, as do so many writers on higher education, is that Harvard and Yale are not the norm in higher education. Far, far, far more professors are teaching 4-4 and doing no research at all because they don’t have time (or maybe squeezing a little in) than are teaching 1-0 and publishing a bunch. But these people are never acknowledged by those like Pearlstein who have an axe to grind against higher education. He goes on to quote a couple of random academics about research being worthless, but he doesn’t even bother to try to evaluate these claims in any kind of useful way.

Finally, he provides some nonsense about general education that exists solely in technological futurist fantasyland that has proven to be bad for students over and over again when implemented. Like most people who write about education, it becomes pretty clear that Pearlstein has spent very little time in the classroom of the average college or university.

Luckily, Dan Drezner also has a column in the Washington Post and he used to rip Pearlstein apart.

When politicians and pundits argue in favor of reallocating resources from one college major to another, they’re trying to say that they can pick disciplinary winners and losers better than universities, foundations or the students themselves. There are big risks in making that assumption, especially if you base these selections on “facts” such as welders outearning philosophers that turn out not to be true. And usually such suggestions ignore the simple fact that U.S. research universities outperform every other country in the world. Or as that Bain report acknowledged at the outset:

Few industries in the United States have achieved unquestioned global leadership as consistently and effectively as our higher education system. U.S. colleges and universities are the cornerstone of our economic prosperity and the key to realizing the American dream. Thirty years of growth have confirmed the sector’s leadership and vibrancy — the result of demographic and economic factors combining to lift higher education even higher.

I get that higher education is a ripe target in an election year. And I get that blasting the “higher ed bubble” is popular even if it is not necessarily true. But for once, I’d like critics to concede that this is a far more complex topic than just “costs are out of control.”

It shouldn’t be that tough a thing to admit.

But inevitably, in another month, some other blowhard with an anti-univeristy agenda will publish another tired essay bemoaning professors without understanding what is actually driving costs up and a major newspaper will eat it up.

…See also Hiltzik

The Environment in Which Trump Can Thrive

[ 254 ] December 7, 2015 |

Some sage wisdom from the “Most Powerful Conservative in America,” everybody:

In addition to the obvious, I would bet dollars to beef and broccoli lunch specials that the “Asian food” the Ericksons were abstaining from was Chinese food.

Problem Solved!

[ 46 ] December 7, 2015 |


Speaking of the infantilization of politics:

Ted Cruz released a statement saying, “If I am elected President, I will direct the Department of Defense to destroy ISIS. And I will shut down the broken immigration system that is letting jihadists into our country. Nothing President Obama said tonight will assist in either case.”

Well, that will solve everything!

On a related note, it is overwhelmingly likely that the Republican nominee in 2016 will be someone who believes that the state should coerce a woman into carrying a pregnancy resulting from a rape to term, or it will be Donald Trump.

LGM Bowl Mania!

[ 12 ] December 7, 2015 |
Clemson football team 1896.jpg

“1896 Clemson football team” Clemson University Libraries Online Collections. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Getcher LGM Bowl Mania league here!

Group: Lawyers, Guns and Money
Password: zevon

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