Dec 31, 2010

Starting the New Year off right (left?)

In the spirit of a cheerful new year, here's some good news about history education in this country: beginning in 2011, Mississippi will require lessons about civil rights history in all grades, K-12. Governor Haley Barbour says, "To not know history is to repeat it. And to learn the good things about Mississippi and America and the bad things about Mississippi and America is important for every Mississippian." More here.

Dec 30, 2010

How Not to Write History

The Washington Post has a pretty horrifying article about the multitude of factual inaccuracies that a recent review found while looking at the U.S. history textbooks used in Virginia's public schools. These are things that any student taking a basic history test would be expected to know, like the year the U.S. entered World War I or the country to which New Orleans belonged in 1800. Scary.

The Daily Kos blog has some interesting things to say about this, noting that it's not such a surprise given that many (white) people in Virginia seem determined to rewrite history to serve their frighteningly conservative political agendas.

Dec 29, 2010

The 150th Anniversary of Arguing Over the Civil War

Now that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is upon us, there's been lots of talk in the news about the meaning and legacy of the Civil War. I've mentioned some good pieces on the blog already, but here's a selection:

E.J. Dionne arguing that the War was, first and foremost, about ending slavery.
A couple of great posts by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Historians Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts about the political significance of the ways we memorialize the war.

Arguments over the meaning of the Civil War are almost as old as the war itself. Historians call this issue "historical memory," because it has to do with how we, as a society, "remember" events from the past. These memories are always political: they have to do with who wields power in a society and how the powerful use their power. 

David Blight, a history professor at Yale, examined the late-19th century struggles over how Americans would remember the Civil War in his important book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001). The book looks at the first 50 years after the war and shows how competing memories of the war resolved into one that erased emancipation and the black struggle from the dominant narrative about the meaning of the Civil War, a legacy that we are clearly still living with today.

Blight argues that during and immediately after the war, there were three ways Americans understood the conflict. One was the "emancipationist," adhered to most strongly by African-Americans and abolitionists, which saw the war as a fight to end slavery, liberate African-Americans, and ensure them a just American future. The second was the "white supremacist," which remembered the war as a valiant battle to uphold a system of white supremacy. The third was the "reconciliationist," which saw the war ultimately as a struggle between two well-meaning sides whose soldiers were each fighting a noble fight for a cause in which they believed.

Blight shows that, not surprisingly, during the war the "emancipationist" and "white supremacist" analyses dominated in the North and South, respectively. In the years following the war, as Reconstruction played out, these two memories continued to do battle. But by 1876, most whites, North and South, wanted full peace and a revival of the national economy, and they saw that the most effective way to do that was to reconcile with each other, even if it meant (and for some, especially if it meant) excluding blacks from national politics once again. Beginning at this point, then, the "reconciliationist" memory, strongly influenced by the "white supremacist memory," reigned triumphant.

This version of history highlighted the efforts on both sides to defend one's country and one's values and emphasized the mutual loss of life that had occurred in both sections of the newly reunited nation. In effect, Northern and Southern whites reconciled and rebuilt a sense of national identity by remembering the war as a struggle between two equal sides - a familial fight between brothers. They erased slavery and emancipation from this memory for the sake of national unity and a reassertion of their place on top of a racial hierarchy that protected their social, economic, and political interests. By 1915, when Blight's book ends, this had become the dominant narrative of the war - although African-Americans continued, of course, to insist upon their "emancipationist" memory.

And so here we are today. I don't want to oversimplify, because obviously a lot has happened in the past 100 years, not least the Civil Rights movement which made use of the "emancipationist" memory. But I can't help thinking about Blight's analysis when I read things like this quote from the NY Times about the "secession ball" recently held in Charleston: "'We’re not celebrating slavery,' maintained Sons of Confederate Veterans Commander-in-Chief Michael Givens. 'We’re looking at the bravery and tenacity of the people who rose up.'" Outside the ball, the NAACP was protesting, articulating the "emancipationist" memory for anyone who would listen.

[If you're really interested in this topic, you can watch a 52-minute lecture about it by David Blight here.]

Dec 28, 2010

The thin line between "campaign contributions" and corruption

This headline in the Washington Post caught my eye on Sunday: "Lawmakers seek cash during key votes."  Using data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Sunlight Foundation, a couple of journalists at the Post ran some numbers about the timing of legislative action and fundraising, concluding that, "Numerous times this year, members of Congress have held fundraisers and collected big checks while they are taking critical steps to write new laws....The campaign donations often came from contributors with major stakes riding on the lawmakers' actions."

Somehow this doesn't shock me. Apparently it surprised some members of congress and theirs staffs, like Senator Max Baucus' spokeswoman Kate Downen, who insisted to the Post that, "Money has no influence on how Senator Baucus makes his decisions."

But the thing that makes this issue clear for me is this question: would corporations be spending millions upon millions of dollars on campaign contributions if that money weren't getting them anything?

Dec 25, 2010

The history and politics of race

How's that for a small topic? Ta-Nahisi Coates has been doing some fantastic writing the past few days about race, history, and politics, spurred by Haley Barbour's comments that things weren't really all that bad in Jim Crow Mississippi and white South Carolinians' insistence on celebrating secession while denying that secession had anything to do with slavery. Check it out.

The rise of the right, from Billy Graham to the Tea Party

Mother Jones has an interview with historian Darren Dochuk about his new book, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plainfolk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. The book examines migrants to California in the 1950s and 1960s, looking at the evangelical Christian communities they formed and the conservative politics that grew out of those communities, and traces right-wing politics forward to the end of the twentieth century.

In the interview, Dochuk talks about how right-wing politics since the 1960s has been largely focused on the issue of taxation. He argues that we shouldn't separate "social conservatives" from "fiscal conservatives": "In reality I think there's more continuity there than anything," he says, "and evangelical conservatives are the bridge between the two." Excessive taxation leads to big government, conservatives say, and big government intervenes in social issues in unacceptable ways.

The thing that always kills me about this is that these people were drawn to California by military jobs during and after World War II. Other historians have also written about the roots of the New Right in California in the postwar decades. Modern California was basically built with federal government dollars funneled through military bases and private contractors building things for the armed services, so these anti-taxation people who have dominated American politics for the past half-century: their livelihoods depended on big government.

Dec 24, 2010

Catholics and American reproductive politics

There's a bubbling controversy in Arizona - no, not that one, and not that one either - about a Catholic hospital whose doctors performed an abortion a year ago for a woman who was 11 weeks pregnant and had a potentially fatal condition that would only worsen if she continued the pregnancy. Doctors decided to carry out the abortion in order to save her life. The Phoenix Bishop was not happy: he excommunicated the nun who allowed the hospital staff to carry out the procedure, and yesterday he removed the designation of "Catholic" from the hospital, costing it the financial and spiritual support it had received from the Church. You can read more about this here, which also examines the repercussions of this event around the country.

The Catholic Church has a long and shameful history of exerting outsize influence in American reproductive politics. When the United States government began subsidizing voluntary family planning programs for low-income Americans in 1960s, Lyndon Johnson carefully designed those programs to minimize resistance from the Catholic Church. In 1966, when the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (the precursor to today's Departments of Education and of Health and Human Services) released its first regulations of these programs, Johnson aide Harry McPherson acknowledged that some parts of the policy were "designed to assuage the Catholics as much as possible."*

In the 1970s, the Catholic Church funded the pro-life political organizations that mounted fierce opposition to legal abortion, lobbied hard for an anti-abortion Constitutional amendment, and for the imposition of legal restrictions on abortion access, like the Hyde Amendment. In the 1980s and 1990s the spread of Catholic hospitals and health service organizations made finding an abortion provider ever harder. And the crusade continues.

I don't think this requires much comment from me on the irony of a bunch of men who have supposedly never had sex making decisions about women's reproductive lives, so I'll just close by pointing out that the Arizona Bishop's letter was all about the need for the nuns and other hospital staff - and therefore the patients that they serve - to defer to his patriarchal authority.

[*citation is available if you want it. But do you, really?]

Sex and the chimpanzee

I heard a story on All Things Considered the other night that set my hairs a-bristle. The story began, "For the parents who have been wondering, 'Why is it that my daughter plays with dolls and my son just wants a toy fire truck?' scientists reported this week that they've seen something similar among chimpanzees in a forest in Uganda." Immediately, alarm bells started going off in my head.

Whenever I hear parents say things like "but my daughter just likes pink" or "he just loves anything with wheels," my stomach tightens in fury. People seem to think that children are blank slates, unaffected by culture or social norms, so anything they do must be "natural" or "biological," especially as it pertains to gender. But researchers have uncovered minute ways that parents treat girl infants and boy infants differently from birth, and are looking into the effects of this disparate treatment on children's development. Other researchers have shown that toddlers recognize gender stereotypes by the time they're two years old. I would challenge anyone who thinks that their three-year-old boy "just loves trucks" to show me that he hasn't been given a huge number of trucks as presents, or been read tons of books about trucks, or heard lots of songs about trucks - many times more than the his three-year-old sister had. I find it amazing how many people shrug their shoulders about "how my kid got like that," but then continue to perpetuate this pattern by giving their daughters fairy books and their sons baseball books. This is not, of course, to say that everyone does this to the same extent or in the same way, just that I see it all the time and it makes me a little crazy.

So I'm always suspicious when I hear stories about scientific "experiments" that purport to show that gender differences are inborn or natural. I just find it impossible to believe that a penis or a bit of extra testosterone creates an innate love of fire trucks. To start with, that kind of inborn trait would require millenia of evolution, and fire trucks have only been around for about 150 years (although human-powered fire vehicles go back a few hundred years more). I'm not saying that there's no biological basis of gender, but I am saying that we have not yet found a way to separate the biological from the cultural and understand the contributions of each.

Anyway, back to the ATC story.

Dec 23, 2010

"Wasteful spending" is neither "wasteful" nor "spending." Discuss.

A couple of days ago Senator Tom Coburn released his "Wastebook 2010," which he called a "new oversight report...that highlights some of the most egregious examples of government waste in 2010." He intended the report - 82 pages, 456 footnotes - to demonstrate that "Congress continues to find new and extravagant ways to waste tax dollars."

Instead, it demonstrates much of what's wrong with the argument that the federal government is tremendously bloated and that cutting "unnecessary" programs would go a long way towards reducing the deficit.

The first problem, of course, is that there's a ton of disagreement about just what constitutes an "unnecessary" program. For instance, many of the things to which Coburn points actually seem like a great use of my tax dollars. Funding for the XVIII International Aids Conference in Vienna, which Coburn calls a "European Junket," comes in at #14 on his list and cost taxpayers $465,000 (about the amount, incidentally, that one millionaire protected by the Republican Party should be paying in taxes). Fostering international collaboration in AIDS research and treatment sounds pretty important to me. He also attacks funding for studies of the spread and treatment of HIV in Vietnam (#21; $442,340) and South Africa (#34; 823,200). For less than $1.5 million dollars, figuring out how to slow the spread of AIDS in those two countries would be a bargain, I think. He complains that the U.S. spent $2.6 million to help train Eastern European legislators (#28), aiming for "parliamentary strengthening." If we like stability in the countries of the former Soviet Union - and judging from today's nukes treaty and our interest in propping up the government of Georgia, we do - then that sounds like a pretty good deal to me. I could go on but, luckily for you, I won't.

On the other hand, there are lots of ways I would reallocate our federal dollars if I could. I'd start with our intelligence agencies which, according to an amazing feat of journalism in the Washington Post this summer, now number more than 1,200, not counting the 2,000 private corporations with which the government contracts to do intelligence work. We spend at least $75 billion on intelligence every year, and the Department of Homeland Security has given state and local law enforcement agencies $31 billion since 2003 to fight terrorism - numbers that dwarf the total amount Coburn's targeted projects cost the federal government. The 2010 defense budget was $663.8 billion dollars. I'd like to see a few of those billions - or a few tens or hundreds - chopped off. Again, I could go on, but the point is that different people have different spending priorities - especially, say, me and Tom Coburn.

The much bigger issue, though, is that Coburn's "wasteful" spending is nearly insignificant in the context of the federal budget. The 100 items on his list add up to about $11.7 billion. The federal government's total spending in FY 2010 was just over $3.72 trillion. That means that the 100 most ridiculous and unimportant things Coburn could find totaled about .3% of the federal budget.

The federal deficit has been over $1 trillion a year for the last couple of years and will continue to be that large for the foreseeable future, or at least until we have a significant economic recovery. Cutting out $11.7 billion of that, or twice or ten times that much, would still leave us with many hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue shortfall to overcome. It is going to take a lot more than trimming around the edges to cut the deficit, and the only real way to do it in a sustainable, humane, and civilized (and I do mean that literally) is to start raising more revenue. Yes, that's right, people, I said it - we need to raise taxes.

Dec 22, 2010

Would cutting the employers' payroll tax create jobs?

On Monday night I was lucky enough to get to see Rachel Maddow's show live. She interviewed Nouriel Roubini, the economist who got famous for predicting the 2008 real estate crash before almost anybody else. She asked him what he would do to spur the economy if politics didn't matter - if he was "economic dictator for a day." The first thing he said was that he would enact a temporary payroll tax holiday not just for employees, which was part of the tax package that passed last week, but also for employers.

A bit of background: in today's system, employers and employees split the cost of the tax on wages that goes towards Social Security and Medicare. Part of the Obama tax package that just passed was a one-year payroll tax holiday on the portion of the tax that employees pay. Employers will continue to pay the same amount they've been paying, though. Roubini's argument was that if employers also got a tax cut, they would save 6% of their wage costs and be able to hire more workers.

Here's the interview, with the part I'm discussing at 3:10:

Now, I really have no right to challenge Roubini's economics, given that he's a renowned professor and I've taken exactly one economics class in my life (and even that one was half history). But I'm going to do it anyway. We keep hearing that companies are sitting on enormous cash reserves but are still not hiring. That is, they have the money to hire people, or to buy new equipment, or generally to invest in their businesses, but instead that money is sitting under the proverbial mattress or, in a best-case scenario, in some kind of savings or investment account. As Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles brilliantly put it on Monday:

So I don't see why enabling employers to save even more money would get them to start hiring people, since clearly the issue is not that they don't have the cash. We need some other kind of stimulus to get people hiring - probably by boosting purchasing power among ordinary Americans, which is why cutting the employees' side of the payroll tax is a much better idea (although it may pose a long-term threat to the viability of Social Security). Even better would be to continue to invest in state and local governments so they can stop laying people off and cutting services, but that's a larger issue for another day (or post).

Dec 21, 2010

More about the pre-history of DADT

The New York Times op-ed page has been history-happy for the past few days, publishing 3 op-eds in 3 days by U.S. history professors. Today's comes from George Chauncey, the brilliant author of Gay New York, one of the very best LGBT histories out there. Chauncey describes in some detail what happened to gay World War II veterans and federal government employees during the post-war years, concluding:

"The persistence of the military exclusion continued to send a powerful message that gay people were not full members of the nation — not least because, historically, military service has been an important sign and condition of full citizenship.

Ending 'don’t ask, don’t tell' not only honors the thousands of lesbians and gay men now in the service, it honors the memory of the veterans who insisted, 65 years ago, that they deserved to share in the freedom they had waged a war to defend."

Read the whole thing here.

Chauncey, incidentally, has also been a major contributor to several of the gay marriage legal battles, most recently testifying in the federal Prop 8 trial in California last January. He has frequently used his knowledge of queer history to advance today's political struggles - a real mensch, and a great example of the power of history to make change in today's world. 

Dec 20, 2010

History, memory, and forgetting

Recommended reading from yesterday's Sunday Times: Historian Edward Ball explaining that the "states' rights" argument has always been bullsh*t, and that the Civil War was, indeed, and of course, about slavery. Great op-ed about the southern secession movement that started the Civil War.

And also: Jill Lepore on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's abolitionism, as expressed in his poem "Paul Revere's Ride."

And, last but not least, an article in today's paper about some Tea Partiers, notably in Virginia, proposing a Constitutional amendment that would make it possible for states to repeal Congressionally-enacted legislation. Sounds suspiciously like nullification, if you ask me - nullification being the discredited Constitutional theory that led to a crisis in South Carolina in 1832 and later to the Civil War.

Curiously, the last article barely references the historical antecedents of the current nullification movement. 

Dec 17, 2010

Lies, misinformation, and the electorate

Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning project that fact checks claims made by politicians and other public figures, has declared its 2010 "Lie of the Year." The  winner? The claim that the health care reform bill was a "government takeover of health care." Politifact points to the very important distinction between increasing regulation (which the law does) and a "takeover," highlighting the fact that health care reform actually strengthened private insurance companies by requiring people to buy their products.

On NPR this morning, Steve Inskeep played a clip of Texas governor Rick Perry outlining the longer version of the "takeover" argument. Here's the exchange:
Perry: "Forcing us all to buy health insurance from, you know, a Washington-devised program is faulty on its face, and I think unconstitutional."
Inskeep: "Oh, you're referring to the health care law which eventually will require just about everybody to buy health insurance, most likely from a private company, correct?"
Perry: "Yes, and I think it's set up to fail. The private companies will end up not being able to make a profit, they will fail, and then the government will take over." 

Basically, then, the logical conclusion of this argument is that our health care system, which is dominated by privately run insurance companies, is not sustainable. If we have a system in which those private companies will go bankrupt if everyone is actually insured, then we don't really have a system at all. Indeed, this morning the Center for American Progress reported on new data showing that in the past decade, the percent of Americans who have health insurance through their employers has dropped from 64% to 56%, which is the lowest percentage on record since the Census Bureau started tracking this data in 1987. To put that another way, 1 out of every 8 people who had employer-provided health care in 2000 no longer has it today.

Listen to the NPR story here. The Rick Perry clip starts at 3:45.

In completely related news, a new study out today finds that "voters were misinformed on key issues" during this year's elections. Only 8% of voters polled knew that economists in the Congressional Budget Office and elsewhere had determined that the stimulus plan created or saved a few million jobs. 12% think that climate change isn't happening and fully a third believe that scientists are "evenly divided" about whether it's real. 86% thought their taxes had gone up since 2009, probably because 54% didn't know that the stimulus plan included tax cuts.

And, as for where we're getting our news, here's some food for thought:

"Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely), most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points), the economy is getting worse (26 points), most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points), the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points), their own income taxes have gone up (14 points), the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points), when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points) and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)."

"There were cases with some other news sources as well. Daily consumers of MSNBC and public broadcasting (NPR and PBS) were higher (34 points and 25 points respectively) in believing that it was proven that the US Chamber of Commerce was spending money raised from foreign sources to support Republican candidates."

Oh, America. If there's one reason why we need to sustain quality, independent journalism and improve our schools so people have real critical thinking skills, I think this pretty much sums it up.

Dec 16, 2010

The rich get richer...

Thanks to the lovely folks at the National Archives, we now know a little something about taxation, rich people, and American history that we didn't know before. We've long known that during World War II the marginal tax rates on the richest Americans reached as high as 94% in the last two years of the war. But a new release gives us some enlightening details.

In 1943 the IRS compiled a list of the richest Americans and calculated the percentage of their total income that they paid in taxes, after deductions and all that. The National Archives has just released this list, and here, courtesy of Sam Pizzigati and David Sirota, are a couple of illuminating comparisons:

The CEO of IBM, in 1943: Thomas Watson. Take-home pay (2010 dollars): $7.7 million. Taxed: 69%.
In 2009: Sam Palmisano. Take-home pay: at least $24.3 million. Taxed: about 24.1%.

A defense contractor CEO, 1943: Carl Swebilius of High Standard Manufacturing. Take-home pay (inflation-adjusted): $9.4 million. Taxed: 43%.
2009: Robert Stevens of Lockheed Martin. Take-home pay: $21.6 million. Taxed: a bit more than 20%.

So if we want to reduce the deficit, I say we start by raising these millionaires' taxes by, oh, I don't know, maybe 10%? They'll still be earning vastly more and paying significantly less in taxes than they would have been 60 years ago.

Pizzigati's great post has more comparisons and info about this. Like any good historian I tried to go to the source and look at the data, but neither Pizzigati nor Sirota cited it and the National Archives website doesn't have it. In fact, everything I can find about it on the internet just links back to Pizzigati. Naturally this makes me nervous, but I'm going to try to track down the original source. (Remember your sixth-grade lesson about primary sources and newspaper bias? I do. Examples included the New York Times, the Daily News, and the New York Post. Discuss.)

The Tea Party

Today is the 237th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.

Thanks to NPR for reminding me.

But it's not really the 237th anniversary, because the "Boston Tea Party" didn't actually exist until the 1830s - the dumping of the tea into Boston harbor wasn't given that name until almost 60 years after it happened. In the 1830s, people in Boston (and elsewhere in the U.S.) were fighting over the meaning of the Revolution, debating whether American independence was the result of a popular uprising of working people or of an elite movement led by the people with names we know (Jefferson, Washington, Adams, and the like). As so often with history, the "tea party" became what it is because of its role in a contemporary political debate decades after the fact. Remember that next time a "tea partier" claims to be the real inheritor of the American Revolution and its so-called Founding Fathers - there is no "real" history, only stories of history told by people today.

[Everything I know about this topic comes from The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, a great book by historian Alfred Young. For a lengthier, more recent, fun and smart take on the political uses of history, especially the right wing's use of the Revolution, check out Jill Lepore's latest, The Whites of Their Eyes (how many books can the woman write?!).]

Republican stubbornness wins again

For g-d's sake. Harry Reid just announced that he's ending the Democrats' effort to pass an omnibus spending bill that would keep the government up-and-running until the end of September. Why? Oh, you don't even have to ask: it's because the Republicans are being intransigent, stubborn blowhards (to borrow a phrase from David Letterman). They refuse to vote on the bill because they want to wait and pass a spending bill when they have more power in January. Of course, they're claiming that it's because Reid's bill is too filled with earmarks and would take too long to read and understand. Instead they want to pass a one-page bill that'll keep the government in operation until mid-February, by which time they will have taken control of the House.

Never mind that a number of Republicans - McConnell, Thune, Cornyn - who say they oppose the bill because it has earmarks have had to face questions about why they included earmarks for their own districts. Shockingly, they couldn't quite come up with answers. More shockingly, this was somehow not blasted all over every newspaper front page today. Instead, it has come to this (from the Times):

tech troubles

Just want to apologize for the weird formatting of some of my posts. I'm having a fight with blogger and can't figure it out. If anyone knows of good (free or very cheap) blog-writing software and would like to tell me about it, please do.

"Why is it that people will take the word of a blowhard as law?"

Rachel Maddow was on David Letterman last night, but that's not the best part. The best part are these lines from Letterman:

"For a long time it was am I thinking of? Oh, Rush Limbaugh....He really is the prototypical radio blowhard. And then, and then you get Bill O'Reilly. Not fat, tall, seems to be fairly fit, he also is a blowhard. And then you get Glenn Beck, who is kind of a loony, but also a blowhard....And I think they will tell you that they have a little blowhard in 'em. But why is it that people will take the word of a blowhard as law, when a reasonable discussion with facts falls on deaf ears?"

Go to minute 3:00 to see the clip.

Ivory Coast update: violence breaks out

In Ivory Coast this morning, armed supporters of the incumbent president fired on demonstrators marching in support of the challenger who seemingly won the election a couple of weeks ago, killing several people. Not good.

See my earlier post about this: Elections 101.

Dec 15, 2010

Tearing my hair out: this is not socialism! (or it is, but just a little bit)

This makes me insane. The New York Times, that venerable institution of serious journalism (which I love deeply), has seen fit to post a "debate" about "whether Obama's policies are socialistic." 

Let's deal in reality here, people. And by reality, I mean wikipedia. I know that's not exactly the most reliable source, but in this case I like its definition of socialism: "Socialism is an economic and political theory advocating public or common ownership and cooperative management of the means of production and allocation of resources."

So basically, there are two things at issue: (1) government ownership and management of the means of production, and (2) government allocation of resources. 

Newsflash: every government does these things to some extent, always has, and always will. That's why government exists, and it's why we have these things called taxes. Except for the most die-hard libertarians/anarchists (there is some overlap), even the strongest advocates of so-called "free trade" argue that the government should provide a military. A military requires weapons and soldiers. Weapons require production. Soldiers require salaries. Hence even the most basic government owns and manages some means of production and allocates some resources.

Dec 14, 2010

Globalization, Garment-Making, and the 21st century's Triangle Fire

I heard about this fire in a Bangladesh clothing factory this morning and immediately thought of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, whose 100th anniversary is coming up in March. In Bangladesh earlier today, at least 25 workers died and more than a 100 were injured in a fire at the Garib & Garib Sweater Factory. The factory reportedly makes clothes for the Gap, H&M, Walmart, and other mass-market retailers.

On March 25, 1911, 146 workers died when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company garment factory in Washington Square in New York City. When the fire began, the workers found themselves trapped because the factory's owners had locked the exits to keep their workers from taking breaks. The fire department's equipment couldn't reach as high as the fire; many workers died by jumping out of the burning building to escape. The workers were mostly young immigrant women from Eastern Europe, many of them Jewish. Triangle company workers had been active in local unions and helped lead a major strike, the "Uprising of the 20,000," in 1909. After the fire, survivors and their union, the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union, pressed for improvements in safety and working conditions and helped pass some important laws protecting factory workers.

Now, of course, most of our clothes are made outside the U.S., in factories with conditions often similar to those at the Triangle factory 100 years ago. Workers at the Bangladesh factory reported that some of the exits were blocked when the fire broke out, and many jumped out of broken windows to escape the flames. The Guardian reports that "garment workers in Bangladesh are among the lowest-paid in the world." Bangladesh's 4,000 factories export about $10 billion worth of clothes every year.

Dec 10, 2010

"Budget Study Finds Cuts Cost the Poor As the Rich Gained"

Does this headline sound familiar?

It's from a 1984 New York Times article. The first sentence reads, "The Congressional Budget Office, analyzing the cumulative effect of budget and tax changes adopted since January 1981, said today that low-income families had lost the most money and high-income families had gained the most."

At Ronald Reagan's urging and with bipartisan support, Congress had cut taxes and spending on social programs during the first years of his presidency. By 1984, it was clear what the effects of those cuts had been: the deficit had ballooned because spending cuts did not nearly equal the revenue lost from tax cuts. In the meantime, people in the richest tax bracket had saved more than 20% on their tax bills, and the poorest Americans had overall lost money (the combination of a big loss of government benefits and the tiny savings the got on their tax bills).

The article quoted David Stockman, Reagan's director of the Office of Management and Budget, who had denied that the Reagan tax cuts were a "windfall for the wealthy." He argued that the cuts did not amount to a transfer of money from the poor to the rich, and called such concerns "an absolute red herring" propagated by "soak-the-rich apologists."

Recently Stockman's been singing a different tune, thankfully. 

Julian Assange's rape charges

I was going to write a post about the need to take the rape allegations against Julian Assange seriously, no matter what you think of WikiLeaks, but Jaclyn Freeman at the American Prospect has done it much better than I could, so read this instead.

But in a nutshell: we have to take seriously and fight against all forms of nonconsensual sex, no matter how famous the accused is, how much we agree with his/her politics, or how well he/she knew the accuser. It may be true that the Swedes' pursuit of this case is politically motivated - but we should take ALL rape accusations as seriously as the Swedes are taking this one, rather than taking this one as un-seriously as we take most others. (n.b. I don't agree with Wolf's take-away message but I think she makes important points about the way most rape accusations are treated around the world.)

Update: check this out for a humorous/infuriating take on the situation.

Dec 9, 2010

Elections 101: Transfers of Power

Today is the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court's order to end the Florida recount during the 2000 presidential election. Three days later, on Dec. 12, 2000, the Court released its Bush v. Gore decision and made George W. Bush the president.

I've been thinking about this a bunch this week because of what's going on in the Ivory Coast. The situation has garnered almost no attention in the U.S. (with the important exceptions of articles here and here), but here are the basics: a November 28 presidential election between incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and challenger Alassane Outtara has had a disputed outcome, leading both candidates to declare themselves president. The United Nations, African Union European Union, United States, and many of Ivory Coast's West African neighbors have all said (more here) that Outtara won the election and called on Gbagbo to step down, but Gbagbo insists that he won and, with control of the state media and military, has a lot of power behind him. Outtara, on the other hand, has the support of a rebel army that has controlled the northern part of Ivory Coast since 2002. At least 28 people have been killed in election and post-election violence, shortages of food and gas are being reported, the U.N. has taken its non-essential staff out of the country, and people are beginning to worry about a civil war.

Obviously I thought that Bush v. Gore was a horrendous decision and that the weeks leading up to it were filled with all kinds of bullsh*t (terrifically chronicled and analyzed by Eric Alterman at The Nation today). I am, however, grateful to live in a country in which handovers of power are done peacefully (except for that whole Civil War). As Alterman describes, there were some threats of violence and rioting in Florida in 2000, but all in all the whole thing happened remarkably peacefully.

Dec 8, 2010

More about the tax cut deal

I have mixed feelings about the tax cut deal. I’m going to go against the conventional wisdom and say that when I first saw its basic outline, I thought it was a pretty good package given the political realities. In exchange for the extension of tax cuts for the wealthiest on both income and estates, which I obviously oppose, we got an unemployment extension and an extension of several Obama tax cuts from the stimulus that are good for lower income people. I was frankly surprised at how much Obama managed to wring out of the Republicans, who at this point I just expect will be totally unwilling to give an inch.
The conventional progressive wisdom, of course, is that this is a terrible deal because Obama gave in on the core principle – extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest. And I’m all for that wisdom being repeated over and over and over, because as I said in my post about McCarthyism, I think one of the most important things we can do is keep up vocal demands for truly progressive change. But I also think that the political reality is that this is how it goes.
The Republican base probably isn’t so happy today either (to wit: Michelle Bachmann, Jim DeMint, and the Club for Growth), but that’s the way politics plays. Our job is to keep pulling the debate farther and farther to the left, so that the next time we’re disappointed – which we will be – at least the compromise will be farther to our side than this one.
That said, there's plenty to be pissed off about in this deal. According to David Kocieniewski's analysis at the NY Times, tellingly called "Tax Package Will Aid Nearly All, Especially Highest Earners," "at least a quarter of the tax savings will go to the wealthiest 1 percent of the population." People with extremely large incomes, inheritors of million-dollar-plus estates, and hedge fund managers can all look forward to huge tax savings. And the only people who stand to LOSE money from the deal are - wait for it - people earning less than $20,000/year (individuals) or $40,000/year (married couples). Granted, the tax increase they would face would be very small, "a few dollars a week," but that's pretty horrific given the $28,000 tax savings people in the top 1% of incomes can expect to see. As I said yesterday, this might be one of the problems with conceptualizing the entire lower 98% of the income scale as "middle class," because it blinds us to the differential impact fiscal policy has on people at different places in that 98%.

Some recommended reading: David Leonhardt on the plan as a "back-door stimulus"; A Talking Points Memo reader eloquently summing up why this deal might be the best Democrats could hope to get.

Dec 7, 2010

Tax cuts and the "middle class"

The political blogosphere today is abuzz with analyses of President Obama's tax deal with the Republicans. There are a lot of people out there who can analyze the meaning of this deal for progressives much better than I can (Ezra Klein, first of all, and Matt Yglesias, David Dayen at firedoglake, David Kurtz at Talking Points Memo**).

But I will say this: I am fascinated by the broadness of the category "middle class" in American politics. Here we are debating about "tax cuts for the middle class," as opposed to "tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans," when what we really mean are "tax cuts for 98% of Americans" and "tax cuts for 2% of Americans." How did 98% of Americans become "middle class?"

Dec 6, 2010

Thinking about McCarthyism in today's world

As we all know, one of the right wing’s favorite tactics these days is to call anybody to the left of Ben Nelson a socialist, a fascist, or some such nonsense. The latest to point out the absurdity of these claims is, of all people, David Brooks, who wrote last week about a debate he had with Congressional Representative Paul Ryan about whether or not President Obama’s plan is to turn the United States into a quasi-socialist welfare state.
The real function of these claims is to fully discredit any actually progressive or – gasp – left-wing policy proposals. After all, as we saw earlier this year, if Obama is a socialist (AND a fascist!) for wanting all Americans to buy health insurance from for-profit corporations, then any truly progressive proposals (national health insurance, single-payer plans) are off-the-charts-radical, and simply political non-starters.
These tactics aren’t new, and if we fail to see their historical precedents, we’ll underestimate the importance of countering these claims and rebuilding an actual American left.

Oh, by the way: Prop 8 appeal today

The appeal of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the case questioning the constitutionality of Prop 8 in California, is underway in San Francisco.

Dec 3, 2010

The Long History of Gays Not in the Military

Yesterday and today on Capitol Hill, the leaders of the United States military are testifying that they believe openly gay soldiers should be allowed to serve. While John McCain is doing his best to show how bigoted he really is, leaders of the effort to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell are furiously organizing to pass repeal legislation in the Senate before the end of the year.

What has gotten a little lost in the politicking is that repeal would be not just the end of seventeen years of Don't Ask, Don't Tell - it would be the end of a century-long effort by the U.S. military to identify, prosecute, and exclude gay, gay-perceived, and gender-deviant service-men and -women. Margot Canaday describes this history brilliantly in The Straight State, in which she shows a bumbling early-20th-century bureaucracy desperate to rid the military of deviants - while not quite being able to put its finger on what, exactly, deviance was, or why it was so bad. By World War II the military had figured out what it thought homosexuality was and how to find homosexuals - by launching full-scale investigations into their private lives and fostering gossip mongering among soldiers.

Oct 25, 2010

From the archives

Just came across this in my dissertation research, from a TV program produced by the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future:

“We may be through with the past, but the past is not done with us. Our...history shapes the future, even though it does not determine it."

The CPGAF was talking about demography, but I think this pretty well sums up the point of this blog.

I Heart Taxes

A Harvard graduate student (not me!) has created a great blog about all the good things our tax dollars buy: Just what I wanted to do, but funnier. Check it out! Great site.

Oct 1, 2010

Reparations and borrowed wars

This weekend, 92 years after World War I ended, Germany will finally pay off the reparations it owed for that war. These reparation payments were notoriously high, designed to punish the country that started the most destructive war Europe had ever seen. They succeeded at that - and led Germany into a hyperinflation economy in the 1920s, worsened the worldwide Great Depression, and helped the Nazis rise to power.

So I'm wondering whether 92 years from now - or longer - journalists will report that the United States has finally paid off the trillions of dollars in debt we incurred from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although Americans overwhelmingly supported the invasion of Afghanistan and most Americans supported the invasion of Iraq, we have never been willing to pay for these wars through higher taxes. Instead, we've borrowed the money and we will be making payments on those debts for generations to come. Already some have asked whether these debts helped contribute to the Great Recession we're now experiencing. What will the historians say 92 years from now about the long-term effects of these debts?

Sep 13, 2010

Good Government

A couple of days ago I learned from a report on Marketplace that the federal government has the same number of employees today as it did in 1963. Despite hysterical claims from the right about the rise in big government, the thing that’s actually grown in the past five decades is government contracting: the use of private businesses to carry out the government’s work. Indeed, the federal government’s responsibilities have increased over time: in the past five years, the federal government's budget has tripled (after accounting for inflation). But rather than accomodating that increase through a comparable increase in government employees – subject to oversight, checks-and-balances, fair practice laws, and the like – we have contracted out some of the government’s most important business to companies whose legal fiduciary duty is to make a profit on that business. That is, they are legally required to maximize the difference between the money the government gives them and the money they actually spend on the project for which they’ve been contracted.

A good friend of my family’s, Elliott Sclar, wrote a book about this a few years back, You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For: The Economics of Privatization (Cornell, 2001). There’s been a lot of press about this issue as it relates to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because the United States now has more private contractors employed in those countries than members of the armed forces. Just last week James Risen and Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times wrote about Blackwater’s 30+ shell companies that have won contracts from the U.S. government. Find this article. But we’ve ignored, for far too long, the outsourcing of our government’s responsibilities to private companies whose interests lie with shareholders rather than with all of us.

I’ve long thought that someone with a lot of money, say George Soros, should start a huge public relations campaign about the government services we benefit from, to remind people that government is not a bad thing. Something along the lines of, “Hey, do you like sidewalks? Do you like getting your trash picked up every week instead of having it piling up in the street? Do you enjoy streetlights? Guess who makes sure you have all those things? Gooooo government!” Obama seems to be taking on this theme recently, but I don’t think he can do it alone.