Monthly Archives: July 2011

Weekend Reading

Trying to keep to my commitment, here is a second edition of weekend reading. First off, a link to NYT’s slideshow of same-sex weddings that happened on Sunday, the first day marriages were legalized in that state.

A piece on Norway after the 22nd, that has a really powerful message and a tiny glimpse of Norway.

By now, you have probably heard about the mother who crossed a street illegally and how her son was killed in a hit-and-run. And about how she was charged with vehicular homicide. If you haven’t, that’s an incredibly shortened version of the background for a critique of urban planning.

As our economy continues to teeter (and maybe collapse, thanks to the debt debate), there’s a good argument for what our real unemployment looks like, including a few important clarifications:

Through the neat accounting trick of reclassifying the long-term unemployed (6 months or more) as no longer part of the workforce is based on the quaint notion that anyone unemployed for half a year has stopped trying to find a job. The official rate, then, masks a shadow population of long-term unemployed that, if counted, would likely double the official rate.

The never-reported U6 unemployment rate, which accounts for long-term and “discouraged” unemployed, is currently hovering between 16% and 17%compared to the official (U3) rate of about 9.5%. An honest economist will tell you that even the government’s U6 rate is understated, as there are a greater number of long-term unemployed (including some who have never been employed) floating around outside of what we define as the labor force. If we could really count everyone – unemployed, part timers who can’t find full time, discouraged workers who have stopped trying, etc. – we’re probably looking at something like 1 in 5 adults who could be working but are not.

Consider this unremarkable, back page news item about automaker BMW’s distribution center in California. It is being closed and outsourced. Were it outsourced to a foreign country, its employees would probably end up in the unemployment statistics eventually (for a short time, if nothing else). It isn’t heading to Mexico, though. The distribution center is being outsourced to a contractor that will operate the warehouse with the usual perks of subcontracting – namely a high turnover, $9/hr workforce – instead of the 20+ year veteran BMW employees.

The unemployment numbers over which we all obsess do nothing to capture what happened here, and what happened here is more damaging to the macroeconomy than plain old unemployment. There’s no net job loss. It’s merely a transition from 75 good jobs to 75 shit ones, from 75 people who are productive in the economy to 75 who live paycheck-to-paycheck as the working poor.

And on top of the unemployment crisis – we’re in a wage crisis too. Despite companies having huge profit margins, labor wages are at a 50-year low relative to company sales and national GDP.

Juan Cole on why the ideology of the terrorist in Norway isn’t surprising at all.

Here is a review of Somewhere in America and a thorough look at poverty in contemporary America:

Since at least the 80s, Reaganite economic policy has created a growing underclass of Americans, who have largely seemed invisible to American society. For a brief moment in 2009, Mahardige remembers, journalists were interested in the tent cities springing up outside of cities in California and Florida. But they wanted to hear about people who had just lost their jobs. In fact, most of the residents had been struggling for years, even during the supposedly good times of the 90s. The Crash simply broke the camel’s back.

In some ways its an underclass whose lives seem familiar to us: the men and women who ride railroads, sleep under bridges, squat in abandoned factories, hover outside of overcrowded breadlines, and drift from town to town drawn by rumors of work seem all reminiscent of Woody Guthrie songs and John Steinbeck novels. But it also deeply alien to see it today, which is why many of the most jaring photographs juxtapose images of 21st century American consumption (a Kenny Rogers ad, a faded Office Depot sign, a Wal-Mart, etc…) next to images of 21st century poverty, to familiarize us with a phenomenon we were told doesn’t exist anymore. Suburbanization and the creation of highways has, to a large degree, pushed this poverty out of sight. The poverty rate in the suburbs, where poverty tends to be much less visible, has been skyrocketing.

True poverty, Maharidge points out, takes some time to kick in. At first, when people lost their jobs in Youngstown, they survived. Some found new jobs, others accepted lower pay. Many drifted on unemployment or disability. But eventually these supports dry up, and the longer you’re out of work, the harder it is to get new employment. You are evicted or foreclosed, your family or friend gets sick of you crashing with them, and you move on. Maybe you hear about an opportunity a couple of towns over, but can’t afford a hotel room or a deposit on a rental. So you begin sleeping in your car. Gas and maintenance becomes too much, so you hitch or walk. Many sell blood or begin scrounging food from wastebins, at first in moments of despair, later as an everyday activity. The embarrassment and stress gets to people, who begin abusing drugs or alcohol. Many are victims of theft, murder, or rape, and rarely do the police investigate.

As the Great Recession continues (and it is continuing for most people…) the middle class is falling into the lower class, the lower class falling into the poor, and the poor falling off the social map into the informal economy of scrounging, subsistence farming, petty thievery, homelessness, prostitution, and the like. There are almost certainly more Americans who live like this then, say, Americans who watch the Daily Show. Mahardige and Williamson introduce us to “Edge men,” people who have completely given up on the prospect of employment, and squat or set up tents outside of cities, to live permanently outside of society. With years of high unemployment, and millions of so called ‘99ers approaching the end of their benefits, we better get used to seeing these people.

Is Obama the Democrats’ Nixon?

The House GOP use a clip from The Town to get votes. Ben Affleck is as confused as I am.

The funniest parody letter from The Rainbow Shiek to Americans. Seriously. Read it. It has this in it:


Ever since Airminded used the Google Books ngram viewer, I have become intrigued. Expect more use in the future, but in the meantime, from Airminded: what did people call the 1914-1919 war in Europe?

And last but not least, a piece in the New Yorker about Rwanda’s cycling team.


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Why I Don’t Like the Term “Entitlements”

There’s a thing that a lot of Western liberal countries have. They use taxes to pay for services that are provided to anyone who needs them. In some countries programs include unemployment and retirement, in some there is healthcare or paid maternity leave. These have a lot of names. Welfare. Social Security. Entitlements.

The word entitlements has always kind of irked me. When I was teaching my high school government class, we broke down the federal budget and kept coming back to this word. This word that encapsulated Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid along with other welfare programs. I explained what I thought was a misnomer. Feeling entitled to something has the implication that you feel that you are owed something, without having earned it – that you are undeserving of the thing you think should be yours. Does this really describe the programs which are being lumped under the umbrella term “entitlement?”

When did we start calling things "entitlements"? The 80s, apparently.

As Americans, most of us pay quite a bit to one government or another. Between the federal government, state government, and various local forms of government, my money is spread around through a variety of taxes. That money goes to pay for things like my primary and secondary education, the roads on which I drive, the Post Office I use to mail things, and – yes – food stamps if I need them and retirement when I get to that point. All of these things are the same type of service, and it’s not me being spoiled or feeling entitled. It’s me getting my money’s worth (although not really, if you break it down, but that’s another story).

My father has worked pretty much endlessly from high school graduation until now. Being self-employed since the 1980s, he hasn’t had health insurance in years, and as he’s getting closer to retirement he’s pretty excited about medicare. Having paid into America’s Social Security Administration for over forty years, is it really a sense of entitlement to say that he wants healthcare for his remaining years?

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Weekend Reading

There are a handful of blogs that provide some “Sunday reading,” and I’m thinking about joining the fray. That said, one day is not always enough to do all of that reading! So, I’m introducing something that may or may not become commonplace on this blog. I’d like to provide a few links to help you fill your otherwise-empty weekends. And so – feel free to click ahead and read on!

A Northeaster goes to a medical center in Fresno:

It became clear to me that as a matter of policy, the hospital was coping with a large number of local patients using its ER for ordinary medical care by passive-aggressive neglect. Unless you walked in with an immediately and obviously life-threatening condition, time would be your triage, not a medical professional. If you could endure waiting eight to nine hours, that was proof that your condition was sufficiently serious that you might need urgent care. The staff there don’t spend much time working up a more nuanced picture on initial evaluation because they don’t want one. They don’t efficiently discard the cases of people who’ve left the facility because they’re stalling the remainder deliberately.

The basic problem faced by this hospital and many others is structurally serious and requires a strong nationally consistent solution. Given that one political party struggled to formulate a fussy, detail-strangled series of half-measures to address the problem and the other party apparently thinks there isn’t any issue in the first place, I’m resigned to this situation happening again to me, my loved ones, my friends, my fellow citizens, for the rest of my life.

This is where we are at now. Decline is not something we need to fear or forestall, it has already happened. America is not in decline, it has declined. A nine-hour wait at a well-built, well-staffed, well-resourced medical center for treatment of a serious condition isdecline. As a traveller seeking urgent care, I’ve been seen more quickly in similar facilities in both Africa and Europe.

Otto von Habsburg, the very last heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire passed away this month, and he lived a pretty busy life that’s worth reading about – including working to open the Iron Curtain and serving as a member of the European Parliament.

The writing habits of some famous authors, including Capote, Hemingway, and others.

Millicent has an in-depth article on Hairpin about the history of how women lived in the 17th century (without bras).

HNN has a post that took the words right out of my mouth: “Why Teaching For America is Not Welcome in My Classroom”, which mirrors my thoughts on the program, albeit more eloquent:

Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach for America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially-conscious person can make.  Nor do they encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career; indeed, the organization goes out of its way to make joining TFA seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher-paying professions.

Three years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.”  The message of that flyer was “use teaching in high-poverty areas a stepping stone to a career in business.”  It was not only profoundly disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.

But the most objectionable aspect of Teach for America—other than its contempt for lifetime educators—is its willingness to create another pathway to wealth and power for those already privileged in the rapidly expanding educational-industrial complex, which already offers numerous careers for the ambitious and well-connected.  An organization which began by promoting idealism and educational equity has become, to all too many of its recruits, a vehicle for profiting from the misery of America’s poor.

A  slideshow of the top ten “Let them eat cake” moments in the current recession, including “shut up and cope with it.”

A passionfruit at 32x magnification. Click the photo for other up-close shots, including an Oreo!

The California prison system’s hunger strike against Pelican Bay is rounding out week three, with prisoners refusing medical care on top of refusing food. But, of course, earlier this week the Department of Corrections seems to think that gangs are the root of the problem and not their atrocious policies, including solitary confinement as a means to extract information. Strange, that.

The Retronaut gives us a glimpse of New York panoramas from the dawn of the twentieth century.

Tim Burke, like some others, gets sick of tinkering with liberal politics (and the debt-ceiling debates), with some great critiques of liberal discussion and this great summary of the current debate:

In terms of the debt ceiling issue in specific, I feel like this is sort of the Cuban Missile Crisis of my middle-aged life and you know what? At this point I almost just want them to get it over with and fire off the policy nukes. Just go ahead and wreck it all, because if we’ve come to the point where there’s a significant political faction with real social foundations that so thoroughly hates its fever-dream boogeyman vision of “government” that nothing else and no one else matters, we’re just going to be stuck right at a perpetual blockade line, a permanent schism. Taken in isolation from the larger story of the last two decades, this moment alone is completely WTF crazy. You have one side in a negotiation whose primary policy objective they’re pushing for is, “Not allowing an almost certain meltdown of the global financial system in the next six months” and the other side saying, “If you want to get your narrow-minded policy objective, the prevention of a major global catastrophe, you’re going to have to eliminate most of the federal government and re-establish the gold standard and maybe resign from office too if we decide to really stick it to you. Hey, that’s what bargaining is all about, you gotta give some to get what you want.” It’s as if the opposition had told FDR he’d have to make major political concessions before they’d allow him to declare war on Japan after Pearl Harbor.

And a look at why Obama should stop comparing his compromises to Lincoln, from Wiz at PhD Octopus:

But these are minor squabbles. The meat of Obama’s argument is that the Emanciaption Proclamation was a compromise from Lincoln’s lofty ideals, but he (like Obama) was willing to make it because he would achieve the Good rather than fail at the Perfect.

Here’s the problem: The Emancipation Proclamation was not a compromise for Lincoln. He had neverpreviously stated that he could or would abolish slavery in the Southern states. When he ran for president, he was clear that he would not abolish slavery. In his first Inaugral Address he said:

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

The Emancipation Proclamation, when he signed it, was a move to the left for Lincoln, not a compromise on fundamental principles. In response to abolitionist pressure, the “General Strike” of runaway slaves, and the general revolutionary logic of the Civil War, Lincoln moved slowly to the left over his presidency.

On the other hand, when faced with a situation when he was called upon to compromise the core principles that he had run on, he showed a remarkable backbone. Before the war actually started, when hardline southerners had already seceded, there were numerous calls- from Seward among others- to pass some sort of compromise which would placate the South and avoid war. This movement coalesced around the Crittenden Compromise, which if it had passed, would have, among other things, guaranteed slavery below the 36° 30′ line for perpetuity (It’d sure be interesting if Los Angeles was a slave city, huh?). It was sort of the master “Grand Bargain” of the day.

Lincoln had ran on the platform of Free Soil, and so he took an admirably hardline stance on this issue, refusing to endorse any compromise that might end secession in return for the extension of slavery.

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Quote from Utoya

Just a few hours ago, the death toll from today’s terrorist attack in Norway took a drastic increase as authorities found bodies of young activists shot in the sea around the island of Utoya. The sad news is now seven dead in Oslo and over 80 dead in Utoya, and counting. Needless to say, the world is reeling right now as this incident gets worse.

Thanks to Chip Sinton on Twitter for finding and sharing what is supposedly the blog of one of the survivors of the shooting. According to others on Twitter it belongs to a leader of the Labor Party youth group AUF. Here is a link translated by Google. The blogger ends the post with these words:

We deserve not to die… We are just normal teenagers. We are engaged in politics. We will make the world a better place

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Oslo, Utoya, and Comparisons

Two attacks rocked Norway today, with a large explosion rocking government buildings in central Oslo in the afternoon, followed by a massive shooting at a Labor Party youth camp on Utoya Island. As people scrambled to figure out just what, exactly, was happening, a lot of confusion hit the airwaves. Just a couple of hours ago the death toll at the youth camp grew from an estimated ten to over 80 and counting, to which no words can really respond.

When I first heard about the attacks, I tuned in and the media coverage bounced between updates on casualties and analysts explaining why Muslim extremists would attack Norway. This analysis included Norway’s troop contribution to the NATO occupation in Afghanistan, recent re-publishings of offensive cartoons of Muhammed, recent activities of radical Kurds, and the prosecution of a controversial mullah. But all of it had to do with Islamists.

In the aftermath of Norwegian authorities announcing that they had apprehended an ethnic Norwegian suspect (who may or may not have Islamist ties), the news coverage hasn’t really shift – but there has been an addendum of “but we don’t know who’s really behind it.” The current understanding of terror just keeps refusing to shift from the paradigm of Islamic extremism.

However, several analysts (not making it on American TV) have mentioned the possibility of domestic right-wing extremists being responsible. Jakub Godzimirski of the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs said that “this attack has more in common with the Oklahoma City bombing than an Islamist attack.” And there are a few others who have been quotes as saying something similar.

But let’s not forget just how similar the 9/11 attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing were as well. While one was a foreign-born attack on finance and military using airlines and the other was a domestic attack on the federal government using a bomb, they were both religious extremists attacking America’s power structure. Just like al Qaeda carried out the WTC bombings, the OKC bombing was carried out by a man whose ideology was similar to Christian Identity – an extremist, anti-secular fringe of the Religious Right.

As Mark Juergensmeyer explains in his book Global Rebellion, Timothy McVeigh had contact with Identity members and probably visited their commune, Elohim City. According to several witnesses, McVeigh’s favorite book was The Turner Diaries, a book about an apocalyptic battle between freedom fighters and the dictatorial American government, including a patriot who bombs a federal government building in exactly the same way McVeigh did. McVeigh and al Qaeda were both religious attacks on the same secular nation.

What’s different is how America responded to them. McVeigh was treated as a criminal while al Qaeda has been treated by and large as militants in a war. McVeigh faced justice for crimes in American courts, and was punished. Meanwhile, some al Qaeda operatives have been turned into “detainees” and face a bizarre form of justice. Hopefully, Norway will deal with the alleged perpetrator of today’s attack in a similar manner to the way McVeigh was tried. Because setting off a bomb in a city center and shooting at young political organizers is a terrible crime, and whoever is responsible should be held accountable.

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JSTOR Roundup

The JSTOR database released a statement today about an alleged attempt by an activist to do a file-dump of licensed articles on a file-sharing site. According to an article on Wired the activist, Aaron Swartz, allegedly downloaded over four million articles and evaded MIT’s efforts to block him. There is some controversy over the fact that the Department of Justice is using a violation of terms of service and equating it to computer hacking. There has also been a renewed discussion over what the role of publishers and such restrictive licensing really is in this day and age. As usual, there have been a few bloggers who are on top of things, so here’s the round-up.

Barbara Fisher explains how the terms of service make us all pirates:

In the past, libraries didn’t stop you at the door and demand that you agree to a pledge that you won’t in any way profit from your visit or use what you learned when visiting the library for some public purpose. We actually thought – silly us! – that libraries were meant to help you build new things and go public with ideas.

Libraries don’t set policy for the use of materials, now, publishers and vendors do. JSTOR isn’t quite as strict as some databases. SciFinder Scholar instructs users to contact the company, er, society and pony up for a different service if they are doing research for a consulting job, and users agree that “I will delete stored records when I no longer need them for the relevant research project, or after the completion of my degree program, whichever occurs first.” (Have you purged those citations from EndNote yet? You haven’t? Dude.) And then there are those curious restrictions within restrictions; you are not allowed to place a link to a Harvard Business Review article that your library licenses for campus use in a syllabus, for example. The library pays for campus use – but not that kind of campus use. For that, you pay extra.

Tim Burke looks at why we still use academic journals anyways:

To sum it up, as I have before at this blog: academic institutions (and grant-giving agencies outside of academia) subsidize scholarly research through sabbaticals, through supporting laboratories and libraries, through travel funds and so on. When scholars report and disseminate their research in short-form articles or papers, they traditionally have done so by giving away the written report to outside publishers. (Or worse yet, the researchers have had to pay someone to disseminate or publish their findings, a cost which is also borne by the universities or by granting agencies.) Then scholars gave away something else to the publishers: the work of peer review, done on an entirely voluntary basis, which was the primary value-added that made the publications desirable in the first place. These publishers then sold back the published results to universities, often at very high profit-seeking mark-ups.

What do scholars get out of disseminating or publishing their research? Primarily they gain reputation, which may indirectly produce financial rewards. Only very rarely does an academic receive direct financial gain from the act of publication itself. How do you gain reputation? Through the widest possible circulation of the research publication.

I’ll add more links as I get them.

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In Which I Turn My Back on Conflict Mineral Activism

While I have always been scholarly-minded, I have some roots in activism as well. I have spent the better part of five years supporting Invisible Children and Resolve and in my last years of my undergrad I branched out to other causes as well. Activism is the bridge which took me from teaching secondary education to teaching post-secondary, it’s what really sparked my interest in studying conflict. And since I’ve begun studying conflict, it’s been difficult to come to terms with the damage that some activism does.

One particular case is the idea of conflict minerals. Recently, you can’t go anywhere without hearing that your cell phone or laptop is probably causing women in the Democratic Republic of Congo to be raped. If you haven’t, see the plethora of news articles linked in this Wronging Rights post. Conflict minerals are akin to blood diamonds – items of value that provide funding for armed groups to exact all sorts of violence on innocent people. You buy electronics, and they contain tantalum, tungsten, and other assorted minerals that are found in the DRC. Rebel groups run some of the mines in eastern DRC, and they profit from your addiction to technology.

There are guns in our cell phones! War in our electronics!

But the activism that has been riled up by the likes of me (having presented a “history of the LRA” talk alongside my colleague’s “conflict minerals” presentation, and brought Falling Whistles to my campus) has led the Frank-Dodd bill which passed last year to include SEC provisions that companies must prove their minerals from central Africa are conflict-free. This, of course, is impossible with the lack of infrastructure there, and as a result mining has ceased in many regions – with the central government banning exports from the Walikali region altogether.

The problem is, the violent groups are finding other ways to get their money, and they continue to raid villages and rape civilians. Meanwhile, many artisanal miners are left without any income, and they have no way to provide for their families now that their job has been rendered unprofitable or straight up illegal. As Laura at Texas in Africa wrote recently:

This was a completely predicable result and one that speaks to the irresponsibility of advocates who identified a solution without first really understanding the problems the region faces. The only question in my mind is why smart lawmakers like Representative Jim McDermott and reputable companies like HP continue to take advice from advocates who have very limited experience in the eastern Congo, don’t speak French, and push policies that reflect a poor understanding the dynamics of conflict in the region. By pursuing policies that leave formerly employed miners out of work, they have actually made life worse for Congolese who live in the mining regions while doing almost nothing to substantially help to improve the situation. And it is not at all clear what anyone is doing or will do to help them pick up the pieces.

A little less than a year ago, my environmental conflict professor (a genius, by the way) was the first person to really challenge the conflict mineral narrative in my world. She also directed me to Laura (which I didn’t realize until yesterday, coincidentally) and pushed me to really think hard when writing my paper on coltan in the DRC. Since then, I’ve been going back and forth as to whether or not conflict minerals are anything like blood diamonds, and even questioning how well the whole blood diamond thing worked out. Needless to say, I’ve begun to turn my back on some of the work I’ve done in the past.

I’m not ready to abandon all activism, though. Falling Whistles is doing good work with rehabilitation centers in the DRC, but in the U.S. their vehicle of awareness is 100% conflict minerals. The Enough Project has been teetering for me, with John Prendergast going from what was once an expert in my mind to just another advocate of iffy ideas. I’m quickly drifting away from conflict minerals activism, and we’ll see if I make a similar drift in other realms of my previous advocacy too.

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