Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

Georgia Odyssey, 2: Jobs and Environment

March 19, 2013 1 comment


Two days ago, I wrote about Georgia Odyssey, James Cobb’s brief history of Georgia. After quoting from Cobb’s treatment of Georgia’s lynching history, I wrote, “It was a different world. At least I’d like to think so. But when I read Cobb’s account on the introduction of poll taxes and literacy tests to disenfranchise blacks—as well as the Georgia Democratic Party’s move in 1900 to a primary system for selecting candidates, with the added feature of outright exclusion of blacks from participation—I couldn’t help but recognize that today’s Republican Party is in the same business.”

Later in the book, Cobb discusses Georgia’s efforts to attract industry and jobs:

In their efforts to entice industry to Georgia, state and local officials had offered cheap labor and also free and essentially untrammeled access to the state’s natural resources. Not surprisingly, this approach led to some serious examples of exploitation and abuse. When the Union Camp Corporation came to Depression-weary Savannah in 1935, local leaders not only promised nominal rents and protection from competition but pledged as well “to secure the necessary action and, if possible, legislation on the part of the governmental bodies concerned, to protect and save you harmless from any claims, demands, or suits for the pollution of air or water caused by the operation of the plant.” Furthermore, Savannah’s officials agreed that “in case litigation arises or suits are brought against you on account of odors and/or flow age from the proposed plant that the Industrial Committee of Savannah will pay all expenses of defending such suits up to a total amount of $5,000.” …

In 1967, after a fairly strong air-pollution-control measure died in committee, a replacement bill, actually proposed by a Union Camp representative, sailed through the legislature with only a few changes. The new law authorized only such pollution control as was “consistent with providing for maximum employment and the full industrial development of the state” … .

Once again, this sounds familiar, as states continue to deregulate and offer tax advantages in an effort to attract business, other costs (forgone revenue, declining support for schools, eventual need to clean up environmental disasters) be darned.

For instance? Well (and a hat tip to Charles Pierce for bringing this to my attention), let’s have a look at developments in Wisconsin. In Milwaukee’s Business Journal two weeks ago, Jeff Engel wrote:

A bill to streamline Wisconsin’s mining permitting process appears destined for passage after the state Senate approved a bill and sent it to the Republican-controlled Assembly this week, despite Democratic criticisms that it rolls back environmental protections and is a giveaway to mining businesses.


The legislative efforts this session follow a failed attempt to pass a similar bill last year, which would have lured Florida-based Gogebic Taconite to begin a $1.5 billion mining project in northern Wisconsin.

[Governor Scott] Walker emphasized that the bill doesn’t approve the proposed mine, it only is meant to streamline the permitting process. …

Walker said that for any other industry, if a company said they would create thousands of jobs, Wisconsin leaders would be “doing cartwheels.”

“Heck, we do cartwheels for a fraction of that, for hundreds of employees, let alone thousands of employees,” Walker told me. “So it just kind of seems out of perspective.”

Walker’s reassurances notwithstanding, here’s additional background from Jessica Vanegeren in The Capital Times, emphasis mine:

With numerous groups already vowing to challenge the bill in court, Sen. Tom Tiffany also acknowledged that changes were made to the legislation to put the state on stronger legal ground to withstand such a challenge.

“The bill reflects the reality of mining. There are going to be some impacts to the environment above the iron ore body,” said Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst. “If the law is challenged and ends up in court, the judge needs to know it was the Legislature’s intent to allow adverse (environmental) impacts. That way, a judge can’t find fault if the environment is impacted.

Tiffany made the admission after being asked Thursday in an interview with the Cap Times how Republicans could continue to claim the mining bill doesn’t risk environmental harm when:

  • It specifically changes the wording of existing state permitting law from “significant adverse affects (to wetlands) are presumed to be unnecessary” to “significant adverse affects are presumed to be necessary.”
  • Bill Williams, present of Gogebic Taconite, which is proposing a massive iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties, said in a recent Wisconsin State Journal article that as much as 30 to 40 percent of the 3,300 acres it is leasing could be covered by waste piles if it builds a $1.2 billion open-pit iron ore mine.
  • The land above the rich vein of iron ore contains hundreds of acres of wetlands, numerous pristine trout streams and several small tributaries that feed into the Bad River. The Bad River wends its way to Lake Superior through the Bad River Indian Reservation, which includes culturally and economically significant rice beds.

“We are simply being honest,” Tiffany says. “There will be some impacts but they will be limited. Changing the word ‘unnecessary’ to ‘necessary’ lets the judge know it was the Legislature’s intent that there will be some adverse impacts.

In a legal context, the wording change proves lawmakers knowingly passed a bill that they accepted would cause some harm to the environment, Tiffany adds, making it more difficult for a lawsuit to be successful on the grounds that a mining permit caused harm to the environment.

This is contemporary Wisconsin, mind you, not Depression-era Georgia. And a Republican Party determined to turn back the clock. There may be stalemate in DC, but at the state level, radical change is underway.

Good book, by the way—Georgia Odyssey. I finished it this morning.

Words of Wisdom

July 10, 2012 Leave a comment

John Maynard Keynes

My local newspaper, the Seattle Times, has its strengths. For one, it’s locally owned, not part of the McClatchy or Hearst or other newspaper chain. Its coverage of the aerospace industry is top-notch. And, of course, if you want to keep up with the Mariners,you pretty much have to read it.

But sometimes the editorial page is painful. Not necessarily for its views, which are often counter to my own, but that’s another matter. Rather, well, let’s look at today’s editorial. First, the opening and a few more brief excerpts.

Two sobering pieces of economic news should remind the country that it is essential to reset our thinking on money, jobs and spending.

Friday’s jobless report …

The worst news came earlier in the week when The Associated Press released its survey of 32 economists, the majority of whom said they expected unemployment to stay above 6 percent for at least four more years. …

In such a climate, U.S. consumers, businesses and especially governments cannot assume that a bad jobs report is a fluke, and that the next month’s jobless report or state revenue forecast will put everything right.

Four years of disappointment suggests that this recession is different.

And now the concluding paragraph.

In this election year, candidates will be reassuring voters they know how to fix the economy, as if it were a broken faucet. Some of their ideas will be better than others, but people should not expect too much. Slow growth appears to be baked into the cake, at least for a while.

Huh? So, we should just get used to it? Forget new ideas? Forget old ideas? Forget what politicians say?

Oddly enough, if one has the stomach for it, which I rarely do, and wades into the online reader comments, one finds people shouting back and forth at each other about getting rid of socialist Obama or trying a new stimulus. (I think one of these might actually be a good idea, but again, that’s another matter.) Some blame the Times for whatever position they don’t like.

However, if I’m reading this right, these commenters missed the point entirely. The Times isn’t recommending any position at all. It’s just telling us to suck it up and wait this out for a few more years.

Okay then.

Categories: Economy, Journalism

Amazon Miracle?

March 3, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m not much of a photographer. However, when I decided to go upscale a few years ago and bought an expensive wide-angle zoom lens for our digital SLR, I immediately discovered why photographers get those fancy flash attachments. It’s not just to look cool. If instead one relies on the little built-in pop-up flash, every shot acquires a lens barrel shadow. It’s simple geometry. Protruding lens + flash just above lens = shadow. A day later, I ordered a flash attachment.

At the time, Nikon offered their SB-600 and SB-800 Speedlight flashes. I didn’t know anything other than that I needed one. I figured the cheaper one, the 600, would suffice. And so it has, until I tried to use it two months ago when Jessica was here to celebrate her birthday early, the night before Joel flew back to North Carolina. I attached it to the camera, pushed the on/off button, and nothing happened. I got 4 new AA batteries (these things eat batteries) and tried again. Nothing. I stared inside the battery compartment, saw some sediment on one of the contacts, cleaned it as best I could, and tried again. Nothing. I put on the fast fixed lens I bought last summer (almost the subject of a long post at the time, but I let the matter drop), took a few flashless photos, and left it at that.

Last weekend, thinking ahead to my big birthday this past Wednesday, I remembered that I had a non-functioning flash. I would have to check it out before the birthday dinner party. Before I knew it, Tuesday night had come. I had done nothing, and Gail asked if I planned to bring the camera to Rover’s for the dinner.

I pulled out the flash again and put in still newer batteries, with the same result. Gail got a tool and played around with the battery contact that seemed to be bent. Still no help. I did a search on SB-600s that don’t turn on. Some people posted to forums about the same problem. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy, but there were suggestions that they are repairable, cheaper than buying a new one.

I went to Amazon’s website to see what new ones cost. It seemed that the SB-600 and SB-800 were replaced by the SB-700 and SB-900. I went to a review site and learned that the SB-700 was a significant upgrade to the SB-600. Indeed, it was close to the SB-900, itself a significant upgrade to the SB-800. Buying an SB-700 looked appealing. Not that I had a clue how to take advantage of the upgraded features or imagined I ever would. But it was now 8:57 PM on the eve of my birthday and I needed a working flash in 21 hours.

I looked up the website of our local camera store, saw that they were open until 9:00 PM, and gave them a call. They’re just down the hill from my office. I could pick one up on the way home the next day. But no one answered. Understandable perhaps. Why get stuck talking to someone at closing time?

Back to Amazon. If I ordered a flash immediately, it would ship out the next day, my birthday, with free two-day shipping, arriving two days late. Or for only $3.99 extra, I could get overnight shipping and it would arrive one day late. Then I saw that there was a third option. For the same $3.99, I could get express local same-day delivery. It would go out and be delivered the next day. I took the deal.

Cue up Miracle of Miracles from Fiddler on the Roof.

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles indeed. I got home at 2:00 PM Wednesday and there it was, my brand new Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight Flash. I opened the box, popped four AAs in, attached the Speedlight to the camera, and it worked. We were all set for the party. (If you went to the already-linked post about my birthday dinner, you would have seen an example of the flash’s handiwork already.)

Is this an amazing time to be alive or what?

Alas, on Thursday I discovered that miracles don’t just happen. They come at a price. And I don’t mean $3.99.

That morning’s daily New Yorker To-Do List feature linked to and quoted from Mac McClelland’s piece I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave in the newly available Mother Jones March-April issue. In the evening, I turned to the piece, which makes for nightmarish bedtime reading. McClelland explored work at a third-party warehouse company, one with horrific work conditions, and reports on what she found. She doesn’t say specifically that the warehouse where she worked was used by Amazon, but one imagines it was. And if not, the warehouses they do use are surely much the same.

I hardly know what passage to quote to give a taste of her experience. Any one will do. However, I recommend the cumulative effect of reading the entire article. Perhaps I’ll rely on the New Yorker’s wisdom and quote the same passage they did:

By the fourth morning that I drag myself out of bed long before dawn, my self-pity has turned into actual concern. There’s a screaming pain running across the back of my shoulders. “You need to take 800 milligrams of Advil a day,” a woman in her late 50s or early 60s advised me when we all congregated in the break room before work. When I arrived, I stashed my lunch on a bottom ledge of the cheap metal shelving lining the break room walls, then hesitated before walking away. I cursed myself. I forgot something in the bag, but there was no way to get at it without crouching or bending over, and any extra times of doing that today were times I couldn’t really afford. The unhappy-looking guy I always make a point of smiling at told me, as we were hustling to our stations, that this is actually the second time he’s worked here: A few weeks back he missed some time for doctors’ appointments when his arthritis flared up, and though he had notes for the absences, he was fired; he had to start the application process over again, which cost him an extra week and a half of work. “Zoom zoom! Pick it up! Pickers’ pace, guys!” we were prodded this morning. Since we already felt like we were moving pretty fast, I’m quite dispirited, in fact….

One suggestion for minimizing work-related pain and strain is to get a stepladder to retrieve any items on shelves above your head rather than getting up on your toes and overreaching. But grabbing one of the stepladders stashed few and far between among the rows of merchandise takes time. Another is to alternate the hand you use to hold and wield your cumbersome scanner. “You’ll feel carpal tunnel start to set in,” one of the supervisors told me, “so you’ll want to change hands.” But that, too, he admitted, costs time, since you have to hit the bar code at just the right angle for it to scan, and your dominant hand is way more likely to nail it the first time. Time is not a thing I have to spare. I’m still only at 57 percent of my goal. It’s been 10 years since I was a mover and packer for a moving company, and only slightly less since I worked ridiculously long hours as a waitress and housecleaner. My back and knees were younger then, but I’m only 31 and feel pretty confident that if I were doing those jobs again I’d still wake up with soreness like a person who’d worked out too much, not the soreness of a person whose body was staging a revolt. I can break into goal-meeting suicide pace for short bouts, sure, but I can’t keep it up for 10.5 hours.

I got my Speedlight 700 in time for the party. I’m a happy guy. But talk about Faustian bargains!

Categories: Business, Economy, Shopping

Change We Can Believe In, XXV

December 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Empire First

On his visit to Australia three weeks ago, President Obama announced plans, as reported in the NYT,

to deploy 2,500 Marines in Australia to shore up alliances in Asia … . The agreement with Australia amounts to the first long-term expansion of the American military’s presence in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War. It comes despite budget cuts facing the Pentagon … .

In an address to the Australian Parliament on Thursday morning, Mr. Obama said he had “made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.”

I was more than a little surprised by this news. “Cuts facing the Pentagon”? I’ll believe that when I see it, what with Secretary of Defense Panetta decrying defense cuts, our wars continuing without end, indeed expanding (via drone at least) to new countries every year, and the vast domestic intelligence operation growing with bipartisan support.

At what cost? I leave it to Ted Rall to tell us:

[Ted Rall, at]

Letter of the Week

November 26, 2011 1 comment

[Mac W. Bishop/The New York Times]

The NYT had an article last week whose opening sentence captured the theme: “The gap between first class and coach has never been so wide.” There’s been a lot of talk lately about the 1% and the 99%, thanks in large part to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but one doesn’t have to read very far into the article to recognize that international first class travel is not for the 1%; it’s for the .05%. There’s business class for most of the 1%, and perhaps for a few more percent on occasion, thanks to frequent flyer upgrades. But international first class is a world of its own.

Just click on the video embedded in the article and you’ll see the difference. Check out the shot of the beds Lufthansa offers (also shown in the photo above). Not seats that flatten out to form beds, but beds next to the seats. You get both.

Lufthansa, for its part, has kept its first class on most flights but has removed half the seats to focus on a more intimate experience on board. In the new A380 aircraft, Lufthansa also installed a system that increases the humidity in the first-class cabin by 25 percent, which the airline says will help ease jetlag. It has also insulated the cabin with special soundproofing material.

“It is our premium product, and our customers were asking for more intimacy, more privacy,” said Jürgen Siebenrock, Lufthansa’s vice president for North and South America. “If you want to be competitive, you really need to upgrade your product.”

Earlier in the article, we learn that “the airlines have been engaged in a global battle for top executives and the superwealthy on their international routes. Though only a privileged few can afford to pay $15,000 to fly first class from New York to Singapore or Sydney, the airlines are betting that the image of luxury they project for the front helps attract passengers to the rest of the plane. That includes a growing business-class section with offerings once solely the preserve of first class.”

Today, the NYT published some letters responding to the article. The one that prompted this post is from Alan Weiss of East Greenwich, Rhode Island.

I’m back one day from my first-class round trip to Sydney from Boston through Los Angeles, so your article was quite timely. I’ve recently flown first class in giant A380s on Air France and Qantas. On Qantas, I had a 25-to-30-square-foot, semiprivate cubicle with a complete bed and every amenity I needed. As the article points out, when I’m paying in excess of $20,000 for a ticket, I expect only the best.

The return on investment: A day after landing in Sydney, I embarked on a speaking tour in two cities, and on my return this week, here I am writing this letter and back to work as if I had never left. To my mind, it’s worth every penny, and believe me, it is better than business class. Qantas filled 14 first-class seats in each direction.

I don’t doubt for a moment that first class is better than business. But worth every penny? How does one make such a calculation? I suppose if you’re being paid enough for the speaking tour, the $20,000 ticket could be worth every penny. On the other hand, buying that seat (and bed) could mean losing money on the trip. Is that worth a good night’s sleep and arriving fresh? I might rather stay home.

Fascinating letter though. For more on the letter writer and what he does that makes first-class overseas travel both affordable and essential, see here. I might have a look at some of his books.

Categories: Economy, Flying

Change We Can Believe in, XXI

August 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Fiddle While the Economy Stalls

I awoke this past Sunday to several blog posts about Binyamin Appelbaum and Helen Cooper’s NYT article on internal White House debates about how to approach the economy. I’m a little late with my own. Let me quote from the article:

Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, David Plouffe, and his chief of staff, William M. Daley, want him to maintain a pragmatic strategy of appealing to independent voters by advocating ideas that can pass Congress, even if they may not have much economic impact. These include free trade agreements and improved patent protections for inventors.


A series of departures has left few economists among Mr. Obama’s senior advisers. Several of his political advisers are skeptical about the merits of stimulus spending, and they are certain about the politics: voters do not like it.

Mr. Plouffe and Mr. Daley share the view that a focus on deficit reduction is an economic and political imperative, according to people who have spoken with them. Voters believe that paying down the debt will help the economy, and the White House agrees, although it wants to avoid cutting too much spending while the economy remains weak.

As Calculated Risk points out, “It sounds like the debate is between doing nothing and doing very little.” Krugman’s summary: “Plouffe and Daley, macroeconomic theorists!”

For this installment of “Change We Can Believe In,” I have replaced the image that has graced the top of the previous twenty installments with Ted Rall’s latest cartoon. Need more be said?

Categories: Economy, Politics

Punching Out

January 22, 2011 Leave a comment

I mentioned last Monday that I had just finished Robert Crais’ crime novel The Sentry and that I was expecting the next morning to get Paul Clemens’ new book Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant on my Kindle the next morning. It is, as I noted, a sequel to Clemens’ superb Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir, which I had read, and written about, just over a year and a half ago.

The new book arrived Tuesday as scheduled, and I finished reading it last night. It did not have the emotional intensity of Clemens’ memoir, which so beautifully evokes life in a working class family in Detroit, with an especially powerful portrait of his father. And, as Dwight Garner noted in his review of the book in Wednesday’s NYT, the title is misleading, since the book is about not the final year of the plant’s operation but the dismantling of the plant in the year following its closing. Nonetheless, Clemens once again writes with passion about the loss of the manufacturing working class in this country.

The plant in question is the Budd Company’s Detroit plant, which was bought in the 1970s by the German giant Krupp, which in turn merged with Thyssen, so that when the plant closed, it was owned by ThyssenKrupp Budd. As soon as I read that, just a few pages in, I realized I knew the plant. I have written about our Detroit sojourns elsewhere. I’ll be brief here.

In June 1999, we made a short trip to Detroit on the way to New York in order to see the Tigers play in Tiger Stadium before it closed. We did much more, including visiting the great building that once was GM headquarters, the Motown Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Greenfield Village.

Our first outing, though, after arriving at our hotel and eating dinner, was a drive eastward on Jefferson Avenue, paralleling the river, to get a taste of the area. This was just past the middle of June, the sun set late that far west in the time zone, and so we had lots of light for a long, leisurely drive. And what a drive it was! The surroundings got worse and worse as we headed east. And suddenly there was this immense industrial plant that I couldn’t identify, seemingly filling our view to the north. And just as suddenly, few blocks further east, we were in a different universe, having left Detroit behind for the wealthy Grosse Pointe suburbs.

Two years ago, when Gail and I were back in Detroit, we took a similar drive, returning from the Grosse Pointes, on Mack, which parallels Jefferson to the north and forms the northern border of the plant. This time I saw the ThyssenKrupp sign. I didn’t know it, but the dismantling described by the book was then nearing its end. All I knew was that it looked like an industrial wasteland. In some small way, this allowed me to imagine I was there as I read Clemens’ account.

Here’s one representative passage from the book, taken from Clemens’ description of a conversation he had with Duane, an electrical foreman brought in to dismantle machinery that would be shipped to Mexico and rebuilt.

There was reverence in his voice. . . . Duane was a product of Detroit’s once-extensive system of Catholic schools, and he liked the idea — an error that wasn’t mistaken — that the Budd plant was a sacred site.

“My dead relatives would be honored that I’m here taking this place apart,” he said. “It’s a crowning jewel. We’re not the king of England, but it’s something they passed on, and it’s something” — the disassembly work — “that needs to be done. You can’t leave this here, to rot in history. There’s still life left in these machines. It’s real important that they keep doing what they do, because a lot of people gave a lot of sweat and equity that has gone into these machines. You can’t measure it. You can’t measure the lives, you can’t measure the lunches, the allowances, that people were able to give their kids.” It’s “what these kinds of machines do,” he said. Duane hoped that Mexican families might now benefit as much as his own had. “It’s why we’re taking such care getting this thing out of here.”

Unions, protectionism versus free trade, the move of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico, Brazil, and beyond — these issues and more hover in the background as one reads Clemens’ meditation on the decline of an industry, a city, and a nation’s working class.

Categories: Automobiles, Books, Economy